After nearly a decade of attempting to raise money and spark interest in the idea of a cooperatively owned community news site, a group of volunteers in Haverhill, Mass., announced this month that they were shutting down.
The site, which would have been known as Haverhill Matters, was to be a pilot for the Banyan Project, the work of veteran journalist Tom Stites, who hoped to seed co-ops in news deserts across the country.
A former top editor at The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune, as well as the founder of several print and online publications, Stites hasn’t yet given up on his idea. But he admits that he’s frustrated by the lack of interest from prospective funders.
“I’ve been heartbroken every time I’ve seen a journalistically robust digital site go out of business,” he says, “knowing that it might have easily made the conversion to co-op if Banyan had had the funding to support them.”
I followed the Banyan Project’s efforts to launch Haverhill Matters from the beginning, writing about it in my 2013 book on new forms of online community journalism, The Wired City, and over the years for Nieman Lab and for my blog, Media Nation. (Click here for a complete index of my Banyan coverage.)
I reached out to Stites with the idea of having a conversation that would mark the end of a long journey — except it might not be over yet. News co-ops remain an interesting idea that could help fill some of the gaps created by the failures of legacy media. A few communities here and there are trying the concept out, from Mendocino, California, to Boston and Cambridge, to rural Maine.
Here’s a lightly edited version of our interview over email.
For some years now, Haverhill, a city north of Boston, has been the home of two innovative local-news projects.
One, WHAV Radio, ran into fundraising problems last fall and was in danger of going under by Thanksgiving. I wrote about that for WGBH News. The other, Haverhill Matters, was intended as the pilot for the Banyan Project, an effort to establish cooperatively owned news sites around the country.
The committee organizing Haverhill Matters recently announced that it was shutting down. More on that below. But first, the good news from WHAV, whose president and general manager, Tim Coco, is soldiering on. (Disclosure: I made a small donation.) WHAV is a nonprofit with a low-power FM signal at 97.9 FM, a streaming internet presence and a robust website. Coco told me in an email:
Although I have been a board member and chairman of nonprofits over the years, they’ve all had endowments. I’m still getting used to actually operating a nonprofit without a safety net. One lesson learned this time around is crises never end and fundraising mode has to be perpetual.
During this latest episode, Haverhill Mayor Jim Fiorentini called me and predicted I wouldn’t give up. He called it a “labor of love” and I responded, “No, it’s just a labor.” I guess he was correct.
I also learned WHAV has friends it didn’t know it had. A large, regional contractor, Early Construction not only stepped up with contributions, but challenged others to do the same. Early is a business that bids on public contracts and has no need to advertise. Dick and his wife, Mary Rose, Early believe in what WHAV is doing and their words and deeds helped motivate me.
One existing underwriter, Covanta, represented by Mark VanWeelden, stepped up with technical support and ideas. He renewed his company’s pledge on the condition … that I paid myself.
Another great supporter turned out to be former Mayor Jim Rurak and his wife Kathy. The original WHAV AM 1490 went away during his time as mayor and he was advised at that time (1995), it was impossible — technically, legally, financially — to bring it back. He brought more contacts and resources to the table.
For me, it was like the end of the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” where residents of Bedford Falls come to the aid of George Bailey. It was truly heartwarming.
Beyond this, I cut costs —pretty much eliminating live weeknight programming that didn’t support the local news effort. I also renegotiated credit card rates so more of listener/reader donations came through. The membership drive — particularly asking for monthly, recurring donations — delivered almost 50 percent more income than a year ago. It isn’t enough, but it is a base WHAV will build on.
The idea behind the Banyan Project is to set up news co-ops similar to food co-ops or credit unions — that is, news sites owned by the members, who could join by paying a fee or contributing labor, perhaps in the form of a neighborhood blog.
The person behind Banyan is Tom Stites, a veteran editor who has worked at newspapers such as The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune. I hope to have more from Stites in the days ahead. For one thing, I’m interested in knowing whether he plans to try out his concept elsewhere. But for now, here is a recent email sent to supporters of Haverhill Matters from John Cuneo, who chaired the local board of directors:
Dear Lover of Independent News,
On behalf of the Board of Directors of Haverhill Matters Cooperative, I write to inform you that we are regretfully closing up shop. We worked hard seeking various routes to build a new cooperative business model for a local news and information service.
As print journalism withers and digital journalism struggles, testing many different forms, the prize of an informed community is ever more important. Let no one mistake the demise of our efforts to signal that the application of a coop business model to local journalism isn’t feasible. Aside from our devoted mentor [a reference to Stites], none us are journalists; none of us are experienced cooperators. This is the more likely cause.
We thank all who rendered us support in many forms, moral, logistical, monetary and otherwise. We are very grateful for this. We urge all those working to build platforms for democratically shared local information and news not to be discouraged. Our goal deserves the greatest persistence. We’ll see you on the path.
Thanks again so much for your shared interest.
Cuneo did not respond to an email I sent to him seeking comment.
I’ve written a lot about news efforts in Haverhill over the years. For an index, please click here.
Those of us who have followed the transition of newspapers from print to free digital and, now, to paid digital have long predicted that seven-day print will eventually morph into one weekend print edition supplemented by digital the rest of the week.
Last week the Portland Press Herald announced it would take a step in that direction, eliminating its Monday print edition starting in March. Like many papers, the Press Herald has been emphasizing paid digital, so a cutback on print should be seen as an inevitable next step rather than the beginning of the end.
Still, I was curious about the decision to cut print on Monday. Among those of us who follow such things, the speculation usually involves eliminating the Saturday paper, or publishing the big Sunday paper on Saturday as an all-weekend edition. (The Sunday edition of the Press Herald is called the Maine Sunday Telegram.)
According to the Press Herald’s latest filing with the Alliance for Audited Media, the Saturday print edition is slightly larger than the Monday edition (25,450 to 25,358). The Saturday edition, though, gets an artificial boost — the Press Herald offers a four-day Thursday-through-Sunday print subscription as a cheaper alternative to seven-day (soon to be six-day) print. Paid Sunday print circulation is 40,091.
Still, anyone who’s paged through the Monday edition of a local daily newspaper knows that advertising on that day is virtually non-existent. So, for a variety of reasons, the Press Herald probably made the right choice.
Also, Kris Olson offers this:
Monday editions mean employees working on Sundays, which means time-and-a-half, right? If so, from a payroll perspective, eliminating a Monday issue gives you the biggest bang for your buck.
The Press Herald isn’t the first daily paper to cut print days. It’s worth watching, though, because the owner, Reade Brower (who also owns most of the daily newspapers in Maine as well as a few weeklies), seems committed to coming up with a long-term strategy for economic sustainability. Press Herald publisher Lisa DeSisto tells her paper that the Monday move will enable the paper to avoid cutting staff.
Perhaps he might consider emulating the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, which last year eliminated print except on Sundays and gave its paid subscribers free iPads so they could continue to read the paper online.
The devolution of Tucker Carlson. The MIT Media Lab’s entanglement with career sex criminal Jeffrey Epstein. The ever-present threat to free speech. And, above all, the ongoing corporate-fueled crisis afflicting local news.
These are the themes that emerged in my most-read commentaries for WGBH News from the past year. We live in difficult times, and my list might provoke pessimism. But given that four of my top 10 are about the meltdown of local news, I’m at least somewhat optimistic. People really care about this stuff. And that’s the first step toward coming up with possible solutions. So let’s get to it.
10. Whatever happened to Tucker Carlson?(March 12). When Fox News talking head Tucker Carlson began his journalistic career in the mid-1990s, he built a reputation as a smart, unconventional conservative, a stylish writer and (as I can attest) a charming lunch companion. Today he is a racist, sexist hate-monger and a full-throated apologist for President Trump. What happened? Although I can’t read Carlson’s mind, it would appear that he values fame and fortune over principle. In that sense, Carlson is a metaphor for nearly the entire conservative movement, with the few conservatives of conscience having been exiled to #NeverTrump irrelevance.
9. Corporate newspaper chains’ race to the bottom (Jan. 16). One year ago, the cost-slashing newspaper chain Gannett was fighting off a possible takeover by Digital First Media (now MediaNews Group), owned by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital and generally regarded as the worst of the worst. Gannett avoided that grim fate. But by the end of the year, Gannett had merged with another bottom-feeder, GateHouse Media. The first order of business: Cutting another $400 million or so from papers that had already been hollowed out, including titles that serve more than 100 cities and towns in Eastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
8. The move from no-profit to nonprofit journalism (May 15). A brief period of hope greeted Paul Huntsman after he bought The Salt Lake Tribune in 2016. Instead, the cutting continued, as Huntsman discovered that 21st-century newspaper economics were more of a challenge than he’d imagined. Then, last spring, he announced that he would seek to reorganize the Tribune as a nonprofit entity. Several months later, the IRS approved his application. Nonprofit ownership is not a panacea — the Tribune still must take in more money than it spends. But by removing the pressure for quarterly profits and keeping the chains at bay, Huntsman might point the way for other beleaguered newspaper owners.
7. Fact-checking and the dangers of false equivalence (Sept. 18). We have never had a president who spews falsehoods like President Trump. Much of what he says can be chalked up to old-fashioned lying; some of it consists of conspiracy theories from the fever swamps of the far right that he might actually believe. Fact-checkers at The Washington Post, CNN, PolitiFact and other news organizations have diligently kept track, with the Post reporting several weeks ago that Trump had made more than 15,000 “false or misleading claims” during his presidency. Yet the media all too often remain obsessed with balance in this most unbalanced of times. And thus Democratic presidential candidates, including Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden, are inevitably held to a higher standard, being branded as liars for what are merely rhetorical excesses or even disputed facts.
6. Yes, millennials are paying attention to the news (July 24). Millennials are often, and wrongly, caricatured as self-absorbed and caring about little other than where their next slice of avocado toast is coming from. It’s not true. A study by the Knight Foundation, which surveyed 1,600 young adults, “shows that 88 percent of people ages 18-34 access news at least weekly, including 53 percent who do so every day.” The findings matched what I’ve seen in many years of teaching journalism students: they’re dubious about the news as a curated package, but they’re well-informed, highly quality-conscious and not wedded to the notion of loyalty to specific news brands. Can we put them in charge now, please?
5. Stop letting Trump take up residence inside your head(Jan. 2). I kicked off 2019 with a list of five ideas for de-Trumpifying your life. Unfortunately, the president’s bizarre, hateful rants and policies can’t be ignored completely — but surely we can save our outrage for his truly important outbursts. Looking back, I think my best piece of advice was to pay more attention to non-Trump news, especially at the local level. We live in communities, and making them work better is a great antidote to our dysfunctional president.
4. Post-Jeffrey Epstein, some questions for the MIT Media Lab (Sept. 11). Joi Ito, a celebrated star in the media world, was forced to resign as director of the MIT Media Lab after his modified limited hangout about his financial entanglements with serial rapist Jeffrey Epstein, who committed suicide while in jail, turned out to be far more extensive than he had originally admitted. That, in turn, brought the Media Lab itself under scrutiny. In the post-Ito, post-Epstein era, questions remained about exactly how dependent the lab had become on Epstein’s money — and whether it was really producing valuable work or if some of it was smoke and mirrors aimed at impressing its mega-wealthy funders.
3. Don’t blame the internet for the decline of local journalism(Nov. 27). Following yet another round on academic Twitter arguing that we need new forms of journalism in response to the damage that the internet had done to local news, I was mad as hell and couldn’t take it anymore. Yes, technology has done tremendous harm to the business model that traditionally paid for the news. But equally to blame is the rise of chain ownership intent on bleeding newspapers dry before discarding them and moving on. From Woburn, Massachusetts, to New Haven, Connecticut, independent local news organizations are thriving despite the very real economic pressures created by the rise of Craigslist, Google and Facebook. Local news isn’t dying — it’s being murdered by corporate greed.
2. Calling out New England’s enemies of free expression (July 2). Since 1998, I’ve been writing an annual Fourth of July round-up of outrages against the First Amendment called the New England Muzzle Awards. For many years, the Muzzles were hosted by the late, great Boston Phoenix. Since 2013, they’ve made their home at WGBH News. The 2019 list included school officials in Vermont who tried to silence the high school newspaper (and lost) and a police chief in Connecticut whose officers arrested a journalist during a Black Lives Matter protest to prevent her from doing her job. And don’t miss the 2019 Campus Muzzles, by Harvey Silverglate, Monika Greco and Nathan McGuire, which focus on free-speech issues on college campuses.
1. GateHouse decimates its already-decimated newspapers (June 5). As I noted above, the Gannett newspaper chain managed to fend off the depredations of Alden Global Capital. But Alden, Gannett and GateHouse Media danced around each other all year. In the spring, GateHouse, already known for taking a bonesaw to its newspapers, eliminated about 170 positions at its papers nationwide and merged 50 of its smaller weeklies in Greater Boston into 18, a surefire way to undermine customer loyalty to the local paper. “We remain positive about the future for local media but certainly acknowledge that the business model for community news is under pressure,” GateHouse CEO Kirk Davis told me. But by year’s end, GateHouse had merged with Gannett, Davis was gone — and the cutting continued.
So what will 2020 bring? Call me crazy, but I think we’re going to see some good news on the local-journalism front. As for what will happen nationally, I think I can safely predict that the political press will continue to focus on polls and campaign-trail controversies at the expense of substance, continuing a trend documented recently by my colleagues Aleszu Bajak, John Wihbey and me at Northeastern University’s School of Journalism.
Finally, my thanks to WGBH News for the privilege of having this platform and to you for reading. Best wishes to everyone for a great 2020.
The New York Times has published a feature on local journalists who’ve lost their jobs during the past year. It’s heart-breaking. But I want to offer a little more context than you’ll get from the Times, because the newspapers that eliminated their jobs weren’t destroyed by meteors from outer space.
No deep research here — just a few off-the-top-of-my-head observations. Please give the Times story a read, then come back.
• In March 2016 I visited OC Weekly and interviewed Gustavo Arellano, who was then the editor. “This is our 20th anniversary,” he told me. “We’ve made money for 19 of those years. Last year we lost money for the first time, ever.” The problems with OC Weekly were fixable. But it got sold to another owner, who started lopping off staff. Arellano quit in protest and is now at the Los Angeles Times. And now OC Weekly, having been gutted, has been shut down.
• In New Orleans, Advance spent years mismanaging The Times-Picayne. An independent newspaper, The Advocate of Baton Rouge, moved in and started competing. Eventually, The Times-Picayune fell into the hands of its locally owned rival.
• I’m convinced there’s a deeper story to be told about The Vindicator in Youngstown, Ohio. The former owners also owned a TV station — banned under cross-ownership prohibitions, but grandfathered in. We’re always told that if cross-ownership were allowed, newspapers could be saved. But instead of innovating and finding ways to combine the newsrooms of the TV station and the newspaper, The Vindicator’s owners just shut it down and focused on what was making money. Again, I’d love to see more reporting on this.
• The papers in Corpus Christi, Texas, and Lakeland, Florida, are owned by Gannett. Need I say more?
As I have said many times before, local news isn’t dying. It’s being murdered. I’d love to see some of these great local journalists start their own newspapers or websites, either for-profit or nonprofit. Democracy needs them.
Paul Bascobert, chief executive officer of Gannett Media Corp. (apparently number two to Mike Reed in the reconfigured New Media-GateHouse-Gannett structure), has issued a memo to the troops about the just-announced layoffs.
Tom Jones of Poynter relays the news that employees have apparently been ordered to sign non-disclosure agreements as a condition of receiving severance, and that employees have been told to stop tweeting about their corporate overlords.
A copy of Bascobert’s email floated in through a window at Media Nation a little while ago. The full text is as follows:
Over the past few days, we implemented a series of staff reductions across the company. I wanted to personally let you know this happened and give you some context for the months ahead.
First, to colleagues who are leaving, I want to offer a sincere thank you for your contributions to our company. There are no easy words to say here and I am sure “thank you” probably rings a bit hollow. Please know this is not related to performance. This is the reality of trying to create an operating structure that can support our journalistic mission of protecting, connecting and celebrating local communities.
For our remaining colleagues, I would ask you to be considerate and supportive. As I have said in my town halls, we may not be able to change the reality of staff reductions, but we can define ourselves by the care and professionalism we show in the process. Please be there for people. Reach out to friends who may be hiring. Let’s take it on ourselves to get our colleagues settled into new roles as soon as possible.
The natural question at this point is “are we done?” The honest answer is No. I have tried to be very transparent with you all and not spin things in a way that you wouldn’t believe anyway, so let me tell you where we are.
We just named our leadership team and while we were able to identify this reduction, the new team will need some time to finalize their organizations and I expect there will be some additional reductions. It will take a few months to work through this process and I expect this will conclude the bulk of the synergy actions. There will be some projects that could extend beyond this time but we should be able to provide visibility to those as well.
Longer term, it should be no surprise that we will always be looking for ways to run the business more efficiently. That’s our obligation, not just to shareholders but to our employees who want us to invest in a sustainable future and our customers who want the best value in a competitive market.
These necessary actions enable us to invest in the digital talent, products and services that I have alluded to in our town halls; this is how we plan to reverse the cycle of revenue declines. We will be launching some new products over the next few months as we start to build the foundation for future growth.
In closing, I remain very optimistic and confident in our return to growth. For today though, my thoughts are with all of you during this period of transition. I can’t thank you enough for your continued dedication to delivering for our customers and for each other. It is with this kind of commitment to excellence that we build our bright future together.
There are two elephants in the room that are threatening to destroy local news.
One, technological disruption, is widely understood: the internet has undermined the value of advertising and driven it to Craigslist, Facebook and Google, thus eliminating most of the revenues that used to pay for journalism.
But the other, corporate greed, is too often regarded as an effect rather than as a cause. The standard argument is that chain owners moved in to suck the last few drops of blood out of local newspapers because no one else wanted them. In fact, the opposite is the case. Ownership by hedge funds and publicly traded corporations has squeezed newspapers that might otherwise be holding their own and deprived them of the runway they need to invest in the future.
The last several weeks have been brutal for local newspapers. GateHouse Media and Gannett merged (the new company is known simply as Gannett), a union of two bottom-feeding chains that are reported to be considering at least another $400 million in cuts. MediaNews Group, owned by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, acquired a 32% share of the Tribune newspapers. McClatchy may be moving toward bankruptcy.
And yet, here and there, independent community news projects are thriving. Free of the debt that must be taken on to build a chain and of the need to ship revenues to their corporate overlords, the indies — both for-profit and nonprofit — are meeting the information needs of their communities.
The narrative about the death of local journalism is an easy one to grasp, because the tale of technological disruption used to explain it has quite a bit of truth to it, as Lehigh University journalism professor Jeremy Littau wrote in a widely quoted Twitter thread over the weekend. The narrative of the ongoing vitality of local journalism doesn’t get heard often enough because it’s harder to wrap your arms around. It’s happening here and there, with different approaches and without a one-size-fits-all solution.
As such, examples are necessarily anecdotal — and you know the saying that anecdotes aren’t data. Still, good things are happening at the grassroots. For instance:
• The small daily newspaper where I worked for my first 10 years out of college, The Daily Times Chronicle of Woburn, is still owned by the founding Haggerty family and still providing decent coverage of the communities it serves. The paper is smaller than it used to be, but it’s doing far better work than a typical chain-owned paper.
• Several months ago I had an opportunity to attend the fall conference of the New York Press Association, which comprises upstate independent publishers. Those folks told me that though business was more challenging than ever, their papers were doing reasonably well.
• New Haven, Connecticut, may enjoy the best coverage of any medium-sized city in the country. Why? One veteran journalist, Paul Bass, had the vision to create the nonprofit, online-only New Haven Independent, supported by grants and donations, and still thriving 14 years after its founding. (The Independent is the main subject of my 2013 book, “The Wired City.”)
• For-profit digital news sites are doing well in some places, too. Among them: The Batavian, in Western New York, also profiled in “The Wired City.” Overall, there are enough for-profit and nonprofit sites that they have their own trade organization, LION (Local Independent Online News) Publishers. No, their numbers are too small to offset the overall decline. But the opportunity is out there for entrepreneurial-minded journalists. The chains, sadly, are creating more opportunities every day.
• Among the regions I reported on in my 2018 book, “The Return of the Moguls,” was Burlington, Vermont, whose daily, the Burlington Free Press, had been decimated by Gannett. What happened? An excellent, for-profit alternative weekly, Seven Days, bolstered its online news coverage. Two nonprofit news organizations, Vermont Public Radio and VT Digger, beefed up their local coverage as well.
• In Western Massachusetts, the once-great Berkshire Eagle is being rebuilt by local owners who bought it from MediaNews Group several years ago. That could provide a roadmap for other communities — at some point, chain owners will no longer be able to keep cutting their way to profits and will presumably be looking for a way out.
• Regional newspapers are experimenting with new forms of ownership. The Salt Lake Tribune recently won IRS approval to become a nonprofit organization. The Philadelphia Inquirer, though still a for-profit, is now owned by the nonprofit Lenfest Foundation. Neither of these moves guarantees salvation. But it has bought them time to shift to a new business model built less on advertising and more on support from their readers.
• Speaking of which: It’s been nearly a year since The Boston Globe announced it had achieved profitability despite continuing to employ a newsroom far larger than any chain owner would tolerate.
No, there is little hope of returning to the old days. Newspapers will never be as richly staffed as they were before the early 2000s, when the internet began to take a toll on revenues. Papers will continue to die. Nonprofits will have to become an increasingly important part of the mix.
Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan wrote the other day that “the recent news about the news could hardly be worse. What was terribly worrisome has tumbled into disaster.”
She’s right. But in all too many instances, local news isn’t dying — it’s being murdered. The solution, if there is to be one, has to start with getting the corporate chains out of the way and paving a path for a new generation of independent publishers.
The crisis in local news won’t be solved all at once. Rather, it will be solved community by community as entrepreneurial-minded journalists seek to fill the gaps left behind by corporate-owned chain newspapers. Here are three new reasons to be optimistic.
In Maine, the Portland Phoenix, the last of the great Phoenix alternative weeklies, is scheduled to relaunch this coming Wednesday under new ownership after ceasing publication earlier this year. The free paper and website are part of New Portland Publishing Co., headed by Marian McCue and Karen Wood.
The relaunch was announced Oct. 22 by Marian McCue and Karen Wood, principals of New Portland Publishing Co. McCue will serve as the editor and Mo Mehlsak, most recently executive editor of The Forecaster, American Journal and Lakes Region Weekly newspapers, will be managing editor.
“While we always admired the energy of the Phoenix, and the strong entertainment coverage, our focus will be more on news and analysis, and in-depth investigative stories that explore the challenges facing this area,” McCue said in a press release announcing the new venture.
Added Wood: “We’ve had a very positive response from early conversations with advertisers and people in the community. We are convinced that a free distribution newspaper will be successful, and provide an effective forum for our advertisers.”
The new Portland Phoenix has a stiff challenge ahead of it in the form of the daily Portland Press Herald, the flagship of a Maine-based chain. The Press Herald is considerably more robust than papers owned by the national chains, and the publisher — Lisa DeSisto — is an alumnus of The Boston Phoenix who knows how to put out a paper oriented toward arts and entertainment. (Note: I worked with Lisa at the Phoenix for several years.)
Still, it’s fantastic news that someone is going to try to revive the Phoenix in Portland, which is the sort of smaller city that ought to be able to support an alt-weekly.
Bill Wasserman is one of Eastern Massachusetts’ legendary local newspaper owners. Founder of the Ipswich Chronicle, he built that into a chain of about a dozen North Shore papers and sold them in 1986. Those papers eventually were acquired by GateHouse Media, and Wasserman has been grousing about what happened to them ever since. Earlier this year, GateHouse got rid of the Ipswich Chronicle as a standalone title, merging it with two other papers.
In an interview for CommonWealth Magazine in 2008, Wasserman told me the main problem with corporate ownership was a failure to understand that, even in the best of times, community journalism is little more than a break-even proposition. “I was paid a salary, which was modest,” said Wasserman. “The reward was not in the profit. The reward was having a lot of fun putting out a community paper.”
Now Wasserman has gone back to the future, lending his expertise as a consultant and ad salesman to a start-up called Ipswich Local News — a free paper and website that is seeking nonprofit status. The editor and publisher is John Muldoon.
Jenn Lord Paluzzi holds the distinction of being laid off by two national chains — GateHouse (at The MetroWest Daily News) and MediaNews Group (at The Sun of Lowell). Now she’s launched a community news site in her hometown of Grafton called Grafton Common that is loaded with local news.
Some years back, Lord Paluzzi was involved in a startup called Greater Grafton. But that venture ended up getting sold to a chain of local websites that ended up going out of business. Best of luck to her as she goes off on her own once again.
Imagine for a moment that you run a small community newspaper or website. You have a Facebook page. But people tell you that even though they’ve “liked” it, they almost never see content from your page show up in their News Feed. And thus one of the most important channels for distributing journalism in the social-media era isn’t working for you.
According to some estimates, “organic reach” — that is, the percentage of users who’ve liked your page and who actually see your content — can be as low as 2 percent. What can you do? Well, you can give Mark Zuckerberg access to your credit card, which will boost your reach considerably. But if you can’t afford to pay, you’d be better off handing out refrigerator magnets with your website’s URL on them than depending on Facebook.
Now imagine that you’re the publisher of a major national news organization like The New York Times, The Washington Post or BuzzFeed. The Zuckerborg is about to bestow upon you millions of dollars. That’s because you’ve agreed to be part of Facebook News, a new tab in the service’s mobile app for curated, reliable journalism. (The feature is being rolled out slowly, and I have not seen it yet.)
There are many reasons to be skeptical of Facebook’s latest foray into news, but surely one of the most important is this: At a time when local news is under unprecedented economic pressure, the News Tab will only widen the gap between relatively well-off, highly visible national news organizations and small local projects. The national sites will get paid; the local sites will be billed monthly.
It’s possible that this could change over time. According to Facebook’s announcement. “we’ll showcase local original reporting by surfacing local publications from the largest major metro areas across the country, beginning with New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas-Fort Worth, Philadelphia, Houston, Washington DC, Miami, Atlanta and Boston. In the coming months, we’ll include local news from Today In, our local news and community information tab, which recently expanded to over 6,000 US towns and cities.”
So, at least at first, it sounds like large regional news organizations will be included. But it’s not clear how or if any of that money will ever trickle down to the laid-off community-news reporter who’s trying to start a hyperlocal site, or to the volunteers who provide coverage that their chain-owned weekly ignores.
There are other potential hazards as well. Let’s start with the conflicts of interest posed by news organizations choosing to do business with our most controversial tech company.
“Payments to publishers for stories that Facebook might otherwise aggregate for free is a boon for journalism,” wrote Emily Bell at the Columbia Journalism Review. “The idea that there will be a daily, regular newsfeed that’s not filled with nonsense is a boon for Facebook users. The delineation of news as a category distinct from other ‘content’ is a boon for democracy. Yet the readiness with which publishers are seemingly embracing this new business arrangement is discomfiting, given Facebook’s track record, and the total lack of regulation. Will News Corp. [parent company of The Wall Street Journal and Fox News, both part of the News Tab] and others disclose their relationship with Facebook when they cover the tech world? One can only hope so.”
Another problem is the very odd presence of Breitbart News as part of the News Tab. It’s one thing to want to include a conservative-leaning news organization; it’s quite another to add weaponized propaganda to a list that is supposed to be comprise factual, verified journalism. More than anything, the inclusion of Breitbart appears to be part of Zuckerberg’s continued efforts to suck up to right-wing critics who accuse Facebook and other social-media platforms of liberal bias.
Finally, there is the question of whether Facebook this time will stick with its newfound embrace of news. Over the years the company has alternately accepted its role as a platform for journalism and walked away from it. About a decade ago, it unveiled a program called the Social Reader, inviting news organizations to use it and set up shop inside Facebook. The Washington Post and The Guardian, in particular, had considerable success with it. And then Zuckerberg changed his mind.
David Beard, a veteran journalist who was working on social-media strategies for the Post at that time, told me in a 2015 interview that he began developing email newsletters for the paper in direct response to the Social Reader fiasco. “For a while, we had tons of readers in India and the Philippines and some other places,” he said. “And then Facebook changed the algorithm, and we suddenly had none. So my learning from that episode was, is there something we can do without a mercenary, where we own the machinery?”
Now, once again, news organizations are relying on Mark Zuckerberg’s machinery. Will it be different this time? I hope so. Zuckerberg is under fire from all directions these days. He may sincerely hope that leading people away from disinformation and toward real news will not only ease the pressure on him and his company, but will be good for democracy as well.
But few things are more vital for fixing democracy than bolstering local news. At the very least, Facebook News is off to an unacceptably slow start at the local level. If that doesn’t change, then Zuckerberg’s latest idea may wind up being just one more example of a promise unfulfilled.
At a time when local news is in danger of being snuffed out by corporate chain ownership, WHAV Radio in Haverhill has established itself as a worthy alternative. Built by a journalist and advertising executive named Tim Coco, the independent nonprofit provides news and community information over the air and online.
Now, though, the station is in crisis. Annual costs have risen to about $300,000, considerably more than the $200,000 Coco — who runs the station without a salary — has been able to generate in revenue. If there isn’t a turnaround by Thanksgiving, he says, the station may cease operations.
“Our current membership drive isn’t gaining much traction,” Coco said via email. “Some cite the lack of tax deductibility with higher allowed standard deductions. Our major sponsors are as much as four months late in fulfilling pledges, and we have lost some others as they merge with larger organizations.” (Click here for my full Q&A with Coco.)
WHAV traces its Haverhill roots to the years after World War II, when the station was founded by The Haverhill Gazette, then an independent daily newspaper. Coco fell in love with the station when he was a high school student and began covering news there. The morning DJ in those years was the future television personality Tom Bergeron, who has come home on several occasions to help Coco with fundraising drives.
The original WHAV went off the air in 2002, but Coco acquired the call letters and began operating it as an internet station in 2004. Ten years later he ramped up his ambitions, reorganizing it as a nonprofit and, in 2016, adding a low-power FM signal at 97.9 FM. The station features news, community call-in shows and classic-hits music.
WHAV’s expansion coincided with the shrinkage of the city’s newspapers. Today The Haverhill Gazette is a weekly that is part of the daily Eagle-Tribune, headquartered in nearby North Andover. Their corporate owner is CNHI, a national chain of daily and weekly newspapers based in Montgomery, Alabama. The papers no longer have an office in Haverhill.
Although you couldn’t call Haverhill a “news desert,” the term used to describe communities without any news coverage, there is no question that WHAV has helped fill a gap that widened as the city’s newspapers reduced their presence. (In 2013 I wrote about WHAV and Haverhill’s newspapers as part of an assessment of the city’s media. In 2014 I recorded a video interview with Coco.)
“The need for a vibrant, competitive and thorough local news source was clear,” Coco said. “These have been WHAV’s goals in providing expanded online coverage with text, photographs and streaming audio at WHAV.net in 2014, simultaneous postings on all major social media, cable television affiliates and the permitting and launch of 97.9 WHAV-FM in 2016. The restoration of WHAV on radio also returned local news twice-an-hour weekdays, weather, community calendar every hour around the clock, a live morning show, local talk and live broadcasts of city council and school committee meetings and all Haverhill High School football games — home and away.”
And WHAV has developed an audience. According to internal metrics that Coco shared with me, some 184,000 unique visitors accessed the station’s website during the past 30 days — an impressive figure given the operation’s small geographic footprint. “Local news is a web traffic driver,” Coco said. “Our original reporting of breaking news, particularly a murder Saturday at a nursing home, drove web numbers to a new high.”
My own interest in Haverhill was originally rooted in a different local news concept — the Banyan Project, an idea developed by Tom Stites, a veteran journalist who has worked as an editor at The New York Times and The Chicago Tribune. Stites hoped to begin cooperatively owned local news sites across the country, starting in Haverhill. Unfortunately, after years in the planning stages, Haverhill Matters, as the site is known, has yet to make it off the launching pad. Here, for instance, is a story I wrote about Banyan for Nieman Lab in 2014. Not much has happened since then.
Coco was originally a member of the steering committee for Haverhill Matters but left in frustration. “I hoped Haverhill Matters and WHAV could launch together — you know, strength in numbers,” he said. “That group got lost in analysis paralysis and never published a single news story. In the end, Haverhill Matters tied up many donors with the promise of an imminent launch. Some are still waiting even though WHAV sure could use their support.”
But the notion that Banyan somehow steered revenues away from WHAV is disputed by John Cuneo, who serves as president of the Haverhill Matters board. “I do not believe we are a threat to WHAV.net,” Cuneo told me, adding that, if anything, WHAV’s presence made it more difficult for Haverhill Matters to raise money. “I wish Tim all success,” Cuneo said. “He’s been very dedicated for many years in successfully bringing local news to Haverhillians.”
Stites, despite multiple setbacks over the years, still remains hopeful that grant money will materialize that would enable the Haverhill co-op to begin covering news. “A new Banyan suitor has appeared,” Stites said. “What was looking like the end of the road might not be the end.” The idea of a news co-op run in a way similar to that of a food co-op or a credit union remains intriguing, and I hope Stites and the Haverhill Matters folks finally get to try it out. But it has been an awfully long time.
As for WHAV, Coco hopes that going public might shake loose some money and allow him to keep covering the news. “The people at the foundations need to give nonprofit, local news radio another look, especially those stations like WHAV that have committed to multimedia approaches and in poorer and, if I may be so bold, undereducated communities,” he said. “It took 20 years to restore WHAV, so it may take time.”