Worcester City Hall. Photo (cc) 2015 by Dan Kennedy.
The governance structure of The Worcester Guardian, a fledgling nonprofit begun by the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce, is starting to become clearer. A message by consultant Dave Nordman, the former executive editor of the city’s daily, the Telegram & Gazette, says that the Guardian will have an independent board of directors in addition to a community advisory board. The Chamber has committed $50,000 to the launch, but Nordman says the intention is for the Guardian to be a fully independent news organization.
The aim, Nordman told me by email, is “total separation.” He said that Chamber president and CEO Tim Murray will probably have one of nine seats on the board but will not serve as the chair. “The board’s main responsibility,” Nordman said, “will be to rally the community.” The announcement of an editor, he added, is imminent.
The original announcement raised questions about how closely the Chamber would be tied to the Guardian. Nordman’s assurances makes it more likely that the Guardian will be accepted by the Institute for Nonprofit News, or INN, which would be a crucial step for credibility and fundraising. The Guardian’s inaugural governing documents also tracked too closely with the INN’s policies as well as the mission statement of The New Bedford Light, a large nonprofit, as reported by Bill Shaner of the newsletter Worcester Sucks and I Love It. Nordman, though, is a pro, and his involvement suggests that the Guardian will get off to a strong start. (Nordman is also a colleague of mine at Northeastern.) Nordman writes in his message at the Guardian’s website:
I believe free, nonprofit, independent news could provide a dynamic new platform to tell the Central Massachusetts story and report on important issues impacting Worcester and the region.
I believe mistakes will be made and lessons will be learned along the way.
I believe nonprofit, for-profit and independent journalism can co-exist. I believe blogs and social media also provide a forum for healthy discourse.
And I believe Murray when he says he will allow the Guardian to tell the story of Worcester independent of the chamber.
The community will be watching.
The Worcester area is not exactly a news desert, although local residents have lamented deep cuts at the Telegram & Gazette under Gannett’s ownership. MassLive, part of The Republican of Springfield, publishes a fair amount of Worcester news. GBH News has a Worcester bureau. The 016.com aggregates news from the Worcester area as well. Still, a Worcester-based nonprofit, grounded in community values, would be a welcome addition to Central Massachusetts.
Back when “Dilbert” was funny. Photo (cc) 2011 by pchow98.
Scott Adams is apparently trying to get “Dilbert” canceled by as many newspapers as possible. The Boston Globe should accommodate him immediately.
Adams has long been known as a Donald Trump supporter. Last week, though, he went well beyond praising the racist ex-president with a vile racist rant of his own, referring to Black people as a “hate group” and saying, “I would say, based on the current way things are going, the best advice I would give to white people is to get the hell away from Black people.” There was more. Martha Ross has the gory details at The Mercury News of San Jose.
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Among the newspapers dropping “Dilbert” is The Plain Dealer of Cleveland. “This is not a difficult decision,” wrote editor Chris Quinn. The Plain Dealer is part of the Advance Local chain and, according to Quinn, several other Advance papers have come to the same conclusion — including “newspapers in Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Alabama, Massachusetts and Oregon.” The Massachusetts newspaper is The Republican of Springfield, which also publishes the MassLive website. I haven’t seen an announcement at MassLive yet.
Nor have I seen an announcement from the Globe, an independent paper owned by John and Linda Henry. As Quinn noted, it can take a while for a canceled feature to disappear from the print edition. But it can be canceled immediately on the digital side — yet “Dilbert” is in its usual spot today on the Globe’s website.
This shouldn’t be a hard call. As Quinn notes, the Lee chain dropped “Dilbert” from its 77 papers last year after Adams introduced a Black character whose role was to mock “woke” culture and the LGBTQ community. “Dilbert” has been living on borrowed time, and it has long since ceased to be funny.
Adams is obviously trying to get canceled so he can go on some sort of right-wing grievance tour. This is not a matter of respecting all views — Adams did everything but don a sheet and terrorize his Black neighbors. (Oh, wait. He doesn’t have any. He also said he’s moved to a nearly all-white community in order to get away from Black people.) It’s time for mainstream news outlets to part company with this vicious hatemonger.
Ed Kubosiak Jr. has been terminated from his position as the editor of MassLive following an investigation into a domestic violence claim, according to Don Seiffert of the Boston Business Journal. Kubosiak had been suspended several weeks earlier.
MassLive is the website of The Republican newspaper in Springfield. The properties are owned by Advance, a privately held media company that has pursued some interesting strategies in trying to figure out a viable business model for local news. The Massachusetts approach has been to position MassLive as an entity that’s separate from the newspaper, pushing into the Worcester area and even into Greater Boston. The idea of a free, good-quality alternative to The Boston Globe is an interesting one; several years ago, though, MassLive began charging for some of its journalism, which would seem to defeat the purpose.
In any event, Kubosiak’s role at MassLive was crucial — he was the vice president of content, essentially serving as the top editor. It will be interesting to see what if any changes Advance makes in its approach now that the company has to hire a replacement.
Tom Breen of the New Haven Independent covers real-estate transactions the old-fashioned way. Photos (cc) 2021 by Dan Kennedy.
At least two New England newspaper publishers have begun using artificial intelligence rather than carbon-based life forms to report on real-estate transactions.
The Republican of Springfield, online as MassLive, and Hearst Connecticut Media, comprising the New Haven Register and seven other daily newspapers, are running stories put together by an outfit called United Robots. MassLive’s stories are behind a hard paywall, but here’s a taste from the Register of what such articles look like.
United Robots, a Swedish company, touts itself as offering “news automation at massive scale using AI and data science.”
Last year I wrote about artificial intelligence and journalism for GBH News. I’m skeptical, but it depends on how you use it. In some ways AI has made our lives easier by, for instance, enhancing online search and powering the inexpensive transcription of audio interviews. But using it to write stories? Not good. As I wrote last year:
Such a system has been in use at The Washington Post for several years to produce reports about high school football. Input a box score and out comes a story that looks more or less like an actual person wrote it. Some news organizations are doing the same with financial data. It sounds innocuous enough given that much of this work would probably go undone if it couldn’t be automated. But let’s curb our enthusiasm.
Using AI to produce stories about real-estate transactions may seem fairly harmless. But let me give you an example of why it’s anything but.
In November, I accompanied Tom Breen, the managing editor of the New Haven Independent, as he knocked on the doors of houses that had been foreclosed on recently. The Independent is a digital nonprofit news site.
A note Breen left behind asking the resident to call him. (Phone number removed.)
Breen has spent a considerable amount of time and effort in housing court and poring through online real-estate transactions. From doing that, he could see patterns that had emerged. Like Boston and many other cities, New Haven has experienced an explosion in real-estate prices, and a lot of owners are flipping their properties to cash in. In too many cases there are victims — low-income renters whose new landlords, often absentee, jack up the rents. Breen takes the data he’s gathered and rides his bike into the neighborhoods, knocking on doors and talking with residents. It’s difficult, occasionally dangerous work. Once he was attacked by a pit bull.
We didn’t have much luck on our excursion. No one was home at either of the two houses we visited, so Breen left notes behind asking the residents to call him.
“If investors are swapping properties at $100,000, $200,000 above the appraised value and tens of thousands of dollars above what they bought it for two days prior,” Breen told me, “all that can do is drive up costs that are passed down to the renters — to the people actually living in the building.”
The result of Breen’s enterprise has been a series of stories like this one. The lead:
Tenants of a three-family “lemon” of a house on Liberty Street are wondering how two landlords managed to walk away with $180,000 by double-selling a property that they say remains a dump.
You’re not going to get that kind of reporting from artificial intelligence.
Now, of course, you might argue — and some have, as I noted in my GBH News piece — that AI saves journalists from drudge work, freeing them up to do exactly the kind of enterprise reporting that Breen does. But story ideas often arise from immersion in boring data and sitting through lengthy proceedings; outsource the data collection to a robot, and it’s likely that will be the end of it.
Bad sign: Here’s how Breen and I were greeted at one foreclosed-upon property. (Names removed.)
At the corporate chains that own so many of our newspapers, there’s little doubt that AI will be used as just another opportunity to cut. Hearst and Advance, the national chain that owns The Republican, are not the worst or most greedy newspapers chains by any means. But both of them have engaged in more than their share of cost-cutting over the years.
And it’s spreading. United Robots’ U.S. clients include the McClatchy newspaper chain and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, part of the Cox chain. No doubt the Big Two — Gannett and the groups owned by Alden Global Capital — won’t be far behind.
Mark Henderson is certainly not the first person to launch a hyperlocal website in the shadow of the daily newspaper that used to employ him. Nevertheless, his ideas about how to build the site into a sustainable business are unorthodox enough to merit attention.
Henderson, a former executive with the 150-year-old Telegram & Gazette of Worcester, Mass., unveiled the Worcester Sun in August. From the start, the Sun’s content has been protected behind a hard paywall of $2 a week. There are no discounts; if you want to subscribe for a year, it will cost you $104.
Once the Sun has attracted a critical mass of paid digital subscribers (Henderson won’t reveal the magic number except to say that it’s well short of 1,000), he’ll add a Sunday paper for $1 a week, perhaps as soon as next spring. Print matters, Henderson says, because that’s still where most of the advertising is.
“If you’re going to start something new, monetizing digital is tough,” says Henderson. “And you can’t look at print as a medium without understanding that there is a ton of money still to be made there. Especially in Sunday print. We could use Sunday print to boost us into the stratosphere, to get us into a stable orbit where we can launch other things.”
Bootstrapping paid digital to break into paid print? Matt DeRienzo, interim executive director of Local Independent Online News (LION) Publishers, says he’s skeptical but intrigued. “Sunday print is going against the grain. There’s a lot of reasons the cards are stacked against them,” says DeRienzo, the former editor of Digital First Media’s Connecticut publications, which include the New Haven Register. But he adds: “The best ideas are going to come from people who live in and care about their community and who are closest to the problem. Who’s to say it’s not going to work?”
With a population of 183,000 — the second-largest city in New England after Boston — and a median household income of about $46,000, more than $20,000 below the state average, Worcester is a city facing economic challenges. It’s precisely the sort of community that could benefit most from independent media projects such as the Sun, says Catherine Tumber, a scholar with the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University.
Last week, I met Henderson and his business partner (and cousin) Fred Hurlbrink Jr. in a brightly lit coworking space on the first floor of the Innovation Center of Worcester — formerly the Franklin Street headquarters of the Telegram & Gazette, the daily newspaper where Henderson worked for nearly 25 years. Across the street is City Hall and the Worcester Common. On the other side of the common looms the mid-sized tower that is the current home of the T&G.
Henderson, 49, rose from the paper’s sports department to deputy managing editor for technology and, starting in 2009, online director. He left on June 2, 2014, the day that John Henry, who had purchased The Boston Globe and the T&G from the New York Times Company, sold the T&G to Halifax Media Group of Daytona Beach, Florida, after previously saying he intended to sell to a local group. Halifax cut about 20 journalistsfrom the full-time newsroom staff of about 80. Further cuts came a few months later when Halifax turned around and sold the paper to New Media Investment Group, an affiliate of GateHouse Media, based in the suburbs of Rochester, New York.
Hurlbrink, 38, had two stints with GateHouse — first as a copy editor at The MetroWest Daily News of Framingham and later at the Design House, run out of the Framingham plant, which handled design and some copyediting tasks for multiple GateHouse papers. In August 2014, GateHouse announced that the operation would be closed and moved to Austin, Texas.
Even with a shrunken Telegram & Gazette, Henderson and Hurlbrink find themselves in the midst of a highly competitive media environment. In addition to the T&G, Worcester is covered by MassLive.com, part of Advance Digital; GoLocalWorcester, which has sister sites in Providence, Rhode Island, and Portland, Oregon; and Worcester Magazine, whose parent company, Holden Landmark Corporation, is controlled by GateHouse Media chief executive Kirk Davis but is not part of GateHouse.
In the face of such competition, Henderson and Hurlbrink say their plan is to steer clear of breaking news and offer depth and analysis instead. “We’re never going to cover breaking news,” Henderson says. “Will we cover the opiate epidemic rather than three people who OD’d in the last 24 hours? Yeah, we’ll take a look at that. But we’ll devote the resources to do it and give people an insight that they didn’t have before.”
“I think there’s a niche,” says Timothy McGourthy, executive director of the Worcester Regional Research Bureau. “I think it provides kind of a thoughtful human-interest approach to Worcester. It’s a generally positive approach to the city. I think the challenge is going to be getting the word out in the marketplace.”
The Sun’s paywall — as well as that of the T&G — is based on technology provided by Clickshare, whose website touts the software as a “flexible system” that allows for different types of paid access, billing and payment processing, and various options for e-commerce. Bill Densmore, who founded Clickshare in the mid-1990s, believes that print and digital serve two different types of audiences — and that Henderson and Hurlbrink are smart to try to serve both.
“A lean-back experience once a week makes a lot of sense to me,” says Densmore, a research fellow at the Reynolds Journalism Institute. “It’s an experiment, really, and an important one, both for the existing industry and for people starting on the digital side and wondering where that leads. I think the marriage of print and digital makes a lot of sense, particularly if you’re not trying to put out a daily paper, which increasingly seems anachronistic to me and to people in the digital world.”
Starting and maintaining a community news site is a hard way to make a living, but the allure is undeniable. LION counts about 130 member sites, and of course there many more that are not LION members. New ones pop up regularly. Just this week, The Boston Globe reported on a project called The Spark, cofounded by a former photographer for the GateHouse-owned Enterprise of Brockton.
It’s the same allure that has kept Henderson and Hurlbrink going despite setbacks — including a $150,000 Kickstarter campaign that fell well short of the mark. So far, they say, they’ve invested $200,000 in money and time. Soon they hope to unveil the first in a line of ebooks. And they’ve got plans to launch online verticals in areas such as education and local sports. “I think there are places we can go where we can be effective,” says Hurlbrink.
If all goes according to plan, they foresee a staff of 20 full- and part-time journalists. The key, adds Henderson, is to fill a niche — and not worry about what the competition is doing.
“We’ve never said we’re here to take the T&G out,” says Henderson. “Other people have. We don’t agree with that. Our stated goal is to serve our audience, the city of Worcester, the best we can. And if we have an opportunity to grow our audience, all the better.”
Jim Bronson, chair of the Berkshire County Republican Association, which sponsors the “Right from the Berkshires” series of which Nikitas’ column was a part, concedes to Glaun that Nikitas’ language was “in artful” but denies that the piece was racist — and says he plans to respond to Eagle editor Kevin Moran’s criticism of the group in its next column.
Bronson adds that he read Nikitas’ column before it was submitted to the Eagle, but says he doesn’t know whether Nikitas is a member of his organization. Well, if Bronson doesn’t know, who would?
Then there’s this:
Bill Everhart, the Eagle’s editorial page editor, said that though he was not surprised by the outrage, he did not expect so much of it to be directed at the paper itself. Some critics, he said, may be unaware of the Eagle’s long history of progressivism and civil rights advocacy, and of its editorial board’s disagreement with Nikitas’ views.
Meanwhile, a site called Talking New Media publishes a commentary by D.B. Hubbard defending the Eagle’s decision to publish Nikitas’ column under the snarky headline “Berkshire Eagle editor explains to readers why papers print opinion pieces they may not agree with.”
Hubbard quotes a comment I posted on the Eagle’s website without identifying me and mistakenly writes that comments like mine led editor Kevin Moran to write his response. In fact, I posted my comment after Moran’s column was published, a tidbit easily gleaned by checking out the time stamps.