Do you find it more difficult to read a book these days? Or even a long article? Do you catch yourself pausing every so often (OK, make that every few minutes) to see what’s new on Facebook, scroll through Twitter, check email, or possibly all of the above? Has concentration given way to distraction?
Former Boston Globe editor Matt Storin once said there was nothing wrong with newspaper circulation that a depression and the return of the military draft couldn’t cure.
Storin was right about scary news driving circulation. The crisis (or the excitement, if you prefer) created by Donald Trump’s presidency has led to a substantial increase in the audience for journalism. Paid circulation has reached 4 million at the “failing” New York Times. The Washington Post last year reported it had signed up more than a million digital subscribers, a number that is presumably much higher today. Audience and contributions have risen at places like NPR and ProPublica.
But hold the applause. The flip side of Storin’s observation is that the improved fortunes for purveyors of high-quality journalism are fundamentally the consequence of national interest in national news. At the local level it’s a different story. Storin’s old paper, the Globe, reached 100,000 paid digital subscribers recently. That’s a significant milestone, but publisher John Henry continues to cut in order to minimize his losses. And a steady stream of Globe journalists has departed in recent months for the Times and the Post.
The situation is considerably worse elsewhere. The journalism business analyst Ken Doctor wrote at the Nieman Journalism Lab last week that the economics of local newspaperscontinues to deteriorate:
The year has already been marked by an unforeseen acceleration of decline in the core local daily newspaper business, both in advertising and in circulation. At the same time, the hushed whispers of a local news emergency have grown louder. There’s talk — both public and private — of the need to raise huge amounts of money in order to address a crisis a decade in the making.
In casting about for solutions, Doctor looks mainly at the supply side, such as initiatives from the likes of Report for America (co-founded by Charles Sennott’s GroundTruth Project, a WGBH affiliate), which is placing young journalists in underserved areas along much the same lines as Teach for America. And there’s no question that such ideas are needed, along with new forms of nonprofit and for-profit funding.
But what about the demand side? Storin’s sardonic observation as well as the success of high-profile news organizations suggest that interest in news has been nationalized in a way that is similar to other aspects of American culture. These days, voters are more likely to choose congressional candidates based on whether they support or oppose President Trump than on local issues. We shop at Amazon, eat at chain restaurants, and write columns just like this one at Starbucks rather than, say, the local library or independent coffee shop. Given the nationalization of just about everything, how many people still care about what is taking place in their neighborhood or their community?
This is not a new phenomenon. Years ago, before the internet became the primary way by which we engage with news, an academic study found that consumption of local journalism decreased among the educated elite whenever the national edition of The New York Times expanded into a new region. After all, it’s hard for the latest wrangling among city council members to compete with the outrage of the day from Washington.
Yet we live in neighborhoods and communities, not Washington, and what happens at the local level matters a great deal. Like other media observers, I have written about the need to bolster local journalism and save newspapers from the clutches of corporate chains controlled by hedge funds. But getting ordinary people to care about what’s happening in their backyard may prove to be just as much of a challenge.
“It’s not that educated people have ceased thinking it’s important to get news,” the journalist Mark Oppenheimer once told me. “It’s that now they feel that NPR fills that vision.”
So what is to be done? These days you hear a lot about encouraging media literacy. And certainly it’s important to help people understand what’s quality and what’s crap, what’s real and what’s fake. But civic literacy matters even more. After all, you can’t get people interested in news about what’s taking place at city hall and at local neighborhood councils unless they understand why they matter.
The Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam wrote in his landmark 2000 book on the decline of civic engagement, “Bowling Alone,” that people who are engaged in civic life — voting in local elections, taking part in volunteer activities, attending religious services, or engaging in any number of other activities — are also more likely to read newspapers. “Newspaper readers,” he wrote, “are machers and schmoozers.”
What we need today is to turn those machers and schmoozers back into readers of their local newspapers.
Brian McGrory has been named editor of the Boston Globe, succeeding Marty Baron, who left recently to become executive editor of the Washington Post. McGrory was widely seen as a popular candidate inside the Globe newsroom, so no doubt they’re celebrating at 135 Morrissey Blvd. this afternoon.
McGrory drew praise inside and outside the Globe for his performance as metro editor several years ago. Although he returned to his slot as a metro columnist following three years on the job, that may have been the last ticket he needed punched given his previous experience as a local reporter, White House correspondent and roving national reporter.
He is also the author of several books, including, most recently, “Buddy: How a Rooster Made Me a Family Man.”
McGrory is just the sixth Globe editor of the modern era, dating back to the 1960s. He follows, in chronological order, Tom Winship, Michael Janeway, Jack Driscoll, Matt Storin and Baron.
McGrory takes over the newsroom at a time when the future of the Globe is unclear. Although the Baron era was a journalistic success highlighted by six Pulitzer Prizes, the Globe, like all newspapers, is unsteady financially. The Globe’s owner, the New York Times Co., is thought to be almost certain to sell the paper at some point, though it is not believed to be actively shopping it at the moment.
Here is the press release the Globe sent out a little while ago:
Brian McGrory, a 23-year veteran of The Boston Globe who led groundbreaking coverage of corruption as an editor, and writes with depth and texture about the region as a columnist, has been named the next editor of The Boston Globe, effective immediately.
Mr. McGrory, 51, will report to Christopher M. Mayer, Globe Publisher. A Boston native, he will be charged with running the newsroom for The Boston Globe and BostonGlobe.com and the newsroom’s contribution to Boston.com.
“Brian has distinguished himself throughout his career at the Globe as a reporter, editor and columnist and as a native of Boston, he is the ideal candidate to lead the Globe’s newsroom,” said Mr. Mayer. “Brian will continue to emphasize the accountability reporting that has been the Globe’s trademark, combined with narrative storytelling that gives readers a strong sense of our unique community.”
“This is a great honor to guide the Boston Globe news operations, since I grew up delivering the Globe, then reading the Globe, and later writing for the Globe,” said Mr. McGrory. “It is also a great honor to work with my colleagues and build on what I believe is the best metro newspaper in America.”
Mr. McGrory joined the Globe in 1989 as one of the first reporters hired into the South Weekly section. Since then, he has covered the city of Boston as a general assignment reporter, served as White House correspondent, and as a roving national correspondent. In 1998, he became a metro columnist, and quickly made his mark as a must read. He was named associate editor in 2004.
In 2007, he was named deputy managing editor for local news. He led the metro staff in a comprehensive investigation of corruption and cronyism on Beacon Hill that eventually led to resignations and indictments.
Governor Deval Patrick and the State Legislature passed a pension reform bill after an investigation by the Globe revealed public pension abuses, coverage that brought Sean Murphy recognition as a finalist for the Goldsmith Investigative Reporting Prize by the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University. Under McGrory, the newsroom also reported extensively on a city system that bestowed benefits on favored developers.
He directed wide-ranging, sensitive coverage of Senator Edward M. Kennedy’s struggle with brain cancer, his death, and his funeral.
McGrory steered the metro staff to new levels of narrative journalism, stressing the value of vivid and detailed storytelling in an era when consumers have many media choices. An 8,000-word narrative about a pair of sisters who died in an arson fire in South Boston after years of neglect won the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism and led to widespread reforms in government services for children.
After nearly three years as metro editor, he resumed his twice-a-week metro front column, where he has regularly enlightened readers about the quirks and character of the community and held public officials and business leaders accountable. He is the author of a memoir and four novels.
“During his tenure as metro editor, Brian built a strong team of reporters and editors and imbued the newsroom with a competitive spirit. Day after day, Brian and his team delivered award-winning journalism, in print and online,” Mayer added.
McGrory was raised in Roslindale and Weymouth. He received a B.A. from Bates College in Maine, and worked early in his career at the New Haven Register and The Patriot Ledger in Quincy.
Weeks of rumors and speculation came to an end a little while ago with the announcement that Boston Globe editor Marty Baron will replace Marcus Brauchli as executive editor of the Washington Post. The Huffington Post has memos from Baron, Brauchli and Post publisher Katharine Weymouth.
This is a very smart move for the Post and for Baron, who’ll have the opportunity to rebuild a faded brand. Not that long ago, the New York Times and the Post were invariably mentioned in the same breath. There’s still a lot of great journalism in the Post, but the paper these days lags well behind the Times.
Brauchli, a former editor of the Wall Street Journal, got off to a rocky start at the Post. In 2009 he and then-new publisher Weymouth got embroiled in very bad idea: to put together paid “salons” featuring Post journalists, corporate executives and White House officials. As I wrote in the Guardian, there was evidence that Brauchli knew more about the salons than he was letting on.
I take Weymouth’s decision to replace Brauchli with Baron — and Baron’s decision to accept the offer — as a sign that she’s grown in the job and was able to assure Baron of it.
Baron arrived at the Globe in July 2001 to replace the retiring Matt Storin. (Here’s what I wrote about the transition for the Boston Phoenix.) Baron was executive editor of the Miami Herald before coming to the Globe, but he also had extensive experience at the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times. Many observers believed his stint in Boston would be relatively short, and indeed he was considered for a top job at the Times less than two years later.
Instead, Baron ended up staying in Boston for more than 11 years, winning six Pulitzers, including the public service award in 2003 for the Globe’s coverage of the Catholic pedophile-priest scandal. He has been a solid, steady presence — a journalist with high standards who made his mark at a time when the newspaper business, including the Globe, was steadily shrinking. He also gets digital.
Last February, at an event honoring him as the recipient of the Stephen Hamblett First Amendment Award, Baron told journalists they should stand up against the fear and intimidation to which they have been subjected. You’ll find the full text of his speech here, but here’s an excerpt:
In this environment, too many news organizations are holding back, out of fear — fear that we will be saddled with an uncomfortable political label, fear that we will be accused of bias, fear that we will be portrayed as negative, fear that we will lose customers, fear that advertisers will run from us, fear that we will be assailed as anti-this or anti-that, fear that we will offend someone, anyone. Fear, in short, that our weakened financial condition will be made weaker because we did something strong and right, because we simply told the truth and told it straight.
What’s good news for the Post is less than good news for the Globe. A new editor after 11 years of Baron would not necessarily be a bad thing, as every institution can benefit from change. But at this point it’s unclear who the candidates might be, and whether the next editor will come from inside or outside the Globe. And whoever gets picked will have a tough act to follow.
Baron will be a successor to the legendary Ben Bradlee and all that represents — the Pentagon Papers, Watergate and a boatload of Pulitzers. I think he was an inspired choice, and I wish him the best.
More: Peter Kadzis of The Phoenix has a must-read blog post on Baron’s departure. Great quote from an unnamed source: “On an existential level, I wonder if Marty gives a shit. He’s like a character out of Camus.”
I have no particular insight into the announcement that New York Times executive editor Bill Keller has decided to step aside. But it’s big news in the media world, and it will be worth keeping an eye out to see whether there’s a story behind the story. Jim Romenesko is gathering links. It is, of course, significant that the Times’ next top editor, Jill Abramson, will be the first woman to run what is arguably our leading news organization.
Keller will write a column for the Sunday opinion section, which is being redesigned. His column for the Sunday magazine hasn’t exactly been well-received, so it’s hard to believe Keller is what we Frank Rich fans have been waiting for. But Keller is obviously a fine journalist, and he may rise to the occasion when he’s not dashing something off in addition to his other duties.
The last time the executive editor’s job changed hands was in 2003, when Howell Raines and his deputy, Gerald Boyd, stepped down following the Jayson Blair scandal. At that time Boston Globe editor Marty Baron, whose résumé included a stint as a Times editor, was considered for a top job at the Mother Ship. (Little-known fact: Keller turned down the chance to replace the retiring Matt Storin as the Globe’s editor in 2001, recommending Baron instead.)
That seems unlikely to happen this time, as Washington bureau chief Dean Baquet has already been announced as Abramson’s managing editor for news. Baquet is a former editor of the Los Angeles Times, where Baron also spent a good part of his career.
New York Times photo.
A few media odds and ends for your Monday morning:
• Marjorie Arons-Barron, a communications executive who was previously the longtime editorial director of WCVB-TV (Channel 5), recently started a blog. Arons-Barron is as sharp an observer of state and local politics as we have, and you should definitely plug her into your RSS aggregator. It is no slam on the city’s newspapers to point out that she is easily a match for anyone opining at the Boston Globe, the Boston Phoenix or the Boston Herald.
• During the special-election campaign for the U.S. Senate, a mystery blogger started a site called kennedyseat.com and became a respected source of links and information. After revealing himself to be Conor Yunits, the son of a former Brockton mayor and something of an aspiring politico in his own right, he has begun what looks to be a more permanent project called MassBeacon.com. Worth watching.
• CommonWealth Magazine, the quarterly public-policy journal published by the Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth, has a new online look and a new URL. Not only is it a lot slicker and easier to read, but it is more closely tied to its blog, CommonWealth Unbound. Of particular interest is a section called Civic Journalism, with blog posts by and interviews with the likes of Globe editor Marty Baron, former Globe editor Matt Storin, former Globe columnist Eileen McNamara (do I detect a trend?) and Phoenix reporter-turned-media consultant Dorie Clark.
• Richard Adams, who has been editing my weekly commentaries for the Guardian since I started writing them in mid-2007, has been promoted, and is now writing a blog for the paper’s Web site. I especially like his item on President Obama’s summit with House Republicans, which begins: “When the Republicans invited President Obama to address their congressional House delegation in Baltimore today, they had no idea how badly it would turn out for them.” Definitely RSS-worthy.