Here are three new reasons to be optimistic about local news

Note: Make that four reasons. See update below.

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.

Update: And a fourth — how could I forget the recently launched Provincetown Independent?

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As the Herald sheds jobs, its hedge-fund parent embraces overseas outsourcing and AI

The news from MediaNews Group (formerly known as Digital First Media) just gets worse and worse. Jim Clark writes that not only has he been laid off from his position as a sports copy editor at the Boston Herald, but that the Herald is “eliminating its copy desk positions.”

Meanwhile, Julie Reynolds, the go-to source for all things MediaNews, reports for The Intercept that the chain — owned by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital — is moving in the direction of outsourcing its page-design jobs overseas and covering high school sports with artificial intelligence.

“Now it’s outsourcing California news design to the Philippines, paying pennies on the dollar for work that once employed professionals who lived in the communities they served,” Reynolds writes.

There is no bottom.

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The Lowell Sun sports editor’s farewell column was taken down. Here’s every word of it.

Note: The hedge fund-owned newspaper chain MediaNews Group recently laid off several people at its Massachusetts papers, including sports editor Dennis Whitton of The Sun in Lowell. Whitton posted a farewell column on The Sun’s website and linked to it on Twitter, but when I tried to read it, it was gone — taken down (by management), he said in a tweet. (The column did appear in print.) An anonymous person with access to the CMS forwarded it to me, and I was able to verify that it was authentic. Here is Whitton’s farewell:

40 years of memories

By Dennis Whitton

“And then one day you find, ten years have got behind you. No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun…”

— Pink Floyd, “Time”

LOWELL — It’s more like 40 years have got behind me. Where have they gone? What do I have to show for them? Can I get some of them back?

After 35 years as The Sun’s sports boss and another 5-6 behind that as a reporter, co-op, cub and otherwise, your intrepid correspondent will be leaving the building this afternoon for the final time.

Corporate cost-cutting is the culprit. Apparently I was making too much money to suit the suits, even with years of frozen wages. I didn’t realize I was making so much. I would have spent more.

Our assistant sports boss, Barry Scanlon, is in the same liferaft. That’s a real head-scratcher because Barry was the staff workhorse and he loved what he did for the most part and did it extremely well. Like me, he took maybe two sick days in 22 years. But he, too, was unknowingly making too much money.

My super-supportive wife Jan says I should use the term “let go” when talking about this stuff because it sounds better than “laid off.”

It probably also sounds better than fired, downsized, axed, canned, dumped, released and forced out, too. But any way you cut it, we’re down to the final countdown in a job I’ve held since before that ball went through Bill Buckner’s legs.

If I sound bitter you’re reading me wrong. With all the technology now in play it’s a young person’s game. I’ve probably overstayed my “sell by” date and now I’m looking forward to the next chapter. Of the book I’m reading. Sitting on the beach.

At least the ax wasn’t performance-related. I know that because the suits in question have no idea what Barry and I did or how we did it. In the end we were numbers on a spreadsheet. There is one major downside to the affair: According to the exit agreement, my discounted employee newspaper subscription will be rolled over to the regular customer rate at the end of the month. Damn.

Everybody knows newspapers are yesterday’s news, useful mainly to parents making scrapbooks for their high school heroes. In the Internet age there isn’t much we can tell you in the rag that you couldn’t have found out 12 hours ago. Advertisers know this, which is why newspapers are circling the drain. Which is why we’ve been let go, and a number of other good people before and after us.

Those were the days.

In looking back for this “farewell column” that the aforementioned Jan has pressured me to write, I realize nearly all of my most interesting times in the game came in the previous century. After that I became a cynical curmudgeon.

So in a nutshell, and with apologies for the overuse of the dreaded pronoun “I,” here are some of my memories:

One of my first assignments as a Northeastern (Class of ’80) co-op student in the Sun sports department was the 1978 Beanpot. Of course the Blizzard of ’78 hit and I was stuck wandering Boston for five days. At least I didn’t bail. A true newspaperman.

In October of that same year I was in the overflow “press box” on the left field roof at Fenway Park when Bucky Dent’s home run cleared the fence so close to me I could almost read Bowie Kuhn’s signature on the baseball.

I covered a lot of Red Sox, Bruins and Celtics games in that time period (much of it while still in college) and even went on several Sox road trips when Charlie (not yet Chaz) Scoggins was on vacation. Milwaukee, Baltimore, Cleveland, the Bronx, Arlington, Texas — all the garden spots. I rode the team buses (Luis Tiant was a hoot. Nobody talked to Yaz. The nicest guy was Jack Brohamer) and stayed at the team hotels.

Jack Costello, the editor whose family owned the paper, wasn’t averse to spending money, at least where travel was concerned (lunch was another matter). Now we don’t even go to the Garden because it costs too much to park.

In September of 1979 I was off to Syracuse for a feature story on Ayer’s Joe Morris, who was setting records for the Orange. From there I detoured down to Madison Square Garden where I covered Larry Bird’s first exhibition game with the Celtics. Still have the press pass to prove it.

In 1982, the paper sent me to Kitchener, Ontario, for three days to do a profile of junior hockey superstar Brian Bellows because the Bruins had the first overall pick in the draft. The stories came out OK, but the B’s went and drafted Gord Kluzak instead.

Jack sent me to Augusta National to cover five Masters Tournaments, ending with Tiger’s historic win in 1997. Got to play the course in 1990 and made birdie on the par-3 sixth with a rented Cannon 5-iron to six feet. Been living off that story ever since. Also got to take the ferry over to Long Island for two U.S. Opens at Shinnecock Hills.

Speaking of golf, in 1999 we were double-teaming the Ryder Cup in Brookline until I told Dave Pevear on Saturday night to go ahead and cover the Patriots’ game on Sunday rather than come to the U.S. funeral at TCC. A case of over-managing.

In 1980, I remember covering the horrendous clubhouse fire at Rockingham Park. It was the morning after I hit the last race, with Skip Row paying $10.20 (I kept the program).

Closer to home there was a story on Dave Boutin, a ULowell catcher from Pawtucketville who was dying of cancer. That one has always stuck with me. Dave and his mother Fleurette were a source of inspiration, even for a cynic. Absolute profiles in courage.

In 1987, they sent me to Pasadena, Calif., for Super Bowl XXI to do stories on Ayer’s Joe Morris (again), by now the Giants’ star running back. From there Mr. Costello had me drive down to San Diego to do a piece on Dennis Conner, who had brought the America’s Cup back to the States in historic fashion.

Dennis was not even in the country, but there was some good yachting talk with various officials at the leather-and-mahogany San Diego Yacht Club. Nothing like some good yachting talk on the company’s dime. At least I got to see the actual Cup.

Westford golfer Pat Bradley always made time for me whenever I needed a story. I attended her Hall of Fame induction dinner in Boston in 1991 (still have the commemorative wine glass) — and shockingly ran into her atop Mt. Washington last year after she had hiked up through thick fog at age 67.

The Golden Gloves were my beat through the ’80s and into the ’90s. I covered Micky Ward’s amateur career (and later Ward-Gatti II), saw Mike Tyson destroy a poor local kid named Jimmy Bisson in 42 seconds in 1983, got to know the tireless Arthur Ramalho and his saint of a wife, Rita, and went on five or six National Golden Gloves trips.

The most memorable of those was in Albuquerque, N.M., when Gloves director Norm Lombardi, “chaperone” Jack Baldwin and I hopped on a small plane to Las Vegas one night. I had to call Ramalho’s hotel room to find out what happened to the heavyweight we had fighting in the tournament and cranked out the story from some cheap hotel off the strip where you had to duck under the TV set when you entered the room.

Norm was obsessed with that casino game where you plug in nickels and they fall into the bin and push other nickels over a cliff for a possible 20-cent payout. Obsessed.

From 1983-85 I left to work with another mentor, Frank Dyer, at the Boston Herald. We had a blast, but there was zero chance to write so I went looking and Lowell happened to be in need of a sports editor. At age 28 I took the job.

Which brings me to the old Sun All-Star sports banquets, usually held at the Windsor (now Lenzi’s) in Dracut. By actual count I did three banquets a year for 23 years until they were discontinued in 2008 — corporate cost-cutting was the culprit.

Introducing shy high school kids and reading about their accomplishments to beaming parents for two-plus hours a night was the drill. I dreaded it at the time but looking back it was a true highlight of my career.

We were able to talk with a ton of area coaches and AD’s and athletes and parents, and it no doubt helped our high school coverage, which was always The Sun’s bread and butter.

There were usually guest speakers, too. Tom Glavine was extremely nervous and kept repeating himself. Now he’s as polished as they come. His girlfriend at the time may have been overserved. Reggie Lewis showed up with a severe burn on his right hand.

A popcorn accident in the kitchen, he told us. Wink wink. Nod nod. Jim Calhoun spoke when he was still at NU and not yet the legend he became at UConn. And there were plenty more.

I covered a Marvin Hagler fight one winter night at the Worcester Centrum and got caught again in a raging blizzard. Unwilling to wait in a long line for gas, I negotiated my beloved but totally unreliable MGB roadster back to Lowell on absolute fumes, barely able to see out the windshield. It finally gave up as I pulled into the old Rex parking lot astride the Sun office. Loved that car.

The Rex was where a Lowell cop moonlighting as a snowplow driver hit my car one night and left a note on the windshield. Thus began a long friendship with Jack Dolan.

So in the interest of wrapping this thing up, let me throw out some other names of people who have helped me along the way, made the journey more enjoyable, and in some cases even became friends:

Jack Costello, Frank Dyer, Mickey Sullivan, Jim Moriarty, Gene Manley, Ken Hughes, Kendall Wallace, Meg Buckley, Shawn Smith, Peter Flynn, Paul Daley, Chris Scott, Jim Campanini, Bill Biswanger, the entire group of sports personnel, past and present, who turned the deadlines we faced every single day into child’s play.

Then there is my aunt Joyce Dalton in Wilmington, who faithfully clipped all of my articles from day one, regardless of topic, passed judgment and sent them down the family line through Auntie Moo.

I know there are others whose names will pop into my head as I drive home after writing this. If that’s you, I apologize.

But as the great Blues Traveler song goes: “It won’t mean a thing in a hundred years.”

— 30 —

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Private equity ownership is devastating retail — just as it has destroyed newspapers

The Washington Post reports some startling figures about the role of private equity firms in the retail business. According to the Post’s Abha Bhattarai:

More than 1.3 million Americans have lost their jobs in the past decade as a result of private equity ownership in retail, according to a report released Wednesday. That includes 600,000 retail workers, as well as 728,000 employees in related industries. Overall, the sector added more than 1 million jobs during that period. [my emphasis]

This is exactly what has happened to the newspaper business over the past several decades. Yes, the internet has devastated the economic model, with advertisers fleeing to Craigslist, Google and Facebook. But that’s only part of the story. The other part is that corporate chains have hollowed out newsrooms in order to maximize profits at a time when what was really needed was investment and patience.

The most notorious of the corporate raiders is MediaNews Group, formerly Digital First Media, which is owned by Alden Global Capital. MNG has all but destroyed once-great papers like The Denver Post and The Mercury News of San Jose, as U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren notes in her proposal to re-regulate Wall Street. Cuts continue at MNG’s Massachusetts holdings, the Boston Herald, The Sun of Lowell and the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg. Meanwhile, The Berkshire Eagle is rebuilding after a group of local business people bought the paper back from MNG.

Consider, too, that independent regional papers such as The Boston Globe and the Star Tribune of Minneapolis are doing reasonably well, and others are taking innovative steps such as giving iPads to their readers to ease the transition to all-digital (the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette), operating under hybrid for-profit/nonprofit ownership (The Philadelphia Inquirer) or are pursuing pure nonprofit ownership (The Salt Lake Tribune).

For years we’ve been hearing that Amazon is destroying retail — yet, as the Post observes, that part of the sector not being strangled by private equity has continued to grow. Newspapers’ business problems are very real. But surely they would be shrinking a lot more slowly, and perhaps groping their way toward sustainability, if they weren’t being destroyed by our financial overlords.

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Proposed state commission would study the local news crisis and what to do about it

Photo (cc) 2019 by Dan Kennedy

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Can government play a role in helping to solve the local news crisis? Not directly, perhaps. But indirectly, government can shine a light on the issue, call attention to worthy projects that might inspire others, and offer some policy recommendations.

That’s the goal of House Bill 181, which would create a special commission to study local journalism in underserved Massachusetts communities. Sponsored by Rep. Lori Ehrlich, D-Marblehead, and Sen. Brendan Crighton, D-Lynn, the bill was the subject of a public hearing Tuesday before the Joint Committee on Community Development and Small Businesses. I was among those who testified; here are my prepared remarks.

The idea came about during an exchange I had with Ehrlich last fall. She was lamenting the shrinkage of local news coverage, which has been caused by a combination of factors. The internet, of course, has inflicted immense damage on newspaper advertising, which once accounted for 80 percent of a typical paper’s revenues. But corporate chain ownership has led to cuts even deeper than they otherwise would have been, since shareholders and hedge funds demand unrealistically high profits even as the underlying business model continues to deteriorate.

The commission would comprise 17 people — journalists, academics, and elected officials, as well as members of organizations representing African American, Hispanic, and Asian journalists. The proposal has not been without controversy. After complaints on Monday that the hearing had been scheduled with little advance notice, officials agreed to hold a second hearing sometime within the next few weeks. Questions have been raised about the composition of the commission as well. In her testimony, Ehrlich said that she and Crighton are open to suggestions as to who would ultimately be named to the panel. (As the legislation is currently written, I would be one of the members.)

Government hearings into the state of journalism are not new. Back in 2009, a U.S. Senate committee chaired by John Kerry held a hearing on the topic at which former Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon, creator of the HBO series “The Wire,” blasted the news business, saying that “raw unencumbered capitalism is never the answer when a public trust or public mission is at issue.”

Government action isn’t new, either. Earlier this month, legislation was filed in Congress to allow newspapers to negotiate collectively with social media platforms in the hopes of extracting some revenues for the use of their content. A second bill, which I had a small role in drafting, would make it easier for news organizations to claim nonprofit status. I should note, too, that public media organizations, including WGBH, benefit from government support in the form of tax-exempt status as well as grants from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

In 2018, New Jersey lawmakers created a 15-member Civic Information Consortium charged with allocating $5 million in public funds to pay for various local reporting projects. That strikes me as more ambitious and controversial than anything that is likely to be attempted in Massachusetts. Among other things, the shrinkage of local news outlets has been more severe in New Jersey than it has been here. Still, it serves as a precedent for state government playing some role in the future of local journalism.

According to a report by the University of North Carolina, about 1,800 newspapers have ceased publishing since 2004. Residents of many parts of the country live in what UNC describes as “news deserts” — that is, communities where there is no local source of news at all. A number of studies have demonstrated that such lack of coverage leads to social ills such as declining voter participation, an increase in political corruption, and even a rise in the cost of government borrowing because of, as the authors put it, “the lack of scrutiny over local deals.”

Things are not quite so bad in Massachusetts. There are no true news deserts here, according to the UNC report. But rather than uncovered communities, we have many undercovered communities. Cities and towns that may have been served by three or four reporters a generation ago are now lucky to have one. In some cases, a harried reporter has the impossible task of covering two or three towns. MediaNews Group (formerly Digital First), which owns the Boston Herald, The Sun of Lowell, and the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg, and GateHouse Media, which owns dozens of papers in Greater Boston and beyond, have been assiduously eliminating newsroom jobs and merging papers.

A news commission could provide a modest but crucial service. The commission could study the situation on the ground to determine where the gaps in coverage are. It could identify examples of good-quality local journalism that might be emulated elsewhere. It could recommend policy initiatives to encourage for-profit and nonprofit local news projects. One thing I would especially like to see is a plan to help local-access cable TV, an important informational resource that is facing its own financial challenges.

Local journalism is crucial to providing us with the information we need to govern ourselves. The one thing we can’t afford to do is nothing.

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The Wall Street Journal takes on the local news crisis

Wall Street Journal reporters Keach Hagey, Lukas I. Alpert and Yaryna Serkez weigh in today with a comprehensive overview of the crisis threatening local newspapers — a crisis that contrasts with the relative good health of the three national papers, The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Journal.

It’s well worth reading, even if there’s nothing especially new. Two quick observations:

1. Although the story pays lip service to the harmful effects of chain ownership, it doesn’t quite get at the fundamental problems: the debt amassed to build the chain, the lack of investment in technology, and the drain created by having to export a good chunk of revenues to some distant corporate headquarters.

2. The Journal also calls The Boston Globe a “notable outlier” among regional papers for its relative success in building digital subscriptions and maintaining a decent-size newsroom. The obvious if unmade argument is that other papers could do the same with committed local owners.

Globe owner John Henry is not perfect, but MediaNews Group (the new name for Digital First Media), Gannett or GateHouse would likely have cut the newsroom of roughly 220 people by another 100 or so.

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