The “What Works” podcast is back! Ellen Clegg and I took some time off to finish our book, which now has a name — “What Works in Community News: Media Startups, News Deserts, and the Future of the Fourth Estate.” Barring any unexpected roadblocks, it will be published by Beacon Press in early 2024.
Our latest podcast features Mike Blinder, the publisher of Editor & Publisher, the once and future bible of the news publishing industry. Mike also hosts E&P’s weekly vodcast/podcast series, “E&P Reports” which has established itself as a must-listen for anyone interested in the state of the news business. Blinder has interviewed everyone from Richard Tofel, founding GM of ProPublica, to Jennifer Kho, the new executive editor of the Chicago Sun-Times, to professor and media critic Jeff Jarvis. Blinder probes important issues like government support for community journalism, the role of social-media platforms and the impact of chain consolidation.
I’ve got a Quick Take on the failure of two bills in Congress that would have provided some government support to newspaper companies. It’s fair to say that the federal government is not going to be riding to the rescue of local news, and that communities had better get about the business of providing coverage on their own.
Ellen reports on the City Paper in Pittsburgh, an alternative weekly, which has just been acquired by a subsidiary of Block Communications. The Block family has achieved some notoriety for its mismanagement of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Media observer Margaret Sullivan called the Post-Gazette a tragic mess under the Blocks.
The vodcast, hosted by E&P publisher Mike Blinder, featured the Globe’s Rhode Island editor (and my “Beat the Press” crony), Lylah Alphonse; Rhode Island reporter Dan McGowan; and Michelle Micone, the Globe’s vice president for innovation and strategic initiatives.
It was Micone who talked about expanding the Globe’s coverage to other regions. She specifically mentioned New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont but not Connecticut, which was either inadvertent or, more likely, a nod to the Nutmeg State’s very different media and cultural environment. I mean, my God, they root for the Yankees down there.
Alphonse and McGowan were careful not to criticize The Providence Journal, but let’s face it — the Globe’s Rhode Island project was begun in response to Gannett’s evisceration of that once great paper. Blinder said that the Journal’s full-time staff is down to about 14. [Note: The actual number is about 30.] Alphonse told me that Globe Rhode Island now has eight full-time journalists. Of course, the folks who remain at the Journal are doing good work under trying conditions, and Alphonse and McGowan were smart to acknowledge that.
One statistic that really hit me was that McGowan’s daily newsletter, “Rhode Map,” is sent to 80,000 recipients each morning, with an open rate of about 30%. By contrast, the Journal’s combined paid print and digital circulation on weekdays, according to data the paper filed with the Alliance for Audited Media, is a little under 31,000. (About 24,000 of that is print, showing that Gannett’s push on digital subscriptions has a long way to go.)
I also want to highlight the news that staff reporter Alexa Gagosz, one of our great master’s degree alums at Northeastern, is heading up expanded food and dining coverage in Rhode Island, including a weekly newsletter.
Now, to get back to possible expansion in other regions: Rhode Island was an opportunity that may not be entirely replicable elsewhere, thanks not only to the ProJo’s shrinkage but to the state’s unique identity. The state has a range of media options, including good-quality public radio, television newscasts and independent community news outlets. But the ProJo’s decline gave the Globe a chance to slide in and quickly establish itself as one of the players.
Where else does opportunity that exist? Worcester and Central Massachusetts strike me as in serious need of more journalism. The Globe memorably walked away from the region when then-new owner John Henry sold the Telegram & Gazette to a Florida-based chain after leading the staff to believe he was committed to selling to local interests. Soon enough, the T&G became part of Gannett, and it was subjected to the same devastating cuts that the chain has imposed throughout the country. The T&G carried on but is currently in flux, having lost its respected executive editor, Dave Nordman, to Northeastern, where he’s heading up the internal news operation. Could the Henrys return to Worcester? I’ve heard that might be within the range of possibilities.
But where else? New Hampshire and Maine both have good-quality independent newspapers, though New Hampshire’s two leading papers — the Union Leader and the Concord Monitor — have shrunk quite a bit. Vermont is unique, dominated by one of the most respected nonprofit news organizations in the country, VTDigger.
Then there’s the distribution model, which, if they were asking me (they’re not), is too reliant on print. Quite a bit of the Globe’s Rhode Island coverage appears in the Globe’s print edition. But rather than take on the cost of trucking more papers to Rhode Island, why not use digital to expand your reach and drive more digital subscriptions? What the Globe is doing with Rhode Island and print simply wouldn’t work if the paper established bureaus in Central Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont.
The Globe is one of the few major metropolitan dailies in the country that is growing. What it’s doing in Rhode Island is impressive, and I’d love to see it happen elsewhere.
Correction: After this item was published, I learned that the Journal’s full-time newsroom staff is actually around 30 people, supplemented by freelancers.
I’m sure I’ll be writing a lot in the weeks and months ahead about whether and how government should provide a boost to local journalism — in crisis before the COVID-19 pandemic, and now on its knees.
Recently I reviewed Victor Pickard’s new book, “Democracy without Journalism?,” which is, among other things, a call for public assistance. Pickard’s argument for fundamental media reform and increased public investment in journalism was relevant before the pandemic, and is even more so now.
Today I want to touch briefly on a back-and-forth between Politico media columnist Jack Shafer and Mike Blinder, publisher of Editor & Publisher, a leading trade magazine for the newspaper business. Shafer is against a government bailout, arguing that newspapers have been in decline for decades, and that the pandemic is merely speeding up the end game. Blinder, naturally, is for public assistance. First, a bit of Shafer:
It might make sense for the government to assist otherwise healthy companies — such as the airlines — that need a couple of months of breathing space from the viral shock to recover and are in a theoretical position to repay government loans sometime soon. But it’s quite another thing to fling a life buoy to a drowning swimmer who doesn’t have the strength to hold on. Newspapers are such a drowning industry.
Perhaps the problem with Shafer is that he still thinks a newspaper is a singular paper product as he lives in a binary world where you either work for a newspaper or a “pure play” digital product like Politico or Slate, where he previously worked. Come on, Jack, you know better. Just because news publishers proudly keep the word “paper” in their branding does not mean that the end product must be printed on pulp.
Although I disagree with some of what Shafer says, he does make one good point — that it would be outrageous to reward chain newspaper owners that have been hollowing out their coverage for years so they could squeeze out a few drops of profit for their hedge-fund owners and corporate shareholders. At the very least, I wouldn’t want to see any money go to Alden Global Capital’s MediaNews Group or to Gannett unless it is matched by investments in journalism that those companies have, up to this point, shown no inclination to make.
We should also acknowledge that indirect government funding is already propping up a lot of the local and regional news infrastructure. Nonprofit media such as public broadcasters and local digital news organizations like the New Haven Independent, Voice of San Diego, MinnPost and Texas Tribune thrive in part because of tax advantages that amount to a government subsidy. (Public broadcasters receive some direct government funding, too.) Major newspapers may take the same route in the years ahead, with The Salt Lake Tribune leading the way.
My own view is that local news organizations, including newspapers, should be eligible for government bailout money just as other businesses are. As Shafer notes, there is always the problem of journalistic independence when the government gets involved. But structures can be set up that insulate news organizations from interference.
Former NPR chief executive Vivian Schiller tells Shafer that the current governing structure for NPR has created an “untenable structure for supporting independent journalism.” But even though NPR often strikes me as overly cautious and deferential to power, it is also our leading source of free, high-quality journalism.
We need a variety of different business models for local news — for-profit, nonprofit, cooperative and even volunteer. At the moment, most local news is based on the for-profit model, and that’s what’s in danger of being destroyed by the pandemic.
Right now, newspapers — print and digital — need a bailout. We can worry about what sort of relationship the government should have with the news business once the crisis has abated.