Public access cable and local news: an alliance whose time may have come

Photo (cc) 2015 by Ed Yourdon

Could public access cable TV help solve the local news crisis? It’s a question that we put to Chris Lovett on this week’s “What Works” podcast. Lovett recently retired as the longtime anchor of Boston’s “Neighborhood Network News,” a first-rate daily newscast he produced along with journalism students from Boston University.

Lovett was skeptical. Funding for public access has been drying up in recent years as increasing numbers of viewers cut the cable cord and watch video exclusively on the internet. Donald Trump’s FCC took steps to reduce the amount of money public access received as well. And as Lovett observed, public access lacks the political support that it once had when, for example, the late Boston Mayor Tom Menino saw it as a way to reach his constituents. By contrast, incoming Mayor Michelle Wu is a master of social media, where she can control her own message.

Now Antoine Haywood and Victor Pickard have weighed in with some ideas, published at Nieman Lab, built around the possibility of mobilizing the country’s 1,600 public access operations. They write:

Instead of letting PEG [public, educational and governmental] channels wither due to commercial market fluctuations, we should publicly fund and expand the precious communication infrastructure that access media offers. A national fund that distributes local journalism grants, based on demonstrated community need, could benefit public access media centers interested in building collaborative, solutions-oriented types of journalism programs. Modest grants in the range of $100,000 to $300,000 would enable small operations to hire editorial staff, train and compensate community reporters, and forge collaborative partnerships with other news organizations.

It’s an interesting idea. Traditionally, with a few notable exceptions like “NNN,” public access has seen its mission mainly as a platform for training members of the community, carrying such events as governmental meetings and school plays, and providing a forum for someone who might want to host their own talk show. What public access has not done is provide reported, vetted journalism.

But maybe that can change. With community newspapers under siege, public access might prove to be a worthwhile alternative.

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In our latest podcast, Chris Lovett talks about his career as a hyperlocal TV journalist

Chris Lovett

In our latest “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I speak with Chris Lovett, the just-retired anchor of Boston’s Neighborhood Network News. Topics we discuss include highlights from Lovett’s long career and his views on whether local access cable could help solve the community journalism crisis.

A Dorchester native, he’s interviewed local activists, politicos (including Tom Menino when he was a district city councilor) and neighborhood stalwarts. Lovett had a front-row seat as the changing media landscape shaped Boston, and he connects the dots between Menino’s early days as a frequent broadcast guest and Michelle Wu’s strategic use of social media. He has also shared his expertise with any number of Boston University students. And he’s not done with journalism yet, so stay tuned.

We also kick around the latest on the Local Journalism Sustainability Act and the NewsMatch program, introduced by the Institute for Nonprofit News, which matches donations to nonprofit news organizations and has proved to be an important source of revenue.

Please give us a listen — and subscribe via Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever fine podcasts are found.

Assessing Haverhill’s media (III): Public access

Darlene Beal, executive director of Haverhill Community Television
Darlene Beal, executive director of Haverhill Community Television

Later this year the Banyan Project is scheduled to roll out its first cooperatively owned news site in the city of Haverhill, to be called Haverhill Matters. Banyan founder Tom Stites’ vision is to serve what he calls “news deserts” — low- and moderate-income communities, mainly urban, that are underserved by traditional media. What follows is the third of several blog posts in which I will attempt to assess the media landscape in Haverhill as it exists today.

“Eyes Wide Open” may be a travelogue, but it’s not the sort of spritely fare you’re likely to see on the Travel Channel. There are no sun-dappled beaches or cocktail-fueled soirées. Rather, it’s a film with a civic purpose — to get Haverhill residents to take a close look at their downtown and the waterfront along the Merrimack River.

“As we look at each one of these slides, we want you to think about three very simple concepts,” says Haverhill architect Celeste Hynick at the beginning of the film. “What are the positive features? What needs to be improved? And what opportunities exist?” For the next 20 minutes, she and designer Mike Valvo consider the good, the bad and the ugly as picture after picture scrolls by.

The film recapitulates a presentation made last year to a city planning committee appointed by Mayor James Fiorentini. And it is the type of program that helps define Haverhill Community Television (HCTV), which cablecast the film earlier this summer and now hosts it on its YouTube channel.

“Our mission is to empower the community to make television programs,” said HCTV executive director Darlene Beal when I interviewed her last week. “To tell their story to the community. In that sense, we feel like we mirror the community.”

Beal and I met in a conference room at her station’s headquarters, a large converted auto-repair shop in a residential neighborhood just north of the downtown. A 51-year-old Haverhill native and Boston University graduate, Beal has worked as HCTV’s executive director for most of her career. The operation is currently marking its 25th year as an independent nonprofit organization following several years as an appendage of the local cable company.

Haverhill, of course, is not unusual in having a community television station. Virtually every city or town has one, funded by law with a share of the license fees paid by the local cable franchise-holder. Here, for instance, is a list of such operations in Massachusetts.

Why bigger is better

But because franchise-holders generally pay fees on a per-household basis, larger cities and towns tend to have superior community stations. Boston, Cambridge and Somerville, for instance, all offer quite a bit in terms of both quality and quantity. Likewise Haverhill, with a population of about 60,000, including 24,000 households that subscribe to cable, is able to do more than many smaller communities.

HCTV has an annual budget of $750,000 to $800,000, Beal told me, and employs seven people, four of them full-time. There are about 600 members, she said, with about 20 percent to 25 percent involved in some aspect of production. Its Facebook page has attracted 468 “likes” as of this writing.

HCTV operates three channels — an educational channel, with a studio at Haverhill High School; a governmental channel, with equipment at City Hall to carry city council meetings and the like; and a public access channel, with two studios and a classroom based at HCTV’s headquarters. The educational and public access channels are live-streamed on HCTV’s website, which also archives many but not all past programs.

Beal has no way of knowing how many people watch HCTV on television. But according to Google Analytics data Beal shared with me, the website received 127 visits during the last week of July, with 104 coming from Massachusetts — presumably most from Haverhill. The public access channel carries programming from about 6 to 10 p.m. each weekday, and is repeated so that it’s on for 16 to 20 hours a day. Weekends are devoted to programming provided by local religious institutions.

As is the case with public access operations in general, HCTV does not produce its own programming. Rather, it helps volunteers by offering training and loaning them equipment, then cablecasting the finished product. Public access programs in Haverhill include politically oriented talk shows; “Keeping the Peace,” produced by the Haverhill Community Violence Prevention Coalition; “I Get Around,” which highlights community events and organizations; “Law to Talk About,” a legal show; health, and the arts. During election season, the channel runs lengthy sit-down interviews with local candidates.

What you won’t see on HCTV is a newscast. That’s fairly typical. Although Boston viewers can watch “Neighborhood Network News” every evening, most public access systems, oriented as they are toward DIY media, simply don’t have the capacity for such an undertaking. (In 2007 I wrote about “Neighborhood Network News” for CommonWealth Magazine.)

Beal said she would like to see HCTV offer a newscast, but added that past efforts have been spotty because of the limited time volunteers have and their lack of training in newsgathering. If she were to head down that road again, she said she’d need money to hire someone to offer instruction in the basics of journalism.

Beal added that, in her view, the Haverhill edition of the local daily newspaper, The Eagle-Tribune, and The Haverhill Gazette, a weekly, fail to cover the city in the depth that it deserves, creating a “void.” (I wrote about the two papers in the first part of this series. The papers are owned by a chain, CNHI, based in Montgomery, Ala. Al White, the editor of The Eagle-Tribune and the Gazette, recently declined my request for an interview.)

“I do think they’re missing out on a lot, for whatever reason,” Beal said. “Maybe they don’t have the capacity because of the cutbacks. I don’t want to criticize the local papers, but there’s more news out there than they’re able to get into the paper.”

HCTV and Haverhill Matters

Like Tim Coco, the founder of the city’s online-mostly radio station, WHAV, whom I profiled in the second part of this series, Beal is a member of the planning committee for Haverhill Matters, a cooperatively owned news site that is scheduled to be launched by the end of 2013 under the auspices of the Banyan Project.

Haverhill Matters, envisioned as an online news organization combining paid and volunteer journalism, would be an additional outlet for the video journalism produced by HCTV members, Beal said — and is ideal for, say, a four- to six-minute story that doesn’t fit into any of the station’s regular programming, which tends to run in half-hour increments.

Beal would like to see the HCTV and Haverhill Matters websites tied together in some way. She also sees Haverhill Matters as an additional outlet for news about HCTV, such as awards it has won from the Alliance for Community Media for public service announcements about violence prevention.

Her overarching theme, though, was what might be described as the need for more well-rounded coverage of the community — something beyond the breaking-news coverage of police activity and fires that she sees as being typical of what the local papers offer.

“I would like to see Haverhill Matters covering more of the schools,” she said. “The ins and outs of the community. The vibrancy of the community. It’s not so much what I want to see covered — it’s probably the tone of which I’d like to see it covered.”

We also talked about the length of time it’s taken for Haverhill Matters to get off the ground. When I first started writing about the project, it was scheduled to launch in 2012, but that date got delayed for a variety of reasons. Recently Mike LaBonte, co-chair of the planning committee, told me by email that he was reasonably confident that the launch would take place before the end of 2013 — but maybe not much before. For Beal, that moment can’t come too soon.

“For Haverhill Matters to succeed,” Beal said, “I think we’re at the point that we have to splash into the community. We have to get people talking about what they’re missing, or else they don’t know what they’re missing. It’s time to either do it or don’t do it.”

Photo (cc) by Dan Kennedy.