Mary Margaret White of Mississippi Today talks with us about journalism and southern culture

Mary Margaret White

On this week’s “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with Mary Margaret White, the CEO of Mississippi Today, a nonprofit digital news outlet that has been covering the state for more than six years. The staff has a robust presence at the statehouse in Jackson and provides cultural and sports coverage as well.

Mary Margaret is a Mississippi native. She has a bachelor’s in English and journalism and a master’s in Southern studies from the University of Mississippi. She also spent almost 10 years working for the state, with jobs in arts and tourism. Her work has appeared in The Listening Post CollectiveThe New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture and on Mississippi Public Broadcasting radio.

I’ve got a Quick Take on a major transition at the New Haven Independent. Last week the indefatigable founder, Paul Bass, announced he was stepping aside as editor of the Independent. The new editor will be Tom Breen, currently the managing editor. Luckily, Bass isn’t going anywhere but will continue to play a major role.

Ellen’s Quick Take is on another big transition at The Texas Tribune. Economist Sonal Shah is becoming CEO at the Tribune in January. Shah, who has had leadership roles at Google, the White House, and other high-impact organizations, replaces co-founder Evan Smith, who is taking a role as senior adviser to the Emerson Collective. It’s a big change at a pioneering nonprofit newsroom. Smith says he’ll continue to spread the local news gospel in his new role.

You can listen to our latest podcast here and subscribe through your favorite podcast app.

Seismic change comes to the New Haven Independent as Tom Breen moves up

Tom Breen. Photo (cc) 2021 by Dan Kennedy.

There is huge news today in the world of independent community journalism. Paul Bass, the founder of the New Haven Independent, is stepping aside as editor while Tom Breen, currently the managing editor, moves up to the top position. Bass has been talking about making this change for a while, and on Tuesday he made it official.

Bass, 62, isn’t going anywhere. He’ll continue as executive director of the Online Journalism Project, the nonprofit organization he set up to oversee the Independent, the Valley Independent Sentinel in New Haven’s northwest suburbs, and WNHH Radio, a low-power FM station that specializes in community programming. He’ll also continue to report the news for the Independent and host a show on WNHH.

Paul Bass. Photo (cc) 2021 by Maaisha Osman.

Breen, 34, joined the staff of the Independent as a reporter in 2018 and later became managing editor. Breen is a dogged journalist; last November, I accompanied him as he knocked on the doors of houses that had been foreclosed on, a regular practice of his that has yielded important stories.

The Independent is one of the oldest and still among the best nonprofit local news startups in the country. It was the primary subject of my 2013 book, “The Wired City,” and it will also be featured in “What Works: The Future of Local News,” a book-in-progress by Ellen Clegg and me.

Congratulations to Paul and Tom. This is a big change for a news organization that has been remarkably stable over the course of its 17-year existence.

Eric Boehlert’s fierce media criticism will be missed

Eric Boehlert. Photo (cc) 2019 by kellywritershouse.

Some years ago Paul Bass, the founder and editor of the New Haven Independent, gave me a stack of clips to help me understand that city’s media landscape. One piece I remember especially well was a masterful, in-depth magazine feature on New Haven’s newspapers written by a young reporter named Eric Boehlert. Headlined “Nightmare in Elm City,” it was published by Inside Media in 1990.

I wish I could put my hands on that piece right now. Because earlier today I learned some terrible news: Eric had been killed by a train while riding his bicycle Tuesday night in Montclair, New Jersey, where he lived. He was just 57 years old. (Oddly enough, I was in Montclair last week on a reporting trip, although our paths did not cross.)

Eric later made his mark as a liberal media critic for Salon, Media Matters and other publications, and — during the last few years of his life — as an independent writer at Substack. He was a fierce progressive. His final post, published on Monday, took the media to task for failing to highlight the strong job growth that has taken place under President Joe Biden. He wrote:

Biden is currently on pace, during his first two full years in office, to oversee the creation of 10 million new jobs and an unemployment rate tumbling all the way down to 3 percent. That would be an unprecedented accomplishment in U.S. history. Context: In four years in office, Trump lost three million jobs, the worst record since Herbert Hoover.

Yet the press shrugs off the good news, determined to keep Biden pinned down. “The reality is that one strong jobs report does not snap the administration out of its current circumstances,” Politico stressed Friday afternoon. How about 11 straight strong job reports, would that do the trick? Because the U.S. economy under Biden has been adding more than 400,000 jobs per month for 11 straight months.

Boehlert was also an early champion of the left blogosphere, which was a significant force in Democratic circles 20 years ago and helped fuel the rise of Howard Dean in 2004. In 2009 I reviewed his book “Bloggers on the Bus” for The Guardian, calling it “a reliable, entertaining guide” to an era that’s now all but gone.

Eric’s voice was an important one, and he will be greatly missed. My condolences to his family and friends.

Babz Rawls Ivy, the radio voice of New Haven, shares her life and wisdom

Babz Rawls Ivy and Dan Kennedy outside her home in New Haven. Photo by Babz.

Babz Rawls Ivy is host and co-producer of “LoveBabz LoveTalk” on WNHH-LP radio in New Haven. But that doesn’t begin to describe her. So let’s add a few more words: Force of nature. Wise presence. Storyteller.

WNHH is a low-power FM community station launched seven years ago by the New Haven Independent, a pioneering online nonprofit news site. Paul Bass, founder and editor of the Independent, wanted to bring powerful local voices onto the airwaves. Babz Rawls Ivy brings truth-telling to a whole new level.

Rawls Ivy’s show is on the air every weekday from 9 to 11 a.m. If you’re in New Haven, you can hear it at 103.5 FM. You can also listen live on the Independent’s website and on its Facebook page, where programs are also available after the show. Past programs are also available on a number of other platforms, including Apple Podcasts. Just search for “WNHH Community Radio.”

In our Quick Takes for the week, Dan shares the latest on Gannett’s downgrading of local coverage, and Ellen asks whether retired journalists are the new seed capital for startup digital sites.

You can listen to our conversation here and subscribe through your favorite podcast app.

The latest bad idea for chain newspapers: Robot reporting on real estate

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.

New Haven through the years

The Courtyard Marriott at Yale

Over the past month I’ve been able to spend six days in New Haven, one of my favorite cities. I’ve hit the apizza places, which I’ve written about. I’ve hung out at Koffee?, a hipster coffee place that welcomes non-hipsters like me. I’ve caught up with the folks at the New Haven Independent. And two weeks ago I stayed at the Courtyard Marriott at Yale, a nice, not-too-fancy hotel where I have a history.

In April 2002, I was on the road reporting for my first book, “Little People,” a memoir about raising a daughter with dwarfism. We were in the midst of some of the hottest April days on record; as I was driving through Connecticut, NPR reported that the temperature had topped 90 degrees in Central Park. I was on my way to New Jersey to interview Anthony Soares, a little person who was the art director at a major advertising agency and the president of Hoboken’s city council.

I sat in on a city council meeting and then, the next evening, interviewed Soares over dinner. Even though it was nighttime and we were sitting outside, we were both sweltering. When we finished, I pointed my car in the direction of New Haven, where I had an interview scheduled the next morning.

Or at least I thought I had pointed my car in that direction. It wasn’t long before I got lost — and this was long before GPS. I pulled into a motel in Newark around midnight to get directions. It was instantly clear to me that I’d stumbled into a prostitution ring. But a guy with a thick Russian accent was very friendly and helpful, and soon I was back on the road. I’d made a reservation at the Courtyard Marriott, a place I knew nothing about, and arrived in the wee hours. The next morning I interviewed Martha Leo, a woman who had overcome much but who struggled with an unusual and medically complicated form of dwarfism. And then it was back to Boston.

From 2009-’12, I traveled to New Haven repeatedly as I was reporting for my second book, “The Wired City.” I stayed at the Courtyard Marriott a few times and always enjoyed it. I remember eating breakfast one spring morning and reading with pleasure about a thrashing the Red Sox had administered to the Yankees.

It’s likely to be a while before I have a reason to visit New Haven again. But I know where I’ll be staying.

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With Alden destroying the Hartford Courant, Hearst goes statewide and digital

The Connecticut Statehouse in Hartford. Photo (cc) 2009 by Dan Kennedy.

Chain ownership is almost never a good thing. But some chains are better than others — and Hearst is among the very best. No doubt its status as a privately owned company whose family is involved in management has a lot to do with that. The legendary mogul William Randolph Hearst would be proud.

Among other things, the Hearst-owned Times Union of Albany, New York, did some of the crucial early reporting about sexual assault allegations against Gov. Andrew Cuomo — accusations that have brought him to the brink of resignation or removal.

Hearst has been making some interesting moves in Connecticut for quite some time. Now, with the hedge fund Alden Global Capital tearing apart what’s left of the Hartford Courant, Hearst is positioning itself as a digital rival for statewide coverage. Rick Edmonds of Poynter reports that the company has launched a new website, CTInsider.com, that features coverage from its 160 journalists at eight dailies and 14 weeklies and websites in the state.

CTInsider.com offers a combination of free and paid content. Subscribers pay $3.99 a week after an initial discount.

The Hearst paper I’m most familiar with is the New Haven Register, a daily paper that figured heavily in my 2013 book about hyperlocal news projects, “The Wired City.” The project I was profiling, the New Haven Independent, a digital nonprofit founded in 2005, was providing deep coverage of the city, filling a gap left by the dramatic downsizing of the Register.

It was an interesting time for the Register. Under the ownership of the reviled Journal Register chain, the Register had lurched into bankruptcy. Journal Register then morphed into Digital First Media, headed by a visionary chief executive named John Paton who, about a dozen years ago, provided a jolt of optimism. Soon, though, Alden moved in, merging Digital First with its Denver-based chain, MediaNews Group, and, well, you know the rest. But then Hearst bought the New Haven Register a few years ago, and the paper has since undergone something of a revival.

The Hartford Courant had thrived for many decades as Connecticut’s sole statewide paper. But under Tribune Publishing’s chaotic ownership, it had been shrinking for many years. During the years that I was reporting “The Wired City,” a pair of vibrant websites devoted to covering state politics and policy had popped up — the for-profit CTNewsJunkie.com and the nonprofit Connecticut Mirror, both of which are still going strong.

Things went from bad to worse at the Courant earlier this year when Alden added Tribune to its holdings despite efforts by the staff to find a local buyer.

It’s great to see Hearst now upping its game in Connecticut as well.

Bringing a new Light to the undercovered community of New Bedford

Palmer’s Island Lighthouse in New Bedford Harbor. Photo (cc) 2010 by the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism.

The New Bedford Light, a nonprofit news project launched recently, could lay claim to being the most highly touted community journalism organization in quite some time. Today, The New York Times weighs in. Previously, The Boston Globe and CommonWealth Magazine ran profiles.

As the Times’ Katharine Q. Seelye notes, the Light’s model is to run one significant story a day in the hopes of filling the gap created by the implosion of The Standard-Times, a venerable New Bedford daily that has been ripped apart under the ownership of the Gannett chain.

“We cannot go down the route of the daily newspaper that tries to do all things for all people,” the editor, Barbara Roessner, told Seelye. “The challenge for us is to stay disciplined to do the deeper work and not be caught up in the daily news cycle.”

I’m not so sure about that. As I’ve written previously, what the city might need more than anything is daily accountability journalism. It can be done effectively with a small staff, as the New Haven Independent, to name one example, has been demonstrating for nearly 16 years.

Still, the Light is attractive and has published some significant stories since its debut. Leading the site right now is a story by Will Sennott on the city’s looming eviction crisis. Other recent stories include a look at the effects of rising real-estate prices and racial and ethnic patterns of where COVID-19 hit the New Bedford area the hardest.

The leadership of the Light is unusually high-powered. Roessner is a former managing editor of the Hartford Courant and former executive editor of the Hearst Connecticut Media Group. The publisher is Stephen Taylor, a former top executive of The Boston Globe as well as a member of the family that used to own the Globe. Walter Robinson of “Spotlight” fame is a board member.

It looks like the Light should go a long way toward changing New Bedford’s status as an undercovered community.

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News organizations continue to grapple with the trolls under the bridge

Anika Gupta. Photo via LinkedIn.

Can comments on news platforms be salvaged? Hailed two decades ago as a forum for empowering what Dan Gillmor and Jay Rosen called “the former audience,” they have in all too many cases devolved into an open sewer of lies, hate and racism. Remember the adage that “our audience knows more than we do”? Well, there may be something to that. But it turns out that scrolling through the comments is not the way to tap into that wisdom.

The Philadelphia Inquirer this week became the latest news organization to drop most of its comments. Closer to home, when my other employer, GBH News, ended comments a few years ago in the course of upgrading its content-management system, I didn’t hear about a single complaint.

On Thursday, Anika Gupta, the author of “How to Handle a Crowd: The Art of Creating Healthy and Dynamic Online Communities” (2020), offered some common-sense ideas that were aimed not only at news sites but also at the larger challenge of how to keep virtual discussions from spinning out of control.

In a talk via Zoom sponsored by Northeastern University’s School of Journalism, Gupta discussed her study of Make America Dinner Again, started in 2016 by two women in the San Francisco Bay Area, Tria Chang and Justine Lee, to bring people with differing political perpectives together over food and conversation. It took off, and Facebook approached Chang and Lee with the idea of making it a Facebook group as well.

To the extent that it’s worked, Gupta said, it’s because the group has grown slowly (to date, there are still fewer than 1,000 members), with lots of personal intervention. Some of the steps they’ve taken include staying away from hot-button topics such as whether abortion should be legal or if teachers should have guns. Instead, they aim for “detailed, specific, ‘sideways’ questions,” as Gupta put it in her presentation. For instance, rather than asking about abortion rights, members were asked a lengthy question about how religious people justify a particular biblical quote.

They also implemented a “one-hour rule” that limits members to posting only one comment per thread per hour, which tends to keep the temperature down.

Some of the challenges they’ve faced, Gupta said, involve questions about what to do regarding members with false or offensive views. Their decision was to take aggressive action in such cases and encourage people to leave — a different approach compared to the one generally taken by the news business.

“A lot of news organizations are uncomfortable with this ‘if you don’t like it, you can leave’ attitude,” Gupta said.

I had a chance to ask Gupta about two issues that have bedeviled news organizations: Would requiring real names make a difference? And should comments be screened before they’re posted? Gupta’s take was that real names don’t matter all that much. Even in community online forums with real-names policies, she said, “you will be shocked about what people say about their neighbors.” (Actually, no, I wouldn’t.)

Moreover, insisting on real names can drive away people afraid of being harassed. That’s especially true with women, who, studies and anecdotal evidence show, are disproportionately singled out for online abuse.

Pre-screening, she added, is a problem because it is so labor-intensive, and it may not be realistic for larger media outlets. She also said pre-screening turns comments into something like letters to the editor, since commenters know their views are going to be read by someone at the news organization.

Although it can be difficult to find a news site that has healthy, productive comments, there are a few. One is the New Haven Independent, a nonprofit I wrote about in my 2013 book, “The Wired City.”

The Independent doesn’t require real names, but it does have a number of commenters who’ve used consistent pseudonyms over time, which Gupta said is helpful in maintaining civility. The site also screens every comment before it’s posted. The editor and founder, Paul Bass, believes that leads to more and higher-quality comments, since people who want to be constructive aren’t scared off.

Still, the Independent has had its glitches. As I wrote for the Nieman Journalism Lab a number of years ago, at one point an outbreak of sociopathy led Bass to shut down the comments temporarily. When they relaunched, commenters were required to register under their real names, though they could still post pseudonymously. That action put them on notice that they could be sued — Section 230, much discussed of late, protects the Independent, not the individuals who comment on the site.

Bass continues to see value in comments, writing in a public thread on Facebook this week:

Screening is essential. We screw up sometimes, and sometimes it gets toxic. But overall almost everyone involved with our site (readers, reporters, etc.) agrees that comments section is the best part. Lively, very wide range of points of view and racial/economic backgrounds; and some people who really know a lot more than we do! But occasionally it does feel like a sewer. I do feel comfortable zapping comments and banning people. Without our comments section, we would be more removed from readers, especially those who disagree with us. I learn so much from commenters!

I do wonder, though, if the Independent’s 2005 founding has something to do with Bass’ success with comments. Facebook was barely a thing at that time, and digital culture hadn’t become as toxic as it is today. By establishing expectations right from the start, Bass has been able to maintain a relatively civil environment for more than 15 years.

And I agree with Bass that screening — by humans — is essential. Anika Gupta said Thursday that screening by artificial intelligence isn’t going to be effective anytime soon, despite the efforts of Google to develop a system that would do just that.

At the local level, in particular, maintaining a useful comments platform is essential to keeping the audience engaged. Letting the trolls invade and taking action only after the damage has been done is exactly the wrong approach.

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In Vermont, the rise of an alternative media ecosystem

The Church Street Marketplace in Burlington, Vermont. Photo via Pixabay.

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The Boston Globe’s Mark Shanahan today takes a look at two independent Vermont news organizations that have expanded to fill the gap created by the hollowing out of Gannett’s daily Burlington Free Press. (I’m quoted.)

It’s a topic of particular interest to me because I included a section on the media ecosystem in and around Burlington in my 2018 book, “The Return of the Moguls.” Though most of the book is about the rise of a new class of wealthy newspaper owners, I thought what was happening in Vermont was worth including.

Shanahan writes about the for-profit alt-weekly Seven Days and the investigative nonprofit VT Digger, both of which are doing great work. To those I would add a third — Vermont Public Radio, which has expanded its local coverage in recent years.

During my reporting trip to Vermont in late 2015, I got to meet the folks in charge of Seven Days and VT Digger, and connected with a former student who was then working for VPR. I also visited the Free Press newsroom. The impression I came away with was that the Free Press was trying to manage decline, whereas the alternatives were mission-driven and growing.

It’s phenomenon I’ve seen before, and it’s why I’m guardedly optimistic about the future of local news. My 2013 book, “The Wired City,” is primarily about the nonprofit New Haven Independent. Launched in 2005 and still going strong, the Independent provides paper-of-record coverage of New Haven in the shadow of the New Haven Register, the corporate-owned daily. (Now owned by Hearst, which has done a better job with its papers than most chains.)

Along with my research partner, retired Boston Globe editorial-page editor Ellen Clegg, I’m currently working on a book that will tell stories from across the country about entrepreneurial journalists who are rising up to compete with failing legacy newspapers. Our work was disrupted by the COVID pandemic, but we plan to get back to it later this spring.

As I have argued for years, the greed of corporate chain ownership is at least as damaging to the health of local journalism as the technology-driven decline of advertising.