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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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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.
Philadelphia and its environs are emblematic of what’s gone wrong with local news. The area is served by a well-regarded metropolitan newspaper, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and a powerhouse public radio station, WHYY, as well as various television newscasts. But the focus of those outlets is regional, not local. At the grassroots neighborhood and community levels where people actually live, journalism is scarce and looked upon with suspicion.
Rebuilding local news in places like the Philadelphia area is the subject of Andrea Wenzel’s Community-Centered Journalism: Engaging People, Exploring Solutions, and Building Trust.
Already under pressure from changes in technology and the decline of advertising, alternative weeklies and small dailies are teetering on the brink. Reporters have been laid off. Print editions have been suspended or cut back. Donations are being sought. And journalists everywhere are wondering if they have a future.
For the past 15 years or so, local, digital-only start-ups have stood out as a countervailing trend compared to the overall decline of the newspaper business. Though small in both number and scope, these entrepreneurial news organizations, both for-profit and nonprofit, have provided coverage that their communities would otherwise lack. Yet they, too, have been battered by the novel coronavirus.
“They’re stretching their journalistic capacity,” said Chris Krewson, executive director of the 200-member LION (Local Independent Online News) Publishers, at a virtual conference last week sponsored by Northeastern University’s School of Journalism, where I’m a faculty member. “Everyone’s seeing incredible jumps in traffic and audience and [newsletter] open rates and things like that. And the volume of stories has never been higher.
“At the same time,” he added, “the sorts of things that everyone has built their business around, certainly since 2010, are a challenge. You have a business built around where to go and what to do, and there’s nowhere to go and nothing to do. So you’re looking at the first waves of cancellations from advertisers.”
Over the weekend, I emailed a number of editors and publishers at free, digital-only news outlets to see how they were faring. Though they all said they are pushing ahead, they added that the economic and logistical challenges of covering the COVID-19 story have proved daunting. (Please click here for a complete transcript of our conversation.)
At least for the moment, the nonprofits have an advantage, since their funding — from grants, foundations and donations — tends to be in place months in advance.
“We operate on a tight budget, and are always scrambling for money for our long-term sustainability,” says Paul Bass, who runs the nonprofit New Haven Independent and WNHH Community Radio. “But we seek to set our budget each year at a level that can be supported by current deposits and a few multi-year commitments by our deepest-pocket long-term supporters, so that people know 12 months at a time that they have a job and the lights stay on.”
Dylan Smith, publisher of the nonprofit Tucson Sentinel in Arizona, worries about the long-term effect on his site — but adds that, for now, the reaction has been positive.
“We’ve been sent quite a number of three-figure donations out of the blue, and seen a substantial uptick in people signing up to contribute monthly,” he says. “That community support has really been heartening. Not only will it help keep the lights on, but the kind words and cold hard cash we’ve gotten let us know we’re doing something meaningful to help.”
By contrast, The Batavian, a for-profit site that serves Genesee County in western New York, is scrambling, according to publisher Howard Owens. “Two top-tier advertisers have dropped,” he says. “Our revenue is 95% advertising. I expect we’ll take a big hit before this is over.” He adds: “I’m more worried about my business’ ability to survive than I am worried about my own health. We have a PressPatron button on our site if anybody wishes to make a contribution.”
In at least one instance, the crisis has forced a publisher to postpone collecting any money at all. Jennifer Lord Paluzzi, a veteran journalist who recently launched her second start-up, Grafton Common, in the Worcester area, was hoping to ask for donations, but has decided to wait until the pandemic subsides.
“I was about to put a tip jar on my site that people could just put money in and help fund it,” she said at the Northeastern event. “But with everything that’s going on right now, with businesses closing, I’m like, OK, we’re going to skip the tip jar and entertain everybody.”
The need for social distancing may prove challenging to The Mendocino Voice, a for-profit site in California that is in the process of shifting to an employee- and member-owned co-op. The founders, publisher Kate Maxwell and managing editor Adrian Fernandez Baumann, had envisioned a series of meetings across Mendocino County to whip up enthusiasm and to refine the details of what the co-op would look like. But now they have to figure out other ways to do that.
“The challenge is how to work with the funders and re-create our plan for a series of community forums and member meetings virtually,” Maxwell says. “However, we cover a large area and are always looking for ways to better reach remote readers, so in the end this shift could be very valuable to refining the tools we use to engage with our readers and strengthen our membership campaign.”
Despite such difficulties, the journalists I reached all expressed enthusiasm for covering what may prove to be the biggest story of our lifetime.
“As an organization that focuses a lot of our effort on covering state and local government, it’s a massive story for us,” says Andrew Putz, editor of the Minneapolis-based nonprofit MinnPost. “I just looked, and we did 34 stories in the last week tied in some way to Minnesota’s response to the pandemic. So to answer your question more directly: We’re throwing everything we have at it.”
Adds Smith: “We’re working our asses off. I think I had 14 or 15 bylines in one day last week. And that’s not counting multiple updates to some stories.”
Although most of these small news organizations have offices, working at home is nothing new. Both Putz and Smith say they’ve been communicating with reporters via Slack. “We’ve been working remotely for a decade already,” says Smith. “I have a couple of reporters I haven’t even seen face-to-face yet in 2020.”
And all agree that health and safety come first. “If they feel like they must attend a meeting/press conference/interview,” says Putz of his reporters, “we’ve asked them to exercise their judgment — and to make sure they know that there’s no story that’s worth them jeopardizing their health.”
For the time being, Owens has abandoned his office in downtown Batavia. He says he and his wife, Billie Owens, the site’s editor, have an agreement that neither can leave the house without the other’s permission. Their one staff member as well as freelancers are all working from home.
“It’s not just about keeping them/us safe,” he says. “It’s about flattening the curve. We need to give our government, health-care systems and private sector time to build capacity to deal with a pandemic that will last for a year or two.”
The exception is Bass, who has not yet stopped his reporters (except for one in his 70s) from covering stories in person. He says his journalists have been instructed to stay six feet away from people they’re interviewing and photographing, and he will continue to reassess.
“My guess is, especially as government meetings shift online, we will be doing fewer in-person interviews,” Bass says. “Also, math suggests that some of us will get sick, which will certainly diminish our reporting capacity. But for now it’s full steam ahead, with fingers crossed. We love our community and feel we have an important role in strengthening it.”
The COVID-19 pandemic presents a particularly difficult challenge for publishers of community online-only news sites, whether they are for-profit or nonprofit. Over the weekend I emailed editors and publishers of several such news organizations to see how they are getting along. Below are their lightly edited answers in full.
Q: How are you dealing with the challenge of covering the COVID-19 pandemic in your community?
Paul Bass, who runs the New Haven Independent and WNHH Community Radio, which are both nonprofit organizations: We’re working like maniacs. We feel this is the time when the work we do — informing as well as stitching together community — is more important than ever.
Kate Maxwell, publisher of The Mendocino Voice, a for-profit that is moving toward a cooperative ownership model: We are covering it in all the ways we can come up with! We do have experience with prolonged breaking emergency coverage through wildfires and power shutdowns, unfortunately. We created a central landing page and are using multiple social media platforms to reach people, including livestreaming press conferences, interviews with public health officials and medical experts, and live tours of preparedness at medical facilities.
We’re writing multiple daily updates, creating several guides to information and resources, increasing our newsletter, live-tweeting important forums, increasing our Spanish translations and Spanish language interviews, and regularly surveying our readers, as well as taking live questions during events and interviews. We’re being careful to make our updates clearly dated, sharing information about state and federal changes, and keeping coverage in digestible and clear formats. We’ve gotten some great ideas from other LION publishers as well.
We are hiring formerly underemployed but experienced local freelance reporters to expand our coverage.We are working quickly to hire even more reporters and implement ideas we had considered previously and in other sustained emergencies, such as text services. We are reaching out to public officials, business leaders and community groups to discuss how to best fact-check evolving information moving forward. We are also talking with everyone about how we can best support our community to provide a service that also lessens the blow of economic impacts of this pandemic, which will be hard on our already struggling local economy and health-care system. This includes considering what might happen in the case of multiple emergencies as we approach “wildfire season.”
Howard Owens, publisher of The Batavian, a for-profit in Genesee County, New York: Early on, even before orders were issued, I recognized that I probably wouldn’t be going out of the house much to cover things. I had never done livestreaming before. I had never done a video interview and recorded it or livestreamed it. So I quickly figured out how to do all of that, and we did our first livestream interview on March 15. We’ve done 15 or so since.Continue reading “Local online news publishers and editors speak out about the COVID-19 crisis”→
Note: Now updated with email from Mike DeLuca, president and publisher of Hearst Connecticut Media Group.
Holy cow. Matt DeRienzo is out as chief news executive for Hearst’s Connecticut newspapers, anchored by the New Haven Register. I hear he’ll be replaced by Canadian journalist Wendy Metcalfe.
I first met DeRienzo in 2011 when I was wrapping up my book on the nonprofit New Haven Independent, “The Wired City,” and he had just been named editor of the Register. At the time, DeRienzo was a rising star within the forward-thinking Digital First chain being built by John Paton. After Digital First became part of the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, everything went south, and DeRienzo eventually quit in protest.
At Hearst, DeRienzo championed the case of Tara O’Neill, a Hearst reporter who was arrested and handcuffed while covering a Black Lives Matter protest in Bridgeport. O’Neill’s case was the subject of a WGBH News New England Muzzle Award earlier this year.
What follows is an internal email sent to the staff from Mike DeLuca, president and publisher of the Hearst Connecticut Media Group, which I obtained a short time ago.
Coming up on five months leading HCMG [Hearst Connecticut Media Group], I have been impressed with much of what has been done and the strides we have made across the organization. There is no doubt, we are the best equipped media company in all of Connecticut to provide high-quality news and information that matters to our customers.
In an era when our industry is facing significant headwinds, I take great comfort in being a part of Hearst, whose commitment to journalism is unsurpassed and unwavering.
While much of what is happening everyday here should be applauded, it is my job to ensure we have the right vision and leadership to continuously improve.
After thoughtful consideration, it is my pleasure to welcome Wendy Metcalfe as our new Vice President of Content and Editor in Chief. Wendy will be charged with the responsibility of upgrading the quality of our enterprise reporting across all of our newsrooms while working with our consumer marketing teams to deepen the engagement we have with our readers. Wendy comes to us from the Brunswick News Inc. where she oversaw Editorial, Marketing, Circulation and Customer Services. Under her leadership, Wendy’s teams have been recognized nationally for some of the most important enterprise news reporting that has had a direct impact on the quality of life in the communities served. Most notably, the Telegraph-Journal received the 2018 Michener Award which is the highest honor in Canadian journalism and often called the Canadian Pulitzer Prize, with only one awarded across Canada each year.
Additionally, Wendy has extensive experience in executive positions at national, regional and local media companies. Key roles include Assistant Managing Editor at Canada’s biggest newspaper — the Toronto Star, Editor-in-Chief of the Toronto Sun, Regional Content Director for 19 Sun Media publications and a lead role at the Daily Record — one of the U.K.’s largest dailies.
She was also recently named one of the top 10 leading women to watch in media across North America by Editor & Publisher.
Wendy will arrive to CT with her husband and two children in mid-November and I am thrilled to welcome her.
In a related move, Matt DeRienzo will be leaving HCMG to pursue other opportunities and I thank him for his contributions and wish him the best.
We will be meeting with the various newsroom teams throughout the rest of today and tomorrow to communicate interim reporting structures.
Thank you all for everything you are doing and I am looking forward to speaking with you over the next few days.
HEARST | President & Publisher, Hearst CT Media Group | CEO, LocalEdge
A bill filed by U.S. Rep. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Calif., would make it easier for “written news organizations” to claim nonprofit status, “allowing them to focus on content instead of profit margins and reduce their tax burden.”
The bill, H.R. 3126, has been endorsed by the News Media Alliance, the National Newspaper Association, the American Society of News Editors, the Associated Press Media Editors, the Association of Alternative Newsmedia, the California News Publishers Association, Free Press Action and the Open Markets Institute.
Nonprofit news is nothing new — organizations ranging from public media to hyperlocal community websites have nonprofit status. Donors are able to write off contributions, and the news organizations themselves are exempt from most taxes.
But it’s not easy. Back in 2013, I wrote that the IRS had virtually stopped granting 501(c)(3) nonprofit status to startup news organizations as it wrestled with the question of whether journalism was among the educational activities envisioned under the tax code.
Though it’s my understanding that the agency has loosened up since then, questions remain. For instance, The Salt Lake Tribune recently announced that it would seek nonprofit status, which would make it the first regional newspaper to do so. Writing at the Nieman Lab, though, Christine Schmidt and Joshua Benton wondered whether the Tribune would run into trouble for its coverage of professional sports and the restaurant scene, which would appear to fall outside the IRS guidelines.
On the other hand, Paul Bass, the founder of the New Haven Independent, a 13-year-old nonprofit news project, told me recently that the only guidance he ever received was that the Independent could not endorse political candidates or lobby the government.
Presumably DeSaulnier’s bill will help clear up those issues. And a personal note: I played a very small role in crafting the legislation. DeSaulnier and I discussed his ideas last fall, and I suggested to his office — unsuccessfully — that the bill not be restricted to “written” forms of journalism.
The legislation is one of two stories in the news right now about the future of local journalism. The other is a proposal by the newspaper industry to suspend antitrust laws so that they may negotiate collectively with social media platforms in an attempt to obtain payment for the use of their content.
The News Media Alliance, the newspaper business’ principal lobbying group, released a study this week claiming that Google and Facebook made $4.7 billion in 2018 through its uncompensated use of material that originally was published on newspaper websites.
You can read the full text of Rep. DeSaulnier’s bill to encourage nonprofit journalism by clicking here. The text of his office’s press release is below.
June 6, 2019 | Press Release
Washington, DC – Today, Congressman Mark DeSaulnier (CA-11) announced the introduction of the Saving Local News Act (H.R. 3126), a bill to recognize newspapers as a public good and make it easier for written news organizations to become non-profits – allowing them to focus on content instead of profit margins and reduce their tax burden. The bill is supported by the News Media Alliance, the National Newspaper Association, the American Society of News Editors, the Associated Press Media Editors, the Association of Alternative Newsmedia, the California News Publishers Association, Free Press Action, and the Open Markets Institute.
“Local journalism has been a bedrock of American society for over 200 years. I remember when dedicated reporters sat in the front row of city council meetings to keep communities informed and to increase accountability. Today many local newspapers are dying out – penny pinching until they close or are bought up and sold off piecemeal by hedge funds. This bill would allow papers to renew their focus on quality content and flourish unencumbered by ever-increasing demands for greater profits,” said Congressman DeSaulnier.
“We commend Congressman DeSaulnier for introducing this important piece of legislation that recognizes the importance of nonprofit journalism to the American society. At a time when news deserts are a growing concern, we must ensure that we support all newsrooms in their efforts to provide high-quality journalism to their local communities. This journalism bill that would allow non-profit newsrooms to treat advertising revenue as nontaxable income could be helpful to a number of publishers,” said David Chavern, President and CEO, News Media Alliance.
“News organizations today must explore a wide array of avenues for sustainability, one of them being non-profit status. But the federal law lays many trip wires along this path, including the way advertising is taxed. The non-profit route could be attractive for some newspapers if and only if Congress recognizes that even a non-profit newspaper still needs good revenue sources. This proposal by Congressman DeSaulnier will open up new possibilities for sustaining quality journalism in American communities. We appreciate the concept and, even more, we welcome the interest from an important member of Congress in helping newspapers that are at risk to survive,” said Andrew Johnson, President, National Newspaper Association.
“This legislation carries the promise of helping news outlets large and small, in big cities and small towns, throughout the country. It will allow for innovation into new models of journalism and carries significant potential to address the growing problem of ‘news deserts’ around the country where the for-profit model is not sustainable,” said Angie Muhs, President, Associated Press Media Editors.
“The nonprofit model of journalism may well be one viable future of journalism, at least where smaller publications are involved. This is a constant topic of discussion among our membership which is why our organization welcomes this legislation as a means of increasing the likelihood that those who choose can convert themselves to non-profit status, while maintaining a strong journalistic enterprise,” said Molly Willmott, President, Association of Alternative Newsmedia.
“At a time when editors around the country continue to see newsrooms shrink in the face of financial constraints, we welcome every avenue to greater revenue. This legislation offers significant assistance that will allow news organizations to survive without constraining their actual journalism in any way,” said Nancy Barnes, President, American Society of News Editors.
“Community newspapers are woven into the fabric of American society and provide accurate and trusted information that improves the lives of individuals in the communities they serve. It is no secret that newspapers face an increasing number of existential threats from online competitors which have left them with a decreasing number of revenue opportunities. This measure would provide news organizations with the means to better rise to these challenges and continue to play a vital role in their communities by holding the feet of the powerful to the fire and giving voice to the powerless,” said Jim Ewert, General Counsel, California News Publishers Association.
Since 2017, estimated daily newspaper circulation fell 11 percent from the previous year (Pew Research Center). Congressman DeSaulnier recently established a working group of dedicated Members of Congress from areas affected by a drought of high-quality journalism. Together they have been working to highlight this crisis and bring attention to the need to promote local journalism, including by holding a Special Order on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives and introducing the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act (H.R. 2054), a bill to create a temporary safe harbor from anti-trust laws to allow news organizations to join together to negotiate with dominant online platforms to get a fair share of advertising profits.
It’s a basic tenet of press freedom: news organizations may publish public documents they lawfully obtained even if they got those documents by mistake. And so editors at the Los Angeles Times thought they were on solid ground last week when they reported the details of a plea agreement reached between a corrupt police officer and a federal judge — even though the Times obtained that information because the government had accidentally uploaded the plea agreement to a public database.
Judge John Walter ordered the Times to remove parts of the article after a lawyer for the police officer, a narcotics detective named John Saro Balian, argued that his client’s life would be in danger. The Times complied, though its new celebrity editor, Norman Pearlstine, has vowed to fight. “There is sort of a constant effort to nibble away at the First Amendment,” Pearlstine told The New York Times, “and I think there is an obligation to respond to that and push back. Once it’s out in the public record, it is our decision to decide whether it is newsworthy and we should publish.”
Pearlstine was recently hired by the Times’ new billionaire owner, the surgeon Patrick Soon-Shiong, in the hopes of leading the paper back to greatness following years of budget cuts and chaotic ownership. Though highly regarded, Pearlstine some years ago found himself on the wrong side of a major First Amendment case. As editor-in-chief of Time Inc., Pearlstine turned over reporter Matthew Cooper’s notes in the Valerie Plame investigation, thus complying with a court order. (No, I am not going to rehash that morass of a story. If you want to know more, click here.) Pearlstine said he acted because Cooper’s source, George W. Bush chief operative Karl Rove, wasn’t truly confidential and because Time Inc. had already lost its legal appeal.
“Although we were ready to spend millions of dollars on litigation, I had to ask whether this strange case was the one on which we wanted to draw the line by ignoring a contempt order,” Pearlstine wrote in his 2007 memoir, “Off the Record,” quoted by Douglas McCollum in the Columbia Journalism Review.
This time, Pearlstine is on the side of the First Amendment angels. Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, put it this way in a statement: “It is plainly unconstitutional for a court to order a news outlet to remove public information from an article it has published. It does not matter whether the information was placed in a court file by mistake.”
Judge Walter’s temporary restraining order is under appeal. The standard for such issues was defined in 1979 by Chief Justice Warren Burger, who wrote in the 1979 case of Smith v. Daily Mail Publishing Co. that “if a newspaper lawfully obtains truthful information about a matter of public significance, then state officials may not constitutionally punish publication of the information absent a need to further a state interest of the highest order.”
What’s taking place in Los Angeles is censorship, plain and simple. Walter’s order should be overturned as quickly and decisively as possible.
An experiment in public funding of news
Government funding of the media has long been regarded as toxic to journalism’s watchdog role. Public media organizations such as WGBH receive indirect funding through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Smaller nonprofit news projects like the New Haven Independent and Voice of San Diego receive subsidies by way of their tax-exempt status. But government officials do not decide what news gets covered.
New Jersey, though, is going to try something different. Its recently passed budget includes $5 million for local news initiatives. Donations are being sought as well. Yes, there is still some protection. According to the Associated Press, the money will be distributed by a nonprofit organization to be called the Civic Information Consortium, with a 15-member board comprising appointees chosen by elected officials as well as representatives of the state’s colleges and universities, the news media, and the public. The idea was developed by the Free Press Action Fund, part of the media-reform group Free Press, which has done yeoman’s work in educating the public about net neutrality.
Caught between the New York and Philadelphia media markets, New Jersey suffers from a paucity of news coverage. As described by the AP, members of a community with no coverage of their city government could ask the consortium for money to fund a reporter. The idea brushes right up against the wall separating journalism from government interference, although it seems that those involved have made a good-faith effort to maintain at least some semblance of independence.
Still, as Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute told the AP, “When you start taking public money you have to start with the suspicion that at some point the system will be corrupted by power.” This is a worthwhile experiment, but it will have to be monitored closely.
Marcia Chambers, 1940-2018
A remarkable journalist left us last week. Marcia Chambers, a former New York Times reporter and editor who spent her so-called retirement running the Branford Eagle, the small community news site she launched, died at the age of 78. Chambers operated her site beneath the umbrella of the New Haven Independent, whose founder and editor, Paul Bass, paid tribute to her over the weekend.
I wrote about one of Chambers’ exploits in “The Wired City,” my 2013 book about new forms of online journalism. While the Independent was investigating the murder of a Yale graduate student named Annie Le, Chambers somehow obtained a 2003 police report about an ex-girlfriend of the suspect, Raymond Clark, who claimed he had forced her to have sex when they were both students at Branford High School. As a condition of receiving the report, Chambers promised not to publish it until after an arrest had been made. But that didn’t mean there were not other uses to which the report could be put.
The Independent’s Melissa Bailey typed the woman’s name into Facebook, discovered that she had an account, and friended her, letting her know she was a reporter covering the murder. After Clark’s arrest (he was later convicted), Bailey and Chambers wrote a storywithout using the woman’s name. “I can’t believe this is true,” they quoted the woman as writing on her Facebook page. “I feel like im 16 all over again. Its jsut bringing back everything.”
The revelation that the Independent had the police report created a media stampede, Bailey said later. “People were calling us, begging us for this police report,” she told a researcher for Columbia University. “The New York Times came in and practically tried to arm-wrestle Paul.” It was a triumph for Chambers — one of many in a long and productive career.