Media roundup: Censorship in LA; publicly funded news in NJ; and the death of a pioneer

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Update: Judge Walter has lifted his order.

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.

Marcia Chambers, Journalist, 1940-2018
Marcia Chambers and Paul Bass at the New Haven Independent’s fifth-anniversary party in 2010. Photo (cc) 2010 by Dan Kennedy.

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.

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A fledgling nonprofit aims to cover eight communities north of Boston

I want to call your attention to an interesting new project that’s in the works: North Suburban News, a nonprofit website that will cover eight communities north of Boston.

The journalist behind this project is Dan Marra, an alumnus of Patch and other local news organizations. I recently had a chance to meet with Dan and discuss his ideas, and I’ve agreed to serve on his volunteer advisory board. He’s also getting some advice and help from Paul Bass, the founder and editor of the New Haven Independent, one of the country’s leading nonprofit local news organizations.

North Suburban News will serve Malden, Melrose, Medford, Reading, Stoneham, Wakefield, Winchester and Woburn. There are existing newspapers in all of those communities, weeklies as well as the Daily Times Chronicle of Woburn, where I worked from 1979 to ’89, and the The Wakefield Daily Item. It’s my hope that North Suburban News will complement rather than compete with these papers — all of which are doing good work, all of which are understaffed.

Dan has started a Go Fund Me campaign, which you can learn about here. I’m republishing his mission statement below:

Community journalism is where I have spent most of my career. It’s where journalists can have the biggest impact. Journalists and the news organizations they work for are the eyes and ears of the community. They are the watchdogs that keep the community flourishing, they are the ones that hold elected officials accountable, and they are the ones tasked with reporting the news.

It is why I’m working to start a different news organization, one that focuses on the key aspects of our region — community news, education, local politics, and housing and development. It’s where we won’t just report the news, but research it. Where we will ensure that our residents are informed of the issues that are affecting the region.

This nonprofit entity will focus on the communities of Malden, Melrose, Medford, Reading, Stoneham, Wakefield, Winchester and Woburn, and will rely on donations and sponsorships from the community to produce impactful stories that will educate, inform and inspire our readers.

In this initial round of fundraising we are looking to raise enough money to launch the site, pay freelancers to help cover stories and market our articles on social media in order to get the word out about this news organization. Send me an email and let me know what you think: dmarra at northsuburbannews dot org.

The North Suburban News advisory board includes:

Caren Connelly
• Caren Connelly is the Executive Director of the Winchester Foundation for Educational Excellence (WFEE), which supports innovation and excellence in the Winchester Public Schools. Prior to moving into a career in non-profit management, Caren was a journalist for 20 years, working as an investigative reporter and, most recently as an executive producer at WBZ-TV.

Anthony Guardia
• Anthony Guardia is a graduate of Suffolk University and Suffolk University Law School. He has devoted his professional career to public service and working with local non-profits. He was the Chairman of the Wakefield School Committee at age 23 and is known for his outspoken advocacy for equity in state aid and various local initiatives. His experience in non-profit development started at HomeStart, a non-profit in Greater Boston devoted to ending and preventing homelessness. His successful efforts allowed HomeStart to expand services to new populations such as veterans. Anthony’s efforts have led to an expansion of programs, capital improvements, and new initiatives. Anthony lives in Wakefield with his wife, Theresa.

Dan Kennedy
• Dan Kennedy, a Medford resident, is an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University and a commentator on WGBH-TV’s “Beat the Press.” His most recent book is “The Return of the Moguls: How Jeff Bezos and John Henry Are Remaking Newspapers for the Twenty-First Century.” His previous book, “The Wired City: Reimagining Journalism and Civic Life in the Post-Newspaper Age,” explores new forms of local online journalism.

Dan Marra
• Dan Marra, a Wakefield resident and publisher of North Suburban News, has spent his entire career working in some capacity in community journalism. He started at weekly newspapers covering the Bronx, before moving to a Gannett-owned newspaper in Westchester County, New York. When he moved to the Boston-region, he became an editor at Patch.com. He is a lifelong advocate for community news and understands the affect a strong community news organization has on a region. You can reach him at dmarra at northsuburbannews dot org.

Mark Micheli
• Mark Micheli is a multimedia journalist, editor, documentarian and adjunct professor at Emerson College. He is co-founder of Reel Partners Media where he creates short-form videos for media companies, other businesses and non-profits. He worked as the news editor at Boston.com; a reporter at the Boston Business Journal; managing editor of Providence Business News; and as an online editor at several innovative internet companies including Lycos, AT&T New Media Services and AOL’s Patch.com.

Meredith Pizzi
• Meredith Pizzi is the Founder and Executive Director of Roman Music Therapy Services, a music therapy agency serving children and adults with social, emotional, cognitive, behavioral, physical, and educational needs, located in Wakefield. She also co-founded Raising Harmony: Music Therapy for Young Children, an organization that provides training to music therapists, parents and early childhood professionals on the use of music therapy strategies and tools with young children. Meredith is a member of the local  Chamber of Commerce and her organization partners with many local for-profit, non-profit and government’s agencies. Meredith has a a Masters in Public Administration from Suffolk University.

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From ‘The Wired City’ to the rise of the media moguls

Last Wednesday I had a chance to catch up with Paul Bass, founder and editor of the New Haven Independent and the principal subject of my last book, “The Wired City.” Paul and I talked about my new book, “The Return of the Moguls,” at the Book Trader Café in downtown New Haven. It was a lot of fun — and, as you’ll see from the Facebook Live video (just click on the image), Paul asked some tough questions.

How three newspaper moguls responded to the end of free digital content

New Haven at night. Photo (cc) 2007 by Matt Krause.

Author Dan Kennedy will talk about the future of the news — and his new book “The Return of the Moguls: How Jeff Bezos and John Henry Are Remaking Newspapers for the Twenty-First Century” — with Independent Editor Paul Bass at an event at the Book Trader Cafe, 1140 Chapel St., Wednesday, May 23, at 6:30 p.m. An excerpt from Dan’s book follows.

Communities can’t thrive without strong, independent journalism.

When the business model that pays for news fails, we need alternatives. That was the idea behind my 2013 book, The Wired City, which explored new forms of online local journalism, with a focus on the New Haven Independent.

But traditional newspapers still matter, whether in print, online, or both. A good daily paper can reach an audience and command attention more effectively than most other types of media. Newspapers are often seen as dinosaurs lumbering toward extinction, laid low by technological advances, the collapse of advertising revenues, and greedy hedge-fund owners seeking to squeeze out every last drop of profit before discarding them like yesterday’s news. In such an environment, can newspapers be saved?

Read the rest at the New Haven Independent. And talk about this post on Facebook.

Radio for the people: Providing a voice for Boston’s communities of color

My friend Donna Halper has a great suggestion for how Boston can help bridge the racial divide that continues to define our city and region: bring back local radio that serves the African-American community. The Boston Globe today follows up its recent Spotlight Team series on race, “Boston. Racism. Image. Reality.,” with some ideas from its readers. (And kudos to the Globe for dropping the paywall.) Here is what Halper, a Lesley University professor and longtime radio consultant, has to say:

A professor said that Boston’s media landscape may suffer from the lack of a prominent local radio station that’s black-owned. Boston used to have a station owned by black community members, WILD, but under new corporate ownership it stopped focusing on African-American issues a number of years ago.

“In most cities with a sizable black population, there have been local radio stations around which the community could rally,” wrote Donna L. Halper, an associate professor at Lesley University. “These stations were not just about playing the hits; they were a focus of information and news that the so-called ‘mainstream’ stations didn’t usually address.”

Black-owned media, such as the Bay State Banner newspaper, have had trouble generating significant advertising support, she said, and “a thriving black media would go a long way towards making the black community feel as if its story is being told.

“Relying on the ‘mainstream’ media often means the only time stories of your neighborhood get told is when crimes are committed,” Halper said. “White Bostonians have long held inaccurate ideas about black Bostonians because more often than not, the only stories widely reported depicted danger and criminality.”

(Note: In 1997, during my Boston Phoenix days, I wrote about WILD’s struggle to survive as an independent radio station in the face of corporate consolidation unleashed by the Telecommunications Act of 1996.)

Now, if I were reading Halper’s comments and wanted to follow up, the first person I’d talk with is Paul Bass, the founder and editor of the New Haven Independent, a nonprofit online-only news operation that is still thriving after 12 years. When I was writing about the Independent for my book “The Wired City,” the Independent had a mostly white reporting staff to cover a city with a large African-American community. They did a good job, but it wasn’t ideal.

The Independent’s staff is more diverse today. Even more important, though, is that in 2015 Bass launched a nonprofit low-power FM radio station, WNHH, which also broadcasts online. Rather than writing stories for New Haven’s communities of color, members of those communities have come inside to host programs and tell their own stories. It has proved to be a real boon to New Haven. And though it would be hard to replicate something like that in a city as large as Boston, there surely must be ways to adapt what Bass is doing.

More: Of course Touch 106.1 FM is already providing a valuable service in Boston — but without an FCC license. The city needs a community radio station that can operate legally and can thus enjoy a higher profile and more influence. Also popping up in the Facebook comments: Zumix, a youth-oriented bilingual LPFM and online station in East Boston.

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News deserts spread as optimism over online local journalism fades away

When I began my research for “The Wired City” in 2009, I was optimistic that a new generation of online-only community news sites would rise to fill in at least some of the gaps left behind by shrinking legacy newspapers. Eight years later, the more prominent of the sites I reported on are still alive and well. The New Haven Independent, The Batavian, Voice of San Diego, and statehouse news services like CT News Junkie and The Connecticut Mirror are as vital today — if not more so — than they were back then.

But though there has been some growth, especially at the grassroots level, the hope for reasonably well-funded new forms of local journalism with the heft to hold government to account is largely unfulfilled. Efforts such as the Worcester Sun (disclosure: I’m an unpaid adviser) and WHAV Radio in Haverhill hold promise, but they’re still looking for a viable way forward. News deserts are spreading.

Paul Farhi of The Washington Post takes a look at an especially difficult case — East Palo Alto, California, a poor, mostly minority community in the shadow of wealthy Palto Alto. And he finds that in an area crying out for strong local journalism, the best that they have is East Palo Alto Today, a nonprofit with a print publication that only comes out once every other month.

Farhi also cites a study by the University of North Carolina on the role of hedge funds and other financial instruments in destroying local journalism. I intend to spend some time with that study in the days ahead.

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Here we go again: No, print will not save the shrinking newspaper business

This 1910 photo of an 8-year-old Philadelphia newsboy, Michael Mc Nelis, was taken by Lewis Hine for the Children’s Bureau of the US Department of Commerce and Labor.
This 1910 photo of an 8-year-old Philadelphia newsboy, Michael Mc Nelis, was taken by Lewis Hine for the Children’s Bureau of the US Department of Commerce and Labor.

A few years ago Paul Bass and I appeared on a Connecticut radio station to talk about the future of local journalism. Bass was and is the founder, editor, and publisher of the New Haven Independent, a nonprofit, online-only news organization that is the main subject of my book The Wired City.

Bass and I both came out of the world of alternative weeklies. He was the star reporter for the New Haven Advocate. I was the media columnist for the Boston Phoenix. While we were on the air, he told a story about a club owner in New Haven who had once advertised heavily in the Advocate—but had found he could reach a better-targeted audience on Facebook while spending next to nothing.

Need I tell you that both the Advocate and the Phoenix have gone out of business?

I’m dredging up this anecdote because the Columbia Journalism Review has published a much-talked-about essay arguing that newspapers made a huge mistake by embracing all things digital and should instead have doubled down on print. Michael Rosenwald writes that instead of chasing ephemeral digital revenues, newspapers should have built up their print editions and offered more value to their readers.

Read the rest at WGBHNews.org. And talk about this post on Facebook.

New Haven Independent celebrates its first decade

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Arts writer David Sepulveda with a vintage copy of the first incarnation of the New Haven Independent, which was co-founded by Paul Bass and was published for several years in the late 1980s.

Congratulations to Paul Bass and the staff and friends of the New Haven Independent, who are celebrating the community website’s 10th anniversary.

On Wednesday evening a couple of dozen people gathered at the offices of La Voz Hispana, the Independent’s partner and landlord, to toast 10 years of nonprofit online journalism. It was a lower-key affair than the fifth anniversary — Bass and crew have been so busy launching the Independent’s low-power FM radio station, WNHH, that they didn’t have time to plan a proper celebration. (The Independent is the subject of my book “The Wired City.” I wrote about WNHH recently for the Nieman Journalism Lab, and was later a guest.)

The party was emceed by Norma Rodriguez-Reyes, the president of La Voz and chair of the Online Journalism Project, the nonprofit organization that oversees the Independent and its affiliated projects — WNHH, the Valley Independent Sentinel  and the Branford Eagle.

Last week Bass marked the 10th anniversary with a special hour-long conversation on WNHH about the state of independent journalism with Rodriguez-Reyes; Christine Stuart, the editor and co-owner of CT News Junkie, a for-profit website covering politics and public policy in Connecticut; and Babz Rawls-Ivy, managing editor of The Inner-City News, an African-American newspaper based in New Haven, as well as a talk-show host on WNHH.

Among other things, Bass compares legacy media’s coverage of the decline of journalism to someone who spends all his time hanging out at a funeral home and concludes that everyone must be dead. Well worth a listen.

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Mubarakah Ibrahim (left), host of “Mornings with Mubarakah” on WNHH, with her children.
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Paul Bass (right) and me. Photo by Independent alumnus and current Wall Street Journal reporter Thomas MacMillan.

The New Haven Independent takes to the airwaves

WNHH station manager Lucy Gellman and New Haven Independent editor Paul Bass.
WNHH station manager Lucy Gellman and New Haven Independent editor Paul Bass.

John Dankosky stood before the 20 or so fledgling radio hosts who had crowded into the New Haven offices of La Voz Hispana de Connecticut and told them not to be afraid to assert themselves in the face of an overly talkative interview subject.

“It’s your show and it’s your microphone and they are your guests. You need to be the gatekeeper,” said Dankosky, vice president of news at Connecticut’s public radio network WNPR and host of the daily public affairs program “Where We Live.”

Dankosky was leading a session of Radio 101 for WNHH, a low-power FM (LPFM) community station scheduled to make its debut on August 11. The station is being launched by the New Haven Independent, a pioneering online nonprofit news site that debuted 10 years ago next month.

Read the rest at the Nieman Journalism Lab.

Berkshire Eagle publishes, defends a racist column

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See this follow-up post.

The venerable Berkshire Eagle of Pittsfield, founded in the 1890s and winner of the 1973 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing, recently published a racist column by a “conservative activist” named Steven Nikitas. After outraged readers complained, editor Kevin Moran responded in a column of his own that though he vehemently disagreed with Nikitas’ screed, he considered it well worth publishing. Moran wrote:

Views and opinions — whether they be considered by some, most or all people to be ignorant or brilliant or somewhere in between — tell us a lot about the community in which we live, work, go to school, vote, debate, worship, pay taxes, make choices and decisions, etc.

That’s true. And a community paper like the Eagle should provide a public forum — to act as “a town square,” as Moran puts it. But it should also have standards for what it chooses to publish, and that’s where I think the Eagle blew it. Presumably Moran would not publish a column calling on white residents to burn crosses in order to drive their African-American neighbors out of the area. And no, Nikitas’ column isn’t as bad as that. But if you read it, you will see that it’s bad enough. Here is how Nikitas begins:

After the burning and looting in Baltimore and Ferguson we are seeing endless media hand-wringing that somehow “we” must all do something more to help black America. And “we” means white people, taxpayers, businesses, the criminal justice system, the universities and the government. But blacks must now pull themselves up. “We” have done far too much already with tens of trillions in handouts in the last 50 years, and it has backfired badly.

Conservatives and Republicans have offered sure-fire solutions for black America and they have been rejected repeatedly. Our advice has been for African-Americans to discard the leadership of the Democrat party and charlatans like Al Sharpton. After all, far-left liberalism has obviously failed. The proof is everywhere.

Conservatives have recommended over and over that blacks reform their culture from top to bottom by respecting marriage and the family and the law, returning to their churches, embracing education and hard work, avoiding violence and debased rap music, speaking clearly, shunning drugs and profanity, and pulling up their pants. And to stop blaming all of their problems on everyone else. That is immature, cowardly and counterproductive.

What respectable business owner would hire a young black male from the “hood” who won’t even show up for work? What successful enterprise is going to establish itself in crime-ridden inner cities? Isn’t looting and burning self-defeating?

And so it goes, for 750 words in total.

A few observations.

First, if your instinct is to argue that Nikitas has a First Amendment right to his opinion, my answer is yes, he certainly does. He should get a blog. The Eagle is not the government. It is a newspaper, and it has a First Amendment right to choose what to publish and what to reject. The Eagle has risked its brand and reputation for the sake of providing a platform for a racist screed.

The New Haven Independent, a nonprofit community news site that is the subject of my book “The Wired City,” offers a useful counterview: it screens comments before they are posted, and won’t publish those it considers racist. The policy begins: “Yes we do censor reader comments. We’ll continue to.” And these are comments, mind you, not full-blown columns.

Second, since we began talking about this on Twitter and Facebook Sunday (here’s the public Facebook link, where you’ll find a lively discussion), I’ve seen several people argue that the Eagle was providing a service by calling attention to a racist in the its midst. I find that argument ridiculous. You call attention to racism with reporting, not by providing a platform to a racist. Besides, racists are not particularly exotic; you can find them everywhere.

Third, this is a challenge for the Massachusetts Republican Party because, as Moran explains, Nikitas’ column is part of a regular series called “Right from the Berkshires” produced by members of the Berkshire County Republican Association. Will that group disavow Nikitas’ views? If not, will the state party disavow the regional group? I’ve already heard from one Republican activist who believes the state party should order the Berkshire group to stop using the party’s name.

I have a feeling that there’s going to be more to come. It’s already starting to circulate nationally — after I found out about it, I discovered that Talking Points Memo was already on it. It will be interesting to see where this goes from here.