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.
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.
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.
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.
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
No, not the debut of a new feature. But there’s a lot going on today. So let’s get to it.
• Jason Rezaian is coming home. Rezaian, who’s a Washington Post reporter, is being released by Iran along with three other prisoners as part of a swap. Meanwhile, Iran is moving closer to compliance with the nuclear deal, and, as we know, it returned without incident a group of American sailors who had drifted into its territorial waters even as the Republican presidential candidates were calling for war or something.
What President Obama’s critics refuse to acknowledge is that Iran is complicated, factionalized, and slowly lurching toward better (not good) behavior. Obama has invested a considerable amount of his moral authority into trying to nudge along a less dangerous Iran, and his efforts are paying off.
And kudos to Post executive editor Marty Baron, who has kept the spotlight on Rezaian’s unjust imprisonment for the past year and a half.
• The routes are at the root.Boston Globe reporter Mark Arsenault today has the most thorough examination yet of what went wrong with the Globe‘s home-delivery system when it switched vendors at the end of December. Arsenault takes a tough look at the decisions made by the paper’s business executives, who clearly did not do enough vetting of the plans put together by the new vendor, ACI Media Group. And he opens with Globe publisher John Henry amid thousands of undelivered papers at the Newton distribution center, sending a message that, yes, the owner is engaged.
As has been reported previously, but not in as much detail as Arsenault offers, ACI’s routes just didn’t make sense. And what looked like a mere glitch at the end of day one turned into a catastrophe as drivers walked off the job once they realized there was no way they could make their appointed rounds.
It’s the Globe itself that has to take primary responsibility, of course. But based on Arsenault’s report, ACI officials—who did not speak to him—clearly sold the Globe a bill of goods. If ACI has a different perspective on what happened, we’d like to hear it soon.
• Digital First workers revolt. Employees at Digital First Media are fighting for their first raise in seven to 10 years, according to an announcement by workers represented by the Newspaper Guild. These folks have been abused for years by bad ownership as hedge funds have sought to cash in.
The effort covers some 1,000 Guild members. It’s unclear whether employees at non-Guild papers—including the Lowell Sun and the New Haven Register—would be helped.
Authorities have arrested and are preparing to charge the Rhode Island suspect in the alleged terrorist plot that ended in the shooting death of a Boston man last week. News organizations that had been withholding his name are now identifying him. The Boston Globe, for instance, reports that he is Nicholas Rovinski, 24, of Warwick, Rhode Island.
As I wrote last week for WGBH News, identifying a “person of interest” who has not been charged — and who may not be charged — is an ethically dubious practice. My views are informed by what I learned in researching my book “The Wired City.” Among the stories I reported on was the New Haven Independent’s decision not to name the likely suspect in the murder of a Yale graduate student until after he had been formally charged. Independent editor Paul Bass spoke with my Northeastern ethics students about the case in a conference call earlier this week.
What follows is an excerpt from “The Wired City,” taken from a longer excerpt published by the Nieman Journalism Lab.
On Monday, Sept. 14, 2009, six days after Annie Le had been reported missing, the Independent became the first to reveal that police had identified a 24-year-old laboratory technician who had worked with Le as a “person of interest.” The New Haven Register’s website followed shortly thereafter. And so began one of the more curious side stories of the Annie Le case.
As law enforcement officials continued with their investigation on Tuesday, neither the Independent nor the Register released the name of Le’s coworker. On Tuesday night, though, the police department held a news conference and announced that the “person of interest” was Raymond Clark, whose name was included in a press release. Because the news conference was covered live by a number of television stations, Clark’s identity immediately became public. On Wednesday, the Register named Clark and interviewed people who knew him. “I’m in total shock,” an unidentified high school classmate was quoted as saying. “He was the nicest kid — very quiet, but everyone liked him. I can’t believe he could do this. I’m sick to my stomach.” But the Independent continued to withhold Clark’s name.
The Independent’s managing editor, Melissa Bailey, was at the news conference too. She took notes and shot some video of New Haven Police Chief James Lewis speaking to reporters. But neither her story nor her video used Clark’s name. Bailey wrote, somewhat cryptically, “Police named the target of the search, calling him a ‘person of interest.’” Nor did the Independent identify Clark on Wednesday — and not even in a story posted early on Thursday morning reporting that police had staked out a motel where Clark was staying the night before, although it did link to a Register story that identified Clark in its lead paragraph. It wasn’t until later on Thursday morning that the Independent finally named Raymond Clark as the person police believed had murdered Annie Le. The reason: by then Clark had been arrested and charged, and was being taken into court for a formal arraignment.
The Independent’s refusal to name Clark until he had been formally charged was an admirable exercise in journalistic restraint. The decision derived in part from Bass’s institutional memory. In 1998, police had mistakenly identified a Yale professor as a “person of interest” in the murder of a student named Suzanne Jovin. No evidence against the professor was ever made public, and the murder was never solved. (In 2013, Yale and the city of New Haven announced a settlement with that wrongly accused professor.) Essentially, though, this restraint was a statement of Bass’s sense of how a news organization ought to serve the community
Judging by comments posted to the Independent, many readers appreciated Bass’s decision. “Thank you for the good sense to not publish his name at this time,” wrote “asdf” on Tuesday evening, after Clark’s name had begun to leak out but before the police had named him. The commenter added: “I really don’t understand what there is to gain by releasing his name — if you don’t have enough evidence to arrest him, then you don’t have enough evidence to smear him in the media.” Then there was this, from “LOOLY,” posted on Wednesday morning, after Clark’s name had been widely reported: “It should really be very simple. Unless he is being charged his name should not be used.”
Bass also had to make several other difficult decisions about identifying people connected to the Annie Le story. On Sept. 14, as Clark’s name was leaking out, the media converged on his apartment in Middletown, northeast of New Haven. Christine Stuart, who runs the political website CT News Junkie and contributes to the Independent, noticed the name of a woman along with that of Raymond Clark. She passed it along, and Melissa Bailey started plugging it into various social-networking sites. It didn’t take long before she found a public MySpace page for the woman, who turned out to be Clark’s 23-year-old fiancée. Bailey captured a screen image before the page could be taken down — which it soon was.
Bailey wrote a story that began, “The target in the slaying of Yale graduate student Annie Le had something in common with the victim — he, too, was engaged.” And she quoted the young woman as writing of Clark: “He has a big heart and tries to see the best in people ALL THE TIME! even when everyone else is telling him that the person is a psycho or that the person can’t be trusted. he thinks everyone deserves a second chance.” The woman’s name and photograph wound up being published by other news outlets, but it never appeared in the Independent.
That was not the Independent’s only social-networking scoop. In nearby Branford, Marcia Chambers of the Branford Eagle, a community news site that is affiliated with the Independent, was working her sources. Somehow she obtained a 2003 police report about an ex-girlfriend of 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. 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, Bailey and Chambers wrote a story without 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.” The Independent withheld the fiancée’s name, a decision Bailey wrote that she had no misgivings about even though the woman later appeared on network television and identified herself.
By declining to name Raymond Clark until he had actually been charged with a crime, and by withholding the identities of the two women, Paul Bass had made a statement about what kind of news organization he wanted the Independent to be and what kind of journalism his community could expect from the site. Protecting the two women at a time when only the Independent knew who they were was the more straightforward of the two decisions. Any news executive who cares about journalistic ethics — or, for that matter, basic human decency — might have made the same call. But keeping Clark’s name off the site even after the New Haven police had put it in a press release, and even after the police chief had freely discussed it at a news conference — well, that was an extraordinary decision. Many journalists would argue that a news organization has an obligation to report the name of someone who might soon be charged with murder when the police have very publicly placed that name on the record. But Bass clearly has a different way of looking at such matters.
Weeks later, in a conversation at his office, Bass wondered if he had done the right thing while simultaneously defending his decision. “I still believe it’s a complicated question. I still believe we could definitely be wrong,” he said. Yet, as he continued, he didn’t sound like someone who thought he might be wrong, even as I suggested to him that his decision to withhold Clark’s name could be seen as something of an exercise in futility. “I’m in no way moving toward the idea that we should have run the name. I see no reason for putting the name out sooner. Nothing served,” he said. “I agree with you that it was futile. The name was out there. But we are still a news organization with standards.”
Those standards, I came to realize, are rooted not just in Bass’s view of journalism but in his sense of place, and even in his spiritual beliefs. The Independent is a news site, but it’s not just a news site. It is also a gathering place, a forum for civil discussion of local issues, and a spark for civic engagement. It is a mixture that reflects Bass’s interests: a multifaceted approach to community journalism — to community and journalism — that has been visible in his life and work from the time he began writing about New Haven.
DeRienzo, 38, had worked at various permutations of DFM for the past 11 years. In his early days, he once told me in an interview for my book “The Wired City,” his tasks included making sure the chain’s newspapers didn’t post too much content on their websites so that customers wouldn’t have less incentive to buy a paper. Toward the end, under DFM chief executive John Paton, DeRienzo was a leader in nudging his journalists away from print into the digital age. He writes:
I’ve come to know hundreds of people who have dedicated their lives to journalism, who work long hours for low pay, and put up with all kinds of crap (including plenty from me!) year after year. Cynical exteriors aside, at the heart of it, they care about strangers and are in journalism to improve people’s lives.
DeRienzo will be succeeded at DFM’s Connecticut publications by Mark Brackenbury, someone who — in my one brief encounter — impressed me as an editor who cares about journalism and communities.
As I wrote for The Huffington Post earlier this year, DFM seems to be on the verge of breaking up and disappearing; the company’s financial problems had a serious effect on DeRienzo’s ability to carry out his vision. Yet in Bass’ Independent story, Paton sounds as charged up as ever, saying the company will move forward once a buyer for the chain is found.
I hope Paton is right. And best wishes to Matt, one of the good guys in our field.
Not too many months ago, Paul Bass gave serious thought to shutting down the New Haven Independent, the online-only nonprofit news site he founded in 2005.
“A while back, I considered whether I still had the energy to keep going,” Bass said. “I was burnt.”
He decided to keep it alive. And now he’s getting ready to relaunch with two new full-time staff reporters — one who will start the day after Labor Day, the other who has yet to be hired.
For a small community news organization, the Independent has been remarkably stable. Last week, Bass threw a going-away party for managing editor Melissa Bailey, who will be a Nieman Fellow starting this fall, and staff writer Thomas MacMillan, who is moving to New York to seek his fame and fortune. Both began working at the site as it was ramping up, Bailey in 2006 and MacMillan the following year. (The fourth staff member, Allan Appel, recently cut back to a part-time position.)
“It’s really hard for me to imagine leaving New Haven for more than a few days, let alone a whole year,” Bailey told the crowd. MacMillan defined the privilege of being a journalist: “You ask questions and people just open up to you and give you these amazing stories.”
When I met with Bass afterwards, he talked about how difficult it would be to replace the two. “They’re community journalists. They love the work. They grew so much,” he said. “They both learned so many things, and they really ran the operation with me.”
Yet their departure will allow him to solve a longstanding problem: having an all-white staff cover a city where African-Americans and Latinos are in the majority. “The people I’m hiring will diversify the staff racially,” Bass told me. The Independent has used minority freelancers and interns, but all of its full-time staff journalists have been white.
Thus the Independent’s mix of political and neighborhood news, education reporting, and, increasingly, a focus on the arts fills a real need.
Despite the challenges of keeping a nonprofit going, Bass has had quite a bit of success with fundraising. Currently, he said, he has pledges through 2015 to cover the $420,000 budget for the Independent and a satellite two-person site in the northwest suburbs called the Valley Independent Sentinel. In recent years, he added, his fundraising base has shifted from about 75 percent foundation grants to about 25 percent. Most of the money comes from high-net-worth donors in the New Haven area. About $15,000 to $20,000 comes from small donors.
Late in 2013, Bass applied for a low-power FM license to operate a nonprofit community radio station in New Haven. He has yet to hear from the FCC, but he continues to hope it will come through. “I think we’d engage the readership in a new way,” he said.
For now, though, he’s planning to do something he’s never done before: ramp down the Independent for a few weeks. Posting will be minimal this week and next. And he’s going to stop posting completely during the last two weeks of August — a first since the Independent began publication in late August of 2005. Then comes the new Independent.
“I’m not going to have the same experience level I have now, so it’s going to be different,” Bass said. “I don’t think I can replace Thomas and Melissa.”
The redoubtable Ian Donnis of Rhode Island Public Radio reports that The Providence Journal may shed up to 40 jobs once an affiliate of GateHouse Media has completed its purchase of the paper. Donnis’ source is impeccable: the number is included in paperwork GateHouse filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Donnis does not say how many employees the Journal now has, and I was unable to find that number in recent coverage of the sale. I’ll add it if someone passes it along. Also, I assume that all 40 cuts will not be in the newsroom.
Also, Philip Eil of The Providence Phoenix takes a look (link now added) at what the sale means for the venerable paper. (Founded in 1829, the Journal bills itself as the oldest continuously published daily paper in the United States.)
In other dispiriting news, Paul Bass of the New Haven Independent reports that another round of deep cuts is imminent at the New Haven Register. Once part of the Journal Register Co., perhaps the worst newspaper chain in the country, and in more recent years a beacon of hope under Digital First impresario John Paton, the entire chain — which includes Massachusetts titles such as The Sun of Lowell, the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg and The Berkshire Eagle — is now believed to be for sale.
The New York Times on Saturday published a feature story about an obscure but layered issue — a fence separating a public housing project in New Haven from the adjoining suburb of Hamden. After some 50 years, the fence is finally coming down.
It’s a story that caught my attention in late 2009, when Thomas MacMillan of the New Haven Independent first reported on efforts to remove the fence, also known as “the Berlin Wall.” It struck me as an example of the kind of nuanced journalism that characterized the Independent, an online-only nonprofit news site that I was tracking for my book “The Wired City.”
On the surface, you might think the issue was about white suburbanites who objected to black public housing residents gaining easy access to their town. But that would be too simple. Hamden has a significant African-American population. MacMillan interviewed two brothers who lived in Hamden and who opposed efforts by New Haven officials to remove the fence. MacMillan quoted Herbert Campbell as saying the fence prevented “all the riff-raff from coming around,” including drug dealers. Vincent Campbell added: “We had a lot of problems in the past. You never know who’s going to break into your house.”
This past May 4, Independent editor Paul Bass — who tells me he first wrote about the fence in 1999, while he was at the now-defunct alt-weekly New Haven Advocate — reported that the fence would be removed after it was discovered that it is actually on the New Haven side of the border. A federal civil-rights investigation helped speed matters along. Here is Bass’ follow-up on the actual tear-down. The daily New Haven Register covered the story as well, and published an editorial hailing the removal.
The New York Times story, by Benjamin Mueller, acknowledges the complexities of the saga, noting that both New Haven and Hamden now have black mayors, and that Hamden residents both black and white appear to be united in their opposition to the fence’s being demolished.
Photo by Thomas MacMillan, courtesy of the New Haven Independent.
Congratulations to Melissa Bailey, managing editor of the New Haven Independent, who’s been selected as a Nieman Fellow for 2014-’15. I accompanied Bailey on several reporting assignments in researching my book “The Wired City.” The photo above is a still from a June 2009 video interview I conducted with her, Independent founder and editor Paul Bass and New Haven Register managing editor Mark Brackenbury.
Here is the full announcement from Harvard’s Nieman Foundation. As always, it looks like a distinguished class of fellows.