Paid digital content comes to New Haven

I find it interesting that the Digital First paywall announced Monday will include the New Haven Register, even though the Register competes with the free New Haven Independent, a nonprofit online-only news organization.

Maybe it won’t matter much — the Independent covers nothing outside of New Haven, whereas the Register offers a lot of suburban coverage. Still, this is something to keep an eye on.

Digital First chief executive John Paton has long been a critic of paywalls, as he  acknowledges in this blog post. “Let’s be clear, paid digital subscriptions are not a long-term strategy. They don’t transform anything; they tweak. At best, they are a short-term tactic,” he writes, adding: “But it’s a tactic that will help us now.”

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Measuring the effectiveness of nonprofit news

New Haven Green
New Haven Green

Among the more difficult challenges I faced when I was researching “The Wired City” was trying to figure out the influence — and thus the effectiveness — of the New Haven Independent, the nonprofit online-only news site that is the major focus of the book. So I was intrigued when NPR reported last week that the folks who run Charity Navigator hope to unveil effectiveness ratings for nonprofits in 2016. I suspect it won’t be easy.

Nonprofit news presents special challenges. You can measure a food pantry’s effectiveness by how many families get fed, or an orchestra’s reach in terms of attendance, educational programs and the like. But how do you measure the effectiveness of a news organization?

The way I tried to answer that question was to look at numbers, but to look beyond the numbers as well. Certainly the numbers couldn’t come close to telling the whole story. The Independent’s main competitor is the regional daily newspaper, the New Haven Register, whose website receives considerably more traffic than the Independent’s (two to three times as much, according to Compete.com‘s very rough numbers) — and which, unlike the Independent, has a daily print edition. How can the Independent possibly exercise the same amount of influence?

It can’t. But that doesn’t mean that it’s ineffective. Since it’s not a mass-circulation outlet, the Independent relies on reaching civically engaged people — city leaders, neighborhood activists and anyone who takes an interest in what’s going on in New Haven on a daily basis.

In a 2009 interview, Michael Morand, an associate vice president at Yale, described the Independent’s readers as “active voters, elected and appointed officials, opinion makers, civic activists as measured by people who are on boards, leaders of block watches and other neighborhood organizations.” Mayor John DeStefano told me in 2011 that he considered the Register to be “the dominant media,” but added that the Independent serves “those that follow city government and community-based activities.”

One issue stood out for me as an example of how the Independent could be effective while reaching a niche audience. In the fall of 2010 the Independent — following the lead of the Yale Daily News — began reporting on incidents in which police officers ordered people not to video-record them while they were making arrests and engaging in other activities. The Independent reported on the story for months, and revealed that one man on a public sidewalk had his cellphone confiscated and the video erased; the man was charged with interfering with police.

The Independent’s reporting led to real reform. An investigation was conducted. Mayor DeStefano and the police chief at that time, Frank Limon, ordered that officers stop harassing people trying to video-record their actions as long as they weren’t interfering in police business. Mandatory training in how to respond to video-camera-wielding members of the public was added to offerings at the police academy — training that Independent founder Paul Bass and I observed during a visit to the academy. And state Sen. Martin Looney, a New Haven Democrat, introduced legislation to make it clear that such recording was legal.

The Independent also builds influence through public events — community forums such as political debates and other events that are webcast and covered by other media as well. A particularly prominent example was a school forum in late 2010 starring education-reform critic Diane Ravitch.

I don’t think numbers tell the story, but here are a few:

  • According to the Independent’s internal counts from Google Analytics and Mint, the site receives between 120,000 and 140,000 unique visitors a month.
  • The Independent’s Facebook page has been “liked” 3,443 times as of this morning.
  • The Independent’s Twitter feed, @NewHavenIndy, has 4,486 followers.
  • The site’s weekly news email has about 4,000 subscribers, according to Bass — up about 1,000 over the past year.
  • A separate arts email has about 5,000 subscribers.

And here’s a cautionary tale for publishers who rely on outside services like Facebook, which have their own agendas: Bass told me that a change in policy may be responsible for less traffic coming to the Independent from Facebook. “Now they don’t automatically show your posts to all your followers. They show them to a sample, hoping you’ll pay to reach more of your people,” Bass said in an email last week. “So we’ve seen a drop in Facebook traffic as a result. (Which maybe quite fair. We use them free as paperboys.)”

When I asked Bass how he thought funders and prospective funders could measure the effectiveness of nonprofit news, his response was that he wasn’t sure. So what attempts have his funders made? “They look at what we publish, how people interact with it, how they experience the site’s impact living and working in the area,” Bass said. “No one has asked us for numbers.”

According to the NPR story, reported by Elizabeth Blair, some nonprofits are resisting Charity Navigator’s attempt to measure how well they’re doing. And there’s no question it will be difficult — maybe impossible — to come up with a fair system that everyone will agree on.

But it seems worth trying, especially in journalism. With traditional for-profit news, the relationship between revenue and quality is only tangential. News organizations are judged by how well their advertising moves products and services. You’d like to think that advertisers would rather be associated with quality news than the alternative, but that’s not necessarily the case.

With nonprofit news, the better the journalism, the more influence it will have — and the more attractive it should be to funders.

Photo (cc) by Anne and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Book notes and upcoming appearances

Christine Stuart and me at last Thursday's book event in New Haven. Stuart, who runs the online news service CT News Junkie along with her husband, Doug Hardy, was the first person I interviewed for "The Wired City."
Christine Stuart and me at last Thursday’s book event in New Haven. Stuart, who runs the online news service CT News Junkie along with her husband, Doug Hardy, was the first person I interviewed for “The Wired City.”

Many thanks to Paul Bass, editor and publisher of the New Haven Independent, and Will Baker, director of the Institute Library, for a terrific event for “The Wired City” last Thursday. It was great to catch up with folks I hadn’t seen in quite a while and to meet new people. The Independent’s Thomas MacMillan covered the event here; the New Haven Register’s Randall Beach and Melanie Stengel here.

Closer to home, Will Broaddus of The Salem News interviewed me last week for his book column.

I’ve got three events coming up during the next week that you might be interested in.

• On Wednesday at 6 p.m. I’ll be part of a panel that will discuss the New England premiere of “Corporate FM: The Killing of Local Commercial Radio,” directed by Kevin McKinney. It’s not cheap, but it’s for a good cause: The event will benefit WHAV Radio, an independent online-only radio station based in Haverhill. The screening will take place at Chunky’s Cinema Pub, 371 Lowell Ave., Haverhill. You can find out more here.

• On Thursday at 6:30 p.m. I’ll be doing an event for “The Wired City” at the Globe Lab, which works on new technology projects for The Boston Globe. The lab is located at the Globe, which is at 135 Morrissey Blvd. The event is free and open to the public.

• Next Monday, June 24, I’ll be sitting down with Emily Rooney to talk about “The Wired City” on “Greater Boston,” on WGBH-TV (Channel 2).

Photo by Thomas MacMillan for the New Haven Independent.

Local journalism, civic life and “The Wired City”

Paul Bass speaking at the New Haven Independent's 10th-anniversary party, Sept. 15, 2010.
Paul Bass speaking at the New Haven Independent’s fifth-anniversary party, Sept. 15, 2010. Yes, that’s two-time U.S. Senate candidate Linda McMahon in the background.

This article appeared previously at the Nieman Journalism Lab.

The star attraction was supposed to be Diane Ravitch, a prominent critic of education reform. But the real stars were the audience members themselves.

I had driven to New Haven on this day in late November 2010 to see if Paul Bass, the founder and editor of the New Haven Independent, could pull off an audacious experiment in civic engagement. The Independent, a nonprofit online-only news organization, is the principal subject of my new book, “The Wired City.” The subtitle — “Reimagining Journalism and Civic Life in the Post-Newspaper Age” — reflects my belief that news can’t survive without public participation. What we got that night was full immersion.

Stage right, Ravitch sat with 11 other people — principals, teachers, school officials, a high school student, a board of education member and the like. Stage left, a half-dozen media folks and elected officials, including Mayor John DeStefano, were live-blogging the event. The forum was webcast on television and radio, as well as on the websites of the Independent and the New Haven Register, the city’s daily newspaper. Viewers at home — and, for that matter, those in the auditorium who had laptops — were able to engage in a real-time, online conversation with the live-bloggers. Afterwards, readers posted a total of 53 comments to the two stories the Independent published (here and here). The archived video was posted as well. Finally, in a touch that seemed almost old-fashioned, the 200 or so people who attended were invited to line up at two microphones during an extended question-and-answer period.

Among the myriad crises facing journalism, perhaps none is more vexing than civic illiteracy. Starting in the 1990s, leading thinkers such as New York University’s Jay Rosen began sketching out ways for news organizations to listen to their audience’s concerns and to shape their coverage accordingly. This “public journalism” movement, as it became known, fizzled as newsroom budget cuts and criticism from traditional journalists took their toll.

But if the audience doesn’t care about the public-interest aspects of journalism, then there really isn’t much hope for a revival. Over the years, newspaper publishers have responded to the decline of civic life by loading up on celebrity gossip and so-called news you can use, such as personal finance and cooking tips. It’s a losing game, because there are always going to be better sources of such information than the local newspaper.

More than a dozen years ago the Harvard scholar Robert Putnam, in his classic book “Bowling Alone,” found that people who were engaged in civic life — voting in local elections, taking part in volunteer activities, attending religious services or participating in any number of other activities — were also more likely to read newspapers. “Newspaper readers,” he wrote, “are machers and schmoozers.

Trouble is, Putnam’s machers and schmoozers were aging even then. And so it is up to news organizations not merely to serve the public, but to nurture and educate the public so that it is engaged with civic life, and thus with the fundamental purpose of journalism.

C.W. Anderson, in his book “Rebuilding the News: Metropolitan Journalism in the Digital Age,” writes that “journalists [report] the news in order to call a particular form of public into being.” Along similar lines, I argue in “The Wired City” that creating a public is at least as important as reporting on its behalf. No longer can it be taken for granted that there is a public ready to engage with news about last night’s city council meeting, a speech by the mayor or plans by a developer to tear down a neighborhood landmark and replace it with yet another convenience store.

Howard Owens, the publisher of The Batavian, a for-profit site in western New York that I also write about in my book, once put it this way:

Local community news is currently only a niche product. Entrepreneurs need to think about not only “how am I going to appeal to the people who care now, but how am I going to get more people to care about their community so I can grow my audience?”

In researching “The Wired City,” I learned that the readership for the New Haven Independent comprises a wide swath — elected officials, city employees (especially police officers and teachers), leaders and activists in the African-American community, dedicated localists and members of what struck me as a surprisingly large and politically aware group of bicycling advocates.

Though the Independent’s audience is not as large as that of the New Haven Register, its concentration inside the city limits and its popularity among opinion leaders — “the grassroots and grasstops circles,” as Michael Morand, an associate vice president at Yale, described it to me in an interview — gives the site outsize influence. Indeed, it was the Independent’s relentless coverage of a controversy over the video-recording of police actions by members of the public that led to a clarification from the police chief that such recording was legal. It also led to mandatory training for all officers.

Thus what we see in New Haven, in Batavia and in other places where news organizations are trying new methods of bridging the divide between journalism and the public is a revival of the ideas Jay Rosen and others first began championing two decades ago. “What we today call ‘engagement’ was a central feature of many civic-journalism experiments, but in a way we were working with very crude tools then,” Rosen told me in 2011. “It’s almost like we were trying to do civic engagement with heavy machinery instead of the infinitely lighter and cheaper tools we have now.”

The “wired city” that I argue the New Haven Independent brought into being is a community built around local news, empowered by the “lighter and cheaper tools” that have become available during the past decade and a half. Through events like the Diane Ravitch forum, through carefully (if not perfectly) curated user comments and through the now-taken-for-granted convenience of always being just a few clicks away, the Independent has succeeded not so much as an entity unto itself but as the hub of a civic ecosystem.

As Clay Shirky has observed, with local newspapers slowly fading away, no single alternative will replace what they once provided. We need a variety of experiments — for-profit, nonprofit, cooperative ownership and voluntary efforts. The challenge all of them face is that serving the public is no longer enough. Rather, the public they serve must first be assembled — and given a voice.

Photo (cc) by Dan Kennedy and published here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Why the Boy Scouts’ half-measure won’t hold (II)

Read this scorcher of an editorial (link now fixed) from the New Haven Register on the Boy Scouts’ homophobia. Also, the Connecticut Yankee Council announced last week (before the national vote) that it will stop discriminating against boys and adults on the basis of sexual orientation.

The walls are crumbling. And my guess is that the national headquarters of the Boy Scouts of America no longer has the juice to enforce its discriminatory policies at the local level.

Paywalls, empowerment and “information apartheid”

John Paton

Nicole Narea and Clifton Wang of the Yale Daily News have written a preview of “The Wired City,” which is primarily about the life and times of the New Haven Independent, an innovative online-only nonprofit news site.

At a moment when online paywalls have become one of the biggest issues debated within the news business, it’s interesting that both the Independent and its newspaper competitor, the New Haven Register, have decided to keep their sites free. Here’s what Independent founder and editor Paul Bass tells the Yale Daily News:

We need to cut down on the information apartheid. If we are going to construct a paywall, we may as well not publish. We believe in community empowerment through journalism.

Of course the Register, as a for-profit entity, has a different challenge: selling enough online advertising to justify its decision to continue giving away its news. It’s a philosophy that John Paton, chief executive of the Register’s corporate parent, the Journal Register Co., describes as “Digital First.”

Journal Register is currently in bankruptcy for the second time in four years, but is expected to re-emerge later this spring. No doubt it’s going to be painful — among other things, employees have been told they will have to reapply for their jobs, and it is far from clear how many will be rehired. The Newspaper Guild-Communications Workers of America recently had some tough words for Journal Register, reports Bill Shea of Crain’s Detroit Business.

As Joshua Benton of the Nieman Journal Lab observed last September, the re-emergence from bankruptcy will also represent the best chance for Paton — one of the most closely watched executives in the newspaper business — to prove that a digital orientation can turn around a legacy newspaper chain with a lower-revenue, lower-cost approach. Interesting times ahead.

Photo found at Newspaper Death Watch.

The New Haven Register previews “The Wired City”

New Haven Register reporter Luther Turmelle has written a very kind preview of my forthcoming book, “The Wired City: Reimagining Journalism and Civic Life in the Post-Newspaper Age.” The book is largely about the New Haven Independent, a nonprofit online-only news organization founded in part to compete with the Register for city and neighborhood news.

In Chicago, too much hyperlocal competition?

A couple of friends today sent me a link to Mike Fourcher’s ruminations on what he learned running the Center Square Journal, a hyperlocal news site in Chicago that he started three years ago. He offers 21 lessons, and they’re not without value. But what stands out from my reading of them is that he simply faced too much competition for advertisers and readers. And that, in turn, was a consequence of his making an unfortunate choice of location.

Screen Shot 2013-01-15 at 4.07.11 PMThe sites I profile in “The Wired City” — mainly the New Haven Independent, but also The Batavian, CT News Junkie, the Connecticut Mirror, Voice of San Diego and Baristanet — have very different business models, but they all have one thing in common: a niche that was being woefully underserved before they came along to serve it.

New Haven illustrates my point. Paul Bass launched the Independent in 2005 to provide city and neighborhood news that was largely being ignored by everyone else — including the region’s daily paper, the New Haven Register, which tended to focus on the suburbs around New Haven. Eight years later, the Independent and the Register still serve different audiences. They compete for certain types of city news, but mainly they stay out of each other’s way. And because the Independent is a nonprofit, they’re not competing for scarce advertising dollars.

The Batavian is very different from the Independent, but it has similar advantages. The for-profit site was launched in Batavia, N.Y., by the GateHouse chain in 2008 as a pilot project. In 2009 it was acquired by Howard Owens after he was let go as GateHouse’s director of digital media.

The Batavian was up against two established news organizations: The Daily News and WBTA Radio. Owens formed a partnership with the radio station and competed fiercely with The Daily, as the locals call it. Unlike Fourcher’s experience in Chicago, though, there really wasn’t anyone else.

Like Paul Bass in New Haven, Owens carved out a niche by going more local than his competition — one county for The Batavian versus three for The Daily. It turned out that the business community was vibrant enough to support a daily newspaper, a radio station and a community website. But if there were, say, a half-dozen websites all trying to turn a profit, it’s not likely any of them would be able to make money.

Fourcher, a refugee from the robo-news operation Journatic, is now trying something interesting. He’s called a community meeting for Jan. 31 to see if his readers like the Center Square Journal enough to help him continue it in some form, or possibly to take it over in its entirety.

What’s evident from his 21 lessons, though, is that he fell short of making the Journal a vital part of his readers’ lives — possibly because there were already too many other voices competing for people’s time, attention and dollars.

What’s at stake in the latest Journal Register bankruptcy

Matt DeRienzo

This article also appears at the Nieman Journalism Lab.

In the spring of 2009, when I began researching what would become a book about online community journalism, I couldn’t have found a better foil than the New Haven Register.

Owned by the bankrupt Journal Register Co. (JRC), the daily was moribund and mediocre, its disconnect from the community symbolized by its location: a gigantic converted shirt factory, partly surrounded by barbed wire, on the outskirts of the city next to Interstate 95. The contrast with the New Haven Independent, a nonprofit, online-only startup that is the focus of my book, couldn’t have been more stark.

Three years later, when I turned in my manuscript, things had changed considerably. JRC was out of bankruptcy. Its chief executive, John Paton, was winning industry plaudits for his “Digital First” strategy of accelerating the transformation from print to online. The New Haven Register had a new, young, progressive editor, Matt DeRienzo. And JRC had outsourced printing to the Hartford Courant as DeRienzo had begun preparing to move his staff to a yet-to-be-determined location in the downtown. New Haven, a poor, largely minority city of about 130,000 people, was suddenly home to two of the country’s most closely watched experiments in reinventing local journalism. (My book on all of this, “The Wired City,” will be published by the University of Massachusetts in 2013.)

So I was shocked on Wednesday when Jim Romenesko reported that JRC was once again entering bankruptcy. As Paton explained it on his blog, the idea is to get the company out from under the legacy costs that it took on when the newspaper business was a lot larger and more profitable than it is today: debt; long-term leases on buildings it no longer needs; and pension obligations. The strategy is to take advantage of Chapter 11 in order to reduce JRC’s cost structure and re-emerge from bankruptcy in a matter of months.

The pension piece has been the subject of considerable consternation on Twitter and elsewhere, as it raised the specter of out-of-state investors (JRC is headquartered in suburban Philadelphia) taking away from loyal employees what is rightfully theirs. DeRienzo countered by pointing out that pensions are guaranteed by the federal government. “No one’s retirement is at risk,” he wrote.

There’s no question that guaranteed pensions are largely a thing of the past in the private sector, with defined benefits having given way some years ago to the era of the 401(k). And JRC is not the only newspaper company with pension problems. In 2009, the New York Times Co. nearly reached a deal to sell the Boston Globe that would reportedly have brought in less cash ($35 million) than the Globe’s future pension obligations ($59 million), which prospective buyers were asked to assume.

In other words, if you were going to start any private enterprise from scratch, you would almost certainly not include pensions as one of the benefits that you would offer your employees. And I have little trouble believing that JRC’s pension system is weighing the company down.

On the other hand, it seems to me that JRC may soon face a “Where’s the beef?” moment. Paton’s tireless advocacy of Digital First has gotten a lot of attention and praise — deservedly so. At some point, though, Paton has to deliver real improvements both to the journalism of JRC’s news organizations and to the bottom line.

I think Paton and DeRienzo have the right values and the right motives. I’m rooting for them. Fundamentally, though, we are talking about trying to effect change from the top down. Corporate chain ownership has been a disaster for community journalism. I’d rather my paper be owned by a good chain than a bad one. But neither is an adequate substitute for local ownership — and yes, I realize that’s no panacea, either.

As the Nieman Journalism Lab’s Joshua Benton points out, this may be Paton’s last, best chance to remake JRC exactly along the lines that he envisions — truly a new start without the dead weight of his predecessors’ poor decisions dragging him down. I’m eager to see what he’ll do with that opportunity.

New Haven Independent suspends comments

The New Haven Independent, a nonprofit, online-only news site, has long stood as a model for how to handle comments the right way. Though editor and publisher Paul Bass allows anonymity, he makes sure that every comment is screened before it’s posted. His comments policy begins: “Yes we do censor reader comments. We’ll continue to.”

So I was pretty surprised to learn a little while ago that Bass has suspended comments in order to give him and his staff some time to “catch our breath” and think about how to handle a deluge of nastiness — a deluge that he says has been on the increase since last fall’s contentious mayoral campaign. He writes:

The resulting harsh debate made me wonder: Is this the long-awaited new dawn of democracy and accountability we thought we were helping to help spark in New Haven by launching the Independent in 2005? Or are we contributing to the reflexively cynical, hate-filled discourse that has polluted American civic life? Are we reviving the civic square? Or managing a sewer with toxic streams that demoralize anyone who dares to take part in government or citizen activism?

What precipitated the hiatus, Bass explains, was a particularly hateful comment that somehow got posted even though he thought he’d zapped it. (It’s gone now.)

The city’s daily newspaper, the New Haven Register, has had its own problems with hateful, racist online comments. The new editor, Matt DeRienzo, vowed shortly after his appointment last summer that the Register would begin screening all comments — a system that is now in effect.

The idea behind comments is to build a community around the news through a multi-directional conversation. Though community and conversation remain worthwhile goals, nearly 20 years into the online-news era it remains far from clear as to whether online comments are the best way to do that.

Wednesday follow-up: Matt DeRienzo has written a smart reaction piece, asking, among other things, “How can the community be part of your journalism if you don’t even allow them to comment on what you do?”