WGBHNews.org has posted an excerpt from “The Wired City” about a controversy over citizens’ video-recording police that played out in New Haven in 2010 and ’11 — relevant given the ongoing violence in Ferguson, Missouri, and the vital role of citizen video in documenting what is taking place on the streets.
As I tried to show, the New Haven Independent’s repeated coverage of the controversy helped lead to a number of reforms, including statements from the mayor and the police chief in support of the right to record; a training session at the city’s police academy; and a bill in the state legislature that didn’t pass but that served further to raise consciousness about the issue.
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.
The end may be near for one of the most widely watched experiments in local journalism.
Early today, Ken Doctor reported at the Nieman Journalism Lab that Digital First Media was pulling the plug on Project Thunderdome, an initiative to provide national and international content to the company’s 75 daily newspapers and other publications and websites. Soon, Doctor added, Digital First’s papers are likely to be sold.
Judging from the reaction on Twitter, the news came as a shock, with many offering their condolences and best wishes to the top-notch digital news innovators who are leaving — including Jim Brady, Robyn Tomlin and Steve Buttry. But for someone who has been watching the Digital First story play out in New Haven for the past five years, what happened today was more a disappointment than a surprise.
I first visited the New Haven Register, a regional daily, in 2009. I was interviewing people for what would become “The Wired City,” a book centered on the New Haven Independent, a nonprofit online-only news site that represents an alternative to the broken advertising-based model that has traditionally supported local journalism. The Register’s corporate chain owner, the Journal Register Co., was in bankruptcy. The paper itself seemed listless and without direction.
Two years later, everything had changed. Journal Register had emerged from bankruptcy and hired a colorful, hard-driving chief executive, John Paton, whose oft-stated philosophy for turning around the newspaper business — “digital first” — became the name of his blog and, eventually, of his expanded empire, formed by the union of Journal Register and MediaNews, the latter best known for its ownership of the Denver Post.
Just before Labor Day in 2011, Matt DeRienzo — then a 35-year-old rising star who had just been put in charge of all of Journal Register’s Connecticut publications, including the New Haven Register — sat down with me and outlined his plans. His predecessor had refused my requests for an interview; DeRienzo, by contrast, had tracked me down because he’d heard I was writing a book. It seemed that a new era of openness and progress had begun.
The openness was for real. The progress, though, proved elusive. For a while, John Paton was the most celebrated newspaper executive in the country, the subject of flattering profiles in the The New York Times, the Columbia Journalism Review and elsewhere. Media reporters were charmed by his blunt profanity, as when he described a presentation he gave to Journal Register managerial employees. “They were like, ‘Who’s the fat guy in the front telling us that we’re broken? Who the fuck is he?'” Paton told the CJR.
In 2012, though, Journal Register declared bankruptcy again — a necessary step, Paton said, as it was the only way he could get costs such as long-term building leases and pension obligations under control. After Journal Register emerged from bankruptcy in 2013, Paton’s moment in the national spotlight seemed to have passed, as media observers turned their attention to a new breed of media moguls like Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos (who bought The Washington Post), Red Sox principal owner John Henry (who bought The Boston Globe), greeting-card executive Aaron Kushner (who acquired the Orange County Register) and eBay founder Pierre Omidyar (who launched a new venture called First Look Media).
Although Digital First’s deepening woes may have escaped national attention, there were signs in New Haven that not all was well. Some positive steps were taken. The print edition was redesigned. The Register website was the beneficiary of a chain-wide refurbishing. Nasty, racist online comments were brought under control, and the newsroom embraced social media. But larger improvements were harder to accomplish.
Among the goals Matt DeRienzo had talked about was moving the paper out of its headquarters, a hulking former shirt factory near Interstate 95, and opening a smaller office in the downtown. In 2012, the Register shut down its printing presses and outsourced the work to the Hartford Courant. The second part of that process never came, though. Just last week, the New Haven Independent reported that the Register had backed away from moving to a former downtown mall facing New Haven Green. Two months earlier, according to the Independent, the Register and Digital First’s other Connecticut publications laid off 10 people.
Neither development should be described as a death knell. The downtown move is reportedly still in the works. And the 10 layoffs were at least partly offset by the creation of six new digitally focused positions. But rather than boldly moving forward, the paper appears to be spinning its wheels. And now — or soon — it may be for sale.
One of the biggest problems Digital First faces is its corporate structure. Can for-profit local journalism truly be reinvented by a national chain whose majority owner — Alden Global Capital — is a hedge fund? People who invest in hedge funds are not generally known for their deep and abiding affection for the idea that quality journalism is essential to democratic self-goverance. Rather, they want their money back — and then some. Preferably as quickly as possible.
No matter how smart, hard-working and well-intentioned John Paton, Jim Brady, Matt DeRienzo et al. may be, the Digital First experiment was probably destined to end this way, as chain ownership generally does. I wish for a good outcome, especially in New Haven. Maybe some civic-minded business leaders will buy the paper and keep DeRienzo as editor. And maybe we’ll all come to understand that the best way to reinvent local journalism is at the local level, by people who are rooted in and care about their community.
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.
You won’t find a better example of the difference between a reporter who’s immersed in her beat and one who’s a generalist. The New Haven Register and the New Haven Independent today reported on the latest high-school test scores — a big deal everywhere, but especially in New Haven, where a nationally watched education-reform effort is under way.
Both the Register’s Abbe Smith and the Independent’s Melissa Bailey wrote that there were some especially notable improvements at Wilbur Cross High School, which the school superintendent, Reginald Mayo, referred to as having done an “extraordinary job.”
But the Independent also reported that the number of Wilbur Cross students taking the test this year was 200 lower than the previous year, and that those 200 comprised some of the most challenged students in the system. Bailey’s lede:
Pop quiz: If test scores at Wilbur Cross High School go up, but the number of test-takers drops by 200 — or by more than 50 percent, with many low performers gone — should the district tout “extraordinary” gains?
I’m not picking on Smith, who’s a good reporter. But Bailey is immersed in the New Haven school system, having visited classrooms across the city and written dozens of stories, some of them quite in-depth. A few months ago, I had a chance to accompany her to an elementary school, where we spent the morning sitting in on a teaching-team meeting, a reading-team meeting and even a teacher evaluation, which we were allowed to attend on the grounds that we not identify the teacher.
When you’ve got that kind of background knowledge, anomalies like the Wilbur Cross scores jump out at you.
SeeClickFix is an interactive website that lets users report problems in their communities and plot them on a Google map. Because it’s an open forum, local officials can check in to see where trouble spots are, and news organizations can track them as well. The New Haven Independent is one of many news sites that posts the RSS feed for its community. The interactive pothole map at Boston.com is powered by SeeClickFix as well.
On May 18 I had a chance to sit down with SeeClickFix co-founder and chief executive Ben Berkowitz in his second-floor office in downtown New Haven. Berkowitz, a hyperkinetic 31-year-old, had forgotten we were supposed to meet, but he graciously agreed to a video interview despite having a full agenda.
Berkowitz describes SeeClickFix as “citizens working collectively,” and explains that he started it three years ago when he was trying to get graffiti cleaned up in his neighborhood. The site has been growing rapidly since the New York Times published a feature story on it in January.
Today, the company has some 400 media partners and employs five people thanks to a $25,000 We Media prize and several hundred thousand dollars’ worth of venture capital. Although the basic service is free, SeeClickFix charges media sites for certain premium services, and posts advertising as well.
One aspect of Berkowitz’s philosophy that I found particularly interesting was his insistence that SeeClickFix is not just for holding government accountable — citizens, too, should take responsibility. As an example, he pointed to a similar project, the British website FixMyStreet — a great name that he nevertheless doesn’t like, he says, because it removes accountability from citizens and places it entirely on the government.
Does Berkowitz, who previously worked as a Web designer, consider himself a journalist? He pauses before answering. “I think SeeClickFix is a tool for journalists,” he replies. “I don’t think that I am a journalist. I don’t think of us as a news organization.”
For a good example of how journalists can use SeeClickFix as a reporting tool, see this story on “the ugliest storefront on Chapel Street” in the New Haven Independent.