Alex Jones to depart Harvard’s Shorenstein Center

Alex Jones
Alex Jones

Best wishes to Alex Jones, who’s leaving as director of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy after 15 years at the helm. The center, part of the Kennedy School, is one of Harvard’s two major journalistic endeavors, the other being the Nieman Foundation.

Alex has enjoyed a long and accomplishment-filled career. He may be best known for co-writing with his wife, the late Susan Tifft, “The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind The New York Times” (1999), the definitive biography of the Ochs-Sulzberger family.

Under Jones’ leadership, Shorenstein has been an important part of the conversation about journalism both locally and nationally. He’ll be missed — but I hope he’s planning on being around often enough that he won’t be missed too much.

New York Times journos discuss Innovation Report

Screen Shot 2014-09-28 at 4.28.30 PMAn all-star panel came together on Friday evening at the Online News Association conference in Chicago to discuss The New York Times’ celebrated Innovation Report — an internal document about the Times’ efforts to adjust to the digital age that became public when it was leaked to BuzzFeed.

The report, wrote Joshua Benton of the Nieman Journalism Lab last May, is “one of the most remarkable documents I’ve seen in my years running the Lab.” Both the full document and a comprehensive summary are available as part of Benton’s piece, and they are well worth reading. The report describes how the Times — in many ways an innovator in the transition to digital — is still being held back by an antiquated management structure, an overemphasis on what goes on page one of the print edition, and a lack of understanding of how to promote and distribute the Times’ journalism.

The ONA panel was moderated by Ann Marie Lipinski (@AMLwhere), curator of Harvard’s Nieman Foundation. The panelists were Amy O’Leary (@amyoleary), deputy editor for digital operations at the Times and one of the authors of the report; Tyson Evans (@tysone), the Times’ editor of newsroom strategy, who also contributed to the report; and Alex MacCallum (@alexmaccallum), recently promoted to a newly created assistant managing editor’s slot to oversee audience engagement.

Hundreds of people were on hand, and many of them — including me — live-tweeted the panel. Bursts of fragmentary news are no substitute for a well-crafted story about the event (here’s one by a student who covered it), but they can give you some flavor of the discussion. Here’s what I had say, including a couple of retweets that I thought were worth sharing.

The New Haven Independent prepares to reboot

NHI goodbye party

Previously published at the Nieman Journalism Lab.

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.)

Several hundred people gathered in and outside the Woodland Café, near the New Haven Green, to say goodbye to Bailey and MacMillan. Their photography was on display, accompanied by QR codes that smartphone users could access to take them to the stories where those photos first appeared. Copies of Bailey’s just-published book on education reform in New Haven, “School Reform City: Voices from an American Experiment,” were on sale, along with Appel’s novel “The Midland Kid: Tales of the Presidential Ghostwriter.” Mayors past (John DeStefano) and present (Toni Harp) were on hand, as were a number of other community leaders.

“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.

The reboot of the Independent comes at a crucial time. The regional daily paper, the New Haven Register, has gone through several rounds of cuts in recent months — including one announced just last week — as its owner, Digital First Media, prepares for a widely predicted sell-off. In a few years, Digital First has gone from a closely watched experiment in reinvention to just another sad tale of chain journalism gone wrong.

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.”

An ebook about school reform in New Haven

CoverschoolreformcitySMALL1_363_580autoIf you care about public education, I have some good summer reading for you.

Melissa Bailey, who covers New Haven’s nationally recognized school-reform effort for the New Haven Independent, has published some of her best stories — along with supplemental material — in an ebook titled “School Reform City: Voices from an American Experiment.”

I got to know Melissa while I was researching my book “The Wired City.” She is a resourceful, dedicated reporter, and “School Reform City” should be a real contribution to the growing literature on school reform. She’ll split the proceeds with the Independent, so it’s a fundraiser (and a visibility-raiser) for the nonprofit news site as well.

Melissa will be taking a leave from the Independent this fall, as she’ll be a Nieman Fellow at Harvard during the 2014-’15 academic year.

New Haven Independent’s Bailey headed for Harvard

Melissa Bailey
Melissa Bailey

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.

The Globe, the Phoenix and the pedophile-priest story

Jim Romenesko has posted a letter from my friend Susan Ryan-Vollmar on the Boston Phoenix’s groundbreaking work in exposing the pedophile-priest story, and on the Boston Globe’s ongoing silence about the Phoenix’s coverage, which predated the Globe’s by nearly a year.

I think Susan, a former Phoenix news editor, gets it fundamentally right. The Globe got the documents that led to Cardinal Bernard Law’s departure. The Globe richly deserved the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service that it won in 2003. But I agree with Susan that Kristen Lombardi’s reporting for the Phoenix warrants more public recogntion than it has received.

Susan, Kristen (currently a Nieman Fellow) and I all worked at the Phoenix together and remain friends. I consider Kristen to be the finest reporter I ever worked with. Susan is a first-rate editor who did much to shape and focus Kristen’s stories. Walter Robinson, who was the Globe Spotlight team editor that covered the priest scandal, is now a valued colleague at Northeastern.

But Susan has laid down the gauntlet, and Romenesko has asked Globe editor Marty Baron to respond. This bears watching.

The great newspaper retrenchment of 2012

I’ve got a piece up at the Nieman Journalism Lab predicting that 2012 will be the year of “the great newspaper retrenchment” — an embrace of paywalls and tradition, and a deliberate turning-away from the need to reinvent a business whose long-term prospects remain bleak.

Nieman’s “Predictions for Journalism 2012” series is well worth checking out. I plan to sit down and read them all when I get a chance.

Kristen Lombardi named a Nieman Fellow

Kristen Lombardi

Congratulations to my friend and former Boston Phoenix colleague Kristen Lombardi, who will be a fellow at Harvard’s Nieman Foundation in 2011-’12. FOKs have known for a few weeks, but today Nieman made it official. It looks like an impressive group.

Kristen is a dogged investigative reporter, the best I worked with. While at the Phoenix, she broke several important parts of the pedophile-priest story months before the Boston Globe began its Pulitzer Prize-winning work. I’m proud to say I worked at the Phoenix during the Kristen Lombardi era.

For the past few years she’s been at the Center for Public Integrity, where she recently won a Dart Award for her reporting on sexual assault on college and university campuses.

Globe publisher Taylor was both lucky and good

William Taylor

William Taylor, the former Boston Globe publisher who died Sunday, was both lucky and good.

Lucky because his time as publisher coincided with an era of enormous prosperity in the newspaper industry. Good because he used that prosperity to transform the Globe into one of the best papers in the country. Under Taylor and the late editor Tom Winship, the Globe grew into a national-class paper with its own correspondents overseas and around the country.

For those who needed reminding, today’s obituary, by Bryan Marquard, explains why Taylor had to sell. With the paper on the verge of devolving to about 120 heirs, the only way Taylor could preserve the Globe’s legacy was to leave it in the hands of a good steward. He chose the New York Times Co., which paid an astounding $1.1 billion — half the Times Co.’s stock-market valuation at the time.

And if the Sulzbergers haven’t been quite the magnanimous owners Bill Taylor might have hoped for (especially when his second cousin Ben Taylor was sacked as publisher in 1999), they still have maintained the Globe’s quality to a far greater degree than a bottom-feeding chain like Gannett or a bankrupt behemoth like Tribune would have.

Bill Taylor’s death comes at a time when Ben Taylor and his cousin Steve, himself a former Globe executive, are seeking to return to some sort of ownership role as part of a group put together by local businessman Aaron Kushner.

The Taylor brand gives Kushner instant credibility — and it was Bill Taylor who was largely responsible for creating that brand.

Also: The Nieman Foundation pays tribute to Taylor.

Ann Marie Lipinski to run Nieman Foundation

Ann Marie Lipinski

Former Chicago Tribune editor Ann Marie Lipinski has been named curator of Harvard’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism, replacing Bob Giles, who’s retiring this June. Steve Myers has the details and the links at Poynter.org.

Nieman is a leading journalism education and research foundation, as well as a center for mid-career journalists looking to recharge their batteries. (Note: I am an occasional contributor to its journal, Nieman Reports.) Lipinski instantly becomes one of the most important media thinkers in Boston.

From the press release:

Lipinski brings three decades of journalism experience to her new post. Prior to joining the University of Chicago in 2008, where she is credited with major contributions to the discourse around the future of the city, arts programs in the community, and collaborations with local public schools, she served as editor of the Chicago Tribune for more than seven years. Under her stewardship, the Tribune became known as a leader in public service journalism, publishing stories with both investigative depth and literary detail, including a multiyear reporting effort that helped bring about a moratorium on the death penalty in Illinois. Under her leadership, the Tribune won Pulitzers for international, explanatory, investigative, feature, and editorial writing. The paper also significantly expanded its portfolio of print and digital offerings.

Lipinski was a Nieman Fellow in 1990, so she knows her way around Harvard Square — although, if she’s like the rest of us, she’ll find it considerably less interesting than it was the last time she was here.