What’s happened to local news in our medium-size city north of Boston is a story that could be told in hundreds of communities across the country.
After nearly a decade of attempting to raise money and spark interest in the idea of a cooperatively owned community news site, a group of volunteers in Haverhill, Mass., announced this month that they were shutting down.
The site, which would have been known as Haverhill Matters, was to be a pilot for the Banyan Project, the work of veteran journalist Tom Stites, who hoped to seed co-ops in news deserts across the country.
A former top editor at The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune, as well as the founder of several print and online publications, Stites hasn’t yet given up on his idea. But he admits that he’s frustrated by the lack of interest from prospective funders.
“I’ve been heartbroken every time I’ve seen a journalistically robust digital site go out of business,” he says, “knowing that it might have easily made the conversion to co-op if Banyan had had the funding to support them.”
I followed the Banyan Project’s efforts to launch Haverhill Matters from the beginning, writing about it in my 2013 book on new forms of online community journalism, The Wired City, and over the years for Nieman Lab and for my blog, Media Nation. (Click here for a complete index of my Banyan coverage.)
I reached out to Stites with the idea of having a conversation that would mark the end of a long journey — except it might not be over yet. News co-ops remain an interesting idea that could help fill some of the gaps created by the failures of legacy media. A few communities here and there are trying the concept out, from Mendocino, California, to Boston and Cambridge, to rural Maine.
Here’s a lightly edited version of our interview over email.
Mark Henderson was getting ready to throw in the towel on his dreams of becoming a successful media entrepreneur. He had suspended his two-year-old online community news project, the Worcester Sun, after a brief, failed experiment with a weekend print edition. So in February 2018, he started pulling his resume together and getting ready to look for a job.
First, though, he had one more idea he wanted to try. Since 2012, when he was still a top executive with the Massachusetts city’s daily newspaper, the Telegram & Gazette, he’d been thinking about building a local version of a social network. Back then, the timing wasn’t right. But maybe things had changed. He remembers sitting down one day in the early afternoon and starting to code a prototype.
“By midnight that night, I got a heartbeat,” he says. “And I said, ‘Okay, we’re off to the races. I can do this.’”
“This” turned out to be The 016, a website for Worcester and surrounding communities that seeks to connect people, organizations, businesses, and — not least — media outlets. The project, which takes its name from the first three digits of the city’s zip code, launched in November. According to Henderson, it now has more than 4,000 members, up from 2,500 just two months earlier, and is attracting more than 300,000 pageviews per month. (Disclosure: I’m a member of Henderson’s unpaid advisory board.)
Although The 016 bears more than a little resemblance to Facebook, the way it works is quite different. The content of Facebook’s News Feed is determined by algorithms, though the exact formula is secret. “Liking” a news organization will send only a small fraction of its Facebook posts to your feed. This so-called organic reach has dropped to as low as 2 percent, according to some estimates. If you’re a publisher and you want more, you have to pay.
By contrast, users of The 016 customize their news feeds to their own preferences, choosing among categories ranging from local news and obituaries to dining out and “weird news.” There are no algorithms. All users see everything they’ve asked for, and members can repost the same content as often as they like. If that sounds like a prescription for abuse, Henderson notes that users can delete bad actors from their feeds.
For news organizations, The 016 offers what Henderson says is a solution to the dilemma of publishing journalism on the internet that few people ever see — a factor, he says, in the Worcester Sun’s demise. He recalls publishing a story on infant mortality in the print and online editions of the Sun. “It laid an egg,” he says. “Here we are doing this great thing for the community, and crickets. And it was still the most important story I think the Sun has ever done.”
Content appears on The 016 not just in the news feed but also in a list of hand-selected “Highlights” and “Top Posts” at the top of the site. Henderson taps into sources ranging from the Telegram & Gazette and local television stations to police departments and colleges. He’s also formed partnerships with about a half-dozen media organizations, which are given pages at The 016 that they can manage as they see fit.
One of those partners is Unity Radio, a low-power FM community station operated by a nonprofit called Pride Productions that was founded by local activist Ernest Floyd. The station features eclectic programming — shows run by high school students, programs that highlight nonprofits, local sports, the chamber of commerce and a music show hosted by Floyd called “Smooth Grooves.”
“It has a little bit of everything,” says Floyd. He sees The 016 as another way to get the word out. “The station is still building its identity,” he says. “This is a vehicle we can use to promote the station and market our programs.”
Henderson is hoping to form many more partnerships, invoking the cliché “win-win” to describe The 016’s business model. Unlike the old Huffington Post approach to aggregation, The 016 takes just a snippet of content in linking to, say, a Telegram & Gazette story. Those who want to know more will have to click through, where they will see ads on the T&G’s own site or run into its paywall — thus helping the paper to sell digital subscriptions, at least in theory.
The 016 makes money from advertising in the form of sponsored content, starting at $20 a month. My research partner Ellen Clegg and I pressed Henderson on how he expected to have a cooperative relationship with local media outlets if he is competing with them for advertising dollars. He replied that he would offer his partners the chance to sell ads for The 016 on a revenue-sharing basis.
“My answer to a rather large publisher in this area is you’re not going after the $20-a-month guys,” he says. “And if you want me to deal you in, you guys can sell it and keep the rep share.” Henderson is convinced that ad salespeople for other news organizations can add The 016 to what they’re already selling, including Facebook ads, and that he can also make the case that The 016 is a better deal than Facebook because of rising prices and shrinking organic reach.
Henderson’s business partner, Kevin Meagher, puts it this way: “We’re delivery boy and booster. And no one should be afraid of us.”
To a certain extent, The 016’s mission is at odds with Henderson’s original vision for the Sun. When the site was launched, Henderson told me he hoped to fill some of the void created by the shrinking of the Telegram & Gazette under the ownership of the GateHouse Media chain. Now he’s providing a distribution platform to other media outlets, including the T&G.
Henderson makes no apologies, though. “You can create the best journalism,” he says, “but if you can’t get it to an audience, this is a problem.” He adds that he might revive the Sun at some point for occasional big projects that other news organizations might shy away from — something that would now be worth doing since he’d have The 016 as a distribution vehicle. But it’s unlikely that the Sun would seek to cover the city comprehensively since that would put it in competition with The 016’s media partners.
The 016 may prove to be something of a template. Henderson hopes he can roll out similar sites in about eight cities in the Northeast by the end of the year. Among them: Providence, Rhode Island; Portland, Maine; Burlington, Vermont; and New Haven, Connecticut. He would also like to reach out to members of LION (Local Independent Online News) Publishers.
Matt DeRienzo is vice president of news and digital content at Hearst’s Connecticut newspapers and websites, including the New Haven Register, and until recently, he was the executive director of LION. He says that The 016 faces a daunting challenge in attracting regular users if it depends on luring them away from Facebook. But he adds that Facebook itself is moving away from the News Feed and toward groups, many of them locally based — which suggests there’s a demand for the kind of service Henderson is offering.
“If Mark’s intent is to build a community that brings together people who are engaged in discussing their mutual opportunities and problems, and there’s a real human element in keeping out misinformation and trolls and things like that, that would be remarkable,” DeRienzo says. “And seemingly not impossible.”
As for Henderson’s advertising strategy, DeRienzo adds: “I actually think there is enough money to go around for everybody, especially if you’re saying the Facebook emperor has no clothes. I think publishers are smart to engage and be part of an ecosystem instead of viewing the ecosystem as competition.”
There’s an X factor in all of this: the plummeting reputation of Facebook. It’s not just Henderson’s contention that it’s a bad deal for advertisers — it’s that we increasingly understand that Facebook can be a toxic environment. Those all-powerful algorithms are designed to maximize user engagement — and the way Mark Zuckerberg & Co. keep people on the site is to make sure they’re stirred up and angry by feeding them fake news and politically charged memes.
Among the first people Henderson says he showed The 016 to was Joel Abrams, manager of media outreach for The Conversation, a nonprofit that serves as a platform for academic research. Abrams is a former colleague of Henderson’s, as he was a product manager for social media at The Boston Globe when both the Globe and the Telegram & Gazette were owned by The New York Times Company.
“In this age where people are feeling queasy about Facebook,” Abrams said in an email, “that provides a motivation for people to give some of their mindshare and browsing time to The 016.”
Henderson himself credits none other than President Trump for some of The 016’s early success, explaining that he believes the hyperpolarization that has turned Facebook into such a nasty place is leading people to look for alternatives.
“We are Trump-free,” he says. “And that’s not a bug — it’s a feature.”
For the past two years, The Boston Globe’s opinion pages have published new year’s resolutions in the first Sunday edition of January. This year’s, headlined “We Resolve: What Readers Can Expect from the Globe’s Editorial Pages in 2018,” outlines an eclectic agenda, from keeping a close eye on Google and Facebook, to pushing for transportation improvements, to addressing racism “in all its forms.”
The editorial struck me as of a piece with other innovative moves by the Globe’s opinion section — including an interactive editorial on gun violence, a parody front page of what a Donald Trump presidency would look like, and expanded digital content. I asked the Globe’s editorial-page editor, Ellen Clegg, where the idea for editorial-page new year’s resolutions came from and what she hopes it will accomplish. Our lightly edited email exchange appears at the Nieman Journalism Lab.
News publishers have been railing against Facebook ever since the gigantic platform began scooping up — along with Google — the lion’s share of digital advertising. But though people in the media business have long feared that they can’t live with Facebook, many of them have also concluded that they can’t live without it.
That second proposition is now being put to a serious test. Last week Facebook announced that it was changing its news feed to give priority to content posted by family and friends, thus downgrading journalism. As The New York Times put it, “Prioritizing what your friends and family share is part of an effort by Facebook to help people spend time on the site in what it thinks is a more meaningful way.”
Like many journalists, I have long relied on Facebook (and Twitter) to promote my work and to engage with my audience. It’s not exactly clear — at least not yet — what this will mean to individuals who post links to news content as opposed to, say, pictures of their cat. But the implications for publishers are clear enough. And at a time when the news business is besieged on multiple fronts, Mark Zuckerberg’s latest brainstorm is one more thing to worry about.
“For publishers who have come to rely on traffic from Facebook — which for some still drives the majority of their traffic; for many others, 30 or 40 percent — this is awful news,” wrote Joshua Benton at the Nieman Journalism Lab. Benton added that digital-only news sites that rely on free content, massive audiences and online advertising will be hurt the most. Newspapers that have had some success in getting readers to sign up for digital subscriptions won’t be hurt as badly, he added, although they will suffer from a loss of traffic, too.
At the Columbia Journalism Review, Mathew Ingram predicted that some publishers may go out of business as the result of the change:
Moving from an advertising-focused model to one that relies on reader subscriptions may be the prudent move, but getting from point A to point B could be difficult, and some companies may not be able to make the transition. For them, Facebook’s latest algorithm could be what Mother Jones Senior Editor Ben Dreyfuss called “an extinction-level event.”
There’s no question that a decreased emphasis on news may make life easier for Zuckerberg and company. Facebook’s fecklessness in the “fake news” wars has damaged the company’s reputation, and eschewing journalism, fake or otherwise, in favor of heartwarming family updates is, as Benton noted, more in keeping with Zuckerberg’s original vision.
Yet I can’t help but be concerned that this is one more blow that the news business doesn’t need. Maybe the solution is to develop a news product for legitimate publishers that would be separate from the news feed. That would require Facebook to hire journalists and make editorial judgments. But it could also be a contribution to democracy — an idea that Zuckerberg often pays lip service to with very little in the way of action to back it up.
New England’s second-largest city is about to get a new print newspaper. A little more than two years ago, the Worcester Sun debuted as a for-profit, online-only news organization. Founded by two GateHouse Media refugees, the site has been behind a hard paywall from the beginning, with subscribers paying $2 a week.
Now Mark Henderson and his business partner (and cousin), Fred Hurlbrink Jr., are ready to take the next step: repurposing their journalism in a Saturday print edition that will be mailed free to paid digital subscribers who live in the Worcester area. If you’re not a subscriber, you’ll be able to buy a copy for $2 at various locations in Central Massachusetts.
Print has been part of Henderson and Hurlbrink’s thinking right from the start. Just after the Sun went live, I wrote about the project for the Nieman Journalism Lab. Though the Sun is clearly a digital-first operation, its founders wanted to capture the value that still exists in print advertising as a way of developing a second revenue stream.
“If you’re going to start something new, monetizing digital is tough,” Henderson told me at the time. “And you can’t look at print as a medium without understanding that there is a ton of money still to be made there.”
(Disclosure: Some months after I interviewed Henderson and Hurlbrink, they asked me to serve on an unpaid board of advisers. The Lab’s Laura Hazard Owen wrote a follow-up on the Sun’s progress several months ago.)
Worcester’s daily paper, the Telegram & Gazette, has shrunk dramatically in recent years. Sold by Boston Globe owner John Henry to a Florida-based chain under disputed circumstances, it later ended up in the hands of GateHouse, of Pittsford, New York, which owns more than 100 daily and weekly papers in Eastern Massachusetts. Henderson is the T&G’s former online director; Hurlbrink worked as a copy editor and in production for GateHouse’s MetroWest Daily News of Framingham and for a design facility in Framingham that later closed, with the jobs being outsourced to Austin, Texas.
Henderson and Hurlbrink have a tough road ahead of them. But they’re still here after two years, and they have the advantage of being local owners who are part of their community. The best-case scenario is that the Sun will be a success and that GateHouse will respond by bolstering the ranks of the T&G. Best of luck to Mark and Fred.
I’m excited to let you see what I worked on during the spring semester at the Shorenstein Center for Media, Politics and Public Policy: a paper on the reinvention of the Washington Post under Jeff Bezos titled “The Bezos Effect.” It’s long, but I also wrote a summary version for my friends at the Nieman Journalism Lab.
My time as a Joan Shorenstein Fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School was incredibly rewarding. An expanded version of my paper will appear in my book-in-progress, which has a working title of The Return of the Moguls and which will be published by ForeEdge, the trade imprint of University Press of New England, in 2017.
Local news is the lifeblood of communities. But with traditional models of paying for local coverage no longer working, residents of too many cities, towns, and neighborhoods find themselves with little of the information they need to be informed, involved citizens.
Last week, the Local News Lab, launched by the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation with funding from the Knight Foundation, issued a progress report on its first 18 months of working with community journalism projects in New Jersey. (Nieman Lab’s Joseph Lichterman laid out some of the findings here, focusing on the lessons for philanthropists; you can download a PDF of the full report here. And, full disclosure, Knight is also a funder of Nieman Lab.)
The report is chock full of interesting ideas about collaboration, community engagement, and the role of philanthropy. Some of those ideas are so old that they’re new again. To wit: A $5,000 experimentation grant that was used in part to purchase newspaper boxes, thus saving New Brunswick Today some $300 a month.
Over the weekend, I interviewed the report’s authors, Molly de Aguiar, Dodge’s director of informed communities, and Josh Stearns, Dodge’s director of journalism and sustainability, over email. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
DAN KENNEDY: What is the most important takeaway for someone who reads your report and is thinking about starting a community news project?
JOSH STEARNS: For someone just starting out with a local news project, the most important takeaway from our report — and our work in general — is that we are stronger working together than we are working alone. And, frankly, this is the same advice I’d give to new startups and legacy newsrooms alike.
This idea plays out over and over again in our report. So many people starting up new newsrooms feel isolated (this is true of entrepreneurs in a lot of sectors), but by developing smart partnerships, by inviting people in, and by finding networks to plug into, journalists can develop new layers of support and strength. Jim Brady of Billy Penn describes this as huddling together for warmth. But this is true outside journalism too. Researchers point to community ties and neighborhood networks as the heart of resiliency in the face of crisis.
Professional networks like NJ News Commons and the Institute for Nonprofit News are critical for sharing lessons, testing ideas, and leveraging economies of scale while retaining the unique character of each individual community site. Partnerships like the Center for Investigative Reporting’s local/national work give local journalists access to expanded capacity, unique tools, and resources to tell stories in new ways. Finally, you need to build community around your work from the very start. Invest in your community and they will invest in you.
KENNEDY: In your section on $5,000 experimentation grants, we learn that in addition to using the money to build apps and engage with social media, one of the grantees used part of it to buy newspaper boxes. It made me wonder if we all tend to have too much of a knee-jerk orientation toward technology and innovation in reimagining local journalism.
STEARNS: You are right that we tend to have a vision of innovation that is biased towards technology solutions and platform approaches. Too often, innovation means pursuing a moonshot. But the way we approached innovation was focused on strategic changes rooted in community needs. Sometimes those changes were big and tech driven — new apps, creative social media experiments — but sometimes they were small and decidedly analog, like the newspaper boxes you mentioned.
For the experimentation grants, we worked closely with journalists to assess their newsrooms’ capacity and identify community needs. We defined innovation as something the newsroom could undertake that would change the way they serve community and help them approach revenue in a new way. Innovation doesn’t have to be about trying something never done before; it can simply be about applying an old idea in a new way or in a new context. What might be a failed strategy for some could be a game-changer for others.
When the goal is to shift culture in small newsrooms that are already stretched thin, sometimes you have to tackle a lot of small changes that together can add up to a newsroom that looks fundamentally different from where you began. Focusing on incremental innovation allows you to prototype ideas, fail safely, learn, and try again.
KENNEDY: You discuss ways in which crowdfunding and what we used to call public (or civic) journalism — in its simplest form, just a matter of listening to the community — can be effective ways of building an audience for local news. Could you discuss the challenge facing journalists who are dealing with fractured communities that, increasingly, have not cared all that much about local affairs?
: Communities that appear not to care much about local affairs probably actually care a great deal about local affairs but don’t feel empowered to participate in local decision-making in meaningful ways. We know from Pew’s Local News in a Digital Age report that residents in Macon, Denver, and Sioux City have a high interest in local news — and high dissatisfaction with local news coverage. People don’t see their lived experiences or their concerns reflected in their local news sources. The challenge for journalists, therefore, is building relationships with community members from all backgrounds and earning their trust, which is both time- and labor-intensive. There are no shortcuts.
We saw this play out very successfully with our partners at The Lo-Down, whose crowdfunding campaign raised more than $27,000 and was, in many ways, the culmination of years of important neighborhood coverage that gave a voice to community members concerned about gentrification and the loss of locally-owned small businesses. We wrote a blog post about it here.
KENNEDY: I detect a tension in one part of your report. On the one hand, you say philanthropic support should be used to pay for infrastructure and experimentation, not operating costs. On the other hand, you call for local donors and foundations to support journalism in their communities. Where exactly would you draw the line on grant money and local journalism? At a time when advertising is on the wane, doesn’t it make sense for philanthropies to step up and provide some direct funding on an ongoing basis?
DE AGUIAR: Actually, the report notes that “philanthropy’s most valuable role is to nurture networks, and provide a blend of operating support with experimental dollars.” We do provide operating support to nonprofit and public media in New Jersey, and have a long history of that. However, the work we describe in the report is primarily focused on the for-profit local newsrooms we are currently working with. And in their case, we are providing experimental dollars, not operating support, in order to help their businesses become stronger. We do not want to set a precedent of providing ongoing operating support to for-profit newsrooms.
We think the two most important messages to local donors and foundations in this section of the report are:
- Many “mom and pop” for-profit local newsrooms are mission-driven community anchors that could benefit significantly from some short-term experimental dollars to strengthen their businesses and better serve their communities.
- While funding a specific beat is a common strategy, there are many overlooked opportunities for supporting local journalism that foundations might consider — for example, funding infrastructure (legal support, web development, ad sales, etc.) that can substantially strengthen the entire field. There is no one right way — just many underappreciated options.
KENNEDY: What are the next steps for the Local News Lab?
DE AGUIAR AND STEARNS: We’ve got some exciting experiments and projects ahead regarding new revenue streams and community engagement.
With respect to the community-engagement bucket, we launched a number of projects last year that we introduced in our report — Hearken, The Listening Post, News Voices: New Jersey, Neighborhoods to Newsrooms, among others — and this year is really about giving those projects the space and time to blossom and document what we are learning. We are going to be looking at a few very different ways to bring communities into the reporting process and foster their investment in local news, including creative uses of art, theater, community organizing, and citizen journalism.
On the business side, we are looking at how newsrooms can create collaborations like PRX’s Radiotopia in the podcast space, to combine audience and reach bigger advertisers. We are also exploring how small local newsrooms can build profitable events strategies on a shoestring budget. But to some extent one of our next steps it to simply keep doing what we are doing — mentoring and coaching newsrooms to help develop more revenue streams, deepening their engagement with community, and further strengthening collaboration across the New Jersey ecosystem. We’ve made some amazing progress, but there is still a lot left to learn.
And we are going to be focused on further documenting and sharing all our work, not only in reports but also in concrete guides, sample materials and trainings.
Two years ago, then-CNN reporter Peter Hamby lamented the negative effect he believed Twitter and other social media were having on presidential campaign coverage. In a 95-page research paper (pdf) he wrote while he was a fellow at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, Hamby put it this way:
With Instagram and Twitter-primed iPhones, an ever more youthful press corps, and a journalistic reward structure in Washington that often prizes speed and scoops over context, campaigns are increasingly fearful of the reporters who cover them.
On Tuesday, Hamby was back at the Shorenstein Center, this time to tout the journalistic virtues of an even more ephemeral media platform: Snapchat, built on 10-second videos that disappear as soon as you view them. Hamby, who is barely older than the 18- to 34-year-old users he’s trying to reach, told a friendly but skeptical crowd of about two dozen that Snapchat is bringing news to an audience that is otherwise tuned out.
“Because our audience is so young, I view our mission as educational,” he said. “I think it’s OK that our mission is to illuminate the issues for young people. That’s not to say we won’t get into more serious, complicated things.”
My personal philosophy about new media platforms is to watch them from afar and to more or less ignore them until it’s no longer possible to do so. That served me well with networks like Foursquare and Ello, which seem to have faded away without my ever having to partake. On the other hand, I’ve been tweeting since mid-2008, which is about the time that Twitter’s emerging importance as a news source was becoming undeniable.
Snapchat, it would appear, has reached that turning point. It already has about 100 million daily users, the vast majority of them between 18 and 34, as Michael Andor Brodeur notes in The Boston Globe. And it is starting to branch out beyond those 10-second disintegrating videos.
The newsiest part of Snapchat is called Discover — channels from media organizations such as CNN, ESPN, Vice, BuzzFeed and National Geographic that provide short graphics- and music-heavy stories aimed at providing a little information to a low-information audience.
CNN’s fare of the moment comprises such material as the fight between Afghan and Taliban forces in the city of Kunduz; an FBI report that crime rates are dropping (a story consisting of nothing more than a video clip of a police cruiser with flashing lights, a headline and a brief paragraph); and the re-emergence of the Facebook copyright hoax.
Perhaps the most ambitious news project Snapchat has taken on — and the one in which Peter Hamby is most closely involved — is called Live Stories. Snapchat editors look for snaps being posted from a given location and, with the consent of those users, weave together a brief story. They disappear after 24 hours; the only one playing at the moment is “Farm Life: Worldwide,” which is as exciting as it sounds. But Hamby mentioned stories from presidential campaign announcements, the Iran nuclear deal, music festivals and the like that he said drew tens of millions of viewers. (If you want to get an idea of what a well-executed Live Story looks like, Joseph Lichterman of the Nieman Journalism Lab found a four-and-a-half-minute piece on the hajj that someone had saved and posted to YouTube.)
“At CNN we would cover an event with one or two cameras,” Hamby said. “With Snapchat we have everyone’s camera at our disposal.”
For me, at least, the most frustrating part of my brief experience with Snapchat (I only signed up Tuesday morning) has been finding worthwhile — or any — content that’s not part of the Discover channels or the Live Story of the moment. The search function is not especially useful. I did manage to friend several news organizations and presidential campaigns.
Any user can create a story that will stay up for 24 hours. So far, though, I’ve only managed to see relatively useless clips from Rand Paul and Lindsey Graham. Hamby gives points to former candidate Scott Walker and current candidate John Kasich for their imaginative use of Snapchat. But as best as I can tell, Kasich hasn’t posted a story in the past day. His campaign website — like those of a few other candidates I looked up — does not include his Snapchat username, even though it includes buttons for Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.
Snapchat is mobile to a fault — you can install it on an iOS or Android device, but not a laptop or desktop computer. That makes it fine if you’re on the go. But for an old fogey like me, it complicates the process of finding worthwhile material. And vertical video! Yikes!
In listening to Hamby on Tuesday, I was struck by his animus toward Twitter. “I think Twitter has made the tone of the coverage more negative,” he said. “Twitter is a uniquely toxic, negative space.” And though you might dismiss that as simply putting down a competitor, he said much the same thing in his 2013 report, citing a Pew Research Center study to back him up. Hamby quoted John Dickerson, now host of CBS’s “Face the Nation,” as saying of Twitter:
It makes us small and it makes us pissed off and mean, because Twitter as a conversation is incredibly acerbic and cynical and we don’t need more of that in coverage of politics, we need less.
Will Snapchat prove to be the antidote to Twitter? Count me as skeptical. Five to eight years ago, when Twitter pioneers were using the nascent platform to cover anti-government protests in Iran and earthquakes in California, Haiti and elsewhere, we had no way of knowing it would devolve into one of our leading sources of snark, poisoning the public discourse 140 characters at a time. (And I’m not sure I agree that that’s what it’s become. I mean, come on, just unfollow the worst offenders.)
But to the extent that we have to bring news to where the audience is rather than waiting for people to come to us, then yes, Snapchat may prove to be a valuable home for journalism. I just hope it whets users’ appetites for something more substantial.
Mark Henderson is certainly not the first person to launch a hyperlocal website in the shadow of the daily newspaper that used to employ him. Nevertheless, his ideas about how to build the site into a sustainable business are unorthodox enough to merit attention.
Henderson, a former executive with the 150-year-old Telegram & Gazette of Worcester, Mass., unveiled the Worcester Sun in August. From the start, the Sun’s content has been protected behind a hard paywall of $2 a week. There are no discounts; if you want to subscribe for a year, it will cost you $104.
Once the Sun has attracted a critical mass of paid digital subscribers (Henderson won’t reveal the magic number except to say that it’s well short of 1,000), he’ll add a Sunday paper for $1 a week, perhaps as soon as next spring. Print matters, Henderson says, because that’s still where most of the advertising is.
“If you’re going to start something new, monetizing digital is tough,” says Henderson. “And you can’t look at print as a medium without understanding that there is a ton of money still to be made there. Especially in Sunday print. We could use Sunday print to boost us into the stratosphere, to get us into a stable orbit where we can launch other things.”
Bootstrapping paid digital to break into paid print? Matt DeRienzo, interim executive director of Local Independent Online News (LION) Publishers, says he’s skeptical but intrigued. “Sunday print is going against the grain. There’s a lot of reasons the cards are stacked against them,” says DeRienzo, the former editor of Digital First Media’s Connecticut publications, which include the New Haven Register. But he adds: “The best ideas are going to come from people who live in and care about their community and who are closest to the problem. Who’s to say it’s not going to work?”
With a population of 183,000 — the second-largest city in New England after Boston — and a median household income of about $46,000, more than $20,000 below the state average, Worcester is a city facing economic challenges. It’s precisely the sort of community that could benefit most from independent media projects such as the Sun, says Catherine Tumber, a scholar with the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University.
“No one else is coming to their rescue,” says Tumber, the author of the 2011 book “Small, Gritty and Green: The Promise of America’s Smaller Industrial Cities in a Low-Carbon World.” “They have to rely on their own resources and civic ecosystems in order to reconstruct their cities and maintain quality of life there.”
Last week, I met Henderson and his business partner (and cousin) Fred Hurlbrink Jr. in a brightly lit coworking space on the first floor of the Innovation Center of Worcester — formerly the Franklin Street headquarters of the Telegram & Gazette, the daily newspaper where Henderson worked for nearly 25 years. Across the street is City Hall and the Worcester Common. On the other side of the common looms the mid-sized tower that is the current home of the T&G.
Henderson, 49, rose from the paper’s sports department to deputy managing editor for technology and, starting in 2009, online director. He left on June 2, 2014, the day that John Henry, who had purchased The Boston Globe and the T&G from the New York Times Company, sold the T&G to Halifax Media Group of Daytona Beach, Florida, after previously saying he intended to sell to a local group. Halifax cut about 20 journalistsfrom the full-time newsroom staff of about 80. Further cuts came a few months later when Halifax turned around and sold the paper to New Media Investment Group, an affiliate of GateHouse Media, based in the suburbs of Rochester, New York.
Hurlbrink, 38, had two stints with GateHouse — first as a copy editor at The MetroWest Daily News of Framingham and later at the Design House, run out of the Framingham plant, which handled design and some copyediting tasks for multiple GateHouse papers. In August 2014, GateHouse announced that the operation would be closed and moved to Austin, Texas.
Even with a shrunken Telegram & Gazette, Henderson and Hurlbrink find themselves in the midst of a highly competitive media environment. In addition to the T&G, Worcester is covered by MassLive.com, part of Advance Digital; GoLocalWorcester, which has sister sites in Providence, Rhode Island, and Portland, Oregon; and Worcester Magazine, whose parent company, Holden Landmark Corporation, is controlled by GateHouse Media chief executive Kirk Davis but is not part of GateHouse.
In the face of such competition, Henderson and Hurlbrink say their plan is to steer clear of breaking news and offer depth and analysis instead. “We’re never going to cover breaking news,” Henderson says. “Will we cover the opiate epidemic rather than three people who OD’d in the last 24 hours? Yeah, we’ll take a look at that. But we’ll devote the resources to do it and give people an insight that they didn’t have before.”
The Sun’s content so far reflects that philosophy, starting with the August 9 debut, which featured an essay on the city’s bygone newspaper scene by Worcester native Charles P. Pierce, the high-profile journalist and author who these days spends most of his time blogging about politics for Esquire. The Sun has also published stories on the privacy concerns posed by surveillance cameras, the city’s sagging downtown business district, and a mother’s quest to find the educational resources she needs to help her daughter with ADHD. The site also offers such quotidian fare as profiles of local businesses, editorials and, yes, obituaries.
“I think there’s a niche,” says Timothy McGourthy, executive director of the Worcester Regional Research Bureau. “I think it provides kind of a thoughtful human-interest approach to Worcester. It’s a generally positive approach to the city. I think the challenge is going to be getting the word out in the marketplace.”
The Sun’s paywall — as well as that of the T&G — is based on technology provided by Clickshare, whose website touts the software as a “flexible system” that allows for different types of paid access, billing and payment processing, and various options for e-commerce. Bill Densmore, who founded Clickshare in the mid-1990s, believes that print and digital serve two different types of audiences — and that Henderson and Hurlbrink are smart to try to serve both.
“A lean-back experience once a week makes a lot of sense to me,” says Densmore, a research fellow at the Reynolds Journalism Institute. “It’s an experiment, really, and an important one, both for the existing industry and for people starting on the digital side and wondering where that leads. I think the marriage of print and digital makes a lot of sense, particularly if you’re not trying to put out a daily paper, which increasingly seems anachronistic to me and to people in the digital world.”
Starting and maintaining a community news site is a hard way to make a living, but the allure is undeniable. LION counts about 130 member sites, and of course there many more that are not LION members. New ones pop up regularly. Just this week, The Boston Globe reported on a project called The Spark, cofounded by a former photographer for the GateHouse-owned Enterprise of Brockton.
It’s the same allure that has kept Henderson and Hurlbrink going despite setbacks — including a $150,000 Kickstarter campaign that fell well short of the mark. So far, they say, they’ve invested $200,000 in money and time. Soon they hope to unveil the first in a line of ebooks. And they’ve got plans to launch online verticals in areas such as education and local sports. “I think there are places we can go where we can be effective,” says Hurlbrink.
If all goes according to plan, they foresee a staff of 20 full- and part-time journalists. The key, adds Henderson, is to fill a niche — and not worry about what the competition is doing.
“We’ve never said we’re here to take the T&G out,” says Henderson. “Other people have. We don’t agree with that. Our stated goal is to serve our audience, the city of Worcester, the best we can. And if we have an opportunity to grow our audience, all the better.”