Muzzle follow-up: An Appeals Court panel doles out more pain for the city of Worcester

Worcester City Hall and Common. Photo (cc) 2015 by Destination Worcester.

For years, the city of Worcester withheld public records about police misconduct that had been sought by the local daily newspaper, the Telegram & Gazette. It’s already cost the hapless taxpayers big-time: Nearly a year ago, an outraged judge ruled against the city and awarded the T&G $101,000 to cover about half the cost of the newspaper’s legal fees. She also assessed the city $5,000 in punitive damages.

That outrageous misconduct, overseen by former city manager Edward Augustus, was the subject of a 2022 New England Muzzle Award, published by GBH News.

Now a three-judge panel of the state Appeals Court is asking a logical question: If the T&G was in the right and the city was in the wrong, why shouldn’t the newspaper be compensated for all or most of its legal fees rather than just half? This week that panel overturned the lower-court ruling and ordered Superior Court Judge Janet Kenton-Walker to consider increasing the legal fees she awarded, according to a report by the T&G’s Brad Petrishen, who first began seeking the records in 2018.

Petrishen quoted Associate Justice John Englander as saying: “At 10,000 feet, what happened here is the newspaper wanted to write about something and it took them three years to get the documents they wanted to write about.”

The proceedings have been followed closely by Andrew Quemere, a journalist who writes a newsletter on public records called The Mass Dump. Quemere published a detailed account this week that includes some particularly entertaining quotes from an exchange Justice Englander had with the city’s lawyer, Wendy Quinn, at oral arguments in December:

“What did the plaintiffs request or push for that they were wrong about?” Englander asked.

Quinn paused for about six seconds before asking Englander to clarify his question.

“What the heck did you spend three years and hundreds of thousands of dollars fighting over if they should have gotten [the records]?” Englander asked. “If you had a defense, I’d like to understand what the defense was.”

As Quemere notes, Judge Kenton-Walker has consistently taken the position that the city not only erred and acted in bad faith, ordering that the city turn over the documents that the T&G had sought in June 2021 and then awarding $101,000 in legal fees in February 2022.

Even so, the newspaper appealed, seeking the full $217,000 it had paid — and, as the Appeals Court panel has now ruled, it may very well be entitled to that money. Jeffrey Pyle, a Boston-based First Amendment lawyer who represented the T&G, put it this way at the oral arguments: “To cut [the fees] by 54% sends a message to public records requesters: Don’t bother suing, you’re not going to be made whole even if you win and show that the other side acted in bad faith.”

To make matters worse for city officials, the Department of Justice last November announced that it had launched an investigation to determine whether the police department had used excessive force or engaged in discrimination on the basis of race or gender, although it is not clear whether DOJ was motivated by the T&G’s reporting.

I hope the T&G gets every last dime that it spent on this case. But I should add that the newspaper’s corporate chain owner, Gannett, deserves credit for pursuing this without any guarantee that it would ever be compensated. I criticize Gannett’s cost-cutting frequently in this space, but the company and its predecessor, GateHouse Media, have always been dedicated to fighting for open government, even if it means going to court. They could have told the T&G’s editors to forget about it, but they didn’t.

Finally, a disclosure: David Nordman, who was the T&G’s editor until this past summer, is now a colleague of mine at Northeastern. We work on opposite sides of the campus, literally and figuratively: he’s the executive editor of Northeastern Global News, part of the university’s communications operation, and I’m a faculty member at the School of Journalism.

A disappeared alt-weekly highlights the challenge of saving digital archives

Paul Farhi of The Washington Post has an amazing story (free link) about The Hook, an alternative-weekly that used to publish in Charlottesville, Virginia. Its online archives disappeared after they were sold to a mystery buyer. Circumstantial evidence suggests that the buyer was a litigious deep-pockets guy who wanted to make invisible The Hook’s reporting about a sexual-assault case he was involved in years earlier.

Keeping online archives active and usable is a real challenge. Though what happened to The Hook was pretty unusual, it’s not unheard-of for valuable digital resources simply to disappear. Fortunately, the defunct alt-weekly I worked for, The Boston Phoenix, is available online through Northeastern University and the Internet Archive. You can find the Phoenix here.

It’s even more of a problem when the resource was digital-only and there was no print component that can be saved on microfilm. For instance, Blue Mass Group, a progressive political website that was a big deal in Massachusetts at one time, has been seeking a new digital home as the last of the co-founders, Charley Blandy, prepares to leave. Charley writes: “Plans are afoot for the site to be thoroughly crawled and archived. It won’t just disappear. The site will stay up, at least for a while, but for the purpose of archiving, commenting and posting will be disabled on 12/31/22.”

These resources need to be saved.

All aboard the GLX

I didn’t have to come to Northeastern today, but I was excited to try the Green Line Extension, which made its grand debut on Monday. So here I am.

My ride began at the new Medford/Tufts station at Boston and College avenues. It’s a mile and a half from my house and it was c-o-l-d, so my wife dropped me off on her way to work. There are a couple of buses I could have taken, too, although they don’t run as often as they should.

I walked inside the shiny new station, downstairs to the platform and then onto a train. There was no place to pay either before or after boarding, so the handful of us who were riding from Medford got a free pass. I don’t know about the other five new stations, but obviously that’s not a viable business plan; I assume payment options will be coming soon. We sat there for a few minutes in the cold, with the doors open, and then pulled out at 7:27 a.m.

The ride was smooth and a lot zippier than I’m used to on the Green Line. We had a beautiful sunrise view of the Zakim Bridge as we crossed the channel before heading underground. Things began to bog down south of Science Park. The train finally got crowded at North Station, so I put on my mask. And then it was the usual slow roll the rest of the way.

We pulled in to Northeastern at 8:06. Thirty-nine minutes wasn’t bad at all, but it was closer to an hour when you add in getting to the station and then waiting for the train to start moving. I’ll probably stick with my usual commute — I’m a seven-minute walk from the West Medford commuter rail station, which gets me to North Station in 12 minutes. After that, I can take the Orange Line or the Green Line to campus depending on my mood and which comes first.

On the other hand, I’m teaching an evening class this fall, and the commuter rail rarely runs after rush hour. The Green Line may be an attractive alternative to paying for a Lyft.

Finally, a semi-unrelated observation: I couldn’t make out where the Somerville Community Path was, which struck me as odd. On rare occasions, I like to ride my bike to work, and this ought to be a better option than what’s available to me now. The path has been built out to Lechmere and runs along the tracks. I had hoped the path would be extended north to the Medford/Tufts station, but I don’t think that’s the case. From what I can tell, you’ll pick it up at Lowell Street in Somerville.

The Green Line Extension to Medford is looking good

I got a look at the almost-ready Medford/Tufts MBTA station on the Green Line Extension during a walk through Medford, Somerville and Arlington on Saturday. After many delays, the station is scheduled to open Dec. 12. Trolleys that originate there will be part of the E Line, which I’m pretty excited about because it will run directly to Northeastern without my having to change trolleys.

It’s a mile and a half from our house, which is kind of a schlep when you’re trying to get to work. But it’s not a bad bike ride when it’s nice out and not dark, and there may be times when I can get a ride from my wife or daughter. Also of note: A bike path runs alongside the tracks into the city, which may make for a better ride to campus, something I like to do occasionally.

Now if only they’d extend it to northwest to Route 16. That was the original plan, but it fell victim to cost-cutting. Maybe someday.

Amid COVID-19 and a failing MBTA, more and more people turn to biking

The rise of Bluebikes has helped fuel an increase in the number of people traveling on two wheels in the Boston area. Photo by Henry Shifrin.

My wonderful Northeastern intermediate reporting students have produced a terrific story on urban biking for The Scope, our School of Journalism’s digital publication covering issues related to social justice.

Here’s how we did it. Eleven of the 14 students interviewed experts, policymakers and ordinary cyclists, combining all of their notes onto one Google Doc. One student took photos. Two contributed research. Each of them wrote a story based on everyone’s notes. Finally, I pulled together an article from several of their stories.

I am pleased with the results and incredibly proud of my students. You can read their story right here.

Yes, it’s true: Brian McGrory is leaving the Globe and heading to Boston University

Boston Globe editor Brian McGrory has finally made official what half the city has known for months: he’s leaving the Globe at the end of 2022 after nearly 10 years in charge in order to chair the journalism department at Boston University. He sent a memo to the staff a little while ago.

McGrory, who’d been a popular metro columnist before ascending to the top of the masthead, was named editor in the waning days of New York Times Co. ownership after Marty Baron left for The Washington Post. But McGrory helped pave the way for John Henry to buy the Globe in 2013, a process I described in my 2018 book, “The Return of the Moguls.” On McGrory’s watch, the Globe has thrived journalistically and has emerged as among a handful of large regional newspapers that have achieved financial sustainability.

Obviously there’s much more to be said, and much more will be said. I’ll just point out that he’s now a rival. The director of our School of Journalism at Northeastern is Jonathan Kaufman, a former Globe journalist. Moreover, McGrory and Kaufman both led news organizations that won Pulitzer Prizes — Bloomberg News in Kaufman’s case.

Here’s the Globe’s story on McGrory’s departure.

Congratulations to Brian. BU’s gain will be the Globe’s loss. The complete text of McGrory’s message, obtained from a trusted source, appear below.

Hey all,

I’ve written a lot of overly long memos to the room. I can’t promise this one will be any shorter, but I’ll do my best to be direct. I’m planning to step away from my role as editor by the end of this year.

When I took this job nearly a decade ago, I expected epic challenges and hoped for meaningful rewards. In retrospect, I had no idea on either front. Begin with the stories, so many once-in-a-generation stories, from the Boston Marathon bombings, to the Trump election, to a pandemic that changed everything, to the vital racial and social justice movement, to Trump’s failed reelection and its ugly aftermath, to this angst-ridden, not-quite-post-Covid netherworld that we’re in now. There were thousands of other stories in between, big consequential projects, deeply human narratives, breaking news, vital accountability work. You did it all with tenacity, urgency, and grace, and I’m honored to have been a part of that.

At the same time, the moment required us to confront the profoundly broken business model in American journalism, which calls to mind what a journalism elder said to me a number of years ago: You get to pick your career, but not when you do it. The industry was, as you know, a wreck. Big, proud newspapers were getting hollowed out. Answers were elusive. There were serious questions about our very viability. Facing all of that, what you’ve accomplished is nothing short of miraculous. You’ve embraced digital. You’ve shifted our mindset from being the paper of record to the paper of interest. You’ve found that sweet spot between what readers want and what our community needs. In doing so, you’ve built one of the most successful news sites in the world, http://bostonglobe.com, the foundation upon which this organization will grow for years. I hope you know how rare and important this is. And I’m honored to be part of that, too.

These kinds of notes inevitably turn formulaic and sappy, rarely a good combination, and I’m afraid I’m about to succumb to that form. There is so much that is great about this job, but there is a singularly meaningful reward that I wasn’t fully anticipating: my relationships with so many of you. From this seat, I had the privilege of thousands upon thousands of conversations. I saw your daily determination. I saw your commitment to the craft. I saw how you navigated the relentless demands of work in the most difficult times. I saw the toll it took, the resilience you had, the pride you felt. I saw how you care about your colleagues and the readers we serve.

I saw on a moment-by-moment basis how much the Globe means to you. What I also saw is how much you mean to the Globe. Don’t take this the wrong way, but you’re not always easy. You are, though, always worth it. This is the best newsroom in the country, and there’s no proper way to thank you for that.

Naming names is never a good thing, but I need to specifically thank Jen Peter and Jason Tuohey, the two best managing editors in America. You could throw at Jen a global pandemic that decimates every touchstone of everyday life, which we did, and she would hesitate only imperceptibly before continuing to bring order to the daily chaos that is journalism. She’s done it brilliantly. And put Jason among the most important digital thinkers in this industry today, the driving force behind so much of our growth.

Thanks, emphatically, to the Henrys, John and Linda. It’s just about incomprehensible that people with their options and resources would have the desire and commitment to plunge into the gritty and often thankless world of newspapers at a time when so many big thinkers were saying that the industry couldn’t be saved. They did, for all the right reasons, and the results have been profound – a thriving, innovative Globe with more subscribers than we’ve had in nearly 15 years and a role in this community that is as central as it’s ever been. Linda, especially, is at it every day – believe me, I know – often dismantling industry convention in pursuit of the next creative idea. She’s also built what is certainly the strongest leadership team the Globe has ever had, leaving no doubt that the next editor will be someone to celebrate.

In terms of what’s next for me, I’ve got two roles ahead. First, I’m heading to Boston University, where I’ve been offered the chair of the journalism department, an extraordinary opportunity to have an impact on the profession at a gold-standard institution. Hopefully that finally puts an end to the rumors. Second, I’ll write a regular column for the Globe, likely from the opinion section, ideally not too different from what I used to do in prior chapters of my professional life. I’m beyond excited about regaining a voice, and elated to remain a part of this place.

Our plan is for me to remain in this role until the end of the year or until a new editor starts, whichever comes first. Linda will be in touch very soon about the search.

Being the editor of the Globe would be the greatest honor of anyone’s professional life, and it certainly has been mine. For me, though, there’s something more. I was born here, raised here, watched my father read the Globe page-by-page every night, delivered the paper as a kid on a fifty-house route in Weymouth. All I ever wanted to be was a writer for the Globe. Being the editor was a dream I never dared to have.

Thank you for it all.

Correction. I really can subtract. Honestly, I know that 2022 minus 2012 is 10. Now fixed.

 

Student debt relief was a good first step. Now we need systemic reform.

Tuition was surprisingly affordable during the Middle Ages

Much of the whining you hear about President Biden’s decision to cancel some student loan debt is coming from people who have no idea what has happened to the cost of a college education.

When I was attending Northeastern University in the 1970s (like many back then, I was the first in my family to graduate from college), the cost was trivial. Not only that, but editors at the student paper, The Northeastern News, received generous tuition stipends. Today, the paper, now known as The Huntington News, is independent, and the students get nothing for their hard work.

Not only did I graduate without debt, but I was also able to get my master’s in American history at Boston University by attending night school, paid for in full out of my crappy newspaper salary. It turned out to be the best investment I ever made: Years later, when I sought to return to Northeastern as a faculty member, the first question I was asked was if I had a master’s.

So I certainly don’t begrudge the relief more recent graduates are getting as a result of Biden’s action. If anything, many people will still find themselves deep in debt, though somewhat less than they are now. I do, however, think debt relief raises two questions that need to be answered.

• What about the role of colleges and universities, whose costs have risen far in excess of inflation during the past generation? Federal loan guarantees were part of that, as it gave them an incentive to compete on amenities rather than price. Shouldn’t we play some part in solving the problem? At the very least, maybe  institutions that fail to hold annual increases within a certain range should become ineligible for federal loans.

• What about future graduates? Their debt burden is going to be just as heavy, if not heavier. Are we setting ourselves up for round after round of debt forgiveness? Or might it be possible to construct a more equitable, sustainable system that doesn’t revolve around ever-rising costs, massive loans and calls for debt cancellation?

Those of us who work in higher education are well aware of the sacrifices our students and their families are making, and we often talk about what will happen after the bubble inevitably bursts. There are already some early signs, with young people seeing less value in college than was the case a few years ago. We need to change the way we do business.

Andrea Campbell, in visit to West Medford, says she’ll push for open government

Andrea Campbell. Photo (cc) 2022 by Dan Kennedy.

Andrea Campbell said Tuesday that she would work to strengthen the state’s notoriously weak open-meeting and public-records laws if she is elected attorney general this November.

“I’m on the record in supporting legislation that would expand it to include other bodies of government,” she told about two dozen supporters at a meet-and-greet in West Medford. “In order for folks to be meaningful participants in their government, to be civically engaged where it matters, you have to know what’s going on.”

Campbell, a former Boston City Council president and an unsuccessful candidate for mayor in 2021, is one of three Democrats seeking to succeed the incumbent, Maura Healey, who’s running for governor. The other Democrats are Shannon Liss-Riordan, a labor attorney, and Quentin Palfrey, a former Obama administration official. The winner of the Sept. 6 primary will face Republican lawyer Jay McMahon in November.

Liss-Riordan and Palfrey also support reforming the open-meeting and public-records laws, according to their campaign websites.

Readers of Media Nation know that I’m not out there covering the state election campaigns. But the Campbell event was hosted by our neighbors Gary Klein and Betsy Schreuer, who live less than a minute’s walk from our house, so it seemed like a good opportunity to meet one of the candidates. Besides, we no longer have a news outlet in Medford.

Despite the state’s progressive reputation, Massachusetts ranks near the bottom nationally when it comes to government transparency. Back in 2020, Northeastern journalism students asked every candidate for the state Legislature whether they would support extending the open-records law to the Legislature, which is currently exempt — as is the governor’s office. Although most of those who responded said they favored reform, only 71 of the 257 candidates provided answers despite our students’ repeated attempts. Their findings were published in The Scope, a School of Journalism vertical that covers social-justice issues.

Although it’s not the attorney general’s role to propose legislation, that official can nevertheless serve as a visible leader for open government. The AG also has a crucial role in enforcing the laws, which cover the executive branch of state government as well as local and county offices. Campbell said Healey (who has endorsed her) has done “a decent job” of enforcing the current laws, but added she would emphasize greater enforcement. Campbell cited a lawsuit filed by the ACLU after the Plymouth County district attorney’s office demanded $1.2 million in fees to produce public records, as reported by Wheeler Cowperthwaite in The Patriot Ledger. “How does an AG, working with the secretary of state and others, work in partnership so that doesn’t happen?” she asked.

According to a recent poll by the MassINC Polling Group, the Democratic attorney general’s race is wide open. Campbell led with 24%, followed by Liss-Riordan at 16% and Palfrey at 4%. But 50% were undecided or refused to answer. Without naming her, Campbell and several others made several references Tuesday evening to the vast sums of personal money Liss-Riordan is dumping into her campaign — a total that could reach $12 million, according to Lisa Kashinsky of Politico.

Campbell was introduced by Klein, a lawyer and consultant who at one time worked for Attorney General Healey, and by former Attorney General Martha Coakley, who also lives in West Medford. Other Medford political figures on hand were state Rep. Paul Donato, school committee member Melanie McLaughlin and Neil Osborne, the city’s chief people officer.

Most of Campbell’s brief remarks were what you would expect at such an event — an upbeat speech along with calls to vote and make a campaign donation. She also got personal, telling those on hand about the death of her mother, who was killed in a car accident while on her way visit her father, who was incarcerated. Her twin brother died at the age of 29 while in pre-trial detention.

“And yet, every single day,” she said, “I make an intentional choice to turn that pain into purpose.”

The Emancipator makes its welcome, long-anticipated debut

The Emancipator, long in the making, has gotten past the soft-launch stage and made its formal debut this week. Aimed at covering the Black experience from an antiracist point of view, the site is vibrant and colorful. It looks great on mobile, and features videos (including one by Black activist and filmmaker Bree Newsome Bass, above) and comics alongside serious essays and reported pieces.

The Emancipator is a joint venture of The Boston Globe’s opinion operation and the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University. Northeastern journalism students are involved as well. There’s no paywall.

The point of the project is to provide national coverage of the country’s reckoning with systemic racism. Starting with the police murder of George Floyd and the police killing of Breonna Taylor in 2020, race has moved to the center of the national conversation in a way that it had not since the 1960s. Tragically, the moment we’re in right now feels more like the backlash than it does forward progress. The introduction puts it this way:

Just as 19th-century antislavery publications reframed and amplified the quest for abolition, The Emancipator centers critical voices, debates, and evidence-based opinion to reframe the national conversation on racial equity and hasten a more racially just society.

We put journalists, scholars, and community members into conversation, showcasing missing and underamplified voices — past and present — and demonstrating how they reveal the way forward.

The founders are former Globe editorial page editor Bina Venkataramin and BU’s Ibram X. Kendi, the author of “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America,” winner of the National Book Award. The co-editors are Deborah D. Douglas and Amber Payne. Among the more recognizable bylines is that of Globe columnist Kimberly Atkins Stohr, and the star-studded advisory board includes the ubiquitous Nikole Hannah-Jones, creator of the 1619 Project.

One interesting style note: News organizations have been reaching different conclusions during the past several years over whether they should uppercase “Black.” The Emancipator is going with uppercase “Black” and “White,” which, for what it’s worth, is what The Washington Post is doing as well. The Globe, The New York Times and The Associated Press have all opted for uppercase “Black” and lowercase “white.”

A year ago, when The Emancipator was announced, there were some hard feelings at The Bay State Banner, which has been covering the Black community in Greater Boston since 1965. (Northeastern students also contribute to the Banner through The Scope, our digital social-justice publication.) I don’t really see a conflict, though. The Banner continues to do a great job of covering local issues, while The Emancipator is national in scope and opinion-based. There’s room for both — and for more. Banner founder Melvin Miller, I should note, will receive a long-overdue Yankee Quill Award this Friday.

The Emancipator is an important project and a welcome new voice. I’ve signed up for “Unbound,” the site’s newsletter, and I’m interested to see how the project develops.

From Northeastern to the North Country: Em Cassel’s entrepreneurial journey

Em Cassel

Em Cassel is editor and co-owner of Racket, a reader-funded website covering politics, music, arts and culture in Minneapolis and Saint Paul. (She was also a student in my digital journalism course at Northeastern University.)

Em made a name for herself as food editor, managing editor and editor-in-chief of City Pages in the Twin Cities. She was the first woman editor in the 41-year history of that publication. City Pages, which was bought by the Minneapolis Star Tribune in 2015, was shut down in late 2020. The company said it wasn’t economically viable, citing the pandemic. Em provides some inside scoop about that, and talks about the founding of Racket, which proudly claims on its website that it has “no bosses, some biases.”

I’ve got a Quick Take on the Montclair Local, a nonprofit weekly newspaper launched several years ago in New Jersey. The Local is well-funded and supported by a number of New York media types who live in Montclair. But what about less affluent areas?

My co-host, Ellen Clegg, reports on an effort to shut down an entire town that was uncovered by the Tennessee Lookout, part of the rapidly expanding nonprofit network called States Newsroom. The Lookout’s scoop was highlighted in the newsletter of The Emancipator, a re-imagined update on the nation’s first abolitionist newspaper for the digital age that is being launched soon.

You can listen to our conversation here and subscribe through your favorite podcast app.