In our latest ‘What Works’ podcast, Damon Kiesow talks about human-centered design

Damon Kiesow

Our latest “What Works” podcast features Damon Kiesow, a professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, where he holds the Knight Chair in Digital Editing and Producing. But Ellen Clegg and I first met him about 10 years ago when he was at The Boston Globe, developing mobile products for Boston.com and BostonGlobe.com.

At the time, the new Globe.com site had been launched with a paywall, and featured the Globe’s journalism. Although print revenue is still significant, the paywall strategy seems to be paying off now in terms of digital subscriptions. Kiesow and others were working on emerging technologies in mobile and social media. Kiesow focused on human-centered design: how readers interact with a print newspaper versus a digital side. Does some 150 years of experience reading print make a difference? Why is doom scrolling on digital platforms so exhausting? Tune in and find out.

Plus Ellen takes a quick look at a powerful newspaper collaboration in South Carolina that is rooting out scandal after scandal, and I offer an update on the vibrant digital archive of the late, great Boston Phoenix, housed at Northeastern University and now freely available online.

You can listen here or on your favorite podcast app.

After a long delay, most of The Boston Phoenix print archives are now online

The Boston Phoenix’s archives have taken a giant step closer to becoming accessible and usable.

A few weeks ago I learned from Giordana Mecagni, the head of special collections and university archivist at Northeastern, that a deal had been struck with the Internet Archive to make print editions of the Phoenix available — and searchable — online. On Wednesday, it became official. Caralee Adams has the details at the Internet Archive’s blog.

I’m really thrilled that this has happened. I was on staff at the Phoenix from 1991 to 2005, most of that time as the media columnist, and I continued to write for the paper occasionally up until it closed in 2013. Two years later, the Phoenix’s founder and publisher, Stephen Mindich, donated the archives to Northeastern, a gift I helped arrange.

Unfortunately, Stephen died in 2018, and the hopes we all had of digitizing the collection stalled out. A couple of years ago there was talk of a grant proposal, but that didn’t go anywhere, either. So what happened? Adams explains:

As it turns out, the Internet Archive owned the master microfilm for the Phoenix and it put the full collection online in a separate collection: The Boston Phoenix 1973-2013. Initially, the back issues were only available for one patron to check out at a time through Controlled Digital Lending. Once Northeastern learned about the digitized collection, it extended rights to the Archive to allow the Phoenix to be downloaded without controls.

“All of a sudden it was free to the public. It was wonderful,” Mecagni told Adams. “We get tons and tons of research requests for various aspects of the Phoenix, so having it available online for free for people to download is a huge help for us.”

I’ve been playing with the new collection the last few weeks, and though it’s not perfect, it’s a big step forward. It encompasses papers starting in 1973, when Mindich, the publisher of a competing alt-weekly called Boston After Dark, acquired The Phoenix and renamed it The Boston Phoenix, up until the closing in March 2013.

There are some significant gaps; there appear to be no issues from 2011 or ’12, and just 33 from 2010, for instance. (I’ll bet there are ways of fixing that. I know that the Boston Public Library has the Phoenix in its microfilm collection, and perhaps it’s more complete than what the Internet Archive has.) And BAD, the pre-Mindich Phoenix and The Real Paper, founded by former staff members of The Phoenix following the 1973 acquisition, are all absent as well.

But this is a huge, huge step forward. As Carly Carioli, the last editor of the Phoenix, told Adams: “It’s a dream come true. The Phoenix was invaluable in its own time, and I think it will be invaluable for a new generation who are just discovering it now.”

Giordana Mecagni deserves huge thanks. From the beginning, she has understood the value of the Phoenix. This is a big step forward for her vision as well.

That link, once again, is right here. Enjoy!

Northeastern’s School of Journalism backs bills to address the local news crisis

Rep. Mark DeSaulnier

Our faculty at Northeastern University’s School of Journalism recently voted unanimously to support two pieces of legislation aimed at addressing the local news crisis — a bill to make it easier for newspapers to become nonprofit organizations and a resolution that asks Congress to help reverse the decline of community journalism.

The bills were introduced in the House today by U.S. Rep. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Calif., and co-sponsored by Reps. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo., Jamie Raskin, D-Md., and David Cicilline, D-R.I.

“As local newspapers are being bought up and taken over by large corporations, it is incumbent on Congress to act to protect this public good,” said DeSaulnier in a press release. “My legislation would do just that and ensure newspapers in every community can continue to provide high-quality local coverage that millions of American rely on and deserve.”

Professor Jonathan Kaufman, director of Northeastern’s School of Journalism, said, “The hollowing-out and disappearance of local news organizations imperils journalism, communities and our democracy. These measures provide a financial lifeline and tools for the next generation of journalists to pursue new models and innovation that bring more local news to communities.”

The bills are not related to the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, which would provide tax credits to subscribers, advertisers and publishers. The tax credit that would benefit publishers is part of President Biden’s Build Back Better legislation. DeSaulnier’s bills, by contrast, would address the problem that journalism is not among the activities that qualifies for nonprofit status, even though the IRS has approved such status for many news organizations over the years.

The full press release issued by Rep. DeSaulnier’s office follows.

Congressman DeSaulnier Introduces Legislative Package to Support and Preserve Local Journalism

Washington, D.C. – Today, Congressman Mark DeSaulnier (CA-11), along with his colleagues Congressman Ed Perlmutter (CO-07), Congressman Jamie Raskin (MD-08), and Congressman David Cicilline (RI-01) introduced two pieces of legislation aimed at supporting and protecting local journalism, and honoring its role in bolstering our democracy, holding government accountable, and informing the electorate. The Saving Local News Act (H.R. 6068) would make it easier for newspapers to become non-profits, allowing them the flexibility to focus less on maximizing profits and more on producing quality content. The local news resolution (H.Res. 821) recognizes the importance of local media outlets to society and expresses the urgent need for Congress to help stop the decline of local media outlets.

“Local journalism has been the bedrock of American democracy for centuries. I have seen firsthand how journalists for local newspapers have kept our community informed, educated voters, and held power to account,” said Congressman DeSaulnier. “As local newspapers are being bought up and taken over by large corporations, it is incumbent on Congress to act to protect this public good. My legislation would do just that and ensure newspapers in every community can continue to provide high-quality local coverage that millions of American rely on and deserve.”

“Local and accurate sources of news are becoming more and more important for our community and our country. I believe Congress has a role to play to ensure legitimate media outlets are able to better adapt to the changing media landscape and continue to inform Americans in every community,” said Congressman Perlmutter.

“An informed American public is essential to strong democracy,” said Congressman Raskin. “We cannot allow worldwide propaganda and conspiracy theories to replace hard local news based on local reportage. I’m proud to join Rep. DeSaulnier in introducing this important legislation that will give local news the flexibility it needs to thrive in a dangerously toxic media environment.”

“Over the past 15 years, one in five newspapers have closed, and the number of journalists working for newspapers has been slashed in half. We now live in a country in which at least 200 counties have no local newspapers at all,” said Congressman Cicilline. “This crisis in American journalism has led to the crises we are seeing today in our democracy and civic life. We cannot let this trend continue because if it does, we risk permanently compromising the news organizations that are essential to our communities, holding the government and powerful corporations accountable, and sustaining our democracy. I’m proud to support this resolution and the Saving Local News Act and thank Congressman DeSaulnier for his leadership and partnership in this work.”

“We commend Congressman DeSaulnier for introducing this important piece of legislation that recognizes the importance of nonprofit journalism to the American society. At a time when news deserts are a growing concern, we must ensure that we support all newsrooms in their efforts to provide high-quality journalism to their local communities. This journalism bill that would allow non-profit newsrooms to treat advertising revenue as nontaxable income could be helpful to a number of publishers,” said David Chavern, President and CEO, News Media Alliance.

“Community newspapers are exploring many new models for sustainability. Our newsrooms realize that without us, whole communities will lose their center of gravity. A nonprofit model is one that can work in some communities, but just establishing this status isn’t enough to keep the doors open and journalists at work. The need for revenue from a variety of sources, including local advertisers, remains acute. NNA supports the Saving Local News Act and thanks Congressman DeSaulnier for his work on behalf of local communities,” said Brett Wesner, Chair, National Newspaper Association and Publisher, Wesner Publications, Cordell, OK.

“Honest, truthful reporting is essential to informing our democracy at all levels. Without it, we won’t remain a nation of the people, by the people, for the people. Bills that help sustain local reporting that informs people about what their government representatives are up to, will help keep the citizens in charge of our country,” said George Stanley, President of the News Leaders Association.

“News organizations are looking at multiple ways to fund their organizations while continuing to deliver local journalism that is fundamental to a thriving Democracy. If news organizations want to pursue the nonprofit business model; it should be as accessible for established organizations as it is for news startups. Our members are known and trusted in the communities they serve and removing the hurdles to find philanthropic support would allow newsrooms to focus on serving their communities,” said Brandi Rivera, Publisher, Santa Barbara Independent and Board Member, Association of Alternative Newsmedia.

“Community newspapers are woven into the fabric of American society and provide accurate and trusted information that improves the lives of individuals in the communities they serve. It is no secret that newspapers face an increasing number of existential threats from online competitors which have left them with a decreasing number of revenue opportunities. This measure would provide news organizations with the means to better rise to these challenges and continue to play a vital role in their communities by holding the feet of the powerful to the fire and giving voice to the powerless,” said Jim Ewert, General Counsel, California News Publishers Association.

“Free Press Action supports this important legislation and applauds Congressman DeSaulnier for recognizing the importance of building, supporting and sustaining local nonprofit news operations,” said Craig Aaron, President and co-CEO of Free Press Action. “In too many places, corporate media have shrunk newsrooms or abandoned communities entirely. Nonprofit news has emerged as the future of local journalism, and it’s our best hope for keeping reporters on the beat focused on the needs of local communities, serving communities of color, and reaching so many people who have never been well served by the media. This bill will remove obstacles to nonprofit journalism, help launch more of these outlets, encourage more existing outlets to go nonprofit, and create more of the kind of high-quality journalism we need to inform our communities and keep our democracy thriving.”

“The hollowing-out and disappearance of local news organizations imperils journalism, communities and our democracy. These measures provide a financial lifeline and tools for the next generation of journalists to pursue new models and innovation that bring more local news to communities,” said Professor Jonathan Kaufman, Director of the Northeastern University School of Journalism.

“The health of the news industry is so precarious, all efforts to strengthen an industry so instrumental to democracy are well received. Thanks to Rep. DeSaulnier for stepping up,” said Jody Brannon, Ph.D., Director of the Center for Journalism and Liberty at the Open Markets Institute.

“The U.S. tax code needs this important update to make it easier for nonprofit news organizations to grow across our country. We’ve lost tens of thousands of local journalists over the last decade. That’s meant fewer journalists covering local government meetings, local business and even high school sports. Journalists are essential to holding power to account, watching over our democracy and providing a voice to the voiceless. We applaud Rep. DeSaulnier’s support of journalism. Our country was founded under the principle that a free press was the best way to make sure we have a robust democracy by having an informed electorate. We all have to fight now to save local news,” said Jon Schleuss, President of NewsGuild-CWA.

“The newspaper business model is broken. At a time when local journalism has never been more essential, journalists are losing their jobs across the country, leaving important stories untold. Compelling, original journalism does continue to drive significant advertising revenue—just not for newspapers. Big Tech giants, like Google and Facebook, have used their monopoly power to capture huge swaths of the digital advertising market, making it nearly impossible for many papers to chart a path forward in the digital age. This has allowed hedge fund vulture capitalists to scoop up scores of newspapers across the country—all of whom have been reduced to shadows of their former glory by a short-sighted cut, cut, cut approach. We welcome and applaud efforts to help news outlets continue to cover of the communities they serve. This legislation will create a path that communities can use to save their local papers. Local news is a key piece of American democracy, and while addressing the underlying problems Big Tech has created for journalists is complex, we have to do everything we can to allow for news to thrive,” said the Save Journalism Project.

“PEN America applauds the introduction of the Saving Local News Act – and the accompanying resolution on the importance of local news – as a welcome and needed step to support America’s journalism ecosystem. By making it easier for news organizations to become nonprofits, Congressman DeSaulnier’s legislation will open up a sustainable financial pathway for quality local journalism, recognizing its value as a public good. Enacting this bill will strengthen a fundamental pillar of our democracy, encouraging diverse reporting, civic engagement, and access to essential community information,” said Nadine Farid Johnson, Washington director of PEN America.

Since 2017, estimated daily newspaper circulation fell 11 percent from the previous year (Pew Research Center). Congressman DeSaulnier established a working group of dedicated Members of Congress from areas affected by a drought of high-quality journalism. Together they have been working to highlight this crisis and bring attention to the need to promote local journalism, including by holding a Special Order on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives and introducing the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act (H.R. 1735), a bill to create a temporary safe harbor from anti-trust laws to allow news organizations to join together and negotiate with dominant online platforms to get a fair share of advertising profits.

Congressman DeSaulnier’s bill and resolution are supported by: News Media Alliance, National Newspaper Association, News Leaders Association, Association of Alternative Newsmedia, California News Publishers Association, Free Press Action, Faculty of the School of Journalism at Northeastern University, Local Independent Online News (LION) Publishers, Save Journalism Project, PEN America, Center for Journalism and Liberty at the Open Markets Institute, and NewsGuild-CWA.

Living the new normal, from a long-delayed commencement to an Amtrak trip

Photo by Matthew Modoono / Northeastern University

Previously published at GBH News.

We are now 21 months into the COVID-19 pandemic. I’m writing this on the Amtrak to New Haven, a remarkably normal activity that conjures up images of life as we once knew it.

Except that I paid extra for a business-class ticket so I wouldn’t be too near anyone else. Except that I put my cloth mask away and switched to an industrial-strength N95 as soon as I took my seat. Except that I’ve received two doses of a COVID vaccine along with a booster, and I’m still wondering when, if ever, this will all come to an end.

This past Saturday I took part in a ritual at Northeastern University that simultaneously underscored the hope and the sense of danger we’re all experiencing. Some 2,500 members of the Class of 2020 gathered in Matthews Arena to celebrate the commencement that had been canceled at the height of the pandemic. It was held in two shifts, morning and afternoon, and masks were mandatory. It was a wonderful, festive moment.

Even so, it was impossible not to notice that a few of the grads refused to wear masks. And it was hard not to wonder what the effect would be of all those people briefly removing their masks so they could get their pictures taken. I’m triply vaxxed and pretty healthy, but I’m also 65. And though I’m reasonably confident that I wouldn’t get too sick if I were infected, I don’t want to spread it to anyone else.

As we all know, once again we’re right on the cusp. The Delta variant, which wreaked such havoc on the optimism we all felt after the first vaccines became available, had been on the wane in recent months. But now it seems to be rising once again — even in Massachusetts, where the vaccination rate is among the highest in the country.

“These state trends are disconcerting, but not surprising, as national declines in COVID cases have stalled in recent weeks,” Harvard public health professor Howard Koh told The Boston Globe. “We need to be extra-vigilant and careful as the winter season approaches. We must push the state’s vaccination rates even higher, resist suggestions to drop mask requirements too early, and eliminate disparities.”

Yet the urge to move in the opposite direction is overwhelming. Even as COVID cases were ticking up, the city of Medford, where I live, was lifting its indoor mask mandate — except, incongruously enough, in city-owned buildings.

Maybe returning to our normal lives and going maskless when it makes sense (i.e., not in an arena packed with graduates and their families) is what we all ought to be doing. David Leonhardt of The New York Times, whose morning newsletter has been a source of calm for many of us, said as much last Friday. His take, grounded in evidence and statistics, is that those of us who are fully vaccinated and healthy are in no more danger of becoming seriously ill from COVID than we are from the flu. And of course, we take few precautions to avoid getting the flu except for annual vaccines, and many of us don’t even bother with those.

“The bottom line is that COVID now presents the sort of risk to most vaccinated people that we unthinkingly accept in other parts of life,” Leonhard wrote. “And there is not going to be a day when we wake up to headlines proclaiming that COVID is defeated. In many ways, the future of the virus has arrived.”

Consider the example of Alexis Madrigal, who wrote in The Atlantic about his experience with a breakthrough infection despite being young, physically fit and fully vaxxed. He attended a friend’s wedding in New Orleans at which all the other guests had been vaccinated, too. He got COVID. But he didn’t get all that sick. The worst part was how his illness affected those around him.

“My kids had to come out of school and isolate with my wife,” he wrote. “A raft of tests had to be taken by everyone I’d had even limited contact with. (I was one of at least a dozen people at the wedding who got sick.) I had been with several older people, including my mother-in-law. For my wife and children, the tests went on for days and days, each one bringing a prospective new disaster and 10 to 14 more days of life disruption or worse.”

No, no fun. But, as he acknowledged, the vaccines worked. As Madrigal put it: “Maybe we’re in this space for another year or two or three. One way to put the question of endemicity is: When do we start treating COVID like other respiratory illnesses?”

The pandemic was especially hard on education. Students from kindergarten through college were affected, and instructors have had to juggle Zoom classes, hybrid learning, what to do when students test positive and a number of other challenges they couldn’t haven’t have imagined confronting before March 2020.

But the classroom, too, is returning to some semblance of normal. I’m on sabbatical this year, working on another book, but my colleagues tell me they’ve been having a reasonably upbeat semester. Vaccines are required. Everyone is masked and tested regularly. This is about as good as it’s going to get, at least for another year or so.

“Every graduating class — like every graduate — is tested,” Northeastern president Joseph Aoun said at Saturday’s commencement. “But your class faced the ultimate test: A global cataclysm that literally cut your final semester short. The scale and impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is unlike anything we have seen in our lifetimes, yet you persevered. You overcame every challenge, every hardship. Class of 2020, I am in awe of what you have achieved.”

I’m in awe, too. And I’m glad that my students — my former students — were able to come back to campus and be recognized for what they accomplished during their time at Northeastern, especially during those awful last few months. Meanwhile, it’s onward — to New Haven, to the future and to whatever this miserable pandemic has in store for us next.

Northeastern marks the 20th anniverary of the 9/11 attacks

The Center for Spiritual Life, Dialogue and Service held a remembrance for the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks earlier today. The service, marking the 20th anniversary, centered on the life of Candace Lee Williams, an accounting major who died on American Airlines Flight 11 at the age of 20.

“She was the best of us,” her brother Corey Gaudioso told News at Northeastern. “There’s never been anyone like Can. We all just knew she was going to do great things — she could’ve conquered Wall Street or something.”

Several of us spoke at the service, including Mary Kane, Candace’s co-op adviser and now an assistant dean in the D’Amore-McKim School of Business. Kane told News at Northeastern: “Candace was so smart, and beautiful on the inside and out. But I think what struck me most was her appreciation for everyday life. She had this amazing smile, and she appreciated the small things as well as the big opportunities.”

I spoke about my experience as a journalist that day and how the media have changed over the past 20 years.

It was a moving ceremony, organized by the center’s executive director, Alexander Levering Kern.

I wish I had known Candace, who would be 40 and in the prime of her life today.

In which Mike Beaudet and I try to make sense of CNN’s Chris Cuomo problem

By Peter Ramjug

Chris Cuomo is expected to be back on the air at CNN this week. Questions still swirl around him following the resignation of his older brother, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and the role the cable network star played in advising the governor through his political crisis and how the network will handle one of the biggest stories of the year going forward.

Cuomo will likely keep his job, say Northeastern journalism faculty experts Dan Kennedy and Mike Beaudet, even as media watchdog groups and others have called for him to step down or be fired for his involvement with the matter. They say network management and Chris Cuomo himself share blame for a “messy situation” that blurred personal and professional lines between the anchor and his embattled sibling.

Read the rest at News@Northeastern.

Can community journalism be saved?

Ellen Clegg and I talked with Hillary Chabot of News at Northeastern about our book project, tentatively titled “What Works: The Future of Local News.”

A Northeastern study shows how animation can enhance local TV news

My Northeastern colleagues Mike Beaudet and John Wihbey, along with some amazing students, have been studying ways to improve local television news. Their latest installment looks at how animation can increase viewer interest, attract younger viewers and make it easier to understand the essential facts of a story.

According to a summary of their findings that they wrote along with graduate student Anna Campbell for RTNDA.org:

After viewing the local news stories that took a fresh approach to animation and graphics, viewers preferred that style across the board, with audiences more likely to rate the animated stories as clear, compelling, and memorable. The graphically-enhanced stories were generally perceived both as more relevant in content and resonant in tone. Animation also captured positive descriptions in the open-ended questions we posed.

As you’ll see if you watch the video presentation above, animation essentially takes the place of irrelevant and boring B-roll. And when Beaudet, Campbell and Wihbey refer to animation, they don’t mean something you might see on “Adult Swim.” Rather, they’re talking about presenting visualizations that help viewers understand what they’re watching.

Media observers like me don’t always pay much attention to local TV news. But it’s incredibly important — it’s the second-most popular news medium that we have (the internet comes in first), and it’s more trusted than other forms of news. So congratulations to my colleagues and their students for finding ways to make it better.

You can find more of their work at Storybench, a School of Journalism web publication that covers media innovation.

Go Huskies!

I had a weirdly news-free weekend, as I volunteered as a marshal at four of Northeastern’s commencement ceremonies on Saturday and Sunday. I’ll be catching up today and tomorrow. Meanwhile, here are some scenes from Fenway.

The news about COVID is good and getting better. It’s time to celebrate.

Photo (cc) 2020 by Province of British Columbia

Previously published at GBH News.

The end of the pandemic in the United States isn’t going to be marked by a solemn announcement or a celebrity-studded fundraising event on TV. There are too many uncertainties.

Even as the situation improves in Massachusetts, the numbers are much higher — though dropping — in Michigan, Minnesota, Colorado and elsewhere. And, of course, the virus is causing unimaginable suffering right now in India and South America. We need to do all we can to help.

But even though there won’t be a clearly defined endpoint, I’m declaring an end to COVID-19 this week. Just about every adult in the U.S. who wants to be vaccinated has now done so or will be able to soon. Masks are coming off outdoors. Schools are filling up again — safely. Indoor restaurant dining is coming back. Our long national nightmare isn’t over, but we’re slowly beginning to wake up.

We’re all going to have our own end-of-COVID story. Mine — and probably yours — begins with family. This Thursday will mark two weeks since my second Pfizer shot. By Memorial Day, my wife, son and daughter will all be at full immunity. We are incredibly lucky. Even though three of us have been regularly working outside our home, we’ve all stayed healthy.

To put a punctuation mark on it, I’m writing this column inside a local coffee shop for the first time in more than a year. The last column I wrote here was published on Feb. 26, 2020. Ironically, it was about a newspaper in Texas that had built a café next to its newsroom so that people could come in and order a burger and beer. It was an experiment in journalism and civic engagement that could help ease the local news crisis — and exactly the sort of activity that had to be put on hold once the virus began raging. Now it looks like it’s back.

Despite the increasingly upbeat feeling many of us are enjoying, the pandemic has taught us humility. Remember when we thought the shutdown would last two or three weeks? It would have been unfathomable back in March 2020 to think that it would take more than a year to begin reopening without putting everyone’s health at risk.

More than 576,000 Americans have died, and the death toll continues to rise, though at a much slower rate. And as The New York Times’ Apoorva Mandavilli reported earlier this week, the goal of achieving herd immunity is starting to look like a fantasy. Rather than eliminating the coronavirus, we’re going to have to learn to live with it. We didn’t eradicate the flu after the great pandemic of 1918, either. What we can hope for is that continued vigilance and annual vaccines will keep COVID-19, like the flu, at a manageable level.

For the foreseeable future, we’re also going to be held back by the anti-intellectualism of the Republican Party. A recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 29% of Republicans say they will “definitely not” get vaccinated against the coronavirus, compared to 5% of Democrats and 9% of independents. It’s stunning that highly effective vaccines, like masks, have become a tribal signifier. But that’s where we’re at in a country in which one of the two major political parties has slipped into a hermetically sealed universe of alternative facts.

Disturbing as this is, though, it can wait for another day. Right now, the COVID-19 news is better than it’s been since the start of the pandemic — and it’s only going to keep improving.

This weekend, I’ll put on a cap and gown for the first time in two years and attend Northeastern University’s commencement activities at Fenway Park. Everyone will be masked and socially distanced, regardless of whether we’ve been vaccinated. But we’ll be together, in person, celebrating the success of our students as their families — well, OK, one guest per graduate — cheer from the stands.

It’s going to be great.