Linda Shapley talks about journalism, leadership and the power of diversity

Linda Shapley. Photo (cc) 2021 by Dan Kennedy.

On the new episode of the “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I speak with Linda Shapley, the publisher of Colorado Community Media, who describes herself as a longtime denizen of the state’s media ecosystem. Indeed, she was at Colorado Politics and worked for 21 years for The Denver Post. “I’ve been a lieutenant for a lot of really great generals,” she once said. “This is my opportunity to be a general.”

CCM is a group of about two dozen weekly and monthly newspapers in the Denver suburbs. They were saved from chain ownership two years ago when they were purchased through a deal led by the National Trust for Local News. Last August we spoke with Elizabeth Hansen Shapiro, the co-founder and CEO of the trust.

Shapley has talked about the power of representation as a visible Latina leader in an industry that has traditionally been dominated by white men. She says she hopes to use her position to encourage more diversity in journalism. Her mentor at the Post, Greg Moore, was a previous guest on What Works. You can listen to his episode here.

Shapley grew up in northeastern Colorado, in a rural county. Her father had a dairy farm. When I was in Colorado doing research for our book-in-progress, “What Works in Community News,” she told me that dairy farming is a lot like newspapers, because cows don’t know it’s Christmas.

Also this week, we talk with Madison Xagoraris, a graduate student in the Media Advocacy Program at Northeastern University’s School of Journalism. Xagoraris recently reported on KefiFM, a Boston-based Greek music outlet dedicated to serving the Greek and Greek American communities in the Boston area and throughout New England.

Ellen has a Quick Take about retired journalists who are busy launching startup newsrooms. Nieman Reports has a piece by Jon Marcus that looks at the Asheville Watchdog in North Carolina, and the New Bedford Light in Massachusetts. These journalists say they want to help bolster the profession they gave their lives to by setting up nonprofit community news sites and mentoring younger reporters and editors. They aren’t playing pickleball.

I’m in a Colorado state of mind: My Quick Take is on the fifth anniversary of the Denver Rebellion, when the staff of The Denver Post rose up against further newsroom cuts being imposed by its hedge-fund owner, Alden Global Capital. That rebellion sparked a revolution in Denver journalism.

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

Advertisement

Muzzle follow-up: A settlement is reached in a Worcester public records case

A final price tag has been set on the city of Worcester’s years-long campaign to withhold public records pertaining to police misconduct from the Telegram & Gazette, the city’s daily paper, and its reporter Brad Petrishen. Open government watchdog Andrew Quemere writes that the T&G and the city reached a settlement in February for $180,000 to cover most of the paper’s legal fees plus $5,000 in punitive damages.

Last summer I gave former Worcester city manager Edward Augustus a New England Muzzle Award, published by GBH News, for leading the effort to keep residents of his city in the dark about what their police department was up to. District Court Judge Janet Kenton-Walker awarded the T&G $101,000 in legal fees in addition to the punitive damages, ruling that such a harsh penalty was justified because the city had misrepresented aspects of the case in its dealings with the court.

Not harsh enough, as it turned out. The T&G’s lawyer, Jeffrey Pyle, appealed Kenton-Walker’s ruling, arguing that the paper’s legal fees of $217,000 should have been covered in their entirety given the city’s misconduct. The state Appeals Court agreed, overturning Kenton-Walker. That led to the February settlement.

“The Telegram & Gazette spent more than three years fighting for the right to have access to documents of considerable public interest,” T&G executive editor Michael McDermott was quoted as saying in Quemere’s post. “I’m proud of reporter Brad Petrishen for pursuing these records and thankful to our lawyers for successfully defending the public’s right to know.”

And, finally, my 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.

Following a journalist’s arrest by Putin’s thugs, Nick Daniloff offers his hard-earned wisdom

Nick Daniloff, at right in gray suit, meets with President Ronald Reagan at the White House after his release from a Soviet prison in 1986. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

My friend and colleague Nick Daniloff has an important op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal about his time in a Soviet prison in 1986, comparing his ordeal to that of Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who was recently arrested by Vladimir Putin’s thugs. At the time of his own arrest, Daniloff was a reporter for U.S. News & World Report. Later he joined Northeastern University’s School of Journalism as a faculty member and director, which is how I got to know him. He writes (free link):

Reporting in Russia has always been risky. The authorities there have never been comfortable with the open flow of information, and they have recently imposed new restrictions on public protests. Several Western news organizations pulled their correspondents to protest recently passed laws that essentially ban independent reporting about the Ukraine invasion. Much of Russia’s independent media have been forced to shut down or to persevere outside the country.

We need to protect and honor the bravery of foreign correspondents, photographers and stringers all over the world, reporting in difficult and dangerous circumstances. And to my fellow Russian correspondent Evan Gershkovich: Courage.

Nick’s memoir, “Of Spies and Spokesmen: My Life as a Cold War Correspondent,” is a terrific look back told by a journalist who made a difference.

Healey’s ambivalent stand on public records recalls her Muzzle Award-winning past

Gov. Maura Healey. Photo (cc) 2013 by ZGreenblatt.

Andrew Quemere, a journalist who doggedly follows open-government issues in Massachusetts at his newsletter, The Mass Dump, reports that newly minted Gov. Maura Healey may prove to be not quite the champion of Beacon Hill transparency that she claimed she would be.

No one should be too surprised — she is, after all, a two-time winner of the New England Muzzle Awards, a feature I wrote for 25 years for GBH News and, before that, The Boston Phoenix that tracked outrages against free speech. I’ll get to that. But first, the latest. Quemere’s item begins:

Massachusetts Governor Maura Healey’s administration said Monday that it will not release records from past administrations. The decision means that a vast amount of vital information about state government — including former Governor Charlie Baker’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the repeated safety problems at the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, and the sprawling overtime-fraud scandal at the State Police — will remain secret.

Some background: Baker and previous governors declared that the state’s public records law did not cover either them or their immediate staff. Indeed, the notoriously weak law also doesn’t cover the legislative branch (see this 2020 report by Northeastern journalism students) or the judiciary, meaning that the only governmental groups that have to comply are cities, towns, the state’s executive agencies and quasi-independent authorities. (And county government, to the extent that we have county government, which we pretty much don’t.)

Healey told GBH News in December that she would end the exemption for her office — but then reversed herself, explaining, essentially, that she would take it on a case-by-case basis. Moreover, the Healey administration refused to provide Quemere with records pertaining to police and law enforcement dating back to Baker’s time in office, saying that the new, more open policy she has adopted is not retroactive.

So: Healey’s new policy of openness does not cover previous administrations; and we’re not clear what the new policy really means.

As for the Muzzle Awards, the most pertinent is from 2018, when she was singled out for upholding rulings that public information should, in some cases, remain private. Healey’s secretive approach to the people’s business when she was the state attorney general was revealed by then-Boston Globe reporter Todd Wallack, now with WBUR Radio. As I wrote at the time:

Wallack’s most startling finding: Healey’s office had upheld a ruling by the Worcester district attorney that records pertaining to the 1951 murder of a state trooper should not be made public. Healey’s decision reversed a ruling by Secretary of State Bill Galvin’s office and denied a friend of the murder victim the opportunity to follow up some leads on his own. The friend has since died.

Wallack documented numerous other examples of Healey’s penchant for siding with the secret-keepers, including her decision to appeal an order that the state police provide the Globe with dates of birth for state troopers. That would have made it possible for the paper to examine the driving records of officers who had been involved in motor-vehicle accidents. Robert Ambrogi, a First Amendment lawyer and the director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, told Wallack: “I would expect more based on the promises she has made about open government.”

Her previous Muzzle was less germaine: I criticized her in 2015 for filing a formal defense of “a 1946 state law criminalizing political lies aimed at influencing an election.” Go ahead. You tell me what what’s a lie, what’s a mistake and what’s political hyperbole. I wrote:

As the libertarian Cato Institute was quoted as saying in an article by the State House News Service, it can be “incredibly difficult to assess the truth of a politician’s claims, especially in the chaos of an election campaign.” A number of advocacy groups and media organizations opposed Healey, including the ACLU of Massachusetts and the New England First Amendment Coalition.

We live in a time of intense political polarization, but there is an issue that unites Democrats and Republicans: the intense desire to conduct the public’s business out of public view. Let’s hope that Gov. Healey’s first steps aren’t a sign of things to come.

From Azerbaijan to Boston, Northeastern students identify undercovered stories

Demonstrators in Baku, Azerbaijan, show their support for the war with Armenia. Photo (cc) 2020 by Interfase.

From time to time I like to ask my journalism ethics students to identify stories that they think have been undercovered. I always learn something. My graduate students dug deep last week, unearthing stories that had received some coverage — especially in the mighty New York Times — but not enough to break through into the public consciousness. At a time when the media are focused on important stories such as the police killing of Tyre Nichols and trivia such as Harry and Meghan (or was that the week before?), here is what is on my students’ minds:

The renewed conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. At a moment when the world is riveted by Russia’s unprompted war of aggression in Ukraine, the military conflict between these old rivals has received very little coverage. The Times reports:

Barely two years later, the conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan is heating up again, and Russia, distracted and weakened by the war in Ukraine, has not stepped in. Defying the Russian presence, Azerbaijanis are testing whether Moscow is still able and determined to impose its will on other, smaller neighbors amid its struggles in Ukraine.

It’s not easy being fake green. Ohio’s Republican governor, Mike DeWine, signed legislation recently that designates natural gas as a source of “green energy” — and we can expect to see similar legislation pop up in other states. As The Washington Post reports, citing documents it has seen:

The Empowerment Alliance, a dark money group with ties to the gas industry, helped Ohio lawmakers push the narrative that the fuel is clean, the documents show. The American Legislative Exchange Council, another anonymously funded group, assisted in the effort.

Deadly pro-democracy protests in Peru. The unrest in Brazil following an attempt by supporters of the former authoritarian president, Jair Bolsonaro, to overthrow the democratically elected government of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is apparently all the South American news that U.S. audiences can handle. Yet protests have also been mounting in Peru over the removal of that country’s leftist president, Pedro Castillo. The authorities have killed 50 demonstrators. The Times again:

Rather than fade, protests in rural Peru that began more than a month ago over the ouster of the former president have only grown in size and in the scope of demonstrators’ demands, paralyzing entire sections of the country and threatening efforts by the new president, Dina Boluarte, to gain control.

Hundreds of sexual assaults in the Boston Public Schools. The Boston Globe reported that hundreds of sexual assaults are taking place in the city’s school system every year, noting that City Councilor Erin Murphy has said that there were 744 such assaults during the 2021-’22 school year alone. The Globe’s story, though, zeroed in on whether Murphy’s claims were accurate and how the district tallies sexual assaults — overshadowing what would appear to be the larger issue, which is that the BPS has a serious problem on its hands. From the Globe account:

Between 2018 and 2022, reports of student-on-student sexual misconduct rose in BPS from 371 to 759, an increase that Murphy and three other councilors also have pointed to in advocating for tighter security in schools, including bringing back a police presence on campuses.

District officials attribute the rise in reported incidents to more people in the district’s actively reporting incidents since returning to in-person learning.

The Church of England and same-sex marriage. The Church of England recently apologized for its past mistreatment of LGBTQ people and said it would now bless same-sex unions — but that it would continue with its policy of not performing same-sex marriages. Once again, from the Times:

The Church of England is the original church in the global Anglican Communion, which now claims tens of millions of members in 165 countries. The communion has been engaged in a bitter debate over how to treat its L.G.B.T.Q. members since 2003, when the American branch — the Episcopal Church — consecrated an openly gay bishop in New Hampshire. The communion has struggled to avoid schism as some provinces have moved to welcome L.G.B.T.Q. members and celebrate their relationships, while others — mostly in the global South — have remained vehemently opposed.

A shocking story about foster care and juvenile detention. In Illinois, the state foster care system has been locking up children in juvenile detention solely because the system’s social workers have been unable to find a suitable placement for them. Now the system is being sued by the Cook County public guardian. The Illinois Answers Project, a nonprofit news organization, reports:

The Illinois Answers investigation showed a steady increase in the number of Illinois foster children held for weeks or months after a judge ordered their release from detention centers. A total of 73 foster children were locked up for weeks or months in the Cook County juvenile temporary detention center without pending charges during 2021, according to an analysis of court and DCFS records.

Famine in Africa reaches a new crisis level. About 20% of Africans, or 278 million people, were facing hunger in 2021, according to a report by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. The situation has only gotten worse since then — especially in Somalia and other parts of East Africa. Reuters reports:

Conflict and climate change are the long-term causes. Heavy debt burdens following the COVID-19 pandemic, rising prices and war in Ukraine have made things much worse as European aid has been sucked away, data and testimony from more than a dozen experts, donors, diplomats, medical staff and men and women in farms and marketplaces across nearly a dozen countries in Africa and beyond shows.

The West continues its slow escalation in Ukraine. The war in Ukraine and the West’s support for that country’s existential battle against Putin’s Russia is hardly undercovered. But there’s been a slow escalation in terms of both the weapons that are being provided to Ukraine and in the war aims, with the U.S. and its allies now talking about helping Ukraine take back Crimea, which Russia overran in 2014 — something the public may be less than fully aware of. Here’s the Times:

The new thinking on Crimea — annexed illegally by Russia in 2014 — shows how far Biden administration officials have come from the start of the war, when they were wary of even acknowledging publicly that the United States was providing Stinger antiaircraft missiles for Ukrainian troops.

A new drug menace hits the streets. A drug known as “tranq,” a mix of fentanyl and the animal tranquilizer xylazine, is wreaking havoc in urban centers where homeless people congregate, resulting in the loss of life and — literally — limb. Tranq was the subject of a recent in-depth report in the Times, but the news has not yet become widely known among the public. From the Times story:

Xylazine causes wounds that erupt with a scaly dead tissue called eschar; untreated, they can lead to amputation. It induces a blackout stupor for hours, rendering users vulnerable to rape and robbery. When people come to, the high from the fentanyl has long since faded and they immediately crave more. Because xylazine is a sedative and not an opioid, it resists standard opioid overdose reversal treatments.

What’s behind the Boston housing crisis? Though it’s well-known that there is a critical shortage of housing in the Boston area and that rents are skyrocketing, the causes and possible solutions are poorly understood. An article in Forbes found that the average monthly rent in Boston is now in the range of $3,400, making the city as expensive as San Francisco, long known for its out-of-control housing costs. Mayor Michelle Wu has introduced a rent-control ordinance, and she has also proposed abolishing the Boston Planning and Development Agency. A Boston magazine profile of Wu’s choice to head the BPDA (at least until it’s abolished), Arthur Jemison, looks at whether the agency could possibly be part of the solution:

As Jemison began to speak, there was no doubting the enormity of the task before him. He knew that reforming the system was unavoidable. Business as usual had left too many people behind during Boston’s resurgence, and the city needed more environmentally friendly and affordable housing. At the same time, some disgruntled developers were suggesting that taking their business from Boston to less-demanding regulatory environments such as New Hampshire would spare them the headache—and profit loss—of complying with Boston’s aggressive requirements, especially given the sky-high construction costs and rising interest rates that were making real estate projects increasingly difficult to get off the ground just about everywhere.

Harassing the homeless at Boston’s South Station. I was so impressed by what my students found that I decided to add one of my own: Boston Globe columnist Shirley Leung’s report that homeless people are being chased out of South Station by private security guards at midnight even on nights when the temperature falls below 32 degrees, thus violating an agreement reached with city and state officials in 2015. What’s worse, the MBTA gave the Globe information that turned out to be wrong. Leung writes:

In an e-mail, MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo insisted that “the station is not ‘locked up’ at 11 p.m.” Pesaturo would later add that the property management firm confirmed to him that it’s “a 24/7 operation.”

I decided to see for myself and went with a Globe photographer to South Station one evening earlier this month. Shortly after 11 p.m., as the last of the day’s commuter trains departed, we heard a message over the public address system: “This building and the commuter rail will be closing soon. Thank you.”

Update (Feb. 1): Leung posted a follow-up Tuesday evening reporting that Gov. Maura Healey has intervened. Once again, homeless people will be allowed to stay at North Station overnight when it’s colder than 32 degrees — just in time for the record cold that’s coming Friday night into Saturday.

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.