Does better news coverage lead to greater voter engagement? The answer: It depends.

Meaningful participation in civic life isn’t possible without access to high-quality news and information. Consider the most fundamental aspect of community engagement: voting in local elections. If prospective voters lack the means to inform themselves about candidates for the select board, the city council, the school committee and the like, then it follows that they will be less likely to vote.

But is the reverse also true? Does the presence of a reliable news source result in a higher level of voter participation? To find out, I compared two towns, Bedford and Burlington, both northwest of Boston.

Read the rest at Storybench, a website about media innovation published by Northeastern University’s School of Journalism.

There they go again: Gannett shutters the 119-year-old Melrose Free Press

Postcard via Wikimedia Commons

Gannett has pulled the plug on the Melrose Free Press. The weekly published its final edition on Thursday, July 29, and employees were told it was all over on Thursday morning of this week, according to sources.

As best as I can tell, the Free Press had no dedicated staff members, and I haven’t heard of any layoffs. This was a move aimed at saving printing costs. Gannett’s Wicked Local website for Melrose will live on, though, as you’ll see, most of it consists of news from other communities, as is Gannett’s practice. For those who really want a print edition, the guessing is that they will receive the Observer Advocate, which currently serves the neighboring communities of Reading, Wakefield and Malden.

Melrose is served by a Patch site and by the Melrose Weekly News, a family-owned chain whose papers also cover Wakefield, North Reading and Lynnfield. Mike Carraggi, Patch’s regional editor for Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Maine, tweeted that he’ll “continue making sure Melrose has as much independent reporting as possible via Patch.”

The Free Press’ paid circulation was 639 as of March, according to the Alliance for Audited Media — a paltry figure given that U.S. Census data show Melrose is a city of about 28,000, with 11,329 households. Carraggi also tweeted that the paper hadn’t had a full-time reporter in several years.

The Melrose Free Press was founded in 1901, according to the Melrose Historical Commission. Unlike its two competitors at the time, Melrose did not charge — hence its name. (At the time of its demise, the Free Press was a paid product.) The paper was sold to Fidelity’s Community Newspaper Co. in 1991, which put it in the hands of a corporate chain. Cutting continued through various iterations of the chain, culminating in ownership by GateHouse Media, which merged with Gannett in 2020.

“In recent years,” the historical commission said, “the paper has weathered the decimation of advertising revenue that accompanied the rise of the Internet, and an ever-shrinking staff.”

Gannett always seems to be in retrenchment mode, but it’s been especially severe recently, with the chain shutting down its weeklies in Marlborough and Hudson and cutting back on print distribution in Newton.

There’s no reason to think that a Nextdoor-like service would have saved local news

Every so often, media observers berate the newspaper business for letting upstarts encroach on their turf rather than innovating themselves.

Weirdly enough, I’ve heard a number of people over the years assert that newspapers should have unveiled a free classified-ad service in order to forestall the rise of Craigslist — as if giving away classified ads was going to help pay for journalism. As of 2019, Craigslist employed a reported 50 full-time people worldwide. The Boston Globe and its related media properties, Stat News and Boston.com employ about 300 full-time journalists. As they say, do the math.

Sometimes you hear the same thing about Facebook, which is different enough from journalism that you might as well say that newspapers should have moved into the food-services industry. Don Graham’s legendary decision to let Mark Zuckerberg walk away from an agreed-upon investment in Facebook changed the course of newspaper history — the Graham family could have kept The Washington Post rather than having to sell to Jeff Bezos. As a bonus, someone with a conscience would have sat on Facebook’s board, although it’s hard to know whether that would have mattered. But journalism and social media are fundamentally different businesses, so it’s not as though there was any sort of natural fit.

More recently, I’ve heard the same thing about Nextdoor, a community-oriented social network that has emerged as the news source of record for reporting lost cats and suspicious-looking people in your neighborhood. I like our Nextdoor and visit it regularly. But when it comes to discussion of local news, I find it less useful than a few of our Facebook groups. Still, you hear critics complain that newspapers should have been there first.

Become a member of Media Nation

Well, maybe they should have. But how good a business is it, really? Like Craigslist, social media thrives by having as few employees as possible. Journalism is labor-intensive. Over the years I’ve watched the original vision for Wicked Local — unveiled, if I’m remembering correctly, by the Old Colony Memorial in Plymouth — shrink from a genuinely interesting collection of local blogs and other community content into a collection of crappy websites for GateHouse Media’s and now Gannett’s newspapers.

The original Boston.com was a vibrant experiment as well, with community blogs and all sorts of interesting content that you wouldn’t find in the Globe. But after the Globe moved to its own paywalled website, Boston.com’s appeal was pretty much shot, although it continues to limp along. For someone who wants a free regional news source, it’s actually not that bad. But the message, as with Wicked Local, is that maybe community content just doesn’t produce enough revenue to support the journalists we need to produce actual news coverage.

Recently Will Oremus of a Medium-backed website called OneZero wrote a lengthy piece about the rise of Nextdoor, which has done especially well in the pandemic. Oremus’ take was admirably balanced — though Nextdoor can be a valuable resource, especially in communities lacking real news coverage, he wrote, it is also opaque in its operations and tilted toward the interests of its presumably affluent users. According to Oremus, Nextdoor sites are available in about 268,000 neighborhoods across the world, and its owners have considered taking the company public.

There’s no question that Nextdoor is taking on the role once played by local newspapers. But is that because people are moving to Nextdoor or because local newspapers are withering away? As Oremus writes, quoting Emily Bell:

In some ways, Nextdoor is filling a gap left by a dearth of local news outlets. “In discussions of how people are finding out about local news, Nextdoor and Facebook Groups are the two online platforms that crop up most in our research,” said Columbia’s Emily Bell. Bell is helping to lead a project examining the crisis in local news and the landscape that’s emerging in its wake.

“When we were scoping out, ‘What does a news desert look like?’ it was clear that there’s often a whole group of hyperlocal platforms that we don’t traditionally consider to be news,” Bell said. They included Nextdoor, Facebook Groups, local Reddit subs, and crime-focused apps such as Citizen and Amazon Ring’s Neighbors. In the absence of a traditional news outlet, “people do share news, they do comment on news,” she said. “But they’re doing it on a platform like Nextdoor that really is not designed for news — may be in the same way that Facebook is not designed for news.”

Look, I’m glad that Nextdoor is around. I’m glad that Patch is around, and in fact our local Patch occasionally publishes some original reporting. But there is no substitute for actual journalism — the hard work of sitting through local meetings, keeping an eye on the police and telling the story of the community. As inadequate as our local Gannett weekly is, there’s more local news in it than in any other source we have.

If local newspapers had developed Nextdoor and offered it as part of their journalism, would it have made a different to the bottom line? It seems unlikely — although it no doubt would have brought in somewhat more revenues than giving away free classifieds.

Nextdoor, like Facebook, makes money by offering low-cost ads and employing as few people as possible. It may add up to a lot of cash in the aggregate. At the local level, though, I suspect it adds up to very little — and, if pursued by newspapers, would distract from the hard work of coming up with genuinely sustainable business models.

A civil, substantive exchange on linking and aggregation

Props to Patch editor-in-chief Warren St. John for a civil, substantive conversation on aggregation and over-aggregation. I’ve put together a Storify of our exchange, so please have a look.

More good news about former Patch editors going indy

Kaylin Bugos tells their stories in the American Journalism Review. Now if only zombie Patch sites would shut down so that the independents will have a better chance.

Former Patch editors launches their own local sites

This is great news: Olga Enger, the former editor of Newport Patch, has launched her own siteThe Newport Wave — after her recent layoff (via Philip Eil’s Twitter feed). I hope we see a lot more of this.

And this: The Jamaica Plain News, launched recently by former Jamaica Plain Patch editor Chris Helms. (Thanks to Michelle Johnson for pointing me to this.)

Washington Post to expand staff and ambitions

Then-Boston Globe editor on WGBH-TV (Channel 2) in 2009.
Marty Baron (2009 file photo)

The Washington Post faced a lot of questions after Ezra Klein packed up and took his talents to Vox Media. Were Jeff Bezos and company making a Politico-level mistake in not finding a way to keep Klein, the founder of Wonkblog, under its own roof? Or was Klein making unreasonable demands — reportedly a $10 million investment for a much bigger staff?

My own view is that the two sides should have found a way to keep Klein loosely affiliated with the Post, although I have no way of knowing whether that was a realistic option.

In any event, I’m burying the lede. On Wednesday the Post went a long way toward answering those questions by announcing a significant investment in its news operations. Wonkblog will continue. And according to a memo to the staff from executive editor Marty Baron, a considerable amount of hiring and expansion is under way, including more blogs, a breaking-news desk and an expanded Sunday magazine.

“With these initiatives, we can all look forward to a future of great promise,” Baron wrote. (Thanks to Jim Romenesko, who also links to a Washingtonian story in which Post publisher Katharine Weymouth offers further insight into Klein’s departure.)

In an interview with Ravi Somaiya of The New York Times, Baron says of Bezos: “He hasn’t been passive. He’s heavily engaged, keenly interested in what our ideas are. He offered his own thoughts and expressed a willingness to invest.”

These are very good signs at a time when the news about the news is more favorable than anything we’ve heard in years (Patch’s latest near-death experience notwithstanding). Whether such optimism is warranted will be the media story of 2014 and beyond.

Photo is a screen grab from an appearance then-Boston Globe editor Baron made on WGBH-TV’s “Greater Boston with Emily Rooney” in 2009.

Ezra Klein and the problem with top-down control

Ezra Klein
Ezra Klein

This commentary was published earlier at the Nieman Journalism Lab.

What should a 21st-century news organization look like? A single entity, run from the top, with a common set of values? Or a loose network of related projects, sharing a brand and to some extent a mission but operating semi-independently?

With the likely departure of Ezra Klein from The Washington Post, the management of one of our last great newspapers might be showing signs of preferring the former approach. Klein, who founded and runs the widely read Wonkblog at washingtonpost.com, is reportedly leaving for a new venture, as yet undefined. According to Ravi Somaiya in The New York Times, Klein sought an eight-figure Post investment in the new project. Klein already has his own Wonkblog staff, but clearly he has something much bigger in mind — perhaps an all-purpose independent news organization along the lines of Talking Points Memo. (Although it wouldn’t be called Wonkblog — the Post owns the name and will be keeping it, writes The Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone, who broke the news about Klein’s proposal last month.)

We can’t know everything that went into the decision. Maybe it came down to money. But Wonkblog generates a hefty amount of Web traffic — more than 4 million page views a month, according to a profile of Klein in The New Republic last February. “It’s ‘fuck you traffic,’” a Post source told TNR’s Julia Ioffe. “He’s always had enough traffic to end any argument with the senior editors.” Apparently, that’s no longer the case.

Significantly, the Times reports that new Post owner Jeff Bezos was involved in the decision to let Klein leave. Last September, shortly after announcing his intention to buy the Post for $250 million, the Amazon.com founder lauded the “daily ritual” of reading the morning paper — which led to some chiding by one of the Post’s own journalists, Timothy B. Lee. Despite Bezos’ well-earned reputation as a clear-eyed digital visionary, he appears to have some romantic notions about the business he’s bought into. And allowing entrepreneurs such as the twentysomething Klein run his own shop inside the Post might not fit with that vision.

What makes the likely Klein departure even more significant is that in 2006 the Post, under the ownership of the Graham family, allowed John Harris and Jim VandeHei to walk out the door and start Politico. Now, I have a lot of problems with Politico’s gossipy “drive the day” approach. But as Times columnist Ross Douthat has observed, much of the media conversation about Washington politics has shifted from the Post to Politico, threatening one of the Post’s franchises. It would have been enormously beneficial to the Post if Politico had been launched under its own umbrella. And Politico itself might be better.

So if the Post is reluctant to loosen the reins, are there any other news organizations that are taking a different approach? Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher walked away from their AllThingsD site at The Wall Street Journal and set up a new project called Re/code in partnership with NBC. Perhaps the most famous example is Nate Silver, who brought his FiveThirtyEight poll-analysis site to The New York Times a few years ago and then moved it lock, stock and barrel to ESPN. In that regard, I suppose you could say NBC and ESPN have embraced the network approach. To some extent you might say also that of The Huffington Post, as it combines professional journalists, unpaid bloggers (I’m one) and a dizzying array content — from Calderone’s excellent media coverage to the notorious Sideboob vertical.

Jeff Jarvis recently argued that Patch — AOL’s incredibly shrinking hyperlocal news project — might have stood a chance if AOL chief executive Tim Armstrong had taken a network approach. Rather than running cookie-cutter community sites from the top down, Jarvis asked, what if Patch had offered advertising and support services to a network of independent or semi-independent sites?

The problem with such scenarios is that media executives — and business leaders in general — are not accustomed to the idea of giving up control. Calderone reports that some Post staffers have long grumbled at what they see as “preferential treatment” for Klein, which suggests the depth of the problem. But entrepreneurial journalists like Harris and VandeHei, like Mossberg and Swisher, and like Silver and Klein have a proven track record.

Legacy news organizations need to find a way to tap into that success outside the old models of ownership and not worry about obsolete notions of employer-employee relationships. Reach and influence are what matter. And they are proving to be incompatible with the ambitions of young journalists like Ezra Klein.

More: After this piece was published at Nieman, Mathew Ingram responded at Gigaom with his own smart take.

Howard Owens on the success of The Batavian

Corporate hyperlocal is fading, with Patch being the prime example. Independent hyperlocal is working. Howard Owens, one of my main subjects in “The Wired City,” discusses the success of The Batavian this week with NPR’s “On the Media.”

Here is a blog post I wrote in July about The Batavian’s growth.

Globe cuts Your Town staffing in half

Just catching up with this. Jon Chesto of the Boston Business Journal reports that The Boston Globe’s Your Town sites are being trimmed by six correspondents — approximately half the staff. Your Town, part of the Globe’s free Boston.com website, provides hyperlocal coverage of the suburbs as well as of several Boston neighborhoods.

Screen Shot 2013-09-16 at 8.38.56 AMGlobe regional editor David Dahl tells Chesto that there will be no site closures. But it seems inevitable that there will be cuts in coverage, even though Globe staff reporters and freelancers will continue to contribute. There are more than 100 Your Town sites and about 15 related Your Campus websites covering colleges and universities in Greater Boston.

Your Town got off to a shaky start in 2008, as GateHouse Media — which operates Wicked Local sites in virtually all of the same communities targeted by Your Town — sued the New York Times Co. (the Globe’s owner, at least for a few more weeks) for copyright infringement, arguing that the Your Town sites in some cases aggregated virtually all of GateHouse’s content for a given community without offering much else.

The two sides reached an out-of-court settlement in early 2009, as I reported for The Guardian. Your Town eventually grew into a valuable resource in many communities. But it looks like the sites, which carry little advertising, got to be too expensive to operate.

Chesto writes that the cuts call hyperlocal coverage into question as a business strategy, noting that AOL’s Patch sites are in the midst of deep cuts as well. But though hyperlocal may well be a loser at the corporate chain level, there are a number of successful independent sites operating across the country. You could read a book about such sites, hint, hint. The real issue is that hyperlocal is best understood as a grassroots phenomenon.

Did Globe executives reach this decision on their own? Or was incoming owner John Henry involved? And if he was, what does that say about his priorities for the Globe?

(Disclosure: Journalism students at Northeastern as well as several other Boston colleges and universities contribute to the Your Town and Your Campus sites.)