Cohasset selectmen seek to muzzle commenters

Cohasset Town Hall
Cohasset Town Hall

Something very strange is going on in Cohasset, according to The Patriot Ledger of Quincy and an affiliated weekly, The Cohasset Mariner.

The Cohasset selectmen, according to reports in both papers, are engaged in a snipe hunt to ferret out the identities of anonymous commenters to the Ledger and Mariner websites. The papers are owned by GateHouse Media, a national chain that owns about 100 newspapers in Eastern Massachusetts and publishes websites under the name Wicked Local.

Town officials have gone so far as to consider a subpoena to the two papers to force them to turn over the IP (Internet Protocol) addresses of some particularly unhinged commenters to see if they are using government-owned computers at town hall. (Each computer on the Internet has a unique IP address.) Such activities, the selectmen say, would violate town policy.

Last Thursday, the selectmen canceled a meeting when their lawyer was unable to produce a draft subpoena for their consideration. But, in a parallel action, the Mariner has reportedly received a subpoena from a former selectman who has filed a libel suit against two anonymous commenters. In a sidebar to a Ledger story that also appears on the Mariner site, there is this:

GateHouse Media has complied with the subpoenas to the Cohasset Mariner and released the IP address and emails related to those screen names in accordance with its privacy policy.

There’s a lot going on here, but let me offer a few observations.

• The selectmen are way out of line in even thinking they can demand that the newspapers turn over identifying information so that they can punish their own employees. I hope GateHouse officials will stand firm if they receive a subpoena demanding such information.

• The libel suit is an entirely different matter. Under federal law, website operators are not liable for content posted by third parties such as anonymous commenters, according to the Digital Media Law Project. But the commenters themselves are not immune from libel suits or other actions, and website operators may be compelled to help those bringing suit find out who they are. It doesn’t sound like GateHouse did anything out of line in turning over IP and email addresses, though I would certainly like to know more.

• The First Amendment is one thing; best practices are another. Though GateHouse has every right to let anonymous commenters vent in public, such behavior has an effect on the newspapers’ brand and reputation. GateHouse should put an end to anonymous comments (as Media Nation did several years ago) — or, at the very least, screen all comments for taste, offensiveness and libelous content before allowing them to be posted.

Finally, though GateHouse reporter Erin Dale seems to be doing a good job of covering her employer’s own story, this cries out for some outside scrutiny. I’d love to see The Boston Globe dig into this.

Further reading:

Photo (cc) by ToddC4176 and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

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Moment of truth draws closer for debt-riddled GateHouse

Since coming together in the middle of the last decade, GateHouse Media has been struggling with $1.2 billion in debt that it took on to assemble a chain of more than 300 community newspapers.

In 2008, I wrote in CommonWealth Magazine that company officials claimed they had no problems making debt payments — yet they were in the midst of dramatically downsizing their operations, including at about 100 newspapers in Massachusetts.

A year ago, Jack Sullivan, also in CommonWealth, found GateHouse was warning shareholders that bankruptcy was an option, even as the company was paying out $1.4 million in bonuses to top executives.

Now, it seems, the moment of truth is at hand. According to Emily Glazer and Mark Spector of the Wall Street Journal, GateHouse appears likely to undergo a “prepackaged bankruptcy” with the cooperation of its creditors in the hopes of emerging from the proceedings debt-free. (Non-subscribers may read the Journal story by searching for it on Google News. Don’t worry: Rupert already knows, and he says it’s OK.)

If GateHouse could put itself on sounder financial footing, that would certainly be good news for employees and readers of papers such as the Patriot Ledger of Quincy, the Enterprise of Brockton, the MetroWest Daily News and the myriad weekly papers the company continues to operate.

Early word out of GateHouse

I’m hearing that GateHouse Media has imposed an 8 percent pay cut for managers and will be talking with the unions next. The only union shops among GateHouse’s 100-plus papers in Eastern Massachusetts are the Patriot Ledger of Quincy and the Enterprise of Brockton*, so I don’t know what this means for the vast majority of employees who work for non-union papers.

The Ledger is also cutting back on its coverage area from 26 cities and towns to 12, according to one of my reliable informants. Among the towns being cast out of Ledgerland is the fast-growing community of Plymouth. Supposedly the Ledger will continue to run press releases but will no longer have town reporters in the communities from which it’s pulling back.

*Correction: The Herald News of Fall River is also unionized. See follow-up item.

GateHouse zings the Globe

The online-content war between the Boston Globe and GateHouse Media may have been settled out of court last winter, but resentments apparently linger. The Globe’s Boston.com site has a local-search function that lets you find content from other sites. Check out the description in this Patriot Ledger video at Boston.com.

Ledger Statehouse bureau lives

Media Nation has learned that The Patriot Ledger of Quincy is not closing its Statehouse bureau after all. Consider this a correction of this item. Although Statehouse reporter Tom Benner has indeed been laid off, I’m told that general-assignment reporter John Kelly will take Benner’s place until a permanent replacement is named.

Ledger closes Statehouse bureau

Adam Reilly reports at ThePhoenix.com that the GateHouse Media cuts detailed by the Globe yesterday include the end of the Statehouse bureau at The Patriot Ledger of Quincy. [Note: The Statehouse bureau is not closing after all. See this correction.]

This is a tough cut indeed — one of the benefits of a local paper’s having a Statehouse reporter is that he or she can cover hometown legislators, assess the local impact of various initiatives and the like. If this cut was really necessary, then things must be pretty bad.

About a dozen years ago, one of the first media pieces I wrote for the Phoenix was on the depopulated Statehouse press corps. It’s only gotten worse since then. Among the Statehouse reporters I interviewed for that piece was The Patriot Ledger’s Carolyn Ryan, who later moved to the Herald, the Globe and, now, the New York Times.

The Ledger’s just-laid-off Statehouse reporter, Tom Benner, is a colleague, as he teaches part-time at Northeastern.

Photo (cc) by koalie. Some rights reserved.