A few years ago Paul Bass and I appeared on a Connecticut radio station to talk about the future of local journalism. Bass was and is the founder, editor, and publisher of the New Haven Independent, a nonprofit, online-only news organization that is the main subject of my book The Wired City.
Bass and I both came out of the world of alternative weeklies. He was the star reporter for the New Haven Advocate. I was the media columnist for the Boston Phoenix. While we were on the air, he told a story about a club owner in New Haven who had once advertised heavily in the Advocate—but had found he could reach a better-targeted audience on Facebook while spending next to nothing.
Need I tell you that both the Advocate and the Phoenix have gone out of business?
I’m dredging up this anecdote because the Columbia Journalism Review has published a much-talked-about essay arguing that newspapers made a huge mistake by embracing all things digital and should instead have doubled down on print. Michael Rosenwald writes that instead of chasing ephemeral digital revenues, newspapers should have built up their print editions and offered more value to their readers.
Congratulations to Paul Bass and the staff and friends of the New Haven Independent, who are celebrating the community website’s 10th anniversary.
On Wednesday evening a couple of dozen people gathered at the offices of La Voz Hispana, the Independent’s partner and landlord, to toast 10 years of nonprofit online journalism. It was a lower-key affair than the fifth anniversary — Bass and crew have been so busy launching the Independent’s low-power FM radio station, WNHH, that they didn’t have time to plan a proper celebration. (The Independent is the subject of my book “The Wired City.” I wrote about WNHH recently for the Nieman Journalism Lab, and was later a guest.)
The party was emceed by Norma Rodriguez-Reyes, the president of La Voz and chair of the Online Journalism Project, the nonprofit organization that oversees the Independent and its affiliated projects — WNHH, the Valley Independent Sentinel and the Branford Eagle.
Last week Bass marked the 10th anniversary with a special hour-long conversation on WNHH about the state of independent journalism with Rodriguez-Reyes; Christine Stuart, the editor and co-owner of CT News Junkie, a for-profit website covering politics and public policy in Connecticut; and Babz Rawls-Ivy, managing editor of The Inner-City News, an African-American newspaper based in New Haven, as well as a talk-show host on WNHH.
Among other things, Bass compares legacy media’s coverage of the decline of journalism to someone who spends all his time hanging out at a funeral home and concludes that everyone must be dead. Well worth a listen.
John Dankosky stood before the 20 or so fledgling radio hosts who had crowded into the New Haven offices of La Voz Hispana de Connecticut and told them not to be afraid to assert themselves in the face of an overly talkative interview subject.
“It’s your show and it’s your microphone and they are your guests. You need to be the gatekeeper,” said Dankosky, vice president of news at Connecticut’s public radio network WNPR and host of the daily public affairs program “Where We Live.”
Dankosky was leading a session of Radio 101 for WNHH, a low-power FM (LPFM) community station scheduled to make its debut on August 11. The station is being launched by the New Haven Independent, a pioneering online nonprofit news site that debuted 10 years ago next month.
Authorities have arrested and are preparing to charge the Rhode Island suspect in the alleged terrorist plot that ended in the shooting death of a Boston man last week. News organizations that had been withholding his name are now identifying him. The Boston Globe, for instance, reports that he is Nicholas Rovinski, 24, of Warwick, Rhode Island.
As I wrote last week for WGBH News, identifying a “person of interest” who has not been charged — and who may not be charged — is an ethically dubious practice. My views are informed by what I learned in researching my book “The Wired City.” Among the stories I reported on was the New Haven Independent’s decision not to name the likely suspect in the murder of a Yale graduate student until after he had been formally charged. Independent editor Paul Bass spoke with my Northeastern ethics students about the case in a conference call earlier this week.
What follows is an excerpt from “The Wired City,” taken from a longer excerpt published by the Nieman Journalism Lab.
On Monday, Sept. 14, 2009, six days after Annie Le had been reported missing, the Independent became the first to reveal that police had identified a 24-year-old laboratory technician who had worked with Le as a “person of interest.” The New Haven Register’s website followed shortly thereafter. And so began one of the more curious side stories of the Annie Le case.
As law enforcement officials continued with their investigation on Tuesday, neither the Independent nor the Register released the name of Le’s coworker. On Tuesday night, though, the police department held a news conference and announced that the “person of interest” was Raymond Clark, whose name was included in a press release. Because the news conference was covered live by a number of television stations, Clark’s identity immediately became public. On Wednesday, the Register named Clark and interviewed people who knew him. “I’m in total shock,” an unidentified high school classmate was quoted as saying. “He was the nicest kid — very quiet, but everyone liked him. I can’t believe he could do this. I’m sick to my stomach.” But the Independent continued to withhold Clark’s name.
The Independent’s managing editor, Melissa Bailey, was at the news conference too. She took notes and shot some video of New Haven Police Chief James Lewis speaking to reporters. But neither her story nor her video used Clark’s name. Bailey wrote, somewhat cryptically, “Police named the target of the search, calling him a ‘person of interest.’” Nor did the Independent identify Clark on Wednesday — and not even in a story posted early on Thursday morning reporting that police had staked out a motel where Clark was staying the night before, although it did link to a Register story that identified Clark in its lead paragraph. It wasn’t until later on Thursday morning that the Independent finally named Raymond Clark as the person police believed had murdered Annie Le. The reason: by then Clark had been arrested and charged, and was being taken into court for a formal arraignment.
The Independent’s refusal to name Clark until he had been formally charged was an admirable exercise in journalistic restraint. The decision derived in part from Bass’s institutional memory. In 1998, police had mistakenly identified a Yale professor as a “person of interest” in the murder of a student named Suzanne Jovin. No evidence against the professor was ever made public, and the murder was never solved. (In 2013, Yale and the city of New Haven announced a settlement with that wrongly accused professor.) Essentially, though, this restraint was a statement of Bass’s sense of how a news organization ought to serve the community
Judging by comments posted to the Independent, many readers appreciated Bass’s decision. “Thank you for the good sense to not publish his name at this time,” wrote “asdf” on Tuesday evening, after Clark’s name had begun to leak out but before the police had named him. The commenter added: “I really don’t understand what there is to gain by releasing his name — if you don’t have enough evidence to arrest him, then you don’t have enough evidence to smear him in the media.” Then there was this, from “LOOLY,” posted on Wednesday morning, after Clark’s name had been widely reported: “It should really be very simple. Unless he is being charged his name should not be used.”
Bass also had to make several other difficult decisions about identifying people connected to the Annie Le story. On Sept. 14, as Clark’s name was leaking out, the media converged on his apartment in Middletown, northeast of New Haven. Christine Stuart, who runs the political website CT News Junkie and contributes to the Independent, noticed the name of a woman along with that of Raymond Clark. She passed it along, and Melissa Bailey started plugging it into various social-networking sites. It didn’t take long before she found a public MySpace page for the woman, who turned out to be Clark’s 23-year-old fiancée. Bailey captured a screen image before the page could be taken down — which it soon was.
Bailey wrote a story that began, “The target in the slaying of Yale graduate student Annie Le had something in common with the victim — he, too, was engaged.” And she quoted the young woman as writing of Clark: “He has a big heart and tries to see the best in people ALL THE TIME! even when everyone else is telling him that the person is a psycho or that the person can’t be trusted. he thinks everyone deserves a second chance.” The woman’s name and photograph wound up being published by other news outlets, but it never appeared in the Independent.
That was not the Independent’s only social-networking scoop. In nearby Branford, Marcia Chambers of the Branford Eagle, a community news site that is affiliated with the Independent, was working her sources. Somehow she obtained a 2003 police report about an ex-girlfriend of Raymond Clark who claimed he had forced her to have sex when they were both students at Branford High School. As a condition of receiving the report, Chambers promised not to publish it until after an arrest had been made. But that didn’t mean there were not other uses to which the report could be put. Bailey typed the woman’s name into Facebook, discovered that she had an account, and friended her, letting her know she was a reporter covering the murder. After Clark’s arrest, Bailey and Chambers wrote a story without using the woman’s name. “I can’t believe this is true,” they quoted the woman as writing on her Facebook page. “I feel like im 16 all over again. Its jsut bringing back everything.”
The revelation that the Independent had the police report created a media stampede, Bailey said later. “People were calling us, begging us for this police report,” she told a researcher for Columbia University. “The New York Times came in and practically tried to arm-wrestle Paul.” The Independent withheld the fiancée’s name, a decision Bailey wrote that she had no misgivings about even though the woman later appeared on network television and identified herself.
By declining to name Raymond Clark until he had actually been charged with a crime, and by withholding the identities of the two women, Paul Bass had made a statement about what kind of news organization he wanted the Independent to be and what kind of journalism his community could expect from the site. Protecting the two women at a time when only the Independent knew who they were was the more straightforward of the two decisions. Any news executive who cares about journalistic ethics — or, for that matter, basic human decency — might have made the same call. But keeping Clark’s name off the site even after the New Haven police had put it in a press release, and even after the police chief had freely discussed it at a news conference — well, that was an extraordinary decision. Many journalists would argue that a news organization has an obligation to report the name of someone who might soon be charged with murder when the police have very publicly placed that name on the record. But Bass clearly has a different way of looking at such matters.
Weeks later, in a conversation at his office, Bass wondered if he had done the right thing while simultaneously defending his decision. “I still believe it’s a complicated question. I still believe we could definitely be wrong,” he said. Yet, as he continued, he didn’t sound like someone who thought he might be wrong, even as I suggested to him that his decision to withhold Clark’s name could be seen as something of an exercise in futility. “I’m in no way moving toward the idea that we should have run the name. I see no reason for putting the name out sooner. Nothing served,” he said. “I agree with you that it was futile. The name was out there. But we are still a news organization with standards.”
Those standards, I came to realize, are rooted not just in Bass’s view of journalism but in his sense of place, and even in his spiritual beliefs. The Independent is a news site, but it’s not just a news site. It is also a gathering place, a forum for civil discussion of local issues, and a spark for civic engagement. It is a mixture that reflects Bass’s interests: a multifaceted approach to community journalism — to community and journalism — that has been visible in his life and work from the time he began writing about New Haven.
Is there a connection between hyperlocal journalism, civic engagement and spirituality? Not directly. But in “The Wired City” I argue that New Haven Independent editor Paul Bass’ emphasis on community and right actions are tied to his involvement in Judaism.
In Haverhill, Massachusetts, Banyan Project founder Tom Stites is working to launch Haverhill Matters, the first of what he hopes will be a network of cooperatively owned news sites, in line with the way Unitarian Universalist congregations govern themselves.
Although both Haverhill Matters and the Banyan Project are purely secular endeavors, Stites sees some parallels between his idea and Unitarian Universalism’s Fifth Principle: “The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” “If you think of news communities and religious communities — meaning congregations — as comparable, the authority of the congregation comes from its members,” says Stites. “It’s a democratic institution, things are decided by discussion and vote. With the co-op model it’s the closest in all possible ways to the congregational polity model. There really is a real congruence there.”
I also offer some thoughts about the New Haven Independent and community-building as well as The Batavian, whose publisher, Howard Owens, sees a strong, locally owned business community as a key to fostering civic engagement. I hope you’ll take a look.
Photo (cc) by McKay Savage and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.
DeRienzo, 38, had worked at various permutations of DFM for the past 11 years. In his early days, he once told me in an interview for my book “The Wired City,” his tasks included making sure the chain’s newspapers didn’t post too much content on their websites so that customers wouldn’t have less incentive to buy a paper. Toward the end, under DFM chief executive John Paton, DeRienzo was a leader in nudging his journalists away from print into the digital age. He writes:
I’ve come to know hundreds of people who have dedicated their lives to journalism, who work long hours for low pay, and put up with all kinds of crap (including plenty from me!) year after year. Cynical exteriors aside, at the heart of it, they care about strangers and are in journalism to improve people’s lives.
DeRienzo will be succeeded at DFM’s Connecticut publications by Mark Brackenbury, someone who — in my one brief encounter — impressed me as an editor who cares about journalism and communities.
As I wrote for The Huffington Post earlier this year, DFM seems to be on the verge of breaking up and disappearing; the company’s financial problems had a serious effect on DeRienzo’s ability to carry out his vision. Yet in Bass’ Independent story, Paton sounds as charged up as ever, saying the company will move forward once a buyer for the chain is found.
I hope Paton is right. And best wishes to Matt, one of the good guys in our field.
Not too many months ago, Paul Bass gave serious thought to shutting down the New Haven Independent, the online-only nonprofit news site he founded in 2005.
“A while back, I considered whether I still had the energy to keep going,” Bass said. “I was burnt.”
He decided to keep it alive. And now he’s getting ready to relaunch with two new full-time staff reporters — one who will start the day after Labor Day, the other who has yet to be hired.
For a small community news organization, the Independent has been remarkably stable. Last week, Bass threw a going-away party for managing editor Melissa Bailey, who will be a Nieman Fellow starting this fall, and staff writer Thomas MacMillan, who is moving to New York to seek his fame and fortune. Both began working at the site as it was ramping up, Bailey in 2006 and MacMillan the following year. (The fourth staff member, Allan Appel, recently cut back to a part-time position.)
“It’s really hard for me to imagine leaving New Haven for more than a few days, let alone a whole year,” Bailey told the crowd. MacMillan defined the privilege of being a journalist: “You ask questions and people just open up to you and give you these amazing stories.”
When I met with Bass afterwards, he talked about how difficult it would be to replace the two. “They’re community journalists. They love the work. They grew so much,” he said. “They both learned so many things, and they really ran the operation with me.”
Yet their departure will allow him to solve a longstanding problem: having an all-white staff cover a city where African-Americans and Latinos are in the majority. “The people I’m hiring will diversify the staff racially,” Bass told me. The Independent has used minority freelancers and interns, but all of its full-time staff journalists have been white.
Thus the Independent’s mix of political and neighborhood news, education reporting, and, increasingly, a focus on the arts fills a real need.
Despite the challenges of keeping a nonprofit going, Bass has had quite a bit of success with fundraising. Currently, he said, he has pledges through 2015 to cover the $420,000 budget for the Independent and a satellite two-person site in the northwest suburbs called the Valley Independent Sentinel. In recent years, he added, his fundraising base has shifted from about 75 percent foundation grants to about 25 percent. Most of the money comes from high-net-worth donors in the New Haven area. About $15,000 to $20,000 comes from small donors.
Late in 2013, Bass applied for a low-power FM license to operate a nonprofit community radio station in New Haven. He has yet to hear from the FCC, but he continues to hope it will come through. “I think we’d engage the readership in a new way,” he said.
For now, though, he’s planning to do something he’s never done before: ramp down the Independent for a few weeks. Posting will be minimal this week and next. And he’s going to stop posting completely during the last two weeks of August — a first since the Independent began publication in late August of 2005. Then comes the new Independent.
“I’m not going to have the same experience level I have now, so it’s going to be different,” Bass said. “I don’t think I can replace Thomas and Melissa.”