Mary Margaret White of Mississippi Today talks with us about journalism and southern culture

Mary Margaret White

On this week’s “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with Mary Margaret White, the CEO of Mississippi Today, a nonprofit digital news outlet that has been covering the state for more than six years. The staff has a robust presence at the statehouse in Jackson and provides cultural and sports coverage as well.

Mary Margaret is a Mississippi native. She has a bachelor’s in English and journalism and a master’s in Southern studies from the University of Mississippi. She also spent almost 10 years working for the state, with jobs in arts and tourism. Her work has appeared in The Listening Post CollectiveThe New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture and on Mississippi Public Broadcasting radio.

I’ve got a Quick Take on a major transition at the New Haven Independent. Last week the indefatigable founder, Paul Bass, announced he was stepping aside as editor of the Independent. The new editor will be Tom Breen, currently the managing editor. Luckily, Bass isn’t going anywhere but will continue to play a major role.

Ellen’s Quick Take is on another big transition at The Texas Tribune. Economist Sonal Shah is becoming CEO at the Tribune in January. Shah, who has had leadership roles at Google, the White House, and other high-impact organizations, replaces co-founder Evan Smith, who is taking a role as senior adviser to the Emerson Collective. It’s a big change at a pioneering nonprofit newsroom. Smith says he’ll continue to spread the local news gospel in his new role.

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

Seismic change comes to the New Haven Independent as Tom Breen moves up

Tom Breen. Photo (cc) 2021 by Dan Kennedy.

There is huge news today in the world of independent community journalism. Paul Bass, the founder of the New Haven Independent, is stepping aside as editor while Tom Breen, currently the managing editor, moves up to the top position. Bass has been talking about making this change for a while, and on Tuesday he made it official.

Bass, 62, isn’t going anywhere. He’ll continue as executive director of the Online Journalism Project, the nonprofit organization he set up to oversee the Independent, the Valley Independent Sentinel in New Haven’s northwest suburbs, and WNHH Radio, a low-power FM station that specializes in community programming. He’ll also continue to report the news for the Independent and host a show on WNHH.

Paul Bass. Photo (cc) 2021 by Maaisha Osman.

Breen, 34, joined the staff of the Independent as a reporter in 2018 and later became managing editor. Breen is a dogged journalist; last November, I accompanied him as he knocked on the doors of houses that had been foreclosed on, a regular practice of his that has yielded important stories.

The Independent is one of the oldest and still among the best nonprofit local news startups in the country. It was the primary subject of my 2013 book, “The Wired City,” and it will also be featured in “What Works: The Future of Local News,” a book-in-progress by Ellen Clegg and me.

Congratulations to Paul and Tom. This is a big change for a news organization that has been remarkably stable over the course of its 17-year existence.

Eric Boehlert’s fierce media criticism will be missed

Eric Boehlert. Photo (cc) 2019 by kellywritershouse.

Some years ago Paul Bass, the founder and editor of the New Haven Independent, gave me a stack of clips to help me understand that city’s media landscape. One piece I remember especially well was a masterful, in-depth magazine feature on New Haven’s newspapers written by a young reporter named Eric Boehlert. Headlined “Nightmare in Elm City,” it was published by Inside Media in 1990.

I wish I could put my hands on that piece right now. Because earlier today I learned some terrible news: Eric had been killed by a train while riding his bicycle Tuesday night in Montclair, New Jersey, where he lived. He was just 57 years old. (Oddly enough, I was in Montclair last week on a reporting trip, although our paths did not cross.)

Eric later made his mark as a liberal media critic for Salon, Media Matters and other publications, and — during the last few years of his life — as an independent writer at Substack. He was a fierce progressive. His final post, published on Monday, took the media to task for failing to highlight the strong job growth that has taken place under President Joe Biden. He wrote:

Biden is currently on pace, during his first two full years in office, to oversee the creation of 10 million new jobs and an unemployment rate tumbling all the way down to 3 percent. That would be an unprecedented accomplishment in U.S. history. Context: In four years in office, Trump lost three million jobs, the worst record since Herbert Hoover.

Yet the press shrugs off the good news, determined to keep Biden pinned down. “The reality is that one strong jobs report does not snap the administration out of its current circumstances,” Politico stressed Friday afternoon. How about 11 straight strong job reports, would that do the trick? Because the U.S. economy under Biden has been adding more than 400,000 jobs per month for 11 straight months.

Boehlert was also an early champion of the left blogosphere, which was a significant force in Democratic circles 20 years ago and helped fuel the rise of Howard Dean in 2004. In 2009 I reviewed his book “Bloggers on the Bus” for The Guardian, calling it “a reliable, entertaining guide” to an era that’s now all but gone.

Eric’s voice was an important one, and he will be greatly missed. My condolences to his family and friends.

Babz Rawls Ivy, the radio voice of New Haven, shares her life and wisdom

Babz Rawls Ivy and Dan Kennedy outside her home in New Haven. Photo by Babz.

Babz Rawls Ivy is host and co-producer of “LoveBabz LoveTalk” on WNHH-LP radio in New Haven. But that doesn’t begin to describe her. So let’s add a few more words: Force of nature. Wise presence. Storyteller.

WNHH is a low-power FM community station launched seven years ago by the New Haven Independent, a pioneering online nonprofit news site. Paul Bass, founder and editor of the Independent, wanted to bring powerful local voices onto the airwaves. Babz Rawls Ivy brings truth-telling to a whole new level.

Rawls Ivy’s show is on the air every weekday from 9 to 11 a.m. If you’re in New Haven, you can hear it at 103.5 FM. You can also listen live on the Independent’s website and on its Facebook page, where programs are also available after the show. Past programs are also available on a number of other platforms, including Apple Podcasts. Just search for “WNHH Community Radio.”

In our Quick Takes for the week, Dan shares the latest on Gannett’s downgrading of local coverage, and Ellen asks whether retired journalists are the new seed capital for startup digital sites.

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

News organizations continue to grapple with the trolls under the bridge

Anika Gupta. Photo via LinkedIn.

Can comments on news platforms be salvaged? Hailed two decades ago as a forum for empowering what Dan Gillmor and Jay Rosen called “the former audience,” they have in all too many cases devolved into an open sewer of lies, hate and racism. Remember the adage that “our audience knows more than we do”? Well, there may be something to that. But it turns out that scrolling through the comments is not the way to tap into that wisdom.

The Philadelphia Inquirer this week became the latest news organization to drop most of its comments. Closer to home, when my other employer, GBH News, ended comments a few years ago in the course of upgrading its content-management system, I didn’t hear about a single complaint.

On Thursday, Anika Gupta, the author of “How to Handle a Crowd: The Art of Creating Healthy and Dynamic Online Communities” (2020), offered some common-sense ideas that were aimed not only at news sites but also at the larger challenge of how to keep virtual discussions from spinning out of control.

In a talk via Zoom sponsored by Northeastern University’s School of Journalism, Gupta discussed her study of Make America Dinner Again, started in 2016 by two women in the San Francisco Bay Area, Tria Chang and Justine Lee, to bring people with differing political perpectives together over food and conversation. It took off, and Facebook approached Chang and Lee with the idea of making it a Facebook group as well.

To the extent that it’s worked, Gupta said, it’s because the group has grown slowly (to date, there are still fewer than 1,000 members), with lots of personal intervention. Some of the steps they’ve taken include staying away from hot-button topics such as whether abortion should be legal or if teachers should have guns. Instead, they aim for “detailed, specific, ‘sideways’ questions,” as Gupta put it in her presentation. For instance, rather than asking about abortion rights, members were asked a lengthy question about how religious people justify a particular biblical quote.

They also implemented a “one-hour rule” that limits members to posting only one comment per thread per hour, which tends to keep the temperature down.

Some of the challenges they’ve faced, Gupta said, involve questions about what to do regarding members with false or offensive views. Their decision was to take aggressive action in such cases and encourage people to leave — a different approach compared to the one generally taken by the news business.

“A lot of news organizations are uncomfortable with this ‘if you don’t like it, you can leave’ attitude,” Gupta said.

I had a chance to ask Gupta about two issues that have bedeviled news organizations: Would requiring real names make a difference? And should comments be screened before they’re posted? Gupta’s take was that real names don’t matter all that much. Even in community online forums with real-names policies, she said, “you will be shocked about what people say about their neighbors.” (Actually, no, I wouldn’t.)

Moreover, insisting on real names can drive away people afraid of being harassed. That’s especially true with women, who, studies and anecdotal evidence show, are disproportionately singled out for online abuse.

Pre-screening, she added, is a problem because it is so labor-intensive, and it may not be realistic for larger media outlets. She also said pre-screening turns comments into something like letters to the editor, since commenters know their views are going to be read by someone at the news organization.

Although it can be difficult to find a news site that has healthy, productive comments, there are a few. One is the New Haven Independent, a nonprofit I wrote about in my 2013 book, “The Wired City.”

The Independent doesn’t require real names, but it does have a number of commenters who’ve used consistent pseudonyms over time, which Gupta said is helpful in maintaining civility. The site also screens every comment before it’s posted. The editor and founder, Paul Bass, believes that leads to more and higher-quality comments, since people who want to be constructive aren’t scared off.

Still, the Independent has had its glitches. As I wrote for the Nieman Journalism Lab a number of years ago, at one point an outbreak of sociopathy led Bass to shut down the comments temporarily. When they relaunched, commenters were required to register under their real names, though they could still post pseudonymously. That action put them on notice that they could be sued — Section 230, much discussed of late, protects the Independent, not the individuals who comment on the site.

Bass continues to see value in comments, writing in a public thread on Facebook this week:

Screening is essential. We screw up sometimes, and sometimes it gets toxic. But overall almost everyone involved with our site (readers, reporters, etc.) agrees that comments section is the best part. Lively, very wide range of points of view and racial/economic backgrounds; and some people who really know a lot more than we do! But occasionally it does feel like a sewer. I do feel comfortable zapping comments and banning people. Without our comments section, we would be more removed from readers, especially those who disagree with us. I learn so much from commenters!

I do wonder, though, if the Independent’s 2005 founding has something to do with Bass’ success with comments. Facebook was barely a thing at that time, and digital culture hadn’t become as toxic as it is today. By establishing expectations right from the start, Bass has been able to maintain a relatively civil environment for more than 15 years.

And I agree with Bass that screening — by humans — is essential. Anika Gupta said Thursday that screening by artificial intelligence isn’t going to be effective anytime soon, despite the efforts of Google to develop a system that would do just that.

At the local level, in particular, maintaining a useful comments platform is essential to keeping the audience engaged. Letting the trolls invade and taking action only after the damage has been done is exactly the wrong approach.

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Federal bill would ease the way for nonprofit local news

A bill filed by U.S. Rep. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Calif., would make it easier for “written news organizations” to claim nonprofit status, “allowing them to focus on content instead of profit margins and reduce their tax burden.”

The bill, H.R. 3126, has been endorsed by the News Media Alliance, the National Newspaper Association, the American Society of News Editors, the Associated Press Media Editors, the Association of Alternative Newsmedia, the California News Publishers Association, Free Press Action and the Open Markets Institute.

Nonprofit news is nothing new — organizations ranging from public media to hyperlocal community websites have nonprofit status. Donors are able to write off contributions, and the news organizations themselves are exempt from most taxes.

But it’s not easy. Back in 2013, I wrote that the IRS had virtually stopped granting 501(c)(3) nonprofit status to startup news organizations as it wrestled with the question of whether journalism was among the educational activities envisioned under the tax code.

Though it’s my understanding that the agency has loosened up since then, questions remain. For instance, The Salt Lake Tribune recently announced that it would seek nonprofit status, which would make it the first regional newspaper to do so. Writing at the Nieman Lab, though, Christine Schmidt and Joshua Benton wondered whether the Tribune would run into trouble for its coverage of professional sports and the restaurant scene, which would appear to fall outside the IRS guidelines.

On the other hand, Paul Bass, the founder of the New Haven Independent, a 13-year-old nonprofit news project, told me recently that the only guidance he ever received was that the Independent could not endorse political candidates or lobby the government.

Presumably DeSaulnier’s bill will help clear up those issues. And a personal note: I played a very small role in crafting the legislation. DeSaulnier and I discussed his ideas last fall, and I suggested to his office — unsuccessfully — that the bill not be restricted to “written” forms of journalism.

The legislation is one of two stories in the news right now about the future of local journalism. The other is a proposal by the newspaper industry to suspend antitrust laws so that they may negotiate collectively with social media platforms in an attempt to obtain payment for the use of their content.

The News Media Alliance, the newspaper business’ principal lobbying group, released a study this week claiming that Google and Facebook made $4.7 billion in 2018 through its uncompensated use of material that originally was published on newspaper websites.

You can read the full text of Rep. DeSaulnier’s bill to encourage nonprofit journalism by clicking here. The text of his office’s press release is below.

June 6, 2019 | Press Release

Washington, DC – Today, Congressman Mark DeSaulnier (CA-11) announced the introduction of the Saving Local News Act (H.R. 3126), a bill to recognize newspapers as a public good and make it easier for written news organizations to become non-profits – allowing them to focus on content instead of profit margins and reduce their tax burden. The bill is supported by the News Media Alliance, the National Newspaper Association, the American Society of News Editors, the Associated Press Media Editors, the Association of Alternative Newsmedia, the California News Publishers Association, Free Press Action, and the Open Markets Institute.

“Local journalism has been a bedrock of American society for over 200 years. I remember when dedicated reporters sat in the front row of city council meetings to keep communities informed and to increase accountability. Today many local newspapers are dying out – penny pinching until they close or are bought up and sold off piecemeal by hedge funds. This bill would allow papers to renew their focus on quality content and flourish unencumbered by ever-increasing demands for greater profits,” said Congressman DeSaulnier.

“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.

“News organizations today must explore a wide array of avenues for sustainability, one of them being non-profit status. But the federal law lays many trip wires along this path, including the way advertising is taxed. The non-profit route could be attractive for some newspapers if and only if Congress recognizes that even a non-profit newspaper still needs good revenue sources. This proposal by Congressman DeSaulnier will open up new possibilities for sustaining quality journalism in American communities. We appreciate the concept and, even more, we welcome the interest from an important member of Congress in helping newspapers that are at risk to survive,” said Andrew Johnson, President, National Newspaper Association.

“This legislation carries the promise of helping news outlets large and small, in big cities and small towns, throughout the country. It will allow for innovation into new models of journalism and carries significant potential to address the growing problem of ‘news deserts’ around the country where the for-profit model is not sustainable,” said Angie Muhs, President, Associated Press Media Editors.

“The nonprofit model of journalism may well be one viable future of journalism, at least where smaller publications are involved. This is a constant topic of discussion among our membership which is why our organization welcomes this legislation as a means of increasing the likelihood that those who choose can convert themselves to non-profit status, while maintaining a strong journalistic enterprise,” said Molly Willmott, President, Association of Alternative Newsmedia.

“At a time when editors around the country continue to see newsrooms shrink in the face of financial constraints, we welcome every avenue to greater revenue. This legislation offers significant assistance that will allow news organizations to survive without constraining their actual journalism in any way,” said Nancy Barnes, President, American Society of News Editors.

“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.

Since 2017, estimated daily newspaper circulation fell 11 percent from the previous year (Pew Research Center). Congressman DeSaulnier recently 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. 2054), a bill to create a temporary safe harbor from anti-trust laws to allow news organizations to join together to negotiate with dominant online platforms to get a fair share of advertising profits.

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From ‘The Wired City’ to the rise of the media moguls

Last Wednesday I had a chance to catch up with Paul Bass, founder and editor of the New Haven Independent and the principal subject of my last book, “The Wired City.” Paul and I talked about my new book, “The Return of the Moguls,” at the Book Trader Café in downtown New Haven. It was a lot of fun — and, as you’ll see from the Facebook Live video (just click on the image), Paul asked some tough questions.

How three newspaper moguls responded to the end of free digital content

New Haven at night. Photo (cc) 2007 by Matt Krause.

Author Dan Kennedy will talk about the future of the news — and his new book “The Return of the Moguls: How Jeff Bezos and John Henry Are Remaking Newspapers for the Twenty-First Century” — with Independent Editor Paul Bass at an event at the Book Trader Cafe, 1140 Chapel St., Wednesday, May 23, at 6:30 p.m. An excerpt from Dan’s book follows.

Communities can’t thrive without strong, independent journalism.

When the business model that pays for news fails, we need alternatives. That was the idea behind my 2013 book, The Wired City, which explored new forms of online local journalism, with a focus on the New Haven Independent.

But traditional newspapers still matter, whether in print, online, or both. A good daily paper can reach an audience and command attention more effectively than most other types of media. Newspapers are often seen as dinosaurs lumbering toward extinction, laid low by technological advances, the collapse of advertising revenues, and greedy hedge-fund owners seeking to squeeze out every last drop of profit before discarding them like yesterday’s news. In such an environment, can newspapers be saved?

Read the rest at the New Haven Independent. And talk about this post on Facebook.

Radio for the people: Providing a voice for Boston’s communities of color

My friend Donna Halper has a great suggestion for how Boston can help bridge the racial divide that continues to define our city and region: bring back local radio that serves the African-American community. The Boston Globe today follows up its recent Spotlight Team series on race, “Boston. Racism. Image. Reality.,” with some ideas from its readers. (And kudos to the Globe for dropping the paywall.) Here is what Halper, a Lesley University professor and longtime radio consultant, has to say:

A professor said that Boston’s media landscape may suffer from the lack of a prominent local radio station that’s black-owned. Boston used to have a station owned by black community members, WILD, but under new corporate ownership it stopped focusing on African-American issues a number of years ago.

“In most cities with a sizable black population, there have been local radio stations around which the community could rally,” wrote Donna L. Halper, an associate professor at Lesley University. “These stations were not just about playing the hits; they were a focus of information and news that the so-called ‘mainstream’ stations didn’t usually address.”

Black-owned media, such as the Bay State Banner newspaper, have had trouble generating significant advertising support, she said, and “a thriving black media would go a long way towards making the black community feel as if its story is being told.

“Relying on the ‘mainstream’ media often means the only time stories of your neighborhood get told is when crimes are committed,” Halper said. “White Bostonians have long held inaccurate ideas about black Bostonians because more often than not, the only stories widely reported depicted danger and criminality.”

(Note: In 1997, during my Boston Phoenix days, I wrote about WILD’s struggle to survive as an independent radio station in the face of corporate consolidation unleashed by the Telecommunications Act of 1996.)

Now, if I were reading Halper’s comments and wanted to follow up, the first person I’d talk with is Paul Bass, the founder and editor of the New Haven Independent, a nonprofit online-only news operation that is still thriving after 12 years. When I was writing about the Independent for my book “The Wired City,” the Independent had a mostly white reporting staff to cover a city with a large African-American community. They did a good job, but it wasn’t ideal.

The Independent’s staff is more diverse today. Even more important, though, is that in 2015 Bass launched a nonprofit low-power FM radio station, WNHH, which also broadcasts online. Rather than writing stories for New Haven’s communities of color, members of those communities have come inside to host programs and tell their own stories. It has proved to be a real boon to New Haven. And though it would be hard to replicate something like that in a city as large as Boston, there surely must be ways to adapt what Bass is doing.

More: Of course Touch 106.1 FM is already providing a valuable service in Boston — but without an FCC license. The city needs a community radio station that can operate legally and can thus enjoy a higher profile and more influence. Also popping up in the Facebook comments: Zumix, a youth-oriented bilingual LPFM and online station in East Boston.

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Here we go again: No, print will not save the shrinking newspaper business

This 1910 photo of an 8-year-old Philadelphia newsboy, Michael Mc Nelis, was taken by Lewis Hine for the Children’s Bureau of the US Department of Commerce and Labor.
This 1910 photo of an 8-year-old Philadelphia newsboy, Michael Mc Nelis, was taken by Lewis Hine for the Children’s Bureau of the US Department of Commerce and Labor.

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.

Read the rest at WGBHNews.org. And talk about this post on Facebook.