David Dahl on public-interest journalism in Maine; plus, a report from Radically Rural

David Dahl

On this week’s podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with David Dahl, editor of The Maine Monitor. David was most recently a deputy managing editor at The Boston Globe. Among his jobs at the Globe: directing hyperlocal Your Town coverage at Boston.com, an initiative that ended not long after John Henry bought the paper in 2013. The pull of Maine was strong, however. He and his wife, Kathy, have a home in Friendship, Maine. When he decided that he was ready to turn the page, he looked Down East.

I’ve got a Quick Take on Bulletin, a feature developed by Facebook to compete with Substack that included local journalism produced by people of color. Sarah Scire has the scoop: Bulletin is shutting down. Ellen has a Quick Take on a new kind of media audit by the Alliance for Audited Media, which has been verifying newspaper circulation for 108 years. The organization says it’s branching out, to audit standards of ethics in journalism. Ellen asks: Why?

Dakotah Kennedy, a graduate student at Northeastern University (who is not related to me), contributes on-the-ground interviews from attendees at the recent Radically Rural conference in New Hampshire. Our recent podcast with Terry Williams, creator of the conference, can be found here.

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

How an escapade on a frozen pond led one newspaper to reform its crime coverage

Photos (cc) 2022 by Dan Kennedy

One February day in 2020, an obituary caught Paul Cuno-Booth’s eye. At that time the police and courts reporter for The Keene Sentinel in rural western New Hampshire, Cuno-Booth had two years earlier written about one of those wacky incidents that editors and readers love.

A 47-year-old woman had driven out onto the ice on a pond, doing donuts, knocking over fishermen’s equipment and leading police on a slow-motion chase, throwing things out of her window as she drove. She was arrested and charged with criminal mischief and disobeying an officer.

Now, reading her obit, he learned more about the woman who’d been arrested on the ice that day. She’d had surgery for a brain tumor in 2016. She’d worked with mentally disabled people. She was a triathlete. Hers was a deep, well-rounded life, and the Sentinel’s story had reduced her to a caricature for the entertainment of its readers.

Cuno-Booth and others at the Sentinel started talking about how they could cover criminal justice in a way that reflected the complexities of the people they were writing about — people who were, in many cases, suffering from substance abuse, trauma and poverty. Crime coverage at the Sentinel, he said, was typical of most papers, consisting of “a lot of quick-hit articles,” press releases from the police, “not a lot of reporting, not a lot of context.” They decided they needed to make some changes. But where to begin?

From Cuno-Booth’s slideshow

Cuno-Booth described the Sentinel’s dilemma and the steps that it took to improve its coverage at the Radically Rural conference last week in Keene, New Hampshire. Sponsored by the Sentinel and the Hannah Grimes Center for Entrepreneurship, the conference, now in its fifth year, featured panels on agriculture, housing, the environment and community journalism. Ellen Clegg and I interviewed the Sentinel’s president and COO, Terry Williams, on the “What Works” podcast a few weeks ago.

Cuno-Booth said he left the Sentinel but stayed in touch with the paper; he’s now a freelancer, working with New Hampshire Public Radio and other outlets. The paper’s crime coverage, he told the audience, was reoriented with the help of Kelly McBride, an ethics specialist at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Essentially, it came down to being more deliberate — individual crimes would not be reported unless the paper was prepared to follow them all the way through the court system, which immediately ruled out minor offenses. They’d look for trends rather than writing about, for instance, an 18-year-old picked up on an alcohol violation. They’d give people a chance to have stories about their earlier misdeeds be removed from Google search, although they’d remain in the Sentinel’s archives — a step taken by a number of news organizations in recent years, including The Boston Globe. Mug shots would rarely be published.

“I think it’s still very much a work in progress,” Cuno-Booth said. Nevertheless, that one moment of infamy for a troubled woman in 2018 has led to some significant changes in the way that the Sentinel covers crime and serves its community.

Terry Williams of The Keene Sentinel on journalism in rural communities

Terry Williams, right, speaks on rural journalism at the Knight Media Forum 2020 in Miami. Photo (cc) 2020 by the Knight Foundation.

The “What Works” podcast is back from its August hiatus. This week, Ellen Clegg and I talk with Terrence Williams, president and COO of The Keene Sentinel in Keene, New Hampshire, one of the oldest newspapers in the country.

Terry and the Sentinel are the creators of the Radically Rural conference, now in its fifth year, which will be held Sept. 21 and 22. The conference looks at issues such as housing, farming, the environment and — most important to us — community journalism.

I’ve got a Quick Take on The Salt Lake Tribune’s new venture, called Mormon Land, an interesting example of how a local news organization can leverage news in its own backyard in order to attract a national audience.

Ellen highlights a podcast called Shevotes, which recounts the battle for suffrage and recounts historic efforts at voter suppression. Award-winning journalists Ellen Goodman and Lynn Sherr cohost, and actress Christine Baranski makes a contribution, too.

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

A deal in Denver’s suburbs points the way toward a solution for local news

This is one of the most exciting developments I’ve seen in local news in a long time — certainly more exciting than the news that Substack and Facebook were going to toss some spare change in a tin cup in the hopes of enticing community journalists to set up shop on their platforms.

Earliest this week David Folkenflik of NPR reported that The Colorado Sun, a digital startup that arose from the ashes of The Denver Post, would acquire a chain of 24 small newspapers in the Denver suburbs in partnership with a new nonprofit organization called the National Trust for Local News. As Sun editor and co-founder Larry Ryckman told Folkenflik:

These are the folks who are covering school boards, city councils, county commissions that no one else is covering. They provide unique local coverage. And we’re doing this so that we can preserve those voices.

Denver is the best-known example of the damage inflicted on newspapers by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital. Three years ago, journalists at The Denver Post rebelled at Alden’s brutal budget cuts. But guess who won? That led Ryckman and others to leave and launch the Sun. Ryckman described what happened last fall at the Radically Rural conference sponsored by the Keene (N.H.) Sentinel, which I covered for the Nieman Journalism Lab:

We endured cut after cut after cut. I had to lay people off. We were under assault, really, from our own owners, and nothing that we did — not being faster, smarter, more digital — none of those things really matter when a hedge fund doesn’t really care about the community or the journalism that the newspaper it owns produces. It’s really about this quarter’s return.

At one time, Denver’s newspapers employed about 600 journalists, Ryckman said. But the Rocky Mountain News shut down in 2009, and, as of last fall, Ryckman estimated the head count at the Post as being somewhere around 60. The Sun employs 10 people. But as a public benefit corporation, it can reinvest whatever money it makes in improving its journalism.

Could such a model work elsewhere? I don’t see why not. Take Eastern Massachusetts, whose weekly and daily community newspapers are nearly all owned by Alden’s rival in cost-cutting, Gannett. Could some sort of nonprofit entity be formed that would attempt to buy back Gannett’s properties in the Boston area? Gannett does sell papers from time to time. Maybe it’s possible to make them an offer they wouldn’t refuse.

The situation is dire. And what’s taking place in Denver suggests a possible way forward.

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