Should Jeff Bezos have sat in on a news meeting at The Washington Post?

Jeff Bezos. Photo (cc) 2010 by Steve Jurvetson.

Should someone from the business side of a major newspaper — up to and including the owner — sit in on a news meeting? Generally speaking, the answer is no, but I’m not sure that there’s any hard and fast rule. An ethical owner will not interfere in the news coverage in any way. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they can’t listen.

In early 2017, when I was reporting for my book “The Return of the Moguls,” I was allowed to sit in on a Boston Globe news meeting presided over by the paper’s editor, Brian McGrory. I was somewhat surprised to see co-owner Linda Henry, now the CEO, sitting off to one side, taking notes. She said nothing, and it didn’t strike me as inappropriate — just a bit unexpected.

Another owner I was tracking, Jeff Bezos, was a different story. According to everyone I spoke with, Bezos was entirely hands-off with the news operations of The Washington Post, although he was deeply involved in various business and technology initiatives. By all accounts, Amazon’s founder was a model newspaper owner, leaving his journalists alone to cover the news — including Bezos’ own interests — as they saw fit.

So I was surprised to learn in The New York Times (free link) that Bezos had recently sat in on a news meeting at the Post and listened as executive editor Sally Buzbee and her lieutenants discussed several story ideas that no doubt piqued Bezos’ interest. According to the Times’ Benjamin Mullin and Katie Robertson:

Other than Mr. Bezos’ appearance, the news meeting proceeded as it might on any other day, with editors discussing news stories and readership trends, according to the people with knowledge of the meeting. At one point, an editor mentioned plans to run an article about the discontinuation of AmazonSmile, a charity program that Mr. Bezos championed. The editors also discussed the pending sale of the Washington Commanders. The Post previously reported that Mr. Bezos was interested in buying the National Football League team.

Now, you might say that Buzbee’s predecessor, the legendary Marty Baron, never would have allowed such a breach of the wall between the news and the business sides. Well, maybe, maybe not. Because Mullin took to Twitter and reported that he’d heard the same thing had happened at least once during the Baron years. “For what it’s worth: Someone told me this happened in an editorial meeting under Marty Baron, who turned to Jeff and asked him for comment on the spot,” Mullin tweeted. “I’m told Jeff gave a big Jeff laugh and no-commented.”

After years of growth and profits under Bezos, the Post is now losing both circulation and money (another free link; hey, it’s almost the end of the month, when the meter resets). I’ve written before that I think the greatest risk to the Post is that Bezos may be losing interest, so at least his recent meeting suggests that it still engages him. But for someone who seems to have been scrupulous about not interfering in the Post’s news coverage, he ought to be self-aware enough not to sit in on news meetings.

By the way, I should note that though ethical owners and publishers keep their hands off news coverage, that’s not the case on the opinion side. The Post, the Globe and most other large dailies have a strict separation between news and opinion, with the top editors of those operations reporting directly to the publisher. It is entirely ethical for publishers to get involved in the opinion section, and both Linda and John Henry have done that over the years. Bezos, by all accounts, has been as uninvolved in the Post’s opinion operation as he is in news coverage — but that’s his choice. It’s not a requirement.

A final note: In Semafor on Sunday, Ben Smith wrote an item headlined “The Billionaire Era in News Is Fizzling,” building on the Times’ report about Bezos and the Post. Smith lists a bunch of them, from Bezos to Laurene Powell Jobs at The Atlantic and Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong at the Los Angeles Times.

But John Henry, a billionaire financier, is nowhere to be seen — even though in his own take-it-slow way he’s rebuilt the Globe into a growing and presumably profitable (he hasn’t said for several years, but he keeps hiring) enterprise. Sounds to me like bias against what is still seen in many quarters as a provincial outpost.

Gannett’s latest press closing will have a huge impact on its daily in Burlington, Vt.

Photo (cc) 2015 by Dan Kennedy

From the Department of You’ve Got to Be Kidding: Gannett has announced that it will close its printing plant in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and move the work to its presses in Auburn, Massachusetts, and Providence, Rhode Island. The daily papers that will be affected are the Portsmouth Herald, Foster’s Daily Democrat and — are you ready? — the Burlington Free Press, located not far from the Canadian border.

Word of the switch was published in the Portsmouth Herald on Wednesday. I have not been able to find it in the Free Press, either in print or online (my USA Today digital subscription gives me access to the replica editions of every Gannett daily in the country, which is why I was able to check). But assuming that Gannett’s own story is accurate, that is really a breathtaking move. According to Apple Maps, it’s a three-and-a-half-hour, 240-mile drive from Auburn to Burlington. Providence is even worse — about four hours and nearly 270 miles. And that’s right now, without any traffic to speak of.

The Herald offers this statement from Gannett:

As our business becomes increasingly digital and subscription-focused, newspaper printing partnerships have become standard. We are making strategic decisions to ensure the future of local journalism and continue our outstanding service to the community.

Ah, yes, digital subscriptions, Gannett’s standard answer to everything. Well, let’s look at the Burlington Free Press’ latest filings with the Alliance for Audited Media, shall we? For the six-month period ending last Sept. 30, the average weekday print circulation was 4,000, with another 6,012 on Sundays. Meanwhile, paid digital replica circulation was 1,051 on weekdays and 667 on Sundays. Nothing is listed for straight-up digital subscriptions, but in March 2021 the Free Press reported about 1,400 on weekdays and about 1,200 on Sundays for digital nonreplica. So, roughly, that’s a total of around 2,000 digital replica and nonreplica subscriptions. Not impressive, and clearly the Free Press’ print product is still what its readers are looking for.

Then again, Gannett has long since ceded the Burlington market to a terrific alt-weekly, Seven Days; a leading digital nonprofit, VTDigger; and Vermont Public Radio. I wrote about that in my 2018 book, “The Return of the Moguls.” We also recently interviewed VTDigger’s founder, Anne Galloway, on the “What Works” podcast.

How Anne Galloway built VTDigger into Vermont’s largest news organization

Anne Galloway speaks at VTDigger’s 10th anniversary celebration in 2019. Photo by Glenn Russell, courtesy of VTDigger.

On this week’s “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with Anne Galloway, the founder and editor-at-large of VTDigger in Vermont. Like many journalists, she was laid off in 2009 from her job as Sunday editor of the Rutland Herald and The Barre-Montpelier Times Argus.

VTDigger, which is a nonprofit, started with a $16,000 budget with no employees. As Galloway put it in a recent letter to readers, it has grown beyond her wildest dreams. It’s the largest newsroom in Vermont, with dozens of employees and more than 550,000 monthly readers. Galloway not only built the organization, she also wrote notable investigative pieces. Among other issues, she broke open a fraudulent scheme that involve developers at Jay Peak. I visited Galloway and wrote about the newsroom in my 2018 book “The Return of the Moguls.”

Earlier this year Galloway stepped aside from her management position in order to concentrate on investigative reporting.

Ellen has a quick take on a study about the state of U.S. democracy from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The study says it’s critical to fight disinformation, and advocates rebuilding trusted local news sources.

I report on a promising merger between public radio station KERA and the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily newspaper that covers the suburbs north of Dallas. This move was facilitated by the National Trust for Local News, which raises money and connects legacy newspaper owners with possible buyers in order to keep them from either shutting down or falling into the hands of corporate chain owners. Our podcast with Elizabeth Hansen Shapiro, CEO and co-founder of the trust, can be found here.

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

Some smart questions about Jeff Bezos and the Post. But what’s the alternative?

Jeff Bezos. Photo (cc) 2019 by Daniel Oberhaus.

Should one of the world’s most influential billionaires own one of our most influential news organizations? That’s the question Dan Froomkin asks in the Columbia Journalism Review about Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon and the owner of The Washington Post. It’s an important article, and you should read it. But I have some reservations, which I detail below.

Headlined “The Washington Post Has a Bezos Problem,” Froomkin’s piece argues that the situation has changed since the early years of Bezos’ ownership, when the Post’s news and editorial pages were edited by Graham-era holdovers (Marty Baron and Fred Hiatt, respectively) and the paper returned to glory with deep investigative reporting on Donald Trump, both before and after the 2016 election.

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Now, Froomkin writes, Bezos tweets critically about President Biden’s economic policies while the Post’s news coverage, whether coincidentally or not, appears to track with those tweets. Bezos also had a hand in hiring Baron’s successor as executive editor, former Associated Press executive editor Sally Buzbee, and editorial page editor David Shipley, a Bloomberg journalist who was hired following Hiatt’s sudden death. Froomkin writes:

Throughout history, newspapers have frequently been owned by moguls — and readers were at times appropriately apprehensive. In this era, Rupert Murdoch has created a powerful media empire, which includes Fox News and The Wall Street Journal, and his influence has been considerable.

But Bezos is in a different league even from Murdoch. The world has never seen wealth like this before, and it has never been so interconnected.

As I said, Froomkin makes some good points. We ought to be concerned about that kind of power concentrated in one of our leading news outlets. He quotes Edward Wasserman, a media ethicist at the Graduate School of Journalism at Berkeley, as saying that Bezo’s dual role as a master of the universe and as the Post’s owner as being “not compatible with the kind of independence we normally associate with independent news organizations.”

But I think we have to dig a little deeper. When I was reporting on the Post for my 2018 book “The Return of the Moguls,” I could find no evidence that Bezos interfered with the paper’s news coverage or even its opinion operations. (The latter would be perfectly acceptable for an owner, and in fact John and Linda Henry are known to have their say in the opinion pages of The Boston Globe.) Nor did Froomkin find any evidence to the contrary.

What I have found as a reader of the Post is that though the paper will offer tough coverage of Amazon when warranted, it hasn’t gone out of its way to do any in-depth enterprise reporting on Amazon, as The New York Times has. As I told Froomkin, “I suppose nothing would answer the question more thoroughly than if they suddenly unveiled a real ass-kicking story about Amazon — a real in-depth piece of enterprise reporting that reflected pretty harshly on their owner.”

But every newspaper owner has conflicts of interest. Before Bezos bought the Post and took it private, it was a publicly traded company owner by the Graham family, who also owned the Kaplan testing company. The Grahams were often criticized for the Post’s soft coverage of the education testing industry. Of course, John Henry is the principal owner of the Red Sox. Glen Taylor, who revived the Star Tribune of Minneapolis, is a sports owner as well. Patrick Soon-Shiong, who owns the Los Angeles Times, is a pharmaceutical entrepreneur. And on and on.

All of these billionaires have improved their papers at a time when corporate chain owners and hedge funds like Gannett and Alden Global Capital are hollowing out their newspapers by the hundreds. Soon-Shiong’s ownership of the LA Times has been controversial, but he’s invested in the paper and he hired a fine newsroom leader, Kevin Merida, the most prominent Black editor in the country now that Dean Baquet has retired from the NY Times. Needless to say, none of these billionaires wields the sort of clout that Bezos does. But you have to ask: What is the alternative? Who is Dan Froomkin’s ideal owner?

In fact, I asked Froomkin that on Twitter. His answer:A local foundation or a local philanthropist or a civic-minded billionaire or a union. Anything but the (near) richest guy in the world. This broken system is working for him just great.

Hmmm. Certainly the Henrys, Taylor and Soon-Shiong qualify as civic-minded billionaires — maybe even as local philanthropists. Presumably the only thing that rules out Bezos is scale. I’m not familiar with any unions that own newspapers, although it’s a great idea and there are some historical examples.

A local foundation? There are a few. The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Tampa Bay Times are for-profit newspapers owned by nonprofit foundations — the Lenfest Institute and the Poynter Institute, respectively. But that came about because the billionaires who owned those papers donated them. The Salt Lake Tribune is a nonprofit that was donated by yet another billionaire.

Frankly, I think the biggest worry about the Post is that Bezos might be losing interest, which — if you read between the lines of a recent NY Times story — is a real concern. If that’s the case, would Bezos donate the Post to a foundation, as Gerry Lenfest did in Philadelphia and Nelson Poynter did in Tampa Bay/St. Petersburg? I’d like to think he wouldn’t preside over the revival of The Washington Post only to turn around and deliver it into the arms of Alden Global Capital. But who knows?

It could well be that the only thing worse than the Post under Bezos is the Post under a different owner.

Looking back at 13 years of reporting on local news projects

Maya McFadden of the New Haven Independent interviews Victor Joshua, CEO of RespeCT Hoops, at the Farnham Neighborhood House in New Haven, Conn. Photo (cc) 2021 by Dan Kennedy.

I recently wrapped up my third book on the road ahead for local and regional journalism. “What Works: The Future of Local News,” a collaboration with former Boston Globe editorial-page editor Ellen Clegg, is scheduled to be published by Beacon Press in the fall of 2023.

“What Works” is my third book on the topic, preceded by “The Wired City: Reimagining Journalism and Civic Life in the Post-Newspaper Age” (2013) and “The Return of the Moguls: How Jeff Bezos and John Henry Are Remaking Newspapers for the Twenty-First Century” (2018). My methodology has been similar for all three — starting in 2009, I’ve been visiting newsrooms across the country and interviewing editors and other news executives.

Although I may yet write another book, it will probably not be the same type of project. That sparked some nostalgia on my part as I thought back to the places I’ve been to over the past 13 years. I’ve compiled a list of places I’ve visited. Most involved interviewing people in their newsrooms. Some don’t have newsrooms. Some couldn’t meet me on site because of COVID-19. In all of these, though, I traveled to where they were, interviewing some people at their homes or in restaurants. It’s quite a list, and I look back fondly on every one.

  • The 016, Worcester, Massachusetts
  • Baristanet, Montclair, New Jersey
  • The Batavian, Batavia, New York
  • The Bedford Citizen, Massachusetts
  • Billy Penn, Philadelphia
  • The Boston Globe
  • Burlington Free Press, Vermont
  • Colorado Community Media, Englewood, Colorado
  • Colorado Public Radio, Denver, Colorado
  • The Colorado Sun, Denver, Colorado
  • The Connecticut Mirror, Hartford, Connecticut
  • CT News Junkie, Hartford, Connecticut
  • The Daily News, Batavia, New York
  • Fort Bragg Advocate-News, California
  • Haverhill Matters, Haverhill, Massachusetts
  • Inner-City Newspaper, New Haven, Connecticut
  • KZYX Radio, Philo, California
  • Los Angeles Times
  • Mendocino Beacon, Fort Bragg, California
  • The Mendocino Voice, Ukiah, California
  • Montclair Local, New Jersey
  • The Montclair Times, New Jersey
  • New Haven Advocate
  • New Haven Independent
  • New Haven Register
  • NJ Spotlight News, Newark, New Jersey
  • OC Weekly, Costa Mesa, California
  • Orange Coast Magazine, Newport Beach, California
  • Orange County Register, Santa Ana, California
  • The Philadelphia Inquirer
  • Philadelphia magazine
  • Portland Press Herald (Maine)
  • San Diego CityBeat
  • Seven Days, Burlington, Vermont
  • The Star-Ledger, Newark, New Jersey
  • Ukiah Daily Journal, Ukiah, California
  • Vermont Public Radio, Burlington, Vermont
  • Voice of San Diego
  • La Voz Hispana de Connecticut, New Haven, Connecticut
  • VTDigger, Montpelier, Vermont
  • The Washington Post
  • Washingtonian magazine
  • Westword, Denver, Colorado
  • Willits Weekly, Willits, California
  • WHAV Radio, Haverhill, Massachusetts
  • WNHH Radio, New Haven, Connecticut
  • Worcester Sun, Massachusetts

Yes, it’s true: Brian McGrory is leaving the Globe and heading to Boston University

Boston Globe editor Brian McGrory has finally made official what half the city has known for months: he’s leaving the Globe at the end of 2022 after nearly 10 years in charge in order to chair the journalism department at Boston University. He sent a memo to the staff a little while ago.

McGrory, who’d been a popular metro columnist before ascending to the top of the masthead, was named editor in the waning days of New York Times Co. ownership after Marty Baron left for The Washington Post. But McGrory helped pave the way for John Henry to buy the Globe in 2013, a process I described in my 2018 book, “The Return of the Moguls.” On McGrory’s watch, the Globe has thrived journalistically and has emerged as among a handful of large regional newspapers that have achieved financial sustainability.

Obviously there’s much more to be said, and much more will be said. I’ll just point out that he’s now a rival. The director of our School of Journalism at Northeastern is Jonathan Kaufman, a former Globe journalist. Moreover, McGrory and Kaufman both led news organizations that won Pulitzer Prizes — Bloomberg News in Kaufman’s case.

Here’s the Globe’s story on McGrory’s departure.

Congratulations to Brian. BU’s gain will be the Globe’s loss. The complete text of McGrory’s message, obtained from a trusted source, appear below.

Hey all,

I’ve written a lot of overly long memos to the room. I can’t promise this one will be any shorter, but I’ll do my best to be direct. I’m planning to step away from my role as editor by the end of this year.

When I took this job nearly a decade ago, I expected epic challenges and hoped for meaningful rewards. In retrospect, I had no idea on either front. Begin with the stories, so many once-in-a-generation stories, from the Boston Marathon bombings, to the Trump election, to a pandemic that changed everything, to the vital racial and social justice movement, to Trump’s failed reelection and its ugly aftermath, to this angst-ridden, not-quite-post-Covid netherworld that we’re in now. There were thousands of other stories in between, big consequential projects, deeply human narratives, breaking news, vital accountability work. You did it all with tenacity, urgency, and grace, and I’m honored to have been a part of that.

At the same time, the moment required us to confront the profoundly broken business model in American journalism, which calls to mind what a journalism elder said to me a number of years ago: You get to pick your career, but not when you do it. The industry was, as you know, a wreck. Big, proud newspapers were getting hollowed out. Answers were elusive. There were serious questions about our very viability. Facing all of that, what you’ve accomplished is nothing short of miraculous. You’ve embraced digital. You’ve shifted our mindset from being the paper of record to the paper of interest. You’ve found that sweet spot between what readers want and what our community needs. In doing so, you’ve built one of the most successful news sites in the world, http://bostonglobe.com, the foundation upon which this organization will grow for years. I hope you know how rare and important this is. And I’m honored to be part of that, too.

These kinds of notes inevitably turn formulaic and sappy, rarely a good combination, and I’m afraid I’m about to succumb to that form. There is so much that is great about this job, but there is a singularly meaningful reward that I wasn’t fully anticipating: my relationships with so many of you. From this seat, I had the privilege of thousands upon thousands of conversations. I saw your daily determination. I saw your commitment to the craft. I saw how you navigated the relentless demands of work in the most difficult times. I saw the toll it took, the resilience you had, the pride you felt. I saw how you care about your colleagues and the readers we serve.

I saw on a moment-by-moment basis how much the Globe means to you. What I also saw is how much you mean to the Globe. Don’t take this the wrong way, but you’re not always easy. You are, though, always worth it. This is the best newsroom in the country, and there’s no proper way to thank you for that.

Naming names is never a good thing, but I need to specifically thank Jen Peter and Jason Tuohey, the two best managing editors in America. You could throw at Jen a global pandemic that decimates every touchstone of everyday life, which we did, and she would hesitate only imperceptibly before continuing to bring order to the daily chaos that is journalism. She’s done it brilliantly. And put Jason among the most important digital thinkers in this industry today, the driving force behind so much of our growth.

Thanks, emphatically, to the Henrys, John and Linda. It’s just about incomprehensible that people with their options and resources would have the desire and commitment to plunge into the gritty and often thankless world of newspapers at a time when so many big thinkers were saying that the industry couldn’t be saved. They did, for all the right reasons, and the results have been profound – a thriving, innovative Globe with more subscribers than we’ve had in nearly 15 years and a role in this community that is as central as it’s ever been. Linda, especially, is at it every day – believe me, I know – often dismantling industry convention in pursuit of the next creative idea. She’s also built what is certainly the strongest leadership team the Globe has ever had, leaving no doubt that the next editor will be someone to celebrate.

In terms of what’s next for me, I’ve got two roles ahead. First, I’m heading to Boston University, where I’ve been offered the chair of the journalism department, an extraordinary opportunity to have an impact on the profession at a gold-standard institution. Hopefully that finally puts an end to the rumors. Second, I’ll write a regular column for the Globe, likely from the opinion section, ideally not too different from what I used to do in prior chapters of my professional life. I’m beyond excited about regaining a voice, and elated to remain a part of this place.

Our plan is for me to remain in this role until the end of the year or until a new editor starts, whichever comes first. Linda will be in touch very soon about the search.

Being the editor of the Globe would be the greatest honor of anyone’s professional life, and it certainly has been mine. For me, though, there’s something more. I was born here, raised here, watched my father read the Globe page-by-page every night, delivered the paper as a kid on a fifty-house route in Weymouth. All I ever wanted to be was a writer for the Globe. Being the editor was a dream I never dared to have.

Thank you for it all.

Correction. I really can subtract. Honestly, I know that 2022 minus 2012 is 10. Now fixed.

 

Anne Galloway steps aside at VTDigger and will return to the reporting ranks

The Vermont Statehouse in Montpelier. Photo (cc) 2015 by Dan Kennedy.

There is mega-news to report in the world of nonprofit digital journalism. Anne Galloway, the founder of VTDigger, is stepping aside as executive editor, taking on a new role as editor-at-large. She’s staying at Digger and will focus on investigative reporting. Here’s part of the official announcement from the Vermont Journalism Trust, the nonprofit that publishes Digger:

In the 13 years since Galloway launched VTDigger, it has grown from one reporter — Galloway herself — to become the largest newsroom in Vermont, with dozens of employees and more than 550,000 monthly readers. During that time, Galloway not only scaled up the organization while spearheading daily news coverage. She also wrote many investigative pieces that explained complex issues and uncovered corruption, most notably the EB-5 fraud scandal involving developers at Jay Peak. In her new role, Galloway intends to continue following that important story for VTDigger.

In a letter to readers, Galloway writes: “Today, VTDigger is Vermont’s newspaper of record, and the only online nonprofit news organization in the country that has replaced daily print newspapers in a local market. We have developed a sustainable funding model that is the envy of our competitors in print and broadcast.”

In late 2015 I traveled to Vermont to report on the media ecosystem that had grown up to fill gaps left by the Burlington Free Press, which had shrunk considerably under the not-so-tender ministrations of Gannett. This was the original, pre-GateHouse Gannett; but despite having a reputation that was better than the current iteration, the company had taken a chainsaw to Vermont’s paper of record. In response, the alt-weekly Seven Days, Vermont Public Radio and VTDigger had all stepped up. (I wrote about my findings in “The Return of the Moguls.”)

I visited Digger at its offices near the Vermont Statehouse in Montpelier. At that time the site had 13 full-time employees, seven of whom were journalists. That has since grown to 32. Galloway told me what it was like when she started the site in 2009 shortly after being laid off by the Rutland Herald.

“I didn’t have money to pay myself for two years, but I basically decided that I had to start a daily,” she said. “I started writing about the legislature. I went into the statehouse and I started covering the state budget in a very serious way. I started covering a few other issues. So it was me every day writing one to two stories.”

Now VTDigger is among the most respected nonprofits in the country covering state politics and policy. Congratulations to Galloway, and best wishes on whatever comes next.

Facebook’s tortured relationship with journalism gets a few more tweaks

Facebook has long had a tortured relationship with journalism. When I was reporting for “The Return of the Moguls” in 2015 and ’16, news publishers were embracing Instant Articles, news stories that would load quickly but that would also live on Facebook’s platform rather than the publisher’s.

The Washington Post was so committed to the project that it published every single piece of content as an Instant Article. Shailesh Prakash, the Post’s chief technologist, would talk about the “Facebook barbell,” a strategy that aimed to convert users at the Facebook end of the barbell into paying subscribers at the Post end.

Instant Articles never really went away, but enthusiasm waned — especially when, in 2018, Facebook began downgrading news in its algorithm in favor of posts from family and friends.

Nor was that the first time Facebook pulled a bait-and-switch. Earlier it had something called the Social Reader, inviting news organizations to develop apps that would live within that space. Then, in 2012, it made changes that resulted in a collapse in traffic. Former Post digital editor David Beard told me that’s when he began turning his attention to newsletters, which the Post could control directly rather than having to depend on Mark Zuckerberg’s whims.

Now they’re doing it again. Mathew Ingram of the Columbia Journalism Review reports that Facebook is experimenting with its news feed to see what the effect would be of showing users less political news as well as the way it measures how users interact with the site. The change, needless to say, comes after years of controversy over Facebook’s role in promoting misinformation and disinformation about politics, the Jan. 6 insurrection and the COVID-19 pandemic.

I’m sure Zuckerberg would be very happy if Facebook could serve solely as a platform for people to share uplifting personal news and cat photos. It would make his life a lot easier. But I’m also sure that he would be unwilling to see Facebook’s revenues drop even a little in order to make that happen. Remember that story about Facebook tweaking its algorithm to favor reliable news just before the 2020 election — and then changing it back afterwards because they found that users spent less time on the platform? So he keeps trying this and that, hoping to alight up on the magic formula that will make him and his company less hated, and less likely to be hauled before congressional committees, without hurting his bottom line.

One of the latest efforts is his foray into local news. If Facebook can be a solution to the local news crisis, well, what’s not to like? Earlier this year Facebook and Substack announced initiatives to bring local news projects to their platforms for some very, very short money.

Earlier today, Sarah Scire of the Nieman Journalism Lab profiled some of the 25 local journalists who are setting up shop on Bulletin, Facebook’s new newsletter platform. They seem like an idealistic lot, with about half the newsletters being produced by journalists of color. But there are warning signs. Scire writes:

Facebook says it’s providing “licensing fees” to the local journalists as part of a “multi-year commitment” but spokesperson Erin Miller would not specify how much the company is paying the writers or for how long. The company has said it won’t take a cut of subscription revenue “for the length of these partnerships.” But, again, it’s not saying how long those partnerships will last.

How long will Facebook’s commitment to local news last before it goes the way of the Social Reader and Instant Articles? I don’t like playing the cynic, especially about a program that could help community journalists and the audiences they serve. But cynicism about Facebook is the only stance that seems realistic after years of bad behavior and broken promises.

The sale of Politico marks the end of a long duel between the Allbrittons and the Grahams

Katharine Graham believed that Joseph Allbritton hoped to take advantage of the 1975-’76 strike against The Washington Post. Photo by Reading/Simpson, noncommercial use permitted.

Robert Allbritton last week sold Politico to the German media company Axel Springer for $1 billion. Ben Smith, who was part of the launch back in 2007, wrote about the sale earlier this week in The New York Times. I wrote about the two-generation rivalry between the Allbrittons and the Graham family, who controlled The Washington Post until 2013, in “The Return of the Moguls.” Below is an excerpt.

Katharine Graham’s other crucial move was to endure a strike in 1975 in order to get the Post’s printing costs under control. So arcane were the work rules that when an advertiser submitted a finished ad (known in the post-hot-lead, pre-computer age as “camera-ready”), a union compositor still put together an equivalent ad, even though it would be discarded as soon as he was finished with it. In deciding to put a stop to such practices, Graham was fortunate in the viciousness of her opposition. At one demonstration, a leader of the union, Charlie Davis, carried a sign that read “Phil Shot the Wrong Graham,” a reference to Phil Graham’s suicide. On the night that the pressmen went on strike, some of them beat the night foreman and started a fire in an attempt to sabotage the machinery. Because of those actions they earned the enmity of the Newspaper Guild, which represented the reporters. With the paper’s journalists crossing the picket line, the Post was able to resume publishing after just one missed day, enabling them to break the strike. The benefits of being able to modernize production were immediate, as income grew from about $13 million a year to $24.5 million in 1976 and to $35.5 million in 1977.

Not all observers were sympathetic to the Grahams. Ben Bagdikian, a former Post national editor who spent much of his long, distinguished career after leaving the paper as an academic and a harsh critic of corporate journalism, wrote an article in the Washington Monthly attributing the strike to Katharine Graham’s earlier decision to go public. “The idiosyncratic publishers, whose integrity led them to ignore narrow economic arguments in favor of quality, and who as a result created America’s great newspapers, are disappearing,” Bagdikian wrote. “They were being replaced by profit-maximizing conglomerate owners. It is a forecast of trouble for independent journalism in the country’s most important news companies.” Graham recorded her response in a note to Ben Bradlee: “I am really embarrassed to think this ignorant biased fool was ever national editor. Surely the worst asps in this world are the ones one has clasped to the bosom.”

The Post’s rivalry with The Washington Star played a small role in the strike as well, a tidbit of interest mainly because of who owned the Star at that time: Joe Allbritton, a Texan who had acquired the paper from the Kauffmann family in 1974. Katharine Graham wrote that Allbritton declined to help the Post during the strike because, in her view, the only way the Star could stay in business was for the Post to fail. Allbritton sold the Star to Time Inc. in 1978, which closed it in 1981 even though Katharine Graham, Donald Graham and Warren Buffett had made overtures to set up a joint operating agreement under which both papers would be published.

The Allbritton family’s ambitions remained entangled with the Post for many decades to come. Years later, two Post journalists, John Harris and Jim VandeHei, were rebuffed when they proposed setting up a separate political website under the paper’s umbrella. They took their idea to Joe Allbritton’s son, Robert, who helped them launch Politico in 2007. With its hyperkinetic insider’s approach to covering politics, the site quickly established itself as a serious rival to the Post on one of its signature beats, although Politico was often criticized for emphasizing the superficial horse race aspects of politics.

Robert Allbritton also backed a site cheekily named TBD.com (for “to be determined”), edited by the former washingtonpost.com editor Jim Brady and the future Post media blogger Erik Wemple, which covered local news in the Washington area in conjunction with a television station the Allbrittons had owned since acquiring the Star. Fortunately for the Grahams, Allbritton lost patience with it within months of its 2010 launch, and in 2012 the site was shut down. Another Allbritton connection: About a year after Jeff Bezos bought the Post, he hired Frederick Ryan, a former Reagan administration official, to replace Katharine Weymouth as publisher. At the time that the move was made, Ryan was president and chief operating officer of Allbritton Communications and had served as Politico’s first chief executive.

The Post and Politico make for a fascinating contrast. Both companies are ensconced in brand-new headquarters on either side of the Potomac; Politico occupies part of an office tower in the Rosslyn section of Arlington, Virginia. The missions of the two organizations are very different. The Post is a general-interest newspaper with a substantial print presence. Politico is aimed at people in the professional political community, and though it publishes a small print product (daily when Congress is in session; weekly otherwise), it’s mainly digital. Yet if the ancient rivalry between the Post and The New York Times is mostly journalistic and symbolic, the Post’s rivalry with the Allbritton family has involved serious competition over whose news organization will prove to be more financially successful in the long run.

Correction: I have learned that the elder Albritton’s legal name was Joe, not Joseph. Unfortunately, it remains wrong in the book.

In Washington State, an evening newspaper rises from the dustbin of history


If the morning daily newspaper is an endangered species, then the evening paper shuffled off to extinction many years ago. Now Cowles Co., which owns The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, is bringing it back.

Not really, and I’ll get to that in a moment. But first a little background.

Evening papers were dominant back when factory work was the way that tens of millions of Americans made their living. You’d work from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., come home and read the evening paper. Later, as we shifted to more of a white-collar, 9-to-5 culture, morning papers became the primary distribution vehicle for newspaper journalism. Evening papers faded away, and eventually few, if any, remained. The Boston Evening Globe, for instance, stopped publishing in 1979.

Today, of course, the news cycle is entirely different, with stories posted online around the clock, sometimes not to show up in print until days later — if ever.

Some of us, though, continue to like the day’s paper, whether online or in print. The daily paper represents a curated news report — the considered judgment of the editors as to what the day’s most important news is. Again, to use the Globe as an example, you can access a list of the stories in that day’s print edition (unfortunately, it seems that stuff always gets left out) or read the paper in the form of an e-edition — a PDF of that day’s paper that looks like the print edition. The Globe offers two versions, both so-so.

What The Spokesman-Review has done is revive its old evening paper, the Spokane Daily Chronicle, in the form of an e-edition that’s posted each afternoon. As reported by Kristen Hare of Poynter Online, the idea isn’t to compete with The Spokesman-Review, as it did back before the Chronicle folded in 1992 (even under common ownership); rather, it’s to boost the bottom line and give people who live in the Spokane area another reason to buy a digital subscription or keep the one they’ve already got.

“Our view is the e-edition is the gateway drug to our web presence for traditional readers,” publisher Stacey Cowles told Hare. “If they love it enough, it could help solve our huge manufacturing and distribution cost headache. But additional online pages have to be meaningful to make a difference. More stock listings don’t cut it.”

Added editor Rob Curley: “We were realists on this. It wasn’t about how are we going to make this a bigger pie, it was how are we going to hang on to the pie that we have when we know we’re going to continue to push subscription prices?”

If all this sounds retro, keep in mind that Curley is a pioneer in digital journalism, first at the Naples Daily News in Florida and, in the pre-Jeff Bezos age, at The Washington Post, where he presided over the launch of a digital-only local-news site in Loudoun County, Maryland. I met him in 2015 when I was researching my book “The Return of the Moguls” and Curley was editor of California’s Orange County Register under the ill-fated ownership of Aaron Kushner.

Print and print-like products continue to play an important part in keeping newspapers alive — as in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where The Berkshire Eagle is actually buying a used printing press in order to boost is color capacity. Someday, newspapers may drop their print editions entirely, or go weekend-only. Until that day comes, though, it makes sense to serve the print-oriented readers who pay the bills.

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