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.
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.
The Batavian, a hyperlocal news project in western New York, has long been among the more successful independent for-profit ventures in community journalism. Launched by GateHouse Media in 2008 and operated by former GateHouse executive Howard Owens after the company eliminated his job the following year, the free site is an intriguing jumble of news, press releases, photos, promotions and vast amounts of local advertising. (The Batavian is prominently featured in “The Wired City,” my 2013 book about new forms of online local and regional journalism.)
Now Owens is trying something new — an ad-free mobile app designed with the idea of signing up paid subscribers. In a recent interview with Tom Grubisich of StreetFight, Owens said it took him two years to hone the app. The challenge, he said, is that though The Batavian is profitable, it has stopped growing. His goal for the app is not only to come up with a new revenue stream but to expand into other communities. He told Grubisich:
I’m interested in building a more native experience, which means it’s built around the feed, allows for more personalization and makes engagement more seamless. I’ll either do that for The Batavian, or if I’m fortunate enough to acquire funding, we’ll look for ways to expand that model into other communities. I’m most interested in being able to help aspiring local publishers get into the game and providing them the resources to be successful but we’ll also look software as a service and whole ownership of local news businesses.
At a moment when big, sexy digital media projects such as BuzzFeed are facing possible financial troubles, it’s important to keep an eye on the go-it-slow approach taken by independent publishers like Owens.
When I began my research for “The Wired City” in 2009, I was optimistic that a new generation of online-only community news sites would rise to fill in at least some of the gaps left behind by shrinking legacy newspapers. Eight years later, the more prominent of the sites I reported on are still alive and well. The New Haven Independent, The Batavian, Voice of San Diego, and statehouse news services like CT News Junkie and The Connecticut Mirror are as vital today — if not more so — than they were back then.
But though there has been some growth, especially at the grassroots level, the hope for reasonably well-funded new forms of local journalism with the heft to hold government to account is largely unfulfilled. Efforts such as the Worcester Sun (disclosure: I’m an unpaid adviser) and WHAV Radio in Haverhill hold promise, but they’re still looking for a viable way forward. News deserts are spreading.
Paul Farhi of The Washington Post takes a look at an especially difficult case — East Palo Alto, California, a poor, mostly minority community in the shadow of wealthy Palto Alto. And he finds that in an area crying out for strong local journalism, the best that they have is East Palo Alto Today, a nonprofit with a print publication that only comes out once every other month.
Farhi also cites a study by the University of North Carolina on the role of hedge funds and other financial instruments in destroying local journalism. I intend to spend some time with that study in the days ahead.
President Trump at the National Prayer Breakfast earlier today promised to “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits nonprofit organizations from engaging in certain types of political speech lest they lose their tax exemptions. The amendment was pushed through Congress in 1954 by Senate majority leader Lyndon Johnson, who was under attack by several nonprofit groups back in Texas.
Religious organizations have been complaining about the restriction for years. In 2009 I wrote a commentary in The Guardian agreeing with them, though my main concern was that the amendment prevented nonprofit news organizations from endorsing political candidates. Given that nonprofit news is becoming an increasingly important part of the media landscape, it seemed (and seems) unwise to ban such projects from engaging in what traditionally has been a vital service to their communities. I argued:
Would this mean greater influence for the likes of religious hatemongers such as James Dobson and Tony Perkins? Yes. But the whole idea behind free speech is it’s for everyone, not just those with whom you agree.
I also wrote critically about the Johnson Amendment in my 2013 book “The Wired City,” much of which was an examination of the New Haven Independent, a nonprofit news site.
I have not changed my mind. And thus I applaud our orange leader for standing up for free speech. Leaders of nonprofit organizations, including religious groups, should not have to fear that if they speak out they’ll literally have to pay a penalty.
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.
Let me explain. Several days ago, the New York Times media reporter Jim Rutenberg wrote an elegy for the age of newspapers, by which he meant ink spread across the reconstituted pulp of dead trees and trucked hither and yon to be deposited on the porches of grateful readers. News will survive, Rutenberg told us, but the medium through which that news appears will soon be entirely digital.
Yet, as Rutenberg also pointed out, here we are some twenty years into the era of digital news—and advertising revenue from print editions continues to be what keeps newspapers afloat. “I don’t think there’s anyone in the industry whose majority revenue is not still print,” theMinneapolis Star Tribune publisher Michael J. Klingensmith told him.
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.
I’ll be talking about how I researched “The Wired City” this Friday as part of a panel at the annual conference of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, which is being held this year in San Francisco.
The panel is titled “Creation of Community in the Magazine Form: Legacy to Online.” I’m calling my talk “Observing the Online News Community,” and I’ll discuss the value of in-person observation and reporting when conducting research of this nature.
The discussion will be held from 3:15 to 4:45 p.m. and will be moderated by Sheila Webb of Western Washington University. Other panelists will be Elizabeth Hendrickson of Ohio University, Amanda Hinnant of the Missouri School of Journalism and Michael Clay Carey of Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama.