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.
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.
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.
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
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
Chain ownership is almost never a good thing. But some chains are better than others — and Hearst is among the very best. No doubt its status as a privately owned company whose family is involved in management has a lot to do with that. The legendary mogul William Randolph Hearst would be proud.
Among other things, the Hearst-owned Times Union of Albany, New York, did some of the crucial early reporting about sexual assault allegations against Gov. Andrew Cuomo — accusations that have brought him to the brink of resignation or removal.
Hearst has been making some interesting moves in Connecticut for quite some time. Now, with the hedge fund Alden Global Capital tearing apart what’s left of the Hartford Courant, Hearst is positioning itself as a digital rival for statewide coverage. Rick Edmonds of Poynter reports that the company has launched a new website, CTInsider.com, that features coverage from its 160 journalists at eight dailies and 14 weeklies and websites in the state.
CTInsider.com offers a combination of free and paid content. Subscribers pay $3.99 a week after an initial discount.
The Hearst paper I’m most familiar with is the New Haven Register, a daily paper that figured heavily in my 2013 book about hyperlocal news projects, “The Wired City.” The project I was profiling, the New Haven Independent, a digital nonprofit founded in 2005, was providing deep coverage of the city, filling a gap left by the dramatic downsizing of the Register.
It was an interesting time for the Register. Under the ownership of the reviled Journal Register chain, the Register had lurched into bankruptcy. Journal Register then morphed into Digital First Media, headed by a visionary chief executive named John Paton who, about a dozen years ago, provided a jolt of optimism. Soon, though, Alden moved in, merging Digital First with its Denver-based chain, MediaNews Group, and, well, you know the rest. But then Hearst bought the New Haven Register a few years ago, and the paper has since undergone something of a revival.
The Hartford Courant had thrived for many decades as Connecticut’s sole statewide paper. But under Tribune Publishing’s chaotic ownership, it had been shrinking for many years. During the years that I was reporting “The Wired City,” a pair of vibrant websites devoted to covering state politics and policy had popped up — the for-profit CTNewsJunkie.com and the nonprofit Connecticut Mirror, both of which are still going strong.
The Boston Globe’s Mark Shanahan today takes a look at two independent Vermont news organizations that have expanded to fill the gap created by the hollowing out of Gannett’s daily Burlington Free Press. (I’m quoted.)
It’s a topic of particular interest to me because I included a section on the media ecosystem in and around Burlington in my 2018 book, “The Return of the Moguls.” Though most of the book is about the rise of a new class of wealthy newspaper owners, I thought what was happening in Vermont was worth including.
Shanahan writes about the for-profit alt-weekly Seven Days and the investigative nonprofit VT Digger, both of which are doing great work. To those I would add a third — Vermont Public Radio, which has expanded its local coverage in recent years.
During my reporting trip to Vermont in late 2015, I got to meet the folks in charge of Seven Days and VT Digger, and connected with a former student who was then working for VPR. I also visited the Free Press newsroom. The impression I came away with was that the Free Press was trying to manage decline, whereas the alternatives were mission-driven and growing.
It’s phenomenon I’ve seen before, and it’s why I’m guardedly optimistic about the future of local news. My 2013 book, “The Wired City,” is primarily about the nonprofit New Haven Independent. Launched in 2005 and still going strong, the Independent provides paper-of-record coverage of New Haven in the shadow of the New Haven Register, the corporate-owned daily. (Now owned by Hearst, which has done a better job with its papers than most chains.)
Along with my research partner, retired Boston Globe editorial-page editor Ellen Clegg, I’m currently working on a book that will tell stories from across the country about entrepreneurial journalists who are rising up to compete with failing legacy newspapers. Our work was disrupted by the COVID pandemic, but we plan to get back to it later this spring.
As I have argued for years, the greed of corporate chain ownership is at least as damaging to the health of local journalism as the technology-driven decline of advertising.
Note: Now updated with email from Mike DeLuca, president and publisher of Hearst Connecticut Media Group.
Holy cow. Matt DeRienzo is out as chief news executive for Hearst’s Connecticut newspapers, anchored by the New Haven Register. I hear he’ll be replaced by Canadian journalist Wendy Metcalfe.
I first met DeRienzo in 2011 when I was wrapping up my book on the nonprofit New Haven Independent, “The Wired City,” and he had just been named editor of the Register. At the time, DeRienzo was a rising star within the forward-thinking Digital First chain being built by John Paton. After Digital First became part of the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, everything went south, and DeRienzo eventually quit in protest.
At Hearst, DeRienzo championed the case of Tara O’Neill, a Hearst reporter who was arrested and handcuffed while covering a Black Lives Matter protest in Bridgeport. O’Neill’s case was the subject of a WGBH News New England Muzzle Award earlier this year.
What follows is an internal email sent to the staff from Mike DeLuca, president and publisher of the Hearst Connecticut Media Group, which I obtained a short time ago.
Coming up on five months leading HCMG [Hearst Connecticut Media Group], I have been impressed with much of what has been done and the strides we have made across the organization. There is no doubt, we are the best equipped media company in all of Connecticut to provide high-quality news and information that matters to our customers.
In an era when our industry is facing significant headwinds, I take great comfort in being a part of Hearst, whose commitment to journalism is unsurpassed and unwavering.
While much of what is happening everyday here should be applauded, it is my job to ensure we have the right vision and leadership to continuously improve.
After thoughtful consideration, it is my pleasure to welcome Wendy Metcalfe as our new Vice President of Content and Editor in Chief. Wendy will be charged with the responsibility of upgrading the quality of our enterprise reporting across all of our newsrooms while working with our consumer marketing teams to deepen the engagement we have with our readers. Wendy comes to us from the Brunswick News Inc. where she oversaw Editorial, Marketing, Circulation and Customer Services. Under her leadership, Wendy’s teams have been recognized nationally for some of the most important enterprise news reporting that has had a direct impact on the quality of life in the communities served. Most notably, the Telegraph-Journal received the 2018 Michener Award which is the highest honor in Canadian journalism and often called the Canadian Pulitzer Prize, with only one awarded across Canada each year.
Additionally, Wendy has extensive experience in executive positions at national, regional and local media companies. Key roles include Assistant Managing Editor at Canada’s biggest newspaper — the Toronto Star, Editor-in-Chief of the Toronto Sun, Regional Content Director for 19 Sun Media publications and a lead role at the Daily Record — one of the U.K.’s largest dailies.
She was also recently named one of the top 10 leading women to watch in media across North America by Editor & Publisher.
Wendy will arrive to CT with her husband and two children in mid-November and I am thrilled to welcome her.
In a related move, Matt DeRienzo will be leaving HCMG to pursue other opportunities and I thank him for his contributions and wish him the best.
We will be meeting with the various newsroom teams throughout the rest of today and tomorrow to communicate interim reporting structures.
Thank you all for everything you are doing and I am looking forward to speaking with you over the next few days.
HEARST | President & Publisher, Hearst CT Media Group | CEO, LocalEdge
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.
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.
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.