The New Haven Independent prepares to reboot

NHI goodbye party

Previously published at the Nieman Journalism Lab.

Not too many months ago, Paul Bass gave serious thought to shutting down the New Haven Independent, the online-only nonprofit news site he founded in 2005.

“A while back, I considered whether I still had the energy to keep going,” Bass said. “I was burnt.”

He decided to keep it alive. And now he’s getting ready to relaunch with two new full-time staff reporters — one who will start the day after Labor Day, the other who has yet to be hired.

For a small community news organization, the Independent has been remarkably stable. Last week, Bass threw a going-away party for managing editor Melissa Bailey, who will be a Nieman Fellow starting this fall, and staff writer Thomas MacMillan, who is moving to New York to seek his fame and fortune. Both began working at the site as it was ramping up, Bailey in 2006 and MacMillan the following year. (The fourth staff member, Allan Appel, recently cut back to a part-time position.)

Several hundred people gathered in and outside the Woodland Café, near the New Haven Green, to say goodbye to Bailey and MacMillan. Their photography was on display, accompanied by QR codes that smartphone users could access to take them to the stories where those photos first appeared. Copies of Bailey’s just-published book on education reform in New Haven, “School Reform City: Voices from an American Experiment,” were on sale, along with Appel’s novel “The Midland Kid: Tales of the Presidential Ghostwriter.” Mayors past (John DeStefano) and present (Toni Harp) were on hand, as were a number of other community leaders.

“It’s really hard for me to imagine leaving New Haven for more than a few days, let alone a whole year,” Bailey told the crowd. MacMillan defined the privilege of being a journalist: “You ask questions and people just open up to you and give you these amazing stories.”

When I met with Bass afterwards, he talked about how difficult it would be to replace the two. “They’re community journalists. They love the work. They grew so much,” he said. “They both learned so many things, and they really ran the operation with me.”

Yet their departure will allow him to solve a longstanding problem: having an all-white staff cover a city where African-Americans and Latinos are in the majority. “The people I’m hiring will diversify the staff racially,” Bass told me. The Independent has used minority freelancers and interns, but all of its full-time staff journalists have been white.

The reboot of the Independent comes at a crucial time. The regional daily paper, the New Haven Register, has gone through several rounds of cuts in recent months — including one announced just last week — as its owner, Digital First Media, prepares for a widely predicted sell-off. In a few years, Digital First has gone from a closely watched experiment in reinvention to just another sad tale of chain journalism gone wrong.

Thus the Independent’s mix of political and neighborhood news, education reporting, and, increasingly, a focus on the arts fills a real need.

Despite the challenges of keeping a nonprofit going, Bass has had quite a bit of success with fundraising. Currently, he said, he has pledges through 2015 to cover the $420,000 budget for the Independent and a satellite two-person site in the northwest suburbs called the Valley Independent Sentinel. In recent years, he added, his fundraising base has shifted from about 75 percent foundation grants to about 25 percent. Most of the money comes from high-net-worth donors in the New Haven area. About $15,000 to $20,000 comes from small donors.

Late in 2013, Bass applied for a low-power FM license to operate a nonprofit community radio station in New Haven. He has yet to hear from the FCC, but he continues to hope it will come through. “I think we’d engage the readership in a new way,” he said.

For now, though, he’s planning to do something he’s never done before: ramp down the Independent for a few weeks. Posting will be minimal this week and next. And he’s going to stop posting completely during the last two weeks of August — a first since the Independent began publication in late August of 2005. Then comes the new Independent.

“I’m not going to have the same experience level I have now, so it’s going to be different,” Bass said. “I don’t think I can replace Thomas and Melissa.”

A nuanced, layered story that is almost about race

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Vincent (left) and Herbert Campbell in 2009.

The New York Times on Saturday published a feature story about an obscure but layered issue — a fence separating a public housing project in New Haven from the adjoining suburb of Hamden. After some 50 years, the fence is finally coming down.

It’s a story that caught my attention in late 2009, when Thomas MacMillan of the New Haven Independent first reported on efforts to remove the fence, also known as “the Berlin Wall.” It struck me as an example of the kind of nuanced journalism that characterized the Independent, an online-only nonprofit news site that I was tracking for my book “The Wired City.”

On the surface, you might think the issue was about white suburbanites who objected to black public housing residents gaining easy access to their town. But that would be too simple. Hamden has a significant African-American population. MacMillan interviewed two brothers who lived in Hamden and who opposed efforts by New Haven officials to remove the fence. MacMillan quoted Herbert Campbell as saying the fence prevented “all the riff-raff from coming around,” including drug dealers. Vincent Campbell added: “We had a lot of problems in the past. You never know who’s going to break into your house.”

This past May 4, Independent editor Paul Bass — who tells me he first wrote about the fence in 1999, while he was at the now-defunct alt-weekly New Haven Advocate — reported that the fence would be removed after it was discovered that it is actually on the New Haven side of the border. A federal civil-rights investigation helped speed matters along. Here is Bass’ follow-up on the actual tear-down. The daily New Haven Register covered the story as well, and published an editorial hailing the removal.

The New York Times story, by Benjamin Mueller, acknowledges the complexities of the saga, noting that both New Haven and Hamden now have black mayors, and that Hamden residents both black and white appear to be united in their opposition to the fence’s being demolished.

Photo by Thomas MacMillan, courtesy of the New Haven Independent.

A multitasking, multimedia journalist

Thomas MacMillan covers a finance committee meeting in New Haven City Hall.

Back when I was covering city council, school committee and board of selectmen meetings in the 1970s and ’80s, the only tool I brought with me was a notebook and a pen.

How times have changed. On Tuesday evening I connected with Thomas MacMillan, a reporter for the New Haven Independent, so I could watch him cover a finance committee meeting. (Click here for a video feature on the Independent, a non-profit community news site.) We met outside the aldermanic chamber in New Haven City Hall just before 6 p.m., and I followed him to the front row.

MacMillan accepted congratulations from a few city officials for a national reporting award he won last week, then settled in to live-blog the debate. He was a bit harried — he’d just come over from covering another event, and he hadn’t had time to write the introduction. A few minutes later, though, he was good to go.

For the next two hours I watched as MacMillan posted a series of updates on what was going on, pored through budget documents, moderated and posted reader comments, periodically jotted a few things down in a notebook (how old-fashioned), and took photos.

Alderman Darnell Goldson, who was sitting in our row, whispered, “Hey, Thomas!”, and pointed behind us, where an otherwise-dignified looking man was wearing a lighted-up Christmas tree on his head. His aim was to protest Mayor John DeStefano’s proposal to save money by not erecting a tree on New Haven Green this year. MacMillan turned and shot.

And when two aldermen got into a semi-heated discussion about cuts to the education budget, MacMillan pulled out another camera and shot some video, although he ended up not using it.

Despite my front-row seat, I would have had little idea of what was going on if it weren’t for MacMillan’s updates, which I read on my BlackBerry.

I left at 8; the hearing ended at 9:30. Later, MacMillan took his blog items and notes and turned them into the story that you can see today, and posted a few photos as well.

What MacMillan did last night was impressive but not unusual. The technical skills he brought to bear on his assignment were nothing that couldn’t be mastered in a few weeks. It’s the mindset that matters. Journalists today must be prepared to juggle a variety of tasks and to perform them with minimal supervision.

And to think that there was a time when the biggest challenge in covering a meeting was to stay awake.