For some years now, Haverhill, a city north of Boston, has been the home of two innovative local-news projects.
One, WHAV Radio, ran into fundraising problems last fall and was in danger of going under by Thanksgiving. I wrote about that for WGBH News. The other, Haverhill Matters, was intended as the pilot for the Banyan Project, an effort to establish cooperatively owned news sites around the country.
The committee organizing Haverhill Matters recently announced that it was shutting down. More on that below. But first, the good news from WHAV, whose president and general manager, Tim Coco, is soldiering on. (Disclosure: I made a small donation.) WHAV is a nonprofit with a low-power FM signal at 97.9 FM, a streaming internet presence and a robust website. Coco told me in an email:
Although I have been a board member and chairman of nonprofits over the years, they’ve all had endowments. I’m still getting used to actually operating a nonprofit without a safety net. One lesson learned this time around is crises never end and fundraising mode has to be perpetual.
During this latest episode, Haverhill Mayor Jim Fiorentini called me and predicted I wouldn’t give up. He called it a “labor of love” and I responded, “No, it’s just a labor.” I guess he was correct.
I also learned WHAV has friends it didn’t know it had. A large, regional contractor, Early Construction not only stepped up with contributions, but challenged others to do the same. Early is a business that bids on public contracts and has no need to advertise. Dick and his wife, Mary Rose, Early believe in what WHAV is doing and their words and deeds helped motivate me.
One existing underwriter, Covanta, represented by Mark VanWeelden, stepped up with technical support and ideas. He renewed his company’s pledge on the condition … that I paid myself.
Another great supporter turned out to be former Mayor Jim Rurak and his wife Kathy. The original WHAV AM 1490 went away during his time as mayor and he was advised at that time (1995), it was impossible — technically, legally, financially — to bring it back. He brought more contacts and resources to the table.
For me, it was like the end of the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” where residents of Bedford Falls come to the aid of George Bailey. It was truly heartwarming.
Beyond this, I cut costs —pretty much eliminating live weeknight programming that didn’t support the local news effort. I also renegotiated credit card rates so more of listener/reader donations came through. The membership drive — particularly asking for monthly, recurring donations — delivered almost 50 percent more income than a year ago. It isn’t enough, but it is a base WHAV will build on.
The idea behind the Banyan Project is to set up news co-ops similar to food co-ops or credit unions — that is, news sites owned by the members, who could join by paying a fee or contributing labor, perhaps in the form of a neighborhood blog.
The person behind Banyan is Tom Stites, a veteran editor who has worked at newspapers such as The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune. I hope to have more from Stites in the days ahead. For one thing, I’m interested in knowing whether he plans to try out his concept elsewhere. But for now, here is a recent email sent to supporters of Haverhill Matters from John Cuneo, who chaired the local board of directors:
Dear Lover of Independent News,
On behalf of the Board of Directors of Haverhill Matters Cooperative, I write to inform you that we are regretfully closing up shop. We worked hard seeking various routes to build a new cooperative business model for a local news and information service.
As print journalism withers and digital journalism struggles, testing many different forms, the prize of an informed community is ever more important. Let no one mistake the demise of our efforts to signal that the application of a coop business model to local journalism isn’t feasible. Aside from our devoted mentor [a reference to Stites], none us are journalists; none of us are experienced cooperators. This is the more likely cause.
We thank all who rendered us support in many forms, moral, logistical, monetary and otherwise. We are very grateful for this. We urge all those working to build platforms for democratically shared local information and news not to be discouraged. Our goal deserves the greatest persistence. We’ll see you on the path.
Thanks again so much for your shared interest.
Cuneo did not respond to an email I sent to him seeking comment.
I’ve written a lot about news efforts in Haverhill over the years. For an index, please click here.
At a time when local news is in danger of being snuffed out by corporate chain ownership, WHAV Radio in Haverhill has established itself as a worthy alternative. Built by a journalist and advertising executive named Tim Coco, the independent nonprofit provides news and community information over the air and online.
Now, though, the station is in crisis. Annual costs have risen to about $300,000, considerably more than the $200,000 Coco — who runs the station without a salary — has been able to generate in revenue. If there isn’t a turnaround by Thanksgiving, he says, the station may cease operations.
“Our current membership drive isn’t gaining much traction,” Coco said via email. “Some cite the lack of tax deductibility with higher allowed standard deductions. Our major sponsors are as much as four months late in fulfilling pledges, and we have lost some others as they merge with larger organizations.” (Click here for my full Q&A with Coco.)
WHAV traces its Haverhill roots to the years after World War II, when the station was founded by The Haverhill Gazette, then an independent daily newspaper. Coco fell in love with the station when he was a high school student and began covering news there. The morning DJ in those years was the future television personality Tom Bergeron, who has come home on several occasions to help Coco with fundraising drives.
The original WHAV went off the air in 2002, but Coco acquired the call letters and began operating it as an internet station in 2004. Ten years later he ramped up his ambitions, reorganizing it as a nonprofit and, in 2016, adding a low-power FM signal at 97.9 FM. The station features news, community call-in shows and classic-hits music.
WHAV’s expansion coincided with the shrinkage of the city’s newspapers. Today The Haverhill Gazette is a weekly that is part of the daily Eagle-Tribune, headquartered in nearby North Andover. Their corporate owner is CNHI, a national chain of daily and weekly newspapers based in Montgomery, Alabama. The papers no longer have an office in Haverhill.
Although you couldn’t call Haverhill a “news desert,” the term used to describe communities without any news coverage, there is no question that WHAV has helped fill a gap that widened as the city’s newspapers reduced their presence. (In 2013 I wrote about WHAV and Haverhill’s newspapers as part of an assessment of the city’s media. In 2014 I recorded a video interview with Coco.)
“The need for a vibrant, competitive and thorough local news source was clear,” Coco said. “These have been WHAV’s goals in providing expanded online coverage with text, photographs and streaming audio at WHAV.net in 2014, simultaneous postings on all major social media, cable television affiliates and the permitting and launch of 97.9 WHAV-FM in 2016. The restoration of WHAV on radio also returned local news twice-an-hour weekdays, weather, community calendar every hour around the clock, a live morning show, local talk and live broadcasts of city council and school committee meetings and all Haverhill High School football games — home and away.”
And WHAV has developed an audience. According to internal metrics that Coco shared with me, some 184,000 unique visitors accessed the station’s website during the past 30 days — an impressive figure given the operation’s small geographic footprint. “Local news is a web traffic driver,” Coco said. “Our original reporting of breaking news, particularly a murder Saturday at a nursing home, drove web numbers to a new high.”
My own interest in Haverhill was originally rooted in a different local news concept — the Banyan Project, an idea developed by Tom Stites, a veteran journalist who has worked as an editor at The New York Times and The Chicago Tribune. Stites hoped to begin cooperatively owned local news sites across the country, starting in Haverhill. Unfortunately, after years in the planning stages, Haverhill Matters, as the site is known, has yet to make it off the launching pad. Here, for instance, is a story I wrote about Banyan for Nieman Lab in 2014. Not much has happened since then.
Coco was originally a member of the steering committee for Haverhill Matters but left in frustration. “I hoped Haverhill Matters and WHAV could launch together — you know, strength in numbers,” he said. “That group got lost in analysis paralysis and never published a single news story. In the end, Haverhill Matters tied up many donors with the promise of an imminent launch. Some are still waiting even though WHAV sure could use their support.”
But the notion that Banyan somehow steered revenues away from WHAV is disputed by John Cuneo, who serves as president of the Haverhill Matters board. “I do not believe we are a threat to WHAV.net,” Cuneo told me, adding that, if anything, WHAV’s presence made it more difficult for Haverhill Matters to raise money. “I wish Tim all success,” Cuneo said. “He’s been very dedicated for many years in successfully bringing local news to Haverhillians.”
Stites, despite multiple setbacks over the years, still remains hopeful that grant money will materialize that would enable the Haverhill co-op to begin covering news. “A new Banyan suitor has appeared,” Stites said. “What was looking like the end of the road might not be the end.” The idea of a news co-op run in a way similar to that of a food co-op or a credit union remains intriguing, and I hope Stites and the Haverhill Matters folks finally get to try it out. But it has been an awfully long time.
As for WHAV, Coco hopes that going public might shake loose some money and allow him to keep covering the news. “The people at the foundations need to give nonprofit, local news radio another look, especially those stations like WHAV that have committed to multimedia approaches and in poorer and, if I may be so bold, undereducated communities,” he said. “It took 20 years to restore WHAV, so it may take time.”
The FCC has approved a low-power FM (LPFM) broadcasting license for WHAV of Haverhill, according to an announcement on the station’s website. Congratulations to Tim Coco, who has worked tirelessly to revive this once-thriving independent source of community news and information.
WHAV is currently a mostly online station, supplementing its Web stream with an extremely weak AM signal and some distribution on local cable. The new signal (97.9 FM), once it’s in place, will reach all of Haverhill and surrounding communities.
Until recently Coco and WHAV were part of the Banyan Project, which has been attempting for the past few years to launch a pilot site in Haverhill to test out the idea of cooperatively owned community news.
Correction: Post updated to reflect Coco’s recent departure from Banyan’s Haverhill organizing committee.
Recently I had a chance to interview three smart people about the future of local journalism:
Josh Stearns, director of journalism and sustainability at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, who is studying six digital startups in New Jersey and New York. (You can see my full interview with Stearns by clicking here.)
Meg Heckman, a University of New Hampshire journalism professor whose master’s thesis at Northeastern University was on the role of women at digital startups — and why women are more likely to be involved in hyperlocal sites than in larger national projects.
Tim Coco, the president and general manager of WHAV Radio in Haverhill, a mostly online community station (it also has a weak AM signal) for which Coco is seeking a low-power FM license.
I don’t get to make videos that often, but I wanted to scrape some of the rust off my skills for the benefit of my graduate students, who are currently making their own videos. My philosophy is that every journalist needs to know how to make a decent video with the tools at hand — in my case, an iPhone 5S, a portable tripod that I bought five years ago for less than $20, and iMovie ’11, also known as iMovie 9. (The newer iMovie 10 strikes me as slow and kludgy, but maybe I just need a faster computer.)
The one luxury I indulged in was a Røde lapel mic (known in the trade as a lav mic), which I bought for well under $100 just before I started this project. It made a huge difference — the audio is of far better quality, with much less interference from outside noise, than in previous videos I’ve made.
What I should have done, but didn’t, was use a better app than Apple’s built-in Camera so that I could lock in brightness and contrast. That way I could have avoided the sudden shifts from dark to light and back that mar my interview with Stearns.
Still, it’s useful to know that you can shoot a decent video without spending many hundreds of dollars on a professional camera and Final Cut Pro. I think there’s a tendency at journalism schools to believe that we’re selling our students short if they don’t get to use the latest and greatest technology. And yes, they should have a chance to use the good stuff. But they also need to know that many news organizations, especially smaller ones, expect their journalists to make do with what’s available.
The New Haven Independent, which launched eight years ago amid the first wave of online-only community news sites, may soon expand into radio.
The nonprofit Independent is one of three groups asking the FCC for a low-power FM (LPFM) license in New Haven, Conn. If successful, editor and founder Paul Bass says that “New Haven Independent Radio” could make its debut at 103.5 FM in about a year.
“It would be a fun thing if we get it. I’m told it’s very hard,” Bass says. “We’re by no means talking as if we’re going to get this license. We thought it would be worth a shot.” He envisions a mix of news from the Independent and La Voz Hispana de Connecticut, the Independent’s content partner (and landlord), as well as music, public affairs, and shows produced by local nonprofit organizations. The station would be on the air at least 16 hours a day.
The three New Haven applications are part of the FCC’s great LPFM land rush. Legislation signed by President Obama in 2011 eased restrictions on low-power stations, and the FCC is expected to approve about 1,000 applications sometime in 2014. More than 2,800 applications were received by the deadlinelast month, according to the website Radio World. (Thanks to Aaron Read of Rhode Island Public Radio for tipping me off about the Independent’s application.)
According to the Prometheus Radio Project, a longtime advocate of expanded community radio, “the over 800 low-power stations currently on the air are run by nonprofits, colleges, churches and emergency responders.” For years, the radio industry and (believe it or not) NPR fought the expansion of LPFM, arguing that new stations would interfere with established broadcast frequencies — a concern that advocates say is unwarranted.
Like all LPFM stations, New Haven Independent Radio’s broadcast footprint wouldn’t extend much beyond the city limits, although it would stream online as well — which could be significant, Bass says, given predictions that most cars will have streaming Internet radio within a few years.
Inspired by Haverhill
Bass says he got the idea from WHAV Radio in Haverhill, Mass., a nonprofit online community station (it also has a weak AM signal) whose volunteer general manager, Tim Coco, is seeking to expand with an LPFM license of his own. (I wrote about Coco’s radio ambitions last summer.) Coco, who runs an advertising agency and is a local politico of some note, is also among a group of residents working to launch a cooperatively owned community news site to be called Haverhill Matters, under the auspices of the Banyan Project.
“I’m happy I provided some inspiration,” Coco told me by email. “I believe the more local voices, the better for the community.”
Although Bass, if he is successful, may be the first hyperlocal news-site operator to start an independent radio station, the connection between the two media is a natural one. For instance, Howard Owens, publisher of The Batavian, a for-profit site that covers Genesee County in western New York, has partnered since 2009 with WBTA, an AM station with a strong community presence. An even more ambitious project is under way in the heart of the country, as the St. Louis Beacon news site is merging with St. Louis Public Radio.
Donna Halper, a longtime radio consultant and historian who is an associate professor of communication at Lesley University, says a multiplatform presence of the sort Bass envisions is crucial at a time when the audience has become fragmented.
“These days, it’s a multimedia world, and even a low-power FM station can get people talking” about your work, she says. “In this kind of environment, the more platforms you are on, the more you have top-of-the-mind awareness.”
On the other hand, industry observer Scott Fybush, who writes about radio for his own eponymous website, warns that Bass may not quite realize what he is getting into.
“Twenty-four hours a day of radio is an unforgiving taskmaster,” Fybush said in an email. “There are lots of applicants in this LPFM window who have what appear to be noble ideas, but keeping a station going with engaging programming day in and day out isn’t easy to do.”
But that’s getting ahead of things, because first Bass has to win the three-way contest for the New Haven license. And that is by no means assured. (Bass’s application was filed by the Online Journalism Project, the nonprofit entity that acts as the Independent’s publisher of record.)
According to documents on file with the FCC, the other two applicants are a Spanish-language organization and a Christian broadcaster called Alma Radio. Even though LPFM is intended to encourage localism, Alma proposes to broadcast nationally syndicated religious programs, including “Focus on the Family,” hosted by the controversial evangelical leader James Dobson. Alma Radio’s oversight board, according to a “Purposes and Objectives” document it included with its application, is “composed of members who believe and have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”
Although Bass says his ideas for the station are still evolving, he included a detailed proposal with his FCC application, with such diverse offerings as a morning news program; a daily “La Voz Latino Community Hour”; a collaboration with The Inner-City News, a local African-American publication; community theater; and a two-hour evening program to be called “Joe Ugly Presents Local Hip Hop.” (Joe Ugly is the nom de rap of a New Haven music impresario who runs an Internet radio station called Ugly Radio.)
One of the New Haven Independent’s funders has already put up $3,000, which paid for legal and engineering services. If Bass wins the license, he estimates it would cost $30,000 to build the station and $60,000 to $70,000 to pay a full-time employee to run it — a substantial amount over the approximately $500,000 a year the Independent now receives in donations, foundation grants, and corporate sponsorships.
The opportunity is clear enough. Done right, it would enable Bass to bring New Haven Independent journalism, with its hyperlocal emphasis on neighborhoods, schools, and city politics, to a new audience — and to entice that audience, in turn, into sampling the Independent.
The danger, of course, is that the radio project would drain resources and attention away from the Independent itself, diluting its mission with a gamble on a new platform that may or may not succeed. Bass’s answer to that challenge is simple and direct: “We have to make sure it doesn’t.”
Photo (cc) by Michael Coughlan and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.
Later this year the Banyan Project is scheduled to roll out its first cooperatively owned news site in the city of Haverhill, to be called Haverhill Matters. Banyan founder Tom Stites’ vision is to serve what he calls “news deserts” — low- and moderate-income communities, mainly urban, that are underserved by traditional media. What follows is the third of several blog posts in which I will attempt to assess the media landscape in Haverhill as it exists today.
“Eyes Wide Open” may be a travelogue, but it’s not the sort of spritely fare you’re likely to see on the Travel Channel. There are no sun-dappled beaches or cocktail-fueled soirées. Rather, it’s a film with a civic purpose — to get Haverhill residents to take a close look at their downtown and the waterfront along the Merrimack River.
“As we look at each one of these slides, we want you to think about three very simple concepts,” says Haverhill architect Celeste Hynick at the beginning of the film. “What are the positive features? What needs to be improved? And what opportunities exist?” For the next 20 minutes, she and designer Mike Valvo consider the good, the bad and the ugly as picture after picture scrolls by.
The film recapitulates a presentation made last year to a city planning committee appointed by Mayor James Fiorentini. And it is the type of program that helps define Haverhill Community Television (HCTV), which cablecast the film earlier this summer and now hosts it on its YouTube channel.
“Our mission is to empower the community to make television programs,” said HCTV executive director Darlene Beal when I interviewed her last week. “To tell their story to the community. In that sense, we feel like we mirror the community.”
Beal and I met in a conference room at her station’s headquarters, a large converted auto-repair shop in a residential neighborhood just north of the downtown. A 51-year-old Haverhill native and Boston University graduate, Beal has worked as HCTV’s executive director for most of her career. The operation is currently marking its 25th year as an independent nonprofit organization following several years as an appendage of the local cable company.
Haverhill, of course, is not unusual in having a community television station. Virtually every city or town has one, funded by law with a share of the license fees paid by the local cable franchise-holder. Here, for instance, is a list of such operations in Massachusetts.
Why bigger is better
But because franchise-holders generally pay fees on a per-household basis, larger cities and towns tend to have superior community stations. Boston, Cambridge and Somerville, for instance, all offer quite a bit in terms of both quality and quantity. Likewise Haverhill, with a population of about 60,000, including 24,000 households that subscribe to cable, is able to do more than many smaller communities.
HCTV has an annual budget of $750,000 to $800,000, Beal told me, and employs seven people, four of them full-time. There are about 600 members, she said, with about 20 percent to 25 percent involved in some aspect of production. Its Facebook page has attracted 468 “likes” as of this writing.
HCTV operates three channels — an educational channel, with a studio at Haverhill High School; a governmental channel, with equipment at City Hall to carry city council meetings and the like; and a public access channel, with two studios and a classroom based at HCTV’s headquarters. The educational and public access channels are live-streamed on HCTV’s website, which also archives many but not all past programs.
Beal has no way of knowing how many people watch HCTV on television. But according to Google Analytics data Beal shared with me, the website received 127 visits during the last week of July, with 104 coming from Massachusetts — presumably most from Haverhill. The public access channel carries programming from about 6 to 10 p.m. each weekday, and is repeated so that it’s on for 16 to 20 hours a day. Weekends are devoted to programming provided by local religious institutions.
As is the case with public access operations in general, HCTV does not produce its own programming. Rather, it helps volunteers by offering training and loaning them equipment, then cablecasting the finished product. Public access programs in Haverhill include politically oriented talk shows; “Keeping the Peace,” produced by the Haverhill Community Violence Prevention Coalition; “I Get Around,” which highlights community events and organizations; “Law to Talk About,” a legal show; health, and the arts. During election season, the channel runs lengthy sit-down interviews with local candidates.
What you won’t see on HCTV is a newscast. That’s fairly typical. Although Boston viewers can watch “Neighborhood Network News” every evening, most public access systems, oriented as they are toward DIY media, simply don’t have the capacity for such an undertaking. (In 2007 I wrote about “Neighborhood Network News” for CommonWealth Magazine.)
Beal said she would like to see HCTV offer a newscast, but added that past efforts have been spotty because of the limited time volunteers have and their lack of training in newsgathering. If she were to head down that road again, she said she’d need money to hire someone to offer instruction in the basics of journalism.
Beal added that, in her view, the Haverhill edition of the local daily newspaper, The Eagle-Tribune, and The Haverhill Gazette, a weekly, fail to cover the city in the depth that it deserves, creating a “void.” (I wrote about the two papers in the first part of this series. The papers are owned by a chain, CNHI, based in Montgomery, Ala. Al White, the editor of The Eagle-Tribune and the Gazette, recently declined my request for an interview.)
“I do think they’re missing out on a lot, for whatever reason,” Beal said. “Maybe they don’t have the capacity because of the cutbacks. I don’t want to criticize the local papers, but there’s more news out there than they’re able to get into the paper.”
HCTV and Haverhill Matters
Like Tim Coco, the founder of the city’s online-mostly radio station, WHAV, whom I profiled in the second part of this series, Beal is a member of the planning committee for Haverhill Matters, a cooperatively owned news site that is scheduled to be launched by the end of 2013 under the auspices of the Banyan Project.
Haverhill Matters, envisioned as an online news organization combining paid and volunteer journalism, would be an additional outlet for the video journalism produced by HCTV members, Beal said — and is ideal for, say, a four- to six-minute story that doesn’t fit into any of the station’s regular programming, which tends to run in half-hour increments.
Beal would like to see the HCTV and Haverhill Matters websites tied together in some way. She also sees Haverhill Matters as an additional outlet for news about HCTV, such as awards it has won from the Alliance for Community Media for public service announcements about violence prevention.
Her overarching theme, though, was what might be described as the need for more well-rounded coverage of the community — something beyond the breaking-news coverage of police activity and fires that she sees as being typical of what the local papers offer.
“I would like to see Haverhill Matters covering more of the schools,” she said. “The ins and outs of the community. The vibrancy of the community. It’s not so much what I want to see covered — it’s probably the tone of which I’d like to see it covered.”
We also talked about the length of time it’s taken for Haverhill Matters to get off the ground. When I first started writing about the project, it was scheduled to launch in 2012, but that date got delayed for a variety of reasons. Recently Mike LaBonte, co-chair of the planning committee, told me by email that he was reasonably confident that the launch would take place before the end of 2013 — but maybe not much before. For Beal, that moment can’t come too soon.
“For Haverhill Matters to succeed,” Beal said, “I think we’re at the point that we have to splash into the community. We have to get people talking about what they’re missing, or else they don’t know what they’re missing. It’s time to either do it or don’t do it.”
Later this year the Banyan Project is scheduled to roll out its first cooperatively owned news site in the city of Haverhill, to be called Haverhill Matters. Banyan founder Tom Stites’ vision is to serve what he calls “news deserts” — low- and moderate-income communities, mainly urban, that are underserved by traditional media. What follows is the second of several blog posts in which I will attempt to assess the media landscape in Haverhill as it exists today.
Brian is on the line, and he’s got an idea. City officials in Haverhill have announced that they plan to reopen a former rest stop along Route 110, closed 15 years ago when it became overrun with drug dealing and illicit sex. Brian’s suggestion: a webcam.
Tim Coco, host of “The Open Mike Show” on WHAV Radio (as well as the station’s founder and chief executive), wonders out loud what Mayor James Fiorentini would make of Brian’s idea. He cracks a joke about the National Security Agency watching the webcam.
“That doesn’t offend your sense of security then?” Coco asks.
“No, I wouldn’t even think about it,” Brian responds.
And so it goes for two hours, as Coco talks about Haverhill news, history and trivia with a handful of callers.
Since 2004, Coco has been running WHAV out of his advertising agency, Coco & Co., located in an office park off Route 495 in the Ward Hill section of Haverhill. The station is mostly online (at www.whav.net) and mostly automated.
But Coco’s got big ideas. By mid-2014, he hopes to have obtained a lower-power FM license from the FCC so that he can reach all of Haverhill — something that is only barely possible now with the station’s weak AM signal, at 1640. He also hopes to pump up the station’s live, local public-affairs programming, replacing all or most of the oldies music that now fills most of the day.
“The Merrimack Valley requires an independent voice,” Coco wrote in a fundraising pitch titled “WHAV’s Democracy, Independence & Sustainability Project.” “With support, the reborn and not-for-profit WHAV is not only well-positioned to become that institution, but serve as a model for other community media efforts.”
I spent the better part of a day with Coco last week. A 52-year-old Haverhill native, he is a former journalist, having worked at the original WHAV (founded in 1947 and affiliated with The Haverhill Gazette, then an independent daily newspaper) and, later, at The Daily News of Newburyport and as the editor of an environmental trade magazine based in Manchester, N.H.
Although the current version of WHAV is only nine years old, Coco clearly sees the station as an extension of the original, which, like so many stations, fell victim to corporate buyouts. The small studio from which he broadcasts “Open Mike” every Monday from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. has been rather grandly dubbed the Edwin V. Johnson Newsroom, after a beloved WHAV news director and Haverhill High School teacher. Among the past employees of WHAV are retired WBZ news anchor Gary LaPierre and Tom Bergeron, the host of ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars.”
“I read the news, Tom Bergeron read the jokes and look where he is today,” said Coco with a laugh. “That is the lot of news people, isn’t it?”
Coco is a well-known public figure in Haverhill. He is a member of the Haverhill Licence Commission, serves on various civic boards and in 2012 was a candidate for the Massachusetts Senate. (He stepped away from “Open Mike” during the campaign.) Although he lost the Democratic primary to the eventual winner, Kathleen O’Connor Ives, he is quick to point out that he won Haverhill. Coco and his husband, Genesio “Junior” Oliveira, have fought a high-profile battle to prevent Oliveira from being deported to his native Brazil — a battle that Coco hopes is over now that the Defense of Marriage Act has been ruled unconstitutional.
What Coco is attempting with WHAV is the revival of the old-fashioned local radio station. Right now, he admits, he does it essentially with smoke and mirrors. “I’m embarrassed to say, actually, that we’re doing it the way corporate radio does it, which is a lot of automation,” he said. “Believe me, it’s less than ideal, and I want to get to a point where we’re staffed at least 18 hours a day.”
Nevertheless, there is some local programming, such as “Open Mike,” as well as syndicated programming from left-leaning services such as Pacifica and Free Speech Radio News that are not often heard on the airwaves. Thom Hartmann, a syndicated liberal talk-show host, is on from 3 to 6 p.m. every weekday. Old-time radio dramas, including “Our Miss Brooks” and “Gunsmoke,” are heard at 10 p.m.
Most important, there is local news, some of it reported by Coco. He also has a part-time public affairs manager, Nathan Webster, as well as two summer interns. Local weather is provided by Hometown Forecast Services in Nashua, N.H., which Coco says is more Merrimack Valley-specific than what the Boston stations are able to offer. “Community Spotlight” consists of brief announcements about local events and community organizations.
WHAV’s microscopic news operation can’t compete with what’s offered by the daily Eagle-Tribune and its affiliated weekly, The Haverhill Gazette. But Coco said his station sometimes breaks stories, and as example he cited one that he reported himself — a downtown development proposal being led by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston. (Here is The Eagle-Tribune’s story on the proposal.)
“They do feel us a little bit now,” Coco said. “We have been beating them on stories, and they’re starting to pay attention.” (As I wrote last week, Eagle-Tribune editor Al White declined my request for an interview.)
How many people does WHAV reach? It’s a difficult question to answer. One month last fall, Coco said, some 62,000 unique users tuned in to the Internet station, though he added that drops off considerably during the summer. He said he has no way of knowing how many listeners tune in to the AM signal, or to the simulcast that runs during parts of the day on local-access cable stations in Haverhill, Andover, Methuen and the New Hampshire communities of Plaistow and Sandown. (The station was thrown off the Groveland cable system in 2007. Coco claims the action was taken because the then-host of “Open Mike” was criticizing local politicians.)
But there’s no question the station’s listenership should increase if Coco succeeds in obtaining a low-power FM (LPFM) license from the FCC. Coco will apply this October, and could receive approval within about nine months if there are no competing applications or other complications. The proposal — for a 23-watt signal — “should well cover Haverhill,” Coco said. The broadcast frequency is likely to be 98.1 FM.
The LPFM program was created in 2000 to offset the decline of local commercial radio. LPFM licenses are available only to nonprofit organizations, and in 2011 Coco formed Public Media of New England as a 501(c)(3) entity to act as WHAV’s umbrella operation.
The Banyan connection
As WHAV expands, it’s going to need more programming in general and more local programming in particular. Coco is a member of the organizing committee for Haverhill Matters, the cooperatively owned news site that the Banyan Project is scheduled to launch before the end of 2013.
Coco expects to broadcast repurposed content from Haverhill Matters on WHAV, and added that he can also play a role in providing some of the “institutional memory” for Haverhill Matters that may be lacking with “newbie reporters.” Although Haverhill Matters will hire a full-time professional editor, Banyan Project founder Tom Stites and the organizing committee also talk about using interns from Northern Essex Community College, neighborhood bloggers and the like.
Haverhill Matters and an expanded WHAV both represent ambitious visions for local, independent media organizations, and it will take a certain amount of blind faith — my phrase, not Coco’s — for those visions to become a reality.
For instance, when I asked Coco about his plan to increase spending at WHAV from $38,000 in 2013 to $93,000 in 2015, he replied matter-of-factly, “It is a projection, but it has to.” And he expessed skepticism about Stites’ plan to raise $54,000 for Haverhill Matters by persuading 1,500 people to pay $36 each.
“It isn’t feasible, and this isn’t feasible,” Coco said, referring to Haverhill Matters and to his own efforts at WHAV. “And I do have some long-term worries in both cases.”
Later in the day, Coco played tour guide, driving me around Haverhill, from a downtown damaged by an urban renewal project that never quite came to pass to more rural sections such as Winnekenni Castle and the John Greenleaf Whittier Birthplace, for which Coco serves as president of the board of trustees.
“I feel like George Bailey from ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’” Coco said “I really didn’t get to leave Bedford Falls. Whether we remain Bedford Falls or become Pottersville remains to be seen.”
Coco believes that strong, independent local media are a key to keeping his Bedford Falls vision of Haverhill intact. The next few years will be crucial to determining whether he and the folks at Haverhill Matters can succeed.
Later this year the Banyan Project is scheduled to roll out its first cooperatively owned news site in the city of Haverhill, to be called Haverhill Matters. Banyan founder Tom Stites’ vision is to serve what he calls “news deserts” — low- and moderate-income communities, mainly urban, that are underserved by traditional media. What follows is the first of several blog posts in which I will attempt to assess the media landscape in Haverhill as it exists today.
The Eagle-Tribune, whose headquarters are in North Andover but which is historically associated with Lawrence, publishes seven days a week, including a separate Haverhill edition every day except Monday and Saturday. The Gazette, founded in 1821, was an independent daily for much of its history. A newspaper strike in 1957 led to a debilitating battle with the notoriously right-wing publisher William Loeb, who launched a rival daily, the Haverhill Journal. As described in a recent essay by Tim Coco, president and general manager of the nonprofit radio station WHAV, by the mid-’60s the Journal had ceased to publish and the Gazette was left in a diminished state. The Eagle-Tribune acquired the Gazette in 1998 and converted it to a weekly.
According to the Alliance for Audited Media (AAM), The Eagle-Tribune’s average paid circulation for the six-month period ending March 31 of this year was 33,296 on Sundays and 32,101 on weekdays. As with many papers, circulation has been dropping in recent years; for the same six-month period ending on March 31, 2010, circulation was 40,800 on Sundays and 39,947 on weekdays. It is worth noting that all or most of The Eagle-Tribune’s content is available for free at its website, www.eagletribune.com.
No paid circulation figures are available from the AAM for either the Haverhill edition of The Eagle-Tribune or for The Haverhill Gazette. Currently, though the Eagle-Tribune Publishing Co. is telling prospective advertisers that the Gazette has a circulation of 3,900 (pdf) — down from 6,350 in 2007 (pdf). Eagle-Tribune editor Al White declined my request for an interview. But according to a knowledgeable source, The Eagle-Tribune’s circulation in Haverhill is somewhere around 5,000, perhaps a bit less.
Despite its relatively modest size, The Eagle-Tribune has a distinguished history, having won Pulitzer Prizes in 1988 and 2003. Both of those awards predated CNHI’s 2005 acquisition of the paper and its affiliated newspapers, which include three other dailies — The Daily News of Newburyport, The Salem News and the Gloucester Daily Times. In recent years, those papers — like many newspapers nationally — have undergone several rounds of layoffs and budget cuts. Since 2009, editorial staff members have been required to take unpaid furloughs for one week each quarter, according to several sources inside the company.
In Haverhill, CNHI’s cuts hit home in March 2012 when the downtown office was closed. “It has always been my goal to put as many people under as few roofs as possible while maintaining the quality of our newspapers,” then-publisher Al Getler wrote in a message to readers, adding: “With today’s technology, our reporters no longer need to sit behind a desk in an office to get their job accomplished.”
The loss of a downtown presence, though, meant that residents could not drop by with news items or story tips. Some newspaper owners hold a different view regarding the desirability of a downtown presence. For instance, the New Haven Register, which no longer needs its office-park location after outsourcing its printing to the Hartford Courant in 2012, is looking to relocate to a downtown office so that it would be more accessible to the public, according to an article by Paul Bass of the New Haven Independent.
With very few exceptions, virtually all Haverhill articles in both The Eagle-Tribune and the Gazette are produced by two staff reporters, itself a diminution from years past. An editor at The Eagle-Tribune spends most of his time overseeing Haverhill coverage.
In most communities served by a daily and a weekly, the papers compete for stories. But in Haverhill, common ownership has led to a different approach — mostly hard news in The Eagle-Tribune and soft features in the Gazette. Thus Haverhill readers must buy both papers if they wish to be fully informed.
In my experience, content analyses are of limited value since qualities such as accuracy, context and thoroughness are difficult to assess without deep knowledge of a community. Nevertheless, I examined the two papers’ Haverhill coverage for April of this year. What follows are a few observations about each.
Daily coverage focused heavily on governmental sources of news. I counted 55 bylined stories that were entirely about or mostly about Haverhill. Of these, 20 emanated from city hall; 10 involved public safety or the courts; and six involved the school committee or other school authorities. Enterprise stories — that is, stories generated solely by journalists and not tied to any particular event — were virtually non-existent.
April, of course, was the month when the Boston Marathon bombings took place. The Haverhill edition ran several related articles, including one on a vigil and another on six Haverhill police officers who assisted with operations in Watertown, where bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was ultimately taken into custody.
Routine police news and press releases are published inside the Haverhill edition. “Haverhill in a Minute,” a round-up of such items, lets people know what’s going on in the community, with announcements from organizations such as Northern Essex Community College, churches and various civic organizations.
Also during April there were three unsigned editorials that touched on Haverhill topics and several letters to the editor from Haverhill residents.
The Haverhill Gazette
The Gazette each week comprises 14 pages that are geared toward light features and photo essays. Characteristic features during April included a story on how reduced fees were leading more Haverhill High School students to play sports; the rise of outdoor dining at downtown restaurants, attributed to an initiative by Mayor James Fiorentini; and a volunteer effort to repair 15 homes owned by low-income or disabled residents.
Every week the front page includes an anonymously written column called The Lamp Post, a breezy compilation of observations, shoutouts and mild gossip. An example: “Drivers waiting at red lights at the intersection of Ginty and Bailey boulevards are getting frustrated, and who can blame them?” Another example: “Sacred Hearts School had a celebration to kick off the Red Sox home opener on Monday. The school’s kindergarten classes had a special lunch and activities, including a parade.”
The Gazette also includes a much longer, more complete version of the police log, parts of which also appear in the daily Haverhill edition; editorials; historical photos; a column by a retired local journalist; listings from the local council on aging and Haverhill Community Television; and large photo essays on youth sports and other activities.
In terms of quantity, types of stories covered and general approach, the two papers offer local journalism that — based on my experience as a longtime observer of local journalism — is no better and no worse than what is available in many communities.
What comes across is a certain comprehensiveness to the coverage, especially involving city government, but a lack of voices from the community and from the city’s neighborhoods. The bifurcated nature of the coverage is a problem, as it essentially requires residents to read both papers. The Gazette, by highlighting positive news in the community, fulfills some of the civic engagement functions of journalism better than The Eagle-Tribune. But that advantage is undermined by the absence of hard news.
Because Haverhill Matters is likely to take a different, more hyperlocal approach to coverage than either The Eagle-Tribune or the Gazette, there’s an opportunity for cooperation. For instance, it would not be hard to imagine the two papers’ repurposing some of Haverhill Matters’ neighborhood news on their websites.
For the moment, though, there do not appear to be any plans to form such a relationship. Eagle-Tribune editor White, as I mentioned earlier, declined to be interviewed. But Mike LaBonte, co-chair of the organizing committee for Haverhill Matters, told me in an email that the fledgling site’s expected reliance on paid advertising might preclude a partnership.
“Even though we plan to focus on the news areas they don’t cover well, collaboration may be tough since we are competing for the same ad dollars,” LaBonte said. “Personally I think it will just have to wait until we see what our strengths and weakness are a year or two from now.”
It was as incongruous a situation as I could imagine. Friday, April 19, was one of the most gripping news days we have ever experienced in Massachusetts. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the younger of the suspected marathon bombers, was in hiding. Boston and several other cities were under voluntary lockdown. And that morning I was driving north, toward Haverhill, on my way to a meeting where earnest community activists were making plans to revive local journalism.
While all hell was breaking loose elsewhere, the Haverhill Matters Organizing Committee met in a sunny conference room at Haverhill Community Television. The committee’s goal is to launch a cooperatively owned news site to be called Haverhill Matters sometime this year.
It’s been a long time coming. Tom Stites, a veteran journalist who’s worked at the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune, came up with the idea of local news co-ops a few years ago. He founded the Banyan Project to serve as an umbrella; Haverhill Matters will be the pilot. I wrote about his plans for the Nieman Journalism Lab last year, as well as in the epilogue to my forthcoming book about online community journalism, “The Wired City.” The launch date for Haverhill Matters has slipped a few times, but at this point it looks like 2013 will be the year.
The hour-long meeting was taken up with fairly mundane planning issues, but I could see that the site is moving toward reality. Currently the committee is at the first of a four-stage process, outlined in considerable detail on the Banyan website. The organizers envision everything from crowdsourced reporting projects to quotidian coverage of local news. A board of directors will hire two full-time employees: an executive director and an editor. The site will also make ample use of freelancers, neighborhood bloggers, and college and high school interns.
After some back-and-forth about liability issues, the committee members agreed to sign on with the Cooperative Development Institute to handle Haverhill Matters’ finances. There were charts about finances and timetables, and about how the yet-to-be-hired editor should spend the 520 hours he or she will be working each quarter.
“We’re really at a go/no-go moment, and I think we’ve decided to go,” said Tim Coco, president and general manager of WHAV, an online radio station based in Haverhill.
“Well, we want to,” replied local activist Mike LaBonte, co-chair of the organizing committee.
Coco professed some skepticism about what he was hearing but supported the idea of moving ahead. “It’s not feasible,” he said, “but that’s never stopped me before.”
The Banyan Project is aimed at serving what Stites calls “news deserts” — less-than-affluent communities that tend to be shunned by high-end advertisers and, thus, by the news organizations that rely on those advertisers. Haverhill, a city of 61,000 on the Merrimack River at the New Hampshire line, meets that definition. The Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth, or MassINC, lists Haverhill as one of 11 “Gateway Cities” — former manufacturing centers that are struggling with a lack of resources and economic investment.
Yet in other respects, Haverhill is an unlikely news desert. Though the days when two daily newspapers battled it out are long gone, the Eagle-Tribune, based in nearby North Andover, continues to publish a daily Haverhill edition. The Eagle-Tribune also publishes a weekly paper, the Haverhill Gazette, that offers local staples such as school news, feel-good features and announcements. Add in Haverhill Community Television, with its robust lineup of local programming, and WHAV, and it would appear that more than a few flowers are sprouting in this particular desert.
The real target, then, is the unaccountability of local journalism controlled by out-of-state corporations. For years now, the Eagle-Tribune’s owner, Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. (CNHI) of Montgomery, Ala., has been decimating its properties. Neither the Eagle-Tribune nor the Gazette has an office in Haverhill anymore. Thus Haverhill Matters represents an attempt by local residents to tell their own story.
In reporting “The Wired City,” I learned that there are problems with both the for-profit and nonprofit models of independent online local journalism. The owners of the for-profits — including sites like The Batavian, CT News Junkie, and Baristanet — have to spend so much time selling advertising that it limits the amount of journalism they can afford to do.
A cooperatively owned news site — analogies include credit unions and food co-ops — would occupy a space somewhere between the two models, and would not be banned from publishing endorsements. Tom Stites is currently soliciting contributions for Haverhill Matters’ launch. Once the site is up and running, he hopes to attract 1,500 members at $36 a year, bringing in $54,000, as well as advertising and grant money. A chart Mike LaBonte displayed showed an initial $45,000 expenditure, with the site reaching break-even in two and a half years.
Unlike one-off projects such as the New Haven Independent or The Batavian, the intention behind Haverhill Matters is that it be replicable. Stites hopes the Banyan Project will be able to offer a “co-op in a box” to communities looking to start their own cooperatively owned news sites. But first he has to prove the model can work. Which is why Haverhill Matters matters.
Photo (cc) 2013 by Dan Kennedy. Some rights reserved.
Banyan Project founder Tom Stites refers to Haverhill and cities like it as “news deserts” — that is, as communities so underserved by local journalism that government accountability and civic life are harmed. He and local activists hope to launch Banyan’s first online news co-op, Haverhill Matters, later this year. (I touch on Banyan in the Epilogue to “The Wired City.”)
Two generations ago, though, the mid-size industrial city, located in the Merrimack Valley near the New Hampshire border, was the scene of a daily newspaper war. According to an account recently published by the city’s online nonprofit radio station, WHAV, a newspaper strike led to years of debilitating rivalry between the established Haverhill Gazette and the upstart Haverhill Journal.
The Journal was started by the notorious William Loeb, owner of the Manchester Union Leader (now the New Hampshire Union Leader), in December 1957. The Gazette had temporarily ceased publishing after it was struck by members of the typographical union. And Haverhill merchants, worried that they had no place to advertise their Christmas wares, went to Loeb and asked him to do something. He published a couple of free shoppers, and then decided to start a full-fledged newspaper.
The WHAV article, by Tim Coco, is full of colorful details, especially concerning the federal antitrust case that grew out of the rivalry. In a nutshell, Loeb secretly paid businessmen to buy ads only in the Journal and to badmouth the Gazette at every opportunity. And the Gazette sold ads below cost, which can in some circumstances be illegal. But it was great for readers while it lasted. As Coco puts it at the beginning of his essay:
News media competition helps ensure the inner workings of every government department are exposed to the light of day and held accountable, every service club talk is covered and every military personnel homecoming is treated with reverence.
On the other hand, U.S. District Court Judge Charles Wyzanski, who presided over the antitrust hearings, concluded it was impossible for two daily papers in a city the size of Haverhill to operate profitably unless they offered “limited news coverage” and “inferior general quality.” The Gazette quickly ran into trouble, and in 1958 it was acquired by a consortium of newspaper publishers. The unstable rivalry persisted until Loeb shuttered the Journal in 1965.
Eventually the Gazette was acquired outright by The Eagle-Tribune, headquartered in North Andover but traditionally associated with Lawrence. The Eagle-Tribune started a daily Haverhill edition and converted the Gazette to a weekly. In 2005, The Eagle-Tribune and its affiliated papers on the North Shore were bought by CNHI, a Birmingham, Ala.-based chain. And as Coco notes, in March 2012, The Eagle-Tribune closed the Gazette’s Haverhill offices.
“After 191 years,” Coco writes, “The Haverhill Gazette no longer had a physical presence in Haverhill.”
Now, nearly a half-century after daily newspaper competition came to an end in Haverhill, the city is on the verge of becoming a hotbed of experimentation in community journalism. In addition to the Banyan Project, WHAV has launched something called the “Democracy, Independence and Sustainability Project.”
I’m hoping there’s going to be a lot more to come as 2013 unfolds.
Update: After I posted a link to this on Twitter, John Dodge let me know that another, lesser-known daily paper called the Independent published in Haverhill in the late 1970s. Begun by longtime Gazette staffers, Dodge says the Independent couldn’t survive because the DeMoulas supermarket chain wouldn’t buy any ads.