On this week’s “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with Mary Margaret White, the CEO of Mississippi Today, a nonprofit digital news outlet that has been covering the state for more than six years. The staff has a robust presence at the statehouse in Jackson and provides cultural and sports coverage as well.
I’ve got a Quick Take on a major transition at the New Haven Independent. Last week the indefatigable founder, Paul Bass, announced he was stepping aside as editor of the Independent. The new editor will be Tom Breen, currently the managing editor. Luckily, Bass isn’t going anywhere but will continue to play a major role.
Ellen’s Quick Take is on another big transition at The Texas Tribune. Economist Sonal Shah is becoming CEO at the Tribune in January. Shah, who has had leadership roles at Google, the White House, and other high-impact organizations, replaces co-founder Evan Smith, who is taking a role as senior adviser to the Emerson Collective. It’s a big change at a pioneering nonprofit newsroom. Smith says he’ll continue to spread the local news gospel in his new role.
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.
At least two New England newspaper publishers have begun using artificial intelligence rather than carbon-based life forms to report on real-estate transactions.
The Republican of Springfield, online as MassLive, and Hearst Connecticut Media, comprising the New Haven Register and seven other daily newspapers, are running stories put together by an outfit called United Robots. MassLive’s stories are behind a hard paywall, but here’s a taste from the Register of what such articles look like.
United Robots, a Swedish company, touts itself as offering “news automation at massive scale using AI and data science.”
Last year I wrote about artificial intelligence and journalism for GBH News. I’m skeptical, but it depends on how you use it. In some ways AI has made our lives easier by, for instance, enhancing online search and powering the inexpensive transcription of audio interviews. But using it to write stories? Not good. As I wrote last year:
Such a system has been in use at The Washington Post for several years to produce reports about high school football. Input a box score and out comes a story that looks more or less like an actual person wrote it. Some news organizations are doing the same with financial data. It sounds innocuous enough given that much of this work would probably go undone if it couldn’t be automated. But let’s curb our enthusiasm.
Using AI to produce stories about real-estate transactions may seem fairly harmless. But let me give you an example of why it’s anything but.
In November, I accompanied Tom Breen, the managing editor of the New Haven Independent, as he knocked on the doors of houses that had been foreclosed on recently. The Independent is a digital nonprofit news site.
Breen has spent a considerable amount of time and effort in housing court and poring through online real-estate transactions. From doing that, he could see patterns that had emerged. Like Boston and many other cities, New Haven has experienced an explosion in real-estate prices, and a lot of owners are flipping their properties to cash in. In too many cases there are victims — low-income renters whose new landlords, often absentee, jack up the rents. Breen takes the data he’s gathered and rides his bike into the neighborhoods, knocking on doors and talking with residents. It’s difficult, occasionally dangerous work. Once he was attacked by a pit bull.
We didn’t have much luck on our excursion. No one was home at either of the two houses we visited, so Breen left notes behind asking the residents to call him.
“If investors are swapping properties at $100,000, $200,000 above the appraised value and tens of thousands of dollars above what they bought it for two days prior,” Breen told me, “all that can do is drive up costs that are passed down to the renters — to the people actually living in the building.”
The result of Breen’s enterprise has been a series of stories like this one. The lead:
Tenants of a three-family “lemon” of a house on Liberty Street are wondering how two landlords managed to walk away with $180,000 by double-selling a property that they say remains a dump.
You’re not going to get that kind of reporting from artificial intelligence.
Now, of course, you might argue — and some have, as I noted in my GBH News piece — that AI saves journalists from drudge work, freeing them up to do exactly the kind of enterprise reporting that Breen does. But story ideas often arise from immersion in boring data and sitting through lengthy proceedings; outsource the data collection to a robot, and it’s likely that will be the end of it.
At the corporate chains that own so many of our newspapers, there’s little doubt that AI will be used as just another opportunity to cut. Hearst and Advance, the national chain that owns The Republican, are not the worst or most greedy newspapers chains by any means. But both of them have engaged in more than their share of cost-cutting over the years.
And it’s spreading. United Robots’ U.S. clients include the McClatchy newspaper chain and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, part of the Cox chain. No doubt the Big Two — Gannett and the groups owned by Alden Global Capital — won’t be far behind.