Yes, local news holds corporations to account. No, hedge funds won’t save them.

Photo (cc) 2008 by mbgrigby

Update II: And the paragraph has been restored. I’m told there was nothing nefarious about its disappearance.

Update: Oh, my. The nutty last paragraph that prompted this post has been deleted. Not a good look, Harvard.

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In an otherwise unremarkable story from Harvard Business School about a study into the effects of local newspaper closures on corporate wrongdoing, I ran into this bizarro closing paragraph. The story quotes Professor Jonas Heese, a co-author of the study:

Saving local newspapers isn’t Heese’s specialty, but he points to a recent trend of hedge funds buying up distressed local media outlets as having the potential to stabilize the market and resurrect local news. And that makes him wonder: “Is this a reason to be hopeful?”

No, Professor Heese. It is not a reason to be hopeful. I suggest you stick to statistical analysis, which you seem to be pretty good at. Here’s the abstract, from the Journal of Financial Economics, titled “When the Local Newspaper Leaves Town: The Effects of Local Newspaper Closures on Corporate Misconduct”:

We examine whether the local press is an effective monitor of corporate misconduct. Specifically, we study the effects of local newspaper closures on violations by local facilities of publicly listed firms. After a local newspaper closure, local facilities increase violations by 1.1% and penalties by 15.2%, indicating that the closures reduce firm monitoring by the press. This effect is not driven by the underlying economic conditions, the underlying local fraud environment, or the underlying firm conditions. Taken together, our findings indicate that local newspapers are an important monitor of firms’ misconduct.

Reading this leads me to think about our work at The Daily Times Chronicle in Woburn, when we uncovered a massive toxic waste problem in the early 1980s that may have led to an outbreak of childhood leukemia and other illnesses. Charlie Ryan’s reporting was crucial to breaking the story wide open. In 1998, he recounted in The Boston Phoenix the sequence of events that led the world to understand that Woburn had an environmental and public health disaster on its hands:

Ryan’s most important story came in December 1979, on a development he thought he’d been beaten on. The state’s Department of Public Health was about to release the results of a study on Woburn’s leukemia rate, and Ryan arranged to interview DPH officials. That morning, the Boston Herald American published a front-page story reporting that the leukemia rate was within the normal range for a city of Woburn’s size.

“I was a little pissed,” Ryan remembers, “but I went in there anyway.” He sat down with a DPH statistician, who explained the results to him: essentially, the DPH had taken the number of leukemia cases and divided it by the total population of Woburn, based on the 1970 census. Ryan stopped him. 1970? The population of Woburn, Ryan knew, had fallen from 40,000 to around 36,000. Ryan asked a simple question: What would happen if the lower figure were used? The statistician recalculated the numbers — and, all of a sudden, the number of leukemia cases appeared to be “statistically significant,” the bland-sounding phrase used to describe what was obviously a very real problem.

“That story drastically changed everything,” says Ryan, who got out of journalism a few years ago and now helps run the computers for Essex County Newspapers. “To that point, everyone had considered Anne Anderson to be just a hysterical mom. I think without that story, the Centers for Disease Control, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the state never would have pushed that hard.”

Yes, local journalism is crucial in holding corporations to account, just as it is in keeping an eye on government and other large institutions. But no, hedge funds are not the solution. They’re the problem.

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Media roundup: The EPA’s toxic proposal; getting readers to pay; and Danny Schechter’s activist legacy

John Travolta as the lawyer Jan Schlichtmann in “A Civil Action.”

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

The overwhelming crush of news emanating from the Trump administration makes it all but impossible to give more than passing attention to some of its worst and most damaging acts.

It can’t be helped. Though you could argue that the media pay too much attention to the president’s sociopathic Twitter feed, you certainly can’t fault journalists for focusing on the childish insults he has directed at Justin Trudeau and his embrace of the murderous dictator Kim Jong Un. To its credit, the press has also managed to provide reasonably comprehensive coverage of the administration’s inhumane treatment of refugee families.

But when you get down to wonkish issues like industry-backed changes in the way that the Environmental Protection Agency regulates toxic substances, well, good luck finding the sort of coverage that truly commands attention and sparks outrage. And yes, I’m going to recount some information I learned from a story that appeared on the front page of The New York Times last week, so this is not exactly a secret. But we all know that without amplification from the media echo chamber in the form of follow-up stories, cable news chatter, and the like, important stories tend to fade away pretty quickly.

The Times article, by Eric Lipton, grabbed my attention for a very specific reason: During the 1980s I was a reporter for The Daily Times Chronicle of Woburn, where I reported on families whose children became sick with leukemia — some fatally so — after the city water supply was contaminated with industrial solvents. The families sued the likely polluters, leading to a federal trial that was featured in Jonathan Harr’s riveting book “A Civil Action.” (The book was made into a less-than-riveting movie of the same name.)

A variety of chemicals were at issue in the Woburn case, but the two most important were trichloroethylene (a degreaser) and tetrachloroethylene (also known as perchloroethylene, used in dry cleaning) — both of which are now on the list of substances the EPA wants to ease up on. According to Lipton’s story, the EPA, acting at the behest of the chemical industry, may abandon an Obama-era initiative to measure the effect of these hazardous chemicals in the ground, water, and air, focusing instead on workplace exposure. Yet contaminated drinking water was precisely what was at issue in Woburn.

“The approach is a big victory for the chemical industry, which has repeatedly pressed the EPA to narrow the scope of its risk evaluations,” writes Lipton, who notes that Nancy Beck, the Trump appointee in charge of the initiative, “previously worked as an executive at the American Chemistry Council, one of the industry’s main lobbying groups.”

The 1986 federal case did not end well for the Woburn families — they settled out of court for short money after the trial ended in a muddle. But they left a legacy regarding what can happen when industry is allowed to dispose of toxic waste without regard for safety or health. Now that legacy is under attack. The media need to shine a light on this story — and to keep shining it until the EPA backs down.

An ambitious challenge

There was a time not too many years ago when newspaper owners hoped they would develop an advertising-based business model for online content that would allow them to earn profits while giving away their journalism. Craigslist, Google, and Facebook put an end to those dreams. In recent years, the emphasis has been on persuading readers to pay for digital news.

Now The Sacramento Bee has issued a challenge to its readers. Editor Lauren Gustus has written a note calling for digital subscriptions to quadruple, from 15,000 to 60,000. “We could fully fund our newsrooms — from salaries and benefits to notepads and pens — if we had 60,000 people supporting us through digital subscriptions,” she says.

Needless to say, that is a hugely ambitious goal. Though national newspapers such as The New York Times (3 million-plus) and The Washington Post (1 million-plus) have had some real success with digital subscriptions, regional papers have struggled. The Boston Globe, with nearly 100,000 digital-only subscriptions, has done as well as anyone. But though Globe executives say the paper could become sustainable if they double that number, that will likely prove to be an exceedingly difficult task.

Still, the Bee has some factors in its favor. According to Gustus’ message, the paper is bolstering its coverage with more accountability journalism and an audio newscast. Its owner, McClatchy, is widely regarded as one of the better corporate chains. And the price of a digital subscription — $130 a year — is affordable, especially compared with the Globe’s $360.

The best part about reader-funded journalism is that, if it works, owners will be wary of slashing their news coverage. People will pay more for more; they might even pay more for the same. But they’re not going to pay more for less.

Honoring Parkland’s student journalists

The third annual Danny — an honor named for the late, great progressive journalist Danny Schechter — has been awarded to The Eagle Eye, the student newspaper at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The award was announced by Rory O’Connor, Schechter’s friend and longtime business partner.

O’Connor writes in AlterNet that The Eagle Eye was singled out for comments by its student journalists that they sought to combine journalism with activism aimed at preventing mass shootings such as the one that took place at their school. Although some observers criticized the students for not embracing objectivity, O’Connor says that activist journalism is in the best tradition of the work performed by Schechter, “The News Dissector,” starting in the early 1970s at WBCN Radio in Boston and continuing until his death in 2015.

The award comes with a $3,000 donation to the paper’s journalism scholarship fund.

“Increasingly,” O’Connor writes, “it is becoming understood that journalists with strong, transparent points of view are giving us news and insights we truly need and can use.”

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