Why Justice Stevens’ fraught relationship with the First Amendment still reverberates

Justice Stevens

The late Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens today is being hailed as a liberal beacon who took strong stands against the death penalty and in favor of gun control and limits on political spending.

But despite his well-deserved reputation as a judge who was motivated by decency and principle, his legacy with regard to the First Amendment is mixed.

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Better campaign coverage: More substance, less horse race — and holding Trump to account

Media coverage of the 2020 presidential campaign is shaping up to be the same depressing spectacle that it always is. With few exceptions, the press focuses on polls, fundraising, who’s up, who’s down, and who made a gaffe. Two and a half years after Hillary Clinton was denied the White House despite winning nearly 3 million more votes than Trump, there’s also a lot of dangerously silly talk about whether Americans are willing to elect a woman.

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The 2019 New England Muzzle Awards: Spotlighting 10 who diminish free speech

With freedom of speech under unprecedented assault, it is heartening that young people get what’s at stake. Two of our 2019 New England Muzzle Awards single out high school principals who tried to silence their students — and wound up being taken to school about the true meaning of the First Amendment.

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Also: Be sure not to miss Harvey Silverglate’s Campus Muzzles, his annual round-up of outrages against free speech at colleges and universities in New England.

Despite Trump fatigue, the horror of child detention breaks through our apathy

President Trump has worn us down. The Mueller report — loaded with evidence that Trump obstructed justice and welcomed Russian interference in the 2016 campaign — bobs, floats, and then sinks beneath the surface. A credible accusation that he raped a woman several decades ago barely registers. Dangerous rhetoric that journalists are “the enemy of the people,” once shocking, is now little more than background noise.

Sometimes, though, the terrible reality of the Trump presidency breaks through, at least for a moment. Such is the case with the hundreds of migrant children being held at a border detention center in Clint, Texas, under conditions of shocking cruelty, according to a group of lawyers that visited the camp. The children are reported to be cold, hungry, and filthy. Many are sick.

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Proposed state commission would study the local news crisis and what to do about it

Photo (cc) 2019 by Dan Kennedy

Can government play a role in helping to solve the local news crisis? Not directly, perhaps. But indirectly, government can shine a light on the issue, call attention to worthy projects that might inspire others, and offer some policy recommendations.

That’s the goal of House Bill 181/Senate Bill 80, which would create a special commission to study local journalism in underserved Massachusetts communities. Sponsored by Rep. Lori Ehrlich, D-Marblehead, and Sen. Brendan Crighton, D-Lynn, the bill was the subject of a public hearing Tuesday before the Joint Committee on Community Development and Small Businesses.

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Danny Schechter’s legacy and the passion of Julian Assange

Danny Schechter in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Photo (cc) 2009 by Dan Kennedy.

The news was disorienting: WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, whose alleged misdeeds range from sexual assault to acting as a Russian intelligence asset, would be honored with an award named after the late Danny Schechter, one of my journalistic role models.

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Future shock for GateHouse as it lays off journalists and merges its smaller papers

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

In his book “The Inevitable,” the technology journalist Kevin Kelly writes, “The future happens very slowly and then all at once.” That seems like as good a description as any of what’s going on at GateHouse Media, the nationwide chain that owns more than 100 newspapers in Greater Boston. After years of gradual contraction, the company is suddenly laying off journalists by the dozens and merging its smaller weeklies. In fact, you might say the future has arrived as quickly as one, two, three:

1. On May 23, word began to trickle out that massive layoffs were taking place at GateHouse papers around the country. A crowdsourced spreadsheet showed that two local dailies, The Providence Journal and Worcester’s Telegram & Gazette, were especially hard hit, losing about six journalists each (the Worcester numbers include Worcester Magazine, another GateHouse title). All told, the newspaper analyst Ken Doctor wrote for Nieman Lab, it looked like about 200 people would lose their jobs, offset slightly by the addition of 30 investigative and regional positions.

2. On May 30, The Wall Street Journal reported that the giant Gannett chain, best known for publishing USA Today, had held merger talks with GateHouse after earlier fending off a hostile acquisition attempt by MNG Enterprises, the hedge fund-owned group formerly known as Digital First Media. As I wrote earlier this year, Gannett is a slightly better steward of local journalism than MNG, although it has decimated properties such as Vermont’s Burlington Free Press.

3. The next day, on May 31, I obtained a confidential memo from GateHouse New England executives informing the troops that 50 of the company’s Greater Boston weeklies would be merged into 18. Although the memo said there would be no reduction in coverage, venerable titles such as the Danvers Herald and the Ipswich Chronicle will pass into history.

In many ways it felt like the end game was at hand, even if no one knows quite what that will look like. Kirk Davis, chief executive officer of GateHouse and chief operating officer of its parent company, New Media Investment Group, expressed optimism when I contacted him, though he noted the seriousness of the situation.

“We remain positive about the future for local media but certainly acknowledge that the business model for community news is under pressure,” he said by email.

The turmoil has reached the upper echelons of GateHouse and New Media. The Boston Business Journal’s Don Seiffert reported two weeks ago that New Media’s shareholders recently rejected a compensation plan that had paid Davis $1.7 million in 2018. Share prices are down, and New Media chairman Wesley Edens has been replaced by Mike Reed, the company’s chief executive.

If the future is murky, the history is clear enough. I’ve been following the devolution of local newspapers into chain ownership for more than 25 years. I also worked briefly in 1990 for North Shore Weeklies, one of GateHouse’s predecessor regional chains. It’s a story of combining more and more newspapers in a desperate attempt to achieve economies of scale sufficient to offset the overall decline of the newspaper business. It hasn’t worked, and there is little evidence that it ever will. But it has not been for lack of trying.

Our tale begins in the 1960s, when enterprising newspaper publishers built about a half-dozen regional chains in Greater Boston. Starting in the late 1980s and early ’90s, Fidelity Capital, an arm of the investment giant, assembled many of these groups into what became Community Newspaper Co. Among the executives who passed through CNC was a young Kirk Davis, who did a stint as president and publisher.

In 2001, Fidelity cashed in by selling CNC for an estimated $150 million to Pat Purcell, then the owner and publisher of the Boston Herald. Purcell, perpetually challenged financially, turned around five years later and sold CNC to the company that would become GateHouse for a reported $225 million. At the same time GateHouse bought The Patriot Ledger of Quincy, The Enterprise of Brockton, and their associated weeklies for another $165 million. Davis had been running those papers, so the acquisition brought him back into the fold.

In 2008 I wrote about GateHouse for CommonWealth Magazine. By then Davis was president and publisher of the New England division. The company was laying off journalists, continuing a trend begun under Fidelity and Purcell. But Davis, ever upbeat, hoped GateHouse could get ahead of the curve.

“We feel that community newspapers have a very viable future and, juxtaposed against the trend overall, are performing very well,” Davis told me at that time. “I believe in it, and I believe it’s going to stay strong.”

Five years later, GateHouse went into bankruptcy, only to emerge within a few months. Since that time the company has continued to build its empire while shrinking its reporting corps.

Like many observers, I’ve been harshly critical of GateHouse’s cost-cutting measures, which in many cases have left its newspapers without the resources to meet the information needs of their communities. Newspapers in general are an endangered species. But when a chain takes on debt to keep buying more properties and extracts revenues from its individual papers in order to satisfy shareholders, there is simply less money available for journalism than there would be with independent ownership.

At the same time, it’s important to acknowledge that there is a difference between GateHouse and, perhaps, Gannett — both of which seem to be intent on developing a long-term survival strategy — and MNG, which by all appearances is squeezing the last few drops of revenue out of its papers before walking away. (In Massachusetts, MNG, which is owned by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, controls the Boston Herald, The Sun of Lowell, and the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg.)

“GateHouse does try — unlike Alden, for instance — to make small investments in some sort of a future,” Ken Doctor wrote recently. “Its digital marketing and events business investments are examples.”

In our recent email exchange, Davis emphasized steps that GateHouse has taken to move toward sustainability, including the outsourcing of design functions to a facility in Austin, “constant engagement and surveys,” newsletters, audio, digital storytelling, data-based investigative reporting, and more.

“In New England,” he said, “we’ve recently added a regional engagement editor and regional newsletter editor. We’re also recruiting a New England investigations editor with a high focus on data.”

Davis also touted the adoption of the Accelerator Team Model, which, in essence, involves trying to do a better job of defining audiences as well as the priorities, teams, and plans needed to serve those audiences.

I asked Davis about GateHouse’s decision to cut The Providence Journal’s newsroom just as The Boston Globe was gearing up with a new Rhode Island initiative. His answer: “While we regret any involuntary staff reductions, the layoffs last month had a small impact on local reporting. My personal view on competitive threats is this: the more any local media can invest in covering our country’s local towns the better, whether we are there or not…. We’ll compete with and celebrate expansive efforts in local news.”

I also asked where he imagines GateHouse will be five years from now. Davis: “My belief is that our industry will be digitally proficient in all aspects of serving our communities. Certainly there will be fewer ‘print-based’ publications. Much is written about the likelihood or necessity of consolidation in our industry. We are one of the larger groups and hopefully our scale and investments can prove beneficial to our industry. Bigger isn’t better though, better is better. That’s where we need to focus — always.”

My own view is that independent, grassroots news organizations are going to show the way. It won’t be easy, and some will fail. But in New England, nonprofits such as the New Haven Independent and VT Digger as well as locally owned for-profit newspapers such as the Berkshire Eagle and the Portland Press Herald are simply doing a better job of covering their communities than GateHouse, Gannett, or MNG.

Nevertheless, it looks like GateHouse or a permutation of it will be with us for some time to come. Given the importance of local journalism to democracy, we can only hope that Davis, Reed, and company figure out a way to stop the endless bleeding and start growing again.

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Want a free iPad? Buy a newspaper! In Arkansas, an audacious experiment.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

There is nothing good about the ongoing economic collapse of local newspapers. But if you squint hard, you can see a few hopeful signs amid the gloom. Recently I wrote about The Salt Lake Tribune’s bid to become the country’s first nonprofit daily newspaper.

This week I want to take a look at an idea that, in some ways, is even more audacious: the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s announcement that it will abandon weekday print and give an iPad to all of its paying subscribers so they can read the digital edition.

The news came in the form of a letter to subscribers by publisher Walter Hussman, who said that all of the Democrat-Gazette’s customers will be offered an iPad later this year. The emphasis will be on a replica edition — that is, an electronic paper that looks exactly like the print version, an old-fashioned concept still popular with many readers. The paper will continue to offer a Sunday print edition.

“Although newspapers will never be as profitable as they once were,” Hussman wrote, “we believe we have found a way to return the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette to profitability and provide a better and more robust reading experience for our subscribers.”

The shift has already taken place in some Arkansas counties, with Democrat-Gazette employees meeting with befuddled subscribers at Holiday Inns and even in their homes to help them navigate the online paper. Indeed, according to the latest figures from the Alliance for Audited Media, weekday digital now outsells print by about 86,000 to 82,000. Print remains the choice on Sunday by a margin of 118,000 to 10,000. But the ADG, as the paper is known, is rapidly moving toward a day when its weekday print circulation will be zero.

“If 70% of subscribers stay with us, the cost savings will let the ADG hire more reporters,” wroteStyle section editor Celia Storey on her public Facebook page. And just in case you were wondering, Storey also explained that readers who let their subscriptions lapse will soon discover that their iPad no longer works.

The notion of giving away iPads in order to cut the cost of printing and delivering the physical newspaper might seem revolutionary, but it’s been many years in the making. Back in the early 1990s, an executive for the now-defunct Knight Ridder chain named Roger Fidler was telling anyone who would listen that newspapers of the future would give away cheap digital tablets so they could shut down their printing presses. In some ways we still haven’t caught up with Fidler, who envisioned tablets you could roll up and stick in your pocket and that would offer resolution as high as a good quality magazine. (Click here to watch a 1994 video of Fidler explaining his remarkably prescient idea.)

The Boston Globe recently also reached something of a landmark on the road to a post-print world. Writing in the Boston Business Journal, Don Seiffert reported that the Globe’s digital circulation has now moved ahead of its weekday print circulation by a margin of 112,000 to 99,000 — and that represents an overall increase (combined print and digital) of about 7,000 paying subscribers since mid-2016. Can free iPads be far behind? (As with the ADG and virtually every other paper, the Globe’s Sunday print edition remains its largest, with a circulation of 172,000, according to the Alliance for Audited Media.)

What’s happening in Salt Lake, Arkansas, Boston, and a few other places whose newspapers are owned by civic-minded local publishers should offer encouragement. Elsewhere, newspapers are being shackled by corporate chains.

The money-losing McClatchy group reported earleir this month that its 30 properties, which include large papers such as the Miami Herald, The Sacramento Bee, and The Charlotte Observer, have signed up just 179,000 digital-only subscribers — and that’s an increase of 60 percent over a year ago.

The newspaper analyst Ken Doctor writes at Nieman Lab that the bottom-feeding Gannett chain continues to fight off an acquisition attempt by the even worse MediaNews Group (formerly Digital First Media), a battle between unappetizing rivals that I wrote about a few months ago.

Amid such chaos and greed, it’s important to keep in mind that some newspaper owners continue to search for a business model that doesn’t require slashing their newsrooms to irrelevance. Seen in that light, accelerating the transition from print to digital is an investment in the future.

The math to get from seven-day to one-day print remains daunting. Print subscribers are still more valuable. Not only do they pay more, but print ads are worth much more than commodity digital advertising. But if newspapers can get to the point over the next few years at which they can dump print, it will save a ton of money that they now spend on what is essentially a 19th-century manufacturing and delivery operation.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette may show the way.

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Can nonprofit ownership be an answer to the crisis facing local newspapers?

Photo (cc) 2004 by Cool Hand Luke.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

A little gallows humor seems like an appropriate way to greet the news that The Salt Lake Tribune — the largest daily newspaper in Utah — will seek permission from the IRS to become a nonprofit entity. So cue the snare drum:

Q: What’s the difference between a for-profit newspaper and a nonprofit newspaper?

A: A nonprofit newspaper might actually be able to figure out a way to make money.

Hiyo!

But hold the snark. Because even though nonprofit status would not relieve the Tribune of the obligation to figure out a way to pay for the journalism it provides, this might be the most hopeful step in newspaper ownership since The Philadelphia Inquirer and its sister properties were donated to a nonprofit foundation in 2016.

The Salt Lake plan would actually take the Philadelphia model one giant step further. The Inquirer remains a for-profit paper even though its owner, the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, is a nonprofit organization. What the owners in Salt Lake hope to do is reorganize the Tribune itself as a nonprofit, enabling it to raise money in the form of tax-exempt contributions from large foundations as well as from (to borrow a phrase) readers like you.

“The Tribune is a vital community asset and should be owned by the community,” said publisher Paul Huntsman, the brother of former ambassador and presidential candidate Jon Huntsman.

The slide at daily newspapers everywhere has been precipitous, but it’s been especially acute at the Tribune. The newsroom has plunged from 148 full-time employees in 2011 to about 60 today. (Huntsman bought the paper in 2016 and eliminated more than 30 positions a year ago.) Print circulation, according to the Nieman Lab, fell from 85,000 in 2014 to just 31,000 in 2018.

The situation in Salt Lake City is complicated by the Tribune’s joint operating agreement with a second daily, the Deseret News, which is owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. That agreement expires in a year. So it will take a while for the dust to settle.

Despite the success of our three national papers, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal, in charging for digital subscriptions, the outlook remains dire at the regional level. Although Boston Globe owner John Henry surprised everyone last December when he said his paper had achieved profitability, the Globe’s financial situation is still murky. Elsewhere it’s Armageddon. As The Wall Street Journal put it in a recent examination of local newspapers: “A stark divide has emerged between a handful of national players that have managed to stabilize their businesses and local outlets for which time is running out.”

As the advertising revenues that traditionally subsidized journalism have dwindled, newspapers are looking more and more like what economists refer to as a “public good” — that is, a service that benefits all of us whether we pay for it or not. The fire department is a classic example of a public good because we all need it, yet few of us would pay for it voluntarily. That’s what taxes are for. But what do we do about a newspaper whose exposé of corruption in city hall, for example, benefits “free riders” who don’t pay as well as those who do?

That’s where the nonprofit model comes in. At its best, nonprofit ownership can break the reliance on revenue from advertisers and readers by getting others to pay for it.

Take, for instance, the New Haven Independent, a nonprofit, online-only news service that has received considerable support from the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven since the Independent’s founding in 2005.

“My view is that one of the things that connects people is a common base of information about what’s going on in this place. That it’s actually a very powerful connector,” the foundation’s president and chief executive officer, Will Ginsberg, said in an interview for my 2013 book “The Wired City.” “And it’s therefore a very powerful ingredient in creating a sense of community.”

From the moment that the internet began undermining the economics of journalism, the paramount question for newspapers has been: Who will pay? If The Salt Lake Tribune is successful in winning IRS approval, we’ll have a chance to see if civic-minded foundation leaders and philanthropists might be one answer. It’s already working at smaller projects such as the New Haven Independent and at public broadcasting operations. It’s worth finding out if it might work for large regional newspapers as well.

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Shirley Leung to resume her column as Globe seeks editorial page editor

Shirley Leung (via LinkedIn)

Looks like some big changes are coming to The Boston Globe’s opinion pages. On Friday, a friend of Media Nation pointed me to this ad on Indeed.com for an editorial page editor. I made an inquiry and learned that, sure enough, interim editorial page editor Shirley Leung will be returning to the newsroom, where she’ll resume writing her column for the business section.

Leung was named interim after Ellen Clegg retired last summer. Leung emailed me a statement this morning:

It was announced internally to the staff on April 8 that I am returning to my column, which I miss dearly. I’ve learned a lot on the editorial page, and I’ve been grateful for the opportunity — and I got to see my name on the masthead! A national search is underway. We are currently working on a date for my return to the newsroom.

And there’s more interesting information in the listing: “The Editorial Page Editor role will provide leadership (and influence final design) for the Sunday Review, and the Op Ed sections, in addition to being a member of the Editorial Board.”

The Globe does not currently have a Sunday Review section. It does have an Ideas section, but there’s no mention of it in the ad. Lest you think I’m reading too much into that, I have heard anecdotally in recent weeks that the Globe’s owners, John and Linda Henry, have been contemplating a Sunday opinion section that would be more newsy and less esoteric than Ideas, which dates back to the early years of the Marty Baron era.

Ideas replaced Focus, which was, in fact, a Sunday week-in-review section.

Leung recently got caught up in a controversy over a column by freelance contributor Luke O’Neil, which, she told WGBH News’ “Boston Public Radio,” was published online without sufficient oversight. O’Neil wrote that one of his “biggest regrets” was “not pissing in Bill Kristol’s salmon” during his days as a waiter. The column was revised twice before being taken down at what Leung said was the Henrys’ insistence. There have been no indications that there was any lasting fallout for Leung over that episode or that her stepping aside is related to it, but that hasn’t stopped her critics on Twitter from speculating to that effect.

As a business columnist, Leung was a provocateur, taking contrary stands on issues such as the Boston Olympics (she was for it, with reservations) and on the Demoulas family controversy (she was sympathetic to Arthur S. Demoulas in the battle over the future of Market Basket in the face of a public outcry on behalf of his cousin Arthur T. Demoulas).

I often disagreed with her, but I’ve missed her voice. This strikes me as a good move.

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