A new book calls for media reform. The pandemic may give those ideas a boost.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

It’s hard to imagine better timing for a book about the future of news.

In “Democracy without Journalism? Confronting the Misinformation Society” (Oxford University Press), Victor Pickard calls for vastly increased funding for public-interest reporting and public media, newsrooms that are run democratically by journalists and members of the community, and breaking up or strictly regulating monopolies such as Google and Facebook.

Back in those golden days of, say, early March, Pickard’s agenda would likely have been dismissed, at best, as intriguing but unrealistic and, at worst, as representing an unacceptable intrusion by government that would inevitably compromise journalism’s watchdog role.

But then came the instant recession caused by COVID-19 and, with it, alarmed calls for federal action to save journalism — especially local journalism, already in extremis. Among those demanding action: Washington Post columnist Margaret SullivanCraig Aaron, the co-CEO of the media-reform organization Free Press; and Steven Waldman and Charles Sennott, the co-founders of Report for America.

How bad is it? The news-business analyst Ken Doctor, writing at the Nieman Journalism Lab, reports that readership of newspaper websites is exploding — yet advertising is plummeting so quickly that losses are piling up. Every day, it seems, comes news of more papers eliminating print editions, cutting wages and laying off reporters. Which is actually the ideal set of circumstances for Pickard to make his argument that the contradictions of for-profit media have reached something of an endpoint. As an alternative, he proposes what he calls a “social democratic” model for journalism.

An associate professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School, Pickard is a protégé of Robert McChesney and a former fellow at the aforementioned Free Press and the New America Foundation. The case he puts forth is that not only should government play a much bigger role in ensuring the health of journalism, but that the extreme market libertarianism that rules the media today is a relatively new phenomenon.

As Paul Starr (in “The Creation of the Media,” 2004) and others have before him, Pickard observes that the American press got an enormous boost starting in Colonial times by way of generous postal subsidies — a benefit that lasted until several decades ago, when market fundamentalists began demanding that the Postal Service cover its expenses.

Moreover, various regulatory efforts aimed at reducing commercialism in radio and television bore little fruit. By the late 1940s, Pickard says, they had pretty much run their course, and some of the forward-looking leaders of that era were pushed out of public service during the McCarthy-era crusade against progressives and reformers. “The alarm bells quieted, plans for bold reforms receded, and the status quo quietly but assuredly reasserted itself,” Pickard writes. “Nevertheless, it is important to recall that none of this was inevitable; it could have gone quite differently.”

One theme that Pickard turns to repeatedly is the idea that “positive rights,” as he calls them, should be regarded as important as “negative rights” when thinking about media policy. What are negative rights? As Pickard describes them, they protect a media owner from government regulation, something that has come to be seen in many circles as guaranteed by the First Amendment.

But negative rights matter a great deal, as they involve First Amendment protections such as the freedom not to be censored, protection against abusive libel cases and the right not to have limits put on political speech, including the endorsement of candidates. Unfortunately, endorsements are already endangered given the increasing prominence of nonprofit news organizations, which are prohibited from boosting candidates as a condition of keeping their tax-exempt status.

By contrast, positive rights, in Pickard’s formulation, involve the public’s right to a diverse, democratic media. Here’s how he describes it: “True inclusion means that communities are not only receiving high-quality news, but are also deeply engaged in the news-making process itself. Community members should be involved in the governing process and empowered to organize their own newsrooms and collaborate in participatory journalism. Community engagement in the news-making process is the best way to create a new kind of journalism, one that is accountable and trustworthy.”

This sounds worthy, but I’m concerned about what it would look like in practice. A strong news organization is often the result of one person’s vision, or that of a small group of people. Opening things up to democratic governance runs the risk of lowest-common-denominator journalism in which some members of the community demand that certain stories be covered, or not covered, because of individual or group sensitivities.

That’s a potential hazard with cooperatively owned news organizations, an idea that Pickard supports. I’m currently tracking The Mendocino Voice, a digital news outlet that is transitioning to the co-op model. I’m interested to see if they can pull it off, and I wish them well. But a healthy news ecosystem requires different models — for-profit, nonprofit, co-ops, volunteer projects and the like. On several occasions Pickard suggests that we’ve hit the limit with regard to for-profits and even traditional nonprofits. I’m not willing to go that far.

Where I would agree wholeheartedly with Pickard is that our public media system is woefully underfunded. Not only does Pickard document the exponentially greater sums spent on public television and radio in virtually every other Western democracy, but he also comes up with the perfect anecdote to illustrate his point: he tells us the federal government’s annual contribution to PBS — about $445 million a year — is considerably less than the $626 million the Pentagon spends on its public-relations office.

A well-funded PBS and NPR, insulated from political pressure, Pickard says, could go a long way toward solving the local-news crisis by ramping up coverage of communities that have been abandoned by legacy newspapers.

“Transforming the U.S. media system into a democratic force,” Pickard writes in conclusion, “requires a robust policy program of regulating or breaking up information monopolies, creating public alternatives to commercial news media, and empowering media workers, consumers, and communities to engage with and create their own media.”

The journalism crisis has been with us for a decade and a half, and it’s only become more acute over time. The coronavirus pandemic underscores two realities: we need local news, and there may be no reliable way to pay for it through traditional market forces.

Pickard outlines one set of possible solutions. Policymakers would do well to consider his ideas — and to act before the news we need to govern ourselves becomes one more victim of the virus that is currently upending our way of life.

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From coast to coast, local online news outlets dive into the COVID-19 story

Photo 1909 by Lewis Hines

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

From the Berkshires to the bayou, from the Pacific Northwest to southeastern Massachusetts, the COVID-19 pandemic is tearing through local newspapers.

Already under pressure from changes in technology and the decline of advertising, alternative weeklies and small dailies are teetering on the brink. Reporters have been laid off. Print editions have been suspended or cut back. Donations are being sought. And journalists everywhere are wondering if they have a future.

For the past 15 years or so, local, digital-only start-ups have stood out as a countervailing trend compared to the overall decline of the newspaper business. Though small in both number and scope, these entrepreneurial news organizations, both for-profit and nonprofit, have provided coverage that their communities would otherwise lack. Yet they, too, have been battered by the novel coronavirus.

“They’re stretching their journalistic capacity,” said Chris Krewson, executive director of the 200-member LION (Local Independent Online News) Publishers, at a virtual conference last week sponsored by Northeastern University’s School of Journalism, where I’m a faculty member. “Everyone’s seeing incredible jumps in traffic and audience and [newsletter] open rates and things like that. And the volume of stories has never been higher.

“At the same time,” he added, “the sorts of things that everyone has built their business around, certainly since 2010, are a challenge. You have a business built around where to go and what to do, and there’s nowhere to go and nothing to do. So you’re looking at the first waves of cancellations from advertisers.”

Over the weekend, I emailed a number of editors and publishers at free, digital-only news outlets to see how they were faring. Though they all said they are pushing ahead, they added that the economic and logistical challenges of covering the COVID-19 story have proved daunting. (Please click here for a complete transcript of our conversation.)

At least for the moment, the nonprofits have an advantage, since their funding — from grants, foundations and donations — tends to be in place months in advance.

“We operate on a tight budget, and are always scrambling for money for our long-term sustainability,” says Paul Bass, who runs the nonprofit New Haven Independent and WNHH Community Radio. “But we seek to set our budget each year at a level that can be supported by current deposits and a few multi-year commitments by our deepest-pocket long-term supporters, so that people know 12 months at a time that they have a job and the lights stay on.”

Dylan Smith, publisher of the nonprofit Tucson Sentinel in Arizona, worries about the long-term effect on his site — but adds that, for now, the reaction has been positive.

“We’ve been sent quite a number of three-figure donations out of the blue, and seen a substantial uptick in people signing up to contribute monthly,” he says. “That community support has really been heartening. Not only will it help keep the lights on, but the kind words and cold hard cash we’ve gotten let us know we’re doing something meaningful to help.”

By contrast, The Batavian, a for-profit site that serves Genesee County in western New York, is scrambling, according to publisher Howard Owens. “Two top-tier advertisers have dropped,” he says. “Our revenue is 95% advertising. I expect we’ll take a big hit before this is over.” He adds: “I’m more worried about my business’ ability to survive than I am worried about my own health. We have a PressPatron button on our site if anybody wishes to make a contribution.”

In at least one instance, the crisis has forced a publisher to postpone collecting any money at all. Jennifer Lord Paluzzi, a veteran journalist who recently launched her second start-up, Grafton Common, in the Worcester area, was hoping to ask for donations, but has decided to wait until the pandemic subsides.

“I was about to put a tip jar on my site that people could just put money in and help fund it,” she said at the Northeastern event. “But with everything that’s going on right now, with businesses closing, I’m like, OK, we’re going to skip the tip jar and entertain everybody.”

The need for social distancing may prove challenging to The Mendocino Voice, a for-profit site in California that is in the process of shifting to an employee- and member-owned co-op. The founders, publisher Kate Maxwell and managing editor Adrian Fernandez Baumann, had envisioned a series of meetings across Mendocino County to whip up enthusiasm and to refine the details of what the co-op would look like. But now they have to figure out other ways to do that.

“The challenge is how to work with the funders and re-create our plan for a series of community forums and member meetings virtually,” Maxwell says. “However, we cover a large area and are always looking for ways to better reach remote readers, so in the end this shift could be very valuable to refining the tools we use to engage with our readers and strengthen our membership campaign.”

Despite such difficulties, the journalists I reached all expressed enthusiasm for covering what may prove to be the biggest story of our lifetime.

“As an organization that focuses a lot of our effort on covering state and local government, it’s a massive story for us,” says Andrew Putz, editor of the Minneapolis-based nonprofit MinnPost. “I just looked, and we did 34 stories in the last week tied in some way to Minnesota’s response to the pandemic. So to answer your question more directly: We’re throwing everything we have at it.”

Adds Smith: “We’re working our asses off. I think I had 14 or 15 bylines in one day last week. And that’s not counting multiple updates to some stories.”

Although most of these small news organizations have offices, working at home is nothing new. Both Putz and Smith say they’ve been communicating with reporters via Slack. “We’ve been working remotely for a decade already,” says Smith. “I have a couple of reporters I haven’t even seen face-to-face yet in 2020.”

And all agree that health and safety come first. “If they feel like they must attend a meeting/press conference/interview,” says Putz of his reporters, “we’ve asked them to exercise their judgment — and to make sure they know that there’s no story that’s worth them jeopardizing their health.”

For the time being, Owens has abandoned his office in downtown Batavia. He says he and his wife, Billie Owens, the site’s editor, have an agreement that neither can leave the house without the other’s permission. Their one staff member as well as freelancers are all working from home.

“It’s not just about keeping them/us safe,” he says. “It’s about flattening the curve. We need to give our government, health-care systems and private sector time to build capacity to deal with a pandemic that will last for a year or two.”

The exception is Bass, who has not yet stopped his reporters (except for one in his 70s) from covering stories in person. He says his journalists have been instructed to stay six feet away from people they’re interviewing and photographing, and he will continue to reassess.

“My guess is, especially as government meetings shift online, we will be doing fewer in-person interviews,” Bass says. “Also, math suggests that some of us will get sick, which will certainly diminish our reporting capacity. But for now it’s full steam ahead, with fingers crossed. We love our community and feel we have an important role in strengthening it.”

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Local online news publishers and editors speak out about the COVID-19 crisis

Commentary at WGBH News.

The COVID-19 pandemic presents a particularly difficult challenge for publishers of community online-only news sites, whether they are for-profit or nonprofit. Over the weekend I emailed editors and publishers of several such news organizations to see how they are getting along. Below are their lightly edited answers in full.

Q: How are you dealing with the challenge of covering the COVID-19 pandemic in your community?

Paul Bass, who runs the New Haven Independent and WNHH Community Radio, which are both nonprofit organizations: We’re working like maniacs. We feel this is the time when the work we do — informing as well as stitching together community — is more important than ever.

Kate Maxwell, publisher of The Mendocino Voice, a for-profit that is moving toward a cooperative ownership model: We are covering it in all the ways we can come up with! We do have experience with prolonged breaking emergency coverage through wildfires and power shutdowns, unfortunately. We created a central landing page and are using multiple social media platforms to reach people, including livestreaming press conferences, interviews with public health officials and medical experts, and live tours of preparedness at medical facilities.

We’re writing multiple daily updates, creating several guides to information and resources, increasing our newsletter, live-tweeting important forums, increasing our Spanish translations and Spanish language interviews, and regularly surveying our readers, as well as taking live questions during events and interviews. We’re being careful to make our updates clearly dated, sharing information about state and federal changes, and keeping coverage in digestible and clear formats. We’ve gotten some great ideas from other LION publishers as well. 

We are hiring formerly underemployed but experienced local freelance reporters to expand our coverage.We are working quickly to hire even more reporters and implement ideas we had considered previously and in other sustained emergencies, such as text services. We are reaching out to public officials, business leaders and community groups to discuss how to best fact-check evolving information moving forward. We are also talking with everyone about how we can best support our community to provide a service that also lessens the blow of economic impacts of this pandemic, which will be hard on our already struggling local economy and health-care system. This includes considering what might happen in the case of multiple emergencies as we approach “wildfire season.”

Howard Owens, publisher of The Batavian, a for-profit in Genesee County, New York: Early on, even before orders were issued, I recognized that I probably wouldn’t be going out of the house much to cover things. I had never done livestreaming before. I had never done a video interview and recorded it or livestreamed it. So I quickly figured out how to do all of that, and we did our first livestream interview on March 15.  We’ve done 15 or so since. Continue reading “Local online news publishers and editors speak out about the COVID-19 crisis”

A professor copes, takes his class online, and wonders: ‘What comes next?’

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

I knew the Apocalypse was at hand when I walked through the nearly empty Ruggles T station Monday morning — and there were no Jehovah’s Witnesses. Not that I suspected these smiling, well-dressed folks with their posters and pamphlets were afraid of catching COVID-19. They probably just figured there was no point in standing in the cold all by themselves while the city was shutting down around them.

As a journalism professor at Northeastern University, I’m well aware of how fortunate I am. Our paychecks and benefits won’t be threatened unless the worst of the worst-case scenarios become a reality. For us, the pandemic means trying to figure out how to move our classes online so that our students’ education isn’t thrown off track any more than absolutely necessary.

Even so, it’s been a challenging week.

I’d spent the first week of March — spring break at Northeastern — in Mendocino County, California, reporting on The Mendocino Voice, a small news organization moving toward cooperative ownership. While I was out there, I attended a news conference on the coronavirus called by county officials. It was clear that things were about to explode.

Classes actually resumed March 9, but we all had a sense that was likely to change at any moment. And it did. During our faculty meeting on March 11, we got an email from the administration telling us we were moving to online instruction the next day.

It seemed possible that the shift wouldn’t be too disruptive. At least initially, students were not asked to leave university housing — something that would be a logistical nightmare given our large number of international students as well as students living on campus while working at co-op jobs in the Boston area. I taught my final in-person class that night and got ready to go virtual.

My plan for Thursday was a workshopping session with my opinion-journalism class. It seemed like more of a technical challenge than I was comfortable taking on, but a colleague recommended Zoom video-conferencing software, and I gave it a try. I was stunned at how easy it was — for an hour and a half, my 15 students and I had something very close to a normal class. I don’t hear especially well, so I was pleasantly surprised that I could hear them better through my earbuds than I normally do in the classroom.

But if we’ve learned anything in the past week, it’s that what we hope will be the “new normal” only lasts for a few hours. First, one of my international graduate students told me she was flying home to Ecuador. Then, on Saturday, the university reversed course and ordered everyone out of the residence halls by Tuesday, March 17, at 5 p.m. Social-media panic ensured. Within a few hours, the university sent an update — students would be given some leeway on when they moved out, the remainder of the semester’s room and board would be refunded, and students with a demonstrated hardship could stay.

That helped. But it left us wondering how much of the semester we could salvage with nearly everyone scrambling to leave. Ruggles may have been empty on Monday, but cars were lined up all over campus as students got ready to head home. Despite the confusion, I don’t see how it could have been otherwise. What came across as draconian on Saturday seemed like the responsible thing to do by Monday.

So now what? Why was I on campus Monday when I should have been hunkering down at home? Because I’d decided to come in one last time in case any of my students wanted to see me before leaving. As it turned out, most of them found electronic communication sufficient — and safer.

But one of my students, a young woman from Hong Kong, dropped by for some advice on her final project in my ethics class. We kicked around some ideas and talked about what would happen next. She’s a senior. The last few weeks of her classes are gone. Commencement, scheduled for May 1, is almost certainly gone as well. She’ll walk away with an education, but without any of the memories she should have had.

She took a selfie of us and said goodbye.

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How Trump is weaponizing libel and threatening the First Amendment

Photo (cc) 2016 by Gage Skidmore

So now President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign is filing SLAPP suits against news organizations — that is, libel suits with no legal merit whose goal is to intimidate rather than to expose the truth.

The lawsuits have targeted The New York Times, The Washington Post and CNN, all of which have the resources to defend themselves. But the Trump campaign’s tactics raise a larger question: Will these suits embolden others to weaponize the courts against media outlets that lack the financial wherewithal to fight back against deep-pocketed opponents?

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Despite Biden’s big night, Mendocino County remains firmly with Bernie

At the Ukiah Brewing Company. Photo by Adrian Fernandez Baumann.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

UKIAH, Calif. — About 15 people had gathered on the second floor of the Ukiah Brewing Company. The television in the corner was tuned to CNN, and Sen. Bernie Sanders was speaking. This was a pro-Sanders crowd. Nearly everyone stopped what they were doing so they could listen.

Then the band downstairs started playing, and that was the end of that.

I’m here this week learning about The Mendocino Voice, an online news organization started three and a half years ago that is in the process of moving toward a cooperative model of ownership — an innovative step that could help ensure the project’s future. “We are going to be owned by our readers and our staff,” publisher Kate Maxwell told those on hand. “We think that’s the best way to be sustainable and locally owned.”

The Super Tuesday party, which drew a total of 25 to 30 people, was organized by the Voice as a way of bringing the community together to watch not just the presidential results but to find out who had won the primary elections for the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors. There are five supervisors, and three of the seats were contested.

There’s no question, though, that most people were mainly interested in the Democratic presidential primary. Sanders won California easily on a night when the chatter was about former Vice President Joe Biden’s emergence as the clear (though hardly dominant) frontrunner. I was told that Mendocino County, a two-hour drive north of San Francisco, is even more pro-Sanders than the rest of the state. That was certainly true at the Ukiah Brewing Company, where the folks I spoke with expressed their enthusiasm for Bernie over burgers and beer.

“I think the possibility of having a socialist Democrat in the White House is really exciting,” said Rayna Grace, citing Sanders’ “solidarity with the Palestinian people” as well as his support for Medicare for All and for canceling student debt. Her companion, Silver, who declined to tell me her last name, added, “I’m just excited to see a candidate who reflects my radical values.”

Even the only non-Sanders supporter I spoke with said he preferred Sanders to the candidate he actually cast a ballot for — Sen. Elizabeth Warren. “I thought Warren is electable. I don’t know if Bernie is electable,” said John Haschak, a member of the board of supervisors. “Maybe my political calculation is a little off, but we can’t have four more years of Trump.”

Unfortunately for Warren, Haschak’s political calculation turned out to be more than a little off. Warren suffered the worst of what has been a series of bad nights for her, as she came in third in her home state of Massachusetts, behind Biden and Sanders. (WGBH News Senior Political Editor Peter Kadzis breaks down the Bay State results here.) In just a few months, Warren has gone from being the frontrunner to having to do some serious fence-mending with her constituents.

Like many people, I’ve visited California’s urban centers of San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego. But this is the first time I’ve been in the rural north. The population of Mendocino County is just under 90,000. Yet, geographically, it’s about two-thirds the size of Connecticut (population 3.5 million) and larger than Delaware (nearly a million).

As is the case in many other places, Mendocino County suffers from a dearth of reliable local journalism. Most of the papers in the county — including The Ukiah Daily Journal, the only daily — were absorbed into the MediaNews Group conglomerate years ago, and have been systemically gutted by the chain’s hedge-fund owner, Alden Global Capital.

Maxwell and Managing Editor Adrian Fernandez Baumann, the Voice’s only full-time staff members, are themselves former MediaNews employees. Though their office — a tiny second-floor room that they rent from a low-power FM radio station — is in the inland city of Ukiah, the county seat, they have positioned the Voice as a county-wide news service. As such, they regularly drive two hours to Fort Bragg, on the Pacific coast, as well as to other parts of the county.

This is weed-and-wine country. The “cannabis economy,” as Baumann calls it, is dominated by so-called back-to-landers, hippies and former hippies who moved to the area in the 1960s. So it’s no surprise that Sanders is the favorite here.

Yes, I did meet a few non-enthusiasts. Before the party, Baumann and I talked with voters outside a polling station at the county offices, where we encountered an older couple who’d cast their ballots for Biden and a volunteer firefighter who’d taken a Republican ballot and voted for President Donald Trump. Overwhelmingly, though, the folks we met had voted for Sanders.

“We’ve been diehard Bernie supporters since the last election,” Moriah McGill told us.

Given Biden’s strong performance across the country Tuesday, it’s no exaggeration to say that voters like McGill, Grace and Silver saved the Sanders campaign. Whether that will be enough to stop Biden is a question for another day.

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Burgers, beers and journalism: An experiment in civic engagement

Photo (cc) 2012 by Ruocaled

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Can a news organization help to support itself by opening a café, bar and wedding venue? It’s a good question, but here’s a better one: Can such a gathering place lead to the revival of civic engagement and, thus, to renewed interest in local journalism?

The New York Times last week reported on an interesting experiment taking place at The Big Bend Sentinel of Marfa, Texas. The paper was acquired last year by two former New Yorkers, Maisie Crow and Max Kabat, who quickly found themselves facing the challenge of paying the bills in an era of shrinking ad revenues. Their solution was to renovate a former bar and transform it into a newsroom and café. The revenues, Crow said, would be used to expand the Sentinel’s coverage, explaining that “we wanted to expand the potential.”

But at a time when the decline of civic life is leading to diminishing interest in the day-to-day goings-on that are the staple of local newspapers, bringing journalists and the community together in a common space could help remind residents of why news matters. Indeed, Abbie Perrault, the Sentinel’s managing editor, told the Times that the shared space is “a great way to keep my finger on the pulse and get new leads and find stories.”

The Sentinel is offering a fresh take on an idea that nearly got off the ground a decade ago. That’s when Matt DeRienzo, then the 34-year-old publisher of The Register Citizen in Torrington, Connecticut, was opening up his newsroom to the public with the encouragement of John Paton, an innovative executive who was briefly the toast of the newspaper business.

As The New York Times wrote back then, members of the public could visit The Register Citizen’s Newsroom Café for coffee and muffins and to use the paper’s archives for free. “Matt’s taking his audience and making it a colleague,” Paton was quoted as saying. “A building with open doors, with no walls, is the brick-and-mortar metaphor for how the web works.”

DeRienzo was soon named editor of all of the Journal Register Co. chain’s Connecticut newspapers, including its flagship, the New Haven Register. I interviewed him around that time, and he was brimming with ideas. The company sold off its hulking plant by I-95, and DeRienzo began making plans for an open newsroom on the Yale side of the New Haven Green.

Sadly, it wasn’t to be. Journal Register was merged with another chain, MediaNews Group, and the resulting behemoth was dubbed Digital First Media — an ironic moniker that paid tribute to Paton’s oft-repeated mantra, “digital first,” but that soon proved it was dedicated mainly to squeezing out profits for the benefit of its hedge-fund owner, Alden Global Capital. Paton left. DeRienzo left. And the idea of local journalism reinvented around open newsrooms and public participation faded away. (I told the full story of Digital First’s rise and fall in an earlier WGBH News commentary.)

“It elevated the awareness and reputation of the newspaper and the people who worked in the newsroom,” DeRienzo said of the Torrington experiment in a Facebook discussion last week. “It improved transparency and trust with readers. Our audience grew, and our digital revenue grew.”

Nearly a generation ago, the Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam wrote in his landmark book “Bowling Alone” that newspaper readership correlates strongly with civic engagement. People who vote in local elections, take part in volunteer activities, attend religious services or engage in any number of other activities are also more likely to read the paper. “Newspaper readers,” he wrote, “are machers and schmoozers.

Which brings us back to The Big Bend Sentinel. The local news crisis has multiple causes, technological change and corporate greed being foremost among them. But, fundamentally, it’s also about declining interest in what the school board is up to, whether the city council will approve a new liquor license and other quotidian matters.

News organizations that hope to survive and thrive can’t settle for merely covering civic life — they have to teach their communities the importance of local news so that people will start paying attention and realize that what the mayor is doing is likely to have more of an effect on their families than anything that is taking place in Washington.

Such journalism is sometimes derisively called “eating your broccoli.” So kudos to the Sentinel for reimagining the intersection of journalism and audience engagement more along the lines of a cheeseburger and a beer. And look! Here comes the bride!

Correction: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of the town name of Marfa, Texas.

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Markey edges Kennedy in first debate. But will youth and glamour win out in the end?

Photo by Meredith Nierman/WGBH News

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

The tenor of the first encounter between Democratic senatorial candidates Sen. Ed Markey and Rep. Joe Kennedy III was established right from the start.

Markey touted his policy initiatives on gun control, climate change and — somewhat unexpectedly — Alzheimer’s disease. Kennedy agreed with Markey on virtually everything, but asserted that more vigorous leadership was needed to stand up to President Donald Trump and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell.

“I have led and delivered for the people of Massachusetts,” Markey said, summing up his campaign during the closing moments of the hour-long debate, sponsored by WGBH News. Countered Kennedy: “We are at a moment of crisis for our country.” Legislating and voting the right way is “critical” but insufficient, he said, adding, “This is all about power.”

Other than the presidential campaign, few electoral contests are being watched more closely this year than the battle between Markey, the 73-year-old incumbent, and Kennedy, 39, a fourth-term congressman and a member of our most famous political family. (Note: I am unrelated.) It is a race nearly devoid of policy differences, and the winner of the Democratic primary on Sept. 1 is all but assured of election. Given that, will voters go with an experienced incumbent, or will they opt for youth and a touch of glamour?

I thought Markey had the better argument Tuesday night — and not just on experience. Despite his age, his energy was a match for Kennedy’s. Twice he brought up his co-sponsorship of the Green New Deal with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, a young progressive star who has endorsed him. He touted successful legislation to reduce auto emissions and study gun violence. For good measure, he made sure to bring up his childhood as the son of a Malden milkman — not that citing one’s humble roots has ever had much effect when running against the patrician Kennedys.

Not everything went Markey’s way. Under questioning from moderators Jim Braude and Margery Eagan, he stumbled on his refusal to endorse the so-called People’s Pledge — a promise to keep outside money out of the race that he has supported in the past. Kennedy pounced, saying both candidates should agree to ban undisclosed “dark money.” Markey responded that he wanted to give progressive groups a chance to donate, and that their contributions would in fact be disclosed. It was hard to follow, but Markey came off as someone who was willing to shift on campaign-finance reform if he thought it would benefit him.

Kennedy also had the advantage in pressing Markey for voting “present” in 2013 on whether to authorize the use of military force after Syria unleashed chemical weapons against its own people. Again, the exchange must have been nearly unfathomable except to the few experts who may have been watching. But Markey’s insistence that he voted as he did as a way of pressing the Obama administration to provide more information came across as the sort of legislative arcana that can leave voters cold.

On the other hand, the fundamental premise of Kennedy’s case struck me as flawed. Does anyone really believe that the problem with Trump and McConnell is that the Democrats haven’t been fierce enough in holding them to account?

Markey has been overshadowed by his fellow Massachusetts senator, Elizabeth Warren. But I covered Markey as a local newspaper reporter in the 1980s, and he seems utterly unchanged from the days when he was a national leader in the fight for a freeze on the development of nuclear weapons.

Fundamentally, Markey is the same person who was first elected to Congress in 1976 on the strength of a memorable ad. As a state representative, his desk had been moved out into the corridor on orders from Massachusetts House leaders, who were angered by his demands for judicial reform. “The bosses may tell me where to sit,” Markey said, looking at the camera. “No one tells me where to stand.”

There were a few subtle differences Tuesday night.

Both candidates favor Medicare for All, but Kennedy said he foresaw a continuing role for private insurance even if such a system becomes law. (He also invoked his uncle Ted’s 1971 proposal for single-payer universal insurance.)

Both spoke about actions they would take to reverse decades of economic discrimination against African-Americans, which, they said, affects access to housing and public transportation. But only Markey brought up the idea of reparations for slavery, which he called “the original sin in our society.”

Both favored bringing U.S. troops home from Afghanistan. But Kennedy was willing to do so more quickly and with fewer conditions than Markey, who invoked the horrors that Afghan women have suffered under the Taliban.

So where do we go from here? According to a September poll conducted by The Boston Globe and Suffolk University, Markey trailed Kennedy by a margin of 42% to 28% — a wide gap that may have mainly been a reflection of the superior name recognition that any Kennedy enjoys.

With the race now heating up, Markey has a chance to reintroduce himself to voters and close that gap. The biggest challenge he faces is time. If he’s re-elected, he’ll be 80 before his next term ends. Ultimately, there’s not much he can do if voters decide to thank him for a job well done — and then move on to the next generation.

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Do newspaper endorsements matter? Why a hoary tradition may be near its end

My Northeastern colleague Meg Heckman has written an important thread about political endorsements by news organizations. Her starting point is the Concord Monitor’s unusual decision not to endorse in the New Hampshire primary. (Heckman is a former editor at the Monitor.) Please read it and come back.

The Monitor’s non-endorsement is not the only break with the past that we’ve seen in recent weeks.

Read the rest at WGBHNews.org. And talk about this post on Facebook.

What ‘American Factory’ says about the soul of our nation — and the coming campaign

A scene from “American Factory”

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

The botched Iowa caucuses and the State of the Union mark the official opening of the presidential campaign. From now until November, you’re going to hear a lot about whether Democrats can take voters in the Midwest back from President Trump.

And so politics was very much on my mind when I watched “American Factory” over the weekend. The Netflix documentary, the first released by Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company, Higher Ground, tells the story of a glass factory opened by the Chinese in 2016 at the site of a former General Motors plant near Dayton, Ohio. The film has been nominated for an Oscar. (Note: Spoiler alerts ahead.)

When we talk about the working-class voters who defected to Trump in 2016, we are inevitably talking about white working-class voters. But the people who were hired by the Fuyao glass company — many of them former GM employees — comprised an integrated workforce. At least as depicted in the film, the white and African American employees get along, and though they resent their Chinese co-workers and managers for what they perceive as unrealistic demands, we don’t hear anything even remotely racist from the Americans.

The Chinese are another story. Early in the film, we hear the chairman of Fuyao, the billionaire entrepreneur Cao Dewang, say of the Americans: “They’re pretty slow. They have fat fingers.” Later we hear complaints from the Chinese that the Americans are too soft, unwilling to work overtime, and — worst of all — lacking in gratitude because they were trying to form a union. After U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown puts in a good word for unions at the plant’s opening, we see an American manager joking to one of the Chinese executives that Brown’s head should be cut off (what a card!) and promising that Brown would be banned from future events.

The jobs, though, were a far cry from what GM had once offered. During the union-organizing drive, one of the American employees at Fuyao says that his full-time position paid just $27,000 — and that his daughter was making $40,000 in a nail salon. Fuyao may have brought blue-collar work back to the Dayton area, but at $12 an hour (raised to $14 in an attempt to head off the union), they were hardly the kind of well-paying jobs that had once made the Midwest a prosperous outpost of Democratic union households.

“We will never, ever make that kind of money again,” says one of the GM-turned-Fuyao employees. “Those days are over.”

The end of that era, decades in the making and accelerated by the Great Recession, has fueled resentment and hopelessness. As Trump tells us over and over, the unemployment rate is as low as it’s been in many years and the stock market is booming. Yet growing income inequality has led to stagnant or worsening living standards for all but the wealthy, the specter of college debt acts as a barrier to economic opportunity, and — as Boston College history professor Heather Cox Richardson said recently on WGBH News’ “The Scrum” — structural flaws in our system have elevated a small class of rich oligarchs who wield power over a majority that neither voted for them nor support their policies.

At the end of “American Factory,” we see robotic arms moving glass efficiently around the factory. Chairman Cao tours the floor with his executives as they show him the operations that will be replaced by machines in the coming years. As of 2018, we’re told as the film closes, the factory had achieved profitability — but that starting wages remained stuck at $14 an hour.

What’s disheartening is that, on one level, the Fuyao experiment worked. In return for tax incentives, a factory that had closed miraculously reopened, employing some 2,400 Americans and 200 visiting Chinese. What Fuyao didn’t bring back — and perhaps couldn’t bring back — were the middle-class wages and lifestyles that for several generations had been seen as a birthright by people who may not have gone to college but who were willing to work hard.

We are no closer to charting a path for them than we’ve been in the past several elections. Trump offers them nothing but anger and resentment. Several of the Democratic candidates have devised ambitious proposals to soak the rich and invest in their future, but we all know how difficult it is to turn even the best-devised plans into reality.

In the end, “American Factory” is a snapshot of a way of life that continues to decline. How that narrative will intersect with the 2020 campaign is anybody’s guess — but we should start getting some answers this week.

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