A new study measures the cost of corruption when the local newspaper dies

Illustration by Thomas Nast.

As local newspapers shrink or disappear, opportunities increase for politicians and public employees to reach into the cookie jar and help themselves. After all, one of journalism’s most important functions is to act as a watchdog on government. As far back as 2009, the internet scholar Clay Shirky said that he expected to see an explosion of “casual endemic corruption” as more and more small papers shut down.

But how to quantify that? According to a new study, the lack of oversight can be measured by a rise in the cost of government in communities that lose their newspapers. Kriston Capps writes in CityLab that researchers at the University of Notre Dame and the University of Illinois at Chicago found that a municipality’s borrowing costs increase in statistically significant ways in “news deserts” — that is, in places where there is no longer a news outlet that reports on important local issues.

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

Advertisements

Globe executives address sexual-harassment accusation against Brian McGrory

Two top Boston Globe executives, managing director Linda Pizzuti Henry and president Vinay Mehra, sent this out to the staff earlier this afternoon. A source passed it on a little while ago. As you’ll see, the message concerns a charge by Hilary Sargent, a former top editor at Boston.com, that she was sexually harassed by Globe editor Brian McGrory in a text message, which she posted on Twitter this past Monday.

Emily Rooney, Adam Reilly and I discussed the situation Tuesday evening on “Greater Boston.”

The full text of Henry and Mehra’s message (except for an internal link for reporting employee concerns) follows.

As you may be aware, a former employee has publicly suggested that there was an inappropriate text exchange between Brian McGrory and her. As we discussed last fall and at the last newsroom Town Hall, we are deeply committed to creating a safe, comfortable, welcoming working environment for all employees. We have multiple avenues for employees to use to escalate concerns and will work to expeditiously address any issues raised going forward or looking back.

This issue is no exception. When we first learned about the social media discussion mentioned above, we began investigating to gather as much relevant information as we could. We discussed the issue with Brian in an attempt to understand both the nature of any exchanges between the two parties and also whether or not these exchanges occurred during her employment. We also reached out to Ms. Sargent, the former employee, to ascertain the timing and context of the text in question. At this time it is still unclear when these exchanges took place.

We expect to have resolution on this matter soon but did not want to wait another day to connect with you directly. We want to reiterate how important your work is, how important your contributions are to us and how seriously we take assertions of improper conduct.

If there is anything you would like to discuss related to this matter or any others, please do not hesitate to reach out to us or any member of the management or human resources team….

Thank you.

Linda & Vinay

Talk about this post on Facebook.

Trump’s Amazon-Post vendetta reflects his corrupting sense of victimization

If you care to read one more example of President Trump’s fundamentally corrupt way of looking at the world, I recommend Jon Lee Anderson’s profile of the former ambassador to Panama, John Feeley, which appears in the current New Yorker. Anderson begins with a shocking anecdote — or, rather, an anecdote that would be shocking if we had not long since gone numb. Feeley was sitting outside the Oval Office in June 2017, waiting for a meeting with Trump. He heard the president drop an F-bomb in the midst of a tirade, then was led in. Vice President Mike Pence and future chief of staff John Kelly were with the president. Anderson continues:

As he took a seat, Trump asked, “So tell me — what do we get from Panama? What’s in it for us?” Feeley presented a litany of benefits: help with counter-narcotics work and migration control, commercial efforts linked to the Panama Canal, a close relationship with the current President, Juan Carlos Varela. When he finished, Trump chuckled and said, “Who knew?” He then turned the conversation to the Trump International Hotel and Tower, in Panama City. “How about the hotel?” he said. “We still have the tallest building on the skyline down there?”

I offer this to illuminate a different story — one that was nearly overlooked last weekend amid an unusually weird and disturbing outburst of Trumpian mishegas.

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

Talking about ‘Moguls’ with Emily Rooney at the BPL

My WGBH News colleague (and “Beat the Press” host) Emily Rooney and I talked about “The Return of the Moguls” Tuesday in a Facebook Live event at WGBH’s Boston Public Library studio. You can watch by clicking here.

Book excerpt: How John Henry overcame his doubts about buying The Boston Globe

John Henry

WGBH News contributor Dan Kennedy’s new book, “The Return of the Moguls: How Jeff Bezos and John Henry Are Remaking Newspapers for the Twenty-First Century,” examines whether a new generation of wealthy owners can help solve the financial crisis that threatens the beleaguered newspaper business. In this excerpt, Kennedy, an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University, tells the story of how Red Sox Principal Owner John Henry decided to buy The Boston Globe from the New York Times Co.

Please join us either in person or via Facebook Live Tuesday May 15 at 4:30 p.m., when Kennedy will be interviewed by Beat the Press Host Emily Rooney at the WGBH studio at the Boston Public Library.

***

Rumors that The Boston Globe might be for sale began circulating as far back as 2006, when a group headed by retired General Electric chief executive Jack Welch, who was a Boston-area native, and local advertising executive Jack Connors was reported to be nosing around. At the time, the Globe was said to be valued at somewhere between $550 million and $600 million, vastly more than the price John Henry paid seven years later. But the New York Times Co. wasn’t selling — at least not yet.

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

Could a newspaper rebellion against hedge-fund ownership spread to Massachusetts?

It looked like a one-off last month when The Denver Post rebelled against its hedge-fund owner. In publishing an editorial and several commentaries denouncing Alden Global Capital as “vulture capitalists,” the Post’s journalists took what was seen by most observers as a courageous but futile stand.

But now the rebellion is starting to spread. And there is hope, however slight, that Digital First Media — the newspaper chain controlled by Alden — can somehow be pushed into doing the right thing. As CNN media reporter Brian Stelter writes, there were protests scheduled for today in Denver and New York City, the latter to take place outside Alden’s headquarters.

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

It’s time to drive a stake through the heart of the White House Correspondents Dinner

Previously published at WGBH News.

You are forgiven if you thought this year’s White House Correspondents Dinner was a rerun. As with previous episodes, it featured a comedian whose entirely predictable raunchy fare came in for harsh, hypocritical denunciations; revulsion over the spectacle of media elites partying with politicians, lobbyists, and celebrities; and, of course, the ritual calls to end this benighted bacchanal once and for all.

“It never has been a particularly good idea for journalists to don their fanciest clothes and cozy up to the people they cover, alongside Hollywood celebrities who have ventured to wonky Washington to join the fun,” wrote Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan. “But in the current era, it’s become close to suicidal for the press’s credibility.”

My purpose here today is not to offer yet another critique of the comedian Michelle Wolf’s routine. For what it’s worth, I thought she was pretty good. Despite what you may have heard, she did not mock the physical appearance of White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Instead, she delivered an R-rated political monologue of the sort that should have surprised no one. “It’s like going to a Billy Joel concert and being shocked he played ‘Piano Man,’” Judd Apatow, a writer, director, and comedian, told The New York Times.

So why the fake outrage? It has a lot to do with what the event has become: a celebration of money and power so cut off from the lives of ordinary people that it has come define everything that we hate about Washington.

Earlier this week I rewatched “Nerd Prom: Inside Washington’s Wildest Week,” a 2015 documentary by the former Politico journalist Patrick Gavin. The film offers an exhaustive (and, at times, exhausting) look behind the scenes at how the dinner metastasized from the first modest gathering in 1921, attended by 50 people, to the bought-and-paid-for spectacle it has become: a five-day affair marked by some two dozen parties and, of course, the dinner itself, which now draws some 2,600 people. I have showed it to several of my classes, and they are invariably appalled by the wretched excess that’s on display.

Not to mention the rude manners. Gavin devotes part of the film to showing us Washington reporters and their guests talking over virtually everything that’s taking place on the podium: kids winning scholarships (a total of $100,000 is awarded each year, which is, as Gavin notes, a pittance compared to the opulence of the event itself), Ray Charles performing “Georgia on My Mind,” even a Marine color guard.

“Washington audiences liquored up want to talk to each other,” explains George Condon of National Journal. “They don’t want to listen to the entertainers.”

What is truly revolting, though, takes place away from the dinner. Because, as Gavin shows, the event has long since devolved into decadence. The real stars of the week aren’t the reporters, aren’t the politicians, aren’t even the celebrities. Rather, they are the corporations and lobbyists. “It’s about influence and playing the Washington game,” the publishing and advertising executive Kenny Day tells Gavin.

As Gavin acknowledges, even at the time that he was making his film there was a sense that the dinner had begun its slow slide to irrelevance. A signal moment in that decline, he says, was former NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw’s outspoken criticism in 2012. “If there’s ever an event that separates the press from the people that they’re supposed to serve, symbolically, it is that one,” Brokaw said. “It is time to rethink it.”

Of course, that slide has only accelerated under President Trump, who — unlike virtually all of his predecessors — has stayed away from the dinner. No doubt his absence added to the controversy over Michelle Wolf. Whereas previous comedians who got rough directed their barbs at the president (Don Imus with Bill Clinton, Stephen Colbert with George W. Bush), Wolf was stuck with picking on Sanders, Kellyanne Conway, and Ivanka Trump. As CNN media analyst Brian Stelter put it, “The president is usually the center of gravity at the dinner, and the comedian serves as the counter-balance. But with Trump absent, the dinner is off-balance.”

The result was an impossible situation for the press corps, which came off as sycophantic and nasty at the same time. “It takes some doing to emerge from one event painted as simultaneously partisan and toothless, elitist and crude, adversarial and complicit,” wrote New York Times television critic James Poniewozik. “But the dinner somehow pulls it off.”

The White House Correspondents Dinner and all that goes with it became an embarrassment years ago, and it’s only getting worse. So what is the solution? Get rid of it. Just get rid of it. Drive a wooden stake through its corrupt and malignant heart.

Enough.

Talk about this post on Facebook.

Trump’s revenge: How tariffs on Canadian paper are killing journalism

Illustration via Wikimedia Commons.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

It is the height of irony. President Trump, who detests the news media so much that he labeled them “the enemy of the American people,” has proved to be better for the journalism business than free scratch tickets tucked inside the “A” section. Thanks to the so-called Trump effect, newspapers and magazines have reported digital-subscription gains, cable news audiences have grown, and nonprofits such as NPR and ProPublica have gotten a boost.

But now Trump is getting his revenge. The U.S. Department of Commerce imposed tariffs on Canadian newsprint, as the grade of paper used in newspaper publishing is known, earlier this year, according to CNN.com. The tariffs have resulted in a 30 percent rise in the price of newsprint, which is the last thing the struggling business needs.

How bad is it? According to Tampa Bay Times chairman and chief executive Paul Tash, the tariff could increase the amount of money his paper spends on newsprint by $3 million for the year. As a result, the Times is eliminating about 50 jobs.

“These tariffs will hurt our readers, because they create pressure to raise our prices, and they will force publishers to re-examine every other expense,” Tash wrote, adding: “These tariffs will also hurt our employees, because payroll is the only expense that is bigger than newsprint.”

And in case you’re wondering, the Tampa Bay Times is not one of those corporate chain dailies controlled by a hedge fund. Rather, the Times is owned by the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit journalism education organization, and is one of our more highly regarded papers. Tash would not be cutting unless there were no alternative.

At one time the price of newsprint was a regularly recurring lament in the newspaper business. From the 1970s until about 2000, as papers expanded their coverage and classified-ad sections grew fat, the cost of paper exerted a drag on what otherwise would have been even higher profits. Newspaper owners responded by shrinking the size of their pages. The modern broadsheet is not very broad. I recently got a copy of the Mashpee Enterprise, one of a small group of old-fashioned community weeklies on Cape Cod. The width was enormous — nearly 14 inches — and it reminded me of what newspapers looked like when I was growing up. By contrast, The Boston Globe is 12 inches across, typical for the industry these days but tiny by historical standards.

Then, too, the price of newsprint wasn’t supposed to matter by 2018. Surely papers would have gone all-digital by now. As we know, it hasn’t happened. Although papers like the Globe, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and others have bet the future on digital subscriptions, they remain tied at the present to the revenues generated by their print editions. Print advertising, though plummeting, has maintained its value better than digital advertising, and it exists outside the death grip of Facebook and Google. Print subscribers still outnumber digital subscribers, too, and they pay a lot more — although obviously the cost of printing and distribution is higher too.

All of which created a situation that left the newspaper business vulnerable to the latest depredations of the Trump administration. According to the Columbia Journalism Review, the current situation originated with a complaint filed with the Commerce Department by the North Pacific Paper Company, known as Norpac, which is based in Washington State. Norpac claimed that Canadian newsprint manufacturers have an unfair advantage over their American counterparts. But though Norpac argued that the Canadians paper mills should be punished because they receive government subsidies, other American newsprint manufacturers disagree — and argue that Norpac is seeking short-term profits for the benefit of its (you guessed it) hedge-fund owner. The details were reported by Bloombergin late December.

Norpac’s single plant employs about 300 people, the CNN report says. Meanwhile, the News Media Alliance, which represents some 2,000 newspapers in North America, says that some 600,000 American workers are dependent on Canadian paper for their jobs at newspapers and in commercial printing. Norpac, according to an op-ed piece written by David Chavern, president and CEO of the alliance, “is not acting in the best interests of newsprint consumers or the U.S. paper industry at large — it is acting in its own interest and no one else’s.”

The alliance is hoping to persuade the Trump administration to reverse the tariff on Canadian newsprint. We’ll see what happens. On the one hand, the president has been flexible to the point of chaotic with his on-again, off-again approach to which tariffs he wants to impose and which countries he wants to punish. On the other hand, he may see the newsprint tariff as a two-fer: Not only does he get to make life more difficult for the newspapers he so loathes, but the move benefits his fellow wealthy plutocrats as well.

Talk about this post on Facebook.

The Denver Post is mad as hell and isn’t going to take it anymore. Will DFM care?

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

It was an unprecedented rebellion against the most notorious of the bottom-feeding newspaper chains. Over the weekend The Denver Post, gutted beyond recognition by Digital First Media, its hedge-fund-backed owner, published an editorial and a package of commentaries protesting endless rounds of cuts in the paper’s reporting staff. The editorial referred to the paper’s corporate overlords as “vulture capitalists” and said in part:

We call for action. Consider this editorial and this Sunday’s Perspective offerings a plea to Alden [Global Capital] — owner of Digital First Media, one of the largest newspaper chains in the country — to rethink its business strategy across all its newspaper holdings. Consider this also a signal to our community and civic leaders that they ought to demand better. Denver deserves a newspaper owner who supports its newsroom. If Alden isn’t willing to do good journalism here, it should sell The Post to owners who will.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem likely — at least not until Alden has squeezed every last penny out of the Post and the nationwide chain of newspapers it owns, ranging from The Mercury News of San Jose and the Orange County Register on the West Coast to, locally, the Boston Herald, The Sun of Lowell, and the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg.

As I’ve noted previously, Alden is controlled by an ultrawealthy financier named Randall Smith who, according to investigative reporting by Julie Reynolds in The Nation, plundered his newspapers in order to amass the $57 million he needed to purchase 16 mansions in Palm Beach, Florida. Digital First has also been accused of diverting hundreds of millions of dollars into investments managed by Alden, according to Reynolds.

The allegations against Digital First and Alden may be shocking, but they also underscore an important fact that casual observers often miss: there’s still plenty of money in newspapers, even though the business continues to shrink. Indeed, as the editorial in The Denver Post pointed out, Digital First was “solidly profitable” last year. Yet the Post’s newsroom has shrunk from more than 250 several years ago to fewer than 100 today — and will soon sink below 70.

Among those who contributed to the Post’s anti-Digital First package was Greg Moore, a former managing editor of The Boston Globe who worked as editor of the Post for 14 years, quitting two years ago rather than continuing to slash his reporting staff. “The Post cannot do its job starved of resources the way it is now,” Moore wrote. “Deep investigations can take months, running down news tips can take days, gathering and analyzing records can cost thousands of dollars, and getting the right photograph that tells a story better than words ever can takes patience. All of that is at stake with the relentless cutting taking place.”

Ironically (or perhaps not ironically), the Post on Friday published a preview of the baseball season in which it ran a six-column photo of Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia instead Denver’s own Coors Field. Now, yes, it’s the sort of mistake that any 12-year-old baseball fan should have caught. But it’s also the sort of mistake that a demoralized, skeletal staff seemed almost destined to make. (The Post blamed it on a “production error.”)

So what can be done? Moore offered several suggestions: forming a public-private partnership, creating a foundation, or somehow persuading Digital First to spend a little more on journalism and a little less on Randall Smith’s mansions and speculative investments. The most promising of Moore’s ideas, though, is to find another buyer. If Smith and his hatchetman at Alden — Heath Freeman, likened to the fictional Wall Street villain Gordon Gekko in a recent Bloomberg View column by Joe Nocera — can be persuaded to sell now rather than wait for the last profits to trickle in, then perhaps journalism in Denver can be saved.

Just recently the Los Angeles Times, laid low by the corporate depredations of a chain known (seriously) as tronc, with a lowercase “t,” was purchased by a billionaire surgeon named Patrick Soon-Shiong. It’s too early to know what Soon-Shiong’s intentions are, but, if nothing else, he could give the Times a chance to grow again. Billionaire ownership has also benefited The Washington Post, which claims to be turning a profit under Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, and The Boston Globe, which is holding steady under financier and Red Sox principal owner John Henry.

Digital First’s initial reaction to the Denver uprising was more hands-off than one might have imagined. According to Sydney Ember of The New York Times, the company decided to let the commentary remain online and to go ahead with plans to include it in the Post’s print edition. The editorial-page editor, Chuck Plunkett, who conceived of the package, will remain on board.

But it remains to be seen whether what happened last weekend was the start of something big — or a futile gesture, quickly forgotten and not to be repeated as Digital First’s newspapers continue their long, not-so-slow slide to oblivion.

Talk about this post on Facebook.

Misdiagnosing what’s wrong with The New York Times

Joe Pompeo has a new piece in Vanity Fair about all the unhappy people inside The New York Times. It’s deeply reported and interesting, but it also strikes me as a diversion from the main problem with the Times these days.

Pompeo’s thesis is that the Times is riven by factionalism that can largely (though not exclusively) be defined as younger “woke” staff members who would like to see the paper pursue a more explicitly liberal and anti-Trump path versus older, more traditional journalists who value balance and neutrality. The money quote is from Times manager editor Joe Kahn:

We do not see ourselves, and we do not wish to be seen, as partisan media. That means that the news and opinion divide, and things like social-media guidelines and some of our traditional restrictions on political activity by employees, may feel cumbersome to some people at this point in our evolution.

Pompeo did the reporting and I didn’t. So he may well be right about what people talk about inside the Times. Outside, though, the Times’ loyal and largely liberal readership is talking about other issues — such as the paper’s equally negative coverage of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign in the face of mountainous evidence that their transgressions were not remotely equal; the Times’ harsh but ultimately normalizing coverage of the Trump presidency (in contrast to The Washington Post, which has been relentless); and its weirdly gentle treatment of people on the far right, such as the notorious profile of the Nazi next door.

I wrote about these issues for WGBH News in January. I don’t think things have gotten better at the Times since then.

Talk about this post on Facebook.