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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Trump’s lies, tribal loyalties and the limits of journalism

Via CBS

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Yelling louder about President Trump’s multitudinous lies isn’t going to change anything. Yet that’s what Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan suggested last week when she wrote in frustration about the lack of public outrage over the 10,000 “false or misleading statements” Trump has made since his inauguration.

Sullivan argued that “to do their jobs, the news media can’t engage in business as usual,” and that they “have to bring some new tools and techniques — and maybe a new attitude — to the project.” Her suggestions were commonsensical: be more willing to label falsehoods as lies and stop using euphemisms, as The New York Times did on Twitter recently when it blandly described Trump’s ugly libel that doctors who are performing abortions are “executing babies” as “an inaccurate refrain.”

But the idea that a more aggressive attitude on the part of the press will persuade Trump supporters to embrace facts that they don’t already know is not just absurd — it misunderstands the role of the media and the limits of journalism.

Consider that, by a wide margin, the public already regards the president as dishonest. According to a Quinnipiac University poll conducted two months ago, 65 percent of those surveyed said that Trump was dishonest while just 30 percent said he was honest. In other words, the message that Trump lies is already being heard loud and clear.

Consider, too, the swamp of misinformation and disinformation that many of Trump’s supporters are mucking around in. A new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, for instance, found that “fewer than 30 percent of Americans who get their news via broadcast TV, CNN or MSNBC believe Trump has been honest about the Russia probe, compared with 61 percent of Fox News viewers.”

The reality is that the media we choose is based in large measure on our tribal identity, and that identity is far more powerful than mere facts.

Currently I’m reading a collection of essays by the late media theorist James W. Carey. Carey’s writing tends to be difficult and obscure, but some of his ideas are as relevant today as they were when he wrote them in the 1980s and ’90s. Especially useful to this discussion is his argument that media serve two functions: “transmission” and “ritual.”

The transmission function of media is to inform. In Carey’s view, it’s much more complicated than that — it’s tied up in notions of power and the ever-accelerating speed of media (from the town crier to the printing press, from the telegraph to the internet), which enables them to encompass ever more people and territory. But its essence is clear enough, and it’s what we generally mean when we think about the media.

By contrast, the media’s ritual function serves to reinforce a sense of community and identity. “If the archetypal case of communication under a transmission view is the extension of messages across geography for the purpose of control, the archetypal case under a ritual view is the sacred ceremony that draws persons together in fellowship and commonality,” Carey writes. Later, he adds, “ We recognize, as with religious rituals, that news changes little and yet is intrinsically satisfying; it performs few functions yet is habitually consumed. Newspapers do not operate as a source of effects or functions but as dramatically satisfying, which is not to say pleasing, presentations of what the world at root is.”

The problem, which Carey does not address because his work was published before the rise of partisan media, is that we are no longer reinforcing our shared sense of community with a mainstream newspaper and a daily visit with Walter Cronkite. Rather, we are hanging out with fellow tribe members in our own separate mediaspheres.

Seen in this light, calling more attention to presidential lying not only is ineffective but has the effect of confirming for Trump supporters that the mainstream press is not to be trusted and is fundamentally opposed to their interests and beliefs. At the same time, those mainstream outlets are themselves benefiting from tribal loyalties, as the anti-Trump majority rallies around newspapers like The Washington Post and The New York Times. Yes, those outlets have reported factually, for the most part, on Trump’s many flaws, lies, and misdeeds. But they have done so in much greater quantity than would have been strictly necessary to transmit that information to the public.

Margaret Sullivan closed her call for more innovative approaches to reporting on Trump’s lying with this: “None of this, of course, will solve the problem. It’s unlikely to reverse the avalanche or slow the ever-increasing pace. But it may help an overwhelmed and numbed public find renewed reason to care.”

No, it won’t. Most of us are well aware that he’s lying, and some love him all the more for it. The function of news is to inform, of course. But it’s also to express and reinforce our common values. Sadly, hyperpolarization means that there no longer is one set of common values, but, rather, two, three, or more.

“Everybody is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts,” the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said.

He was wrong.

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A downbeat media roundup: Buffett disappoints, startups falter and publications die

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Has there been a more disappointing newspaper owner than Warren Buffett? When Buffett bought 63 papers from the Media General chain in 2012 for $142 million, it looked like the billionaire investor might play a significant role in reinventing local journalism. A year earlier Buffett had bought his hometown paper, the Omaha World-Herald, along with six other papers for $200 million. He already owned The Buffalo News.

And Buffett liked newspapers — so much so that he even had a hand in winning a Pulitzer Prize: In 1973, when he was the owner of the Omaha Sun, he helped his reporters investigate a local charity by finding documents, providing financial analysis, and assisting with the writing, according to a 2014 account in The Wall Street Journal. He was also a trusted adviser to the Graham family back when they controlled The Washington Post and he was a shareholder. “By the spring of 1974,” Katharine Graham wrote in her memoir, “Personal Story,” “Warren was sending me a constant flow of helpful memos with advice, and occasionally alerting me to problems of which I was unaware.”

Yet Buffett has been talking down the newspaper business for years — and last week he was at it again. “They’re going to disappear,” he told Yahoo Finance editor-in-chief Andy Serwer, citing the ongoing decline of advertising. He did allow that three national papers, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal, might survive. But everyone else was “toast.”

Certainly they’re going to be toast with owners like Buffett. As I wrote in my book “The Return of the Moguls,” Buffett has allowed his managers to cut hundreds of jobs from his newspapers in recent years, even as his fellow multibillionaire Jeff Bezos has overseen growth and profits at the Post.

Perhaps it would be too much to expect someone in his 80s to dedicate himself to figuring out the future of the newspapers he had acquired. But Buffett was ideally positioned to bring in the sorts of minds who might apply themselves to the task of saving smaller papers. Surely Buffett understands as much as anyone that readers and advertisers will put up with an ever-diminishing paper for only so long before an irreversible downward spiral sets in.

Buffett is by no means the worst owner a newspaper could have — not with hedge funds and corporate chains slashing and burning their way through the mediascape. But anyone who hoped he would establish himself as an innovative force in recalibrating the economics of journalism has to be disappointed.

Two high-profile startups misfire

The meltdown of two high-profile digital startups raises questions about not just what went wrong, but whether there were any warning signs we should have paid more attention to.

The more disheartening of the two is The Correspondent, a Dutch website that recently concluded a successful fundraising campaign to launch what we all thought was going to be a U.S. edition. The project, funded through a membership model, is free of advertising and is based on the idea of journalists and readers engaging in an ongoing conversation. Among the early enthusiasts was Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University. And me: I wrote about the project two years ago, made a donation to the site last fall, and urged others to do the same.

Recently, though, we learned that there wasn’t going to be a separate U.S. edition after all. Instead, there would be an English-language edition, based in Amsterdam, and the New York office would be closed now that the fundraising campaign had concluded. The founders took to Twitter to explain that we had misunderstood them. Had we somehow gotten it wrong?

No, according to Zainab Shah, a former BuzzFeed journalist who was The Correspondent’s first U.S. hire. In a devastating piece last Friday by Laura Hazard Owen at Nieman Lab, Shah said she took the job after being told she would head up what would in fact be a U.S. edition headquartered in New York, and that she recently quit after the founders made clear that it wasn’t going to happen.

“They’re really good at the PR thing, and it really feels like gaslighting,” Shah said. “They were like, ‘Well, we never promised a U.S. newsroom.’ I was like: Wait, did I just imagine all this?”

I should note that the founders continue to defend themselves and that Shah’s experience is just one data point. Still, this is bad news for those of us who hoped that The Correspondent represented a new way of doing journalism — “optimized for trust,” to use Rosen’s phrase.

Also running off the rails last week was The Markup, intended as a source of data-driven journalism about the largest technology companies. Months before its scheduled launch, co-founder and editor-in-chief Julia Angwin, formerly of The Wall Street Journal, was fired by chief executive Sue Gardner, whom Angwin had helped recruit, and replaced by another co-founder, Jeff Larson. Five of the seven editorial employees quit in support of Angwin, and Craig Newmark, the Craigslist billionaire who provided much of the funding, is said to be involved in getting the project back on track.

What exactly went wrong is too convoluted to get into here. For that, I recommend Mathew Ingram’s detailed overview at the Columbia Journalism Review. (Although I salute Angwin if it proves true that her sins included refusing to take a Myers-Briggs personality test.)

The larger issue with both The Correspondent and The Markup is whether there are any lessons in these two very different situations. I wish I could say there was — but at least in the case of The Correspondent we could see trouble brewing from some distance. Last fall, for instance, the site was involved in a nasty public dispute with Sarah Kendzior, a contributor to the Dutch-language site. The facts remain murky, though it was clear that something was amiss.

And then, as I’ve noted, The Correspondent’s founders not only reneged on their promise to launch a U.S. edition in the United States, but they claimed they had never said any such thing. That was gently disputed by none other than Rosen himself at his blog, Press Think, back in March.

“Through 2017 and much of 2018 we shared a default assumption that The Correspondent would be based in New York,” he wrote. “I call it a ‘default’ because we never sat down to decide it, and there was no real cost study or strategic analysis behind it. Rather, we had opened a campaign office in New York (with borrowed office space) and it seemed like that would evolve into The Correspondent’s newsroom.”

My only takeaway is that startups can be problematic. I’ll be watching The Correspondent closely and hoping its English-language edition proves to be worthwhile — although it will be a long time before I make another donation.

As for The Markup, I can only trust that Newmark, having already stepped in, will do the right thing. I assume that means bringing back Angwin in some top role, even if Gardner is not completely wrong about her alleged shortcomings as a manager.

The end of the road

New England lost two venerable publications in recent weeks.

Last week The Improper Bostonian, a free glossy magazine covering lifestyles, entertainment, and the arts, announced that its current issue would be its last after 28 years. “It was ultimately a family decision, that was really the bottom line,” owner and publisher Wendy Semonian Eppich told Folio, which covers the magazine business. “It was heavily based on finances, but it goes bigger than finances and that is critical and that is the truth.”

Several weeks earlier The Portland Phoenix, the last of the Phoenix newspapers, was shut down by its current owner, according to the Bangor Daily News. The Phoenix traces its roots to the Boston After Dark, founded by the late Stephen Mindich in 1966. At one time the papers included editions in Boston, Providence, Worcester, and Portland. I was on staff at The Boston Phoenix for many years, and I wrote the cover story for the Portland paper’s debut in 1999 — a profile of Maine’s then-senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, both moderate Republican women.

The fortunes of free publications with free websites have diminished to the vanishing point as advertising revenues continue to crater. We’re lucky that we still have DigBoston, a for-profit alternative weekly allied with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.

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Why Sri Lanka’s shutdown of social media was met mainly with applause

Roman Catholic church in Sri Lanka. Photo (cc) 2010 by Ronald Saunders.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Eight years ago, Western observers were appalled when then-Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak cut off internet access in the midst of the Arab Spring uprisings. Back then, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media were seen as tools of liberation, empowering ordinary citizens to stand up against the forces of repression.

Alec Ross, a top aide to Hillary Clinton when she was secretary of state, went so far as to call the internet “the Che Guevara of the 21st century,” enthusing: “Dictatorships are now more vulnerable than they have ever been before, in part — but not entirely — because of the devolution of power from the nation state to the individual.”

What a long, ugly trip it has been since those hopeful days. How bad has it gotten? When the Sri Lankan government shut down Facebook and other social platforms following Sunday’s deadly terrorist attacks on churches and hotels, many people applauded, citing social media’s seemingly unlimited potential to spread dangerous rumors and incite more violence. Leading the charge was Kara Swisher, a longtime technology journalist who now writes a column for The New York Times.

“It pains me as a journalist, and someone who once believed that a worldwide communications medium would herald more tolerance, to admit this — to say that my first instinct was to turn it all off,” Swisher wrote. “But it has become clear to me with every incident that the greatest experiment in human interaction in the history of the world continues to fail in ever more dangerous ways.”

Ivan Sigal, the executive director of Global Voices, a project founded at Harvard Law School for the express purpose of giving a voice to citizen journalists across the world, took to Twitter to praise Sri Lanka’s action, as noted by CNN. “A few years ago we’d view the blocking of social media sites after an attack as outrageous censorship; now we think of it as essential duty of care, to protect ourselves from threat,” said Sigal. “#facebook your house is not in order.”

Needless to say, we’ve learned a lot since those heady days when we believed that social media would bring people together, leading to a utopian world community overflowing with peace, love, and understanding. The dark side has become ever more prevalent in recent years as Facebook and its ilk have fostered the rise of right-wing populism from the Philippines to Hungary, from the United Kingdom to the United States.

Sometimes it’s because bad actors have manipulated the platforms, as the Russians did during the 2016 U.S. election — or, more tragically, as the military in Myanmar did in whipping up genocidal violence against that country’s Muslim minority. Sometimes it’s because the platforms work exactly the way they’re supposed to. Facebook, with its 2.3 billion active monthly users, relies on algorithms that keep those users online and engaged — and the most effective way to do that is to serve up content that appeals to their sense of outrage and grievance.

In his book “Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy,” Siva Vaidhyanathan argues that the company’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, is naive and idealistic rather than deliberately destructive — but that makes him no less nefarious an actor. “Mark Zuckerberg is profoundly uneducated,” Vaidhyanathan writes. “He lacks an appreciation for nuance, complexity, contingency, or even difficulty. Zuckerberg has a vibrant moral passion. But he lacks a historical sense of the horrible things that humans are capable of doing to each other and the planet.”

As BuzzFeed News noted, not everyone applauded the Sri Lankan government’s social shutdown. Some pointed out that Facebook and other platforms are among the few means that ordinary people have to stay in touch with their friends and family members and to check on their safety. Others said that the privileged (not to mention the terrorists themselves) would not be affected, as they could simply use a VPN — that is, a virtual private network — to get around the censorship decree.

“Curbing civil liberties and civil rights doesn’t make people more safe,” Allie Funk of the nonprofit organization Freedom House told Wired. “These are societal issues that are going to take long-term solutions.”

Facebook itself said in a statement: “People rely on our services to communicate with their loved ones and we are committed to maintaining our services and to helping the community and the country during this tragic time.”

CNN’s daily media newsletter asked: “Have we really reached a moment where a government being able to shut down the world’s most important social media platforms is better than having the platforms up and running after a terrorist attack, misinformation and all?”

It would appear that the answer to that question is yes. Yes, it is better. Simply put, social media, and especially Facebook, have not just failed to live up to their promise — they’ve been a detriment across the world, undermining democracy, stirring up hatred, and costing lives.

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No reason for BuzzFeed to apologize for that explosive Michael Cohen story

I want to take a brief look at a very small wrinkle within the much larger story of the Mueller Report. A number of observers have taken note that the report disputes an article that BuzzFeed News published back in January claiming that former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen told prosecutors the president had “directed” him to lie before Congress about the Trump Organization’s attempts to build a tower in Moscow.

At the time, Mueller’s office took the unusual step of denying BuzzFeed’s story, and the release of the redacted Mueller Report on Thursday appeared to back that up. For instance, here is how NBC News puts it:

While Mueller acknowledged there was evidence that Trump knew Cohen had provided Congress with false testimony about the Russian business venture, “the evidence available to us does not establish that the President directed or aided Cohen’s false testimony.”

BuzzFeed News editor-in-chief Ben Smith addressed the matter Thursday night, acknowledging that the Mueller Report contradicts what his journalists had claimed. CNN media reporter Brian Stelter, in his daily newsletter, notes, “Smith stopped short of expressing any regret for the story.” But should he have? I don’t think so. Crucially, Smith also writes this:

On Feb. 27, Cohen testified before a congressional committee that Trump “told” him to lie to Congress “in his way,” using a coded style of speech that Cohen said was familiar from past interactions.

Indeed Cohen did. We all saw him do it. I took it at the time, and I still do, that BuzzFeed’s reporting was essentially correct. Cohen by his own testimony told Mueller’s office that President Trump had made it clear he wanted him to lie. BuzzFeed interviewed two unnamed prosecutors who passed that information along. If Mueller has now concluded that didn’t actually amount to Trump directing Cohen to lie, it doesn’t change what Cohen perceived or how BuzzFeed’s sources understood what Cohen was telling them.

BuzzFeed’s headline and lead used the word “directed,” which is totally accurate. Where BuzzFeed overstepped was in publishing this sentence farther down: “It is the first known example of Trump explicitly telling a subordinate to lie directly about his own dealings with Russia” [my emphasis].

My two takeaways from this episode are, first, that BuzzFeed comes out of this looking pretty good; and second, that every word matters, especially when reporting on a story this explosive. The phrase “explicitly telling” hangs out there as the sole problem in a story that otherwise advanced our understanding of the Trump-Russia connection in a fundamental way.

Earlier: “Making Sense of the BuzzFeed Bombshell — and What, If Anything, Went Wrong” (WGBH News, Jan. 23).

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Pulitzer notes: Why does Murdoch allow his Wall Street Journal to torment Trump?

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

During the past two months, major investigative articles in The New YorkerThe New York Times Magazine, and The Intercept have been published about Rupert Murdoch’s media empire and how it has fused with right-wing populist governments on three continents — including President Trump’s administration in the United States — in order to enhance his family’s power and wealth.

So it’s no small irony that, on Monday, the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting was awarded to Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal for exposing the hush money that Trump paid to Stephanie Clifford (better known as Stormy Daniels) and Karen McDougal. As the Pulitzer announcement put it, the award was “for uncovering President Trump’s secret payoffs to two women during his campaign who claimed to have had affairs with him, and the web of supporters who facilitated the transactions, triggering criminal inquiries and calls for impeachment.”

At least to this point, the Journal’s reporting has created more of a legal minefield for the president than has special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation — although that may change when the redacted version of the Mueller report is released later this week. Thus it’s worth pondering why Murdoch, who has transformed the Fox News Channel into a full-throated propaganda vehicle for Trump and his hateful utterances, has nevertheless maintained the Journal’s excellence during his decade-plus of ownership.

My guesses: The Journal gives Murdoch a cachet he otherwise wouldn’t have; and he knows that a high-brow newspaper has nowhere near the power to mold public opinion as does a top-rated cable network whose hosts endorse and amplify Trump’s fact-free rhetoric. The Journal’s reporting may create problems for Trump — but nothing that can’t be drowned out by the likes of Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson.

One other Trump-related note: The New York Times won the Explanatory Reporting award for its massive investigation into Trump’s false claims that he became wealthy as a result of his own efforts as well for reporting about his family’s reliance on a wide variety of tax-avoidance schemes.

***

Trump and Murdoch aside, you couldn’t look over the list of Pulitzer winners without feeling profound sadness. There was the Special Citation for the Capital Gazette of Annapolis, Maryland, whose journalists kept reporting after five of its employees were killed by a gunman last June. There was the Breaking News Reporting Award that went to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for its coverage of the Tree of Life synagogue massacre in October.

The South Florida Sun Sentinel won the most prestigious of the Pulitzers, for Public Service, “for exposing failings by school and law enforcement officials before and after the deadly shooting rampage at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.” The Washington Post was a finalist in that same category for its reporting on the killing of its columnist Jamal Khashoggi, apparently at the hands of the Saudi regime.

As Andrew McCormick of the Columbia Journalism Review wrote, Pulitzer administrator Dana Canedy also took note in her remarks of obituaries published by The Eagle Eye, the student newspaper at Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

“These budding journalists remind us of the media’s unwavering commitment to bearing witness, even in the most wrenching of circumstances,” Canedy said. And as McCormick observed, “It was, unfortunately, the theme of Canedy’s remarks and of the 103rd iteration of the prizes this year: the rising tide of violence in the country, which journalists have had to cover and of which they have become targets themselves.”

***

A few other Pulitzer notes:

• Boston Globe photographer Craig Walker, a two-time Pulitzer winner, was a finalist in Feature Photography for his work documenting the life of Connor Biscan, the subject of “Raising Connor,” a boy struggling with autism and other issues. The photos and accompanying story, by Liz Kowalczyk, were published in the Globe last May.

• The late Aretha Franklin was awarded a Special Citation “for her indelible contribution to American music and culture for more than five decades.” The prize was more than well-deserved, but it’s a shame that the Pulitzer board decided to wait until Franklin was no longer around to enjoy it. Quite simply, she was one of the greatest musicians of the past 75 years.

• I had already planned, with some trepidation, to take on David W. Blight’s monumental (912 pages) “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom.” So I was pleased to see that it won the Pulitzer for History.

• The full list of Pulitzers is deep and impressive, and I have left out more than I’ve included. Please take a look at the best in journalism and the arts in 2018.

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About that pissy column in (and out of) The Boston Globe

In case you missed it, “Beat the Press” last Friday took on The Boston Globe’s twice-edited, thrice-published, once-deleted column by freelancer Luke O’Neil in which he initially wrote, “One of the biggest regrets in my life is not pissing in Bill Kristol’s salmon.” Also, interim editorial-page editor Shirley Leung spoke with “Boston Public Radio” and O’Neil gave an interview to WGBH News.

To me, the puzzle is how this ever got published in the first place. If that obvious lapse could have been avoided, not only would the Globe have spared itself quite a bit of embarrassment, but O’Neil wouldn’t have been hung out to dry on social media. O’Neil doesn’t exactly seem contrite, so maybe he thinks this has all been good for the brand.

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