Northeastern’s Myojung Chung and John Wihbey on attitudes about regulating social media

Myojung Chung

In the latest “What Works” podcast, Professors Myojung Chung and John Wihbey, colleagues from Northeastern University’s School of Journalism, share the findings from their new working paper, published by Northeastern’s Ethics Institute.

They and their colleagues examined attitudes about the regulation of social media in four countries: the U.K., Mexico, South Korea and the U.S. With Facebook (or Meta) under fire for its role in amplifying disinformation and hate speech, their research has implications for how the platforms might be regulated — and whether such regulations would be accepted by the public.

John Wihbey

In Quick Takes, Ellen Clegg and I kick around WBEZ Radio’s acquisition of the Chicago Sun-Times, which will result in the newspaper’s becoming a nonprofit organization. We also discuss an announcement that a new nonprofit news organization will be launched in Houston with $20 million in seed money. Plus a tiny Easter egg from country artist Roy Edwin Williams.

You can listen to our conversation here and subscribe through your favorite podcast app.

Jaida Grey Eagle on Sahan Journal, Report for America and telling the stories of Native American women

Jaida Grey Eagle. Photo via Indigenous Goddess Gang.

Our latest “What Works” podcast features Jaida Grey Eagle, a photojournalist working for Sahan Journal in Minneapolis through Report for America. She is Oglala Lakota and was born in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, and raised in Minneapolis.

Launched in 2019, Sahan Journal covers immigrants and communities of color in Minnesota. Report for America places young journalists at local news outlets across the country for two- and three-year stints.

Grey Eagle’s photography has been published in a wide range of publications and featured on a billboard on Hennepin Avenue in downtown Minneapolis. She is also a co-producer of “Sisters Rising,” a documentary film about six Native American women reclaiming person and tribal sovereignty in the face of sexual violence.

Ellen Clegg and I also offer our quick takes on paywalls and media companies that target well-heeled readers, and on Evan Smith’s announcement that he’s stepping down as chief executive officer of The Texas Tribune.

You can listen to our conversation here and subscribe through your favorite podcast app.

How local news can ease polarization: Our conversation with Joshua Darr

Joshua Darr

Joshua Darr, a professor at Louisiana State University, is right in the “What Works” sweet spot: His research delves into the divisive partisan rhetoric that infuses our national political debate and whether communities with a vibrant local news source experience less polarization.

In the latest “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with Darr about his research, as well as the Trusting News project report on how local and regional news organizations can do a better job of connecting with conservative audiences.

In addition, I offer a quick take on plans by Axios to expand local news sites into 25 cities in 2022, and Ellen looks at a promising network of nonprofit newsrooms planned across Ohio.

You can listen here or on your favorite podcast app.

Why Phil Balboni has turned his attention to local news

Phil Balboni. Photo (cc) 2016 by Sylvia Stagg-Giuliano.

Phil Balboni is a journalistic legend. His latest venture is DailyChatter, a nonpartisan newsletter that covers international news. The newsletter’s staff of experienced journalists based in Europe, Asia and the United States searches for “meaning and context in this immensely complex world.”

Before creating DailyChatter, Balboni was the founder, president and CEO of GlobalPost, the highly acclaimed international news site he launched in 2008. He was also the founder and president of New England Cable News, and was vice president of news and editorial director for WCVB-TV (Channel 5) in Boston. He has been awarded almost every major honor in broadcasting, including the Peabody, Murrow and Emmy.

In our latest “What Works” podcast, Balboni talks with Ellen Clegg and me about his passion for local news as well as his hopes for a newly created professorship at the Columbia School of Journalism that was endowed in his honor.

In Quick Takes, I analyze the danger to the First Amendment posed by a New York court judge who ordered The New York Times to stop publishing confidential documents it had obtained about the notorious right-wing organization Project Veritas.

Ellen weighs in with news from Texas, where a right-wing activist named Frank Lopez Jr. is flooding the zone with disinformation about immigration, taking advantage of the void created when the local newspaper shut down.

You can listen here or on your favorite podcast app.

The Bedford Citizen’s ad-rich annual guide gets a shoutout from Editor & Publisher

Over the past few years, revenues at The Bedford Citizen, a nonprofit community website in the Boston suburbs, have ramped up from zero to more than $100,000 a year. The Citizen has done it through voluntary memberships, sponsors, grants, the NewsMatch program and — perhaps most significant — an annual glossy publication called The Bedford Guide.

The Guide is a 64-page magazine that serves as an introduction to the town. It is loaded with ads, and from what I can tell, all of them are local, from life sciences giant Millipore Sigma, which has a facility in Bedford, to the Cat Doctor. According to the Citizen’s executive director, Teri Morrow, the 2022 Guide (the third) which came out in December, will produce about $40,000 in revenues.

Now Gene Kalb, a Citizen board member who’s the main force behind the Guide, has been recognized by the trade magazine Editor & Publisher as one of its “Sales Supernovas.” He told E&P’s Robin Blinder that flexibility is a key to the Guide’s success, explaining:

The pandemic hit us just as we started our second annual Bedford Guide. The initial strategy was to approach retail establishments in town. During 2020 with almost all restaurants and retail establishments closed, we shifted our focus to larger corporate industries in town. Our publication is all about supporting our community, and the corporate neighbors in town stepped up to help us. With the retail landscape improving this year, we had a nice combination of retail and corporate advertisers.

Such revenues have allowed the Citizen to grow from an all-volunteer project to a news organization with paid employees — a managing editor, a part-time reporter and a part-time operations manager — as well as freelance fees for contributors.

Founded in 2012, the Citizen continues to grow in other ways as well. According to Google Analytics, the site had more than a million page views in 2021. Those of us who follow such things know that’s a statistic of limited value, but here’s another that’s rock-solid: about 2,200 people have subscribed to the Citizen’s free daily newsletter in a town with fewer than 5,400 households, for a penetration rate of more than 40%. (Caveat: Email being what it is, no doubt there are a number of families with more than one subscription.)

The Citizen is one of the projects that Ellen Clegg and I are tracking for our “What Works” book project. It’s encouraging to see how people in the community have come together to create a vibrant and sustainable source of local news.

In our latest ‘What Works’ podcast, Damon Kiesow talks about human-centered design

Damon Kiesow

Our latest “What Works” podcast features Damon Kiesow, a professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, where he holds the Knight Chair in Digital Editing and Producing. But Ellen Clegg and I first met him about 10 years ago when he was at The Boston Globe, developing mobile products for Boston.com and BostonGlobe.com.

At the time, the new Globe.com site had been launched with a paywall, and featured the Globe’s journalism. Although print revenue is still significant, the paywall strategy seems to be paying off now in terms of digital subscriptions. Kiesow and others were working on emerging technologies in mobile and social media. Kiesow focused on human-centered design: how readers interact with a print newspaper versus a digital side. Does some 150 years of experience reading print make a difference? Why is doom scrolling on digital platforms so exhausting? Tune in and find out.

Plus Ellen takes a quick look at a powerful newspaper collaboration in South Carolina that is rooting out scandal after scandal, and I offer an update on the vibrant digital archive of the late, great Boston Phoenix, housed at Northeastern University and now freely available online.

You can listen here or on your favorite podcast app.

Our latest podcast features Rhema Bland, director of the Ida B. Wells Society

Rhema Bland

Our guest on the latest episode of the “What Works” podcast is Rhema Bland, the first permanent director of the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting at the University of North Carolina school of journalism. She was appointed in October 2020 after working in higher education as an adviser to student media programs. She is a veteran journalist who has reported and produced for CBS, the Florida Times-Union, WJCT and the New York Daily News.

The Wells Society was co-founded by award-winning journalists Nikole Hannah-Jones, Ron Nixon and Topher Sanders. The society is named after the path-breaking Black journalist and activist Ida B. Wells, who fearlessly covered the lynching of Black men and was present at the creation of the NAACP. The society’s mission is essential to the industry: to “increase the ranks, retention and profile of reporters and editors of color in the field of investigative reporting.” Bland and her colleagues host training seminars for journalists across the country, focusing on everything from entrepreneurship to racial inequality to COVID-19.

Also in this episode, Ellen Clegg talks about Ogden Newspapers’ purchase of Swift Communications, which publishes community papers in western ski towns as well as niche agricultural titles like the Goat Journal. And I share news about federal antitrust lawsuits that are in the works against Google and Facebook by more than 200 newspapers.

You can listen here and sign up via Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever fine podcasts are found.

With Alden on the prowl again, it’s time to stop hedge funds from destroying newspapers

Photo (cc) 2007 by Mike

Previously published at GBH News. It’s rather late in the game to ask whether hedge funds can be stopped from buying up every last one of our local newspapers. After all, about half of us are already stuck with a paper that is owned by, or is in debt to, the likes of Alden Global Capital (Tribune Publishing and MediaNews Group), Apollo Global Management (Gannett) and Chatham Asset Management (McClatchy).

Still, with Alden having now set its sights on Lee Enterprises, a chain that owns 77 daily newspapers in 26 states, we need to take steps aimed at preventing what is already a debacle from devolving into a catastrophe.

So what can be done? Steven Waldman, the co-founder of Report for America, which places young journalists in newsrooms, has some ideas. At the top of his list: redefining antitrust law.

“In general, antitrust law for the past three or four decades has focused on whether mergers would hurt consumers by raising prices or reducing competition,” Waldman wrote recently for the Washington Monthly. “But before that, antitrust regulators looked at mergers more broadly, including whether they would hurt communities. And that’s what needs to happen here.”

Waldman would also provide tax incentives for nonprofit organizations seeking to buy newspapers as well as tax credits to make it easier for news organizations to hire or retain journalists. That latter provision is part of the Build Back Better legislation, whose uncertain fate rests in the hands of Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema.

“This will strengthen local news organizations of all shapes and sizes, making them less vulnerable to vultures,” Waldman argued. “The legislation could be a powerful antidote to the sickness spreading within local communities.” Trouble is, the tax credits would benefit the Aldens and the Gannetts just as much as they would the independently owned news organizations that are struggling for survival. Still, it seems like a step worth trying.

The problem with hedge funds owning newspapers is that such funds exist solely for the purpose of enriching their investors. Newspapers, of course, aren’t exactly lucrative. But they still have advertising and circulation revenues, even if they are much smaller than they were, say, 20 or 30 years ago. Cut expenses to the bone by laying off reporters and selling real estate, and you can squeeze out profits for the enrichment of the owners.

Alden is notorious for being the most avaricious of the bunch. Which is why shock waves ripped throughout the journalistic community last week when Rick Edmonds of the Poynter Institute reported that Alden — just months after feasting on Tribune’s nine major-market dailies — was making a bid for Lee, whose papers include the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, The Buffalo News and the Arizona Daily Star. (Julie Reynolds, an investigative reporter who has been dogging Alden for years, recently spoke about the hedge fund with Ellen Clegg and me as part of our podcast, “What Works: The Future of Local News,” at Northeastern University.)

Lee’s papers also include the Omaha World-Herald, and therein lies a sad story. The World-Herald was at one time the flagship of hometown boy Warren Buffett’s newspaper chain, which he began assembling in 2012. But despite Buffett’s self-proclaimed love for newspapers, he failed to invest in their future, cutting them repeatedly and eventually selling out to Lee. Now they face the possibility of a much worse fate.

Or not. Several days after Alden offered to buy Lee in a deal valued at $141 million, the Lee board of directors adopted a poison pill provison. As reported by Benjamin Mullin in The Wall Street Journal, Alden — which currently holds about 6% of Lee stock — would be forbidden for the next year from increasing its share above 10%. If nothing else, the move provides some time for other buyers to emerge. Perhaps the chain will be broken up, with some of Lee’s papers being acquired by local owners.

As Waldman suggests, there is nothing inevitable about local news being destroyed at the hands of venture capital. About two and a half years ago, I wrote about The Salt Lake Tribune, acquired from Alden by local interests and converted into a nonprofit news organization. Now, according to Lauren Gustus, the Tribune’s executive editor, the paper is adding staff and resources. “We celebrate 150 years this year and we are healthy,” she wrote in a message to readers recently. “We are sustainable in 2021, and we have no plans to return to a previously precarious position.”

Alden’s acquisition of Tribune Publishing (not The Salt Lake Tribune; I realize there are a lot of Tribunes to keep track of here) was an avoidable tragedy, made possible by a board that placed greed above the public interest. Since closing the deal, the hedge fund has been hacking away at Tribune newspapers that were already much diminished, including the Chicago Tribune, New York’s Daily News and the Hartford Courant.

Yet some good may come out of it, too: Stewart Bainum, a hotel magnate who had competed with Alden for Tribune, is starting a well-funded nonprofit news site, The Baltimore Banner, that will compete with Tribune’s Baltimore Sun. Maybe that will lead to similar efforts in other Tribune cities.

Meanwhile, Lee Enterprises’ newspapers are safe, at least for now. What will happen a year from now is anybody’s guess. But as long as the vulture can be kept outside the cave, there is hope for the millions of readers who depend on a Lee newspaper to stay informed about what’s happening in their community.

Democratic leaders roll the dice with assistance for local news organizations

Sen. Joe Manchin. Photo (cc) 2017 by Third Way Think Tank.

The Local Journalism Sustainability Act (LJSA), which I’ve written about rather obsessively here, is built upon the foundation of a three-legged stool: a tax write-off for individuals of up to $250 for subscription fees or donations to local news organizations; a tax credit for advertisers in local news outlets; and a payroll tax credit for publishers that hire or retain journalists.

Now the payroll credit has been carved out and added to the Build Back Better bill, which has passed the House and now faces uncertain prospects in the Senate. Marc Tracy reports in The New York Times that the provision would add up to nearly $1.7 billion over the next five years for newspapers, digital operations and broadcast operations.

Tracy notes — rather huffily, if I’m reading him accurately — that large newspapers like the Times would be excluded because they employ more than 1,500 in one location, but giant newspaper chains such as Gannett and those owned by Alden Global Capital would stand to benefit. As I’ve said before, I wish there were a way of restricting the benefits to independent owners; still, this strikes me as worth trying.

What I’m more concerned about is the political wisdom of adding just one part of the LJSA to Build Back Better, which — despite the optimism voiced by President Biden and other Democratic leaders — could be doomed given the seemingly endless demands made by Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema.

There is at least some bipartisan support for the LJSA. Moreover, the tax write-off for subscriptions and donations strikes me as more interesting and creative than simply handing money to publishers for not laying people off. If Build Back Better passes, it will be with just 50 Democratic votes and Vice President Harris breaking the tie — and at that point it seems likely that the other two legs of the stool would disappear. If Build Back Better goes down to defeat, proponents of the LJSA will have to start from scratch.

Even so, the benefits that would be provided by the payroll tax credit are not insignificant. Art Cullen, editor of Iowa’s Storm Lake Times, tells The New York Times that the credit would mean $200,000 in just the first year for his struggling newspaper. “We’d be walking in tall cotton,” he’s quoted as saying. (Ellen Clegg and I spoke with Cullen recently on our podcast, What Works: The Future of Local News.)

Providing government assistance to journalism is fraught with concerns about the First Amendment and the need for an independent press. Yet journalism has always benefited from government help, starting with postal subsidies in the late 1700s. The LJSA is worth trying. I just hope that Democratic leaders haven’t outsmarted themselves by splitting up a bill that stood a decent chance of passing and grafting it onto a large package that they just can’t seem to get done.

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In our latest podcast, Penny Abernathy talks about news deserts and what to do about them

Penelope Muse Abernathy

Penelope “Penny” Muse Abernathy, a visiting professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, arguably launched a movement with her path-breaking research on “news deserts” and the forces undermining community newspapers across the nation.

Abernathy, a former executive with The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, was also Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics at the University of North Carolina from 2008 to 2020. She talks about why this is a pivotal moment for community journalism, about her forthcoming research and about why her journalism students are still bullish on speaking truth to power at the local level.

In Quick Takes, Dan reports that the nonprofit strategy at The Salt Lake City Tribune is actually working out, and Ellen tunes us in to Heartland Signal, a new digital outlet with a Democratic spin that is setting up to cover the midterm congressional elections.

Please give us a listen — and subscribe via Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever fine podcasts are available.