By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

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GBH News general manager Pam Johnston is leaving at the end of the month

Pam Johnston. Photo © 2021 by Dominic Gagliardo Chavez/GBH.

GBH News general manager Pam Johnston is leaving the station at the end of the month. A friend was filling me in even as Aidan Ryan was reporting on her departure for The Boston Globe. GBH News comprises the public media behemoth’s local programming across television, radio and digital. On the radio, GBH (89.7 FM) lags well behind WBUR (90.9 FM). Both stations emphasize NPR programming and local news; ’BUR is in the midst of buyouts and layoffs, and GBH may not be far behind.

Johnston’s announcement comes nearly four months after the Globe’s Mark Shanahan reported that GBH was in turmoil. Based on my own conversations with current and former station employees, I know that Johnston had both supporters and detractors among the staff. “With new leadership at GBH, there are new opportunities and new strategies for our newsroom,” Johnston said in an email to the staff that was obtained by Ryan. “I’m excited about what comes next. I will continue watching, listening, and cheering you on every step of the way.”

Ellen Clegg and I interviewed Johnston on the “What Works” podcast in March 2022. My standard disclosure: I was a paid contributor to GBH News from 1998 to 2022, mostly as a panelist on “Beat the Press with Emily Rooney,” the award-winning media program that was canceled under Johnston’s watch in 2021.

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How Anne Eisenmenger built a group of free, for-profit weekly newspapers

Anne Eisenmenger with two of her friends, Duff and Sunny. Photo by Pat Lester.

On the latest “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with Anne Eisenmenger, who is president of Beaver Dam Partners and publisher of several weekly newspapers in southeast Massachusetts, including Wareham Week and Sippican Week. Anne has a laser focus on developing and operating hyperlocal for-profit newspapers.

Anne lives in Wareham, and she founded her community news company there in 2010 with the launch of Wareham Week. And, yes, it’s an actual print newspaper, with a for-profit business model based on free distribution at high-traffic locations, and it’s packed with ads.

In our Quick Takes, I dive into one of the best newspaper stories in the country, which is right here in our backyard, or at least in the western sector of our backyard. It involves The Berkshire Eagle, a daily based in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, once regarded as one of the best small papers in the country. Then it fell into the hands of Alden Global Capital, so we all know what happened next. This story, though, has a happy ending, at least so far.

Ellen talked recently with Paul Hammel, a reporter doing a story on the loss of small-town newspapers across Nebraska. He focused on a couple who sold their paper, in a town of 1,000, but had to come back after retirement when the new owner quit in the middle of the night.

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

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Josh Stearns tells us about the Democracy Fund’s work in rebuilding local news

Josh Stearns

On the latest “What Works” podcast, I talk with Josh Stearns, the senior director of the Public Square Program at Democracy Fund.

The Democracy Fund is an independent foundation that works for something very basic and increasingly important: to ensure that our political system is able to withstand new challenges. Josh leads the foundation’s work in rebuilding local news. The Democracy Fund supports media leaders, defends press freedom, and holds social media platforms accountable. (Ellen Clegg was stuck in traffic somewhere on the Zakim Bridge in Boston for the duration of this show, but she’ll return for the next episode!)

In our Quick Takes, I poach on Ellen’s territory and reports on a development in Iowa, the Hawkeye State. When two local weekly newspapers near Iowa City recently got into trouble, their owner found an unusual buyer: The Daily Iowan, the independent nonprofit student newspaper. Now there are plans to supplement local coverage with contributions from student journalists.

It’s not something I’d like to see everywhere — after all, we want to make sure there are jobs for student journalists after they graduate. But at least in this case, it sounds like the Iowa solution is going to be good for the weekly papers, good for the students and good for the communities they serve.

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

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Yankee Quill winner Ellen Clegg on why innovation must be part of journalism’s future

Ellen Clegg

Ellen Clegg — a retired Boston Globe editor, the co-author of our book, the co-host and producer of our podcast, the co-chair of the nonprofit Brookline.News, and my friend — was one of five journalists who received the prestigious Yankee Quill Award this past Saturday. Read about all five here.

The Yankee Quill recognizes great journalists who have also contributed to the betterment of our profession. As the Academy of New England Journalists puts it, “Selection for the award is not based on any single achievement, or for doing your job each day, but rather on the broad influence for good over the course of a career.” Her prepared remarks follow.

Thank you for this honor. Thanks to friends and colleagues, and thank you to my family for your support over many years when I worked nights and weekends, or got a ping from a boss at 5 a.m.

The Yankee Quill award recognizes past achievements over the long arc of a career. It’s about history and tradition.

But today’s honorees are also about the future. We’re innovating and experimenting, using digital tools that, 25 years ago, we never imagined would exist. We’re connecting with communities and readers in novel ways — deploying multimedia and measuring and nurturing audiences. Storytelling is as old as the Bronze Age and as new as TikTok.

The business of fact-based reporting that holds power to account, faces existential challenges. You know them well: digital disruption, the collapse of print advertising, the rise of platforms built on algorithms of anger.

As Professor Penny Abernathy has written, these forces have resulted in news deserts across the country — entire counties where there is no newspaper left at all. Some 2,900 newspapers have closed down since 2005 — nearly one-third of the nation’s total. About 43,000 journalism jobs have disappeared.

And, for sure, we didn’t always help ourselves. Legacy newsrooms were sometimes slow to recognize the promise — and, frankly, some of the perils — of digital publication. We were slow to change our business models. We were slow to put up paywalls that enabled us to assign a fair value to the work of our journalists. We were slow to adapt to a more frenzied pace, slow to restructure traditional newsrooms so they were digital-first.

But these same challenges have also prompted a wave of innovation and experimentation like never before. Steven Waldman, the cofounder of Report for America, calls it a replanting of local news.

Dan Kennedy and I began reporting on this phenomenon in 2019, for a book called “What Works in Community News.” We profiled nine media startups, and interviewed scores of enterprising journalists who are in the process of reinventing our business. We found an emerging movement that is nothing short of inspiring. It’s also sometimes a hard journey, fraught with uncertainty.

This wave of innovation isn’t temporary. It’s part of our future. I’m proud to be here today with journalists who are sustaining local news and providing the essential information that is so necessary to participatory democracy.

Thank you.

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Reminder: Our conference on the future of local news is tomorrow

A final reminder about our conference on the future of local news — a free, all-day event that will be held tomorrow (March 15) at Northeastern University. We’ll have sessions on topics ranging from data visualization to university-community partnerships, as well as a book talk by Ellen Clegg and me. We hope you can attend. Registration and more information is online here.

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Startup news leaders tell journalism students how to get that first job

Maya McFadden of the New Haven Independent interviews Victor Joshua, founder of the youth basketball program Respect Hoops. Photo (cc) 2021 by Dan Kennedy.

I’ll be part of a panel tomorrow discussing job opportunities for new and recent journalism graduates. My role will be to talk about opportunities at the rising generation of local and regional news startups. I am not quite sure what to tell them, but more than anything I want them to know that they need to be resourceful.

About a dozen years ago, Thomas MacMillan told me how he got hired at the New Haven Independent, one of the original nonprofit digital-only local news sites. He was working at a non-journalism job and started doing some interning. He asked the editor, Paul Bass, how he could turn that into a staff job, and Bass’ unconventional answer was that MacMillan should write a grant to fund his position. MacMillan did it, got hired and, in my 2013 book, “The Wired City,” talked about the rewards.

“It’s really fun for me to feel like we’re on a rising star rather than a sinking ship,” MacMillan said. “There’s just something exciting about feeling like you’re working on the new paradigm, where you can experiment and try different things and people will occasionally take notice of what you’re doing.”

What I will tell students is that jobs at these startups are few and far between, but if you can land one, they come with great mentoring and, in some cases, surprisingly good pay. From my conversations with people, I’ve found that nonprofit boards and independent operators take their obligation to provide a living wage and benefits seriously. At the very least, journalists at these organizations are often making more than they would at a chain-owned newspaper.

Students can’t just expect jobs to open up, because that doesn’t happen all that often. Identify two, three or five that you’d like to work at. Get in touch and stay in touch. Cover some news for them — not for free, of course, but in most cases they’re not going to hire someone they don’t have a prior relationship with.

To prepare for the panel, I contacted an array of startup news folks to see what advice they would give to students. I present their lightly edited answers in full.

Emily Rooney talks about local TV news, ‘Beat the Press’ and holding the media to account

Emily Rooney. Photo via the Massachusetts Broadcasters Hall of Fame.

On our latest “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with Emily Rooney, the longtime host of “Beat the Press,” an award-winning program on WGBH-TV (Channel 2). I was a panelist on the show, a weekly roundtable that offered local and national media criticism. It had a 22-year run but was canceled in 2021. You can watch the 20th-anniversary episode here. The show, which is much missed by many former viewers, had a brief second life as a podcast.

Emily has got serious television news cred. She arrived at WGBH from the Fox Network in New York, where she oversaw political coverage, including the 1996 presidential primaries, national conventions, and presidential election. Before that, she was executive producer of ABC’s “World News Tonight” with Peter Jennings. She also worked at WCVB-TV in Boston for 15 years, from 1979–’93, as news director and as assistant news director — a time when WCVB was regularly hailed as the home of the best local newscast in the U.S.

“Beat the Press” may be no more, but there’s a revival of interest in responsible media criticism from inside the newsroom. Boston Globe columnist Kimberly Atkins Stohr recently wrote an op-ed calling for the restoration of a public editor position at The New York Times, The Boston Globe and other news outlets.

In our Quick Takes, I’ve got an update on one of our favorite topics — pink slime. Wired has a wild story out of rural Iowa involving a Linux server in Germany, a Polish website and a Chinese operation called “the Propaganda Department of the Party Committee of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.”

Ellen recounts a legal saga in Southeastern Minnesota involving the sale of a newspaper group and allegations of intellectual property theft. It’s all about a single used computer and its role in creating a media startup.”

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

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Please join us for an all-day conference at Northeastern on the future of local news

Ellen Clegg and I want to share with you some news about a great upcoming event — a free, all-day conference that’s open to the public and will be held at Northeastern University on Friday, March 15. It’s called “What Works: The Future of Local News.” You can register and find more information by clicking here. You can come for all or part of it, and the day will include a light breakfast, a boxed lunch and a reception at the end of the day. Full details are in the flier below. We would love to see you there!

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A local news activist lashes out at big funders: ‘Psst! Look under your seat!’

An actual news desert. Photo (cc) 2008 by Stefano Brivio.

As nonprofit news becomes an increasingly important part of community journalism, there’s a rift developing between large foundations and small publishers who say that they’re being left behind. Sophie Culpepper wrote about this recently for Nieman Lab, and a new organization called the Alliance of Nonprofit News Outlets has been founded to represent those overlooked media outlets.

The most recent development on this front is a scorching piece at Local News Blues by Alice Dreger, an author, historian and a founder and former publisher of East Lansing Info. Dreger takes note of the recent Knight Media Forum, whose organizers she describes as being more interested in developing software tools of dubious merit than in providing operating funds to hyperlocal publishers. She writes:

The KMF has always been a towel-slapping, country club locker room with waiters coming by to offer bacon-wrapped shrimp, but this year was particularly troubling. As local news publishers are desperately trying to keep from laying off staff and closing up shop, representatives of the Knight Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, and their joint Press Forward venture got up on stage to assure the world they’re going to save us.

“We are in it with you, and together we will crack the code of sustainability,” said Maribel Pérez Wadsworth, the president of the Knight Foundation. You know, the Knight Foundation — the behemoth sitting comfortably on a multi-billion-dollar endowment.

Psst, Maribel! Look under your seat!

She also quotes Nancy West of InDepthNH as saying that Knight seems more interested in artificial intelligence than in paying for news. West, a past guest on our podcast, “What Works,” promptly republished Dreger’s piece. That led to a response from John Palfrey, the president of the MacArthur Foundation, which is the lead foundation in Press Forward. “Thanks for the tag and the feedback,” he wrote on Twitter/X. “I know the team will bear these critiques in mind as grantmaking ramps up.”

The bottom line is that there isn’t enough national money for everyone. Dreger notes that Press Forward has decided to make a priority of funding projects that serve communities of color, which I think makes a lot of sense, even if that leaves other projects behind. Ultimately, nonprofit news outlets have to educate philanthropic organizations in their own backyards that quality journalism is as worthy of funding as youth programs and the arts. And yes, I realize that’s easier to do in some places than in others.

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Teri Morrow and Wayne Braverman track the future of The Bedford Citizen

Teri Morrow

On our latest podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with Teri Morrow and Wayne Braverman of The Bedford Citizen in the Boston suburb of Bedford, Massachusetts. Wayne is a longtime journalist who is now serving as the managing editor of the Citizen. Teri, the executive director, has lived in Bedford since 1996 and has been active in local government.

I wrote the chapter on this homegrown, grass-roots news site in “What Works in Community News.” In the book, I tell the story about how the free digital site grew out of what three members of the League of Women Voters — Julie McCay Turner, Meredith McCulloch and Kim Siebert — saw as a need to provide their community with reliable news. Julie stepped down as managing editor in 2022, and Meredith is still involved as a volunteer.

Wayne Braverman

I’ve got a Quick Take on an unlikely good news story. The media industry is in the midst of another painful downturn, with news organizations from The Washington Post to the Los Angeles Times to CNN cutting their newsrooms and with The Messenger, a high-profile national startup that never seemed to make sense, shutting down after less than a year. But there’s one news organization that’s hiring journalists and that says it’s succeeding at the very tough job of selling ads. You won’t believe who I’m talking about, so stay tuned.

Ellen talks about the robots that may come to steal our jobs — or at least help us compile real estate listings and police blotters. It’s all part of an initiative undertaken by that venerable journalistic organization The Associated Press.

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

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