Margaret Low of WBUR tells us how public radio fits into Boston’s regional news environment

Margaret Low

On this week’s “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with Margaret Low, the CEO of WBUR, one of Boston’s two major news-oriented public radio stations. Margaret started as CEO in January 2020. She has had a 40-plus-year career with NPR, and started as an overnight production assistant at “Morning Edition.”

At NPR, Low rose through the ranks and ended up in the top editorial job, where she oversaw 400 journalists worldwide, covering events like the Arab Spring, the re-election of Barack Obama, and the Boston Marathon bombing. She also led a digital transformation of her newsroom. She turned “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!,” the Saturday morning quiz show, into a live production. She came to WBUR from The Atlantic, where she was president of AtlanticLIVE and produced more than 100 live events a year.

Ellen has a Quick Take on the launch of Signal Cleveland. It’s well-funded, with $7.5 million to start with, and Rick Edmonds of Poynter Online writes that the news outlet has big goals: It wants to expand throughout Ohio within a few years.

My Quick Take is on a case in New Hampshire that is of interest to those of us who ascribe to the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. We’d like to think that if the First Amendment means anything, it means that you may not be punished criminally for criticizing the government. But that’s not what the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit decided recently. InDepthNH has a story here. The case, which has been ongoing for a number of years, garnered a New England Muzzle Award in 2019.

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Three insights into Elon Musk’s brief, narcissism-fueled reign over Twitter

Photo (cc) 2013 by Scott Beale / Laughing Squid

When we learned last spring that Elon Musk might buy Twitter and transform it into some sort of troll- and bot-infested right-wing hellhole, my first thought was: Bring it on. Although I’m a heavy user, I had no great affection for the service, which was already something of a mess. If Musk ran it into a ditch, well, what of it?

On second thought, I realized I would miss it — and so would a lot of other people. In particular, Twitter has become an important service in calling out injustice around the world as well as a forum that gives Black users a voice they might not have anywhere else. My friend Callie Crossley was talking about Black Twitter on the late, lamented “Beat the Press with Emily Rooney” ages ago. Black Twitter could go elsewhere, of course, but it would be hard to recreate on the same scale that it exists now.

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For now, I’m staying, but I’m also playing around. Mastodon meets a lot of my needs (I’m @dankennedy_nu@journa.host), mainly because a lot of media and political people I want to follow immediately made the move. But, so far, I see none of the non-Trump conservatives whose presence I value and very few Black users. That may be my fault, and it may change. I’m also skeptical of Mastodon’s extreme decentralization, with each server (called an instance) having its own rules of engagement. I’m also on Post News at @dankennedy_nu, but I really don’t like the micropayment scheme on which it’s staked its future, explained at Nieman Lab by Laura Hazard Owen.

Twitter really does matter. It may be the smallest of the social platforms, but it’s a place where people in media and politics have to be. I’m not sure it can be replicated. So much has been written and said about Twitter over the past few weeks, and no one could possible keep up with it all. Here, though, are three pieces that I think cut through the murk as well as any.

The first is from Dr. Meredith Clark, my colleague at Northeastern’s School of Journalism. Professor Clark is a leading authority on Black Twitter and the author of the forthcoming book “We Tried to Tell Y’all: Black Twitter and the Rise of Digital Counternarratives.” Meredith says she’s staying. In a recent interview with Michel Martin of NPR, she explained why:

We’re digging in our heels. We’ve been on this platform. We’ve contributed so much to it that we’ve made it valuable in the way that it is today. We’ve made it an asset, and so no, we’re not going anywhere. And then I see other people, honestly, who have more privilege, a number of academics who are saying, nope, we’re going somewhere else. We’re leaving for other platforms.

But I do really think that there are limits to those relationships because there aren’t many platforms that allow many speakers to talk to one another all at the same time in the same place. My use hasn’t changed all that much. I don’t plan to be one of those people who migrate. I just tweeted the other day that I’ll be the last one to turn the lights off if that’s what I need to be, because I’m certainly not going either.

By the way, Meredith was a guest earlier this year on “What Works: The Future of Local News,” a podcast hosted by Ellen Clegg and me. You can listen to our conversation here.

Taking the opposite approach is Jelani Cobb, dean of the Columbia Journalism School, who has suspended his Twitter account in favor of Mastodon — a step that he admits has cut him out of numerous conversations, but that he believed was necessary in order not to be a part of Musk’s transformation of Twitter into a reflection of his own obsessions and ego. Like Clark, Dr. Cobb is Black; unlike Clark, his reasoning makes no mention of Black Twitter per se, although he does note its value in bringing to light racial injustices. “Were it not for social media,” Cobb writes in The New Yorker, “George Floyd — along with Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor — would likely have joined the long gallery of invisible dead Black people, citizens whose bureaucratized deaths were hidden and ignored.” But that, he emphasizes, was then:

Participating in Twitter — with its world-spanning reach, its potential to radically democratize our discourse along with its virtue mobs and trolls — always required a cost-benefit analysis. That analysis began to change, at least for me, immediately after Musk took over. His reinstatement of Donald Trump’s account made remaining completely untenable. Following an absurd Twitter poll about whether Trump should be allowed to return, Musk reinstated the former President. The implication was clear: if promoting the January 6, 2021, insurrection — which left at least seven people dead and more than a hundred police officers injured — doesn’t warrant suspension to Musk, then nothing else on the platform likely could.

My own view of Trump’s reinstatement is rather complicated. On the one hand, I don’t think it’s easy to justify banning a major presidential candidate, which Trump now surely is. On the other hand, he was banned for fomenting violence — and now that he’s been given another chance, he’s likely to do it again, which means he’ll have to be banned all over again. Except that he won’t be with Musk in charge. (So far, at least, Trump hasn’t tweeted since his reinstatement.) In any case, I respect Cobb’s decision, even if I’m still not quite there.

I’ll close with Josh Marshall, editor of the liberal website Talking Points Memo. Like me, Marshall is dipping his toe into Mastodon’s waters while maintaining his presence on Twitter. And, like me, he’s trying to figure out exactly what Musk is up to. The other day he offered a theory that doesn’t explain all of it, but may explain some of it — especially the part that plays into Musk’s emotions and sense of grievance, which may prove to be the most important in understanding what’s going on.

Marshall sees Musk as traveling a path previously taken by Donald Trump. Like Trump, Musk is a narcissist who can’t imagine a world that doesn’t revolve around his every need and want. Also like Trump in, say 2015, Musk was until recently someone with vague right-wing proclivities who has hardened his views and openly embraced white supremacy and antisemitism because we liberals hurt his feelings. Trump and Musk have both taken up with horrible people because they were offering support and friendship when no one else would. With Trump, it’s Nick Fuentes and Kanye West. With Musk, it’s, well, Trump and his sycophants. Marshall writes:

I doubt very much that in mid-2015 Trump had any real familiarity with the arcana of racist and radical right groups, their keywords or ideological touch-points. But they knew he was one of them, perhaps even more than he did. They pledged their undying devotion and his narcissism did the rest.

Elon Musk is on the same path. There are various theories purporting to explain Musk’s hard right turn: a childhood in apartheid South Africa, his connection with Peter Thiel, disappointments in his personal life. Whatever the truth of the matter, whatever right-leaning tendencies he may have had before a couple years ago appear to have been latent or unformed. Now the transformation is almost complete. He’s done with general “free speech” grievance and springing for alternative viewpoints. He’s routinely pushing all the far right storylines from woke groomers to Great Replacement.

If anything good can come of this it may be that we hit peak social media a few years ago. Facebook is shrinking, especially among anyone younger than 60. TikTok is huge, but as a number of observers have pointed out, it isn’t really a social platform — it’s a broadcaster with little in the way of user interaction. Now Twitter is splitting apart.

This may be temporary. Maybe Mark Zuckerberg or (most likely) someone else will be able to reassemble social media around the metaverse. For now, though, social media may be broken in a way we couldn’t have imagined in, say, 2020. Perhaps that’s not such a bad thing — although I wouldn’t mind if someone put Twitter back together again, only this time minus the trolls, the bots and the personal abuse that defined the site long before Musk came along.

Black by God: How Crystal Good is providing a voice to Black West Virginians

Crystal Good (via LinkedIn)

On our latest podcast “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with Crystal Good, the founder of Black by God, the West Virginian. She’s a sixth-generation West Virginian, and she’s a storyteller and poet. She has also been a model and an advocate. She describes Black by God as an “emerging news and storytelling organization centering Black voices from the Mountain State.” She wants to provide a more nuanced portrayal of Black residents in the Appalachian region.

Northeastern graduate student Dakotah Kennedy (no relation) and I first heard Good speak in September at the Radically Rural conference in Keene, New Hampshire — not from the stage but from the audience. We wished she had been onstage, so we invited her onto the podcast, and she graciously agreed. Black by God has a lively website and publishes periodic print editions — which Crystal sometimes delivers herself.

I’ve got a Quick Take on social media. It’s in free fall. Is that good for local news? Bad? Or does it just mean a changed environment that they’re all going to have to navigate? Ellen’s Quick Take is on a hyperlocal mogul named Mark Adams. He’s expanding his empire into Montana.

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

Mary Margaret White of Mississippi Today talks with us about journalism and southern culture

Mary Margaret White

On this week’s “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with Mary Margaret White, the CEO of Mississippi Today, a nonprofit digital news outlet that has been covering the state for more than six years. The staff has a robust presence at the statehouse in Jackson and provides cultural and sports coverage as well.

Mary Margaret is a Mississippi native. She has a bachelor’s in English and journalism and a master’s in Southern studies from the University of Mississippi. She also spent almost 10 years working for the state, with jobs in arts and tourism. Her work has appeared in The Listening Post CollectiveThe New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture and on Mississippi Public Broadcasting radio.

I’ve got a Quick Take on a major transition at the New Haven Independent. Last week the indefatigable founder, Paul Bass, announced he was stepping aside as editor of the Independent. The new editor will be Tom Breen, currently the managing editor. Luckily, Bass isn’t going anywhere but will continue to play a major role.

Ellen’s Quick Take is on another big transition at The Texas Tribune. Economist Sonal Shah is becoming CEO at the Tribune in January. Shah, who has had leadership roles at Google, the White House, and other high-impact organizations, replaces co-founder Evan Smith, who is taking a role as senior adviser to the Emerson Collective. It’s a big change at a pioneering nonprofit newsroom. Smith says he’ll continue to spread the local news gospel in his new role.

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

Nancy West talks about her entrepreneurial journey and the state of journalism in N.H.

Nancy West of InDepthNH

On this week’s “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with Nancy West, executive editor of InDepthNH.org. 

Nancy was an investigative reporter during her 30-year career at the New Hampshire Union Leader. Nancy founded the nonprofit New Hampshire Center for Public Interest Journalism in 2015, and has taught investigative reporting at a summer program for students at the New England Center for Investigative Reporting.

Ellen has a Quick Take on a recent article by Dan Froomkin in Washington Monthly. Froomkin, who is now editor of Press Watch, used to work for The Washington Post and has been critical of owner Jeff Bezos. Froomkin is taking aim at the content management system developed by the Post under Bezos. The Post licenses this system to other news outlets around the country. That kind of market power worries Froomkin.

My Quick Take is on the state of journalism in Vermont, a subject we talked about on a recent podcast with Anne Galloway, the founding editor of VTDigger, a well-regarded digital startup. Dan’s topic is about a good piece of media criticism. Bill Schubart, a journalist who writes a column for VTDigger, wrote a column critiquing a recent New Yorker piece by Bill McKibben on Vermont journalism. But Schubart also looked inward and wrote that Digger itself is having problems.

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Seismic change comes to the New Haven Independent as Tom Breen moves up

Tom Breen. Photo (cc) 2021 by Dan Kennedy.

There is huge news today in the world of independent community journalism. Paul Bass, the founder of the New Haven Independent, is stepping aside as editor while Tom Breen, currently the managing editor, moves up to the top position. Bass has been talking about making this change for a while, and on Tuesday he made it official.

Bass, 62, isn’t going anywhere. He’ll continue as executive director of the Online Journalism Project, the nonprofit organization he set up to oversee the Independent, the Valley Independent Sentinel in New Haven’s northwest suburbs, and WNHH Radio, a low-power FM station that specializes in community programming. He’ll also continue to report the news for the Independent and host a show on WNHH.

Paul Bass. Photo (cc) 2021 by Maaisha Osman.

Breen, 34, joined the staff of the Independent as a reporter in 2018 and later became managing editor. Breen is a dogged journalist; last November, I accompanied him as he knocked on the doors of houses that had been foreclosed on, a regular practice of his that has yielded important stories.

The Independent is one of the oldest and still among the best nonprofit local news startups in the country. It was the primary subject of my 2013 book, “The Wired City,” and it will also be featured in “What Works: The Future of Local News,” a book-in-progress by Ellen Clegg and me.

Congratulations to Paul and Tom. This is a big change for a news organization that has been remarkably stable over the course of its 17-year existence.

Are newspaper endorsements obsolete? Ellen and I kick it around with Jeff Jacoby

Jeff Jacoby

On this week’s “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with Jeff Jacoby, longtime columnist for The Boston Globe opinion pages. Jeff also writes the weekly “Arguable” newsletter.

Jeff holds degrees from George Washington University and from Boston University Law School, and before entering journalism, he briefly practiced law. He was also an assistant to John Silber, the prickly president of Boston University.

Prompted by a column Jeff wrote in June, and spurred on by the impending midterm elections, the podcast features a free-form discussion of whether newspaper editorial pages should endorse candidates in presidential races. It’s a hot topic these days — this piece by Joshua Benton in Nieman Lab is one of just several to observe that endorsements are on the wane.

I’ve got a Quick Take on a big story out of Woburn. That city has an independent newspaper and is covered by the Globe and other outlets. But this story wasn’t broken by any of the usual suspects. Ellen’s Quick Take is on an opinion column in The Washington Post by Perry Bacon Jr., who calls for $10 billion in government funding to support a news outlet in every congressional district in the country. As you’ll hear, we both have some problems with Bacon’s proposal.

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

Rep. Cicilline on why he favors extracting revenues for news from Google and Facebook

Congressman David Cicilline. Photo (cc) 2018 by the Brookings Institution.

On the latest “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with U.S. Rep. David Cicilline, who represents the First District of Rhode Island in Congress. Cicilline, who is a Democrat, is part of a bipartisan group of U.S. representatives and senators sponsoring the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act. Co-sponsors include Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar from Minnesota; Republican Sen. John Kennedy from Louisiana; Republican Rep. Ken Buck from Colorado; and Senate and House Judiciary Committee chairs Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, and Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat.

The JCPA would remove legal obstacles to news organizations’ ability to negotiate collectively and secure fair terms from gatekeeper platforms that proponents say use news content without paying for it. Critics counter that it’s more complicated than that. The legislation also allows news publishers to demand arbitration if they reach an impasse in those negotiations.

Ellen has a Quick Take on new research being done by the Institute for Nonprofit News. The INN just released 2022 fact sheets on three types of nonprofit newsrooms: local news, state and regional news, and national and global news. While each group shares some similarities, INN found that geography matters in terms of revenue models and audience development.

I take a few more whacks at Gannett because newsrooms are being hit with unpaid furloughs, buyouts, a freeze on their pension benefits and more.

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

The government is not going to spend billions on local news. Nor should it.

Photo (cc) 2008 by Tyler

Washington Post columnist Perry Bacon Jr. offered a provocative idea today: a $10 billion fund to pay for non-paywalled, nonprofit local news in each of the country’s 435 congressional districts. The money, he wrote, would provide salaries for 87,000 journalists at 1,300 news organizations.

“Such a massive investment in local news isn’t going to happen next week and probably not next year, either,” he wrote. “But it is also not a pipe dream.” Well, in fact, it is a pipe dream. There is little or no chance of anything like this happening, and it probably shouldn’t.

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At a time when Congress can’t seem to pass supposedly bipartisan proposals to let the news industry negotiate with Facebook and Google for a share of their advertising revenues (the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act) or to provide tax credits to subscribers, advertiser and publishers (the Local Journalism Sustainability Act), the idea that the government is going to cough up $10 billion to support local news is absurd.

Fortunately, there is an alternative to Bacon’s top-down approach. Across the country, hundreds of local and regional news startups — nonprofits, for-profits and volunteer efforts — are going about the hard work of covering their communities. We’ve seen a plethora of them debut in Eastern Massachusetts just this year since Gannett began regionalizing and closing its weekly newspapers. And a brand-new one, The Concord Bridge, is slated to launch later this week.

The grassroots, one-community-at-a-time approach to solving the local news crisis is not perfect. It can be purely a matter of luck that one town gets good coverage and another doesn’t. It’s also easier to start such projects in the affluent suburbs than it is in more diverse areas. But the movement is growing, so perhaps the best thing we can do is let it develop.

As you probably know, Ellen Clegg and I are writing a book about a few of these projects that will be called “What Works: The Future of Local News.” Last year we wrote what might be called a “pretort” to Bacon’s column in an essay for Nieman Lab. Please have a look.

David Dahl on public-interest journalism in Maine; plus, a report from Radically Rural

David Dahl

On this week’s podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with David Dahl, editor of The Maine Monitor. David was most recently a deputy managing editor at The Boston Globe. Among his jobs at the Globe: directing hyperlocal Your Town coverage at Boston.com, an initiative that ended not long after John Henry bought the paper in 2013. The pull of Maine was strong, however. He and his wife, Kathy, have a home in Friendship, Maine. When he decided that he was ready to turn the page, he looked Down East.

I’ve got a Quick Take on Bulletin, a feature developed by Facebook to compete with Substack that included local journalism produced by people of color. Sarah Scire has the scoop: Bulletin is shutting down. Ellen has a Quick Take on a new kind of media audit by the Alliance for Audited Media, which has been verifying newspaper circulation for 108 years. The organization says it’s branching out, to audit standards of ethics in journalism. Ellen asks: Why?

Dakotah Kennedy, a graduate student at Northeastern University (who is not related to me), contributes on-the-ground interviews from attendees at the recent Radically Rural conference in New Hampshire. Our recent podcast with Terry Williams, creator of the conference, can be found here.

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