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

Tag: What Works Page 2 of 14

Laura Pappano tells us about her book covering public schools and parent activism

Laura Pappano, a Quincy Patriot Ledger reporter from 1986-1992, talks about her book “School Moms” at a launch party at Elliott Bay Books in Seattle.

On the latest “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg talks with Laura Pappano, an award-winning journalist who has written about education for more than 30 years. Laura has a new book out from Beacon Press. The title is “School Moms: Parent Activism, Partisan Politics, and the Battle for Public Education.” By the way, Beacon also published our book, “What Works in Community News.” Ellen and I recorded our segments separately because Ellen was traveling. So don’t worry, we’re not breaking up.

Ellen has a Quick Take on a philanthropic gift from Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist, that is designed to cover full tuition for many graduate students in journalism at City University of New York. That’s good news for students wondering whether to take on $50,000 or more in tuition debt to get a master’s degree in journalism at a private university. Craigslist destroyed the classified ad market, but Newmark continues to make his mark as a philanthropist.

I offer two cheers for billionaire newspaper ownership. With the news business dealing with a difficult round of layoffs, a number of media observers have jumped to the conclusion that billionaire owners are not the solution to what ails journalism. Well, of course they aren’t. No one ever said otherwise. But the record shows that civic-minded ownership by wealthy owners has proven to be a workable solution to the local news crisis in several cities.

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

A funding dispute in Baltimore highlights a challenge over nonprofit news and racial equity

Tracie Powell at the 2019 Knight Foundation Media Forum. Photo (cc) 2019 by the Knight Foundation.

My reporting and podcast partner Ellen Clegg has published a first-rate analysis for our What Works website about a dispute over nonprofit news funding in Baltimore, relating it to her work in Memphis, where she wrote about MLK50, a small project with Black leadership, and the Daily Memphian, a large, well-funded, mostly white website.

In Baltimore, there’s a similar dispute taking place between the Beat and the Banner, the latter a digital publication launched by hotel mogul Stewart Bainum and intended as a comprehensive replacement for the venerable Baltimore Sun, which has fallen on hard times. Ellen takes note of a piece written for Poynter Online by Tracie Powell of the Pivot Fund about a huffy tweet posted by David Simon, best known for his work on “The Wire,” in which he accused the Beat of a racially based shakedown when a Beat collaborator tagged him in a fundraising tweet.

It’s complicated, so read Ellen’s post, in which she also recounts an eye-opening (and jaw-dropping) conversation she had with a white media type in Memphis.

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The Somerville Wire shuts down, but its editor says that coverage in the city is growing

Near Davis Square in Somerville. Photo (cc) 2023 by Dan Kennedy.

Nearly two years ago, Gannett merged the Medford Transcript and the Somerville Journal into one weekly paper called The Transcript & Journal. Even worse, nearly all local news was removed from the new paper, replaced with regional news from elsewhere in the chain.

In Medford, where I live, we now have nothing, although I’m optimistic that will change in the near future. In Somerville, though, there were several alternatives, foremost among them the weekly Somerville Times and a digital outlet called the Somerville Wire. Unfortunately, the Wire is shutting down. Jason Pramas, the editor, writes that the Wire got to be too much of a financial burden as well as a drain on his other work with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism (BINJ) and HorizonMass. (Pramas talked about both of those projects in a recent appearance on the “What Works” podcast.)

Besides, Pramas notes that Somerville has been getting more coverage lately, as the Cambridge Day has expanded into the city and The Boston Globe has begun a weekly “Camberville & beyond” newsletter. Pramas writes that “while Somerville is still in danger of becoming a ‘news desert’ (a community that no longer has a professionally-produced news outlet covering it), it’s now getting more news coverage than it was in 2021,” when the Wire launched.

Pramas and his colleagues Chris Faraone and John Loftus continue to do good and important work, and I wish them all the best.

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A riveting Boston Globe story about a medical disaster with ties to the local news crisis

St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center in 2012. Photo (cc) by John Phelan.

If you haven’t seen The Boston Globe’s story about a mother who died shortly after giving birth, perhaps because the hospital lacked a device it needed to stop her bleeding, then you have to stop what you’re doing and give it a read. Globe reporter Jessica Bartlett’s 2,800-word story is both riveting and incredibly disturbing. It’s also so well-crafted that I asked my intermediate reporting students to read it in class so we could talk about how it was put together.

Bartlett skillfully shifts back and forth between the frantic attempts to save Sungida Rashid’s life and the larger crisis at St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center, the Brighton hospital that Rashid and her husband, Nabil Haque, had chosen for the birth of their first child. We learn that St. Elizabeth’s did not have the device, known as an embolism coil, because the hospital’s supply had been repossessed. It turns out that Steward Health Care, a for-profit company that owns St. Elizabeth’s and eight other hospitals in Massachusetts, hadn’t been paying its bills.

Incredibly, Haque didn’t know that devastating fact until the Globe informed him about it after he and his daughter had moved back to Bangladesh.

The major question a reader might have after reading the story was how St. Elizabeth’s and Steward had fallen into such a financial mess. That story is laid out in an earlier story by Bartlett and in a column by Globe business columnist Larry Edelman, who explain that a private equity firm known as Cerberus Capital Management had bailed out the hospitals in 2010. According to Edelman, Cerberus quadrupled its money and flipped the hospitals in 2017.

As Edelman points out, Cerberus is “named after the three-headed dog that guards the gates of Hades in Greek mythology.” The firm is also deeply involved in the destruction of the newspaper business. In 2021, Julie Reynolds reported for Nieman Lab that Cerberus was the financial backer for the notorious hedge fund Alden Global Capital when it acquired Tribune Publishing’s nine major-market daily newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun and the Hartford Courant. Cerberus gets much of its money, in turn, from investments made by public employee pension funds, especially in California and Pennsylvania.

Reynolds talked about the Alden-Cerberus connection on our “What Works” podcast back in November 2021.

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Wendi Thomas talks about her work at MLK50, a nonprofit covering social justice in Memphis

Wendi C. Thomas. Photo (cc) 2022 by Ellen Clegg.

On the latest “What Works” podcast, we talk with Wendi C. Thomas, the editor and publisher of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, which is based in Memphis, Tennessee. Thomas founded MLK50 in 2017 as a one-year project designed to focus on the antipoverty work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. King had traveled to Memphis in April of 1968 to support striking sanitation workers who were fighting for safer working conditions and a living wage.

But MLK50 became much more than a one-year project. Thomas and her staff have gone on to produce journalism that has changed the dialogue, and changed lives, in Memphis. Her work has garnered numerous awards. In 2020, she was the winner of the Selden Ring Award for her groundbreaking investigative series, “Profiting from the Poor,” an investigation of a nonprofit hospital that sued poor patients over medical debt. The series, co-published with ProPublica, had major impact: the hospital erased $11.9 million in medical debt. MLK50 is one of the projects that we profile in our book, “What Works in Community News.”

Ellen Clegg has a Quick Take on the situation at the Houston Landing, a highly anticipated and well-funded nonprofit newsroom that launched in 2023. The Landing is in turmoil after CEO Peter Bhatia fired the editor and the top investigative reporter for reasons that remain mysterious.

My Quick Take is on The Baltimore Sun, the venerable 186-year-old daily newspaper that at one time was home to the infamously caustic writer H.L. Mencken. Earlier this month, Alden Global Capital sold the Sun to a right-wing television executive who hates newspapers. But not to fear — public interest journalism is alive and well in Baltimore, as I explain.

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

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How Norma Rodriguez-Reyes became one of New Haven’s leading media executives

Norma Rodriguez-Reyes. Photo (cc) 2021 by Dan Kennedy.

On the latest “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with Norma Rodriguez-Reyes, the president of  La Voz Hispana de Connecticut. La Voz started circulating in New Haven in 1993, but fell on hard times. Norma helped take charge of the paper in 1998 when it verged on bankruptcy. Under her direction, the for-profit newspaper has grown into the state’s most-read free Spanish-language weekly. It reaches more than 125,000 Spanish speakers across Connecticut.

Norma is among the entrepreneurs highlighted in our new book, “What Works in Community News.” In addition to her work at La Voz, Norma is the board chair of the Online Journalism Project, the nonprofit umbrella that includes the New Haven Independent, the Valley Independent Sentinel, and WNHH community radio. The New Haven Indy and the radio station both work out of La Voz’s offices in downtown New Haven.

I’ll be in New Haven next Tuesday, Jan. 16 (details here), to talk about our book in a conversation with Paul Bass, the founder of the New Haven Indy and now the executive director of the Online Journalism Project. Paul is also in charge of yet another nonprofit media project, the Independent Review Crew, which produces arts and culture reviews in cities across the country, including Boston. He talked about the project on our podcast last September.

Ellen has a Quick Take on a surprising development in local news on Martha’s Vineyard. The ownership of the weekly Martha’s Vineyard Times has changed hands. Longtime publishers and owners Peter and Barbara Oberfest sold the Island news organization to Steve Bernier, a West Tisbury resident and longtime owner of Cronig’s Market.  And the acting publisher is Charles Sennott, a highly decorated journalist and founder and editor of The GroundTruth Project. He also helped launch Report for America.

I discuss a hard situation at Eugene Weekly, an alternative weekly in Oregon that’s been around for four decades. EW has shut down and laid off its 10-person staff after learning that the paper was the victim of embezzlement. Although the folks at EW are optimistic that a fundraising campaign will get them back on their feet, the closure has had a devastating effect on Eugene’s local news scene.

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

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The Star Tribune, now under new leadership, will bolster its coverage of Minnesota

Photo (cc) 2018 by Ken Lund

Amid the evisceration of large regional newspapers at the hands of corporate and hedge-fund owners stand a few notable exceptions. The Boston Globe, The Seattle Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer and several others are among the major metros with committed local ownership that have managed to survive and even thrive. So, too, with the Star Tribune of Minneapolis, which under billionaire owner Glen Taylor has undergone a renaissance, transforming itself into a profitable business and a Pulitzer factory.

Now the Strib is growing. As Ellen Clegg writes at What Works, new CEO and publisher Steve Grove is expanding the paper’s reach into the more rural parts of the state, where the lack of reliable news and information is especially acute. Ellen writes:

The expansion plans are nothing if not ambitious. The newsroom has posted jobs for reporters in north central and southwest Minnesota and is expanding existing teams in communities outside the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Back in the downtown Minneapolis office, the Strib is launching a “Today Desk” to track breaking news online and beefing up that reporting team. Grove is also in the market for a greater Minnesota columnist to roam the state’s rural communities and report on trends — the kind of coverage that has been harder for small nonprofit media startups to sustain.

The Star Tribune is one of the projects that Ellen and I write about in our book “What Works in Community News,” which was published today by Beacon Press.

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Alden buys four papers in Pennsylvania. You’ll have no trouble believing what happened next.

The historic Scranton Times building. Photo (cc) 2022 by Jeffrey Hayes.

Last summer came horrifying news from Scranton, Pennsylvania: the notorious hedge fund Alden Global Capital was buying the Scranton Times-Tribune and three sister papers from the Lynett family, the local publishers going back to 1895. The sale was taking place even though those members of the family who actually ran the papers opposed it. They were outvoted by other members of the family who simply wanted to cash out and get on with their lives. Ellen Clegg and I talked about it at the time on the “What Works” podcast.

What happened next was predictable and depressing. Washington Post media columnist Erik Wemple traveled to the Scranton area recently and filed a long, sad report about what he found (free link). The lowlights:

  • The news staff, already down to 40, a steep decline from 90 in the late 1990s, was immediately cut by another 10, with employees offered voluntary buyouts if they would just go away.
  • Newsrooms in Wilkes-Barre, Hazleton and Pottsfield were put up for sale. The Scranton Times’ headquarters was abandoned in late November, with journalists being told that most of them would be expected to work at home.
  • Some customer service calls were outsourced to the Philippines.

Almost immediately, Wemple writes, editorials about local and state issues were replaced with generic national content, which is exactly the opposite approach that researchers Joshua Darr, Matthew Hitt and Johanna Dunaway found is helpful in reducing political polarization. As Darr told Ellen in 2021:

It’s important for people to be able to express their opinions on national politics, and there are myriad ways to do that. But I don’t think there’s necessarily a good reason for local newspapers to devote some of their precious op-ed page space to things that aren’t local. I think they should be maximizing their comparative advantage in the marketplace by giving people things that they can’t get anywhere else.

There’s no question that the Pennsylvania papers were facing real challenges. As Wemple reports, paid circulation and advertising were both in a tailspin, and the Lynett family understandably was tired of subsidizing losses. But it didn’t have to end like this. Perhaps the best solution would have been for a local nonprofit institution to purchase the papers, as is the case at another Pennsylvania paper — The Philadelphia Inquirer, a for-profit entity owned by the nonprofit Lenfest Institute.

Steven Waldman, the president of Rebuild Local News, has proposed tax incentives and other measures to prevent newspapers from falling into the hands of cost-slashing chains. Unfortunately, such steps would not have come in time to save the Lynett papers.

Sadly, based on Wemple’s story, it doesn’t sound like much of an effort was made to find a buyer that would have operated the papers for the benefit of the public rather than for Alden’s wealthy investors. I just hope that some of the journalists who have lost their jobs will fight back by starting their own venture, as is happening in community after community across the country.

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What’s next for Andy and Dee Hall, the retiring co-founders of Wisconsin Watch

Dee and Andy Hall. Photo by Narayan Mahon for Wisconsin Watch is used with permission.

On the latest “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with Andy and Dee Hall, co-founders of Wisconsin Watch. Wisconsin Watch was launched in 2009 as the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. It’s nonprofit and nonpartisan, and it has grown a lot over the last 14 years. Andy is retiring on Dec. 31 of this year and is helping the new CEO, George Stanley, with the transition.

Dee Hall, co-founder and former managing editor of Wisconsin Watch, is also moving  on, and is now editor-in-chief of Floodlight, a nonprofit newsroom with a clear mission: Floodlight investigates “the powerful interests stalling climate action.” Floodlight partners with local and national journalists to co-publish collaborative investigations.

The podcast will resume after the holidays, and we fill in listeners in on events surrounding the launch of our book, “What Works in Community News,” which is coming out on Jan. 9. We’ll be talking about the book that night at 7 p.m. at Brookline Booksmith in Coolidge Corner in Brookline, Massachusetts.

Ellen has a Quick Take on Signal Ohio, a well-funded nonprofit news startup in Ohio that’s now expanding into Akron. We’ve worked with a Northeastern graduate student, Dakotah Kennedy (no relation to me), on this podcast who’s now a service journalism reporter for Signal Cleveland.

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

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The Winsted Citizen, launched amid a dispute with Ralph Nader, will close its doors

Andy Thibault and Billie Holiday

Update: The Citizen has been acquired by American Business Media and will continue to publish. See our latest here.

Connecticut’s Winsted Citizen, launched last February with funding by the consumer advocate Ralph Nader, is shutting down. The Citizen got off to a rocky start over a dispute with Nader over how much money he had actually pledged. But the editor and publisher of the paper, Andy Thibault, told Ellen Clegg and me on the “What Works” podcast last June that he and Nader had reached an understanding and were working cooperatively.

Andrew Larson reports in the Hartford Business Journal that the Citizen was able to produce nine monthly editions before shutting down. Even though Thibault said the deficits were shrinking over time thanks to reader support, the ongoing losses became unsustainable.

In a statement that Thibault sent to Ellen and me, he said, “We beat the Grim Reaper every month for most of the year. Our best month financially resulted in our lowest deficit. Now, our quest regrettably has become the impossible dream. It sure was great — despite numerous stumbles, obstacles and heartaches — while it lasted.”

Best wishes to Thibault and his staff on whatever comes next.

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