The 016, a social network for Worcester, seeks to become a ‘delivery boy’ for local media

Previously published at the Nieman Lab.

Mark Henderson was getting ready to throw in the towel on his dreams of becoming a successful media entrepreneur. He had suspended his two-year-old online community news project, the Worcester Sun, after a brief, failed experiment with a weekend print edition. So in February 2018, he started pulling his resume together and getting ready to look for a job.

First, though, he had one more idea he wanted to try. Since 2012, when he was still a top executive with the Massachusetts city’s daily newspaper, the Telegram & Gazette, he’d been thinking about building a local version of a social network. Back then, the timing wasn’t right. But maybe things had changed. He remembers sitting down one day in the early afternoon and starting to code a prototype.

“By midnight that night, I got a heartbeat,” he says. “And I said, ‘Okay, we’re off to the races. I can do this.’”

“This” turned out to be The 016, a website for Worcester and surrounding communities that seeks to connect people, organizations, businesses, and — not least — media outlets. The project, which takes its name from the first three digits of the city’s zip code, launched in November. According to Henderson, it now has more than 4,000 members, up from 2,500 just two months earlier, and is attracting more than 300,000 pageviews per month. (Disclosure: I’m a member of Henderson’s unpaid advisory board.)

Although The 016 bears more than a little resemblance to Facebook, the way it works is quite different. The content of Facebook’s News Feed is determined by algorithms, though the exact formula is secret. “Liking” a news organization will send only a small fraction of its Facebook posts to your feed. This so-called organic reach has dropped to as low as 2 percent, according to some estimates. If you’re a publisher and you want more, you have to pay.

By contrast, users of The 016 customize their news feeds to their own preferences, choosing among categories ranging from local news and obituaries to dining out and “weird news.” There are no algorithms. All users see everything they’ve asked for, and members can repost the same content as often as they like. If that sounds like a prescription for abuse, Henderson notes that users can delete bad actors from their feeds.

For news organizations, The 016 offers what Henderson says is a solution to the dilemma of publishing journalism on the internet that few people ever see — a factor, he says, in the Worcester Sun’s demise. He recalls publishing a story on infant mortality in the print and online editions of the Sun. “It laid an egg,” he says. “Here we are doing this great thing for the community, and crickets. And it was still the most important story I think the Sun has ever done.”

Content appears on The 016 not just in the news feed but also in a list of hand-selected “Highlights” and “Top Posts” at the top of the site. Henderson taps into sources ranging from the Telegram & Gazette and local television stations to police departments and colleges. He’s also formed partnerships with about a half-dozen media organizations, which are given pages at The 016 that they can manage as they see fit.

One of those partners is Unity Radio, a low-power FM community station operated by a nonprofit called Pride Productions that was founded by local activist Ernest Floyd. The station features eclectic programming — shows run by high school students, programs that highlight nonprofits, local sports, the chamber of commerce and a music show hosted by Floyd called “Smooth Grooves.”

“It has a little bit of everything,” says Floyd. He sees The 016 as another way to get the word out. “The station is still building its identity,” he says. “This is a vehicle we can use to promote the station and market our programs.”

Henderson is hoping to form many more partnerships, invoking the cliché “win-win” to describe The 016’s business model. Unlike the old Huffington Post approach to aggregation, The 016 takes just a snippet of content in linking to, say, a Telegram & Gazette story. Those who want to know more will have to click through, where they will see ads on the T&G’s own site or run into its paywall — thus helping the paper to sell digital subscriptions, at least in theory.

The 016 makes money from advertising in the form of sponsored content, starting at $20 a month. My research partner Ellen Clegg and I pressed Henderson on how he expected to have a cooperative relationship with local media outlets if he is competing with them for advertising dollars. He replied that he would offer his partners the chance to sell ads for The 016 on a revenue-sharing basis.

“My answer to a rather large publisher in this area is you’re not going after the $20-a-month guys,” he says. “And if you want me to deal you in, you guys can sell it and keep the rep share.” Henderson is convinced that ad salespeople for other news organizations can add The 016 to what they’re already selling, including Facebook ads, and that he can also make the case that The 016 is a better deal than Facebook because of rising prices and shrinking organic reach.

Henderson’s business partner, Kevin Meagher, puts it this way: “We’re delivery boy and booster. And no one should be afraid of us.”

To a certain extent, The 016’s mission is at odds with Henderson’s original vision for the Sun. When the site was launched, Henderson told me he hoped to fill some of the void created by the shrinking of the Telegram & Gazette under the ownership of the GateHouse Media chain. Now he’s providing a distribution platform to other media outlets, including the T&G.

Henderson makes no apologies, though. “You can create the best journalism,” he says, “but if you can’t get it to an audience, this is a problem.” He adds that he might revive the Sun at some point for occasional big projects that other news organizations might shy away from — something that would now be worth doing since he’d have The 016 as a distribution vehicle. But it’s unlikely that the Sun would seek to cover the city comprehensively since that would put it in competition with The 016’s media partners.

The 016 may prove to be something of a template. Henderson hopes he can roll out similar sites in about eight cities in the Northeast by the end of the year. Among them: Providence, Rhode Island; Portland, Maine; Burlington, Vermont; and New Haven, Connecticut. He would also like to reach out to members of LION (Local Independent Online News) Publishers.

Matt DeRienzo is vice president of news and digital content at Hearst’s Connecticut newspapers and websites, including the New Haven Register, and until recently, he was the executive director of LION. He says that The 016 faces a daunting challenge in attracting regular users if it depends on luring them away from Facebook. But he adds that Facebook itself is moving away from the News Feed and toward groups, many of them locally based — which suggests there’s a demand for the kind of service Henderson is offering.

“If Mark’s intent is to build a community that brings together people who are engaged in discussing their mutual opportunities and problems, and there’s a real human element in keeping out misinformation and trolls and things like that, that would be remarkable,” DeRienzo says. “And seemingly not impossible.”

As for Henderson’s advertising strategy, DeRienzo adds: “I actually think there is enough money to go around for everybody, especially if you’re saying the Facebook emperor has no clothes. I think publishers are smart to engage and be part of an ecosystem instead of viewing the ecosystem as competition.”

There’s an X factor in all of this: the plummeting reputation of Facebook. It’s not just Henderson’s contention that it’s a bad deal for advertisers — it’s that we increasingly understand that Facebook can be a toxic environment. Those all-powerful algorithms are designed to maximize user engagement — and the way Mark Zuckerberg & Co. keep people on the site is to make sure they’re stirred up and angry by feeding them fake news and politically charged memes.

Among the first people Henderson says he showed The 016 to was Joel Abrams, manager of media outreach for The Conversation, a nonprofit that serves as a platform for academic research. Abrams is a former colleague of Henderson’s, as he was a product manager for social media at The Boston Globe when both the Globe and the Telegram & Gazette were owned by The New York Times Company.

“In this age where people are feeling queasy about Facebook,” Abrams said in an email, “that provides a motivation for people to give some of their mindshare and browsing time to The 016.”

Henderson himself credits none other than President Trump for some of The 016’s early success, explaining that he believes the hyperpolarization that has turned Facebook into such a nasty place is leading people to look for alternatives.

“We are Trump-free,” he says. “And that’s not a bug — it’s a feature.”

Talk about this post on Facebook.

Worcester T&G photographer resigns, citing GateHouse’s ‘reckless’ cuts

Photo (cc) 2015 by Dan Kennedy

On Saturday I received an email from Christine Hochkeppel, a photographer who had just resigned from the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester, part of the GateHouse Media chain. I asked her if it was all right if I sought comment from a T&G executive and then ran her letter of resignation along with the newspaper’s response. She granted permission.

This is, of course, a data point of one. But I think it’s worth sharing because it speaks to the frustrations of working in community journalism in general and for GateHouse in particular. GateHouse, as I’m sure you know, is a national chain based in the suburbs of Rochester, New York, that owns more than 100 daily and weekly papers in Eastern Massachusetts, Southern New Hampshire and Rhode Island. The company is also likely to become the next owner of the Boston Herald.

In a business known for penny-pinching, GateHouse stands out. “It has been incredibly frustrating to have worked the majority of my career for a company that has never given me a raise, despite my excellent work ethic and accolades,” Hochkeppel wrote in her letter of resignation to executive editor Karen Webber. “I cannot dedicate anymore of my professional time to a company that will not invest in my future success or any of my talented colleagues.”

I emailed Webber seeking comment and received the following reply from Paul Provost, the T&G’s publisher:

Thank you for the opportunity to comment however we do not comment on individual personnel matters. It has been reported publicly that we have struck an agreement with the national Guild. That agreement has been ratified in Worcester and is in the process of being ratified in several other newsrooms across the company.

Provost is referring to a recent agreement GateHouse reached with the Newspaper Guild that, according to Don Seiffert of the Boston Business Journal, “would ensure a 2.75 percent raise over two years for 750 employees at newspapers across the country, including five in New England.” The T&G is among those papers.

Note: I’m an unpaid adviser to the Worcester Sun, a digital-and-print hybrid that competes with the T&G.

The full text of Hochkeppel’s letter follows.

Dear Ms. Webber,

I am writing to notify you of my intention to resign as staff photographer at the Worcester Telegram & Gazette. My last day of employment will be Saturday, December 30, 2017.

I appreciate the opportunities I have received during my 3 years here. I have grown and improved as a photojournalist. I appreciate your support and guidance. However, I continue to have deep concerns about the direction GateHouse Media is taking the T&G. It has been incredibly frustrating to have worked the majority of my career for a company that has never given me a raise, despite my excellent work ethic and accolades. I cannot dedicate anymore of my professional time to a company that will not invest in my future success or any of my talented colleagues. After all of the hard work I have done for this company, I am forced to give up a career that I am passionate about so that I can make a better future for myself. GateHouse has been taking advantage of passionate journalists and dismantling quality community journalism with continued staff reductions and lackluster outsourced design. Their solution continues to befuddle us all with its hypocrisy: cut expenses and jobs but acquire more properties and continue to award handsome bonuses to the top executives. These reckless practices underscore the apparent indifference GateHouse feels toward the hard-working people they already employ. It’s disheartening that when our political and economic climate needs journalists so desperately, that this company has turned so many excellent people away from the industry.

Thank you again for the opportunity to share visual stories with the Worcester County community. It has been a gratifying experience sharing pictures and stories with our readers, despite the morale challenges. I am grateful for all the positive interactions and earned experience.

Sincerely,

Christine Hochkeppel

Talk about this post on Facebook.

The Worcester Sun gets ready to take its next step: A weekend print edition

Fred Hurlbrink Jr., left, and Mark Henderson. Photo (cc) 2015 by Dan Kennedy.

New England’s second-largest city is about to get a new print newspaper. A little more than two years ago, the Worcester Sun debuted as a for-profit, online-only news organization. Founded by two GateHouse Media refugees, the site has been behind a hard paywall from the beginning, with subscribers paying $2 a week.

Now Mark Henderson and his business partner (and cousin), Fred Hurlbrink Jr., are ready to take the next step: repurposing their journalism in a Saturday print edition that will be mailed free to paid digital subscribers who live in the Worcester area. If you’re not a subscriber, you’ll be able to buy a copy for $2 at various locations in Central Massachusetts.

Print has been part of Henderson and Hurlbrink’s thinking right from the start. Just after the Sun went live, I wrote about the project for the Nieman Journalism Lab. Though the Sun is clearly a digital-first operation, its founders wanted to capture the value that still exists in print advertising as a way of developing a second revenue stream.

“If you’re going to start something new, monetizing digital is tough,” Henderson told me at the time. “And you can’t look at print as a medium without understanding that there is a ton of money still to be made there.”

(Disclosure: Some months after I interviewed Henderson and Hurlbrink, they asked me to serve on an unpaid board of advisers. The Lab’s Laura Hazard Owen wrote a follow-up on the Sun’s progress several months ago.)

Worcester’s daily paper, the Telegram & Gazette, has shrunk dramatically in recent years. Sold by Boston Globe owner John Henry to a Florida-based chain under disputed circumstances, it later ended up in the hands of GateHouse, of Pittsford, New York, which owns more than 100 daily and weekly papers in Eastern Massachusetts. Henderson is the T&G’s former online director; Hurlbrink worked as a copy editor and in production for GateHouse’s MetroWest Daily News of Framingham and for a design facility in Framingham that later closed, with the jobs being outsourced to Austin, Texas.

Henderson and Hurlbrink have a tough road ahead of them. But they’re still here after two years, and they have the advantage of being local owners who are part of their community. The best-case scenario is that the Sun will be a success and that GateHouse will respond by bolstering the ranks of the T&G. Best of luck to Mark and Fred.

Talk about this post on Facebook.

News deserts spread as optimism over online local journalism fades away

When I began my research for “The Wired City” in 2009, I was optimistic that a new generation of online-only community news sites would rise to fill in at least some of the gaps left behind by shrinking legacy newspapers. Eight years later, the more prominent of the sites I reported on are still alive and well. The New Haven Independent, The Batavian, Voice of San Diego, and statehouse news services like CT News Junkie and The Connecticut Mirror are as vital today — if not more so — than they were back then.

But though there has been some growth, especially at the grassroots level, the hope for reasonably well-funded new forms of local journalism with the heft to hold government to account is largely unfulfilled. Efforts such as the Worcester Sun (disclosure: I’m an unpaid adviser) and WHAV Radio in Haverhill hold promise, but they’re still looking for a viable way forward. News deserts are spreading.

Paul Farhi of The Washington Post takes a look at an especially difficult case — East Palo Alto, California, a poor, mostly minority community in the shadow of wealthy Palto Alto. And he finds that in an area crying out for strong local journalism, the best that they have is East Palo Alto Today, a nonprofit with a print publication that only comes out once every other month.

Farhi also cites a study by the University of North Carolina on the role of hedge funds and other financial instruments in destroying local journalism. I intend to spend some time with that study in the days ahead.

Talk about this post on Facebook.

The Worcester Sun charts a path from digital to paid print

Worcester Sun co-founders Fred Hurlbrink Jr., left, and Mark Henderson.
Worcester Sun co-founders Fred Hurlbrink Jr., left, and Mark Henderson.

Previously published at the Nieman Journalism Lab.

Mark Henderson is certainly not the first person to launch a hyperlocal website in the shadow of the daily newspaper that used to employ him. Nevertheless, his ideas about how to build the site into a sustainable business are unorthodox enough to merit attention.

Henderson, a former executive with the 150-year-old Telegram & Gazette of Worcester, Mass., unveiled the Worcester Sun in August. From the start, the Sun’s content has been protected behind a hard paywall of $2 a week. There are no discounts; if you want to subscribe for a year, it will cost you $104.

Once the Sun has attracted a critical mass of paid digital subscribers (Henderson won’t reveal the magic number except to say that it’s well short of 1,000), he’ll add a Sunday paper for $1 a week, perhaps as soon as next spring. Print matters, Henderson says, because that’s still where most of the advertising is.

“If you’re going to start something new, monetizing digital is tough,” says Henderson. “And you can’t look at print as a medium without understanding that there is a ton of money still to be made there. Especially in Sunday print. We could use Sunday print to boost us into the stratosphere, to get us into a stable orbit where we can launch other things.”

Bootstrapping paid digital to break into paid print? Matt DeRienzo, interim executive director of Local Independent Online News (LION) Publishers, says he’s skeptical but intrigued. “Sunday print is going against the grain. There’s a lot of reasons the cards are stacked against them,” says DeRienzo, the former editor of Digital First Media’s Connecticut publications, which include the New Haven Register. But he adds: “The best ideas are going to come from people who live in and care about their community and who are closest to the problem. Who’s to say it’s not going to work?”

With a population of 183,000 — the second-largest city in New England after Boston — and a median household income of about $46,000, more than $20,000 below the state average, Worcester is a city facing economic challenges. It’s precisely the sort of community that could benefit most from independent media projects such as the Sun, says Catherine Tumber, a scholar with the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University.

“No one else is coming to their rescue,” says Tumber, the author of the 2011 book “Small, Gritty and Green: The Promise of America’s Smaller Industrial Cities in a Low-Carbon World.” “They have to rely on their own resources and civic ecosystems in order to reconstruct their cities and maintain quality of life there.”

Last week, I met Henderson and his business partner (and cousin) Fred Hurlbrink Jr. in a brightly lit coworking space on the first floor of the Innovation Center of Worcester — formerly the Franklin Street headquarters of the Telegram & Gazette, the daily newspaper where Henderson worked for nearly 25 years. Across the street is City Hall and the Worcester Common. On the other side of the common looms the mid-sized tower that is the current home of the T&G.

Henderson, 49, rose from the paper’s sports department to deputy managing editor for technology and, starting in 2009, online director. He left on June 2, 2014, the day that John Henry, who had purchased The Boston Globe and the T&G from the New York Times Company, sold the T&G to Halifax Media Group of Daytona Beach, Florida, after previously saying he intended to sell to a local group. Halifax cut about 20 journalistsfrom the full-time newsroom staff of about 80. Further cuts came a few months later when Halifax turned around and sold the paper to New Media Investment Group, an affiliate of GateHouse Media, based in the suburbs of Rochester, New York.

Hurlbrink, 38, had two stints with GateHouse — first as a copy editor at The MetroWest Daily News of Framingham and later at the Design House, run out of the Framingham plant, which handled design and some copyediting tasks for multiple GateHouse papers. In August 2014, GateHouse announced that the operation would be closed and moved to Austin, Texas.

Even with a shrunken Telegram & Gazette, Henderson and Hurlbrink find themselves in the midst of a highly competitive media environment. In addition to the T&G, Worcester is covered by MassLive.com, part of Advance Digital; GoLocalWorcester, which has sister sites in Providence, Rhode Island, and Portland, Oregon; and Worcester Magazine, whose parent company, Holden Landmark Corporation, is controlled by GateHouse Media chief executive Kirk Davis but is not part of GateHouse.

In the face of such competition, Henderson and Hurlbrink say their plan is to steer clear of breaking news and offer depth and analysis instead. “We’re never going to cover breaking news,” Henderson says. “Will we cover the opiate epidemic rather than three people who OD’d in the last 24 hours? Yeah, we’ll take a look at that. But we’ll devote the resources to do it and give people an insight that they didn’t have before.”

The Sun’s content so far reflects that philosophy, starting with the August 9 debut, which featured an essay on the city’s bygone newspaper scene by Worcester native Charles P. Pierce, the high-profile journalist and author who these days spends most of his time blogging about politics for Esquire. The Sun has also published stories on the privacy concerns posed by surveillance cameras, the city’s sagging downtown business district, and a mother’s quest to find the educational resources she needs to help her daughter with ADHD. The site also offers such quotidian fare as profiles of local businesses, editorials and, yes, obituaries.

“I think there’s a niche,” says Timothy McGourthy, executive director of the Worcester Regional Research Bureau. “I think it provides kind of a thoughtful human-interest approach to Worcester. It’s a generally positive approach to the city. I think the challenge is going to be getting the word out in the marketplace.”

The Sun’s paywall — as well as that of the T&G — is based on technology provided by Clickshare, whose website touts the software as a “flexible system” that allows for different types of paid access, billing and payment processing, and various options for e-commerce. Bill Densmore, who founded Clickshare in the mid-1990s, believes that print and digital serve two different types of audiences — and that Henderson and Hurlbrink are smart to try to serve both.

“A lean-back experience once a week makes a lot of sense to me,” says Densmore, a research fellow at the Reynolds Journalism Institute. “It’s an experiment, really, and an important one, both for the existing industry and for people starting on the digital side and wondering where that leads. I think the marriage of print and digital makes a lot of sense, particularly if you’re not trying to put out a daily paper, which increasingly seems anachronistic to me and to people in the digital world.”

Starting and maintaining a community news site is a hard way to make a living, but the allure is undeniable. LION counts about 130 member sites, and of course there many more that are not LION members. New ones pop up regularly. Just this week, The Boston Globe reported on a project called The Spark, cofounded by a former photographer for the GateHouse-owned Enterprise of Brockton.

It’s the same allure that has kept Henderson and Hurlbrink going despite setbacks — including a $150,000 Kickstarter campaign that fell well short of the mark. So far, they say, they’ve invested $200,000 in money and time. Soon they hope to unveil the first in a line of ebooks. And they’ve got plans to launch online verticals in areas such as education and local sports. “I think there are places we can go where we can be effective,” says Hurlbrink.

If all goes according to plan, they foresee a staff of 20 full- and part-time journalists. The key, adds Henderson, is to fill a niche — and not worry about what the competition is doing.

“We’ve never said we’re here to take the T&G out,” says Henderson. “Other people have. We don’t agree with that. Our stated goal is to serve our audience, the city of Worcester, the best we can. And if we have an opportunity to grow our audience, all the better.”

Worcester Sun hopes to compete with Telegram & Gazette

Looks like the GateHouse Media-owned Telegram & Gazette of Worcester is getting some competition. Mark Henderson, the T&G’s former online director, is starting a news organization called the Worcester Sun, an online-mostly project with a paid Sunday paper.

The Sun has a $150,000 Kickstarter campaign, a website, and a presence on Facebook and Twitter, all of which are linked in the press release below. Go Local Worcester posted a story about the Sun on Saturday.

Best of luck to Henderson and cofounder/managing editor/creative director Fred Hurlbrink Jr., like Henderson a former GateHouse journalist.

WORCESTER, Massachusetts — Worcester Media Partners is proud to announce the launch of the Worcester Sun, an impact community journalism enterprise comprising a unique combination of best-in-class digital offering with a paid Sunday print product.

These products will be supported by an intuitive business model that puts quality journalism, and more importantly the folks who produce and consume it, at the forefront by leveraging the modern media world’s best efficiencies in a sustainable package.

Worcester Sun can be found at its new home on the web: www.worcester.ma; also look for regular updates and announcements on Facebook and Twitter.

In order to build the type of journalism enterprise Worcester deserves, Worcester Media Partners recognizes the necessity of ambition. We have set our sights high, and we look forward to the continued support of our community. Please visit our Kickstarter page to learn more about the project and how folks can pledge their support to the future of local journalism in and around the Seven Hills.

Worcester Sun was conceived by Mark Henderson, a 30-year veteran of Worcester-area journalism, who most recently spent several years as the online director of the Telegram & Gazette. There, he marshalled a number of innovations that propelled telegram.com to rank in the top 10 nationally in 2013 in audience growth and subscriber volume.

“We believe that when the number of former journalists exceeds the number of working journalists there is an opportunity and a need for a new approach,” Henderson said.

“The Sun will be the first news startup in the nation to launch with a paid Sunday newspaper.  We recognize that this is a huge undertaking, but we believe the community is ready for this approach. In addition, over the long run we believe this model could work in as many as 100 cities nationwide.”

Henderson is joined by co-founder Fred Hurlbrink Jr., managing editor/creative director. The group is working with no less than a dozen advisors, many among the leaders in their field in New England, who have logged more than 200 years of community journalism experience.

Under the leadership of this impressive cadre of innovative, experienced journalism pros, and with the support of the area’s brightest reporters, photographers, designers and new media professionals, Worcester Sun intends to provide the community with impactful, civic-minded journalism that promotes intelligent conversations and positive change.

Worcester Sun will shine a light into the deepest corners of the topics and events that matter most to the city and its residents. We will cover stories with candor and perspective. We will never pander or underestimate our readers. We will hold public officials accountable. We will hold ourselves accountable doubly so.

Worcester Sun will change journalism in Worcester. It is, indeed, a new day.