Muzzle follow-up: An Appeals Court panel doles out more pain for the city of Worcester

Worcester City Hall and Common. Photo (cc) 2015 by Destination Worcester.

For years, the city of Worcester withheld public records about police misconduct that had been sought by the local daily newspaper, the Telegram & Gazette. It’s already cost the hapless taxpayers big-time: Nearly a year ago, an outraged judge ruled against the city and awarded the T&G $101,000 to cover about half the cost of the newspaper’s legal fees. She also assessed the city $5,000 in punitive damages.

That outrageous misconduct, overseen by former city manager Edward Augustus, was the subject of a 2022 New England Muzzle Award, published by GBH News.

Now a three-judge panel of the state Appeals Court is asking a logical question: If the T&G was in the right and the city was in the wrong, why shouldn’t the newspaper be compensated for all or most of its legal fees rather than just half? This week that panel overturned the lower-court ruling and ordered Superior Court Judge Janet Kenton-Walker to consider increasing the legal fees she awarded, according to a report by the T&G’s Brad Petrishen, who first began seeking the records in 2018.

Petrishen quoted Associate Justice John Englander as saying: “At 10,000 feet, what happened here is the newspaper wanted to write about something and it took them three years to get the documents they wanted to write about.”

The proceedings have been followed closely by Andrew Quemere, a journalist who writes a newsletter on public records called The Mass Dump. Quemere published a detailed account this week that includes some particularly entertaining quotes from an exchange Justice Englander had with the city’s lawyer, Wendy Quinn, at oral arguments in December:

“What did the plaintiffs request or push for that they were wrong about?” Englander asked.

Quinn paused for about six seconds before asking Englander to clarify his question.

“What the heck did you spend three years and hundreds of thousands of dollars fighting over if they should have gotten [the records]?” Englander asked. “If you had a defense, I’d like to understand what the defense was.”

As Quemere notes, Judge Kenton-Walker has consistently taken the position that the city not only erred and acted in bad faith, ordering that the city turn over the documents that the T&G had sought in June 2021 and then awarding $101,000 in legal fees in February 2022.

Even so, the newspaper appealed, seeking the full $217,000 it had paid — and, as the Appeals Court panel has now ruled, it may very well be entitled to that money. Jeffrey Pyle, a Boston-based First Amendment lawyer who represented the T&G, put it this way at the oral arguments: “To cut [the fees] by 54% sends a message to public records requesters: Don’t bother suing, you’re not going to be made whole even if you win and show that the other side acted in bad faith.”

To make matters worse for city officials, the Department of Justice last November announced that it had launched an investigation to determine whether the police department had used excessive force or engaged in discrimination on the basis of race or gender, although it is not clear whether DOJ was motivated by the T&G’s reporting.

I hope the T&G gets every last dime that it spent on this case. But I should add that the newspaper’s corporate chain owner, Gannett, deserves credit for pursuing this without any guarantee that it would ever be compensated. I criticize Gannett’s cost-cutting frequently in this space, but the company and its predecessor, GateHouse Media, have always been dedicated to fighting for open government, even if it means going to court. They could have told the T&G’s editors to forget about it, but they didn’t.

Finally, a disclosure: David Nordman, who was the T&G’s editor until this past summer, is now a colleague of mine at Northeastern. We work on opposite sides of the campus, literally and figuratively: he’s the executive editor of Northeastern Global News, part of the university’s communications operation, and I’m a faculty member at the School of Journalism.

Emulating its R.I. strategy, The Boston Globe next year will move into N.H.

The State Capitol in Concord, N.H. Photo (cc) 2010 by Jimmy Emerson, DMV.

There was news in Mark Shanahan’s Boston Globe story on the decline of the once-great Providence Journal under Gannett ownership: the Globe is opening a New Hampshire bureau sometime in 2023, a move similar to what it’s done in Rhode Island.

At one time the Globe took New England coverage seriously, even publishing a Sunday section called New Hampshire Weekly. On a recent episode of our podcast about local news, “What Works,” Nancy West, executive director of the investigative news organization InDepthNH, said she would welcome a Globe comeback in the Granite State.

“I loved it when the Globe came up and was doing important reporting,” she said, citing in particular the paper’s coverage of a cardiac surgeon at Catholic Medical Center in Manchester whose horrendous malpractice record was obscured by his status as an operating-room star. “Was I a little jealous? My first instinct is jealousy, of course,” West told us. “But then I’m just really pleased that the word is getting out.” She added: “I would love to have the Globe come back. I would love to see it because we just need talented reporters on the street. And I think competition is healthy.”

Unlike Rhode Island, New Hampshire’s two major daily newspapers, the New Hampshire Union Leader and the Concord Monitor, are independently owned. Both, however, have endured significant cuts to their reporting capacity in recent years. As West says, another news organization focused on the state would be welcome.

As with Rhode Island, New Hampshire is an opportunity for the Globe to sell more digital subscriptions without the hassle of bygone days, when it was necessary to truck papers across New England.

So where might the Globe go next? Vermont strikes me as a stretch. Connecticut? Probably not. Much of the state roots for the Yankees, and Hearst CT has a growing digital operation. Maine? Possibly, although the Globe has collaborated on some stories with the Portland Press Herald. I’m not sure they’d want to compete. If they do, David Dahl, a former top editor at the Globe who’s now editor of the nonprofit Maine Monitor, told us on “What Works” that he’d love to work with his old paper. “We’re open to any partnership discussions that we would have,” he said, “and if they want to affiliate with us, they’re more than more than welcome.”

The most logical move for the Globe after New Hampshire would be an expanded presence in Central Massachusetts — ironic given that Globe owner John Henry acquired the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester when he bought the Globe in 2013 only to sell it to out-of-state interests. The T&G eventually landed in the hands of GateHouse Media, which merged with Gannett; like most of Gannett’s properties, the T&G has been gutted.

At a time when the decline of advertising and fears of recession are leading to cuts even at once high-flying newspapers like The Washington Post, it’s heartening to see that the Globe continues to focus on expansion.

The 2022 New England Muzzle Awards: Spotlighting 10 who diminish free speech

Illustration by Meryl Brenner / GBH News

A Boston mayor who trampled on a religious group’s right to freedom of expression. A Worcester city manager who trampled on the public’s right to know about police misconduct. A New Hampshire state legislator who trampled on teachers’ rights by demanding that they take a “loyalty oath” promising not to teach their students about racism.

These are just a few of the winners of the 2022 New England Muzzle Awards.

This year is the 25th anniversary of the Muzzles, a Fourth of July roundup of outrages against freedom of speech and of the press in the six New England states.

Read the rest at GBH News.

The Globe’s Rhode Island initiative may be expanded across New England

The Boston Globe’s Rhode Island section could be a model for other verticals devoted to different regions in New England. That’s the main takeaway from this week’s edition of “E&P Reports,” a vodcast produced by the trade publication Editor & Publisher.

The vodcast, hosted by E&P publisher Mike Blinder, featured the Globe’s Rhode Island editor (and my “Beat the Press” crony), Lylah Alphonse; Rhode Island reporter Dan McGowan; and Michelle Micone, the Globe’s vice president for innovation and strategic initiatives.

It was Micone who talked about expanding the Globe’s coverage to other regions. She specifically mentioned New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont but not Connecticut, which was either inadvertent or, more likely, a nod to the Nutmeg State’s very different media and cultural environment. I mean, my God, they root for the Yankees down there.

Alphonse and McGowan were careful not to criticize The Providence Journal, but let’s face it — the Globe’s Rhode Island project was begun in response to Gannett’s evisceration of that once great paper. Blinder said that the Journal’s full-time staff is down to about 14. [Note: The actual number is about 30.] Alphonse told me that Globe Rhode Island now has eight full-time journalists. Of course, the folks who remain at the Journal are doing good work under trying conditions, and Alphonse and McGowan were smart to acknowledge that.

One statistic that really hit me was that McGowan’s daily newsletter, “Rhode Map,” is sent to 80,000 recipients each morning, with an open rate of about 30%. By contrast, the Journal’s combined paid print and digital circulation on weekdays, according to data the paper filed with the Alliance for Audited Media, is a little under 31,000. (About 24,000 of that is print, showing that Gannett’s push on digital subscriptions has a long way to go.)

I also want to highlight the news that staff reporter Alexa Gagosz, one of our great master’s degree alums at Northeastern, is heading up expanded food and dining coverage in Rhode Island, including a weekly newsletter.

Now, to get back to possible expansion in other regions: Rhode Island was an opportunity that may not be entirely replicable elsewhere, thanks not only to the ProJo’s shrinkage but to the state’s unique identity. The state has a range of media options, including good-quality public radio, television newscasts and independent community news outlets. But the ProJo’s decline gave the Globe a chance to slide in and quickly establish itself as one of the players.

Where else does opportunity that exist? Worcester and Central Massachusetts strike me as in serious need of more journalism. The Globe memorably walked away from the region when then-new owner John Henry sold the Telegram & Gazette to a Florida-based chain after leading the staff to believe he was committed to selling to local interests. Soon enough, the T&G became part of Gannett, and it was subjected to the same devastating cuts that the chain has imposed throughout the country. The T&G carried on but is currently in flux, having lost its respected executive editor, Dave Nordman, to Northeastern, where he’s heading up the internal news operation. Could the Henrys return to Worcester? I’ve heard that might be within the range of possibilities.

But where else? New Hampshire and Maine both have good-quality independent newspapers, though New Hampshire’s two leading papers — the Union Leader and the Concord Monitor — have shrunk quite a bit. Vermont is unique, dominated by one of the most respected nonprofit news organizations in the country, VTDigger.

Then there’s the distribution model, which, if they were asking me (they’re not), is too reliant on print. Quite a bit of the Globe’s Rhode Island coverage appears in the Globe’s print edition. But rather than take on the cost of trucking more papers to Rhode Island, why not use digital to expand your reach and drive more digital subscriptions? What the Globe is doing with Rhode Island and print simply wouldn’t work if the paper established bureaus in Central Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont.

The Globe is one of the few major metropolitan dailies in the country that is growing. What it’s doing in Rhode Island is impressive, and I’d love to see it happen elsewhere.

Correction: After this item was published, I learned that the Journal’s full-time newsroom staff is actually around 30 people, supplemented by freelancers.

Several Gannett papers, including the Worcester T&G, won’t print on Labor Day

The Telegram & Gazette of Worcester is taking a day off. According to an announcement in the print edition, the paper won’t publish tomorrow, which is Labor Day.

The 016, which has the story, observes that “the last date the Telegram & Gazette was not printed is not immediately known,” and that the T&G will be joined by some other Gannett papers, including the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the Tallahassee Democrat.

A highly unusual move to say the least.

More: Add the Cape Cod Times to the list. It’s starting to look like this applies to many if not most of Gannett’s dailies.

The Globe adds a R.I. podcast; the union pleads its case in a full-page ad

A couple of yin and yang notes about The Boston Globe this morning.

First, the paper has expanded its Rhode Island coverage by adding a podcast, “Rhode Island Report.” The guest for the debut is former Gov. Gina Raimondo, now the U.S. secretary of commerce.

It’s good to see the Globe doubling down on Rhode Island, which has really been underserved by Gannett’s Providence Journal. But I’ve been noticing more and more Rhode Island coverage making its way into the Globe’s print edition. I thought the idea was to leverage digital. If this continues, I hope there will be some consideration given to replating so that there are separate print editions for Greater Boston and Rhode Island.

I also hope John and Linda Henry are giving some consideration to expanding in Worcester, which is a virtual news desert these days. You may recall that employees at the city’s daily, the Telegram & Gazette, said John Henry promised to sell it to local interests or keep the paper after he acquired it from the New York Times Co. as part of the Globe deal. Instead, he sold it to a Florida chain, and it eventually was passed off to GateHouse Media, now Gannett. (When I asked Henry about it several years ago, he told me he believed he had only promised not to sell to GateHouse.)

Second, the Greater Boston Labor Council, the Greater Boston Building Trades Union and the Communication Workers of America have purchased a full-page ad in today’s Globe in support of the Boston Newspaper Guild’s long quest for a new contract. You can see the ad here.

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

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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.

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