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

Tag: YourArlington

Bob Sprague tell us about his 17 years at the helm of yourArlington

Bob Sprague at his recent retirement party, which doubled as a fundraiser for yourArlington

On the latest “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with Bob Sprague, a pioneer in hyperlocal journalism and the founder of yourArlington, a nonprofit news project that covers Arlington, Massachusetts. Bob, who has lived in Arlington since 1989, was not only the founder — he was the editor of the website until July 1 of this year, when he retired. The new editor is Judith Pfeffer.

Bob was an Arlington Town Meeting member in 2006-09, and was also a journalist. He has been a reporter and an editor at The Boston Globe and Boston Herald, among other publications. He launched the town’s website in 1998, but also recognized a need for an independent, nonpartisan source of information. In 2006, he launched yourArlington.

I’ve got a Quick Take on the latest report on the state of local news by Penelope Muse Abernathy, who’s now at the Medill School at Northwestern University. The report has a lot of bad news, some good news, and some interesting information from The Boston Globe and the Minneapolis Star Tribune, which is one of the news outlets that we profile in our forthcoming book, “What Works in Community News.”

Ellen talks about another Massachusetts local startup, The Belmont Voice. The nonprofit Voice has an impressive roster of advisers from the print and digital world — and is, along with the Belmontonian, one of two independent sources of community journalism in the town.

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

Correction: Bob contacted us to let us know that a recent town proclamation honoring his service misstated the time when he was a member of Arlington’s Town Meeting — and that it overlapped with his early years of publishing yourArlington. “I did find it difficult to be a TM rep and report about Town Meeting,” he says.

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Using AI to tell a story about AI

Today at What Works, we have a story by one of our Northeastern graduate students, Ian Dartley, about Inside Arlington, a local news project powered by artificial intelligence. It’s no substitute for the human touch, and in fact the town already has a very good nonprofit news organization, YourArlington. But it’s an interesting experiment, and Ian does a great job of explaining it.

We also decided to have a little fun. The headline and the bullet points used to summarize Ian’s story were written by ChatGPT. So was the social media post we used to promote the story. Here’s how it looks on Threads:

How about ChatGPT finding that dog emoji? Good boy! I thought it was interesting that ChatGPT wrote fairly dull headlines and bullet points but suddenly developed a sense of fun when it came time to write a social media post.

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No, Arlington is not a ‘news desert’ — and the Globe should have done some checking

Photo (cc) 2021 by Dan Kennedy

Among the more venerable local news startups in the Boston area is YourArlington, which has been publishing in one form or another since 2006. Founded by veteran journalist Bob Sprague, the digital-only site in the past couple of years has gone nonprofit, added a governing board, and hired an editor, Judith Pfeffer, who succeeded Sprague when he retired during the summer. YourArlington offers fairly comprehensive coverage of the town and has paid freelancers. (Disclosure: Some of those paid freelancers have been Northeastern students, and I’ve been asked to speak at Sprague’s retirement party in November.)

So imagine my surprise when I read Boston Globe tech reporter Hiawatha Bray’s story about Inside Arlington, a new project that is mainly produced by artificial intelligence: feed in the transcript of a select board meeting and publish what comes out the other side. Mainly I was surprised that Bray let cofounder Winston Chen get away with this whopper: “The town of Arlington, for practical purposes, is a news desert.” Bray offered no pushback, and there’s no mention of YourArlington. (Gannett merged the weekly Arlington Advocate with the Winchester Star about a year and a half ago and eliminated nearly all town-based coverage in favor of regional stories. There’s also a local Patch.)

Bray is properly skeptical, noting that several experiments in AI-generated stories have come to a bad end and that there’s no substitute for having a reporter on site who can ask follow-up questions. Still, there’s no question that AI news reporting is coming. Nieman Lab recently reported on a hyperlocal news organization in California that’s been giving AI a workout, although that organization — so far — has had the good sense not to publish the results.

But it’s disheartening to see the Globe take at face value the claim that Arlington lacks a local news organization. Scanning through YourArlington right now, I see a story about affordable housing that was posted today, a restaurant review, a story and photos from Town Day and a reception for the new town manager. Such coverage is the lifeblood of community journalism, and it can’t be replicated with AI — and I don’t see any of it at Inside Arlington.

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How The Boston Globe could help offset the local news vacuum

Could The Boston Globe, profitable and growing, help make up for the local news vacuum in Eastern Massachusetts? The shortage of reliable community journalism became much more acute last week when Gannett told reporters at most of its weekly papers that they would be reassigned to regional beats or to one of the chain’s dailies.

The Globe could conceivably step in by reviving an idea that was perhaps before its time. Under New York Times Co. ownership, the Globe published web pages known as YourTown, one for each suburban community as well as a few of Boston’s neighborhoods. They relied heavily on aggregation — too heavily, as the Times Co. found out in court — and they competed with papers owned by GateHouse Media (now Gannett) that weren’t nearly as hollowed-out as they are today. What’s more, YourTown was part of the Globe’s free Boston.com site (this was before BostonGlobe.com), and the hyperlocal advertising that was supposed to support YourTown never materialized. John Henry shut down YourTown not long after he bought the Globe in 2013.

So what would a revived YourTown look like? Advertising isn’t nearly as important as it used to be, but the Globe has been successful in selling paid digital subscriptions. So imagine a YourTown with one full-time reporter in each community. If the Globe signed up 500 new subscribers in a community, that could bring in as much as $120,000 a year. I’m basing that on an average subscription costing $20 a month (the full cost is $30, but many people would be paying discounts).

No doubt this would work better in some places than in others. I live in Medford, a city of about 58,000 residents that, as of now, doesn’t have a single full-time reporter covering the community. Selling an extra 500 subscriptions — or more — ought to be doable.

But right next door, in Arlington (population: 43,000), there’s a good-quality nonprofit news website, Your Arlington, which would make a Globe-branded YourTown less attractive. Or consider a small town like Bedford — not only are there just 13,000 residents, but it’s the home of a well-established nonprofit news site, The Bedford Citizen.

Still, I think a revived YourTown would work well enough in a few communities that it’s worth trying. I doubt it would be a money-maker for the Globe, but it might be a break-even proposition. And the paper would be filling a real need.

Arlington’s 15-year-old local news site is expanding and going nonprofit

Photo (cc) 2021 by Dan Kennedy

YourArlington, a venerable community news site that’s been pretty much a one-man operation throughout its 15 years of existence, is going nonprofit and ramping up. Founder Bob Sprague now has a board, and he’s begun searching for his successor, writing:

I plan to continue to be the chief guardian about what is posted on this site and am very pleased to have more help from those knowledgeable about the town. I am seeking an experienced journalist to take over the day-to-day operation of the site, which had record internet traffic in August and September.

YourArlington will no longer accept advertising but is accepting grants, donations and underwriting from local businesses.

“I have lived in Arlington since 1989, and I know it is a town whose residents crave good journalism,” Sprague told me in an email. “The news YourArlington provides remains free, but the cost to produce it continues. It’s exciting to think that residents will step up and support it.”

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