A conversation with Barbara Roessner, editor of the fledgling New Bedford Light

Barbara Roessner on “SouthCoast Matters”

By Dan Kennedy

There are few local news start-ups that have received the kind of attention bestowed upon The New Bedford Light, which has been the subject of stories by The New York Times, “On the Media,” The Boston Globe and other outlets. With high-profile founders like publisher Stephen Taylor, of the Taylor family that used to own the Globe, and board member Walter Robinson of “Spotlight” fame, the Light is being watched closely across the country.

The nonprofit digital project also has a high-profile editor — Barbara Roessner, the retired editor of top Connecticut outlets such as the Hartford Courant and the state’s Hearst papers. Recently I had a chance to speak with Roessner as guest cohost the local cable television show “SouthCoast Matters” with Paul Letendre.

We interviewed Roessner for an hour. Her insights into the future of community journalism and what she hopes to accomplish at the Light were pretty interesting, and I hope you’ll agree.

Northern light in Frostbite Falls

Rocky and Bullwinkle lunch box by Wired Rocky and Bullwinkle, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

By Ellen Clegg

At first glance, the northern Minnesota town of International Falls doesn’t seem like the place for a cutting-edge experiment in sustaining local journalism. Known mostly for its frigid winters and for inspiring “Frostbite Falls, Minnesota,” the fictional home of Rocky and Bullwinkle, the town was in danger of being scorched by the hot winds of the expanding “news desert.” That story is all too familiar, but let’s fill in some blanks. Alden Global Capital, now the second-largest owner of U.S. newspapers (after Gannett), bought the weekly in 2020. In June 2021, the Journal published the final issue in its 110-year history, Burl Gilyard of MinnPost reported.

U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar, the Minnesota Democrat whose father was a newspaper columnist, had this to say: “… the International Falls Journal is a reminder of the value of local journalism,” she told Gilyard. “For more than a century, it has empowered its readers by providing them with accurate, relevant information about their communities. It has captured moments big and small that together tell a beautiful story of the region that will live on.” (In March, Klobuchar and a bipartisan coalition introduced the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, which would give publishers a “safe harbor” to negotiate collectively with digital platforms.)

The International Falls Journal was out, but not down. In a lively piece on October 20 in the Columbia Journalism Review, Lauren Harris has the details of what happened next. A cloud computing company based in New Jersey called CherryRoad had already purchased a nearby newspaper in Minnesota called the Cook County News-Herald from local owners, with plans to expand. As Harris reports, CherryRoad CEO Jeremy Gulban worked with the editor of the News-Herald, Brian Larsen, to relaunch a newspaper in International Falls after Alden closed it down rather than sell. CherryRoad has since acquired 26 small-market newspapers, according to Harris.

“People want to walk in every day and buy a paper, tell you about their grandmother’s 90th birthday, about a trip they just took,” Gulban tells Harris. “And that’s not going to go away, in my opinion, even as these communities become more digitally advanced, because that’s what small town life is all about.” Ultimately, that may mean that the discussion about what strategies work best to save local news needs to take on more of a local accent, whether it’s a Fargo twang or a Texas drawl. Newsroom experiments in urban (or urban-ish) regions with easy access to digital pipelines and a ready pool of Gen Z talent might not necessarily translate to small-town Minnesota or Iowa. Those newsrooms might not have the resources to launch digital newsletters, podcasts or big-tent events. Yet their connection to their subscribers, and the larger community, runs just as deep and is just as worthy of a sustainable future. The CherryRoad experiment certainly points the way.

A pioneering cooperatively owned media outlet in Ohio turns off the lights

Update: Laura Hazard Owen has more — a lot more — at Nieman Lab. Pretty ugly stuff.

***

By Dan Kennedy

The Devil Strip, a pioneering cooperatively owned magazine in Akron, Ohio, has closed its doors. More of an arts and culture outlet than a news organization, the operation has nevertheless stood as a successful example of an independent project owned by its employees and the community.

WKYC reports that the end came over the weekend — staff members were told on Friday that the money had run out, and on Monday they received layoff notices. The station adds:

Founded in 2014, The Devil Strip was a community-owned magazine that focused on music, arts, news, and culture in Akron. For as little as a dollar a month, readers had the opportunity to become members of the co-op. An investment of $330 allowed you to become a co-owner.

More from The Devil Strip’s Twitter account:

In March 2020, I spent a week in Northern California reporting on The Mendocino Voice, a for-profit news site that was converting to cooperative ownership. At that time the founders, publisher Kate Maxwell and editor Adrian Fernandez Baumann, told me that The Devil Strip was one of the projects they had studied.

I hope The Devil Strip might be able to reorganize and come back, though the tweet makes it sound like they’ve hit the end of the road. Founder Chris Horne has not tweeted about it except for a cryptic reference to a “sabbatical.” I’m sure he’ll have more to say soon.

Does better news coverage lead to greater voter engagement? The answer: It depends.

By Dan Kennedy

Meaningful participation in civic life isn’t possible without access to high-quality news and information. Consider the most fundamental aspect of community engagement: voting in local elections. If prospective voters lack the means to inform themselves about candidates for the select board, the city council, the school committee and the like, then it follows that they will be less likely to vote.

But is the reverse also true? Does the presence of a reliable news source result in a higher level of voter participation? To find out, I compared two towns, Bedford and Burlington, both northwest of Boston.

Read the rest at Storybench, a website about media innovation published by Northeastern University’s School of Journalism.

A for-profit newspaper asks its readers for donations in the name of its journalists

By Dan Kennedy

Several readers called this Washington Post piece to my attention over the weekend. It’s about a fundraising drive recently held by the Tampa Bay Times to offset some of the advertising revenue it lost during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Post reporter Elahe Izadi observes that the idea isn’t entirely new. The Seattle Times has engaged in community fundraising drives, and The Times-Picayune and The New Orleans Advocate (one entity) received $1 million over the summer from the Ford Foundation. For that matter, The Boston Globe pays for some of its education reporting with a $600,000 grant from the Barr Foundation.

What makes the Tampa Bay project unusual is that the paper asked for people to donate in support of individual journalists, by name. That makes me a little uncomfortable, and I hope the next time they do this they abandon that particular wrinkle.

As you may know, the Tampa Bay Times, a for-profit newspaper, is owned by the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit journalism education institute. Back when Nelson Poynter melded the Times and the institute together, the expectation was that the newspaper — rolling in cash — could use some of its revenues to support the institute.

Needless to say, that stopped a long time ago. The Times has struggled for the past few years, and has cut back its print edition to twice a week. It’s still a great ownership model, though, emulated several years ago when Philadelphia Inquirer owner Gerry Lenfest donated his paper to the nonprofit Philadelphia Foundation. After Lenfest’s death, the organization that was set up to own the Inquirer and make investments in journalism was renamed the Lenfest Institute.

By the way, I really like the front page of today’s Tampa Bay Times. Let’s just hope they’re not fundraising off a commemorative issue later this week. Go Sox!

A new study highlights the difficulties of working for small newspapers

Photo (cc) 2013 by zamo86

By Dan Kennedy

You’ll have to forgive me for not plowing through a massive new report from Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism on a survey of more than 300 newsroom employees at small (under 50,000 circulation) newspapers. The survey follows up a similar study conducted in 2016. I did look at the executive summary and the conclusion, which contain some interesting findings. Among them:

  • More than a third of those responding, or 37%, said they work between 50 and 60 hours a week, and 50% said they work 40 to 50 hours a week.

Recently the NewsGuild announced it was investigating unpaid overtime work at Gannett. But that would involve union papers, which tend to be larger. It’s no secret that small dailies and weeklies have been exploiting their employees pretty much forever. As the economics of the business become increasingly difficult, the situation may be getting worse.

  • COVID is taking a toll, with 43% saying they felt less secure in their employment than they did at the beginning of the pandemic.
  • “Participants were often highly critical of hedge-fund ownership and frequently cited nonprofit models as the way forward for the sector.”
  • Efforts to create more diverse newsrooms at small newspapers are inadequate at best.
  • Some 57% say they are more involved in digital work than they were three years ago; 49% said they are producing more stories per week than they were three years ago; and 62% said social media had become a more important tool in their work.

“Despite a challenging financial landscape, coupled with wider issues such as trust in journalism, our 2020 cohort — like their predecessors in 2016 — retained a sense of optimism about the future of their industry,” write the authors, Damian Radcliffe and Ryan Wallace. “In particular, they highlighted the importance of hyperlocal news, embracing digital and filing information gaps by covering stories not offered elsewhere.”

One fact that stands out from the survey is that the staffs at smaller newspapers are old and white, and that if there’s any hope of reaching younger, more diverse audiences, then new approaches are needed. I hope anyone working for these newspapers who’s under the age of 50 is making plans right now to start a new venture in their community.

There’s also an important unanswered question here. What would the findings look like if employees of independently owned newspapers could be separated out from those whose papers have been acquired by a corporate chain or hedge fund? Working conditions can be pretty tough at independents as well, but the journalists might have more of a sense of community service.

Finally: Laura Hazard Owen has written a good overview of the study at Nieman Lab.

In our first podcast, we interview the lead sponsor of the Mass. local news commission

By Ellen Clegg and Dan Kennedy

We are thrilled to announce the debut of our podcast, “What Works: The Future of Local News.” Every month — and soon, perhaps, every week — we will talk to journalists, policymakers and entrepreneurs about efforts they’re making to keep local news alive. (As you may have noticed, we’re working on a book with the same name.) Corporate chains and hedge funds are squeezing the life out of local news. There is a better way. We and our guests are telling that story.

In our first episode, Dan interviews Massachusetts state Rep. Lori Ehrlich, a Marblehead Democrat who co-sponsored legislation to launch a commission to study the future of local news in the Commonwealth. (Note: Dan will be a member of the commission.) Ehrlich lays out her vision and underscores the role that local journalism plays in a democracy. Dan and Ellen share a few quick takes on the news as well.

Also, many thanks to Alison Booth, who designed the graphic that accompanies our podcast, and to Promiser, whose song “WOW!” is our theme. Wow indeed.

In Chicago, public radio steps up to fill the gap created by hedge-fund ownership

By Dan Kennedy

It looks like Chicago’s number-two newspaper is about to get a huge boost. Given that the dominant daily, the Chicago Tribune, is being gutted by its new hedge-fund owner, the move can’t come soon enough.

According to media writer Rob Feder, the Chicago Sun-Times and public radio station WBEZ are seeking to merge their operations. The Sun-Times, a tabloid that bills itself as “The Hardest-Working Paper in America,” has long labored in the shadow of the Tribune. But with the Tribune now controlled by Alden Global Capital, the Sun-Times/WBEZ combination could quickly emerge as the news source of record in our third-largest city.

Sun-Times reporter Jon Seidel writes that the newspaper would become a subsidiary of Chicago Public Media. What’s unclear — and maybe those taking part in the talks haven’t figured it out themselves yet — is whether the Sun-Times would become a nonprofit or if it would remain a for-profit entity owned by a nonprofit. It matters for a variety of reasons, not least of which is that nonprofits are not allowed to endorse political candidates.

I couldn’t immediately find any numbers on how big the two entities’ reporting staffs are. But it’s significant that there would reportedly be no job reductions if the two operations are combined. WBEZ is one of public radio’s powerhouses, and the Sun-Times has maintained decent paid circulation — nearly 107,000 on Sundays and almost 100,000 on weekdays, most of it print, according to numbers it filed with the Alliance for Audited Media a year and a half ago. (The Tribune clocked in at 527,000 on Sundays and 256,000 on weekdays.)

According to a news release quoted by the Sun-Times, the combined outlet “would invest in journalism through expanded capacity to better serve Chicago; expand and engage with diverse audiences throughout the region, and expand digital capabilities to deliver a compelling digital experience across platforms and reach audiences where they are.”

Public radio can play a vitally important role in keeping regional news coverage alive in markets where legacy newspapers are shrinking. In Denver, for instance, Colorado Public Radio, combined with Denverite, which it acquired several years ago, now has what is likely the largest newsroom in the state — about 65 staff members, according to executive editor Kevin Dale. The Denver Post, cut drastically under Alden ownership, employs about 60 journalists, and The Colorado Sun, a well-regarded digital start-up, has 22, according to editor Larry Ryckman.

In Boston, public radio stations WBUR and GBH have probably the most robust news operations in the region after The Boston Globe. Unlike the Tribune, the Globe is independently owned and growing. But if that were to change, the public radio stations would be well-positioned to fill in the gap.

The WBEZ/Sun-Times announcement is the best journalism news to come out of Chicago since Alden acquired the Tribune earlier this year. Let’s hope it becomes a model for what might take place elsewhere.

Print versus digital: Will they meet in the middle?

Printing press in Vermont, Robert N. Dennis Collection, Wikimedia Commons

By Ellen Clegg

Writing for The Atlantic in 2009, Michael Hirschorn asked a burning question about the future of The New York Times: “Can America’s paper of record survive the death of newsprint? Can journalism?”

Times indeed were tough for the publicly traded Gray Lady, which was trying to weather a harrowing economic recession, a crippling credit crunch and significant drops in advertising revenue and circulation. As Hirschorn wrote at the time: “As of December [2008], its stock had fallen so far that the entire company could theoretically be had for about $1 billion. The former Times executive editor Abe Rosenthal often said he couldn’t imagine a world without the Times. Perhaps we should start.”

Downsizing followed. Pieces of the assembled Times Company empire were sold off, including The Boston Globe and the Times Company’s share of the Fenway Sports Group, which owns the Boston Red Sox.

But Hirschorn’s prediction was premature. The Times has become a bellwether in the industry as it navigates the transition from print to digital, instituting a paywall in 2011 for digital readers and launching a clutch of newsletters and standalone digital products like the Cooking and Games apps. Yet the Times still reports a print circulation for Sunday of 860,364, according to the Alliance for Audited Media report on the total combined average for the six months ending March 31, 2021. That’s down, but it’s not insignificant. Closer to home, my collaborator Dan Kennedy reported in September that the Globe’s “strategy of focusing on digital subscriptions is paying off.”

Kennedy cites recent figures from the Alliance for Audited Media. The Globe’s paid weekday circulation was 331,482 for the six-month period that ended in the first quarter of this year. That’s up 81,201, or 32%, over the same period a year earlier. The Globe’s paid Sunday circulation was 387,312, up 73,347, or 23%. It’s clear that print circulation is still sliding and paid digital subscriptions are mission critical. As Kennedy reports:

“Weekday print was 77,679, a decline of 16%. Sunday print is 135,696, down nearly 15%. Paid digital now accounts for nearly 77% of the Globe’s circulation on weekdays and 65% on Sundays — numbers that no doubt had a lot to do with the hunger for local and regional news during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

These figures demonstrate that the existential question about the future of newsprint is still smoldering. Recently, Mark Jacob of the Medill Local News Initiative at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, posited that print and digital publishing might ultimately “meet somewhere in the middle,” with 24/7 digital news streams all week long and a Sunday-only print bundle. The former Times chief executive, Mark Thompson, gave his own frank assessment during an exit interview when he stepped down in August 2020. As Sarah Scire of Nieman Lab reported, Thompson told interviewers: “I believe the Times will definitely be printed for another 10 years and quite possibly another 15 years — maybe even slightly more than that. I would be very surprised if it’s printed in 20 years’ time.”

Nancy Lane, the chief executive of the Local Media Association, an industry group, told Jacob that “we know there are markets where big metro dailies only publish a few days a week, so they’re not far off from becoming a weekly.” The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette was a pioneer among larger regional newspapers, moving print to Sunday only and handing out iPads to subscribers so they can read a digital replica edition. The iPad experiment has proven popular, publisher Walter Hussman Jr. told Jacob, so this month, he’s expanding it to another newspaper he owns, the Chattanooga Times Free Press in Tennessee. “We’re going to do what the customers want,” Hussman said.

Other legacy newspapers are following suit, according to the tally by Medill. The Tampa Bay Times publishes a print edition on Sunday and Wednesday. The McClatchy chain, which lays claim to 65 million readers in 30 markets, stopped printing Saturday papers at all of its outlets. The Casper Star-Tribune in Wyoming, a Lee Enterprises paper, dropped its Monday and Tuesday print editions last year, Jacob reports, noting “that made Wyoming the first state with no seven-days-a-week local newspapers.”

Predictions about the demise of print make a nice headline for pundits (writing primarily on digital platforms, it should be noted.) Yet reading habits differ from market to market, and across audience demographics, so the end of any single newsroom’s press run is likely to vary widely. But, as Jacob writes, one thing is clear: “The daily print habit is eroding.”

On the ground during a raucous student protest with The Colorado Sun

Colorado Sun education reporter Erica Breunlin

By Dan Kennedy

One of the best things about visiting local news organizations is getting a chance to accompany reporters on stories. I still look back fondly on my trips to New Haven about a dozen years ago, when I shadowed the staff of the New Haven Independent. And then there was the unforgettable experience of covering the first news conference on COVID-19 in Mendocino County, California, on March 5, 2020, while I was reporting on The Mendocino Voice.

I was in Denver last week learning about The Colorado Sun, an online-only project founded three years ago by a group of journalists who left The Denver Post after multiple rounds of cuts by its hedge-fund owner, Alden Global Capital. And on Monday, I struck gold.

I was sitting in on the morning news meeting when we learned that students had staged a walkout at Denver North High School to call for the removal of school board member Tay Anderson, who was censured last week for inappropriate interactions with an underage student. (Anderson has said he cut off all contact as soon as he learned she was 16.) I took a Lyft to Denver North, where hundreds of students had gathered in Denver Park.

Already on the scene were two young journalists — the Sun’s education reporter, Erica Breunlin, and photographer Olivia Sun (“no nepotism involved,” she quipped), who began a stint at the Sun through the Report for America program several months ago.

It was a wild scene. Students were chanting “Hey hey, ho ho! Tay Anderson has got to go!” And “Resign!” After gathering on the steps of the school, they headed off for Denver Public Schools headquarters, some two and a half miles away. The chants grew more profane, with “Fuck That Pedo” proving to be the most popular.

Breunlin and Sun, meanwhile, were hard at work. Breunlin had made the mistake of wearing red pumps, but that didn’t stop her from interviewing students and then running to keep up with the crowd. At one point she asked a student, “Do you feel unsafe?” “Yes.” “Why do you feel unsafe?” Pause. “It’s not right.”

Report for America photographer Olivia Sun

Breunlin was careful to point out to the students that the evidence against Anderson was ambiguous, but that didn’t stop them from demanding action. At one point, the students started chanting “Lock him up!”

I knew Breunlin was tweeting. But while I was scanning my phone outside the DPS building, I was surprised to see that the Sun had posted a full story. When had she written that? She later explained to me that it was pieced together by her editor, Lance Benzel, from her tweets and from phone calls.

“He was great, because he was telling me to really just focus on the scenery and talking to people and tweeting and really capturing that color,” she told me later. “And then he was embedding my tweets into the story, pulling information from my tweets to put in the story, so it was like I was doing the reporting. He was kind of finessing the story, so it really was a good team effort.”

Sun told me she had sought a position through Report for America, which places young journalists with newsrooms across the country, because she was burning out on her job as a photographer with the Des Moines Register.

“The institutional knowledge I gained from working somewhere like that [the Register] is really irreplaceable,” she said. “I really got to learn from old guard veteran journalists. But essentially I wanted to see what else was out there and how I could personally put my skills to a more streamlined use in just illustrating local issues.”

Ironically, both Breunlin and Sun said that what had attracted them to the Sun was the chance to work on in-depth stories rather than breaking news — and here they were, covering a breaking story. But that’s not typical of what they, or the Sun, do.

Finally, here is their story. It was updated later in the day, so it isn’t quite as urgent as the first version. But you’ll get the idea. Nor was theirs the only strong account. I thought The Denver Post, in conjunction with Chalkbeat, did a nice job as well.