On our latest podcast “What Works” podcast, Dan and Ellen talk with Crystal Good, the founder of Black by God, the West Virginian. She’s a sixth-generation West Virginian, and she’s a storyteller and poet. She has also been a model and an advocate. She describes Black by God as an “emerging news and storytelling organization centering Black voices from the Mountain State.” She wants to provide a more nuanced portrayal of Black residents in the Appalachian region.
Dan and Northeastern graduate student Dakotah Kennedy first heard Crystal Good speak in September at the Radically Rural conference in Keene, New Hampshire — not from the stage but from the audience. Dan and Dakotah wished she had been onstage, so we invited her onto the podcast, and she graciously agreed. Black by God has a lively website and publishes periodic print editions — which Crystal sometimes delivers herself.
Dan has a Quick Take on social media. It’s in free fall. Is that good for local news? Bad? Or does it just mean a changed environment that they’re all going to have to navigate? Ellen’s Quick Take is on a hyperlocal mogul named Mark Adams. He’s expanding his empire into Montana.
On Thursday I received copies of an email from multiple sources about yet another round of layoffs that our largest newspaper chain is planning. The hammer is scheduled to drop on Dec. 1 and 2, just in time for the holidays.
The email comes from Henry Faure Walker, a Gannett executive who is described on the company’s website as “the Chief Executive Officer of Newsquest Media Group since 2014, managing more than 165 regional brands in the U.K. with an audience of 30 million.” He is also chair of the News Media Association, a British industry group. His operational role at Gannett is not listed in his company bio, but Rick Edmonds of Poynter reported recently that he’s the interim replacement for Maribel Perez Wadsworth, who was the president of Gannett Media and the publisher of USA Today.
The most recent round of cuts was announced only last month. At that time, the chain imposed unpaid furloughs, a 401(k) freeze, a hiring moratorium and other measures on its beleaguered employees, so this really adds insult to injury. The text of Walker’s email follows:
Dear Gannett News Division:
First and foremost, I want to thank you all for your commitment, hard work and professionalism during these unsettling times.
I have begun working with … the team to address the challenges and opportunities ahead and put the News operation on a sounder footing.
It’s important to provide you with visibility into current conditions and the next steps for our News division, as we are not immune to the economic conditions many industries and companies are facing, particularly in the media sector.
While we have taken several steps already, we must enter the new year in a stronger economic position, and the reality is that our News cost base is currently too high for the revenues it generates. Regretfully, this means we will be implementing further reductions.
I appreciate that this will impact valued colleagues, and we are committed to ensuring they are treated with the utmost respect and courtesy throughout this difficult process. Our goal is to be as transparent as possible. Notifications will occur on Dec. 1 and 2.
Please know that many non-payroll savings have also been targeted, and reducing our workforce is not the preferred course of action. In addition, other similar actions are being taken in other divisions across our organization.
We are going through challenging times, but we will get through this, and build a stronger business that underpins the phenomenal, trusted journalism you do and ensure that we can continue to deliver for our communities for many years to come. Thank you.
On this week’s podcast, Dan and Ellen talk with Mary Margaret White, the CEO of Mississippi Today, a nonprofit digital news outlet that has been covering the state for more than six years. The staff has a robust presence at the statehouse in Jackson and provides cultural and sports coverage as well.
Dan has a Quick Take on a major transition at the New Haven Independent. Last week the indefatigable founder, Paul Bass, announced he was stepping aside as editor of the Independent. The new editor will be Tom Breen, currently the managing editor. Luckily, Bass isn’t going anywhere but will continue to play a major role.
Ellen’s Quick Take is on another big transition at The Texas Tribune. Economist Sonal Shah is becoming CEO at the Tribune in January. Shah, who has had leadership roles at Google, the White House, and other high-impact organizations, replaces co-founder Evan Smith, who is taking a role as senior adviser to the Emerson Collective. It’s a big change at a pioneering nonprofit newsroom. Smith says he’ll continue to spread the local news gospel in his new role.
When I speak to audiences about the future of local news, inevitably I’m asked if I think newspapers at some point will end their print editions once and for all. I always respond that I’m not a good person to answer that question — 25 years ago, I assumed they’d be long gone by now. Not only are they still here, but even as digitally focused a news outlet as The Boston Globe was still making more than half of its money from print as recently as a year ago.
I do think that we’re going to see newspapers cut back on print days, eventually moving to one big weekend print paper with digital distribution the rest of the week. But that’s not going to happen as long as publishers believe there’s still money in print advertising and circulation, both of which command a premium compared to digital.
Which is why I was intrigued by an announcement by the Advance chain last week that its three Albama and one Mississippi newspaper will end their print editions altogether by early 2023.
“We remain deeply committed to serving our local communities and are producing high-quality journalism and reaching more people than ever before,” said Tom Bates, president of Alabama Media Group, in a statement published by AL.com. “At the same time, we’re adjusting to how Alabama readers want their information today, which increasingly is on a mobile device, not in a printed newspaper.”
I’m not going to snark. Advance is a privately held company owned by the Newhouse family, and I think they are genuinely trying to find a way forward. In Massachusetts, Advance owns The Republican of Springfield and MassLive.com, which are run more or less as separate operations.
A better analogy to Alabama and Mississippi, though, is Advance’s New Jersey properties. Advance publishes the largest daily newspaper in that state — The Star-Ledger of Newark — and two smaller dailies, The Times of Trenton and the South Jersey News, as well as several smaller publications. All of them operate under the NJ.com banner, and the emphasis is on digital subscriptions. There’s a unified newsroom of about 115 journalists who feed stories to both NJ.com and to the print editions. It’s similar to what Hearst is doing in Connecticut with one newsroom serving the New Haven Register, the Connecticut Post, several smaller papers and the digital-only CTInsider.
The difference in Alabama is that Advance is ending the print editions and focusing on its digital-only operations, shutting down three Alabama papers — The Birmingham News, the Huntsville Times and the Press-Register of Mobile — and The Mississippi Press.
Is this smart? In 2012, Advance cut The Times-Picayune back to three days of print at a time when broadband penetration in New Orleans and the surrounding area lagged behind other parts of the country. An outcry resulted, and the move was reversed the following year. But the damage had been done; The Times-Picayune, a once-great paper that had served as a lifeline following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, ended up being acquired in 2019 by an independent daily, The Advocate of Baton Rouge.
Even so, 2012 was a long time ago. Today, according to the Alabama Media Group, AL.com is in the top 10 of local news websites in the U.S., reaching about 11 million users each month. Statista reports that broadband penetration in 2019 was about 81% in Alabama and about 76% in Mississippi; no doubt those figure are higher today. (By comparison, that number was 88% in Massachusetts.) Still, Alabama and Mississippi are among our poorest states, and the move away from print is going to leave some people behind.
“The print side of our business does not make economic sense in Alabama,” Bates told Alexandra Bruell (free link) of The Wall Street Journal. Bruell reported that the circulation of Advance’s three Alabama papers is down to around 30,000, a drop from 260,000 a decade ago.
So this seems like a good time for Advance to try moving into a digital-only future. If it enhances the bottom line, then other publishers can be expected to follow suit. And if that, in turn, provides a boost to Advances local journalism, then that will be good news for everyone.
Ellen has a Quick Take on a recent article by Dan Froomkin in Washington Monthly. Froomkin, who is now editor of Press Watch, used to work for The Washington Post and has been critical of owner Jeff Bezos. Froomkin is taking aim at the content management system developed by the Post under Bezos. The Post licenses this system to other news outlets around the country. That kind of market power worries Froomkin.
Dan’s Quick Take is on the state of journalism in Vermont, a subject we talked about on a recent podcast with Anne Galloway, the founding editor of VTDigger, a well-regarded digital startup. Dan’s topic is about a good piece of media criticism. Bill Schubart, a journalist who writes a column for VTDigger, wrote a column critiquing a recent New Yorker piece by Bill McKibben on Vermont journalism. But Schubart also looked inward and wrote that Digger itself is having problems.
There is huge news today in the world of independent community journalism. Paul Bass, the founder of the New Haven Independent, is stepping aside as editor while Tom Breen, currently the managing editor, moves up to the top position. Bass has been talking about making this change for a while, and on Tuesday he made it official.
Bass, 62, isn’t going anywhere. He’ll continue as executive director of the Online Journalism Project, the nonprofit organization he set up to oversee the Independent, the Valley Independent Sentinel in New Haven’s northwest suburbs, and WNHH Radio, a low-power FM station that specializes in community programming. He’ll also continue to report the news for the Independent and host a show on WNHH.
Breen, 34, joined the staff of the Independent as a reporter in 2018 and later became managing editor. Breen is a dogged journalist; last November, I accompanied him as he knocked on the doors of houses that had been foreclosed on, a regular practice of his that has yielded important stories.
The Independent is one of the oldest and still among the best nonprofit local news startups in the country. It was the primary subject of my 2013 book, “The Wired City,” and it will also be featured in “What Works: The Future of Local News,” a book-in-progress by Ellen Clegg and me.
Congratulations to Paul and Tom. This is a big change for a news organization that has been remarkably stable over the course of its 17-year existence.
You’ve seen plenty of bad news about Gannett here — layoffs, reassigning staff away from local news coverage, closing papers and, more recently, imposing furloughs, pension freezes and buyouts. With more than 200 daily newspapers across the country, what happens at Gannett matters. Its ongoing shrinkage is a significant part of the local news crisis.
So I was interested to see that Gannett chief executive Michael Reed talked — OK, exchanged emails — with Gretchen A. Peck of the trade publication Editor & Publisher. I wanted to see what sort of story he’s telling these days about the path forward for his debt-addled chain, which nevertheless found a way to pay him $7.7 million last year.
Not surprisingly, it turns out to be a lot of the same old, same old — an emphasis on digital subscriptions despite having little journalism to attract new readers as well as ancillary businesses ranging from events to sports betting. At least he didn’t mention NFTs this time.
One thing I didn’t know was that Gannett’s consumer product website, Reviewed.com, is based in Cambridge, and that it employs more than 100 people, including scientists, product experts, writers and editors. The idea is similar to Wirecutter, founded as an independent site and later acquired by The New York Times. Buy something through Reviewed.com and Gannett gets a cut of the action. Reed told Peck:
If you look across the larger media landscape throughout the last decade, we have seen expansion beyond traditional news into varied product offerings and different types of content. As the traditional revenue streams we largely relied on, such as print advertising and print subscriptions, continue to transition to digital, we are also adapting to new revenue opportunities. These diversifying revenue streams help us to ensure we can support our ongoing news efforts in an increasingly digital world.
Reed added that progress continues to be made in paying down the debt that Gannett took on when it merged with GateHouse Media in 2019. Gannett these days is essentially GateHouse under a different name; Reed himself was the head of GateHouse before the merger.
Despite Reed’s happy talk, the company continues to throw newspapers and staff members overboard. According to Ray Schultz of Publishers Daily, Gannett is selling two papers in New Mexico and has put its Phoenix printing facility on the block for $47.4 million. Urban Milwaukee’s Bruce Murphy reports that six veteran journalists are leaving Gannett’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Local opinion content continues to be slashed as well, writes Mark Pickering in Contrarian Boston.
Essentially Reed is telling the same story he’s always told: Times are tough, and we have to keep cutting. Eventually, though, digital subscriptions and our non-news investments will begin to pay off and support our journalism. It’s just that “eventually” never seems to come. Still, there’s considerable value in reading about Reed’s assessment of how Gannett can pull out of its downward spiral; Peck and E&P deserve credit for getting him on the record.
Meanwhile, in Eastern Massachusetts and across the country, independent news projects are rising up to fill the gap left by Gannett’s retreat. The latest is The Concord Bridge, a digital-and-print nonprofit competing with Gannett’s Concord Journal, ghosted by the shift from local to regional coverage last spring.
You can access a complete list of independent local news outlets in Massachusetts by clicking here.
Jeff holds degrees from George Washington University and from Boston University Law School, and before entering journalism, he briefly practiced law. He was also an assistant to John Silber, the prickly president of Boston University.
Prompted by a column Jeff wrote in June, and spurred on by the impending midterm elections, the podcast features a free-form discussion of whether newspaper editorial pages should endorse candidates in presidential races. It’s a hot topic these days — this piece by Joshua Benton in Nieman Lab is one of just several to note that endorsements are on the wane.
Dan has a Quick Take on a big story out of Woburn, a suburb north of Boston. Woburn has an independent newspaper and is covered by the Globe and other outlets. But this story wasn’t broken by any of the usual suspects. Ellen’s Quick Take is on an opinion column in The Washington Post by Perry Bacon Jr., who calls for $10 billion in government funding to support a news outlet in every congressional district in the country. As you’ll hear, Ellen and Dan both have some problems with Bacon’s proposal.
On our latest podcast, Dan and Ellen talk with U.S. Rep. David Cicilline, who represents the First District of Rhode Island in Congress. Cicilline, who is a Democrat, is part of a bipartisan group of U.S. representatives and senators sponsoring the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act. Co-sponsors include Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar from Minnesota; Republican Sen. John Kennedy from Louisiana; Republican Rep. Ken Buck from Colorado; and Senate and House Judiciary Committee chairs Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, and Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat.
The JCPA would remove legal obstacles to news organizations’ ability to negotiate collectively and secure fair terms from gatekeeper platforms that proponents say use news content without paying for it. Critics counter that it’s more complicated than that. The legislation also allows news publishers to demand arbitration if they reach an impasse in those negotiations.
Ellen has a Quick Take on new research being done by the Institute for Nonprofit News. The INN just released 2022 fact sheets on three types of nonprofit newsrooms: local news, state and regional news, and national and global news. While each group shares some similarities, INN found that geography matters in terms of revenue models and audience development.
Dan takes a few more whacks at Gannett because newsrooms are being hit with unpaid furloughs, buyouts, a freeze on their pension benefits and more.
On this week’s podcast, Dan and Ellen talk with David Dahl, editor of The Maine Monitor. David was most recently a deputy managing editor at The Boston Globe. Among his jobs at the Globe: directing hyperlocal Your Town coverage at Boston.com, an initiative that ended not long after John Henry bought the paper in 2013. The pull of Maine was strong, however. He and his wife, Kathy, have a home in Friendship, Maine. When he decided that he was ready to turn the page, he looked Down East.
Dan has a Quick Take on Bulletin, a feature developed by Facebook to compete with Substack that included local journalism produced by people of color. Sarah Scire has the scoop: Bulletin is shutting down. Ellen has a Quick Take is on a new kind of media audit by the Alliance for Audited Media, which has been verifying newspaper circulation for 108 years. The organization says it’s branching out, to audit standards of ethics in journalism. Ellen asks: Why?
Dakotah Kennedy, a graduate student at Northeastern University (who is not related to Dan), contributes on-the-ground interviews from attendees at the recent Radically Rural conference in New Hampshire. Our recent podcast with Terry Williams, creator of the conference, can be found here.