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.

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.

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.

How events help local news organizations connect with their audience

Bedford Citizen managing editor Julie McCay Turner, right, takes a photo of students and staff from Shawsheen Tech along with Bedford Police Chief Robert Bongiorno.

By Dan Kennedy

Community events give local news organizations an opportunity to connect with their audience — and to expand their audience as well. With that in mind, I drove to Bedford, Massachusetts, on Saturday morning for Bedford Town Day in order to check in with The Bedford Citizen, a nonprofit website that combines paid and volunteer staff.

The Citizen, like about 100 other organizations, had set up a booth. Four or five volunteers rotated in and out while managing editor Julie McCay Turner and staff reporter Mike Rosenberg made their way through the crowd, which I’d estimate in the hundreds but could have been larger.

“We hope to get a few sign-ups,” said executive director Teri Morrow. She added that another goal was to get story ideas from community members. One person she had talked to, she said, had suggested profiles of interesting but relatively unknown people and organizations.

On the table were business cards and a larger sign with a QR code taking you to the Citizen’s website as well as free copies of the Citizen’s 2020 and 2021 Bedford Guide, a glossy publication that’s fill with ads and that serves as a fundraiser for the organization.

Turner was making her way through the fairgrounds, taking pictures and greeting people. She connected with Brian O’Donnell, a Bedford representative on the Shawsheen Valley Technical High School in nearby Billerica. O’Donnell introduced her to Allison Cammarata, the school’s brand-new director of community services and workforce development, who serves as the school’s public relations person.

Table sign with QR code

“We are relentlessly local,” Turner told Cammarata, explaining that she wants to run stories about Shawsheen in the Citizen but only if they feature Bedford students. Turner then called out “Bob! Bob!” Police Chief Robert Bongiorno, was walking by, and he stopped and chatted.

The Citizen competes with a Gannett weekly, the Bedford Minuteman, a once independent paper that now provides minimal coverage of the town. The Minuteman did not have a booth at Town Day, although it did send a photographer.

O’Donnell praised the Minuteman’s coverage of Shawsheen, saying that the school, which serves five towns, fits with the paper’s mission of reporting on regional news. “But in terms of what’s happening in Bedford — events, issues, discussions, exchanges — that’s happening in the Citizen now,” he said.

As I made the rounds and talked with people about where they get their local news, I found a high level of awareness about the Citizen, which was founded in 2012.

“The thing I like about the Citizen is that if there’s anything with the school committee or the select board or any issues that come up, they report on both sides of the issue,” said Alice Churella. “It seems to me to be totally unbiased.”

Others, though, said they got their news mainly through word of mouth, Facebook groups, the official town website and emails from the school department.

“I don’t read it regularly,” said Anna Smiechowski of the Citizen. “If I know something’s happening in town or I want to look something up, I’ll search it.”

In the rural heartland, indie newspapers survive with a back-to-basics approach

By Dan Kennedy

It’s something I’ve seen over and over in tracking the state of local news for the past dozen years. Despite the very real challenges community journalism faces from technological and cultural change, news organizations that are not burdened by corporate chain ownership can continue to serve as vital, financially sustainable operations.

A new report by Tony Baranowski, director of local media for Times Citizen Communications in Iowa Falls, Iowa, makes the point. While he was a fellow at the West Virginia University Reed College of Media and the West Virginia Press Association’s NewStart Program, he studied several newspapers in the Upper Midwest in depth and surveyed more than 50 small newspaper publishers across the country.

What he found was that, despite the narrative that local newspapers are dying, these independent papers were keeping their heads above water. Baranowski writes:

The strongest community news outlets are locally owned and managed by families or individuals with local ties that stretch back decades. That’s not an easy circumstance to replicate for a would-be publisher looking to buy or launch a news organization in a rural town, but it’s not a prerequisite, either. In fact, the common denominator is less longevity than fostering community spirit and pride within both staff-generated content and advertising in a traditional newspaper’s pages.

Among the people interviewed in Baranowski’s report is Jim Slonoff, the co-founder and publisher of The Hinsdalean, a free paper launched in suburban Chicago in 2006. I wrote about The Hinsdalean a couple of months ago to highlight its practice of signing up members of the community to write essays on a variety of topics. Although running unpaid columns is hardly new territory for local newspapers, The Hinsdalean actively recruits writers and limits them to a two-year term, ensuring a steady stream of fresh voices.

Like many of the people Baranowski spoke with, Slonoff said The Hinsdalean’s emphasis remains on print rather than digital. Slonoff said:

That’s the thing I don’t get about newspapers in general, because so many of them put so much money and resources into their websites with no return. We took the 180 degrees approach and said our money is coming from display advertising and real estate advertising. Why would we not focus on that? Facebook doesn’t bring us any money, Twitter and Instagram don’t. There’s nothing I get out of it that I know of, except we’re there. And we get a lot of likes and things and get a lot of this and comments and that feels good.

That might seem like a retrograde approach, but it’s one I’ve heard from a number of publishers who have to figure out how to break even.

The Provincetown Independent actually charges more for digital subscriptions than for a print-plus-digital combination, telling readers that “if we were to go online only, the savings in not having to print and mail the paper would not be anywhere near enough to make up for the loss of print advertising revenue.”

Last week I interviewed Jerry and Ann Healey, who sold their Colorado Community Media newspaper group earlier this year to The Colorado Sun, a start-up digital news organization, in a deal put together by the National Trust for Local News. They told me that, in many cases, when they offered a package combining digital and print, their advertisers weren’t interested — they wanted to be seen in the print newspaper. “In the community newspaper space, print is still a viable thing,” Jerry Healey said, “and the advertisers know that too.”

Then there’s Kris O’Leary of Central Wisconsin Newspapers, who told Baranowski that her readership includes Amish and Mennonite communities. Not much digital potential there.

Another of Baranowski’s findings is that newspapers with offices in the communities they cover tend to be healthier than those that have consolidated operations far from the people they serve.

If this sounds like Baranowski is recommending a back-to-the-future approach, it may be because he’s surveying local journalism in the rural heartland. A digital-first approach makes sense in affluent urban and suburban areas where readers can be persuaded to sign up for online-only subscriptions.

But in some parts of the country, technological advances have not changed the media all that much over the past several decades. It is in such places that journalism can do well by following a model that would have been familiar to our grandparents — independently owned newspapers, rooted in the community and supported by local businesses.