Lincoln Millstein played a critical role in launching The Boston Globe’s free digital site, boston.com, in 1995. Boston.com began as a portal, and carried Globe journalism but also curated other news sites and community blogs. It had a separate staff, and the office was in downtown Boston, not in the old Dorchester plant. Lincoln went on to be executive vice president at New York Times Digital, then moved on to the Hearst Corporation, where he held a number of different roles.
When Lincoln retired as senior assistant to CEO Steven Swartz of Hearst in 2018, he wondered what was next. He found the answer by returning to his roots as a local reporter, recalling the days when he started out in the Middletown bureau of the Hartford Courant in the mid-1970s.
He and his wife, Irene Driscoll, also a longtime journalist, had upgraded their summer place in Maine in anticipation of spending more time there in retirement. Then the pandemic hit, and they moved in. He started picking up lots of local scoops on how the pandemic was affecting businesses. Not to mention the occasional deer collision. That’s how The Quietside Journal got its start.
Will digital subscriptions save the newspaper business? They had better. With advertising in a death spiral, publishers have to hope that readers will pick up the slack. Progress has been slow, but it may finally be picking up.
Marc Tracy reports in The New York Times that several newspaper chains, including Lee Enterprises and Gannett, have experienced significant increases in paid digital circulation. The problem is that these increases are spread over many papers, and the situation at any one of them remains dicey.
Even as the local newspaper industry, broadly speaking, has declined, there is still a *lot* of money to be made, and for many papers there is even cause for optimism. I took a look in my final article on the media beat, out today. https://t.co/DApHvltk2l
For instance, Gannett is up 46% over the past year, to 1.5 million paid digital subscriptions — yet it owns about 250 daily papers, including USA Today. Those numbers need to be exponentially greater if Gannett is going to re-establish itself as a lucrative business and actually start adding rather than cutting journalistic resources.
“There’s a big misperception out there that there’s a big hole in local journalism, and I think that narrative’s been created by people who aren’t sitting in local markets,” Gannett chief executive Mike Reed told Tracy. As a longtime reader of Gannett’s (previously GateHouse Media’s) community weeklies, all I’ve got to say is: You’ve got to be kidding.
In order for paid digital to work, you also have to charge enough. To go back to USA Today, I see that the cost is $9.99 a month after the first-year discount expires. That’s not bad, but it’s well behind The Boston Globe’s $30 a month. And the Globe has managed to sell a reported 235,000 digital subscriptions. Of course, the Globe, like most newspapers, offers a huge discount to new subscribers, which means it then has to figure out a way to keep them.
In order to succeed with digital subscriptions, you need good content and good technology. Many of the papers now trying to succeed in the digital space have been cut substantially. And too many newspaper websites are still clunky mish-mashes with pop-ups, pop-unders and other annoyances.
It’s better to grow than to shrink, so in that sense I guess Tracy’s story is good news. But there’s still a long way to go.
The Poynter Institute has published an important story on the difficulty of tracking layoffs of journalists, especially journalists of color. As Kristen Hare writes, very few news organizations let it be known when they’ve eliminated positions. “For an industry that prizes transparency,” she says, “we’re experts at asking for it and rotten at actually offering it.”
She’s right, and it’s something I’ve found pretty frustrating whenever I hear reports that newspapers owned by Gannett or Alden Global Capital have downsized once again. Since many news organizations follow the practice of last hired, first fired, journalists from underrepresented groups tend to be disproportionately affected — but finding out exactly what happened is difficult if not impossible. Hare offers three explanations for why this information is so hard to come by:
“Lack of public notice about who was laid off and where
“A reluctance among some journalists to say anything publicly
“Growing use of nondisclosure agreements that include non-disparagement agreements”
Hare also quotes my Northeastern journalism colleague Meredith Clark, who’s been working with the News Leaders Association to revive its annual survey of newsroom diversity — a survey that was suspended several years ago because so few news organizations were responding. Dr. Clark puts it this way:
The thing is, journalism as an institution, as a business, has a vested interest in continuing to isolate people in terms of their knowledge of what the field actually looks like. And the corporatization of journalism helps with that because it’s easy to say, “Oh, this is a problem for HR,” or, “Oh, because of legal we can’t do this.”
Clark is absolutely right, and it extends well beyond layoff and diversity numbers. I’ve been covering the news media for more than 25 years, and though I’ve found a great deal of openness to the idea that journalists should be as transparent as they expect their sources to be, I’ve encountered plenty of examples of the opposite, too.
Unfortunately, we can’t file public-records requests or demand the right to attend meetings at media outlets. Rather, we have to rely on news executives to do the right thing. If they think government officials should be compelled to release data that casts them in an unfavorable light, then why do they think it ought to be different for media organizations?
Inés San Martín and John Allen join the “What Works” podcast to discuss the founding of Crux, a digital site that covers all things Catholic, and the “corporate resurrection” that took place three days after The Boston Globe shut it down.
Crux quickly partnered with the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic service organization, and now is a hybrid business model combining nonprofit support, crowd-funding and advertising. That means Crux has much in common with digital local news startups.
You can listen to our conversation here and subscribe through your favorite podcast app — as long as it isn’t Spotify. Like a number of musicians and podcasters, we’ve pulled our content from the service out of concern over vaccine disinformation being promulgated by Spotify podcast host Joe Rogan.
For years now, news executives have been complaining bitterly that Google and Facebook repurpose their journalism without paying for it. Now it looks like they might have an opportunity to do something about it.
Earlier this week a Senate subcommittee chaired by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., heard testimony about the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act (JCPA), sponsored by her and Sen. John Kennedy, R-La. The bill would allow representatives of the news business to bargain collectively over a compensation package with Google and Facebook without running afoul of antitrust laws. If they fall short, an arbitrator would impose a settlement.
“These big tech companies are not friends to journalism,” said Klobuchar, according to an account of the hearing by Gretchen Peck of the trade magazine Editor & Publisher. “They are raking in ad dollars while taking news content, feeding it to their users, and refusing to offer fair compensation.”
There’s no question that the local news ecosystem has fallen apart, and that technology has a lot to do with it. (So do the pernicious effects of corporate and hedge-fund ownership, which has imposed cost-cutting that goes far beyond what’s necessary to run a sustainable business.) But is the JCPA the best way to go about it?
The tech giants themselves have been claiming for years that they provide value to news organizations by sending traffic their way. True, except that the revenues brought in by digital advertising have plummeted over the past two decades. A lawsuit brought by newspaper publishers argues that the reason is Google’s illegal monopoly over digital advertising, cemented by a secret deal with Facebook not to compete.
Though Google and Facebook deny any wrongdoing, the lawsuit strikes me as a more promising strategy than the JCPA, which raises some serious questions about who would benefit. A similar law in Australia has mainly served to further enrich Rupert Murdoch.
Writing at Nieman Lab, Joshua Benton argues, among other things, that simply taxing the technology companies and using the money to fund tax subsidies for local news would be a better solution. Benton cites one provision of the Build Back Better legislation — a payroll tax deduction for hiring and retaining journalists.
In fact, though, the payroll provision is just one of three tax credits included in the Local Journalism Sustainability Act; the others would reward subscribers and advertisers. I have some reservations about using tax credits in a way that would indiscriminately reward hedge-fund owners along with independent operators. But I do think it’s worth a try.
Even though local news needs a lot of help, probably in the form of some public assistance, it strikes me that the Klobuchar-Kennedy proposal is the least attractive of the options now on the table.
In a wide-ranging conversation with Ellen and Dan, Crossley shares her views on the thinning out of local news outlets and offers sage advice for next-generation journalists. Callie and Dan were regulars on “Beat the Press,” the award-winning GBH-TV show that featured media commentary, which ended its 22-year run in 2021. In 2019, both of them received the Yankee Quill Award from the New England Society of Newspaper Editors.
Lately I’ve been trying to figure out the where the line is for free speech in the editorial sections of nonprofit news organizations. I know they can’t endorse political candidates lest they lose their nonprofit status, the result of a law rammed through the Senate by Lyndon Johnson back in the 1950s. And a few people have told me that nonprofits can’t endorse specific legislation, either.
But what else? When Ellen and I asked Art Cullen, editor of Iowa’s Storm Lake Times, on the podcast if he’d considered taking the Times nonprofit, he said he hadn’t because he was afraid he wouldn’t be able to write editorials. Cullen won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing in 2017.
Well, here’s a concrete example. The Salt Lake Tribune — the first major daily newspaper in the U.S. to become a nonprofit — recently ran a tough editorial holding state leaders to account for their failures in responding to COVID-19. It began:
That wan fluttering noise you hear coming from the direction of the Capitol building is the sound of the state of Utah waving the white flag of surrender in the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic.
It’s tragic. It’s disgraceful. And there is lots of blame to go around.
Naturally, the editorial led to death threats, as Erik Wemple reports in The Washington Post. Although the threats came after Fox News host Sean Hannity denounced the Tribune for advocating vaccine mandates, what Hannity said, in Wemple’s recounting, wasn’t even remotely a call for violence or threats. It’s just America in 2022.
The death threats notwithstanding, the Tribune’s editorial is an indication that nonprofits can in fact take a strong editorial stand on matters of public interest, including governmental actions, without risking their tax-exempt status. They should be able to endorse candidates and advocate for legislation if they so choose. But at least they are not entirely prohibited from exercising their freedom of speech.
At least two New England newspaper publishers have begun using artificial intelligence rather than carbon-based life forms to report on real-estate transactions.
The Republican of Springfield, online as MassLive, and Hearst Connecticut Media, comprising the New Haven Register and seven other daily newspapers, are running stories put together by an outfit called United Robots. MassLive’s stories are behind a hard paywall, but here’s a taste from the Register of what such articles look like.
United Robots, a Swedish company, touts itself as offering “news automation at massive scale using AI and data science.”
Last year I wrote about artificial intelligence and journalism for GBH News. I’m skeptical, but it depends on how you use it. In some ways AI has made our lives easier by, for instance, enhancing online search and powering the inexpensive transcription of audio interviews. But using it to write stories? Not good. As I wrote last year:
Such a system has been in use at The Washington Post for several years to produce reports about high school football. Input a box score and out comes a story that looks more or less like an actual person wrote it. Some news organizations are doing the same with financial data. It sounds innocuous enough given that much of this work would probably go undone if it couldn’t be automated. But let’s curb our enthusiasm.
Using AI to produce stories about real-estate transactions may seem fairly harmless. But let me give you an example of why it’s anything but.
In November, I accompanied Tom Breen, the managing editor of the New Haven Independent, as he knocked on the doors of houses that had been foreclosed on recently. The Independent is a digital nonprofit news site.
Breen has spent a considerable amount of time and effort in housing court and poring through online real-estate transactions. From doing that, he could see patterns that had emerged. Like Boston and many other cities, New Haven has experienced an explosion in real-estate prices, and a lot of owners are flipping their properties to cash in. In too many cases there are victims — low-income renters whose new landlords, often absentee, jack up the rents. Breen takes the data he’s gathered and rides his bike into the neighborhoods, knocking on doors and talking with residents. It’s difficult, occasionally dangerous work. Once he was attacked by a pit bull.
We didn’t have much luck on our excursion. No one was home at either of the two houses we visited, so Breen left notes behind asking the residents to call him.
“If investors are swapping properties at $100,000, $200,000 above the appraised value and tens of thousands of dollars above what they bought it for two days prior,” Breen told me, “all that can do is drive up costs that are passed down to the renters — to the people actually living in the building.”
The result of Breen’s enterprise has been a series of stories like this one. The lead:
Tenants of a three-family “lemon” of a house on Liberty Street are wondering how two landlords managed to walk away with $180,000 by double-selling a property that they say remains a dump.
You’re not going to get that kind of reporting from artificial intelligence.
Now, of course, you might argue — and some have, as I noted in my GBH News piece — that AI saves journalists from drudge work, freeing them up to do exactly the kind of enterprise reporting that Breen does. But story ideas often arise from immersion in boring data and sitting through lengthy proceedings; outsource the data collection to a robot, and it’s likely that will be the end of it.
At the corporate chains that own so many of our newspapers, there’s little doubt that AI will be used as just another opportunity to cut. Hearst and Advance, the national chain that owns The Republican, are not the worst or most greedy newspapers chains by any means. But both of them have engaged in more than their share of cost-cutting over the years.
And it’s spreading. United Robots’ U.S. clients include the McClatchy newspaper chain and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, part of the Cox chain. No doubt the Big Two — Gannett and the groups owned by Alden Global Capital — won’t be far behind.
They and their colleagues examined attitudes about the regulation of social media in four countries: the U.K., Mexico, South Korea and the U.S. With Facebook (or Meta) under fire for its role in amplifying disinformation and hate speech, their research has implications for how the platforms might be regulated — and whether such regulations would be accepted by the public.
In Quick Takes, Ellen and Dan kick around WBEZ Radio’s acquisition of the Chicago Sun-Times, which will result in the newspaper’s becoming a nonprofit organization. They also discuss an announcement that a new nonprofit news organization will be launched in Houston with $20 million in seed money. Plus a tiny Easter egg from country artist Roy Edwin Williams.
Big news out of Houston, where several major philanthropies have announced they intend to raise $20 million to start a nonprofit news project — just the latest major metropolitan area to embrace nonprofit journalism.
What makes it a bit unusual is that the Houston Chronicle, the legacy daily, is owned by Hearst, generally regarded as one of the better newspapers chains. Of course, all corporate chains are problematic, but Houston is not like Baltimore, where hotel magnate Stewart Bainum is launching the nonprofit The Baltimore Banner after losing out to the hedge fund Alden Global Capital in his bid to buy The Baltimore Sun.
Local news is a public service — one that’s been in sharp decline. This project demonstrates that local philanthropies can, and need to, play a transformative role in rebuilding and sustaining independent, original reporting in service of communities.
Here’s an excerpt from the press release:
With an anticipated launch in late 2022 or early 2023 on multiple platforms, the new nonprofit news organization will elevate the voices of Houstonians and address the needs of the community as identified in the American Journalism Project’s extensive research. Its wide-ranging coverage will be available for free to readers as well as other news organizations.
I wish them well, of course. Still, it’s hard not to wonder if the money could go to better use elsewhere. Greater Houston residents already get first-rate coverage of state politics and public policy through The Texas Tribune, and the Chronicle is presumably doing a better job than your typical Alden or Gannett paper.