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.

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.

An ambitious plan to save local news by investing in community journalism

Golden, Colo., is among the cities and towns served by Colorado Community Media

By Dan Kennedy

Rick Edmonds of Poynter interviewed Elizabeth Hansen Shapiro and Lillian Ruiz about the National Trust for Local News, a project they founded to invest in community journalism projects around the country.

Their goal is to raise $300 million in order to finance deals like the purchase earlier this year of Colorado Community Media, a chain of two dozen weekly and monthly papers in the Denver suburbs. The papers are now being run by The Colorado Sun, a start-up website founded by a number of former Denver Post journalists.

My colleague Ellen Clegg and I interviewed Hansen Shapiro recently to ask her about the National Trust. We especially wanted to learn more about how she had arrived at the $300 million figure, which she had told Ben Smith of The New York Times might be enough to save every independent community paper in the United States that is at risk of shutting down or being sold off to a chain owner.

She told us that her estimate was based on research showing that there are about 4,000 independent weekly and daily papers — what she called “sub-large-chain titles,” to include those held by small regional chains — with perhaps as many as 2,400 owners. Here is how she described the National Trust’s strategy:

We’re approaching it two ways. One is inbound interest from publishers who are ready to retire and want to figure out what the next move is. Some of them have successors lined up, but they don’t have financing. Some of them don’t have successors lined up and their businesses are failing. And that’s the house-on-fire version. And some of them have great businesses. They don’t have a successor. They think they want to be out of the business in two years, and they’re like, could we start a conversation now so that so we can figure out something?

Any paper can be kept out of the hands of a hedge fund or a corporate chain is a victory.

How public pension funds are helping to finance the destruction of local news

This is Cerebrus, not Cerberus. Photo (cc) 2006 by Andrew Becraft

By Dan Kennedy

Public employee pension funds are investing — perhaps unwittingly — in the destruction of local news.

That’s the most important takeaway in a recent report by Julie Reynolds for the Nieman Journalism Lab. Reynolds writes that Alden Global Capital, the hedge fund that has destroyed newspapers across the country, has financed a number of its deals with the help of Cerberus Capital Management, a private equity firm. That includes Alden’s acquisition earlier this year of Tribune Publishing, which owns major-market papers such as the Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun and, in New England, the Hartford Courant.

Cerberus’ top investor is the California Public Employees Retirement System, followed by the Public School Employees’ Retirement System of Pennsylvania. Eight of Cerberus’ top 10 investors are public employee pension funds. “Perhaps it’s time to demand that public pensions divest from shadow banks that aid and abet the aggressive dismantling of the free press,” Reynolds writes.

Cerberus turns out to have quite a track record, and it extends well beyond its role in helping Alden destroy local news. As Reynolds reports:

The firm has been accused of profiting from the Sandy Hook school massacre, because it promised to unload its ownership in gun manufacturers but then didn’t — at least not until its company Remington Arms went bankrupt in 2018. And Cerberus is the owner and founder of Tier 1 Group, the company that trained four members of the Tiger Squad that assassinated and dismembered Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The role of public pension funds in newspapers isn’t new. CNHI, based in Montgomery, Alabama, owns 89 local news outlets in 21 states, including The Eagle-Tribune of North Andover and its affiliated papers north of Boston. CNHI, in turn, is owned by the Retirement Systems of Alabama.

But though CNHI has cut deeply over the years, its track record isn’t nearly as grim as that of Alden. At least in Massachusetts, its newspapers remain well-staffed enough to do a reasonably good job of covering their communities.

In the trade magazine Editor & Publisher, Gretchen A. Peck reports that Jon Schleuss, president of the NewsGuild-CWA, wonders if Alden’s purpose in buying up newspapers is to exert political influence aimed at staving off regulation:

Schleuss speculated whether there might be political play behind these newspaper acquisitions. The NewsGuild president also opined about legislative remedies that Congress might enact to force hedge funds like Alden to be “radically transparent” about their investors. That would allow the public to discern if investors are earnest and market-minded or if they’re bad actors attempting to hold sway over the press.

It’s a real concern, though to date I haven’t seen any signs that Alden has an agenda other than cutting its papers to the bone and squeezing out whatever profits remain.

Peck’s article is also accompanied by a “publisher’s note” that is interesting mainly because it represents one of the few occasions when Alden has deigned to address the way it’s running its newspapers:

Publisher’s Note: E&P reached out to Heath Freeman of Alden Global Capital, welcoming his comment and contribution. The company’s crisis manager responded, post-deadline, with the following remark he attributed to MediaNews Group’s COO, Guy Gilmore: “A subscription-driven revenue model, long overdue payments from tech behemoths including Google and Facebook for the use of our content and the modernization of non-editorial operations are some of the keys to ensuring local newspapers can thrive over the long term and serve the local communities that depend on them.”

Black newspapers across the country collaborate via Word In Black

By Dan Kennedy

The trade magazine Editor & Publisher reports that 10 Black newspapers have created a network to provide news in communities of color across the country. The Effort, called Word In Black, is part of the Fund for Black Journalism, which was launched a year ago by the Local Media Association, according to E&P’s Evelyn Mateos.

Word In Black, she adds, “covers racial equity, K-12 education, police reform, healthcare disparities, social justice, politics, opinion, sports and LGBTQ.” Nick Charles, who’s heading up the project, tells Mateos:

[These] 10 different publishers sometimes have different mindsets, different politics, and they live in different parts of the country. So, people in Texas don’t have the same ideas about a lot of things that people in New York may have. But their affection and love for communities are what binds them. Collaboration is going on because people realize that to survive and to meet our mission as journalists, we have to band together.

The papers range from New York to Sacramento, but nothing locally. It would be great to see The Bay State Banner become part of this. It would also be interesting to see if The Emancipator, a nationally focused website sponsored by The Boston Globe and BU’s Center for Antiracist Research, could find a way to collaborate.

Oases in the News Desert?

The capitol in Springfield, Ill. (Screenshot from The Capitol Connection blog)

By Ellen Clegg

In a flurry of summer’s-end legislative action, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a measure that could have broad implications for the news industry in the Land of Lincoln. Illinois Senate Bill 134, which Pritzker signed into law on Aug. 23, establishes a 15-person Local Journalism Task Force to “conduct a comprehensive study relative to communities underserved by local journalism in Illinois.” As first reported by Andrew Hensel of the Illinois Radio Network, the task force will launch on Jan. 1, 2022, and is expected to recommend a slate of public policy and business strategy solutions (both private and nonprofit) to Pritzker and the Illinois General Assembly by Jan. 1, 2023.

Granted, that seems like a long way off, especially when clocked in Pandemic Time. But the new law is just the latest sign that the gutting of local newsrooms and the spread of “news deserts” is of more than academic interest.

State and local politicians need to get their message out, if only to demonstrate their continued relevance and constituent service to voters. And as hard-right, nationalized news sources churn through social media channels and gain currency in the public square, Democrats like Pritzker and his cohort in the Illinois General Assembly are justified in sounding more than a little eager to cultivate a local press corps, at least in part because state house and city hall journalists are more likely to focus on the prosaic and often nonpartisan details of governance that underpin civic life.

“Robust local journalism is vitally important and I look forward to reviewing the recommendations from the task force as we seek to maintain and grow a strong press corps in Illinois,” Pritzker said in a statement. Illinois state Rep. Dave Vella, D-Rockford, put it more bluntly to Hensel: “You used to have a bunch of local reporters who gave us insight into what is going on in our cities. As the years have gone by, local news has gone by the wayside. I believe it is way too important to let that happen.” The Illinois task force will include appointees from politics, academia, professional associations and citizens’ groups.

In her path-breaking research on U.S. counties where no newspaper is published, Penelope Muse Abernathy, visiting professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, classified two Illinois counties as news deserts. Hamilton and Pulaski counties are not home to any newspaper, although, the research notes, there are newspapers in adjoining counties that circulate there. Cook County, by contrast, where Chicago is situated, is home to 87 newspapers.

A similar effort is under way in Massachusetts. Early this year, Beacon Hill approved the creation of a commission to study journalism in underserved communities in the Bay State, thanks to a prolonged effort by state Rep. Lori Ehrlich, D-Marblehead, and state Sen. Brendan Crighton, D-Lynn. My research partner, Dan Kennedy, was present at the creation and will be a commission member. I’m certain he’ll keep this space updated, as well as his readers at Media Nation. The commission is charged with studying the ratio of residents to media outlets, the history of local news in Massachusetts, print and digital business models for media outlets, the impact of social media on local news, strategies to improve local news access, public policy solutions to improve the sustainability of local press business models and private and nonprofit solutions as well as identifying career pathways and existing or potential professional development opportunities for aspiring journalists in Massachusetts.

Ehrlich, who is working on logistics, promises to announce more details very soon. She has a sweeping vision. “I’d like to see the commission we’re starting here in Massachusetts in every state in the country,” she told me in an email. “Though there are national commonalities, each state has unique regional and ownership differences so a state-by-state approach makes sense. Perhaps Massachusetts and Illinois can confer as we go.”

Although I’ve voiced skepticism about the conflicts that government support might pose for the news business, Louisiana State University researcher Joshua Darr offered a countervailing view in a recent interview. Print newspapers have benefited from government support before, he argues, in the form of historic discounts in postal rates and exemption from the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act so kids could deliver the product to local doorsteps. “Of course, you don’t want to [get government to] support the news but lose what makes it unique and valuable. Indirect support might be more valuable, whether that is local news credits to people directly to buy subscriptions to local news, or whether that is helping news outlets to collectively bargain with the tech companies to negotiate ad revenues. As opposed to pure subsidies or loans or cash transfers or, certainly, making [newsrooms] report to any sort of commission or government body.

Back in the Illinois capital of Springfield, Jason Piscia, public affairs reporting director at the University of Illinois Springfield, is already spinning out possible solutions. As he wrote in a recent post on The Capitol Connection blog, “I’m hoping this task force can present some ideas that are financially and politically possible. I don’t want to get ahead of the group’s work, but tax credits for news subscriptions, government-sponsored foundations that support journalism and forgiving student loans for journalists who commit to work in rural regions are all adaptations of initiatives used to support other industries.”

Correction: This post has been updated to reflect Penelope Muse Abernathy’s new title.

A documentary tracks the demise of Denver’s daily newspapers — and the rising of the Sun

Photo by Brian Malone

By Dan Kennedy

In the documentary “News Matters,” Dean Singleton, who sold a majority share of his newspaper chain to the hedge fund Alden Global Capital in 2013, tells a gruesome story.

He recalls being sent out to a one-car accident after midnight when he was a young reporter working in Wichita Falls, Texas. The police officer at the scene told him the driver had been killed. Singleton, though, could see that the driver’s arms and legs were still moving, so he pressed the officer. The answer: the body would keep jerking around for a while, but that didn’t make him any less dead.

“That’s kind of where print newspapers are today,” he says.

“News Matters,” by Brian Malone, tells the story of Denver’s two daily newspapers — the Rocky Mountain News, which folded in 2009, and The Denver Post, formerly the crown jewel of Singleton’s empire, now being torn apart by Alden. The Post at one time had between 250 and 300 reporters; today it has about 60. As retired Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron says, that’s not nearly enough to cover a metropolitan area the size of Denver, with a population of about 2.9 million.

Among those interviewed for the film is Greg Moore, a former managing editor of The Boston Globe, who was the Post’s top editor for 14 years before resigning in 2016 rather than implement cuts demanded by Alden. Moore recalls being grilled by Alden’s bean-counters over every issue imaginable, and some that weren’t imaginable, like “Why do you have photographers?” and “Why can’t you be the same size as some pissant paper in New Jersey?”

If there is a central character in “News Matters,” it’s former Post editorial page editor Chuck Plunkett, who wrote a searing editorial in 2018 referring to Alden as “vulture capitalists” and calling on community leaders to buy the Post. Plunkett becomes emotional when he recalls the cuts that followed Moore’s departure, saying, “I felt like I was floating out of my body, not even attached to the real world. And I just had this very clear thought — this is where The Denver Post dies.” Plunkett resigned not long after writing the anti-Alden editorial.

Toward the end of the film, we see some of the Post journalists who we’ve gotten to know — Larry Ryckman, Dana Coffield, Tamara Chaung and Jennifer Brown — starting a new venture, the online-only Colorado Sun. “The journalists you see up here today are the owners of The Colorado Sun,” Ryckman tells the small crowd that had gathered, “and we will be the ones calling the shots.”

Singleton’s retort: “The Colorado Sun has no future in my opinion … There’s no business model there.”

Well, the Sun is still shining, and it appears that it may be on track toward becoming a sustainable business. The film takes us into the early days of COVID-19. “Ad revenue has fallen off a cliff,” Ryckman says, “but it has greatly increased membership.” Earlier this year, the Sun acquired a group of 24 weekly and monthly newspapers in Denver’s suburbs.

And the once-mighty Denver Post continues to shrink.

If you’d like to see “News Matters,” you’d better hop to it. I only found out about it last week, and it turns out that Rocky Mountain PBS is taking it down on Wednesday. For the next couple of days, you can watch it here. There’s also information about hosting a screening that you can find at the film’s website.