A new group in Maine would reorganize the Portland Press Herald as a nonprofit

The Maine Sunday Telegram is the name of Sunday’s Portland Press Herald

By Dan Kennedy

Last month we learned that Reade Brower was getting ready to sell Maine’s Portland Press Herald and several other newspapers. Today we received good news: a nonprofit organization is hoping to acquire those papers and run them for the benefit of the public.

Retired Press Herald columnist Bill Nemitz, president of the newly formed Maine Journalism Foundation, writes that the nonprofit aims to buy Brower’s five daily and 25 weekly newspapers, known collectively as Masthead Maine, to “sustain and nurture Maine’s reputation as a bastion for independent local news.” Nemitz adds:

We at MaineJF want to be the next to carry the Masthead Maine banner. Our goal initially is to acquire the company and operate the various publications as a nonprofit. Beyond that, we will seek ways to enhance all journalism in Maine through targeted support for and collaboration with our media colleagues. Maine Public, for one, comes to mind.

In recent years, several papers have been acquired by nonprofit foundations, but the papers themselves continue to be for-profits. The most prominent example of that is The Philadelphia Inquirer. By contrast, Nemitz’s description sounds like the Press Herald and its sister papers will themselves be nonprofits, joining the Salt Lake Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times, both of which have been reorganized as nonprofits.

Nonprofit status removes the pressure of having to satisfy investors, but it does come with some disadvantages as well: a nonprofit newspaper can’t endorse political candidates or specific pieces of legislation. Last fall the Press Herald published endorsements on ballot questions but not for candidates. As a nonprofit, it wouldn’t be able to do either.

Nemitz said that the new foundation is seeking to raise $15 million from large and small donors to buy all of Brower’s papers.

Brower, by all accounts, has been a good steward of the Press Herald. When he announced last month that he was seeking to offload his papers, he said he wanted to leave them in good hands, and he specifically mentioned a nonprofit organization or a public benefit corporation. Now it looks like he’ll get his wish — provided MaineJF can accomplish its fundraising goals.

Linda Shapley talks about journalism, leadership and the power of diversity

Linda Shapley. Photo (cc) 2021 by Dan Kennedy.

On the new episode of the “What Works” podcast, Ellen and Dan speak with Linda Shapley, the publisher of Colorado Community Media, who describes herself as a longtime denizen of the state’s media ecosystem. Indeed, she was at Colorado Politics and worked for 21 years for The Denver Post. “I’ve been a lieutenant for a lot of really great generals,” she once said. “This is my opportunity to be a general.”

CCM is a group of about two dozen weekly and monthly newspapers in the Denver suburbs. They were saved from chain ownership two years ago when they were purchased through a deal led by the National Trust for Local News. Last August we spoke with Elizabeth Hansen Shapiro, the co-founder and CEO of the trust.

Shapley has talked about the power of representation as a visible Latina leader in an industry that has traditionally been dominated by white men. She says she hopes to use her position to encourage more diversity in journalism. Her mentor at the Post, Greg Moore, was a previous guest on What Works. You can listen to his episode here.

Shapley grew up in northeastern Colorado, in a rural county. Her father had a dairy farm. When Dan was in Colorado doing research for our book, she told him that dairy farming is a lot like newspapers, because cows don’t know it’s Christmas.

Also this week, we talk with Madison Xagoraris, a graduate student in the Media Advocacy Program at Northeastern University’s School of Journalism. Xagoraris recently reported on KefiFM, a Boston-based Greek music outlet dedicated to serving the Greek and Greek American communities in the Boston area and throughout New England.

Ellen has a Quick Take about retired journalists who are busy launching startup newsrooms. Nieman Reports has a piece by Jon Marcus that looks at the Asheville Watchdog in North Carolina, and the New Bedford Light in Massachusetts. These journalists say they want to help bolster the profession they gave their lives to by setting up nonprofit community news sites and mentoring younger reporters and editors. They aren’t playing pickleball.

Dan is in a Colorado state of mind: His Quick Take is on the fifth anniversary of the Denver Rebellion, when the staff of The Denver Post rose up against further newsroom cuts being imposed by its hedge-fund owner, Alden Global Capital. That rebellion sparked a revolution in Denver journalism.

You can listen to our conversation here and subscribe through your favorite podcast app.

Cambridge Day takes on an advisory board and seeks to raise $75,000

Cambridge City Hall. Photo (cc) 2007 by Thomas Steiner.

By Dan Kennedy

Over the course of several months, I’ve talked with a few people in Cambridge about the dearth of local news in that city. Its only newspaper, Gannett’s Cambridge Chronicle, has been without a reporter since last year. The leading news outlet, Cambridge Day, does good work, but it was essentially a one-person operation headed by Marc Levy on a volunteer basis. I encouraged Marc and two members of a group seeking to start a nonprofit, journalists Mary McGrath and Susanne Beck, to try to work together.

Now it looks like that’s exactly what’s going to happen. Cambridge Day, which Levy founded in 2009, has published a story announcing that the nonprofit group is going to head up a fundraising campaign with a goal of raising $75,000. “The fundraising is not only to ‘save’ Cambridge Day, but to help it take a leap forward in quality and comprehensiveness,” according to an article published by the Day on Tuesday. The campaign will be headed up by an organization called Cambridge Local News Matters. It’s not clear what Marc’s role will be moving forward, but it’s surely a good sign that he wrote the article announcing the changes.

You could go back several decades, to when the Chronicle was independently owned and competed with the Cambridge Tab, and even then it was often said that Cambridge was the largest city in the country (population: 118,000) without a daily newspaper. The Day has been indispensable since its founding, and I wish Marc and his new partners all the best.

Oklahoma sheriff’s office responds by blaming the messenger

Old analog stereo tape recorder
Photo (cc) 2012 by Nenad Stojkovic

By Dan Kennedy

The sheriff’s office in McCurtain County, Oklahoma, has responded with the alacrity you’d hope for when wrongdoing is exposed. Oh, wait. They’re going to charge the journalist who recorded their nausea-inducing tirade of racism and violence with a felony for taping county officials without their knowledge. The Associated Press passes along a statement made by the sheriff:

There is and has been an ongoing investigation into multiple, significant violation(s) of the Oklahoma Security of Communications Act … which states that it is illegal to secretly record a conversation in which you are not involved and do not have the consent of at least one of the involved parties.

The AP also quotes a local journalism professor who says that the recording would be illegal only if the officials had a reasonable expectation of privacy.

Now, I have to say that I’m confused. Laws regarding audio recordings generally define “one party” as “either party.” The journalist, Bruce Willingham of the McCurtain Gazette-News, obviously gave his consent, and that would normally be regarded as sufficient. Let me return to the guide published by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which I referred to in my earlier item.

In Oklahoma, “An individual who is a party to an in-person, telephone or electronic conversation, or who has the consent of one of the parties to the conversation, can lawfully record it or disclose its contents, unless the person is doing so for the purpose of committing a criminal or tortious act.” And: “The consent of at least one party to a conversation is required to record any oral communication.”

Obviously there’s more to it than that, and it’s possible that Willingham ran afoul of the law by leaving the room rather than participating in a “conversation.” (Then again, he was kicked out.) But contrast that with what the guide says about our state: “Massachusetts prohibits the recording, interception, use or disclosure of any conversation, whether in person or over the telephone, without the permission of all the parties.” If you are old enough and obsessive enough, you may recall that Linda Tripp was in the clear when she secretly recorded Monica Lewinsky while they were in Virginia, which, like Oklahoma, is a one-party state — but she broke the law when she recorded Lewinsky in Maryland, a two-party state.

Anyway, it’s good to see that McCurtain county officials have their priorities straight by going after the press rather than dealing with their own hateful dysfunction.

One more thing: The Washington Post story I referenced earlier described Willingham as a reporter for the Gazette-News. And so he is. But it turns out that he’s also the publisher. Probably the delivery guy and custodian as well. Anyway, he’s performed a tremendous public service, and he ought to be considered a candidate for a 2024 Pulitzer Prize.

Local reporter catches Oklahoma county officials in a racist, hate-filled tirade

McCurtain County Courthouse. Photo (cc) 2013 by Billy Hathorn.

By Dan Kennedy

Whenever Ellen and I am asked why local news matters, we generally give a rather bloodless answer about democracy, journalism’s watchdog role and the like. But now the McCurtain Gazette-News, in southeastern Oklahoma, has provided considerably more graphic evidence.

According The Washington Post (free link), Gazette-News reporter Bruce Willingham surreptitiously left his recorder behind when he and members of the public were ordered to exit a meeting of McCurtain county officials. Willingham told a local television station that he was hoping to find evidence that the officials were violating the state’s open meeting law.

What Willingham found was considerably more horrifying than that, as the commissioners proceeded to mock a woman who had died in a recent house fire, reminisced about the good old days when young Black men could be lynched with impunity, and suggested that it wouldn’t be a bad idea if Willingham himself turned up dead.

The Gazette-News does not appear to have a website, but the paper has been posting snippets on Google Docs and Dropbox. Here’s the exchange about lynching:

Jennings: It’s like somebody wanting this job, they don’t realize, like your job. I heard it the other day, said I heard 2 or 12 people were going for sheriff. I said fuck, lets get 20. They don’t have a goddamn clue what they’re getting into. Not this day and age. I’m gonna tell you something. If it was back in the day, when that when Alan Marshton would take a damn black guy and whoop their ass and throw him in the cell? I’d run for fucking sheriff.

Sheriff: Yeah. Well, It’s not like that no more.

Jennings: I know. Take them down to Mud Creek and hang them up with a damn rope. But you can’t do that anymore. They got more rights than we got.

Jennings is county commissioner Mark Jennings. The sheriff’s name is Kevin Clardy.

In case you’re wondering, Willingham was on the right side of the law in making a secret recording. According to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Oklahoma is a one-party state when it comes to audio recordings, which means that only one party needs to give their consent — in this case, Willingham himself. Massachusetts, by contrast, requires the consent of all parties.

The Gazette-News, meanwhile, says it has more audio and that follow-up stories are in the works. And CNN reports that Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt has called on Clardy, Jennings and two other officials who were involved in the exchanges to resign.

It bears repeating: If the McCurtain Gazette-News didn’t exist, and if its reporter hadn’t been assigned to cover the county, then these racist hate-mongers would not have been exposed.

Ακούς (Are you listening?): How an online Greek radio station in Boston serves its community

Photo by Madison Xagoraris

By Madison Xagoraris

My first memory of listening to Greek music was in the back of my father’s car. He was driving — where? I do not know — and he was playing this lively music with words I mostly did not understand. He was playing an album called “Opa Opa,” by Antique, a duo consisting of Helena Paparizou and Nikos Panagiotidis, who came from Sweden and created an album blending lyrics in Greek and English with a Nordic dance-pop beat.

For a decade, my Greek music repertoire was limited to the music my father collected during his trips to Greece. It was not until 2015, when my cousin Lia visited me from Greece, that I started listening to recent releases from popular singers like Nikos Oikonomopoulos and Pantelis Pantelidis.

Many Greeks in the United States are limited in their choice of music consumption. For those who do not go to Greece every summer, it can be difficult to stay up to date on new music, up-and-coming artists or popular trends.

Independent local radio can partially close the gap left by the rise of large corporate chains. The U.S. is home to many different languages; unfortunately, a lot of those languages are not represented by commercial radio. Local stations play an important role by reinforcing a sense belonging and community.

One such example is KefiFM, a Boston-based Greek music outlet that resembles stations heard in Greece. Designed to be a “people’s station,” with fun commercials and jingles, the station does not broadcast over the air. Instead, it streams music online 24 hours a day. Listeners may tune in on the station’s website or by downloading the KefiFM app. Continue reading “Ακούς (Are you listening?): How an online Greek radio station in Boston serves its community”

At Gannett, those better days that are just around the corner never seem to arrive

Photo (cc) 2010 by Shashi Bellamkonda

By Dan Kennedy

Boston Globe columnist Brian McGrory wrote Wednesday that he’d heard from Gannett chair and chief executive Mike Reed after his recent piece detailing the devastating cuts that the country’s largest newspaper chain had endured. Reed told McGrory that the worst was over and that happy days were almost here again. McGrory wrote:

“My full intention is to do more journalism, not less,” Reed said. “We’re so close to that inflection point that the major cuts are behind us.” Moments later, for emphasis: “The cuts are behind us.”

Is that a commitment, Mike?

He hesitated. I swear I could hear the loud warning beeps from a truck backing up. “What I’m saying is we’re near the end of the process on the reduction side,” he replied. Then this: “I wouldn’t say that I don’t know there’ll be one more cut.” And finally: “We’re in the ninth inning of the game.”

It sounded so familiar. I’ve written about Gannett and its predecessor company, GateHouse Media, many, many times over the years. For instance, after I wrote for GBH News in June 2019 that GateHouse seemed to be imploding, Reed contacted me to push back. He wouldn’t put any of our phone conversation on the record, but he didn’t need to. Because it’s been the same old song for a very long time.

How long? Let’s go back to August 2008, when GateHouse’s stock price was taking such a pounding that it could not longer be traded on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. In a conference call with investors, according to the Rochester Business Journal, Reed was full of assurances that the worst was over. “Our results, while below our estimates, are holding up quite well, and our capital assets put us in a position of strength going forward,” he said. And: “We believe our assets will continue to produce strong cash flows and when the economic cycle improves we are positioned in our small markets to grow.”

If that’s not enough déjà vu for you, consider that, around the same time, the website 24/7 Wall St. named Reed “The Most Overpaid CEO Of The Day,” noting that he was being paid a salary of $500,000 to preside over a company whose stock price was down 90%. As readers of Media Nation know, Reed was just getting started. He received $7.7 million in total compensation in 2021, and was rewarded with another $3.4 million in 2022. Meanwhile, Gannett newspapers are being shut down and journalists laid off by the score.

In October 2008, I wrote a piece for CommonWealth magazine about GateHouse’s operations in Eastern Massachusetts — around 100 community newspapers, mostly weeklies, that it had acquired from Boston Herald owner Pat Purcell, who had in turn purchased them from Fidelity Capital a few years earlier. The theme of the day, inevitably, was newsroom cuts. But Kirk Davis, then the president and publisher of GateHouse Media New England, was, to invoke an old cliché, cautiously optimistic:

“We feel that community newspapers have a very viable future and, juxtaposed against the trend overall, are performing very well,” says Davis, arguing that small, community newspapers have a competitive advantage over major metros because their locally focused content is not available elsewhere. “I believe in it, and I believe it’s going to stay strong.”

Five years later, the company sought Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection so that it could restructure $1.2 billion of the debt it had taken on in assembling its newspaper chain.

The cutting continued after GateHouse emerged from bankruptcy, sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly, but always with the same downward momentum. In late 2019, GateHouse merged with Gannett, a longtime publisher that was also notorious for running its papers on the cheap. The new Gannett was saddled with $1.1 billion in debt, and a lot of that has been financed by cutting the workforce in half, as Axios reported recently. Davis left shortly after the merger, but Reed continues to decimate newsrooms, just as he continues to insist that better days are just around the corner, as he told the trade publication Editor & Publisher last November.

The problem with Gannett, as always, is that better days for Reed never translate to better days for his newspapers, his journalists or the communities they serve. McGrory’s skepticism is warranted.

Five years after the Denver Rebellion, local news is surviving in Colorado

The Buell Media Center in Denver, home of The Colorado Sun. Photo (cc) 2021 by Dan Kennedy.

By Dan Kennedy

Of all the alarms that have been sounded over the decline of local news, perhaps none was louder than the one in Denver, Colorado, five years ago this month. In what became known as the Denver Rebellion, editorial page editor Chuck Plunkett wrote a front-page editorial calling for the Post’s hedge-fund owner, Alden Global Capital, to sell the paper to local interests. Plunkett wrote:

We call for action. Consider this editorial and this Sunday’s Perspective offerings a plea to Alden — owner of Digital First Media, one of the largest newspaper chains in the country — to rethink its business strategy across all its newspaper holdings. Consider this also a signal to our community and civic leaders that they ought to demand better. Denver deserves a newspaper owner who supports its newsroom. If Alden isn’t willing to do good journalism here, it should sell The Post to owners who will.

Unfortunately, Alden did not sell; after all, there were still profits to be squeezed out. At one time, the Post employed a newsroom of about 300 people, and its competitor, the Rocky Mountain News, had another 300. But the Rocky was shut down by a different chain owner years ago, and by the time that Plunkett wrote his manifesto, Alden was in the process of downsizing the Post again, from about 100 journalists to 60.

But journalism in Denver survived. Earlier this month, Plunkett wrote an opinion piece for The Colorado Sun looking back on the past five years. The Sun grew out of the Post: 10 senior people left after the rebellion and launched a digital-only news project that has grown to a couple of dozen people. This time around, Plunkett, now at the University of Colorado in Boulder, took a more optimistic view:

So much new talent has bubbled up around us as a result it’s difficult to keep track. The legislature’s got more reporters than you shake a stick at. Who could deny the excellence and the ambition of presenting and covering Denver’s recent mayoral debates?…

Hey, it’s heartening to see media companies banging around like they want to fight. Think of how bad off we’d be if we didn’t have such energy.

What’s happened in Colorado led Ellen Clegg and me to include it in our book, “What Works in Community News,” which will be published by Beacon Press early next year. I visited the Denver area in September 2021 and learned that the metro region is being well served. The Sun, the Post, Colorado Public Radio and another startup, The Denver Gazette, were all doing good work.

The problem, though, was in those places that weren’t within commuting distance of Denver. The news deserts that exist in the rural parts of the state were why The Colorado Sun was trying to provide some statewide coverage rather than merely focusing on Denver. So it was heartening to see that several papers whose owners wanted to move on have been acquired by a small chain. The indefatigable Corey Hutchins of Colorado College reports that O’Rourke Media Group, based in Arizona, is the new owner of Colorado papers in Salida, Buena Vista, Leadville, Park County and Fairplay.

“I feel like I’m taking over newsrooms that are well resourced,” the chain’s CEO, Jim O’Rourke, told Hutchins. “I like that, because that gives us an opportunity to come in and work with this team on things that we can do differently moving forward — things that we could do to help. And it’s better starting from a position like this versus going into a totally distressed situation where the previous company gutted the place.”

The news desert problem is real. But what’s happened in Denver and, now, in rural Colorado demonstrates what I’ve seen since I started reporting on the local news crisis some 15 years ago: Where there is failure there is also opportunity.

More: Ellen and I recently interviewed former Denver Post editor Greg Moore on our podcast, “What Works: The Future of Local News.” And in June 2021, I wrote about how 24 weekly and monthly papers in the Denver suburbs were saved through an effort that included The Colorado Sun.

Maine publisher Reade Brower says he’s ready to move on. So what comes next?

Portland Harbor. Photo (cc) 2021 by Paul VanDerWerf.

By Dan Kennedy

Maine newspaper publisher Reade Brower is getting ready to move on. Michael Shepherd and Lori Valigra of the Bangor Daily News, the only daily in Maine that Brower doesn’t own, reported on Thursday that the publisher is seeking to wind down his stewardship of the Portland Press Herald, four other daily papers and a number of weeklies.

In a follow-up by the Press Herald’s Eric Russell, Brower sounded like he isn’t in any hurry, and that he was not yet sure what the transition might look like. Brower put it this way in a memo to the staff:

The truth is I am beginning the search for what’s next, whether that be a new steward or perhaps partners willing to join me in carrying the torch. We are watching new ownership models emerge across the country from B-corporations to nonprofit efforts. Transparency has always been a pillar of journalism, and it’s important to me personally. That said, people will speculate because it is human nature. Over the past couple of years, I have been approached and looked at different pathways for the future but did not pull the trigger – either I wasn’t ready, I still felt my job was not completed, or the path just didn’t feel right.

A B-corporation is another name for a public benefit corporation — for-profit that is under no obligation to maximize earnings, allowing revenues to be reinvested in the mission. In the news world, some well-known B-corps include The Colorado Sun, Lookout Santa Cruz and, closer to home, The Provincetown Independent.

Brower, by all accounts, has been a decent steward of his Maine properties. More important, he’s kept the national chains out of the state, and he may well have outlasted them. Gannett is getting rid of papers, as Sarah Fischer of Axios observes, so it would be unlikely that the company would bring its special brand of looting and pillaging newsrooms to Portland The hedge fund Alden Global Capital hasn’t acquired anything for quite a while, so perhaps we can hope that its executives are content with their current holdings. As I told Russell, “Whether this has a happy ending or not depends on who steps forward as buyer.” If Brower’s memo is any indication, he cares about his legacy.

Brower came in after a tumultuous period at the Press Herald, which I recounted in my book “The Return of the Moguls.” In 2008, the paper’s then-owner, The Seattle Times, sold it to a businessman named Richard Connor, who promptly ran it into a ditch. Four years later, the paper was nearly sold to Aaron Kushner, a wealthy Boston-area tech entrepreneur who had previously been spurned in his bid to purchase The Boston Globe.

Union leaders at the Press Herald rebelled at Kushner’s demand for concessions. Kushner moved on, buying the Orange County Register in Southern California and steering it into bankruptcy after a massive, ill-advised expansion failed to produce the revenues he was hoping for. The Press Herald’s fortunes, meanwhile, began to improve. First, billionaire Donald Sussman stepped forward and ran the paper for a few years. Then, in 2015, Sussman was succeeded by Brower, a printer who lacked Sussman’s deep pockets but who cared about news coverage and kept cuts to a minimum.

The Press Herald and its affiliated newspapers have a reputation for doing things the right way, and Brower surely deserves credit for that. I hope this week’s news means the continuation of what he has accomplished — and not the beginning of the end.