Let's blow it up and start over

The Worcester Beacon's quest to build a walking path over Worcester's news swamp

Local news is on the ropes, and this is no shocker to anyone who pays attention. And the people who read this newsletter are people who pay attention, because how else would you know who a loser like me is?

I wanted to write this post a while ago, but I keep getting scheduled doubles at my other job, and I actually wrote part of this at my station — don’t tell the chef! Smash that subscribe button to make me both a better employee and less of an employee!

This is also going to be a long and at times personal essay. So before I get into it and I will return to this in greater length, I want share with you a new website called The Worcester Beacon, which is perhaps our greatest hope of restoring any semblance of community journalism in Worcester, the original intent and spirit of Worcester Magazine, or an outlet with the weight and willingness to speak real truth to power. They are going to syndicate my newsletter alongside Clive MacFarlane’s columns on Woostachat, Tracy Novick’s blog posts on Whos of Who-cester, Nicole Apostola’s blog which I am so happy she’s picking back up again, as well as original content from people invested in the city. It’s sort of like one-stop shopping for news in Worcester that centers people in Worcester, not City Hall. Cara Berg Powers is leading the effort, along with a talented group of people like Pa’Lante’s Em Quiles and public health guru Doug Arbetter. Powers had this to say on a recent phone call:

“Without really solid community-driven journalism that helps people focus on the bureaucracy and navigating all the layers of it and the really incredible community work that's happening, it's really hard to actually be engaged,” she said.

But anyway, before we talk about the solution we gotta talk about the problem. Just how badly local news is on the ropes is something that takes a little insider knowledge to truly understand. Around the country, smaller cities like Worcester are down from dozens, maybe even at one point, hundreds, of journalists covering the city and fostering a sense of civic engagement to just a handful. It’d be a tough data set to put together but I wouldn’t be surprised to find that the decline of voter turnout in city elections and the decline of journalists covering city issues neatly align over the past 60 or so years. I looked at old election data for a story about ranked choice voting a while ago and found voter turnout as high as 80 percent way back when. Last year, voter turnout was 17 percent. Back then, newspapers were the only way to employ local journalists, except for maybe radio stations. Now, newspapers are still the surest way of employing local journalists, but the difference is newspapers are being systematically destroyed.

But why are they being systematically destroyed, and by whom? Let’s look at the math. Digital advertising is a zero sum game, especially with the monoliths of Facebook and Google sucking up some 80 percent of digital ad revenue. Meanwhile, print ads are still somehow valuable, and, unlike digital ads, they’re usually local to the community the institution covers. So, say you’re a hedge fund manager looking to build a national media brand, and you’re looking for a way around the monolithic control of Facebook and Google on the internet of things. Well, there’s all these small properties spread around the country that still have an audience and still have print advertisers. Local print advertisers need a place to run their ads, and it takes a while for a trusted institution to truly lose the faith of the community. That means what you can do is continue to lay journalists off at a clip and suck up all that ad revenue while the paper becomes less and less able to provide a service to the community. You basically get to report the layoffs as profit. The revenue stays the same while the costs go down. As the institution slowly dies, you can line your pockets with the money from local businesses which are still willing to advertise. You can do this for years, slowly sucking the marrow out the bones of a dying husk. Once all the marrow is gone, you can throw the corpse in the trash and sell the building off for a couple million and be done with it. The Telegram and Gazette is one of thousands of small papers across the country experiencing the same slow decline at the hands of a vulture capital firm who, sure as the sun sets in the west, does not care one bit about Worcester or about the health of civic life in Worcester. Their fiduciary responsibility is to the shareholders and no one is investing in Gannett or Fortress with the hopes of seeing more reporters covering municipal issues in mid-sized cities. They can say whatever they want, but they have never demonstrated that to be a priority. It’s just not the business model. Layoffs are the business model and anything you hear to the contrary is a lie. The company’s product is profit, not journalism. It creates profit by destroying journalism.

The lazy way to eulogize the death of the newspaper is by blaming the internet. But it’s not the internet, it’s capital. It’s an insidious and under-discussed aspect of global capital called “private equity.”

One of the most illuminating and frankly radicalizing pieces I’ve ever read on the subject ran in American Prospect in 2018. It’s called Saving The Free Press From Private Equity by Robert Kuttner and Hildy Zenger.

Private equity has been gobbling up newspapers across the country and systematically squeezing the life out of them to produce windfall profits, while the papers last. The cost to democracy is incalculable. Robust civic life depends on good local newspapers. Without the informed dialogue that a newspaper enables, the public business is the private province of the local commercial elite, voters are uninformed, and elected officials are unaccountable.

Companies with names likeAlden Capital, Digital First Media, Citadel, Fortress, GateHouse, and many others that you’ve never heard of have purchased more than 1,500 small-city dailies and weeklies. The malign genius of the private equity business model, of which more in a moment, is that it allows the absentee owner to drive a paper into the ground, but extract exorbitant profits along the way from management fees, dividends, and tax breaks. By the time the paper is a hollow shell, the private equity company can exit and move on, having more than made back its investment. Whether private equity is contained and driven from ownership of newspapers could well determine whether local newspapers as priceless civic resources survive to make it across the digital divide.

So how’s that break down in Worcester?

Gatehouse Media bought Worcester Magazine in February 2018. By the end of the year, we lost our only photographer; then in early 2019 we lost our editor and our arts editor. I was the only staffer on the editorial side left, save for a page designer who helped with the content a lot more than she had to or should have. With no guidance at all, I was left to put out the paper by myself for six weeks before it was foisted upon Telegram staffers who already had too much to do. The only time I ever heard from anyone in the Gatehouse chain of command was when I was confronted by a senior vice president of whatever the hell in an in-person meeting in which she put on a tape recorder and showed me full page prints of screenshots of my Facebook page. In these screenshots I joked with former WoMag staffers that we should Ocean’s Eleven-style heist the archive books before Gatehouse throws them in the trash. Those books are company property, I remember her saying. Forty years of Worcester history, bound and collected, and this lady from a company that bought Worcester Magazine to destroy it in less than a year has the balls to tell me those books are company property. I hope you’re reading this, Lisa. I should have quit right then and there.

Not only is it cathartic to get to finally tell this story publicly but it’s instructive of the way these people think. They hung me out to dry and let me kill myself putting out a paper I loved for six weeks by myself, but no don’t do a funny post on the internet then we’re coming for you. They don’t give one single shit about Worcester or news in Worcester. Gatehouse is going to throw the archive books in the trash, too, for what it’s worth. They did it at another paper I worked at which, same as Worcester Magazine, they were wringing out like a wet rag for years.

The case of Worcester Magazine is an extreme and accelerated example of what private equity firms like Gatehouse do to papers. The case of the Telegram is less extreme but perhaps more tragic in the slow attrition battle it has lost to private equity.

The Telegram used to have a whole investigative team. Now they have Brad Petrishen, who does damn good work, but that’s a lot to ask of one guy. The Telegram used to have at least a reporter in all the towns surrounding Worcester. Hell, they even had bureaus. Now, I don’t even know, maybe one covering two or three towns? The Telegram used to have multiple columnists, now they don’t have any columnists. The Telegram has only one reporter covering City Hall and one reporter covering the schools. They have only a handful of staff photographers left. How they even fill the pages of that paper is beyond me, and everyone there works extremely hard to do so. When you’re struggling to fill pages, you aren’t really able to do much else. I know this first hand. Big packages or investigations or inventive projects, those are thrown out the window when you’re faced with a 9 p.m. deadline and you’re scrambling to stuff a three-page local news section. It’s tragic what these people deal with, especially the old heads who remember a better time, a time when they weren’t being asked to do the job of three people by a company which only interacts with you via vague platitudes like “digital first” and “Snapchat is the future” and “we have to lay off three people this quarter and we’re going to make your editor do it.” Back to that American Prospect piece:

The newspaper where Zenger works, sold to GateHouse a decade ago, has lost 40 percent of its circulation over that time, and nearly half its advertisers. At the Columbia Daily Tribune in Missouri, massive layoffs began one month after GateHouse took over. “You are expected to do the work that three people used to do, and you are not rewarded for it,” says one former employee. Across the company, employees complain of few resources and little tech support. A senior sales rep at a GateHouse paper in Massachusetts had his computer hard drive crash and couldn’t get a new one from the company for nine days. When he finally did get one, it wouldn’t accept his password.

The ruthless miserliness of GateHouse management has two effects: It destroys the newspaper's capacity to do its fundamental job of covering the news, and it makes for miserable employees. “Everybody I know in the leadership of the corporation were financial people or ad directors,” says the editor of a GateHouse-owned paper. “They were never journalists—never covered a story in their life. This corporate stuff is killing local newspapers. I'm sweating bullets hoping some bean counter doesn't say we've got to get another 17 percent profit out of this. How much more can these people cut? It becomes harder to do the right thing—to cover the city council meetings and find out what really did happen—when you had five people in the newsroom and now you're down to two.”

All of that is completely accurate to my time working under Gatehouse, and I’m sure any staffer at the Telegram would tell you the same if you got a beer in them, which I sometimes have. I’m pretty good at getting beer into people, now that I think of it.

So you have Worcester Magazine and the Telegram, for decades the publications that defined the news landscape in Worcester, hooked up to the reverse IV of private equity, and it’s not a stretch to imagine that both will be gone by the end of the decade.

In recent years, we’ve had new and aggressive players. MassLive, an online news product of the Springfield Republican, which is more or less family-owned, has expanded in Worcester hard. They’ve spent a lot of money here presumably to open a new ad market, and they currently have four reporters more or less covering Worcester. That’s a good thing, for sure. The more the merrier. If they add just a few more they’ll have more reporters than the Telegram, sadly.

But the case of MassLive is instructive of Worcester’s news problem in a different way. They post a lot about Worcester, but not a whole lot of what I would call substantive coverage. They cover the crap out of crime because it does really well online, and they cover City Hall when it’s germaine to a larger conversation. They did a pretty good job covering the Black Lives Matter demonstration and the ugliness that happened afterwards. But their style of journalism is predicated on doing online numbers, and that means a lot of content all the time. A lot of content all the time means you can’t really spend too much time on anything in particular. If MassLive came out with a big investigation, or wrote the kind of city hall story which draws people in to a lesser-known but important issue, I’d be happily surprised. They also do not employ a columnist, and say what you will about columnists, but they were at one time the heart and soul of city newspapers and the moral voices of communities, and they are a rare and dying breed, and that’s what I’m trying to do here folks please subscribe, you can even do it as a gift for someone!

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There are other outlets too, like This Week In Worcester and the aggregate site The 016. We have a lot of outlets, perhaps more than ever, but we don’t have a lot of reporters, and we certainly don’t have a lot of columnists. It’s really easy to find out who got shot last night, but if something sketchy is happening on the zoning board, it’s just going to keep happening, and no one is going to know about it. The real power of journalism, though it is rarely used these days, is eyes on agendas and meetings and government documents and constantly prying for more transparency. Power corrupts absolutely, and people who seek power need to be afraid to abuse it, and journalism at its best is the act of making those people very afraid. In Worcester, we’re sort of just rewriting press releases and trying to stay on top of a content schedule we’re not adequately staffed to meet with “content” that is fast and easy to produce. There are a lot of posts, but not a whole lot of journalism.

This is what Cara from the Worcester Beacon calls the “news swamp.” It’s a riff on the idea of a “food swamp,” sister of the “food desert.” Where in a food desert you can’t get any food without traveling a long while, a food swamp gives you plenty of access to shit food, and poor access to the sort of food that keeps you fit and healthy.

“We can’t say we don’t have any coverage, but is it quality coverage?” Cara said to me. It’s a good question, and the answer is almost always no.

Tracy Novick, Nicole Apostola, Clive MacFarlane and I — that’s four columnists, and three who are actually smart and know what they’re talking about. Tracy is perhaps the smartest voice on education in the whole state. Clive’s incisive writing on race is like a sword through the heart of even the most casual racist. Nicole may as well be the oracle of Worcester. She has an encyclopedic knowledge of this city and the way it works. And I write a column, too. The website will also syndicate the 508 Podcast and Pop It, two of the best podcasts in the city.

But think about it: there is not a traditional outlet in this city even close to employing four columnists. Herein lies the nascent power of the Worcester Beacon. Through carefully curating and soliciting the kind of coverage that gives people a better sense of the community and speaks truth to power, it can emerge as the city’s moral voice in an otherwise swampy and cluttered media landscape of every outlet rushing to put up the same press release about the same grant or arson investigation or tax break for a company that will Turn Worcester Around. The Beacon will be run as a collaborative, and it will give voice directly to the people who need it, without having to go through the lens of a reporter who may or may not understand the point so well. TL;DR, it’s a place where people can go to cut through the bullshit. And there is so, so much bullshit.

The Beacon and this newsletter come from the same spirit. And it’s a bit cringey to say in 2020 but it really is the D.I.Y. spirit. If we want Worcester covered well, we have to do it ourselves, because traditional journalism will continue to let us down. Moreover, traditional journalism has always been oriented toward the white middle class, or the white working class, or to actual vampires in the case of the Wall Street Journal. It has never been an institution that has been especially good at taking on issues of race and class, and it certainly isn’t now, with the myth of objectivity hanging over everything. In fact, it’s actually harmful, and if I could slap every single person who works at CNN in the face, I would. We have an opportunity now to center the voices of oppressed groups and give them an outlet on a platform that carries a moral weight. That’s exciting, isn’t it?

In this, the worst of all years, we’re going to cast aside traditional journalism for good and build our own little autonomous news zone.

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Talked newsletter shop with the Worcester Business Journal. You can read it here and look at the very professional head shot I took of myself in my friend’s kitchen.