The New Haven Independent prepares to reboot

From left at last week's going-away party: Melissa Bailey, Thomas MacMillan, Paul Bass and Norma Rodriguez-Reyes, board chair of the Online Journalism Project, the New Haven Independent's publisher.

From left at last week’s going-away party: Melissa Bailey, Thomas MacMillan, Paul Bass and Norma Rodriguez-Reyes, board chair of the Online Journalism Project, the New Haven Independent’s publisher.

Previously published at the Nieman Journalism Lab.

Not too many months ago, Paul Bass gave serious thought to shutting down the New Haven Independent, the online-only nonprofit news site he founded in 2005.

“A while back, I considered whether I still had the energy to keep going,” Bass said. “I was burnt.”

He decided to keep it alive. And now he’s getting ready to relaunch with two new full-time staff reporters — one who will start the day after Labor Day, the other who has yet to be hired.

For a small community news organization, the Independent has been remarkably stable. Last week, Bass threw a going-away party for managing editor Melissa Bailey, who will be a Nieman Fellow starting this fall, and staff writer Thomas MacMillan, who is moving to New York to seek his fame and fortune. Both began working at the site as it was ramping up, Bailey in 2006 and MacMillan the following year. (The fourth staff member, Allan Appel, recently cut back to a part-time position.)

Several hundred people gathered in and outside the Woodland Café, near the New Haven Green, to say goodbye to Bailey and MacMillan. Their photography was on display, accompanied by QR codes that smartphone users could access to take them to the stories where those photos first appeared. Copies of Bailey’s just-published book on education reform in New Haven, “School Reform City: Voices from an American Experiment,” were on sale, along with Appel’s novel “The Midland Kid: Tales of the Presidential Ghostwriter.” Mayors past (John DeStefano) and present (Toni Harp) were on hand, as were a number of other community leaders.

“It’s really hard for me to imagine leaving New Haven for more than a few days, let alone a whole year,” Bailey told the crowd. MacMillan defined the privilege of being a journalist: “You ask questions and people just open up to you and give you these amazing stories.”

When I met with Bass afterwards, he talked about how difficult it would be to replace the two. “They’re community journalists. They love the work. They grew so much,” he said. “They both learned so many things, and they really ran the operation with me.”

Yet their departure will allow him to solve a longstanding problem: having an all-white staff cover a city where African-Americans and Latinos are in the majority. “The people I’m hiring will diversify the staff racially,” Bass told me. The Independent has used minority freelancers and interns, but all of its full-time staff journalists have been white.

The reboot of the Independent comes at a crucial time. The regional daily paper, the New Haven Register, has gone through several rounds of cuts in recent months — including one announced just last week — as its owner, Digital First Media, prepares for a widely predicted sell-off. In a few years, Digital First has gone from a closely watched experiment in reinvention to just another sad tale of chain journalism gone wrong.

Thus the Independent’s mix of political and neighborhood news, education reporting, and, increasingly, a focus on the arts fills a real need.

Despite the challenges of keeping a nonprofit going, Bass has had quite a bit of success with fundraising. Currently, he said, he has pledges through 2015 to cover the $420,000 budget for the Independent and a satellite two-person site in the northwest suburbs called the Valley Independent Sentinel. In recent years, he added, his fundraising base has shifted from about 75 percent foundation grants to about 25 percent. Most of the money comes from high-net-worth donors in the New Haven area. About $15,000 to $20,000 comes from small donors.

Late in 2013, Bass applied for a low-power FM license to operate a nonprofit community radio station in New Haven. He has yet to hear from the FCC, but he continues to hope it will come through. “I think we’d engage the readership in a new way,” he said.

For now, though, he’s planning to do something he’s never done before: ramp down the Independent for a few weeks. Posting will be minimal this week and next. And he’s going to stop posting completely during the last two weeks of August — a first since the Independent began publication in late August of 2005. Then comes the new Independent.

“I’m not going to have the same experience level I have now, so it’s going to be different,” Bass said. “I don’t think I can replace Thomas and Melissa.”

A nuanced, layered story that is almost about race

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Vincent (left) and Herbert Campbell in 2009.

The New York Times on Saturday published a feature story about an obscure but layered issue — a fence separating a public housing project in New Haven from the adjoining suburb of Hamden. After some 50 years, the fence is finally coming down.

It’s a story that caught my attention in late 2009, when Thomas MacMillan of the New Haven Independent first reported on efforts to remove the fence, also known as “the Berlin Wall.” It struck me as an example of the kind of nuanced journalism that characterized the Independent, an online-only nonprofit news site that I was tracking for the “The Wired City.”

On the surface, you might think the issue was about white suburbanites who objected to black public housing residents gaining easy access to their town. But that would be too simple. Hamden has a significant African-American population. MacMillan interviewed two brothers who lived in Hamden and who opposed efforts by New Haven officials to remove the fence. MacMillan quoted Herbert Campbell as saying the fence prevented “all the riff-raff from coming around,” including drug dealers. Vincent Campbell added: “We had a lot of problems in the past. You never know who’s going to break into your house.”

This past May 4, Independent editor Paul Bass — who tells me he first wrote about the fence in 1999, while he was at the now-defunct alt-weekly New Haven Advocate — reported that the fence would be removed after it was discovered that it is actually on the New Haven side of the border. A federal civil-rights investigation helped speed matters along. Here is Bass’ follow-up on the actual tear-down. The daily New Haven Register covered the story as well, and published an editorial hailing the removal.

The New York Times story, by Benjamin Mueller, acknowledges the complexities of the saga, noting that both New Haven and Hamden now have black mayors, and that Hamden residents both black and white appear to be united in their opposition to the fence’s being demolished.

Photo by Thomas MacMillan, courtesy of the New Haven Independent.

An ebook about school reform in New Haven

CoverschoolreformcitySMALL1_363_580autoIf you care about public education, I have some good summer reading for you.

Melissa Bailey, who covers New Haven’s nationally recognized school-reform effort for the New Haven Independent, has published some of her best stories — along with supplemental material — in an ebook titled “School Reform City: Voices from an American Experiment.”

I got to know Melissa while I was researching “The Wired City.” She is a resourceful, dedicated reporter, and “School Reform City” should be a real contribution to the growing literature on school reform. She’ll split the proceeds with the Independent, so it’s a fundraiser (and a visibility-raiser) for the nonprofit news site as well.

Melissa will be taking a leave from the Independent this fall, as she’ll be a Nieman Fellow at Harvard during the 2014-’15 academic year.

Can indy local media survive and thrive? Yes! they can.

70-Cover-LARGEI have an article in the summer issue of Yes! magazine about the online revival of independent local journalism that I document in “The Wired City.” The article, “Return of Hometown News,” focuses on the Banyan Project, whose founder, Tom Stites, hopes to launch the first in a series of cooperatively owned news sites in Haverhill later this year; the New Haven Independent; and The Batavian.

The article is part of a package called “Story Power: Can Our Many Small Voices Win Against Big Media?” The magazine, based in Bainridge Island, Washington, is a left-leaning quarterly with a busy but attractive website. According to its “About” page, Yes! “reframes the biggest problems of our time in terms of their solutions. Online and in print, we outline a path forward with in-depth analysis, tools for citizen engagement, and stories about real people working for a better world.”

I hope you’ll give it a look.

New Haven Independent’s Bailey headed for Harvard

Melissa Bailey

Melissa Bailey

Congratulations to Melissa Bailey, managing editor of the New Haven Independent, who’s been selected as a Nieman Fellow for 2014-’15. I accompanied Bailey on several reporting assignments in researching “The Wired City.” The photo above is a still from a June 2009 video interview I conducted with her, Independent founder and editor Paul Bass and New Haven Register managing editor Mark Brackenbury.

Here is the full announcement from Harvard’s Nieman Foundation. As always, it looks like a distinguished class of fellows.