Online news sites enable two arrests

Video from surveillance cameras amplified by online news sites led to the arrests of two people sought by police in recent weeks.

One of the incidents took place last Thursday in the western New York community of Batavia, where a camera at a Walmart captured an image of a man who allegedly yelled loudly at a young child and then threw him onto a concrete floor.

According to an account in YNN Rochester, state police contacted Howard Owens and asked him to publish a photo in The Batavian, an online news site of which he is the editor and publisher.

That night, a 28-year-old man was arrested and charged with endangering the welfare of a child and harassment. Here is Owens’ account of the arraignment.

“Fifteen to 20 minutes of it being posted, we had numerous calls coming into our dispatch at the State Police Batavia and the Genesee County Sheriff’s dispatch,” Trooper Holly Hanssel was quoted as telling YNN. “Him posting the picture immediately on his website was huge and that absolutely helped us.”

Owens’ competition, The Daily News, referred to The Batavian simply as “an online news site” in its own report on the arrest, apparently not wanting to identify its crosstown rival. The paper also reported that “police did not provide The Daily News or other media with the photo.”

Frankly, that strikes me as odd. Regardless of why law enforcement approached Owens first, it seems to me that the police should have wanted to get the photo out to as many media outlets as possible. It also strikes me as a possible violation of public records laws, although police generally have a great deal of discretion while a crime is being investigated.*

Regardless, it was a coup for The Batavian.

The other incident involves a convenience store robbery that took place in New Haven on May 16. Paul Bass, editor and publisher of the New Haven Independent, a nonprofit news site, posted a video clip from the store’s surveillance camera showing an older man calmly showing the clerk a gun and then grabbing cash out of the register.

Incredibly, the man’s family saw the story and persuaded the man — described as 57 years old and homeless — to turn himself in. “I’m just a drug addict. I’m just on hard times. My family convinced me to turn myself in,” the man reportedly told police.

A day later, police heard from someone who said he and a friend had been robbed by the same man when he approached them on the street.

Both the Independent and The Batavian are featured in “The Wired City.”

*Update: Owens has posted a comment, and I realize now that I assumed The Daily News had requested the photo and was turned down. In fact, that does not appear to be the case.

Talking about the future of local journalism

I had a great time talking with David Schwartz on Tuesday for his “New Books in Journalism” podcast. Our conversation is already online, and you can listen here. Schwartz writes:

Through interviews and research, Kennedy shows that local journalism in the 21st Century can survive and thrive so long as those within an organization are willing to put in the work and develop an understanding of the new tenets of journalism: social engagement, deep community focus, and evolving revenue models.

Talking about “The Wired City” this Monday

Update II: We’ve been moved to Monday, June 3, at 9 a.m. Please tune in.

Update: We got postponed to clear time for ongoing coverage of the Connecticut train crash.

I’ll be doing my first major media event for “The Wired City” on Monday, May 20, at 9 a.m., when I’ll be a guest on Connecticut Public Radio’s “Where We Live,” hosted by John Dankosky.

Joining me will be Paul Bass, the founder and editor of the New Haven Independent, a nonprofit online-only news site that is the main subject of my book.

If you’re interested, you can listen live online or grab a podcast.

How the IRS is killing nonprofit media

This article appeared earlier at The Huffington Post.

Outrage over the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of Tea Party and other right-wing groups continues to boil — yet a potentially more consequential IRS practice has scarcely gained any attention.

Over the past few years the IRS has virtually stopped approving 501(c)(3) status for nonprofit news organizations. Given the well-documented decline of traditional for-profit newspapers, nonprofit journalism can be a vital alternative, especially at the local and regional levels. But even when applications for 501(c)(3) status aren’t rejected outright, they are stacking up, unacted upon, for months and even years.

A recent Council on Foundations report titled “The IRS and Nonprofit Media: Toward Creating a More Informed Public” put it this way:

There is significant anecdotal evidence that the IRS has delayed the approval of nonprofit media, potentially slowed the development of those already created, and harmed communities by leaving them without essential coverage, due to the application of archaic standards.

Starting in the middle part of the last decade, a number of nonprofit entrepreneurs launched community websites that were built roughly on the public radio model, funded by grants, sponsorships and contributions from readers. Gaining 501(c)(3) status allowed donors to make make those contributions tax-exempt.

In researching “The Wired City,” my book on the New Haven Independent and other community news sites, I was struck that nearly all of the best-known nonprofits — the Independent, Voice of San DiegoMinnPost, the Texas Tribune, the Connecticut Mirror and others — had been started during the same time period, from 2004 to 2009.

“There was an initial bubble of nonprofit start-ups, but you haven’t seen that great wave spreading across the country,” Andrew Donohue, the then-editor of Voice of San Diego, told me in 2011. He saw that as potentially a good thing — a sign that journalists were trying a variety of models, for-profit as well as nonprofit. Since then, however, it has become increasingly apparent that the IRS is a principal agent in stifling that great wave.

Consider some of the consequences of the IRS’s actions and inaction:

• In February 2012, the Chicago News Cooperative went under, in part because of its inability to obtain 501(c)(3) status from the IRS, as Ryan Chittum reported in the Columbia Journalism Review.

• Because the IRS does not consider journalism to be among the educational activities covered by the 501(c)(3) rules, the agency told the Investigative News Network to remove the word “journalism” from its articles of incorporation. The INN complied and won approval, according to an article about the Council on Foundations report by Justin Ellis of the Nieman Journalism Lab.

• In a similar vein, according to the report, the Johnston Insider of Rhode Island received a message from the IRS telling it: “While most of your articles may be of interest to individuals residing in your community, they are not educational.” Because of that and other reasons, editor Elizabeth Wayland-Seal announced that she was suspending publication.

What adds to the absurdity of the IRS’s stance, as the report notes, is that we are already accustomed to relying on nonprofit, tax-exempt media for much of our news and information — not just from community news sites but from long-established outlets such as NPR and local public radio stations, “The PBS NewsHour” and magazines such as Mother Jones, Consumer Reports and National Geographic.

Here is how the media-reform organization Free Press, which has assembled a useful repository of information about the IRS and nonprofit news, describes the problem:

Nonprofit journalism is not a silver bullet for the future of journalism. But fostering a more diverse media system is. If the IRS decides against allowing nonprofit status for newsrooms, it will essentially be arguing that all journalism should be done for profit. The problem is, the market has shown it will not support the full extent and diversity of news and perspectives we need.

Four years ago, U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, proposed a bill that would have allowed newspapers to become nonprofit organizations. At the time it struck me as superfluous. Now it appears that it warrants another look — not just for newspapers, but for other forms of media as well.

Absent legislation, President Obama should appoint a new IRS commissioner who understands that providing quality local journalism is indeed the sort of educational activity that should be covered by the provisions of 501(c)(3).

At a historical moment when it has become increasingly difficult for the traditional media to provide the information we need to govern ourselves in a democracy, the IRS shouldn’t stand in the way of promising alternatives.

Beyond nonprofit and for-profit: What’s next for “The Wired City”

The Bradford Bridge, looking north toward downtown Haverhill

The Bradford Bridge, looking north toward downtown Haverhill

This article appeared earlier at the Nieman Journalism Lab.

It was as incongruous a situation as I could imagine. Friday, April 19, was one of the most gripping news days we have ever experienced in Massachusetts. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the younger of the suspected marathon bombers, was in hiding. Boston and several other cities were under voluntary lockdown. And that morning I was driving north, toward Haverhill, on my way to a meeting where earnest community activists were making plans to revive local journalism.

While all hell was breaking loose elsewhere, the Haverhill Matters Organizing Committee met in a sunny conference room at Haverhill Community Television. The committee’s goal is to launch a cooperatively owned news site to be called Haverhill Matters sometime this year.

It’s been a long time coming. Tom Stites, a veteran journalist who’s worked at the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune, came up with the idea of local news co-ops a few years ago. He founded the Banyan Project to serve as an umbrella; Haverhill Matters will be the pilot. I wrote about his plans for the Nieman Journalism Lab last year, as well as in the epilogue to my forthcoming book about online community journalism, “The Wired City.” The launch date for Haverhill Matters has slipped a few times, but at this point it looks like 2013 will be the year.

The hour-long meeting was taken up with fairly mundane planning issues, but I could see that the site is moving toward reality. Currently the committee is at the first of a four-stage process, outlined in considerable detail on the Banyan website. The organizers envision everything from crowdsourced reporting projects to quotidian coverage of local news. A board of directors will hire two full-time employees: an executive director and an editor. The site will also make ample use of freelancers, neighborhood bloggers, and college and high school interns.

After some back-and-forth about liability issues, the committee members agreed to sign on with the Cooperative Development Institute to handle Haverhill Matters’ finances. There were charts about finances and timetables, and about how the yet-to-be-hired editor should spend the 520 hours he or she will be working each quarter.

“We’re really at a go/no-go moment, and I think we’ve decided to go,” said Tim Coco, president and general manager of WHAV, an online radio station based in Haverhill.

“Well, we want to,” replied local activist Mike LaBonte, co-chair of the organizing committee.

Coco professed some skepticism about what he was hearing but supported the idea of moving ahead. “It’s not feasible,” he said, “but that’s never stopped me before.”

The Banyan Project is aimed at serving what Stites calls “news deserts” — less-than-affluent communities that tend to be shunned by high-end advertisers and, thus, by the news organizations that rely on those advertisers. Haverhill, a city of 61,000 on the Merrimack River at the New Hampshire line, meets that definition. The Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth, or MassINC, lists Haverhill as one of 11 “Gateway Cities” — former manufacturing centers that are struggling with a lack of resources and economic investment.

Yet in other respects, Haverhill is an unlikely news desert. Though the days when two daily newspapers battled it out are long gone, the Eagle-Tribune, based in nearby North Andover, continues to publish a daily Haverhill edition. The Eagle-Tribune also publishes a weekly paper, the Haverhill Gazette, that offers local staples such as school news, feel-good features and announcements. Add in Haverhill Community Television, with its robust lineup of local programming, and WHAV, and it would appear that more than a few flowers are sprouting in this particular desert.

The real target, then, is the unaccountability of local journalism controlled by out-of-state corporations. For years now, the Eagle-Tribune’s owner, Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. (CNHI) of Montgomery, Ala., has been decimating its properties. Neither the Eagle-Tribune nor the Gazette has an office in Haverhill anymore. Thus Haverhill Matters represents an attempt by local residents to tell their own story.

In reporting “The Wired City,” I learned that there are problems with both the for-profit and nonprofit models of independent online local journalism. The owners of the for-profits — including sites like The BatavianCT News Junkie, and Baristanet — have to spend so much time selling advertising that it limits the amount of journalism they can afford to do.

Nonprofits such as the New Haven Independent, the main focus of my book, are more robust. But not every community is willing to support such a venture, and the Internet Revenue Service has made it increasingly difficult for such sites to attain nonprofit 501(c)(3) status. Moreover, nonprofits are prohibited from endorsing political candidates, traditionally an important activity for local news organizations.

A cooperatively owned news site — analogies include credit unions and food co-ops — would occupy a space somewhere between the two models, and would not be banned from publishing endorsements. Tom Stites is currently soliciting contributions for Haverhill Matters’ launch. Once the site is up and running, he hopes to attract 1,500 members at $36 a year, bringing in $54,000, as well as advertising and grant money. A chart Mike LaBonte displayed showed an initial $45,000 expenditure, with the site reaching break-even in two and a half years.

Unlike one-off projects such as the New Haven Independent or The Batavian, the intention behind Haverhill Matters is that it be replicable. Stites hopes the Banyan Project will be able to offer a “co-op in a box” to communities looking to start their own cooperatively owned news sites. But first he has to prove the model can work. Which is why Haverhill Matters matters.

Photo (cc) 2013 by Dan Kennedy. Some rights reserved.