One dreary Friday afternoon in late November, Paul Bass received a phone call. The person on the other end was a close confidant of William Outlaw III, an unfortunately named police suspect who was accused of attempting to run a police officer over with his car. Outlaw had been in hiding for the greater part of a week, and he was now contemplating turning himself in.
“So I met him that Sunday,” Bass said, “and I brought a camera.”
After meeting with Outlaw, Bass posted the interview on his website, along with an accompanying interview with Outlaw’s accuser. And when Outlaw turned himself in the next day, Bass went along, with his camera.
This was by no means the first time Bass received a call of this sort. For the past seven years, he has established himself as one of the most trusted figures in New Haven journalism, making inroads with segments of the black and Latino communities where few other reporters have cared to venture. But Bass is not the crime beat reporter for New Haven’s 200-year-old flagship daily newspaper, the New Haven Register. In fact, he doesn’t work for the Register at all.
Bass is the founder and editor of the New Haven Independent, a not-for-profit news website that he created in 2005. Since then, the site has attracted over 700,000 page views per month and won multiple awards for its reporting. (The New Haven Register has about 5 million page views per month, according to its managing editor, Mark Brackenbury.)
Bass came to New Haven as a Yale student in the late 1970s and has stayed on since his graduation as a journalist. Back then, the city was home to two newspapers, an alternative weekly, and seven radio newsrooms, by Bass’ account. All seven of the radio stations are now gone. The alternative weekly, the New Haven Advocate — where Bass started his professional career — slashed its entire staff in New Haven and now runs syndicated material in Hartford. And the New Haven Register, the city’s one remaining print daily, employs about half the journalists it did in the 1980s. Bass created the Independent to fill a void in quality coverage of the city that he saw in the wake of these contractions.
“The experience of New Haven suggests that when commercial media fail, enterprising journalists will come up with ideas to offset at least some of what has been lost,” said Dan Kennedy in an email. He is an assistant professor of journalism at Northeastern University and the author of the forthcoming book “The Wired City: Reimagining Journalism and Civic Life in the Post-Newspaper Age,” which is largely about the New Haven Independent.
“At a time when the advertising model that supported news from the 1830s until about 2005 is falling apart, the nonprofit model is emerging as a crucial way to pay for journalism — especially public-service journalism of the sort that is vital for a self-governing democracy, but that may not attract as many eyeballs as sports or entertainment.”
Bass may be talented, but it is unclear how much of his success can be attributed to his own style over the lack of genuine competition. And, perhaps more importantly, it remains to be seen whether Bass’ model — if it proves to be successful in the long term — can truly fill a void left by floundering daily newspapers.
It is difficult to imagine a more perfect foil to the upstart Independent than the New Haven Register, a newspaper whose critics describe it as out of touch with the community it serves. The disconnect is perhaps best symbolized by the Register’s location. The Register building, a converted shirt factory partially surrounded by barbed wire and featuring a large “for sale” sign, lies on the outskirts of town, by Interstate 95. Inside, one end holds a printing press that, until March of last year, printed the Register in-house along with approximately 30 other publications. The Register’s parent company, the Pennsylvania-based Journal Register Company (JRC), decided to outsource printing to the Hartford Courant’s facilities, laying off 105 printing press workers in the process. On the other end, there is a large, iconic newsroom with rows and rows of unoccupied desks.
At the height of its success in the late ’80s and early ’90s, the Register employed about 120 people in its newsroom, from journalists to copy editors and photographers. That number has since dwindled to about 70, according to Brackenbury. (Several former Register reporters declined to be interviewed for this article.)
The cuts reflect a major financial crunch at the Register, one that has afflicted newspapers in midsize cities nationwide. Twenty years ago, as Harvard Nieman Journalism Lab Director Joshua Benton notes, many papers like the Register enjoyed lucrative monopolies on local print news and print advertising. If someone wanted to get the news in New Haven, then they had to buy the Register. This in turn gave the paper a broad readership base, a major draw for local advertisers looking to place ads in New Haven print media. As a result, newspaper companies could charge whatever they pleased for ads and newspapers. “The rates they charged didn’t really make sense on the free market,” Benton said.
Unfortunately for the Register, that attitude outlasted its usefulness. Throughout the late ’90s and early 2000s, print revenue started its precipitous decline, fueled by competition from websites — including its own — that were giving away news for free. As the company’s main source of revenue quickly evaporated, it struggled to meet debt and pension obligations it had accrued at a healthier time. By February 2009, JRC had filed a Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceeding, done under by the weight of $695 million in debt. The company would emerge from bankruptcy half a year later.
The Register survived JRC’s financial meltdown, but not without serious ramifications for its coverage. Staff cuts have spread the newspaper thin, combining several of its beats and slashing others altogether. Since the Register covers the greater New Haven area, fewer reporters are available to focus solely on city government and city agencies in New Haven — meaning that more might be slipping through the cracks of scrutiny. Brackenbury says only four Register journalists cover New Haven full time; most report on either suburbs or sports.
In 2005, Paul Bass thought he had just the idea to create some needed competition in the New Haven news market. He had watched all the city’s existing news outlets fall prey to what he calls “rapacious corporate control,” leaving a gap for in-depth, New Haven-centric reporting. Since there was little revenue to be made in the print world, he decided to start his new venture online. With little costs other than the reporters needed to produce the website’s content, Bass could start a news outlet on a relatively low budget. And that was how the Independent was born.
“There wasn’t enough reporting going on,” Bass said. “No one was going to the school board, no one was hanging out in the neighborhood and writing about it.”
So that’s exactly what Bass started to do. Each morning, he walks to his downtown office from his home in Westville — a commute that he says takes about 45 minutes each way but that he considers crucial in keeping tabs on the different neighborhoods on which he reports. “Sometimes you come across a crime scene, or a fire, or an argument or something like that,” he explained. One time, Bass was riding his bike to work (he insists it was too cold to walk), when an irritated woman yelled at him to “get on the fuckin’ sidewalk.” He filmed the incident, looked up the relevant laws about where riders could and could not bike and wrote a story about it. “It was kind of fun,” he said with a smile.
Bass’ morning walk exemplifies the attitude of a news outlet that prides itself on an intimate understanding of New Haven. Independent reporters attend nearly every meeting of the city’s local assembly. They chronicle every turn of its education reform efforts; each year, Bass even embeds one of his writers in one school to report on its progress. And, perhaps most impressively, they follow local figures in the community with impressive focus: emerging rappers, neighborhood leaders and even elusive characters like the anonymous graffiti artist Believe in People. When his latest work appeared on an underground tunnel inside Yale, the Independent had the story before the Yale Daily News.
The sort of journalism favored by the Independent — locally focused, with an emphasis on political and social issues — is “not particularly advertiser-friendly,” as Kennedy pointed out. Bass compensates by structuring the Independent as a nonprofit and keeping overhead costs low. Between the rent on their New Haven office and a satellite in Ansonia that publishes the Valley Independent Sentinel — an offshoot of the New Haven Independent that covers several neighboring towns — Bass spends only $8,000 of his $400,000 yearly budget. According to the New Haven Independent’s 2010 tax return, Bass compensates himself a meager $60,000 salary and spends the rest on six staff writers, four of whom are responsible for producing all of the Independent’s content. (The other two run the Sentinel from Ansonia, and for the purpose of this story, can be considered separate from the Independent’s main operation.)
Even with these cost-management measures, the long-term financial sustainability of the Independent remains unsettled. Bass is always on the lookout for sources of funding. In the first few years of existence —when Bass’ budget hovered closer to $100,000 — a majority of funds came from journalism grants to which Bass applied. In more recent years, Bass says 75 percent of the budget comes from individual donors from the community whom Bass sought out. As of now, Bass says he has finished fundraising for 2013, which will have a budget of $410,000, and is a third of the way through fundraising for 2014.
“Is it a sustainable model? I have no idea,” Bass said. “It’s hard — you’ve got to scrape for the money. But I’m not finding that daily newspapers with corporate backing are doing much better.”
When the JRC emerged from bankruptcy proceedings in late 2009, its board of directors wanted to carry their company into the future. In February 2010, they named John Paton, a former journalist himself, to lead the company.
Paton was something of a visionary. Although many leading media thinkers were advocating the migration of news operations onto digital platforms, such as websites, mobile apps and text message alerts, few had actually pushed their companies to do so. In one of his first acts as CEO, Paton issued each Journal Register reporter a flip camera, in the hopes that each article would be accompanied by a video. Before Paton’s arrival, the New Haven Register uploaded articles onto its website only when they were completed; now, they post stories as they develop, even if that means posting several paragraphs to start and updating the story throughout the day. “[Our digital presence] has been ratcheted up a hundredfold,” Brackenbury said.
By September 2011, Paton had codified his digital-heavy business strategy into its own management company, Digital First Media (DFM), which was created to manage JRC and soon also agreed to manage Media News Group, a newspaper chain that includes larger metro dailies like the Denver Post and the San Jose Mercury. Savings would come in overhead costs like printing presses, not content itself. “Paton just has a radically different approach,” Matt DeRienzo, the JRC’s Connecticut editor and the Register’s de facto top editor, said. “He pounded his fist on the podium and said, ‘No advertiser is going to dictate our content. We can’t cut journalism anymore.’”
At first, Paton’s approach seemed to be working. From 2009 to 2011, the Journal Register’s digital revenue increased by 235 percent.
Then, a strange thing happened. Less than three years after the Journal Register emerged from bankruptcy proceedings, Paton announced that it was declaring Chapter 11 once more. In a press release announcing the move in September 2012, Paton said that bankruptcy proceedings were necessary considering the company’s continued losses in print revenue. Although digital revenue had improved, Paton said that print revenue, which made up more than half the company’s total income, had shrunk by 19 percent.
“It’s pretty damn public, and it’s pretty damn embarrassing,” Paton told The New York Times’ Media Decoder blog several days after the announcement. But, he added, “from a business perspective, it’s the absolute right thing to do.”
So far, though, the recent turbulence caused by JRC’s second bankruptcy has not trickled down to its flagship daily in New Haven. The “for sale” sign on the building is not solely one of the Journal Register’s efforts to rid itself of expensive property; it is also a signal that the newspaper wants to move back downtown and insert itself, literally, into the heart of the city.
But DeRienzo wants more than just to change the location — he wants to re-envision the way the Register’s newsroom is constructed altogether. Before becoming Connecticut editor for JRC, DeRienzo served as the publisher of The Register Citizen, a small daily in Torrington, Conn. There, he made waves when, in December 2010, he turned his newsroom into a café, inviting the citizens of Torrington to view and collaborate on the newspaper’s daily operations. DeRienzo now imagines a similar open newsroom for the Register. “To have a good relationship with your readers, you need trust,” he explained. “And in order to have trust, you need transparency.”
DeRienzo’s project will have to wait until the Register moves back downtown. In the meantime, however, the Internet has provided a partial proxy. Each morning at 10:30, the newsroom posts a list of stories it is working on for the day and hosts a live chat room for readers to pose questions, voice criticisms and contribute their own ideas. Feedback has brought a new form of citizen accountability to the Register’s editorial process. Says DeRienzo, “A common response [to the story list] is, ‘This is the wrong list of stories! You’re not covering what’s important to us.’”
Still, many in the media industry are skeptical that an open newsroom model represents anything more than a cosmetic reform. Bass called the Torrington model a “well-intentioned experiment,” but said that whenever he logged onto a live chat on The Register Citizen’s website, there were never more than two citizens contributing. “The participation rate has not been great,” Brackenbury conceded. “We’d like a lot more participation, we really would.”
“I’m not sure that we’re going to see dramatically different or better journalism in the Register even if the Digital First vision is fully implemented, because the reporting staff is not going to get bigger and may in fact continue to get a little smaller,” Kennedy said. “Most likely we’ll see a better sense of connection and conversation with the community, which is important but hard to measure.”
It is tempting to pit the Register and the Independent against each other as paragons of old and new, to regard the Register as a dying corporate mammoth only to be replaced with the likes of the fresher, well-intentioned nonprofit. But the true picture is much more complicated.
Kennedy said that, when comparing the two, the Independent “clearly” does deeper and more comprehensive coverage of the city. That is its specialty, whereas the Register must spread its resources across New Haven and about 20 suburbs. So if the Independent were to go under, it would be a bigger loss for the city’s coverage.
Still, compared with a old-style daily, the limits of that coverage are all too evident. As Kennedy pointed out, the Independent’s style tends to focus on breaking news at the expense of in-depth, investigative reporting. “What sense of depth the Independent offers tends to emerge over time, as the site returns to certain stories over and over,” he said. Director of the Yale Journalism Initiative Mark Oppenheimer noted the Independent’s limits in breadth of coverage. “The Independent has been very shrewd about picking a few, momentous issues … and covering them really, really well,” he said. “But in the old days, the Register had eyes and ears everywhere.”
And even today, the Register has a greater footprint in the city as a whole. “It is the closest thing New Haven has to a mass medium,” Kennedy said. “If the Register, for instance, were to expose wrongdoing at City Hall, it would get more attention than if the Independent did the same thing, simply because many more people read the Register.”
Although each organization points to the other as its main source of competition, the two have, in recent years, adopted a more collaborative spirit. “Now, if they have a story that they beat us on, or if they step back and they think about an issue in an interesting or a unique way, we absolutely link to them,” DeRienzo said.
Bass agreed. “It’s nice that we don’t have to compete for money,” he added. “It’s a pure journalistic competition — so we don’t suck up to anybody to get ad dollars away from each other. It makes us both do our jobs better.”
The Independent, for its part, seems to have carved out a niche as the city’s nonprofit community advocate. Although the impact of the Register’s changing leadership and new philosophy will not become clear for some time, it now has a chance to reinvent its own niche as the remaining print daily in New Haven. But will these news models be the only ones to define New Haven’s — and more broadly, America’s — news future? Bass doesn’t think so.
“There is always room for more,” he said matter-of-factly. “I’m sure there’s some 25-year-old out there who will put us out of business someday.”