An Interview with Dan Kennedy

Ahead of Dan Kennedy's visit to GlobeLab this Thursday, we sat down to talk about journalism, "The Wired City" and the role of non-profits in news. Come hear him this Thursday at GlobeLab and ask your own questions! His book is also available for purchase online.

What was your inspiration for “The Wired City”? What challenges and trends were you noticing that drove you to write this book?

When I started my research for “The Wired City” in early 2009, the newspaper business was coming apart. Advertising revenue was plummeting. Thousands of journalists were losing their jobs. Newspapers were going out of business. The New York Times Co. was even threatening to close The Boston Globe.

At the same time, a number of independent online-only news organizations were rising up to provide at least some of the journalism that newspapers once provided. The news sites that seemed to be doing the most comprehensive job were nonprofits such as Voice of San Diego, MinnPost and, closer to home, the New Haven Independent.

I wanted to take a look at these nonprofits, as well as some for-profits, to see if the Internet could become the engine of a new form of community journalism — faster, cheaper and better connected with the public.

Give us a TL;DR of the book. What’s the main lesson you’d like readers to take away from the experience?

I tried to write a work of narrative journalism that tells the story of the New Haven Independent and its founder, Paul Bass, a New Haven journalist of some renown since the 1980s. My goal was to convey a sense of how its small staff of four full-timers covers a city of 120,000 in all its complexity and diversity, and how the Independent is regarded by community leaders and others.

I also wanted to weave in the stories of several similar projects, both nonprofit, such as Voice of San Diego and The Connecticut Mirror, and for-profit, such as CT News Junkie, The Batavian in western New York and Baristanet in northern New Jersey. The idea is to help readers place the work the Independent is doing within the larger context of how local journalism is changing.

My hope is that readers will come away from “The Wired City” with a sense of optimism. In city after city and region after region, entrepreneurs have moved in to fill the gap when traditional forms of journalism have failed.

Why New Haven and the Independent? How did you find yourself there?

I had originally intended to write a book about a wide range of online journalism projects. I even interviewed the Central Asia editor of Global Voices Online, which aggregates citizen media, while I was attending a conference in Almaty, Kazakhstan, in 2009. At this early stage I envisioned writing a chapter or maybe even just part of a chapter about the Independent.

After a summer of research, though, I realized that the Independent had exactly what I was looking for — good, comprehensive journalism, a compelling lead character in Paul Bass and an interesting and diverse city. I also liked the fact that Paul and I both come out of the alt-weekly world, Paul at the New Haven Advocate and me at The Boston Phoenix. And it didn’t hurt that New Haven was less than a half-day’s drive from Boston.

I’ve been passionate about community journalism ever since my days as a co-op student at The Call in Woonsocket, R.I., and as a young reporter at the Daily Times Chronicle in Woburn. The story of the New Haven Independent was a chance for me to do a deep dive into a subject I really cared about.

What about the communities and newspapers you profiled make them exemplary candidates for your thesis? What could Boston learn from them?

When I first visited New Haven almost exactly four years ago, the region’s dominant newspaper, the New Haven Register, was moribund. Its parent company, Journal Register, was bankrupt. Meanwhile, the Independent was new, lively and making a difference in people’s lives. It was the perfect contrast.

Interestingly enough, Journal Register later emerged from bankruptcy and, under new leadership, the Register is now pursuing a closely watched “Digital First” strategy. Journal Register went through yet another round of bankruptcy, which slowed its momentum. At the moment, though, the Independent and the Register are both seen as leading-edge experiments in reinventing local journalism — something I had not expected when I began my research.

What can Boston learn? We’re lucky in Boston. The Globe remains a fine regional newspaper capable of terrific coverage, as we saw in the case of the Boston Marathon bombing and its aftermath. We still have a vibrant second daily, the Boston Herald. We have television and radio stations and neighborhood newspapers. New Haven had very few of these resources when the Independent was founded in 2005.

But if the news business in Boston were to fail at some point in the future, I hope “The Wired City” shows that there are ways of offsetting that failure. As Clay Shirky has said, “Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism.”

How will nonprofit organizations fit into the new media landscape? How can nonprofit policy be shifted to become more accommodating to newspapers?

A mixture of nonprofit and for-profit news organizations is good for all of us, since it means that our information needs are being met by more than one funding model.

Unfortunately, at the moment the nonprofit news model has been stymied by the IRS, which has taken the position — without really explaining it — that journalism is not the sort of educational activity envisioned by the tax code. I’m not sure Paul Bass would be able to launch the Independent in the current environment.

Maybe we need legislation making it easier to launch nonprofit news organizations, as U.S. Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland proposed several years ago. There’s also an idea called the Banyan Project, founded by a journalist named Tom Stites, which aims to launch cooperatively owned news sites across the country. Stites hopes to start a pilot in Haverhill later this year called Haverhill Matters.

I’m not sure every community can support a nonprofit site. What I argue in “The Wired City” is that nonprofit news has worked well in a few places, including New Haven. But I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all solution to the challenges facing journalism. We need to keep experimenting to see what works and what doesn’t.

Dan Kennedy is an assistant professor of journalism at Northeastern University in Boston and a nationally known media commentator who writes for the Nieman Journalism Lab, The Huffington Post and other publications. He is a panelist on “Beat the Press,” an award-winning weekly media roundtable on WGBH-TV (Channel 2). A former media columnist for The Guardian and The Boston Phoenix, he is a past winner of the National Press Club’s Arthur Rowse Award for Press Criticism. His first book, “Little People: Learning to See the World Through My Daughter’s Eyes” (Rodale, 2003), is a critically acclaimed memoir about raising a daughter with dwarfism. His full biography is available on his blog, Media Nation.