Brooke Gladstone: In the 1800s, New Bedford, Massachusetts was the world's "center of whaling." More than half of the world's whaling ships in the 1840s came from New Bedford. The town was so emblematic of whaling, that it served as the setting for Herman Melville's novel Moby Dick.
According to the New York Times, it was then the richest city per capita on the continent. Now, more than a fifth of its citizens live in poverty, but this exceptional historic town is representative of a phenomenon happening across the US. It's local daily paper, The Standard-Times, has been bought by a hedge fund-backed news conglomerate and stripped to barebones.
It's become what's known as a "ghost paper," because of the trimmed down staff and the scant original reporting. The mayor of New Bedford was quoted in the New York Times, saying, "It used to be that I couldn't sneeze without having to explain myself. Now, I have to beg people to show up at my press conferences. Please, ask me questions." A year and a half ago, a small group of concerned community members gathered to try to address the dearth of local journalism. The result? A new, non-profit news outlet called The New Bedford Light. Barbara Roessner is founding editor of The New Bedford Light. Welcome to the show.
Barbara Roessner: Thank you so much, Brooke. Happy to be here.
Brooke Gladstone: Can you tell me a little about yourself before we get into the Light?
Barbara Roessner: Well, I am a legacy newspaper journalist of some 40 years. I have been a reporter, a political columnist, and editor of major investigative projects and long-form narratives. I ended up as managing editor of The Hartford Courant, where I worked for 30 years.
Brooke Gladstone: You were there in 1999 when it won a Pulitzer?
Barbara Roessner: I was. We won a Pulitzer for breaking news. I spent a couple of years in what I call the private sector doing strategic communications and then I went back into the news business which, as you know, is a very rough and tumble business, especially now. I was the executive editor of amalgam of daily newspapers for Hearst.
Brooke Gladstone: Then you kind of sort of thought you'd retire?
Barbara Roessner: That's right. I left the New York City metro area and moved to Westport, Massachusetts, which is a beautiful farming and fishing community on the southeastern shore of Massachusetts, right next to New Bedford. I did intend to retire, and I have failed miserably.
Barbara Roessner: I got involved with a small group of citizens, a couple of journalists, maybe one journalist involved, Ken Hartnett, who is a retired editor of The Standard-Times. Ran that paper when it was robust as opposed to what it is now.
Brooke Gladstone: That's the local Bedford paper that has become a ghost?
Barbara Roessner: It's [unintelligible 00:03:09] to say I totally empathize with and appreciate the journalists in that newsroom who are doing work with very, very minimal resources, but yes, it's very thin, and it covers some things well, but there are other things that are just not getting covered at all. These citizens really wanted to get a community-based news organization that is focused on the city.
Brooke Gladstone: How does this work? You have a staff, and I know you're working pro bono and your publisher, a scion of the Taylor family who owned The Boston Globe for more than 100 years, I know this because my husband worked at The Boston Globe for 20 years, is now the publisher of The New Bedford Light, but how are you talking to the community? Now in your third week of operation, how are you deciding what to report and how much to report?
Barbara Roessner: Well, we conducted a community survey of news preferences and asking people what kinds of stories they wanted covered, what kinds of issues they wanted addressed. We sent that out, I believe, last fall to thousands of people. We distributed it in English, Spanish, Portuguese, and Cape Verdean Creole in an effort to reach those communities.
Brooke Gladstone: What did they want?
Barbara Roessner: Well, I think they need to see themselves for one thing. I think they need to see their experiences and their voices and their worldview reflected, and that's one of the reasons we went very deeply on COVID not only with data analysis and getting the first data on who had died in COVID but really tell the lives of those folks through their obituaries. That's one of the first things we did.
Brooke Gladstone: Can you give me an example of something you've done or plan to do?
Barbara Roessner: Absolutely. Housing, it turns out is a very, very hot issue right now. As in many communities across the country, residential home prices are way up, and because of that and some other factors, rents are way up. New Bedford is a city of renters. The federal moratorium on evictions is going to be up at the end of June, and there are already hundreds of people facing eviction filings, so this is a really important issue to put before the community and also to make folks aware that there is assistance out there for them, that there's money for rental assistance and for landlords.
We did a story on evictions on Monday, and we decided we really need to follow up with a detailed list of all the agencies that are providing assistance and how to get that.
Brooke Gladstone: How difficult was it to get The New Bedford Light off the ground and how are you staffed?
Barbara Roessner: We are in the very, very early stages. We have just come out of the gate. We do not have staff as full-time employees. I'm working with a small crew of freelancers who are experienced in New Bedford. I found editors and reporters and photographers who were laid off by the local paper or to buy-outs from the local paper over the last 10 years, who are incredibly talented, and they're local journalists, and they know the city, so they are taking a leap of faith with us to do the kinds of in-depth stories that we feel the community needs and to help us build this thing.
Brooke Gladstone: I still don't have a clear idea of the philosophies. For instance, no high school sports coverage, why not?
Barbara Roessner: Because that's being done quite well by other outlets. We're trying very hard not to duplicate what's already out there in the media ecosystem. We're not competing with anybody, we don't want to put anybody out of business. We want to add to what's out there. Based on where are the gaps and where is the need, I have come up with a simple mantra because all editors need to to stay focused and disciplined.
My mantra is investigate issues, celebrate culture, because we think that that's what we can do initially. Now, if things change in the media ecosystem, if that local paper was to fold for example, then we would look at how we need to cover other things as well, but we're very happy with what's being covered in other ways, and often just in neighborhood Facebook pages, and we don't want to duplicate that either. We want to bring something more.
Brooke Gladstone: One thing that we've reported on is the dearth of statehouse coverage, local political coverage, coverage of granular issues like maintaining the roads and so forth. What are those issues that are falling between the cracks for you that you intend to cover, that you plan to make your beat because no one else is doing it?
Barbara Roessner: Well, we are going to cover the local elections, the municipal elections very heavily. We're going to kick it off actually tomorrow with a column by this wonderful columnist who had worked for many years at The Standard-Times. He knows everything about politics in New Bedford, and he has the ultimate columnist name, Jack Spillane. Of course, there's very, very lively, I would say, raucous local political culture in New Bedford. There is a city council election and a school committee election, and we're going to preview that tomorrow and then we're going to keep covering it in a big way.
I would say a major issue is policing and race. That has always been an issue in New Bedford, it has become much more so with the BLM movement and with a study that was done a couple of months ago [unintelligible 00:09:11] report by the ACLU and others that showed that people of color are clearly being profiled by the New Bedford police.
We are looking very carefully at the city budget right now actually, and we'll be publishing an in-depth explanatory look at where is the money coming from and where is it going and a particular focus on the police department and what happened to the reforms that were being discussed and being promoted by various politicians and don't seem to have come to fruition, and we want to look closely at that. That would be a really prime example of where we need to get data and hold public officials accountable for the statements that they've made promoting police reform and community policing.
Brooke Gladstone: New Bedford seems to have a bit of a renaissance underway. The coming of the large-scale wind industry to the city raises environmental issues. It also raises questions about who gets the jobs.
Barbara Roessner: Yes. I keep saying that the wind industry and jobs needs to be a very important focus for us. I've worked my whole career in similar small cities with big challenges; Hartford, Connecticut; New Haven, Connecticut; Bridgeport, Connecticut; very similar kind of cities. There's always something in the Ether that prompts people to say, "I think we're on the verge. I think we're on the verge of a renaissance. We're on the brink of something." We're hearing that in New Bedford, we're feeling that in New Bedford. Whether that's true, time will tell, but there are things happening that haven't happened before.
One would be the advent of a large wind industry project, Vineyard Wind, that could bring hundreds of jobs, if not thousands of jobs in the long-term to New Bedford. The other is the coming of a train line to Boston. That's scheduled to happen in 2024. Of course, that's complex because it raises all those issues of, yes, development and progress, but also gentrification and--
Brooke Gladstone: And housing prices are already soaring.
Barbara Roessner: Yes. There is a housing shortage in New Bedford. There is a shortage of affordable rents for people who are low-income, and almost a quarter of the population in New Bedford qualifies as below the poverty line.
Brooke Gladstone: You seem to have an unusual mayor, Jon Mitchell, begging to be held accountable.
Barbara Roessner: As the mayor himself says, he's not naive. He could be complaining about us very soon because we write a story that he doesn't like. I don't think he has had scrutiny in a long time, and I give him credit for understanding how important that free press role is in a democracy, not only to tell people what's going on in their community but to hold power accountable. I know that's something of a hackneyed phrase right now, but it's true.
Brooke Gladstone: The presence of local media, of the local paper strengthens the city, increases participation, increases the percent of people who vote, and even has benefits for the bond rating of a city according to studies, it's something that gives the city a sense of itself.
Barbara Roessner: Absolutely. A very important part of what we intend to do beyond the things that I've mentioned is we are going to create, we call it journalism incubator, which has two dimensions to it. One is an open, free-to-the-community workshop series on fundamental principles of a free press and what public service journalism is and what independent journalism is, nonpartisan journalism is.
Then, the other is to start a program that I am thinking in my mind is emulating a wonderful program in Chicago run by City Bureau, which is a local non-profit digital organization there called Documenters. We're going to recruit and train citizens and students, high school and college students locally, to cover basic meetings and really engage folks in the process of recording what's going on and becoming active agents in that, and we will pay them to go out and cover meetings. Then, the ones who really hopefully get the bug, the journalism bug, will ultimately become reporters for The New Bedford Light or editors for The New Bedford Light or photographers.
Brooke Gladstone: Oftentimes it is students that are covering statehouse news these days, and it's way better than nothing, right? The problem is they don't have institutional memory, which is so important when you're covering these institutions.
Barbara Roessner: Yes. I mean, we're talking about very, very basic reporting techniques. City Bureau, I think they pay residents a hundred bucks to go and cover a meeting. The citizens have been trained on how to report live on Twitter, what's going on, when a vote is taken, what the vote is, what the numbers are, and no, it's not explanatory, it's not investigative, it's not contextual.
Brooke Gladstone: Or analytical, it's just who, what, where, when.
Barbara Roessner: Absolutely, and that needs to be out there too. It's not meant to replace the experienced, highly trained reporters who know how to do investigative work and deep explanatory work, but it can certainly augment.
Brooke Gladstone: Thank you very much.
Barbara Roessner: Thank you, Brooke. Appreciate it.
Brooke Gladstone: Barbara Roessner is the founding editor of The New Bedford Light, hoping to retire at some point.
Barbara Roessner: Yes.
Brooke Gladstone: Yes.
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