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[Don't Quote Me]

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Making niche

Beacon Hill aims to be the ultimate State House insider's guide. Plus, the state of media cynicism, and Fidelity hires an editor.

by Dan Kennedy

For most of the 1990s the media have been retreating from Beacon Hill. With public disgust at state government giving way to bored complacency, the sense that the State House is where the big story can be found has long since faded. TV reporters now rarely prowl the marble corridors. Mid-size dailies from the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune to the Berkshire Eagle have abolished their full-time State House beats. Even the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald aren't quite as infatuated with state-government stories as they used to be.

Into this void have rushed the specialists. The newest player: Beacon Hill, a weekly newspaper that's scheduled to debut on May 5. Modeled after Roll Call, a 42-year-old twice-weekly that covers Capitol Hill, Beacon Hill is intended as a community newspaper for the 50,000 or so state-government employees who work in Greater Boston.

The editor is Mark Leccese, a veteran journalist who until recently was State House-bureau chief for Fidelity's Community Newspaper Company. The publisher is Alan Vandenburgh, a former advertising executive for the Wall Street Journal who's made a career out of launching successful niche publications, from cable-TV guides to Senior Golfer, a magazine aimed at golfers 50 and older which he sold last year for an undisclosed sum. Leccese has already hired Jason Kauppi from the Lowell Sun to be the managing editor, and he's in the process of hiring two full-time reporters. The tabloid-format paper will consist of 24 or 28 pages a week.

Vandenburgh and Leccese are placing their hopes on the notion that state workers -- as well as lobbyists, businesses, interest groups, municipal officials, journalists, and the like -- comprise a real community that's interested in the sort of in-depth, process-oriented coverage that the Globe and the Herald can't provide. Their vision is that of a hometown paper, with stories of particular interest to state workers, gossip, personnel moves, even a police log. Leccese promises plenty of meatier fare too, especially on such underreported topics as the fate of legislation after it's been passed.

"There's a lot going on that isn't reported in the existing media," Leccese says.

Will Beacon Hill be a hit on Beacon Hill? Observers pronounce themselves intrigued but skeptical. "I love the idea because I'm a political junkie," says political reporter Jon Keller, of WLVI-TV (Channel 56). "But I've got to say, in all candor, that they've got their work cut out for them." Another political hand disputes the notion that state workers even think of themselves as members of a community, a conceit that is central to Beacon Hill's chances. "The average state employee comes to work, does his job, and goes home, and isn't all that enamored of politics," he says.

Besides, it's not as though Beacon Hill is staking out virgin territory. Far from it. The retreat of mainstream media has resulted in the creation of a virtual cottage industry, forcing Vandenburgh and Leccese to carve out a niche within a niche.

In 1996 MassINC, a nonpartisan think tank headed by former Democratic political operative Tripp Jones, launched CommonWealth, a quarterly public-affairs magazine. Around the same time, liberal activist Jim Braude started Otherwise, a biweekly political rant that's been beset by financial problems, though Braude is attempting to revive it. State House News Service, re-energized by its new owner, former Tab publisher Russel Pergament, and InstaTrac (a sister company of the Phoenix) both sell customized information to business clients.

Then, too, Vandenburgh may discover there are a few flaws in his economic plan. He says he's hoping for a paid circulation of 10,000 -- yet Roll Call publishes only 20,000 copies, and all but 5000 of them are distributed for free. Vandenburgh is also counting on advertising from interest groups seeking to influence legislation. That's not unrealistic, given the enormous volume of such advertising in Roll Call. But is that concept transferrable to a small political community such as Massachusetts state government? Maybe -- if Beacon Hill quickly establishes itself as a must-read for insiders. But as one lobbyist puts it, "There never will be a substitute for face-to-face, one-on-one meetings."

Perhaps surprisingly, Vandenburgh describes himself as essentially apolitical. He stresses that he sees Beacon Hill as an opportunity to make money, not to transform himself into a political heavyweight. He's already planning a website and specialized spinoff services, and has dreams of transplanting the concept to other state capitals.

Certainly the idea is more likely to catch on here -- one of the few places where politics remains a spectator sport -- than just about anywhere else. "I don't know if it could work in too many places. But Boston might be one of them," says Craig Winneker, managing editor of Roll Call.

Interestingly, among those who thinks it can work is Russel Pergament, who was Leccese's boss when Leccese edited the Tab newspapers in the 1980s. "If they execute it right and they can get a little bit of luck," Pergament says, "then they can succeed."

Perhaps nothing strikes dread in the heart of a journalist more than to be told he or she has written a "valentine" -- or, as it more commonly referred to today, a "blowjob." Increasingly, journalism is a business that values attitude over substance, and the correct attitude is one of jaded cynicism. A positive story, even if it's accurate, connotes naïveté and a pathetic need to suck up to one's perceived betters. A negative story, even if it's wrong, conveys a sense of worldliness and sophistication.

Thus it was something of a shock to tune in to the webzine Salon (http://www.salonmagazine.com) earlier this week and find a notably muddle-headed essay by Chris Lehmann, editor of Newsday's Sunday Currents section, arguing that the problem with the press is that it isn't cynical enough. (Full disclosure: I'm an occasional contributor to Salon.)

Lehmann's evidence is a 1995 survey by the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press (now the Pew Center) in which 77 percent of the public rated the honesty and ethics of Washington politicians as low, whereas only 40 percent of national journalists held that opinion.

Those numbers are used to buttress Lehmann's contention that solution-oriented public, or civic, journalism is the devil's work, and that reporters should, if anything, treat their subjects with even more disdain and contempt than they already do. He also gets in the obligatory whack at U.S. News & World Report editor James Fallows, author of 1996's controversial Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy, which Lehmann inaccurately describes as a "civic-journalism manifesto."

"Heretical though it may be," Lehmann writes, "it's worth entertaining the notion that real civic journalism should embrace rather than bemoan the cynicism of the public -- and treat the performances of the powerful with withering, cynical scorn rather than herd-like connoiseurship."

There are several problems with Lehmann's analysis, none more so than his use of the Times Mirror Center statistics. After all, with the exception of C-SPAN junkies, Americans learn about politics through the lens of the media. If citizens are more cynical than journalists, it's because journalists themselves are imparting more cynicism than they actually feel, the better with which to impress their peers.

Then, too, as Fallows noted in Breaking the News, such journalistic practices as covering public affairs as though it were a sporting event, with the emphasis on who has gained political advantage rather than on how policies affect real lives, is guaranteed to breed cynicism.

This is not to say that journalists should make nice when reporting on politics. It is to say that they should reserve their cynicism for what counts. For Bill Clinton's unprincipled embrace of a cruel welfare-reform plan he would have rejected just a year earlier, not for his alleged sans-culotte encounter with Paula Corbin-Jones. For Newt Gingrich's plan to reward rich contributors by abolishing the capital-gains tax, not for his (shocking!) misuse of a tax exemption for political advantage.

In other words, for the stuff that matters rather than the gossip and trivia that too often pass as news.

Following a years-long, on-again-off-again search, Fidelity's Community Newspaper Company (CNC) has hired an editor-in-chief: Mary Jo Meisner, the controversial former editor of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. But if you're wondering what Meisner sees as her role in coordinating CNC's 119 Greater Boston newspapers, don't hold your breath. In a brief interview on Monday, her first day on the job, Meisner made it clear that she's still figuring that out herself.

Meisner, 45, says she expects to be an advocate for good journalism within CNC's top circles, and to develop recruiting, training, development, and ethics programs.

The big question, of course, is whether she plans to centralize any of the papers' editorial content. That was a goal of CNC's last editor-in-chief, John Wilpers (now editor of America Online's Digital City Boston), who was reorganized out onto the street in 1994.

Meisner's answer, for the moment, is a qualified no. "I think the strongest thing this company has going for it is its ties to the individual communities, and you'd better not mess with that," she says.

Formerly managing editor of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, city editor of the Washington Post, and metro editor of both the San Jose Mercury News and the Philadelphia Daily News, Meisner began her career covering labor and business for the Wilmington News-Journal, in Delaware. She has served as a Pulitzer Prize jurist, and chaired the 1996 American Society of Newspaper Editors Writing Awards. A source familiar with Meisner's career describes her as flamboyant and ambitious, qualities that led to her downfall in staid Milwaukee.

It's an encouraging sign that Meisner insists she won't defer to CNC president Michael Veitch when it comes to the company's most vexing business problem: its ownership of weeklies that compete with each other in the western suburbs. That's a financial drain that may force the company into wholesale mergers, but Meisner -- who oversaw the merger of the Journal and the Sentinel in Milwaukee -- says she's not jumping to any conclusions.

"I'd have to get in there and look at them all," she says. "That's where you definitely need to have an editorial voice at the table."

The Don't Quote Me archive

Dan Kennedy's work can also be accessed from his Web site: http://www1.shore.net/~dkennedy/

Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy@phx.com

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