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