Innovation Ecosystem/Opinion

A day in the life in the year of the plague

The potential “demise” of the Happy Valley, marked by the sacking of the editor of the Daily Hampshire Gazette, is a business lesson about the limits of the innovation economy

Photo courtesy of Brooke Hauser's Twitter feed

A photograph shared by Brooke Hauser on Twitter, the week before she had her job as editor-in-chief of the Daily Hampshire Gazette eliminated, with the caption: "Recommended activity: listening to Taylor Swift walking in a snowdrift.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 1/4/21
The surprise removal of the editor-in-chief of The Daily Hampshire Gazette is a warning shot across the bow about how Rhode Island needs to pay heed as it navigates the treacherous waters of the pandemic, where corporate messaging and private wealth may not be able to provide a path toward future prosperity, without government investment.
What health studies are being conducted in Rhode Island to measure the plastic detritus in our bodies, not just in shore birds? Is there a local investor who would be willing to buy The Providence Journal? What would a radio talk show look like that featured more progressive political voices? Will any local Rhode Island Republican elected official be willing to criticize publicly President Donald Trump’s phone call to the Georgia Secretary of State? What is the latest book that you are reading?
Years ago, while a student at Hampshire College, I joined with a group that canoed down the Connecticut River under a full moon, from Sunderland to Hadley, in April of 1972. It was a remarkable journey, where the flow the river propelled us forward; we didn’t paddle as much as we gently steered our canoe forward, our path lit by the bright light from the moon. Later, I wrote about how I imagined the trees along the riverbank, with their crooked limbs bent over, were stevedores flailing against the current, trying to halt the flow of soldiers going off to war.
In a time of social distancing, in time of isolation, in a time of great disruption and fear, being able to pay attention to all our senses – to see, to hear, to taste, to sense, to listen and to remember – become our survival skills. That, and remembering that we all depend on the kindness of strangers.

PROVIDENCE – I don’t know Brooke Hauser; she doesn’t know me. As far as I know, we have never met; our paths have never crossed. But her story has converged with mine – and perhaps all of ours, as we navigate the roads not taken in the midst of a deadly pandemic, providing an economic stress lesson in sustainability.

On Wednesday, Dec. 29, 2020, Hauser was notified that her job as editor-in-chief at The Daily Hampshire Gazette in Northampton, Mass., had been “eliminated.” Since 2018, Hauser had been serving as the first female permanent editor-in-chief of the newspaper in its 235-year history since it began publishing in 1786, 10 years after the American Revolution, on the cusp of Shay’s Rebellion, a revolt by farmers in Western Massachusetts.

Hauser announced her change in job status on Twitter: “And… I was just told my job was ‘eliminated.’ I love my staff, I love this paper, and I love this community. What a shame.” [These days, the “news” on Twitter is often more timely and revealing about what has happened than the “news” printed or produced online by the daily newspaper.]

The response by members of the greater Northampton community was overwhelmingly supportive, judging from the outpouring from hundreds of her Twitter “family” – her followers who voiced shock and dismay, including two mayors and a state representative.

Hauser had “broken the news” of her departure on Twitter, which resulted in the newspaper’s publisher, Michael Moses, having to write a public apologia of sorts, explaining the decision, saying that in these dismal economic times, it was necessary to consolidate positions, and Hauser’s job would now be taken over by the current managing editor at The Recorder in Greenfield.

“The staffing changes we’re making keep the Gazette moving forward while we wait until the economy improves,” Moses wrote, in a column published the day after the news broke. “Most of the positions we are eliminating are those that do not create any content. Our aim is to reduce or eliminate the impact on our readers and customers [emphasis added.]” To quote WPRO’s Steve Klamkin, “Really?”

In response, the next day, on Twitter, Hauser seemed to jab back at Moses, couched in a general plea as a birthday wish: “Please stop calling journalism ‘content’ and referring to writers as content creators.”

Ironically, earlier in the morning on the day of her surprise removal as editor-in-chief, Hauser had been touting on Twitter a Dec. 28, 2020, Boston Globe story, “How two nontraditional newsrooms in Vermont are winning readers,” written by reporter Mark Shanahan [the son of former long-time editor of the Daily Hampshire Gazette, Ed Shanahan, back when the DeRose family had owned the newspaper.]

When asked on Twitter whether the new models of journalism being pursued by VTDigger and Seven Days, featured in the Globe story, were “lessons for Western Mass?” Hauser responded, “Perhaps for the whole country.” Two hours later, Hauser was sacked.

A river runs through it
The story of Hauser’s demise as editor-in-chief at the Daily Hampshire Gazette may seem like just another “dog bites woman” story in an endless season of death, economic disruption, trauma and loss that has fallen upon us in the last year.

The story also may seem far removed from our not-so-quiet lives of desperation we are leading in Rhode Island, awash with COVID-19, where layoff and buyouts and retirements are the “mort de jour” on today’s journalism menu. A young writer at The Providence Business News announced on Twitter that she was one of the latest casualties, on the same day of Hauser’s demise.

Obituaries, police logs, car crashes, house fires, high school sports, violent deaths and violent weather, the he-says-this, she-says-that of town council meetings, that is the traditional grist of local news coverage, which is, of course, the filler for the true raison d’etre of newspapers: the flow of dollars from advertising and circulation revenues into corporate coffers.

From what I can garner, Hauser had attempted to breathe new life into the news coverage, broadening the arc of the reporting, even while the management of the newspaper was busy laying off staff, cutting the newsroom, and farming out its printing operation to Gannett, all in an apparent losing effort to improve its bottom line.

On Dec. 19, 2020, 10 days before Hauser had her job “eliminated,” she had promoted, on Twitter, a new series on homelessness in Northampton: “Over the next several weeks, we will publish articles about people experiencing homelessness & how the city & community are responding to an issue that affects all of us.” The first article in the series was entitled: “Sheltering in place: Amid COVID-19 and cold weather.” Call it a seasonal story, not so different, perhaps, from the time when Mary and Joseph sought out a manger in Bethlehem some 2,000 years ago.

Hauser, it seems, lost her battle with corporate management. Did news coverage in a series reporting about the homeless sleeping on the streets of Northampton a week before Christmas put a target on her back, challenging the politics of the corporate elite who owned the newspaper?

Perhaps the publishers might have preferred a different story, seen through the eyes of the real estate industry, similar to the one published in The Providence Journal, about “how COVID super-charged the Rhode Island residential real estate market,” reporting on the rising prices of residential homes during the pandemic,” as reporter Patrick Anderson described his story on Twitter, along with the teaser: “If you bought a house in Little Compton, you probably paid more than $1 million for it.”

And yes, it’s a fact: the Watch Hill mansion at 12 Bluff Ave., next to Taylor Swift’s in Rhode Island, just sold for $11.8 million. That’s one news narrative, for sure, representing a top-down view of the economy, where the real estate market is booming for those selling homes, filled with plenty of facts and figures.

There is, however, another “real estate” narrative in Rhode Island: the fact that we are in the midst of a dire affordable housing crisis, one that promises to precipitate an eviction crisis at the end of January, with an entirely different set of “facts” and figures, when you look at the data.

For instance, ONE Neighborhood Builders just released its latest “Central Providence Conquers COVID-19 Dashboard. Some 97 percent of the 2,590 clients served by the Central Providence Health Equity Zone in the last four months, using a Social Determinants of Health screening tool, were screened positive for “poor housing quality”; 91 percent screened positive for “housing insecurity”; 82 percent screened positive for “food insecurity”; and 75 percent screened positive for “no health insurance.”

“Safe, secure, affordable housing is a [if not THE most] crucial social determinant of health,” wrote Jennifer Hawkins, director of ONE Neighborhood Builders, in a tweet.

The question is: Will these narratives ever converge in the same news story [outside of ConvergenceRI]?

The wheel inside the wheel
Another critical detail left out of the back-and-forth coverage of Hauser’s sudden job elimination: Who are the corporate owners of Newspapers of New England, the privately held company that publishes the Daily Hampshire Gazette, the Valley Advocate, the Recorder, the Athol Daily News, and the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire, among others?

For the record, the president and CEO is Aaron Julien. He married into the Wilson family in 1987, when he wed Abigail Wilson, the daughter of George Wilson, the head of Newspapers of New England, who, in turn, had married into the Dwight family from Holyoke, from whence the corporate hierarchy of Newspapers of New England had originated. [To be transparent, Abigail Wilson had once served as a reporter with The Recorder in Greenfield when I worked as an assistant news editor there.]

What’s also missing from the story?
In the context of the larger landscape, the demise of Hauser as editor-in-chief at The Daily Hampshire Gazette can be seen as a kind of punctuation mark, signaling the end of an era: an exclamation point marking the decline and demise of five decades of what came to be known as the “Happy Valley,” which served as the linchpin for the cultural and entrepreneurial juggernaut of prosperity driven by the Baby Boom generation and its children in Western Massachusetts.

An academic economist and historian might rightly seek to tie the cultural phenomena that blossomed in the last five decades as the Happy Valley to the rapid growth of higher education in the region: the large-scale expansion of the University of Massachusetts Amherst; the establishment of Hampshire College and the vision of a five-college community; the growth of community colleges throughout the region, and the tens of thousands of students who went to college in the area beginning in the late 1960s and then decided to stay, raising families, starting businesses, buying homes, pushing the boundaries far beyond the status quo of commerce that once had been defined by industrial mills.

All true. But the cultural glue which held together the Happy Valley, stretching the length of the Connecticut River through Massachusetts, was the emergence of The Valley Advocate, an alternative weekly that began publishing in September of 1973 and that was given away for free on college campuses. The alternative weekly soon became the cultural and political voice – and the economic driver of a new economy – for those living “outside” of the traditional economic mainstream. [For transparency, I wrote for the Valley Advocate beginning in 1973, served as reporter and then managing editor of the Amherst/Northampton/Greenfield edition from 1976 through 1977, and was a contributing writer in 1986-1987, also writing for the New Haven and Hartford Advocates.]

For sure, the Valley Advocate became infamous for its personal ads and the “Beer & Boogie” listings that were indispensable message boards for connectivity. And, it was the home of unrepentant reporting – covering the growth of the homegrown No Nukes movement, the rising voices of women challenging the male hierarchies, the burgeoning music and arts scene, and the emergence of a new food consciousness, helping to turn farmland that once grew shade tobacco for cigars into an organic bounty – along with the effort to stop the planned diversion of the Connecticut River for drinking water for Boston. All of which initially had never been part of the conversation reported on by the local daily newspapers.

There was also a willingness of the Advocate newspaper chain to investigate alleged corrupt practices – by the president at Westfield State College, at Springfield City Hall, by a national gun manufacturer that was apparently illegally selling guns to South Africa, as well as “problems” within the local DA’s office in Northampton, to name a few.

Further, they pioneered the development of advertising sections, such as Summertimes, and those that featured Real Estate and Cars and Restaurants.

Five decades later, the Valley Advocate has become a shriveled remnant of its former publishing empire, which once stretched the length of the Connecticut River through Massachusetts to Connecticut, from Greenfield, Mass., down to Fairfield County, Connecticut, with editions in Springfield, Mass., Hartford and New Haven, Conn. It is now confined to a small office space at the Daily Hampshire Gazette, whose owners, Newspapers of New England, had purchased the Valley Advocate from the owners of the Harford Courant in 2007.

What happened with the decline of the Valley Advocate could perhaps be seen as a precursor to the ongoing shrinkage of the Daily Hampshire Gazette, culminating in the recent removal of Hauser as editor-in-chief. The Valley Advocate was not even mentioned in any of the stories about Hauser and the future of Daily Hampshire Gazette. It did not even rate an aside or an editor’s note.

Corporate geography
What had occurred, as part of the alleged “cost-saving” decision to dismiss Hauser, was a corporate “consolidation” of editorial content, through which the current editor, Joan Livingston, of the Greenfield, Mass., daily, The Recorder, and The Athol Daily News, also owned by the privately held parent company, Newspapers of New England, headquartered in Concord, N.H., would assume Hauser’s role as editor-in-chief of The Daily Hampshire Gazette. Livingston’s new title is “Pioneer Valley editor-in chief.”

Translated, in geopolitical terms, what happened was that the corporate decision-makers located in Concord, N.H., decided to “right size” the news content of Northampton and make it, for all intents and purposes, subservient to Greenfield and Athol.

In other words, Northampton, the cultural hub of the Happy Valley for 50 years, has now been apparently swallowed up by the more parochial worldview of Greenfield and Athol – at least when it comes to the “content.”

Hauser’s removal should not just be blamed on the severe economic downturn that has been caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Rather, the pandemic has further exposed the inherent structural weaknesses in the corporate business model of daily newspapers, built on preserving the dominant economic power of the status quo, part of a national dilemma, with unrestrained consolidation across news platforms. And, it has put the spotlight on the frailty of the economic assumptions of a consumer-driven economy built on the abundance of college students with disposable incomes.

The mills of the mill towns are long gone; the former mill buildings, many rehabbed into shopping and dining meccas and residences, with newly exposed brick walls are fading away; with an abundance of homeless people replacing an abundance of shoppers on the streets. What comes next?

In search of sustainability
What does that have to do with Rhode Island, you may ask. In the past, the manufacturing base of Rhode Island was built upon the ability to attract a steady flow of new immigrants to fill the demand of factory jobs, where the labor force was easily replenished with each new generation of workers on the assembly lines, jobs that did not require more than a high school education, where cheap housing in crowded urban cores was abundant.

Today, if you drop out of high school, you drop out of life. The major industry generating job growth in Rhode Island is the health care industrial enterprise, the largest private employer in the state.

Many of the economic assumptions around future prosperity in Rhode Island have built around the ability to attract an abundance of students with disposable incomes to sustain an academic research enterprise, focused on the pipeline of an innovation economy, with the state marketed as a tourist, industry, and conference destination. Read the report, “Rhode Island Innovates 2.0,” written and published by Commerce RI before the coronavirus pandemic struck. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “What does public health have to do with future prosperity in RI?”]

Now, all economic bets are off: the proposed $300 million Fane Tower and its luxury apartments, slated to become the tallest building in Rhode Island, may never be built; the tourist, hospitality and restaurant industry is reeling and on the verge of collapse; the state’s vaunted higher educational institutions’ ability to attract the best and the brightest of students from around the nation and the world is in jeopardy; and the state’s largest private employer, the health care delivery industry, is in disarray.

There are many “lessons” that can be learned from the pandemic experiences of the last year:

• What the pandemic has taught us is that investments in the health care delivery system alone cannot protect us: what is needed are investment in public health infrastructure, an area left of out of the conversation in “RI Innovates 2.0”

• What the pandemic has shown us is how deeply rooted racial inequities have been baked into our economic, education, health, and housing systems: what is needed is a different kind of public investment strategy when it comes to neighborhoods and community infrastructure, based on place and the needs of residents.

• What the pandemic has demonstrated is how difficult it is to transform the state’s educational system from the top down, through corporate partnerships and investments in charter schools; what is needed is a collaborative effort that values the participation of teachers, parents and students in the decision-making.

• When it comes to delivering the news, what the pandemic has illustrated is the ongoing difficulty that the established media and political networks have in controlling the narrative and the story during a time of disruption. What was emerged is a new kind of media and political activism, exemplified by the electoral victories by candidates championed by a progressive women’s political caucus.

Witness the recent blowback when WJAR TV Channel 10 anchor Gene Valicenti seemed to demean newly elected people of color in the R.I. General Assembly, talking about them, rather than with them, accusing them of having an “agenda” and saying how they needed to be educated about how politics in this state works. Stay tuned.

New mass media
ConvergenceRI is one of a number of new digital media platforms that provide a different voice, a different conversation around the news. Others include: ecoRI News, the East Greenwich News, UpriseRI, RINewsToday, and the BTown Podcast. The Boston Globe has ramped up its digital online presence in reporting on Rhode Island – with more investments planned.

At the same time, numerous business organizations, such as the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce, have ramped up their online news presence. And, Gov. Gina Raimondo has created her own public information digital platform to broadcast her messaging in response to the pandemic; her robust communications team has also helped to develop her weekly news conferences and selective interviews to reinforce her messaging. So far, however, the Governor seems destined not to go to Washington to join the President-elect Joe Biden’s teams.

Sustainability
In Western Massachusetts, the Connecticut River runs through it, the geologic formations of its farmlands and hills determined not by economic planners but by the onslaught and then retreat of the Ice Age. [Still, it was Lord Jeffrey Amherst, the founder of Amherst College, who dispersed smallpox-laden blankets to the Native Americans, one of the first examples of biological warfare.]

The same holds true here in Rhode Island, where the contours of Narragansett Bay were shaped not by developers but by the onslaught and retreat of the Ice Age. [In Rhode Island, the triangle trade of slaves, cane sugar, and rum distilleries did define the state’s early prosperity in Newport, in Bristol, and in Providence.] Today, the Bay serves as the conductor and connective force in our lives.

In a recent issue of Orion magazine, in an article entitled “Plastics in the Gut,” Max Liboiron wrote: “It turns out there is not a single type of plastic pollution, that plastic profiles, like dialects, are unique to their regions. In the Gut, I’m fluent in green threads and yellow paint chips, white micro-fragments and black tire dust.”

What is missing from most conversations about Rhode Island’s future prosperity is the recognition of the economic fragility of our state’s environment – and the coming scarcity of clean water, the rising waters threatening our shoreline and fisheries, the continued perverse dependence on the fossil fuel industry, and the cause-and-effect of industrial pollution that has created a flood of chronic health conditions. How do those stories become part of the news narrative?

The immense loss of human life and the long-term damage caused by the coronavirus pandemic, reflected in the growing unmet needs for mental health and behavioral health services, is not going to go away anytime soon. Despite the advent of vaccines, we should be prepared to wear our masks for much of the next year.

The key ingredient to survival, it seems, will be able to share our stories, in a way that enriches all of us, not as the emotional content of a billboard advertising products along a highway, but as a real conversation, giving voice and listening to those who often have a hard time being heard, driven by news platforms that are willing to engage in conversation with us, not talk at us.

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