In Your Neighborhood

What truths do you hold to be self evident?

Let us give thanks that we have independent, local digital platforms reporting the news in RI

Photo by Richard Asinof

Berkshire Hathaway has a new real estate franchise firm that has found a home on the Cape, expanding the reach of the entrepreneurial enterprise.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 11/19/18
The consolidation of corporate news platforms has opened up new opportunities for disruptive, independent reporting platforms in Rhode Island.
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That new-found candor promises to upend the political stakes in the lies propagated by the NRA.

WELLFLEET, Mass. – On the outskirts of the built world, on the dwindling sands at the eastern tip of Cape Cod, where the homes and cottages stand resolute before the blue onslaught of sky and sea and climate change, I spotted a real estate sign that gave me pause: Berkshire Hathaway Home Services, stuck into the ground adjacent to the wooden fence that held an array of brightly colored buoys, marking the turf.

Sharks are everywhere, it seemed; sharks are us. The question was: Are we more likely to get attacked and bitten by a hungry shark feeding on seals or by a greedy oligarch feeding on humans?

Relative risks, however, do not seem to matter much: the outrage and sensationalism of a shark attack still thrills us to the marrow as we run toward the water; we have, perhaps, become inured to being swept away, lured by false promises into the jaws of a wealthy entrepreneur.

“Berkshire Hathaway Home Services is a real estate brokerage franchise network designed for today’s real estate market,” according the company’s website. “From first-time home buyers to high-end residential markets to middle market communities to commercial real estate, our franchisees are down-to-earth, nimble and local experts.”

Down-to-earth, nimble and local? Driving along the highway back home toward Providence, I kept pondering the meaning of the message in the bottle about the branding of Berkshire Hathaway’s franchising real estate operations.

Perhaps, there was no escaping the long arms of wealthy hedge fund and private equity investors – the sun never seems to set on their entrepreneurial enterprises, to borrow the turn of phrase written by George Macartney in 1773, following the territorial expansion that followed Britain’s victory in the Seven Years’ War: “This vast empire on which the sun never sets, and whose bounds nature has not yet ascertained.”

Much of the previous evening had been spent energetically discussing the future of independent journalism, and whether it was possible to succeed with an alternative, disruptive voice amidst the dominance of the corporate engulf-and-devour model, carving out a niche market focused on creating an engaged community of readers.

The jury of readers at the dinner table was still out; no verdict had been reached.

Driving back, the lingering question, beyond the intrusion of the sign advertising Berkshire Hathaway’s real estate division on the Cape, was this: Could the lively experiment envisioned by Rhode Island founder Roger Williams survive the oligarchic domination of news media – in print, in radio, on TV, and on Facebook and Twitter – so adept at manufacturing and manipulating public opinion?

Or, to put it another way: Do you believe that raking more leaves will prevent forest fires?

GateHouse, Amazon and Murdoch, oh my
Many Rhode Islanders are aware that GateHouse Media, behaving much like an insatiable anaconda, swallowed The Providence Journal whole in 2014 and, after extracting its wealth, was now putting out a shrunken, desiccated news product.

GateHouse has also feasted on buying out much of the daily print journalism in the region, including: The Cape Cod Times, The Fall River Herald News, The Enterprise in Brockton, The MetroWest Daily News in Framingham, The Taunton Daily Gazette, The Patriot Ledger in Quincy [soon to be Braintree] The Boston Herald [soon also to be Braintree], The Newport Daily News, and The Worcester Telegram & Gazette, among others.

In addition, GateHouse owns the Community Newspaper Company, which in turn owns more than 100 weekly newspapers in and around Boston.

And, on the Cape, GateHouse has become the dominant news conglomerate serving the peninsula’s lower, middle, upper and outer-most communities. Many of the news products controlled by GateHouse offer readers a digital website named “Wicked Local,” which, despite the attempt to appropriate the vernacular to brand its online presence, turns out to be neither “wicked” nor ‘local,” according to numerous Cape residents, who, when asked, voiced frustration about content and the difficulty in navigating the sites.

Who owns GateHouse Media? Fortress Investment Group, the investment bank that owned the GateHouse chain of newspapers, was sold in 2017 to a Japanese holding company, SoftBank Group Corp., for $3.3 billion.

The perils of consolidation
With each new layoff or buyout of long-term reporters and editors at The Providence Journal, there has been a predictable wailing and gnashing of teeth about the demise of local journalism and the knee-jerk response to urge people to subscribe to local newspapers as a way to support local reporting. The editors of The Brown Daily Herald even suggested that Brown University take out an institutional subscription to The Providence Journal, as a way to drive more resources into local reporting.

The problem, of course, is that GateHouse, despite whatever branding it employs about the public interest and publick occurrences, is firmly committed to keeping its profit margins high, despite falling circulation rates. Pumping more money into its coffers will not deflect or change its policies of reduced staffing and reduced emphasis on local reporting, a malaise symptomatic at all of its regional publications.

We hold these truths
In July of 2015, Ted Nesi of WPRI welcomed three independent publishers to the discussion table of Executive Suite, Elizabeth McNamara of the East Greenwich News, Joanna Detz of ecoRI News, and myself, as editor and publisher of ConvergenceRI, each with a different vision of how the independent voice of journalism could flourish in the Ocean State, focused on building a digital platform and a subscriber base.

Three and a half years later, all three are still publishing [although The East Greenwich News took an hiatus] and are surviving if not thriving. It might be time to bring the three of us back together again, as a way to seek a new, better understanding of the opportunities to develop new audiences as print journalism evolves.

The future of Providence
Last week, ConvergenceRI published an in-depth interview with newly re-elected Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, talking about his future vision for the city, including housing, economic development, finances, innovation and monetizing the city’s water supply. [See link below to the ConvergenceRI story]

It was, as best as I can determine, the first time that Elorza had talked publicly in detail about the reasons behind the need to monetize Providence’s water supply, in order to offset the unfunded pension liability. It is worth reprinting that part of the interview, because it is crucial to understanding the budget issues facing Providence as reflected in the negotiations that will take place as part of the upcoming 2019 session of the R.I. General Assembly.

ConvergenceRI: In terms of quality of life issues, I know that you’ve been a proponent of potentially seeking to monetize the Providence water system.
ELORZA:
Monetizing it. Selling it is off the table. We would likely lease out the management and operations rights.

ConvergenceRI: How does that fit in with preserving the quality of the water, in terms of safe drinking water?
ELORZA:
There are three principles moving forward. First of all, we’re going to limit the impact on rates; [second,] there can be no compromising on the quality of water; and privatization is off the table, there has to be some kind of public oversight.

These three principles are embedded deeply in the plan that we put forward. The reason why it is important to do this is because if we do nothing, the city is going to die a slow and painful death.

All of the programs and initiatives that we want to invest in around innovation, around sustainability, around anything else, those monies are going to disappear, they are going to dry up, because they will be squeezed out by the increase in pensions.

So, we have to do something. Frankly, there is really no other option. There is not other real alternative to help us tackle the scale of the challenge that we have the unfunded pension liability.

That is what we have proposed. In the coming weeks we will be ginning up a number of community conversations specifically about this. I know that folks are very concerned and that they have questions. And, we want to engage with the community, not only about the stage of the city’s long-term finances, but the details of what we’re proposing.

If we do nothing, the city will indeed die a slow and painful death that could lead us back onto the brink of bankruptcy.

And, if we ever find ourselves in bankruptcy court, the first thing that our bankruptcy judge will look to do is to sell our water system.

And they will sell the water on their terms, not on the terms we’ve put together.

Moving forward
The interview with Elorza could certainly become the focal point of more conversation: by state legislators, by environmental advocates, by state agencies concerned with protecting clean water, by reporters covering political beats, and by city residents concerned with the future vision of Providence as an education, innovation, and creative hub.

To do so requires three things: reading, writing and arithmetic. In the words of Stan Lee, “Nuf said.”

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