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A murder, a media frenzy, and the rise of a new form of local news

In this excerpt from The Wired City, Dan Kennedy examines how the New Haven Independent — one of the brightest stars of local online journalism — proved both its mettle and its distinctive take on the news when covering a major crime.
June 5, 2013, 10:20 a.m.

APTOPIX Yale Killing

Editor’s note: Our friend Dan Kennedy has a new book out, and it’s right up Nieman Lab’s alley. The Wired City: Reimagining Journalism and Civic Life in the Post-Newspaper Age takes as its subject local journalism in cities where new online outlets — some for-profit, some not — have set up shop. His primary focus is New Haven, Connecticut, where the New Haven Independent has been one of the new world’s biggest successes.

Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 1. Yesterday, we published a piece from Dan on what he learned reporting and writing the book.

dan-kennedy-the-wired-cityPaul Bass felt uneasy. It was a Friday — Sept. 11, 2009. He was getting ready to leave the office for Shabbat, the Jewish sabbath. And he was beginning to wonder if he had blown a big story.

Two days before, Bass had received an email from someone at Yale University telling him that a 24-year-old graduate student named Annie Le was missing. Could Bass post something on his community website, the New Haven Independent? Sure thing, Bass replied. So he wrote a one-sentence item with a link to a Yale Daily News account. As he recalled later, he didn’t think much about it after that.

Now Bass was facing a dilemma. Annie Le was still missing, and the media were starting to swarm. He was off until Saturday night; as an observant Jew, he does not work on Saturdays until after sundown. On top of this, his managing editor, Melissa Bailey, was leaving town for a few days. Bass remembered reading somewhere that Le had once written a story about students and crime for a magazine affiliated with Yale. He found it, linked to it, and wrote an article beginning: “A graduate pharmacology student asked Yale’s police chief a question: ‘What can one do to avoid becoming another unnamed victim?’ Seven months after she printed the answer in a campus publication, the student may have become a crime victim herself.” It was a start — nothing special, but enough to get the Independent into the chase. Then Bass went home.

As it turned out, the Annie Le saga — soon to become a murder story — developed into one of the most heavily publicized news events to hit New Haven in many years. Her body was discovered inside a laboratory wall at Yale Medical School on Sunday, Sept. 13, the day she was to be married. The grisly fate of the beautiful young Yale student proved irresistible to the national media. From The New York Times to the New York Post, from the Today show to Nancy Grace, reporters, producers, and photographers besieged city and university officials.

The story proved significant to the New Haven Independent as well. The Le case was exactly the sort of story Bass would normally have been reluctant to pursue. The Independent’s focus was on the city’s neighborhoods and quality-of-life issues, not Yale, which Bass believed got plenty of coverage elsewhere. “I was an idiot about the whole thing,” Bass told me at La Voz Hispana de Connecticut, the Spanish-language newspaper in downtown New Haven where the Independent rents a cramped office. “We don’t want to overdo Yale. That’s not our community. You don’t want to say one life is more important than another. But by Friday it’s hitting me. ’Cause now it’s been a bunch of days, and it’s feeling creepy. People were writing about it, and we were resisting writing about it. And then I said, you know what? I might be really missing it here.”

Once Bass overcame his misgivings, the Independent’s dogged coverage earned the site national attention. Readership, which Bass said was generally around 70,000 unique visitors a month at the time, more than doubled in September to about 197,000. But the Le case was more than a way to garner attention and build an audience. It also became an opportunity for an online-only news outlet with a tiny staff to prove that it could keep up with — and, in a few instances, surpass — far larger and better-established media organizations. Among other developments, the Independent broke the news that the police had identified a possible suspect. And it was the first to report on what the suspect’s fiancée and a former girlfriend who claimed that he had sexually assaulted her had written about him on social-networking sites.

The Annie Le story brought new readers to the Independent, but those who stayed soon learned that its day-to-day mission had little to do with covering high-profile murder cases. Since 2005 the Independent, a nonprofit online-only news organization supported by local and national foundation grants, corporate sponsorships, and reader donations, had been building its reputation by paying close attention to more quotidian matters: efforts to reform New Haven’s troubled public schools; development proposals large and small; retail-level politics; traffic; and issues involving the city’s police department, ranging from a “Cop of the Week” feature that highlighted the good work being performed by New Haven police officers to multiple stories looking into why citizens were being harassed and arrested for video-recording officers doing their jobs. No one else was covering those issues — certainly not in the detail and comprehensiveness offered by the Independent. Through close attention to the daily life of New Haven and its people, and through a commitment to an ongoing conversation with its readers aimed at sparking civic engagement, the Independent had placed itself in the vanguard of a new wave of online news organizations.

Why the Independent matters

The Independent is one of about a half-dozen local and regional nonprofit online-only news sites that are large enough and ambitious enough to have established themselves as a significant new journalistic genre. With the newspaper business having shrunk dramatically in recent years, it is fair to wonder whether anything will arise in its stead. The likely answer is that a wide variety of projects will be tried. Some will be better than others, and many cities and regions will be underserved.

Thus, it matters to the future of journalism whether the Independent can survive and thrive. And so, too, in the case of large nonprofit projects such as Voice of San Diego, which covers that city as well as surrounding communities; Minnesota’s MinnPost; the St. Louis Beacon; The Texas Tribune and The Connecticut Mirror, both of which cover state government and politics; and a handful of others. These local and regional nonprofits have emerged as examples of how technology and a move away from the traditional advertising-based model of paying for newspaper journalism can provide vital watchdog coverage of government and local issues.

On the face of it, the nonprofit route might sound unpromising. Under some circumstances, though, it has emerged as a more reliable method of funding journalism than depending on the advertising priorities of commercial interests. At the national level, nonprofits such as ProPublica and the Center for Public Integrity have become respected sources of investigative reporting. At the regional and local levels, too, nonprofits are distinguishing themselves. In fact, it is the operators of for-profit online news sites who have had difficulty gaining traction. In Connecticut, CT News Junkie, a for-profit operation that also serves as the Independent’s capitol bureau, has been operating for several years longer than The Connecticut Mirror, covering state politics from the pressroom annex at the state house in Hartford. But News Junkie was quickly surpassed in staff size by its well-funded nonprofit competitor.

Well-known for-profits such as The Batavian in western New York, Baristanet in the affluent New Jersey suburbs just beyond New York City, and the West Seattle Blog are making money. But in contrast to nonprofit sites, their staffs are tiny. Though the for-profits have become essential resources in their communities, they are rarely able to provide the sort of in-depth reporting that the Independent and its five full-time journalists are able to carry out in New Haven. At this historical moment in the technological and cultural revolution that has turned the news business upside down, there is more money for local start-up ventures in nonprofits than in for-profits.

The rapidity with which the newspaper advertising model collapsed is startling. From the 1830s, when the modern daily-newspaper industry got under way with the launch of “penny press” papers such as New York’s Sun and The New York Herald, to around 2005, when the long, slow decline of the newspaper industry turned into a rout, advertisers paid most of the bills. It was often said that readers paid for printing and distribution, but the news itself was free, supported entirely by advertising. And suddenly that revenue source was in free fall. Advertising revenue from newspaper print editions dropped from $47.4 billion in 2005 to $22.8 billion in 2010, a decline that $3 billion in online advertising revenues did not come close to offsetting, according to figures compiled by the Newspaper Association of America. Classified advertising melted away as users turned to free and mostly free services such as Craigslist and Monster.com for selling a car, finding a job, or doing any of the other things that newspaper classifieds had once helped them do. Vibrant downtowns gave way to big-box stores on the outskirts of town whose advertising priorities often did not include local newspapers. As the New York University professor Clay Shirky, a well-known Internet analyst, has said, “Best Buy was not willing to support the Baghdad bureau because Best Buy cared about news from Baghdad. They just didn’t have any other good choices.” Now they do, since the Internet provides businesses with any number of ways to reach their customers directly.

In that new world, professional news organizations are exploring a variety of ways to lessen their dependence on advertising. In 2011, general-interest newspapers such as The New York Times and The Boston Globe began asking readers to pay for at least some of their online content, joining specialty business publications that had long charged their readers for Internet access, most prominently The Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times. Whether those and other newspapers will be able to make enough money from readers to offset their advertising losses remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, the nonprofit model is already working. Public radio and its crown jewel, NPR, are among our most comprehensive and reliable news sources. Nonprofit community news sites should, at least in theory, be able to follow a similar path. But though the New Haven Independent is far cheaper to run than a radio station (its 2011 budget of $450,000 covered not just New Haven but a satellite site in the nearby suburbs employing three more full-time journalists), it is also reaching a much smaller — and poorer — audience. Like virtually all community news sites, for-profit and nonprofit, the Independent does not charge for access, though it does ask its readers for voluntary contributions.

The nonprofit community-news movement remains small. The sites I’ve mentioned were all founded within roughly the same time period, from 2004 to 2009. In the years immediately following, the rise of nonprofit journalism slowed — perhaps because the sense of crisis in for-profit journalism that peaked in 2009 had eased somewhat, perhaps because there was a finite quantity of nonprofit money available to be tapped for media ventures. In addition, the government made it more difficult to launch a nonprofit news organization than ought to be the case, a problem that may require federal legislation to solve. “There was an initial bubble of nonprofit start-ups, but you haven’t seen that great wave spreading across the country,” Voice of San Diego’s editor, Andrew Donohue, told me. Donohue saw that as a good thing. What was needed, in his view, was “more diversity of business models, so we’re not so dependent on one should one collapse.” Still, Voice, like the Independent, was doing better than some of its for-profit competitors. Even though Donohue had to shrink his staff at the end of 2011 after the site received less funding than he had hoped for, he still had more reporting resources available than the smaller of the city’s two for-profit alternative weeklies, San Diego CityBeat. (The city’s larger alt-weekly, the San Diego Reader, is written mainly by freelancers.) The same was true in New Haven, where the Advocate had been stripped to the bone by corporate chain ownership. If the nonprofit model has not proved to be the salvation of journalism, it nevertheless is a vital part of the mix at a time when for-profit news organizations continue to struggle.

Nonprofit online news should be seen not as the overarching model for the future of professional journalism but as one model that is working reasonably well in a few places. And it should not be viewed as a replacement for traditional newspapers but as a complement to them. In New Haven, for instance, the Independent has operated from its first day in the shadow of the New Haven Register, a large, middling-quality daily long run by cost-cutting chain owners. When I began visiting New Haven in 2009, the Register’s owner, the Journal Register Company (JRC), was in bankruptcy. But by 2011 the company was being run by a forward-looking, widely admired chief executive, and the Register itself had been turned over to a young editor determined to reach out to the community. (Since then, JRC has gone into and come out of bankruptcy once again.)

Thus even in New Haven, where Paul Bass, through several career incarnations, has functioned since the 1980s as the city’s principal alternative to the Register, the media scene can change very quickly. It is not likely that a reinvigorated Register would make the Independent obsolete. But New Haveners who gave up on the Register in favor of the Independent may find themselves reading two daily news sources instead of just one. Still, given the Register’s related goals of reaching affluent readers in the suburbs and turning a profit, the Independent’s relentless focus on the city and its neighborhoods will almost certainly remain unmatched by any other news organization. All Bass has to figure out is how to keep his news site alive.

A Connecticut media legend

Bass is something of a legend in Connecticut media, and the Independent’s tiny office is festooned with awards he has won. Born in White Plains, N.Y., he came to New Haven as a Yale freshman and has spent his entire adult life reporting on his adopted city: as the cofounder of a weekly newspaper in the 1980s named, not coincidentally, the New Haven Independent; as a reporter and editor for the New Haven Advocate in the 1990s and 2000s; and as the coauthor of Murder in the Model City (2006), a book about the redemption of a New Haven member of the Black Panthers who had been convicted of murder.

It was in 2004 and 2005, while finishing his book on the Black Panthers, that Bass started to ponder the idea of entering the nascent world of online community journalism. The thought of returning to the Advocate didn’t appeal to him. Under the ownership of Tribune Company — a Chicago-based national conglomerate that also owns Connecticut’s largest daily newspaper, the Hartford Courant — the Advocate, he said, had become increasingly corporate, with a shrinking staff and diminished ambitions. At the same time, he had been looking at the nascent blogosphere with a mixture of contempt and fascination. “I was probably unfairly disdainful of blogs. I didn’t like that they didn’t do reporting. But I was excited at the way that they were engaging with the readers in new ways and telling stories in new ways,” he told me.

In June 2009, when Bass and I first met, he was 49, speaking in a rapid-fire manner, and bubbling over with enthusiasm as he spread peanut butter on a bagel in a downtown coffee shop, Brū Café, which doubles as an auxiliary newsroom — it is at Brū, a short walk from La Voz and City Hall, that he holds staff meetings, puts together televised panel discussions, and conducts interviews. Atop his short-cropped red hair he wore a yarmulke. He had a red beard, wire-rimmed glasses, and on this particular day was wearing a loud-but-not-too-loud buttoned shirt, jeans, and sandals with socks. Youthful in appearance, he looked more like a graduate engineering student — earnest, intense, geeky — than someone who was helping to redefine local news coverage.

After a few inquiries convinced him that it would be too difficult to support himself and his family with a for-profit venture, Bass started investigating the possibility of a nonprofit site, inspired by NPR and by a discussion he had read on the New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen’s blog, PressThink. He received a $50,000 grant from the Universal Health Care Foundation of Connecticut and dove in, raising another $35,000 before the actual launch.

On Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2005, the day after Labor Day, the New Haven Independent slipped into view when Bass posted two stories about Kenny Hill, a retired National Football League cornerback turned New Haven developer. Hill was suing the city over a subcontractor whom he claimed he had been pressured to hire in order to remove lead paint from an apartment building he was renovating. Hill said the subcontractor had not done the work. The city said he had. It was a story about one building in one neighborhood, but Bass used it to make a larger point. He wrote: “The saga of 235 Winchester Ave. is more than a spat between a builder and a bureaucrat. It jeopardizes both economic and neighborhood development in New Haven’s Dixwell neighborhood. Decent affordable housing is hard to find in a gentrifying city. This decrepit building stands across the street from 25 Science Park, a refurbished cornerstone of a crucial high-tech project. Also across the street are new homes built for working families.”

The Hill stories served as a pretty good blueprint for what the Independent would become: a voice of the city’s neighborhoods and an advocate for the idea that New Haven should be a livable city for all of its residents — not just those few who were fortunate enough to be white, well-educated, and affluent.

On naming (and not naming) names

On Saturday, Sept. 12, 2009, Shabbat having ended at sunset, Paul Bass went back to work on the Annie Le story — pulling an all-nighter, as Melissa Bailey learned at a brunch held the next morning to celebrate the Independent’s fourth anniversary. On Saturday night Bass posted an update on the investigation. Late Sunday morning, he ran a piece largely reported by Christine Stuart of CT News Junkie. According to Stuart’s sources, the authorities had searched an incinerator in Hartford for Le’s body — but contrary to some stories in the national media, there were no suspicions that it had deliberately been dumped there. Rather, trash from New Haven was routinely trucked to the facility, and police thought there was a chance that the body might turn up. That night, however, police announced that Le’s body had been discovered inside a wall at the laboratory where she had worked.

On Monday, Sept. 14, six days after Le had been reported missing, the Independent became the first to reveal that police had identified a 24-year-old laboratory technician who had worked with Le as a “person of interest.” The New Haven Register’s website followed shortly thereafter. And so began one of the more curious side stories of the Annie Le case.

As law enforcement officials continued with their investigation on Tuesday, neither the Independent nor the Register released the name of Le’s coworker. On Tuesday night, though, the police department held a news conference and announced that the “person of interest” was Raymond Clark, whose name was included in a press release. Because the news conference was covered live by a number of television stations, Clark’s identity immediately became public. On Wednesday, the Register named Clark and interviewed people who knew him. “I’m in total shock,” an unidentified high school classmate was quoted as saying. “He was the nicest kid — very quiet, but everyone liked him. I can’t believe he could do this. I’m sick to my stomach.” But the Independent continued to withhold Clark’s name.

Melissa Bailey was at the news conference too. She took notes and shot some video of New Haven Police Chief James Lewis speaking to reporters. But neither her story nor her video used Clark’s name. Bailey wrote, somewhat cryptically, “Police named the target of the search, calling him a ‘person of interest.’” Nor did the Independent identify Clark on Wednesday — and not even in a story posted early on Thursday morning reporting that police had staked out a motel where Clark was staying the night before, although it did link to a Register story that identified Clark in its lead paragraph. It wasn’t until later on Thursday morning that the Independent finally named Raymond Clark as the person police believed had murdered Annie Le. The reason: by then Clark had been arrested and charged, and was being taken into court for a formal arraignment.

The Independent’s refusal to name Clark until he had been formally charged was an admirable exercise in journalistic restraint. The decision derived in part from Bass’s institutional memory. In 1998, police had mistakenly identified a Yale professor as a “person of interest” in the murder of a student named Suzanne Jovin. No evidence against the professor was ever made public, and the murder was never solved. [Editor's note: On Monday, Yale and the city of New Haven announced a settlement with that wrongly accused professor.] Essentially, though, this restraint was a statement of Bass’s sense of how a news organization ought to serve the community

Judging by comments posted to the Independent, many readers appreciated Bass’s decision. “Thank you for the good sense to not publish his name at this time,” wrote “asdf” on Tuesday evening, after Clark’s name had begun to leak out but before the police had named him. The commenter added: “I really don’t understand what there is to gain by releasing his name — if you don’t have enough evidence to arrest him, then you don’t have enough evidence to smear him in the media.” Then there was this, from “LOOLY,” posted on Wednesday morning, after Clark’s name had been widely reported: “It should really be very simple. Unless he is being charged his name should not be used.”

Bass also had to make several other difficult decisions about identifying people connected to the Annie Le story. On Sept. 14, as Clark’s name was leaking out, the media converged on his apartment in Middletown, northeast of New Haven. Christine Stuart noticed the name of a woman along with that of Raymond Clark. She passed it along, and Melissa Bailey started plugging it into various social-networking sites. It didn’t take long before she found a public MySpace page for the woman, who turned out to be Clark’s 23-year-old fiancée. Bailey captured a screen image before the page could be taken down — which it soon was.

Bailey wrote a story that began, “The target in the slaying of Yale graduate student Annie Le had something in common with the victim — he, too, was engaged.” And she quoted the young woman as writing of Clark: “He has a big heart and tries to see the best in people ALL THE TIME! even when everyone else is telling him that the person is a psycho or that the person can’t be trusted. he thinks everyone deserves a second chance.” The woman’s name and photograph wound up being published by other news outlets, but it never appeared in the Independent.

That was not the Independent’s only social-networking scoop. In nearby Branford, Marcia Chambers of the Branford Eagle, a community news site that is affiliated with the Independent, was working her sources. Somehow she obtained a 2003 police report about an ex-girlfriend of Raymond Clark who claimed he had forced her to have sex when they were both students at Branford High School. As a condition of receiving the report, Chambers promised not to publish it until after an arrest had been made. But that didn’t mean there were not other uses to which the report could be put. Bailey typed the woman’s name into Facebook, discovered that she had an account, and friended her, letting her know she was a reporter covering the murder. After Clark’s arrest, Bailey and Chambers wrote a story without using the woman’s name. “I can’t believe this is true,” they quoted the woman as writing on her Facebook page. “I feel like im 16 all over again. Its jsut bringing back everything.”

The revelation that the Independent had the police report created a media stampede, Bailey said later. “People were calling us, begging us for this police report,” she told a researcher for Columbia University. “The New York Times came in and practically tried to arm-wrestle Paul.” The Independent withheld the fiancée’s name, a decision Bailey wrote that she had no misgivings about even though the woman later appeared on network television and identified herself.

By declining to name Raymond Clark until he had actually been charged with a crime, and by withholding the identities of the two women, Paul Bass had made a statement about what kind of news organization he wanted the Independent to be and what kind of journalism his community could expect from the site. Protecting the two women at a time when only the Independent knew who they were was the more straightforward of the two decisions. Any news executive who cares about journalistic ethics — or, for that matter, basic human decency — might have made the same call. But keeping Clark’s name off the site even after the New Haven police had put it in a press release, and even after the police chief had freely discussed it at a news conference — well, that was an extraordinary decision. Many journalists would argue that a news organization has an obligation to report the name of someone who might soon be charged with murder when the police have very publicly placed that name on the record. But Bass clearly has a different way of looking at such matters.

Weeks later, in a conversation at his office, Bass wondered if he had done the right thing while simultaneously defending his decision. “I still believe it’s a complicated question. I still believe we could definitely be wrong,” he said. Yet, as he continued, he didn’t sound like someone who thought he might be wrong, even as I suggested to him that his decision to withhold Clark’s name could be seen as something of an exercise in futility. “I’m in no way moving toward the idea that we should have run the name. I see no reason for putting the name out sooner. Nothing served,” he said. “I agree with you that it was futile. The name was out there. But we are still a news organization with standards.”

Those standards, I came to realize, are rooted not just in Bass’s view of journalism but in his sense of place, and even in his spiritual beliefs. The Independent is a news site, but it’s not just a news site. It is also a gathering place, a forum for civil discussion of local issues, and a spark for civic engagement. It is a mixture that reflects Bass’s interests: a multifaceted approach to community journalism — to community and journalism — that has been visible in his life and work from the time he began writing about New Haven.

Photo of Sept. 14, 2009 Yale vigil for Annie Le by AP/Douglas Healey.

POSTED     June 5, 2013, 10:20 a.m.
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