Group prepares to launch New Bedford news site

Mayor Mitchell welcomes more local news coverage

CONCERNED ABOUT the lack of local news coverage in New Bedford, a group of people in and near the city, some of them with strong newspaper backgrounds, are preparing to launch a nonprofit, digital news website called the New Bedford Light.

The fledgling enterprise has a board of directors, a founding editor and publisher, a local group of supporters, and a plan for getting started. Barbara Roessner, the founding editor, lives in Westport and is a former managing editor of the Hartford Courant. Her initial plan calls for producing one major in-depth piece of journalism each week; the focus will be on providing context and insight, she said, not breaking news or high school sports.

“There is a huge need for an in-depth focus on important issues,” Roessner said. “That type of in-depth work is not in the current news ecosystem.”

Stephen Taylor, a resident of Dartmouth and a member of the Taylor family that used to own the Boston Globe, is the founding publisher of the New Bedford Light. In addition to his 24 years working at the Globe, Taylor taught a course called Economics and Financing of Journalism in the MBA program at the Yale School of Management.

Taylor said the New Bedford publication won’t accept ads, but it will pursue individual and charitable donations as well as sponsorships, much as public radio and television stations do. He estimated the initial annual budget will be in the $600,000 range.

Across the country, many digital news startups have been launched by newspaper veterans who find themselves out of a job because of the industry’s downsizing or upset with the direction the news industry is going.

“This is very different. It originated with the citizens of New Bedford,” said Roessner. Mayor Jon Mitchell has been supportive, Bob Unger handled a lot of the early planning, and Roessner said Ken Hartnett was indispensable. Hartnett and Unger are both former editors of the Standard-Times, the existing daily newspaper in New Bedford.

The Standard-Times is owned by Gannett and the newspaper’s website indicates it has eight news employees – three reporters, a sports editor, a copy editor, a photographer, an editorial assistant, and a digital producer. The regional editor for the Standard-Times and other Gannett publications in southeastern Massachusetts couldn’t be reached for comment; her voice message system was full.

The group looking to expand local news coverage in New Bedford made overtures to Gannett to see if it would be interested in selling the Standard-Times. But Gannett took a pass, so the group moved on. Taylor said the consensus was that the Standard-Times wasn’t covering the community adequately.

“They all decided that the Standard-Times is a ghost newspaper at this point,” said Taylor. “It can’t perform the duties of the Fourth Estate in New Bedford.”

The term “ghost newspaper” – referring to a paper that exists but is no longer performing its essential functions – has become commonplace in Massachusetts and across the country as investors have steadily squeezed expenses out of newspaper chains and left them hollowed out. Margaret Sullivan, the media critic at the Washington Post, wrote a book about the phenomenon last year entitled Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy.

On The Codcast last year, Unger said the Standard-Times fits the “ghost” description. He said in 2005 the newspaper had 56 full-time staff members, a dozen part-timers, and a generous budget for correspondents.

Mayor Mitchell, a proponent of more local news coverage, called the New Bedford Light a positive development. He said the Standard-Times is a shadow of its former self and that makes governing a city like New Bedford far more difficult.

“I don’t think we can be a functioning city without a functioning and trusted news source,” he said.

Roessner said the goal of her staff, which currently consists of a handful of freelance reporters and editors, is to contribute new news content, not duplicate what is already being generated. In addition to the in-depth pieces, she said she plans to run an arts and cultural calendar for the area, recruit and train town residents to cover some local meetings, and look to the community to provide content in the form of videos, audio files, and commentary.

In addition to Taylor and Roessner, the New Bedford Light’s board includes Joel Alvord, a former bank executive and a trustee of the Alvord Family Foundation; Rebecca Barnes, a city planner and architect; Lee Blake, president of the New Bedford Historical Society; Jeanne Costa, a writer and historian; Lynne DeLucia, editor and cofounder of the Connecticut Health Investigative Team; Lloyd Macdonald, a former Superior Court judge who now works as the regional administration judge for Bristol County; Daniela Melo, a lecturer in the Department of Social Sciences at Boston University; Walter Robinson, a former reporter and editor at the Boston Globe best known for leading the Spotlight Team during its investigation of sexual abuse by the Catholic Church; Tony Sapienza, the former CEO of Joseph Abboud Manufacturing; and Greg Torres, the chair of MassINC (which publishes CommonWealth) and former president and CEO of the Mentor Network.