Sitting down with Paul Bass

(Courtesy New York TImes)

From the moment he stepped onto Yale’s campus, Paul Bass, JE ’82, has covered nearly every story New Haven has served up. He held a position at the New Haven Register while still a full-time student, and though he calls his dorm’s proximity to Toad’s his earliest favorite thing about the Elm City, he’s since fallen in love with its social, cultural, and intellectual diversity. In 2005, after two decades with the New Haven Advocate, Bass relaunched the Independent (a weekly he’d run from 1986-89) as a not-for-profit online publication covering New Haven in unheard-of, news-by-the-hour depth. Seven years in, the site is still going strong and has been hailed as one of the most important early experiments in online journalism. The Herald spoke to Bass about media new and old, as well as how the site handles political issues.
YH: How was the old Independent different from the modern incarnation?
PB: Not-for-profit is an important part. And being a daily—well, much more than a daily; [the Independent is] continuous throughout the day. The overall mission is still intensive coverage of the city, to make coverage grassroots and real-time.
YH: What online papers were inspirations to you?
PB: There were two inspirations. The first was a blog called Baristanet, which had this great connection to its readers—they really contributed to the stories. Then I found out there was another nonprofit, the San Diego Voice. We were the first two in the country, as far as professional news coverage from a nonprofit daily.
YH: Have similar papers cropped up since?
PB: A bunch of others, right after I started. Chicago’s went out of business, but then there was one in Minneapolis, MinnPost, and one in Seattle called Crosscut. For a bunch of years we’d be invited to conferences. We still meet once or twice a year. One in New Orleans just started up.
YH: Is that in part because of the decline of the Times-Picayune? Is that a common pattern—big papers struggle, grassroots news sources spring up in their wake?
PB: Yes, because the corporate model of news is struggling. The chains, the for-profits, the big, corporate-owned, legacy dailies dictate to the community what the news ought to be, shrinking news, expecting 18 percent returns on their investments every year—and alienating their readers. I think they’ve really ruined American journalism in the second half of the 20th century.
YH: Will we soon be at the point where every major American city has an Independent-style site?
PB: Well, it’s not just the Independent; the entire model of news is changing. Even New Haven is going to have other outlets. I think we’re in a golden age, where every city has different experiments pop up. You have to be interesting now to get readers. Take that interest, and the rigorous fact-gathering mission of the daily press, and you have a powerful combination. One without the other, and the information loses power; the corporate approach, with its pseudo-objectivity and mechanistic way of writing news, lost touch with readers. The New York Times is still the gold standard—fantastic on the web, fantastic in print—but the name doesn’t matter. And not all the experiments on the web are great, either. What I tell reporters now is to find a good newsroom.
YH: What changes do you think the Independent has helped effect in New Haven or Connecticut policy over the years?
PB: School reform. We were covering everything when people said the schools were fine—and they weren’t. When the Board of Ed wasn’t showing up for meetings, we took attendance; they had higher truancy rates than the kids being expelled for truancy. So we finally saw this new school experiment happening, and we’re watching it, keeping it honest and transparent. Another big campaign was open government—opening up public meetings, making information public. But it’s the day-to-day reporting that makes a big difference. The city cares because they know someone’s watching.
YH: What’s it like to have so many connections in a city of this size? Do you feel like you can always find the information you need?
PB: Even after 30-odd years, I’m still trying to figure out the city, which is what makes it such a fun place. We had the biggest experiment in the country going for a while, trying to wipe out poverty, and then we got poorer. What was that all about? I find I’m still learning every day, taking the best course I could’ve taken at Yale—and getting paid for it! I feel like reporters are never knowledgeable or smart enough to run the city, but we can be definitive observers, giving people information and analysis, the raw materials of democracy. I don’t feel like the most knowledgeable person in town—I’m just a reporter—but I’ve gotten a little better at seeing patterns. Still, reporters can fool themselves, especially when sources try to flatter them. That was the downfall of corporate media. They saw themselves as part of the state; they wanted to be important, players, telling people what to think and what to do—and failing. But I can post an article on urban design, and some of my readers will be architects and urban planners, so they’ll find the flaw in the story and take the discussion to a higher level.
YH: Have you ever tried covering news outside Connecticut?
PB: Well, I’ve been here since I was 18. In the mid-80s, I did some reporting on a Klansmen trial in South Carolina. Otherwise, this has been my career. I love the idea of staying in one place and trying to understand it over time, developing an institutional memory and getting a sense for context. And it’s interesting enough that you’re learning something every day.
YH: Do you think it’s true what they say—that young people today don’t care about the news, never read a paper, etc., etc.?
PB: I think it’s exactly like the election. “Obama’s in trouble because young people aren’t voting, because they don’t care,” [people said]—and then more young people vote in this election than in 2008. Don’t listen to that stuff. The people who write obituaries for news live in the funeral parlor that is legacy media. But right outside their door, new journalism experiments spring up every day, and young people are all over that. When I work with Yale or New Haven high school interns, I learn new things about journalism. What we should care about is democracy, experimentation, and engagement. The people leading are young, and they’re the most interesting part of the conversation.
YH: What’s it like reporting on an election in such a one-sided political zone?
PB: This year wasn’t big for us, since New Haven is so Democratic. The big years are odd-numbered, like in 2011, when a labor-dominated group took over the Board of Aldermen and the town committees. We were the only ones to cover that in depth, and to understand it, because we could combine grassroots neighborhood coverage with our own political analysis. But for this election night, we just post the results and explain what it means for New Haven’s political atmosphere. Sometimes we do break state-level stories. We had an interesting one up Tuesday about Linda McMahon, who was paying all these African Americans to pretend they were supporting her. That was something.
YH: Given your mission and the high level of public contribution to the discussion on the Independent’s website, is it a struggle to remain unbiased?
PB: I think everyone’s biased, but your job is to be fair. If you don’t have an opinion, then you don’t have a thought in your head, and you shouldn’t be covering anything. What people call “objective” journalism began within corporate media in the 20th century, and pretends to be neutral while it has biases that are entirely pro-corporate, without questioning the fundamentals of our economy or our political system, because a corporation owns their paper. It’s easy to avoid unfairness here because we don’t do editorials or endorsements; now that people can add their own voices to stories, there’s no market value on us being blowhards—which is liberating!
—This interview was condensed by the author

Leave a Reply