P aul Bass likes to use his brain.
This is important because he feels that newsgathering in the internet age has become a relatively mindless race to be first, or to get the most hits, or to attract the wildest comments.
The New Haven Independent isn’t like that. “It’s the area between immediacy and meaning,” Bass explains. “Our top stories have more depth. It’s fun being not-for-profit media.” (The New Haven Independent is supported by grant money and reader donations.) “You make your money trying to do something worthwhile.”
Before he began the Independent in 2005—and before and after he began a print publication also called the New Haven Independent, a free newspaper which existed from 1986-1989—Paul Bass was the news-voice and conscience of the New Haven Advocate. At the Advocate, Bass’ writing style was noticeably different than in his fact-filled Independent articles. His old stories began the way this one that you’re reading right now does: an emphatic, catchy statement that makes you curious for more, followed by “This is important because…” He would then follow with facts and opinions which helped push the story in one ideological direction or another. “At the height of the Advocate,” Bass recalls, “there was a need for real alternative journalism.” He wanted to develop a journalism style that was as brash as spoken-word poetry.
“It’s liberating not to be the smartypants,” Bass says, referencing the abrasive manner he brought to his old Advocate “Hit & Run” column. “It’s nice to have news be the beginning of the conversation.”
With online journalism, Bass quickly learned that providing an alternative meant not being so opinionated. “People need analysis. At the Independent, we do voice, not opinion. The web is full of opinion already.” For a while in the online Independent’s early days, Bass did a video segment taped in his backyard, next to his compost heap, in which he extemporized on current events as the laid-back local equivalent of a liberal radio-talk host. Bass says that he learned that Independent readers found the segments “confusing.” But the exercise was worthwhile, and fit with what has remained the Independent’s main mission: in Bass’ words, “to revive quality news coverage and use the new tools to serve the community.”
Some of those tools, in the hands of less principled journalists, can be little more than toys. What’s the point, Bass muses, in being seven seconds ahead of someone else in blurting out a bit of unsubstantiated news when you can wait an hour longer and have a full, well-written story? When police officers marched on New Haven City Hall last year to protest lay-offs, the Independent used basic web tools to file updates every five minutes during the rally, then cap it with a full story shortly afterward. A similar tactic was taken with the first attempt by the city to physically evict the Occupy New Haven settlement from New Haven Green, Bass says. The site posted something “every five to ten minutes, then a crafted full-length piece after an hour.”
The Independent staff does do one thing the old-fashioned way: classic shoe-leather reporting, “being in as many places as possible.” In the last state gubernatorial race, Bass says, “we knew about Malloy’s win first because we were at all the polling places and had the numbers.” New Haven was the deciding city in the otherwise too-close-to-call contest, and the Independent had a reliable story two days before other media outlets.
Online, it’s often commenters rather than the reporters who provide the sharp opinions that can turn a news story into a divisive debate—even if the article being commented upon is level and balanced and non-sensational. The Independent had issues earlier this year with a noticeable increase in insulting, inflammatory and factually challenged comments. The editors responded in a way few other publications would: by shutting down the site’s comments function (which was already subject to a more rigorous editing and oversight process than the comments sections at most other online publications) altogether. When the comments were brought back a couple of weeks later, tougher—and fairer—editorial guidelines were in place. “We still post 40 to 50 comments a day,” Bass says; less than before, but “it made the conversation more diverse. The question is, how do you take the conversation to the next level? So it stays intelligent and fun?”
Beyond its New Haven news-site homebase, the Independent helped start a second local news site, the Valley Independent Sentinel (covering Ansonia, Derby, Oxford, Seymour and Shelton), partners with similar online news projects, and created the non-profit Online Journalism Project. The Independent regularly co-sponsors live public discussions on pressing community issues, blogging and reporting the events as they happen.
Although its dedicated staff of eight full-time and four part-time reporters could easily work at home or on-the-go without the need to congregate at an office, Bass sees value in renting office space adjacent to another local news organization, La Voz, and in holding regular staff meetings at downtown coffeehouses—particularly Bru on Orange Street near City Hall, where you’d find him last Tuesday in a longsleeve shirt, blue jeans, a yarmulke and sandals.
And that may be the most distinctive thing about Paul Bass, the face of quality, local, online news journalism. He’s relaxed, not grizzled or caffeined-up or on his phone every minute. He’s conversational, not snappy or snippy or soundbite-conscious. Smart, but laid-back.
He’s New Haven, and he’s independent.
Written and photographed by Christopher Arnott.