Paul Bass brings his love of local news to the ‘web’
By Stacey Dresner
NEW HAVEN -- Paul Bass is used to questioning authority.
He did that for years as a staff writer for the New Haven Advocate, a weekly alternative newspaper, covering local politics, and cultural and social issues, and winning numerous awards for his in-depth stories.
“I was just always a wise guy. I have always liked challenging power and authority,” said Bass. “And I believe in the mission of the press which is to hold people and institutions in power accountable, but more importantly to really give the citizens the tools to make their own decisions. If there is no free press, there is no free society.”
Bass continues to challenge authority as the founder of newhavenindependent.org a news website covering the city of New Haven.
With websites like newhavenindependent.org reporters like Bass can cover stories and events with an immediacy not found in daily newspapers.
And with an increasing percentage of the population getting their news from the Internet, these websites, Bass said, are the wave of the future in newsgathering.
He recently sat down in the cozy kitchen of his Westville home to discuss his new website.
“What I am trying to do is go back to the days when communities had many newspapers,” he explained. “When I started out in journalism in New Haven, there were six radio newsrooms. Now we have less than one-half because of corporate consolidation. There were two daily newspapers, and now we have one, and that daily has cut its budget tremendously in what it covers.
“With the Internet, I am trying to be a part of the new wave that brings back different voices, different options…I’m trying to return to local reporting.”
‘Fed up with corporate journalism’
A year ago, Bass left the New Haven Advocate, owned by the Tribune Co., to write a book on the 1969 murder of a Black Panther in New Haven.
He also felt it was time to leave the Advocate.
“I was fed up with corporate journalism. I really liked the people at the Advocate but the Advocate got bought out by one of the largest corporate chains in America…Their whole commitment was not just to the bottom line, which was fine, but to an unrealistic profit margin that meant continuous pressure for budget cuts, which in turn meant abandoning any commitment to quality journalism. More importantly, the corporate atmosphere drained the creativity. I went crazy with all the forms of bureaucracy and group think.”
Learning about the spate of “hyper-local” news websites that are cropping up around the country, he decided that that kind of journalism would be a good fit for him.
“I started reading all about this emerging new field, which I found exciting, because everyone I knew in a conventional newsroom was in despair over the way the big corporations were eviscerating the mission of the free press.
“And yet, when I’d go on line,” he continued, “I’d find all these people in these little communities or larger towns or cities involved in the new on-line local journalism. They are excited. They feel they are doing what they went into the business for.”
Bass was practically born with this interest in the power of the press.
The son of a lawyer and a homemaker, he grew up in White Plains, N.Y., and says he always knew he would be a newspaper reporter. In fact, at the age of eight he started his own newspaper, “The Junior Reporter” in which he covered his neighborhood.
From the fifth through seventh grade he published his own sports newspaper with a friend, then started an arts newspaper in junior high.
By high school, when he began attending the Horace Mann School, he worked at both the regular high school newspaper and the school’s underground paper.
“I loved writing, I loved interviewing people and I am otherwise socially awkward so when you are a reporter you can ask anybody anything,” he laughed. “You have a license to learn anything you want. And I am so interested in people.”
Going to Horace Mann, a prestigious prep school in Riverdale, The Bronx, was his father’s idea.
“I was in the public schools and my father thought I needed more,” he explained. “It was a great education. I learned so much, it really developed my writing.”
“It was all Jewish,” he added. “It was like a Jewish day school, minus the religion.”
The Bass family were Conservative Jews, but “we were not observant,” he recalled. “We always had a strong Jewish identity, but we had zero Jewish observance. But I always liked being Jewish. I liked the identity of being Jewish.”
He went on to attend Yale University where he majored in political science.
“The academics were good, but it wasn’t a warm place. But it has gotten better. Despite having so many Jews, it wasn’t a Jewish place. And it really is now.”
Attending the Ivy League school made Bass, who feels so intensely for the underdog, uncomfortable.
“It teaches people how to be the ruling class. It disgusted me,” he said. “I remember fleeing from this freshman dinner where all of the black chefs were holding up stuffed pigs and all of the white privileged kids in suits and formal dresses were cheering. I just ran out of there.”
“But I really liked the education and I liked a lot of the people. I knew I wanted to be a reporter and it gave me a great education. I cherished it. And I loved New Haven.”
While at Yale he wrote for the Yale Daily News as well as the New Haven Register and other local newspapers.
Graduating in 1982, he stayed in New Haven and became a freelance journalist working for a variety of publications including the Advocate and the New York Times.
In 1986, Bass, his wife, Carole, also a Yale grad, and another couple started a newspaper, the New Haven Independent. After three years, the paper closed, and in 1989 both Paul and Carole headed to the New Haven Advocate.
Today, while Carole Bass remains a writer at the Advocate, Paul runs his newhaveindependent.com from his computer at home.
“That’s what’s great about it n the power of the press now belongs to someone who owns a modem,” he said, adding that it could cost as little as $2,000 to purchase the equipment needed to run a site.
He hooked up with a webmaster who designed the site, and now files his stories on his home computer.
The $80,000 budget for the website’s first year n which covers his own salary, paying freelancers and other expenses, comes from community-based grants, sponsorships from organizations whose logos can be seen on the right hand side of the website (Bass makes sure to say that these sponsors and organizations who give the grants do not dictate what the website writes)-- and he hopes that more funding will soon come from dedicated readers through “voluntary” subscriptions or donations to the site.
Over the years, Bass has become more Jewishly active. He and his family belong to Congregation Beth El-Keser Israel.
The Basses are kosher vegans and shomer Shabbat. They have two daughters -- Sarah Rachel, 12, a student at Ezra Academy, and Annie Rose, 15, an Ezra graduate, who now attends Wilbur Cross High School.
“Paul Bass is an ethically sensitive person, with well-ordered priorities,” said Rabbi Jon-Jay Tilsen, spiritual leader of BEKI. “Paul continually struggles with the ethical issues of journalism. He struggles with the rules of lashon hora and rekhilut as they impact each story he writes as a journalist. He will pass by a ‘scoop’ if he thinks publishing it would be wrong.
“Paul is committed to journalism as a tool to seek truth, bolster democracy, promote good government and develop community. He has become a highly respected and loved member of the BEKI community through his volunteer service and kind regard for all people.”
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