Quite the World, Isn't It?
May 9, 2011
As many of you know, I teach journalism part-time at Chapman University here in southern California, and as the news spun last week about the killing of Osama bin Laden, I conducted an exercise in class that feeds directly into a new report on how we get our news online.
The report by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, called "Navigating News Online," offers an interesting analysis of how we navigate the web in search of news. Not surprisingly, most of us happen upon articles by chance, or as the result of a specific search. But the report also notes the growing role of social networking, such as Facebook, in directing people to articles or blog posts (so yes, "share" this).
I teach two sections of "Journalism: Theory and Practice," this semester, with a total of 30 students. In each class last week, I asked each student how he or she first learned of Bin Laden's reported death. Almost all heard it through social media -- Facebook and Twitter - or from text alerts they had subscribed to that fed directly to their phones, or in conversations with friends. Only one saw it first on a news site; they all knew about the reported death within an hour or so of the initial reports.
What did they do after hearing the news? Almost to a person, they went to sites maintained by the New York Times, CNN and other mainstream media outlets, or turned their televisions to major networks or channels, to get the details.
So what does this tell us? That social media is revolutionizing how we learn about news events. But then we go to the old guard sources to find out the details. I find this heartening. In a sense, journalism isn't dying, it is getting a jump-start from social media, and remains the foundation upon which significant information flows.
Now if the business-side folks could just figure out how to make money from that, maybe we can reverse this long trend of less and less, and start shoring up an institution critical to our democracy.
December 11, 2010
We had an interesting discussion this past week in the introductory journalism class I teach at Chapman University, looking at the whole WikiLeaks saga and the arrest of Julian Assange. We didn’t get into the gory details, as does this good piece from London's Daily Mail.
Rather, our classroom discussion turned on the question of whether WikiLeaks is journalism. A few of the students (most are not journalism majors and take the class to fulfill PR requirements) thought not, that Assange was acting on an agenda, and wasn’t engaging in any journalistic acts with the leaked documents WikiLeaks posts. Where the New York Times and other papers digested the hundreds of thousands of documents and teased out nuanced stories about what the pages said and what they mean, WikiLeaks itself just posted raw material, which means it is not performing a journalistic function.
In that regard, some of them seemed to agree with the U.S. State Department, which said through Philip J. Crowley, assistant secretary, that it regards WikiLeaks as a political actor because it is espousing an agenda (the relevant part of the press briefing is below the jump, and well worth reading). Following that logic, Fox News isn’t a journalistic outlet, nor is The Nation. We enter dangerous territory when we start letting the government being covered determine who gets to cover it. From there, it's a short step to barring criticism.
I argued, and believe, that WikiLeaks is indeed a journalistic outlet and thus entitled to the full freedoms of the First Amendment. But taking a step back, I also argued that, with WikiLeaks, we are seeing the logical extreme of the wishes of people who say they don’t want journalists getting between them and the facts. These are the folks who see bias when traditional journalists dissect and digest the details of an event or topic and put the relevant elements into context.
The Internet has brought us a different, and more problematic, delivery mechanism. Over the past few years online versions of traditional print stories, unleashed from the physical constraints of a printed newspaper page, have begun giving to readers the supporting documents used by journalists to write their stories. There are links to .pdf files about municipal budgets, police reports, court transcripts and all manner of what once was the stack of paper from which we wrote our stories. Now, instead of just naming the written source, we can and often do show it to our readers. This is a good development, and helps reinforce the legitimacy of the reporting.
WikiLeaks – and, to a lesser extent, The Smoking Gun – push that model to its extreme. No dissection and digestion, just the raw reportage, letting readers essentially do the work of journalists for themselves, vetting the information, soliciting expert opinions on what it says and means, and trying to tease out the most significant details against historical context that, in the case of the WikiLeaks document drop, makes sense out of hundreds of thousands of pages of raw material.
Whatever Assange’s agenda, the function is journalistic. And it also, I hope, points up the crucial need for traditional journalists who take time to understand the subjects they cover. These are professionals who can dive into massive pools of raw information and tell people unfamiliar with the terrain exactly why, for example, it matters that the U.S. and South Korea have discussed how China could be enticed to accept a unified non-communist Korea under Seoul governance.
So, in one sense, the folks who would like their information raw and unfiltered now have it. But like my students, I doubt many of them would ever take the time to read the documents themselves, vet the material, and place it into a detached context. This is the necessary function journalism plays – to have agenda-less (one hopes) observers telling us what parts of the roiling sturm und drang of daily life really matters.
So WikiLeaks in the end shows us the new journalism. It is a crucial role, bringing to light the secrets governments would wish to hide - much more likely to be embarrassments, illegalities and miscues than information that harms the nation, or individuals. But by themselves, journalistic outlets like WikiLeaks ultimately are the path to an even deeper level of national ignorance. The information needs to be assessed and contextualized, then delivered in an understandable way. It needs that extra layer of journalistic activity.
Let’s hope the pendulum begins swinging back the other way, and a more accepting embrace of journalists by a culture that equates the entire profession with the braying hyperbole of cable commentators – left and right.
The State Department briefing: (more…)
June 13, 2010
I spent a day back in December out on Santa Cruz Island with Jennifer Perry, an anthropology professor at Pomona College, for a profile piece for Pomona Magazine. It was a lot of fun -- she's very bright, and very engaged with the history of the Chumash tribe, whom her research (and that of others) suggests served a role as something of a banker for pre-Columbian trade along the Central California coast.
Santa Cruz is the largest of the Channel Islands at 98 square miles, and has been a lot of things over the years, including a ranch. Now owned by the National Park Service and the Nature Conservancy, a visit here is a wonderful experience in roughing it. Camping is limited and rudimentary, there are no services, and if you miss the ferry you're stuck until the next day.
What I enjoyed most, though, was listening to Perry talk about the clues in the landscape as she walked along the blufftop, and then inland a bit. What was a pile of loose rock to my eye were, to Perry, the leftovers from of ancient mining, and she poked into the rock piles to pull out the evidence -- chipped stones and discarded tools for splintering the old chert, a kind of flint, into usable sharp edges.
Give the piece a read, and let me know what you think...
Photo of Jennifer Perry by Steve Osman/Pro Photography Network.
March 27, 2010
The new issue of Orange Coast magazine has a piece I wrote on Exene Cervenka, one of the key figures in X, the Los Angeles roots-punk band from back before punk became an affectation (i.e., the good old days).
I met with Cervenka at The Filling Station in Orange, near where she lives and where I'm teaching part-time at Chapman University. It was a fun piece to do, and a great conversation. from the story:
Things have changed from those raucous days. Punk has moved from rebellion to commodity. The originals are becoming nostalgia acts, the imitators are the scene-setters and, were it not for all the hair dye, this night’s crowd of 50-or-so fans would look like a battalion of Q-Tips. Mosh pit? Um, no.
January 6, 2010
Well, as of this week I'm the Los Angeles Correspondent for Sphere, a new AOL-owned news site, and my first story for them went live earlier today - a look at California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the crushing budget crisis and his last shot at establishing a political legacy.
It should be a fun gig. They want me to write stories from Los Angeles that will appeal to a national audience, which, for those of you who know me well, realize is just the kind of gig I like. Broad parameters for a broad curiosity. I'm really looking forward to it.
The best aspect is that it's part-time, which means I'm free to continue doing book reviews (which I love but that don't pay particularly well), and work on book projects. And my new colleagues are largely drawn from top newspaper and online outlets, such as the New York Times.
The new year is looking better already.
December 22, 2009
Many of you already know that I'm one of the co-founders (with Brett Levy) of The Journalism Shop, an informal co-op of former Los Angeles Times staffers now working freelance (thank you, Sam Zell).
We've put in for a grant with the Knight News Challenge, which is very competitive and focuses on tech innovations. Our innovation has more to do with people - trying to find a way to keep veteran journalists involved in journalism. Wish us luck.
Mac Slocum, a blogger for the Nieman Foundation Journalism Lab, posted a short write up on us today, which I invite you all to go read.
November 12, 2009
I have a piece in today's Los Angeles Times that raises the curtain on the release next week of Sarah Palin's Going Rogue: An American Life (and managed to scuff the title in the original piece. Sigh).
The upshot is that whether the book helps or hurts Palin depends on what's in it, and what she wants to do now that she has quit as governor of Alaska. After my piece ran the Associated Press got a hold of a copy of the book, and reports that it's a pretty straight-forward recap of her life and the 2008 campaign. And yes, the Palin and Mccain folks didn't play well together. But we knew that.
Palin also apparently takes some shots at CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric, whose rather routine interview with Palin exploded when the Republican vice presidential nominee bobbled easy questions -- like what newspapers she reads. Palin came across as not-ready-for-prime time, and it helped cement the public image of her as unseasoned.
So will the book help or hurt? I'm guessing it will be a wash. She doesn't seem to have drawn any fresh blood, at least according to the AP write up. And she didn't ratchet up the flame-thrower enough to propel her to a hosting seat on a cable talking-head show.
So maybe she just did it for the reported $7 million from Rupert Murdoch's HarperCollins. Come to think of it, she may not have needed any other motive.
October 30, 2009
My short profile of Los Angeles Times foreign correspondent Barbara Demick and her forthcoming book, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, is live now at Publishers Weekly. It's a remarkable book, due out in December, and you ought to put it on your pre-order list.
First a disclaimer: Though I spent a dozen years as a staff writer for the LA Times, I never met Demick nor, to the best of my recollection, did we ever work together or share a byline. But I've been reading her journalism since she moved from the Philadelphia Inquirer to become the Times' first Seoul bureau chief, a gig that led directly to this book.
As my piece says, there are certain hurdles to writing about North Korea, not the least of which is dreadfully thin and controlled access to the place. Demick found a way around that by diving into the lives of refugees from the same small city, and through their eyes and memories has been able to create a gripping portrayal of life in what is likely the world's most repressive regime.
So why is this book important? It helps us understand a bit about life in a country that has been a major influence on U.S. foreign policy in Asia since the end of World War Two. The government is a holdover from Stalinist totalitarianism, and the populace lives under intense poverty, famine and indoctrination.
The headlines these days are all about the push for nuclear weapons. But in the end, it is a nation of people shackled by mad men.
October 13, 2009
Every now and then a nonfiction writer gets lucky and stumbles across a treasure trove previously unavailable to other writers on a topic. That happened to Terry Teachout, the (sometimes controversial) culture critic for the Wall Street Journal and an inveterate blogger.
Teachout's trove? The private tape recordings of jazz legend Louis Armstrong, which imbue his new biography of "Satchmo" with an intimacy not available to earlier writers on Armstrong's life. He talked about it with me for a profile that went live yesterday at Publishers Weekly.
“To people who know about Armstrong in the general way that most of us know about Armstrong, I think they're going to be surprised by a lot of this book,” Teachout says, pointing to Armstrong's own underappreciated skills as a writer (he wrote two memoirs), his dealings with the Chicago mob, his pot smoking, or that his “career was short-circuited because of lip damage that caused him to withdraw from performing for years before he became famous.”Armstrong led a fascinating life, and was one of the first African American artists to enter mainstream pop culture. The book is due out in December - PW targets the book industry, so these pieces are published before books go on sale. So plenty of time to put it on your holiday list.
September 14, 2009
Today's Los Angeles Times carried a piece I wrote on Dan Brown and the impact of his The Da Vinci Code tied to the release tomorrow of his new novel The Lost Symbol.
The story doesn't get into all the conspiracy stuff and fanciful embrace of occasionally indicted history, but looks more at the state of publishing, and what The Da Vinci Code did.
It really was a remarkable mass-market cultural phenomenon. There are some 81 million copies of the book in circulation worldwide. That's not Harry Potter numbers, but it's still one hell of a hit.
Prime evidence that Brown has touched the central nerve of Middle America: Last week NBC's "TODAY Show" did a "Where's Matt Lauer" knock off, sending the co-host to different sites from the book and setting them up as clues. That was followed by a Q&A and excerpt Sunday in Parade magazine, the newspaper insert. It was the fist tome the magazine had excerpted a novel in its 68-year history.
Obviously, I need to find a way to include the Knights Templar and the Masons in my books ...
September 3, 2009
Last Winter and into the Spring I worked under a contract with four advocates/academics* who had written and/or co-edited a book called The Gloves-Off Economy: Labor Standards at the Bottom of America's Labor Market. It's a collection of articles by labor economists and others looking at how the low-wage sector of the economy had eroded or stagnated, and the forces that brought it about.
My part of the project was to take the book and rewrite and condense it into a more accessible report, taking the highlights and hopefully putting it in a form that would find wider distribution among policy makers. Here it is, free for the downloading.
It was an intriguing project to help out on. I was familiar with many of the conditions detailed in the book, but learned a lot about how these conditions came to be, and the repercussions of the declining power of unions, the surge in cheap immigrant labor, the steps being taken to organize and improve the lives of the lowest-wage earners, and strategies for leading businesses to realize that paying the lowest wage possible isn't always the best way to run a business. Or, more broadly, to contribute to society.
Give it a read. And feel free to post comments about it below.
* They are:
August 23, 2009
Here's hoping that a rumble of interest in Detroit could lead to some serious journalistic inquiry about the city.
Bill McGraw, an old acquaintance in Detroit, reported in the Free Press this week that Time magazine has spent $99,000 for a house in the West Indian Village neighborhood, a cluster of gems on Detroit's east side. It's one of the last of the city's grand old neighborhoods still standing.
Time's plan: To use the house as a base of operations for a year or better to spotlight Detroit across its publications. When the project is over, McGraw reports, Time will donate the house to charity. That may not be so altruistic as it sounds - the house was vacant for two years when Time bought it, and real estate in Detroit is even harder to sell these days than cars.
Still, Detroit (above in better days, from the Library of Congress's American Memory archive) is a compelling and intimately American story, the tale of a city that rose on industrial innovation and shrewd marketing of the American Dream of the open road, and is now in collapse -- after 40 years of decline -- into a shell. It has been ravaged by globalization, drugs, unstable tax base and epic political corruption.Tom Wolfe couldn't have invented the place.
Yet it survives. Detroiters are some of the most resilient people I've ever met (Margaret and I lived there for a decade, and our sons were born there). It really deserves broader examination and exposure - far beyond the local papers' solid jobs of presenting the city to itself (even with their limited circulations). Now if I could only persuade my agent there's a book in it: Detroit: The Rise and Fall of a Great American City.
August 23, 2009
Back in July Margaret and I headed north to San Francisco for a few days primarily so I could give a talk at Modern Times Bookstore about Blood Passion, tied in with the annual Laborfest in the Bay Area.
We also took in some baseball, our first visit to SBC Park, home of the San Francisco Giants. It lived up to the advanced billing -- great ballpark, with a wonderful throwback design. Not a bad seat in the house, and if you are stuck way up in the cheap seats you're rewarded with a gorgeous view of San Francisco Bay. And it's easily accessible via mass transit. Now that's how you build a ballpark.
Then we headed to Fresno for comparison with another great little ballpark, home of the Giants' AAA affiliate the Fresno Grizzlies, and wrote about the experience in a Travel piece for the LA Times, which ran this morning.
It was a lot of fun. I'm trying to come with another little road trip that would make good fodder for another travel piece, a slice of journalism I'm coming to enjoy more and more with each outing. Among my favorites is one of the first travel pieces I did for the Times, visiting the desolate, and usually closed-to-the-public, Trinity Site - the spot where the first atomic bomb was detonated in New Mexico.
Often, a travel piece is about a lot more than a journey, a destination and a hotel.
August 20, 2009
Paul Farhi, a friend and staffer at the Washington Post, has a piece online, ironically enough, at American Journalism Review arguing that the way to save newspapers could be to take them off line, or to build a prohibitively high subscription wall.
The short argument - and please do read his article - is that newspapers have failed to find a way to make online enterprises work, and rather than continuing to eviscerate their news gathering operations in pursuit of the elusive, they ought to re-dedicate themselves to the print edition and not give the news away for free. So if you want to read a story in The Hometown Gazette - print or online - you have to buy the Hometown Gazette.
There's been a lot of backlash and pooh-poohing of the idea, but it bears a serious look. Yes, millions of people now get their news online. But do we know what percentage of them - not anecdotally, but hard numbers - dropped subscriptions to go online? The hard numbers we do have show a steep drop in circulation and a steep drop in advertising - classifieds have dried up, and the recession as well as retail consolidation have shriveled ad budgets.
But newspapers still sell. My former employer, the LA Times, still publishes around 700,000 copies a day. Following Farhi's reasoning, it ought to end its move online, where no one pays for content and advertising hasn't matched expenses, and refocus on making a profit with the core print product. Key here is that what once was will not be again, but that doesn't mean all of our print newspapers are going to die. The trick here is to make newspapers work as they are. And giving away the content puts a zero price tag on the very thing the papers should be selling.
I think Farhi is spot on. There is room for online-only journalism, especially hyperlocal (which has great ad-revenue potential), broadly national or topic-specific. It may, in fact, flourish eventually. Right now that's far from happening - where would these sites be without the deep pockets of benefactors? But that journalism doesn't have to be done by newspapers. They have a heft that online-only ventures generally can't replicate, and a stronger relationship with readers than the vast majority of online sites. That means something to advertisers.
I probably get most of my news from online sources, and newspapers' abandonment of the internet would affect my consumption severely. That's one of the arguments against a pay wall - people like me would stop clicking. But right now newspapers are losing money on clicks like mine. It doesn't make sense for newspapers to continue to invest scarce resources in an experiment whose biggest supporters are those engaged in it (the online news advocates).
I'd like to see some experiments, and see some newspapers realize that the barometer of their success will be long-term financial viability, not money-losing clicks.
August 20, 2009
A couple of weeks ago a bunch of us former Los Angeles Times staffers launched The Journalism Shop, an online resource for assigning editors, project managers at nonprofits and businesses to find veteran journalism talent for freelance projects.
Bill Mitchell at Poynter this morning did a nice Q&A with me and Brett Levy (we've been the propellants in the project). It's a good overview of what we're up to. Check it out -- and pass it along to the hiring folks wherever you work.
August 3, 2009
Late last night we went live with a new online site that is something of a co-op of a bunch of us former Los Angeles Times journalists. Called The Journalism Shop, the site holds resumes and work samples from some two dozen former LA Times staffers, with more to be added.
We are uncertain how well this might work. The idea is to give hiring editors and others looking for experienced journalism talent to be able to find us more readily. So we have all done little bios, then each of us is maintaining separate pages with links to our clips, places such as this blog and website, and any other thing we can think of that might help market ourselves to the folks doing the hiring and assigning.
So stop by and poke around -- we're a sociable group.
July 31, 2009
The Columbia Journalism Review has an item today in which writer Ryan Chittum crunches some numbers through his own formula to conclude the death of newspapers was called too early. His methodology is suspect, but his conclusion seems spot on -- yes, readership and advertising in this historic Great Recession are down, but most papers are hanging in there. And most people still get their news from the print editions.
Too often reports on the health of newspapers focuses -- as does Wall Street -- on the most recent quarter or numbers, and the riveting fact has been the declines in readership and revenue. Tribune's problems stem from a whole added layer of debt from Zell's buyout of the company.
But big papers are still big, just not as big. The repercussions are clear -- fewer stories are being covered by fewer people, which is not good for society (under the old saw that an unexamined life is not worth living). But the papers are hanging in there (well, most of them are). And in the next three years or so they will go through yet more transformations.
But they'll still be around. The internet is abuzz with Twitter and Facebook and other social network toys, but the vast majority of people in the country aren't part of that world. Nielsen reports Twitter has only touched 10% of online users, and Facebook reports 120 million people log in each day -- worldwide. That's a big number, but it's hardly the kind of dominance the online buzz would have one conclude.
As students in my classes hear me say often, the LA Times might not sell more than 1 million copies a day any more, but it still sells more than 700,000 copies. That is still a big paper. The severe contraction has taken some severe adjustments, to be sure, and more are likely. No one knows what "stable" is going to look like.
But the dinosaurs aren't dead yet.
July 30, 2009
The meltdown in the newspaper industry has left thousands of highly skilled journalists -- ahem, including someone we all know and love* -- out on the street. And there just aren't that many jobs out there for seasoned journalists -- most of the scant openings are for the young and inexperienced (and the gigs pay accordingly) with tech skills that editors presume veterans don't have and can't get. They're wrong, but c'est la vie.
Now some unemployed photographers, mostly from the Los Angeles Times, have decided to jump in together and through former colleague Matt Randall have created a web site to showcase their work and troll for freelance photo assignments. It's a great idea, and I wish them tons of success.
In fact, it's such a great idea you can look for a similar effort from a couple of dozen of us former LA Times (non-photo) staffers to launch in the next week or so.
ADDED: *Slipped right by me, but it was a year ago Tuesday that I got my layoff notice from the Los Angeles Times. Oddly, I remembered the anniversary of the start of the Detroit newspaper striike July 13, but forgot this one. My, how time flies, and personal worlds change... ...
July 28, 2009
The new August issue of Orange Coast magazine has a small piece by me on the old Crystal Cove Yacht Club, which had no yachts or even a dock, and in which everyone was a life commodore.
The club had more to do with partying on the beach, frankly, than boating, and in talking with folks involved in it they sure seem to have had a blast over the years.
Crystal Cove, for folks outside of Southern California, is a decades-old beach community in Orange County, among the last of the old enclaves of huts and shanties that used to dot the coast. Now part of the Crystal Cove State Park, the cottages are being renovated and rented out to members of the public by a first-of-the-month reservations system.
It really is a great spot.
July 27, 2009
The Washington Post had a piece over the weekend about a male Navy flack dealing with Guantanamo Bay complaining to the Miami Herald that its female reporter covering Gitmo had subjected him to sexual harassment through rude comments.
Sexual harassment, like racial harassment, sometimes lies in the eyes of the victim, so I'm willing to give the flack room to make his case. But buried in the Post story is this quote from the flack, Commander Jeffrey Gordon:
"Her behavior has been so atrocious over the years," Gordon said in an interview. "I've been abused worse than the detainees have been abused."
"Worse than the detainess have been abused." That rings like a hell of an admission by a military spokesman that the military ha been abusing prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.
July 24, 2009
UPDATE: The ,a href="http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5jqwi0TSVtxC458-6AKpUuaTpH5FgD99N2MB00""target=_blank">911 tapes indicate the neighbor who called might not have been a neighbor, just a passerby ho had been hailed by another woman, and that she didn't delve into the race of the men at the door until pressed. The more we know, the murkier it gets.
The Henry Louis Gates, Jr.-Cambridge PD showdown caught my eye when it first cropped up -- Facebook friends might remember I posted it there -- and I planned to just ignore it afterward. But that's proven impossible, since you can't escape it. And that echo effect is what has been preying on my mind.
The back story: Gates returned to his rented home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he is director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He was with a male friend -- both of them black. He had trouble entering his own front door, so used his shoulder to force it, an action that caught the eye of a neighbor (I think she was white based on scene photo when this first broke that I can't find now). She phoned police, reporting a possible break-in.
The first cop to arrive, Sgt. James Crowley, spotted Gates -- whom he didn't know -- standing in the foyer. He identified himself through the front door, said he was investigating a possible break in and asked Gates to step outside. Gates opened the door and said, "Why, because I'm a black man in America?" The discussion deteriorated from there, all of it inside the house (Gates during the encounter eventually provided the cop with ID). Crowley's version of events are in the police report, available in several places on the Internet, including here.
Context is key. I won't pretend to know what it is like to go through life as a black man in America, but the hurdles, prejudices and lifelong encounters are pretty clear. Like all of us, Gates responded to the situation framed by his personal experience and expectations. As, one presumes, did Crowley, augmented by professional training. It seems to me as though he was doing his job fine until this point -- responding to a call, ascertaining whether there was indeed a crime being committed.
Where he stumbled was when, with Gates yelling, he asked the professor to step outside (ostensibly because Crowley couldn't hear his radio in the loud confines of the house). Once outside he told Gates, in essence, to pipe down. And when Gates didn't, he arrested him for creating a public nuisance. Gates wasn't creating a public nuisance until he obeyed the officer's request to step outside. Inside his own home, Gates was committing no public nuisance -- unless his voice really resonates (the charge eventually was dropped).
I won't go into all the political fallout from this -- it's been as much a distraction as whether Miss California hates gays -- including President Obama's decision a couple of hours ago to skin back his defense of Gates (or at least the words he used). But it's frustrating to see it soaking up so much of our attention -- driven in part by asinine media questions. I am dismayed that this caught fire after a reporter raised the issue during a press conference about health care -- why can't my fellow journos stick to a topic, rather than light a political fire that does not need lighting?
Missed in all of this is who exactly may have been guilty of racial profiling. My nominee: The woman who didn't recognize her own neighbor and mistook him for a burglar. Gates over-reacted, the cop appears to have entrapped him (asking him to step outside where his bellowing could be a crime) and now the news cycle is dominated not by efforts to fix a health care system that is helping bankrupt the country, or even over the scope of racial profiling in America, but over whether the president dissed a cop.
July 23, 2009
I missed this when it cropped up last week, but a judge in San Francisco has upheld that a freelance student journalist working a story without an outlet for it is still covered by California's Shield Law. Under the ruling, the reporter is not required to share notes and film with police investigating a murder witnessed in the course of covering a story.
Good decision, that, though I know folks less enamored with journalists and the work we do won't see it that way. But if people perceive that whatever they tell a reporter is tantamount to telling the cops, reporters will find it much harder to report stories involving crimes. And while witnessing a murder is an extreme case, the Shield Law also precludes prosecutors and police from going on fishing expeditions of journalists' notes from street demonstrations, political events and other less incendiary junctures of civic engagement and improper acts by law enforcement. It' a good law.
And this is where I'd tell you the student's name -- but I can't, because the court has sealed that part of the record and, at the request of his lawyer, the San Francisco Chronicle isn't publishing it. It's unclear from the bits I've seen, but the journalist apparently fears retaliation from people involved in the murder.
The fear is understandable, but the argument to keep private the name of the journalist is not. Instead of acceding to the student's lawyer's request for anonymity, the Chron should be fighting the court decision to seal the name. This is an open court proceeding involving a case of significant public interest -- the rights of journalists -- and all aspects of it should be completely open.
The student journalist can't have it both ways. Sometimes doing our work gets us into dangerous situations. But the principles of free speech and openness are our lifeblood. We can't fight for public access to the courts on the one hand, and hide ourselves on the other. Imagine how this story would be playing out if the witness in this case wasn't a journalist -- would the Bay Area media be granting him or her anonymity during court appearances?
July 14, 2009
Well, as long as we're getting all nostalgic about loss of income, family stresses, careers under threat and the occasional bruise and run-in with pepper gas (see posting below), I thought it might be useful to give a sense of where some of the Detroit striking journalists went.
I've wrestled with the concept of measuring a void, which of course is damn near impossible. How can one quantify what isn't there? I look at current coverage of the California budget crisis by a capital press corps that is a shadow of what it was three years ago. Given the breadth of the crisis, there is much in the way of enterprise reporting that is not even being conceived. How does that lack of outside spotlight affect our democracy? Darkness has never been good for the public welfare.
There really is no way to measure the impact of the Detroit newspaper strike on journalism in Detroit, except to note that about half of the striking Newspaper Guild members crossed the line and returned to work, and scores more -- such as recent Pulitzer winner Jim Schaefer, music and pop culture writer Sue Whitall and investigative reporter Norm Sinclair -- went back in good graces as the strike ended. So some of the institutional memory and reporting chops of veterans were there.
Others left, myself included. I wound up at the Los Angeles Times until this past fall, and had a good run of interesting stories and assignments (and, as with every career, some dogs). Now I'm in a hybrid role of freelance journalism, writing history books and teaching journalism at Chapman University and a nonfiction storytelling workshop at UC Irvine (both part-time).
I'm not sure what my individual departure meant for journalism in Detroit -- some might argue it improved things. But I tried to focus there on the stories others weren't telling, the narratives that helped explain Detroit to itself.
I think other departures were probably more significant. These are focused on former Detroit News writers, because they are the ones I know best. Allan Lengel, who went on to the Washington Post and now runs his Tickle the Wire site watching federal law-enforcement, was wired in with the feds in Detroit and broke many stories. Bob Ourlian, now with the Tribune's DC office, did great journalism in Detroit on development issues, among other things. Philip Kennicott has become an influential culture critic at the Post and now a blogger, as well -- after being a Pulitzer finalist in editorial writing in St. Louis. Paula Yoo went to People magazine for awhile but now writes children's books and young-adult novels. (*I was reminded, watching a couple of old West Wing episodes tonight that Paula also was a scriptwriter there and for a few other TV shows). Robin Mather Jenkins worked at Cooking Light and then the Chicago Tribune before getting laid off recently, and now is starting a freelance career.
Janet Wilson, Reed Johnson and Marla Dickerson all wound up out here at the LA Times, as well, though Janet has since been laid off, too.
It's a long list of ex-patriates and there is no way of knowing what was lost by the departures, beyond the financial stability of a few bars. But we, and Detroit, are different because of it.
Feel free to add "where are they now" [*former strikers only, please] updates in the comments section ....
July 13, 2009
Fourteen years ago today the union I belonged to, Newspaper Guild Local 22, walked out on strike at The Detroit News in response to the paper unilaterally imposing work conditions after it declared contract talks at an impasse. In reality, Gannett and Knight-Ridder, owners of The Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press, had been laying plans to drive the unions out of their businesses for many months.
Most of the media coverage at the time focused on a list of contract points that were in dispute, but in reality the strike was about the survival of the six unions representing workers there, from the Teamsters covering the truck drivers to the GCIU handling folks in the back shop.
It was a long and nasty affair, with occasional flashes of violence. You can see some wonderful photography by fellow strikers Daymon Hartley and George Waldman on their web sites (and George sells copies of his book, Voices From the Strike, though his).
I often get asked at speaking engagements whether my involvement in the strike radicalized me, and I have to say no. But it did energize me. Before the strike I had a long and deep interest in progressive history, and labor history, something i trace back to reading John Dos Passos' USA trilogy, which first exposed me to those slices of America's past. And I believed in unions as a mechanism for workers to unite their voices to work for their common good -- same as businesses working together through chambers of commerce and other organizations to amplify their voices.
But before the strike I personally was an indifferent union member, never active, attending only informational meetings about contract negotiations, etc. My take at that point was that, as a journalist, I shouldn't belong to any organization, including a union (I made an exception for the Dearborn Rovers, my soccer team). But as the machinations made a strike, or union capitulation, the only two options, I changed my view. One could, I decided, be an objective, conscientious journalist and still work with fellow journalists for our common interests.
As timing had it, I was on vacation in Rochester, New York, with my wife and sons when my unit of the Guild walked out rather than accept the imposed working conditions in what we believed to be an illegal act by Gannett management. When we returned to Detroit a week later I became active in the strike, walking the picket lines and getting my share of bumps, jostles, pepper spray and, on one occasion, a scab trying to run me down with his car (I managed to hop and roll over the hood/fender -- shades of the running of the bulls). After 18 months, and after deciding that even if we won a contract I couldn't in good conscience work for that management again, I left to join the Los Angeles Times as a staff writer.
Oddly, nine months later, while living in Irvine, I received letter from The Detroit News telling me I had been fired for picket line behavior. Odd timing, that. It turns out they were firing all the activists they could, fearing a series of legal decisions that had gone against them would mean they'd have to take us all back (ultimately the unions lost the legal fight, no real surprise given how the deck is stacked against labor).
Some six years after the strike began, after hundreds of lives were radically altered, some for the better, most for the worst, the unions finally won new contracts. They were watered down, and included provisions for an open shop to replace the closed shop that existed before. But they were contracts nonetheless. The papers never did recover, and to this day are viewed with suspicion and skepticism among many of Detroit's fervent union supporters. In the end, I see the strike as a draw.
Ultimately, though, for journalists it turned out to be a test. Of the six unions involved, five held firm. But about half of the Newspaper Guild members -- my fellow journalists -- crossed their own picket lines and went back to work. On an individual level it was a trial of character: Do you live up to your commitment to stand together, or do you cut and run for personal gain? The truck drivers, press workers, layout folks, etc., almost to a person stuck to their commitment. My usually idealistic fellow journalists, not so much.
For those of us who stayed firm, it was an invigorating experience. As professionally detached journalists we don't often get a chance to act on our beliefs. So it was good to be engaged, as painful and life-disrupting as it was. Some marriages crumbled under it; others were forged. Mine grew stronger.
So that's another little slice of history. Fascinating to me because it's mine, and I hope at least passing interest to you. Our of these small moments lives, and countries, are made.
June 24, 2009
A blogger at Virginia Quarterly Review (one of the best periodicals out there) dug into Chris Anderson, of Wired fame, and his book Free: The Future of a Radical Idea, and found Anderson had lifted portions of it from Wikipedia. (Ironically, I lifted this book jacket from Anderson's blog page).
Anderson copped to the problems in an email with VQR (the magazine was preparing a review of the book), blaming it on a last-minute decision to not use footnotes. Beyond the fact that nonfiction books without footnotes always make me suspicious, for the life of me I can't figure out why deciding late in the process to drop the footnotes makes a difference. Lifting passages verbatim and then footnoting is just as lazy -- and dishonest -- as cribbing them in the first place, as Ed Champion also notes on his blog.
But Wikipedia? I mean, if you're going to steal ...
June 23, 2009
My morning crawl around the Internet led me to a link to this blog post by Gary Switzer calling out the Society of Professional Journalists and the National Press Foundation for what seem to be some rather bone-headed ethical lapses.
The core issue: Accepting arrangements with drug companies for programs for journalists, including all-expenses trips for conferences aimed at informing the journalists about health care issues. Paid for by the drug companies.
I know the journalism world is on its heels, but wrong is wrong. And this is wrong.
June 16, 2009
This is always a striking -- and depressing -- web site to visit. It's an interactive map of newspaper jobs lost so far this year, with other tabs to look at losses in previous years and one tracking newspapers that have shut down altogether.
There's an irony, of course, in tracking such devastation to the industry through a free online site.
June 16, 2009
Remember back in November, when Barack Obama won the White House, a victory equally notable for its historic context as for what it supposedly said about a nation sick of politics as usual?
Well, one out of two isn't bad.
Over the past few weeks we've seen a disappointing throwback to the politics of distraction. First some online celebrity gossip asked a real question of a Miss America contestant -- her opinion on a political issue -- and instantly created a martyr for the political right. Never mind that the context for the question, and the political weight of Miss California's answer were completely meaningless (other than as a barometer of the fact that Americans do indeed disagree on some issues).
Add a dose of Dick Cheney, who has shown a remarkable inability to fade into the sunset. So much so, in fact, that one has to wonder whether he's fighting for historical legacy or aligning himself for the future -- a 2012 presidential run, bad ticker, bad polls and all. Then David Letterman cracks a bad joke about Sarah Palin's daughter and Alex Rodriguez, which Palin and conservative commentators twist out of context to extend her 15 minutes of political life.
Now John McCain is back in the fray, spinning off a foolish comment by Leon Panetta that Cheney might be wishing the U.S. gets attacked to validate his stance on the efficacy of torture. Panetta, McCain gravely informs us, must retract his comment.
The economy remains trashed; the Obama Administration has yet to address in a meaningful way the legacy of American policies that led to Guantanamo Bay, illegal detentions and torture; no progress has been made on health care reform; North Korea is nuke-rattling; the streets of Iran are teeming with protesters -- and this is what the political elite focus on?
One unavoidable reality of democracy is that we always get the political leaders we deserve.
June 11, 2009
The travel piece that ran the other day in the Los Angeles Times landed me a fun moment with San Diego radio station KBZT-FM 94.9 this morning, with hosts Hansen and Tommy.
Every Friday morning they do a session with folks from the Stone Brewing Co., which brews some great ales, with smart marketing, i.e., Arrogant Bastard Ale, with the label that warns, "You're not worthy."
After seeing the travel piece the other day, Tommy got in touch and they book me for a short chat about the story. So I got to relive -- briefly -- the road trip I took with Steve Dollar. This is the audio here.
Turns out Hansen and Tommy are doing a July 3 remote broadcast from the Stone brewery, and they suggested I stop down. Though 7 a.m. is a little early for an Arrogant Bastard -- read that any way you want -- I might just show up. Could be fun.
June 11, 2009
A former colleague, Bill Lobdell, is involved in a new venture in Newport Beach, California, the next city from us in Irvine, that I suspect points the way toward how the Internet-sparked explosion of newspapering will finally settle out.
The project is The Daily Voice, and it's a paperless news sites devoted to hyper-local news.
Lobdell and his partner, Tom Johnson, are both former news executives at The Daily Pilot, the Los Angeles Times-owned local paper in Newport Beach-Costa Mesa. Lobdell also was a religion writer at the LA Times for a while, was a former deskmate of mine there and we shared bylines on a few stories. And he has this book out about losing his religion.
What's telling in Johnson's opening statement is that they couldn't find investors to launch the project -- a sign, no doubt, of the skittishness of the investing market right now, and the absolute confusion over the profitability of media outlets.
But this strikes me as a sensible model (in fact, I've been having similar conversations with other fellow journalists about the theme). No big bucks, to be sure, but it seems like a logical way to start rebuilding news organizations one locality at a time. Local people want local news, and local business owners and managers want a reliable conduit for local ads.
Seems like a match to me,
June 8, 2009
Had a couple of nice links to the Los Angeles Times travel piece on brewpubs, one from The New York Times (scroll down to the middle of the NYT item), and the other from a beer historian.
June 8, 2009
I picked up this book out of a sense of curiosity, and found myself devouring it like, well, an addict.
Journalist Nick Reding spent a few years immersing himself in small-town Iowa, researching a book about the devastating effects of meth in rural America. I grew up in a small town (I can never say that without a John Mellencamp song bursting into my head) so read it with the eye of a familiar.
This is from my review in today's Los Angeles Times:
"In 'Methland,' Reding sets something that is known to most of us -- illicit meth labs and tweakers, violent hallucinations and destroyed families -- against a broad context of the decline of local economies, shattered dreams and a sense of fate-driven helplessness.
The book's strength lies in the professional distance Reding maintains. He lays out people in full, the heroes with flaws, the tweakers as fully rounded people with crippling addictions. It's a complicated story, and it hasn't gone away, Reding argues. It's just faded from the headlines.
June 7, 2009
A couple of months ago my friend Steve Dollar emailed from NYC with a proposition. He had a freelance assignment to do a travel piece driving the California coast, following Rte. 1 from around Santa Barbara to where it ends near the redwoods in Humboldt State Park. As an urbanite, he let his driver's license lapse. Steve's at left in the picture here, chatting with my old friend Tony Lioce at Vesuvio bar in San Francisco. Not a brewpub, but a great bar nonetheless.
The began the journey of Driving Mr. Dollar. And here is my travel piece on the trip, which ran in today's Los Angeles Times. It was a fun trip, and I love doing travel writing.
I also used the trip to start experimenting with map mash-ups, this one using Zee Maps, which gives you a sense of the scope of the trip.
June 2, 2009
So on one of the legs of my trip home from New York City yesterday, I wound up sitting next to a senior journalism student at Northeastern, in Boston. She was taking a gallows-humor approach to landing in this job market (she will graduate in December) and I was taking a gallows-humor approach to trying to stay alive in the business.
There has been so much windy commentary about the future of journalism that there's little I can add, other than to note that I think we're beginning to see the first bits of clarity, and it comes in the form of dedicated online news outlets, often foundation-funded. There are inherent problems with that model, from the potential of the ubers to twist coverage to the questionable sustainability of running such an enterprise off grants.
But frankly, it's little different from corporate-owned media and the sometimes unsubtle influences over coverage areas (witness all the fashion and style coverage targeting upscale readers). And Lord knows there's nothing stable about the current business model-in-ashes.
So take a look at sites like Kaiser Health News, the politics-focused Politico (a for-profit site) and the invetigative Pro Publica. What do they have in common? They focus on specific subjects, like newspaper sections, or beats, spun off into their own little worlds.
If I was a betting man -- well, I am, but damned if I ever win anything -- I'd put money on these kinds of models as paving the way to the future. As our news-consuming habits continue to fragment, we tend to go to sites that tell us about things we want to know about -- either by subject or by geography, like Voice of San Diego, leaving the general-interest tradition of newspapers behind.
I think readers wind up with a shallower engagement with the world that way, but trying to stop it is like trying to stop the tide. Much more sensible to figure out how to make it more flexible with targeted cross-linking, etc. But I rue a news-consumption approach that leads Americans to focus more inwardly at a time when we need to be more engaged with the world around us.
Now excuse me while I step down from the soap box ...
May 30, 2009
Well, the Nieman Foundation made it official yesterday (I would have updated sooner but am running ragged here in New York at the Book Expo America). As I reported the other day, this killing economy is claiming another victim -- the nation's best gathering for practitioners of narrative journalism.
Nieman Curator Bob Giles announced that the Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism is suspended, as well as its smaller narrative conference for editors:
This will disappoint those who have participated in the conferences in the past and who anticipated attending another narrative gathering in the spring of 2010. This difficult step reflects the foundation's need to make a major reduction in spending for the next fiscal year, beginning in July.
For the time being, it looks like they'll be keeping the Narrative Digest alive -- a thin silver lining, that. As I posted before, this is another blast of bad news for a craft that is getting pummeled from all directions. Let's hope the suspension is really just that, and Nieman will find a way to resurrect the program in 2011.
May 27, 2009
Well, here's some distressing news out of the East Coast. Connie Hale, a friend and editor of the Nieman Narrative Digest, tells me the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University is suspending the annual Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism (and, yes, putting her out of work). This is the pre-eminent conference for people interested in using literary devices in journalism -- both short pieces and long-form. (*My initial post phrased this as "shutting down," but Connie says it's being described as a suspension).
So far there's no formal announcement, and it's unclear what the reasoning is -- I've emailed Bob Giles,** the curator of the Nieman Foundation, and will add his comments if I get them. ADDED HERE: "There is nothing to say at the moment. We are still reviewing options relative to budget cuts required by Harvard."
This past March, attendance was relatively light, and few of the name tags listed newspapers under the attendees' names. It's an expensive conference to put on, and given the economic meltdown, my guess is money was the issue. The Nieman Journalism Lab seems to be unaffected, which suggests the Nieman Foundation is putting its eggs in the online basket.
Fair enough. But there is plenty of work to be done to enhance online narrative. The solution isn't to kill the narrative conference, but to broaden it. Lately I've been trying to envision alternative ways of using narrative online, taking advantage of its interactive nature to let readers pursue angles on their own. For example, in a story about a car crash there could be a drop-down box for people who want more details on the life of the victim. It can also be used to track simultaneous actions (the two cars coming together). The potential for experimentation is massive.
I have a personal take on this. I moderated a couple of panels at the most recent conference this past March, and every time I've gone I've come away with a deeper understanding of how to make narrative work, and a broader appreciation for the folks who do it, and teach it, exceedingly well (Adam Hochschild, a friend and regular panelist, comes to mind).
This really is a loss to the art of journalism.
** Full disclosure: I worked for Giles at two newspapers, and he was the editor of The Detroit News when I joined fellow union members to walk out on strike there in 1995.
May 27, 2009
I'm in New York City for a few days, staying with a friend in Brooklyn and then moving to a hotel in Manhattan while attending/covering the annual Book Expo America (BEA), the trade show for the publishing industry.
It's a massive gathering of book publishers and book buyers (mostly commercial and for libraries) focusing on books to be published late summer trhough the fall/winter season. This is my fourth or fifth time -- I lose track -- and it's always a lot of fun, if a bit overwhelming. Among the notable authors on tap: Joyce Carol Oates, Francine Prose, Pat Conroy, Tracy Kidder and rockers Steven Tyler (Aerosmith) and Clarence Clemons ("The Big Man" sax player from Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band).
I'll be posting a bit while here, and will also be contributing to the Los Angeles Times' book blog, Jacket Copy.
May 26, 2009
So you travel to a remote corner of the world, one of many trips you've made to the region, and stumble across a man with some bold and self-indicting stories about tribal feuds, vengeance and mass murder. What do you do?
Well, if you're Jared Diamond, you write the story up for The New Yorker. But now Diamond, the UCLA professor and author of the best-selling Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse, and The New Yorker are being sued by the source for the story -- who says none of it is true.
The New Yorker has taken the story down from its public access layer (we subscribers can still get at it): “Annals of Anthropology: Vengeance Is Ours: What can tribal societies tell us about our need to get even?” in the April 21, 2008 issue. And it's a good story about old ways persisting into modern times, with perhaps a bit too much gullibility born of a Western view of the world. Maybe Diamond bought the guy's story because it fit within his view of tribalism in Papua New Guinea, where he has made many trips researching birds. Or maybe it just fit his overarching point about vengeance.
There are many other interesting facets to how the story was handled, and the source's very modern and Western response -- filing a lawsuit. Diamond is a respected researcher, public intellectual and author -- I once profiled him for the Los Angeles Times -- and he can tell a good story. But the vetting of the article seems to have been very weak, both by Diamond and by The New Yorker. Columbia Journalism Review has a nice overview here, and over here you'll find the initial takedown of the piece by Stinkyjournalism.com.
My money would be on an eventual out-of-court settlement with no admission of fault. But that the story was written and published in the first place is troubling, to say the least. As the linked pieces point out, this was essentially a single-source story in which the source implicated himself in heinous criminal acts. I can't count the number of red flags that should have raised. And, if it turns out Diamond was wrong, or was lied to by the source, I wonder if the lure of an intriguing story about savage acts in a third-world jungle blinded him and The New Yorker to their core responsibility to verify the story.
May 20, 2009
Some good news for my former LA Times colleagues Chris Goffard and Sonia Nazario -- Publishers Lunch reports they both have new book deals.
"LA Times reporter and author of Snitch Jacket Chris Goffard's You Will See Fire, about an American priest in Kenya who takes on the country's brutal dictatorship as well as the Catholic church while fighting social injustice, only to die under mysterious circumstances, to Alane Mason at Norton, by Lydia Wills at Paradigm and Seth Jaret at Jaret Entertainment (NA). UK/Translation: Philip Patterson at Marjacq Scripts"
Snitch Jacket was a solid debut -- character-driven and evocative of the part of Orange County that falls far far outside the upscale image.
Nazario focuses next on women.
"Enrique's Journey author Sonia Nazario's book, intimately documenting five women as they deal with a major social issue, including poverty, hunger, prison reform, and gang violence, to David Ebershoff at Random House, by Bonnie Nadell of Frederick Hill Bonnie Nadell Agency (World English)."
Love to see this.
May 20, 2009
For a truly demoralizing look at the state of the newspaper meltdown -- we're all adults here, we can handle a little blood -- check out the Paper Cuts blog. In 2008 their map mashup detailed more than 15,970 jobs lost. So far this year,they count more than 9,564 jobs have been cut.
As bad as that is, the broad retrenchment in readership of the print editions, steep fall off of advertising because of the consumer shift to the internet, and this killing recession, have squeezed the freelance market nearly shut. This afternoon I had a travel piece rejected by a major newspaper, the editor saying his space and budget are shot for the year. In May. Maybe he was fibbing to let me down lightly, but other people are saying similar things. No space, and limited budget.
This is bad news for folks like me, obviously enough, but what the freelance conduit brought to newspapers was the outside set of eyes -- story pitches from people seeing the world a little differently than the set of desk editors running the budget meetings. The result is ever less inclusive news coverage.
I'm feeling more and more like my old autoworker buddies in Detroit, or the steelworkers in Pittsburgh, our industries collapsing around us and there's nothing we can do about it.
May 20, 2009
This is not a good idea.
May 19, 2009
One of the reassuring things that came after the mass layoffs across Tribune -- owner of the Los Angeles Times, my former employer -- is the way so many of us have come together with a sense of mutual aid. A flood of "what do we do now?" and "Anyone have any idea what that letter meant?" emails led me to launch a Yahoo group for ExLATers, now closing in on 100 members. It's been a great tool for pooling knowledge and unscrambling often contradictory bits of information -- especially after Tribune entered bankruptcy.
Elsewhere, folks have launched a web site to track where former Trib employees across the properties have moved to on the web. This one is fairly new and is a good and growing showcase of the breadth and depth of talent cut loose in this crisis (thanks to LAObserved for posting it, and ExLATer Saul Daniels for alerting our Yahoo group).
And now former photographers at the LAT are joining with former shooters for the Long Beach Press Telegram and Santa Clarita Signal in their own freelance photographer network. My former colleague Matt Randall put it together, and says he hopes to have a website live next week linking to all the photographers. It augments nicely the online work our fellow ExLATer Bret Levy has been doing with webinars at WriteThru.
These are all innovative ways to address the problems we face as individual journalists. The future is ours, kids, let's keep fighting for it ....