Quite the World, Isn't It?
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.
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 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 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.
A third-generation journalist, I was born in Scarborough, Maine, and grew up there and in Wellsville, New York, about two hours south of Buffalo. My first newspaper job came at age 16, writing a high school sports column for the Wellsville Patriot, a weekly (defunct), then covering local news part-time for the Wellsville Daily Reporter.
After attending Fredonia State, where I was editor of The Leader newspaper and news director for WCVF campus radio, I worked in succession for the Jamestown Post-Journal, Rochester Times-Union (defunct), The Detroit News and the Los Angeles Times, where I covered presidential and other political campaigns, books, local news and features, including several Sunday magazine pieces.
An active freelancer, my work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Sierra Magazine, Los Angeles magazine, Orange Coast magazine, New York Times Book Review (books in brief), Buffalo News, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Teaching Tolerance (Southern Poverty Law Center), Solidarity (United Auto Workers) and elsewhere. I teach or have taught journalism courses at Chapman University and UC Irvine, and speak occasionally at school and college classes about journalism, politics and writing. I've appeared on panels at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books and the Literary Orange festival, moderated panels at the Nieman Conference in Narrative Journalism and the North American Labor History Conference, among others, and been featured on C-SPAN's Book TV.
I'm also a co-founder of The Journalism Shop, a group of journalists (most fellow former Los Angeles Times staffers) available for freelance assignments.
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