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Quite the World, Isn't It?

Death of newspaper reports premature

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. Read More 
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Former photo colleagues fending for themselves

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... ... Read More 
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This just sounds like they had an awful lot of fun

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. Read More 
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Oops -- military flack seems to admit abuses at Gitmo

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. Read More 
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Barreling through the mine field

UPDATE: The ,a href="""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.

Please. Read More 
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Trying to have it both ways

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?  Read More 
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Something fishy

My younger son, Andrew, and I have been talking about riding out to sea on one of the Newport Beach fishing charters for some time now. Whenever we thought we could squeeze it in, something else would come up -- or the daily fish counts would show nobody was catching anything.

But the barracuda are biting just now off the Southern California coast, so we finally got out yesterday afternoon on a half-day charter from Davey's Locker -- not a faith-inspiring namegoogle for a charter boat company, but what the hell, they stock life jackets.

You look for omens on days like this, and I found one -- an open parking space on the street, no meter, two blocks from the dock. And the guy at the counter signing us in -- and collecting our cash -- said the morning boat had taken about 100 barracuda. These are fun fish to catch -- they have to be at least 28 inches to keep, and they put up a good fight.

So Andrew and I loaded onto the boat, which was half-full for the trip. That's a good thing. Full boats are usually an exercise in tangled lines. The captain spent more than an hour chugging northward to a spot near Huntington Beach where several other boats were anchored and busily catching fish. A crewman dropped the anchor, we baited up our hooks, and the fishing was on.

But the fish weren't, at least not for us. Andrew had a near miss -- he felt a tug and yanked to set the hook but nothing, When he reeled in his he found were razor sharp teeth marks near the bait's tail.

Others had better luck. A couple from Las Vegas next to us caught two and didn't relish the idea of driving across the desert with them that night, so they gave them to us. And a regular who caught eight -- eight! -- had four he was giving away, so we grabbed those.

So we wound up with fish, a good time on the sea -- saw a couple schools of dolphin and a jellyfish floated by -- and reason to try again in a coupel of weeks if we can swing it. Read More 
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A father, a Secret Son and roots of extremism

I'm about half a lifetime behind on my reading, it seems, due primarily to working on The Fear Within, which has me digging into old newspapers and reportage, trial transcripts and memoirs of Communists and anti-Communists, plus doing the freelance stuff (among other time-consumers). So my time for personal reading is pretty narrow.

Which is why I'm so late to the game in writing about my friend Laila Lalami's novel, Secret Son,, which tells the story of Youssef El Meki, raised in a Casablanca slum not knowing that his mother has lied to the world about being widowed. Youssef does indeed have a living father, and how that discovery is made and its impact on Youssef's life propels the book. The key undercurrent: An exploration of how young Muslims can become radicalized.

This is a strong book. Not as good, I don't think, as her collection Hope and other Dangerous Pursuits, which I thought was a remarkable debut. To my eye, Secret Son lacks the scope of the short stories in Hope, a function no doubt of focusing on one main story line as opposed to the intertwined lives of the characters in Hope. But it's still a good read. I recommend you grab both books and read them in succession.

And then wait impatiently for Lalami's third book, whatever and whenever that may be.

Secret Son has been widely, and generally quite positively, reviewed and the New York Times posted the first chapter as kind of a quick peak. Saves you time in the aisle of your favorite (and hopefully independent) bookstore.
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Of railroads, the rich, and roses

Margaret and I met a friend for lunch in Eagle Rock yesterday to sign a copy of Blood Passion as a gift, then swung by the Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino for, I'm embarrassed to say, the first time since moving to Southern California more than 12 years ago.

It's a spectacular place, with some 14,000 varieties of plants spread out judiciously over 120 acres. My favorite sections were the Chinese and Japanese gardens, particularly the bonsai. I am not known as a patient person, and the amount of patience bonsai requires -- well, I'd have it snipped down to the roots before it had a chance to grow.

The gardens were established by Henry Huntington, the rail magnate, whose story is woven into Frances Dinkelspiel's bio of Isaias Hellman, Towers of Gold. Visits to these sorts of museums to the excesses of wealth always leave me of two minds. You can't help but admire the architecture, the design of the landscaping, the shear scope of the ambition. But you also can's separate out that he built all this with profits that grew from the labor of others, from those who built and operated his inter-urban rail lines to the working class that paid the fares to use it.

Such places, for all their devotion to arts, culture and, in this case, horticulture, are also monuments to our national infatuation with the amassing of wealth -- the true religion of America. Read More 
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Me and my fellow unemployed - more of us than you think

Interesting step-back analysis piece by David Leonhardt on the cover of the New York Times today (and online here).

While the official unemployment rate in California is around 11%, the real proportion of workers who can't find full-time jobs is more like 20%. Yes, that's one in five workers off the job or working part-time, giving California the third-highest rate behind Oregon (23%) and Michigan (22%). The interactive map is here.

As Leonhardt points out, those numbers only reflect folks who have been looking for work. In places like Detroit, Buffalo and other economically smacked urban centers, the percentage of work-age people without jobs is much higher.

"The Great Recession," Leonhardt calls it. Seems about right. Read More 
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