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Quite the World, Isn't It?

Social networking, and how we get our news

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. Read More 
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Wikileaks and the definition of journalism

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: Read More 
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Ancient times on the Channel Islands

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. Read More 
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Exene Cervanka: Not about to fade away

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.

Cervenka has changed, too. Age is rarely gentle, and in Cervenka’s case it has brought along multiple sclerosis, diagnosed nearly a year ago. She keeps on top of it with medication, and, so far, the mysterious degenerative disease hasn’t had much affect on her physically.

And she has settled, improbably, in Orange County after a four-year sojourn in rural Missouri where she pursued a whim to live “in a big stone house out in the middle of nowhere in the country with my husband, making music and art.” In fact, Cervenka’s band on The Detroit Bar stage looks like one from a Missouri country and western roadhouse, circa 1955.
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A new year, a new (part-time) gig

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. Read More 
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Of Nieman, Knight and The Journalism Shop

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.  Read More 
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Sarah Palin's Going Rogue a roll of the career dice

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. Read More 
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On North Korea, the anti-Disneyland

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. Read More 
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Terry Teachout on Louis Armstrong

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. Read More 
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On Dan Brown, and megabooks

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 ... Read More 
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