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Quite the World, Isn't It?

The Gloves Off Economy: A survey of how things got brutal

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:
Annette Bernhardt
Heather Boushey
Laura Dresser
Chris Tilly
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Summertime, baseball and ... Fresno

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. Read More 
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Finally Time for a serious journalistic look at Detroit

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 CityRead More 
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Can taking newspapers off line save them?

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. Read More 
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The Journalism Shop gets some play

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. Read More 
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A new web venture for a bunch of us laid-off journos

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. Read More 
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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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