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Quite the World, Isn't It?

Malcolm McLaren, Johnny Rotten and me

So the news today that Malcolm McLaren had died caught me a bit by surprise, though I guess it shouldn't have. I'm at the age where the key pop figures from youth start keeling over from natural causes (in this case, apparently, cancer).

As word of McLaren's death grew, I tossed on the Sex Pistols' "Never Mind the Bollocks" and filled the house with jarring guitar and Johnny Rotten's petulant sneer -- much to the annoyance of my 16-year-old son. He wasn't complaining that it was too-tame oldies music, but that it was too annoying (he's a jazz and blues guy). You have to love the irony of the teen telling the parent to turn that noise down, but there it was.

And it reminded me of the time I interviewed John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, in 1994, when I was working at The Detroit News (one of my "mini-beats" was covering punk and alternative rock). It was by phone, tied to an upcoming Public Image Limited tour. He was a bit stunned when I asked him about the then-looming 20th anniversary of the Sex Pistols -- until then, he said, it hadn't registered on him that it had been that long. I also asked him the innocuous, evergreen question about what music he was listening to, and whether any current punk bands stood out.

That set him off on a riff about the state of pop music, which he thought was poor, and at the end he compared the then-new bands as "just so many cows farting." I laughed out loud, then asked if he had ever heard cows farting. "No," he said, "but I have heard Pink Floyd."

Ah, Johnny Rotten, why are you being so rotten?*

*go to the 1:17:40 mark, near the end, at Punk Rock, The Movie, linked above. Read More 
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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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Will Mt. Wilson survive? The web cam is down

One of my favorite spots on the web is the Mt. Wilson web cam, which usually shows beautiful frames of the mountain tops over LA, and the occasional glowing night lights in the basin. But for the past few days it's been showing the encroaching smoke and lurching flames (see my post and photo from the other day.

Today the cam went dark. The site loads a saved photo and runs this explainer underneath: "The Mount Wilson web server has gone down, most likely due to a backfire infiltration of a pull box containing telephone lines that bring us our T1 internet service. The will be no more updates from the Towercam, the last one being uploaded at 13:49:06."

Let's hope it's just some equipment with smoke in its eyes, and the facility itself -- which has been involved in scores of crucial astronomical discoveries -- has survived. Read More 
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The mountains are burning

As of right now more than 32,000 acres have burned in the foothills above La Canada/Flintridge, just about due north of downtown Los Angeles. There have been many great photographs of the fires by both the pros - many of them my friends - at the LA Times, and by amateurs.

This is my favorite - and in a sense, it's robotic.I grabbed this before 6 a.m. today from the web cam at the Mt Wilson Observatory, which usually shows lovely expanses of mountaintops or star-filled nights.

The Station Fire, as its being called (it began about a mile from a fire station in the Angeles National Forest) lapped up to the top of the ridge that holds a bunch of communications towers, and threatened the observatory itself before apparently veering off in another direction. In this photo you can see the flames seeming to touch the base of the towers.

I've covered wildfires and they are fearsome, remarkable and unpredictable things. And the further they are from me, the happier I am.

UPDATE: Fire officials are warning at dinnertime Sunday that Mt. Wilson will likely be overrun by flames sometime tonight. And in the picture above from this morning, the flames were not as close to the towers as the camera makes it seem. But then, maybe it was just prescient. Read More 
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Obama's beach reads - not so trashy

The Obamas are on Martha's Vineyard - summer camp for the rich and famous - and spokesman Bill Burton earlier today gave reporters the list of books Obama brought along to read during the week.

We'll skip right past the blatant omission of Blood Passion - we can be adult about this - and look at the list itself:

- Tom Friedman's Hot, Flat and Crowded
- David McCullough's John Adams
- Richard Price's Lush Life
- Kent Haruf's Plain Song
- George Pelecanos's The Way Home

Pretty ambitious. CNN counted it up: 2,300 pages in all. I bet he skips some parts. But I'm also heartened to see the range of interests. Though you have to wonder how much of these books he'll actually get through. Let's see, big plans, limited time, something has to give. Where have we heard this before? Read 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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