Sunday, May 31, 2009

"... it's guerilla journalism" -- Barbara Ehrenreich

Award-winning journalist Barbara Ehrenreich, author of "Nickel and Dimed" and most recently, "This Land is Their Land: Reports from a Divided Nation", gave the commencement address to UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism class of 2009.

She recalls her own career, from the lean times when she did her research at the public library, to the fat times, when she made up to ten bucks a word writing for Time Magazine. And now, what she told Cal's newest graduates is that they had just entered America's working class. "You may never have a cleaning lady," she told the grads. "In fact, you might be one. I can’t tell you how many writers I know who have moonlighted as cleaning ladies or waitresses. And you know what? They were good writers. And good cleaning ladies too, which is no small thing."

She was told by the dean to be upbeat and optimistic -- in the face of journalism being portrayed by pundits as a dying industry. And she was. Inspiring too, though not in ways you might imagine. She suggested new journalists reimagine themselves. She ended her address with this:

... Which brings me back to the subject of journalism as a profession. We are not part of an elite, akin to movie stars, anchorpersons and hedge fund managers. We are part of the working class – which is exactly how journalists have seen themselves through most of American history– as working stiffs. We can be underpaid, we can be jerked around, we can be laid-off arbitrarily – just like any autoworker or mechanic or hotel housekeeper or flight attendant.

But there IS this difference: A laid-off autoworker doesn’t go into his or her garage and assemble cars by hand. But WE – journalists – we can’t stop doing what we do!

As long as there is a story to be told, an injustice to be exposed, a mystery to be solved, WE WILL FIND A WAY TO DO IT. And what is so special about YOU, compared to a grizzled old veteran like me, is that you possess a multitude of new skills so that you can invent and CREATE NEW WAYS TO DO IT.

A recession won’t stop us. A dying industry won’t stop us. Even POVERTY won’t stop us because we are ALL on a mission here. That’s the meaning of your Berkeley degree. Do not consider it a certificate promising some sort of entitlement. Consider it a LICENSE TO FIGHT.

And consider this day to be your induction into a kind of knighthood—or samurai brotherhood and sisterhood. You are not civilians any more. You are journalists, which means you are part of a worldwide, centuries-long fight for truth and justice.

In the 70s, it was gonzo journalism. For us right now, it’s GUERILLA journalism, and we will not be stopped.

photo credit: Sigrid Estrada

Friday, May 29, 2009

This isn't heaven, it's Iowa

Ethan Canin, author of "America, America" and one of my very favorite writers, is coming to San Francisco on June 2 for a conversation and reading as a fundraiser for the Litquake writers festival. Today's Chron has a Q and A with him, from his home in Iowa City, where he is the F. Wendell Miller professor of English at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop.

Canin was one of the founders of the Writer's Grotto in SF, and maintains close ties to the city. It's interesting, though, to read what he has to say about living in the midwest:

Q: When you come back to San Francisco, what changes do you notice? What stays the same?

A: What stays the same is this enviable respect for aesthetics in civic decisions. The waterfront, for example, is beautiful; it keeps getting more beautiful. Also, I applaud some of the public-policy decisions, like public health care and taxing cigarette butts. ... What's changed? Well, we left in the late 1990s, when the dot-com thing was crazy. ... One of the reasons was that I was trying to write a book, and I was on the Internet all day trading stupid stocks. All people were talking about was money. And that's what I don't like about life in the city these days; money has become such a barrier and an object of desire for everyone.

Q: So you prefer Iowa City?

A: Just to give you an example, my dad's dad was a cigar salesman. My mother's father was just poor, just failed. So my dad was lower middle class; my mom was lower class. And they could live in New York, in Manhattan, when they were young. He was a violinist. She was an artist. Now, you can't even live there if you're a plastic surgeon married to an orthopedic surgeon. I have to tell you, living in a college town is the way to go, because you aren't constantly thinking about money.

making money online?

AP reports that bunch of newspaper execs got together in Chicago yesterday to try to figure out how to make money off online content as a way to save newspapers. Possibly, that ship has sailed. Another vision is called for, maybe?

Perhaps the better question would be, should have been, how do we save journalism in the event that we can't save newspapers?

James Warren, former Managing Editor of the Chicago Tribune blogs about the meeting -- he wasn't there -- on the Atlantic's website. (Be sure to read the comments.) From his post:

Now, more than ever, is a time for creativity and nerve, not just hunkering down and crossing fingers that safe harbor will appear on the horizon. [Newspapers are a] wonderful and important product, vital to American communities. Unlike a lot of jobs, you can look yourself in the mirror and know you're doing some good. Many newsrooms remain filled with a sense of mission even amid the looming dread.

At the behest of new corporate superiors (yes, some from radio), I helped oversee the painful layoffs of about 100 in the Chicago Tribune newsroom last year, before being dispatched by someone the Marlon Brando character in "Apocalypse Now" might characterize as "an errand boy sent by grocery clerks to collect the bill."

Fine. It was now their company. I just wish that what would have ensued might have been a strategy beyond a rather pedestrian one, rife with talk of "relevance" and "utility," with a multitude of lists, consumer reporting and de facto aping of local television; all the while needlessly undermining the loyalty of tried-and-true older readers while chasing after youth. It's less what the late philosopher Hannah Arendt tagged the banality of evil than it is the evil of banality.

Friday, May 22, 2009

the algonquin in cyber-ia

For those of you reflecting on the lonely life of the long-distance writer, check out Michelle Rafter's list of ten virtual cocktail parties for writers.

Were she alive today, Dorothy Parker herself might be found hanging out at any one of these joints, most likely the Red Room. From the post:

10. The Red Room (Free)

Classy enough for Dorothy Parker, this virtual community boasts of being the online home of many of the world’s greatest writers, with members such as Amy Tan, Salman Rushdie and Candice Bushnell. Conversations on books, freelancing, writing and reading happen in the site’s Clubs section, which has scores of writing-related categories.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

and now, when science goes bad

Here's an old post from the HuffPo on bad science, or what Geoffrey Dunn calls voo-doo social psychology, regarding a study that "found" that Sarah Palin's looks tanked her chances to be taken seriously. She was, according to the study, simply too sexy to be VP.

Once again (see below, on numbers) the methodology was the villain. From the post:

Let's look at the methodology itself. Heflick and Goldenberg assigned students to jot down a few lines about one of two American women celebrities, Palin or the actress Angelina Jolie. Half of the participants in each category were asked to write "your thoughts and feelings about this person," while the other half were asked to write "your thoughts and feelings about this person's appearance."

The participants were then asked to evaluate their subject (Palin or Jolie) in terms of various attributes, including "competence." Finally, they were asked to identify who they were intending to vote for in the upcoming election.

First of all, the study's sample of 133 undergraduates was hardly large enough for an accurate conclusion to be drawn. Moreover, the sample group, presumably in their late teens and early twenties, is hardly reflective of the American electorate. Generational distinctions cannot even be identified or assessed with this study. Moreover, the sample was heavily skewed toward women (96 females compared to 37 males). While party affiliations were identified, there were no variant markers for race, class or geographical origin of each participant. In purely statistical terms, its reliability is extremely low.

There's more. Read it all. bk

when numbers go bad

Old story, old post. But a good example of how numbers can lie.

First there were the numbers: A while ago, in a story about the growth of blogging, Mark Penn of The Wall Street Journal reported that "there are almost as many people making their living as bloggers as there are lawyers. Already more Americans are making their primary income from posting their opinions than Americans working as computer programmers or firefighters."

Then there were more numbers. From the story:

Demographically, bloggers are extremely well educated: three out of every four are college graduates. Most are white males reporting above-average incomes. One out of three young people reports blogging, but bloggers who do it for a living successfully are 2% of bloggers overall. It takes about 100,000 unique visitors a month to generate an income of $75,000 a year. Bloggers can get $75 to $200 for a good post, and some even serve as "spokesbloggers" -- paid by advertisers to blog about products. As a job with zero commuting, blogging could be one of the most environmentally friendly jobs around -- but it can also be quite profitable. For sites at the top, the returns can be substantial. At some point the value of the Huffington Post will no doubt pass the value of the Washington Post.

All of which should make a smart person scratch her head.

Then there was this post on Ecoconsultancy by Patricio Robles who not only called out the WSJ on faulty data, but provided a good lesson on how numbers go bad. He writes:
The first glaring problem: he uses a hodgepodge of sources to come up with his argument. He assumes there are 20m bloggers (based on data from eMarketer), assumes 1.7m of them profit from their blogging (based on information promoted by BlogWorldExpo) and assumes that 2% of the bloggers out there can earn a 'living' from their blogs (based on Technorati's State of the Blogosphere Report).

But the biggest problem here is not just the hodgepodge of data. It's that the basis for many of his claims is Technorati's State of the Blogosphere Report, which was sent to a random sample of Technorati users and which was based on less than 1,300 self-completed responses.

Assuming that 2% of the approximately 20m people who are estimated to have 'blogged' at some point in the US equates to 452,000 professional bloggers simply because 2% of the 1,300 bloggers who responded to Technorati's survey can reportedly earn a living blogging is the definition of fuzzy math.

He also points out how using means rather than medians can skew the facts as well:

The difference between mean (average) and median revenues is huge; the median figures are far more likely to be realistic. If the median revenue reported by the 550 US bloggers who were actually active enough to respond to Technorati's survey was $200, what does that tell us about the 20m Americans who have supposedly blogged at some point?
Finally, he writes that a small data box accompanying the WSJ story was misleading:
More troubling: that the 452,000 blogger figure is included in a table that cites the Bureau of Labor Statistics as its source, giving the impression that the Bureau of Labor Statistics confirms that there are more professional bloggers in the US than firefighters, CEOs, computer programmers or bartenders. It doesn't say any such thing; the figures for all the other professions were provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the blogger figure was inserted by Penn.
Apparently, Robles wasn't the only one to complain. At about 4:30 that afternoon, Penn updated his story, suggesting that his critics should do the math. I did. His methods still don't pan out. bk

on writing for free

Go here for a thoughtful post by Tim Beyers on why writing for peanuts is worth just that.

When writing becomes "content" and desperate-for-work writers and newly-unemployed journalists write for free, or close to it, we all lose. Just say no. (I've ranted on this before here.)

From his post:
Helium sells content to publishers on the super cheap as participating writers collect crumbs. Of course a deal with Hearst is in the works. I’ll be shocked if other cash-strapped publishers don’t follow suit.

As a writer, I can attest to Helium’s allure. Write whatever you want on any topic and publish instantly? No waiting for a query response? No rejections? Sign me up.

And yet this very low bar is the literary equivalent of a siren call.

He follows with three good reasons why you shouldn't fall for it. bk

Monday, May 18, 2009

more on micropayments

Will micropayments save journalism? Blogging on Techcrunch, Robin Wauters votes no.

From the post:

Publishers are in a nightmarish situation, and in large part they have themselves to blame for that. Fine with me if they want to escape from that situation by retreating behind paywalls - in fact, I encourage them to do so and die there soon so we can kiss that idea goodbye once and for all. How are paywalls bad news for news addicts? Those addicts have been spoiled to death the past few years, to the point where information overload has taken over and made the consumption of news overly tedious. I know because I’ve been one of them ever since I’ve been able to read, and this was long before I discovered the Internet. Introduce paywalls, ease the choice for news addicts, see what happens.

Information is now a commodity, so deal with it. And yes, it should be free to end users. But how will that pay for the food and housing of the people working in the publishing industry, you ask? I say it’s not our problem, and tough luck. In no way does the realization that the model doesn’t work anymore mean that the masses, lawyers, the government or any other institution should be bailing out newspapers for screwing up their chance to figure out this Internet thing in time and adapting to it. Publishers need a profit, like any other business, but that doesn’t mean they all deserve to turn one, and certainly not at the expense of better, more innovative publishing businesses that are waiting around the corner.

Most plans I've seen are pretty complicated, and don't seem to take human behavior into account. Going online to act as your own editor is time-consuming enough for news junkies. But at least you don't pay for the privilege. Factor in the whole idea of choice when you pay to play, however: do I want to pay for this piece from the Times or that one from the Post. Or maybe both. (And you know how quick little texts add up. We have a friend whose kids' cell phone bill arrived in a box. Text messages.)

Now consider the non-addicted, who generally spend no more than 20 minutes a day reading the news. Not sure how that added layer would play out. Probably not well.

If you're interested, go here to read what a few smart guys have to say about the whole concept, both pro and con. bk

Thursday, May 14, 2009

help me help you

... with a fat check, that is.

AdAge reports that the Huffington Post is willing to give a wannabe journalist a good leg up by auctioning off a HuffPo internship to the highest bidder. Last bid: $13,000. Granted, the money goes to a worthy cause, the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, and a spokesperson noted that HuffPo will offer several other internships that don't require aspiring j-kids to pay to play. But still, I find the concept sick and twisted. Especially now.

Hideous enough to expect journalists to write for free -- for the, ahem, exposure -- but to ask someone to pay for the privilege? I ranted about this before. Clearly needed to follow up. bk

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

pay to play

Poynter's Romanesko posts this memo from Dean Singleton, owner of MediaNews, who outlines a pay scale for online content. Not a whole lot here that is new, especially since the plan relies on "great local journalism" MediaNews will make available online. There's one problem right there: local reporting requires local reporters, and Singleton has been cutting their numbers right and left.

As for going to MediaNews for national or international news, and paying for it, really? Would that be your first stop?

It's a complicated plan, one that might be too complicated for most readers' time or interest level. But I could be wrong.

Don't forget to read the comments. bk

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

on hyperlocal news

Again thanks to Casey: a CNN article about hyperlocal newsites comprising news articles that are mainly written by volunteers. There's good, there's bad, but as Jane McDonnell, executive director of the Online News Association, says, it's now a moot point. What I wonder is if, while these new sites provide a way to cover the neighborhood, they place too big a burden on the reader in terms of ascertaining whether or not the reports are credible.

To which many critics might charge that journalists are too caught up in their own sense of professionalism. To which I might ask -- what's wrong with that?

From the article:

The shift "means that there's less journalistic oversight over what is being disseminated and distributed and created," [McDonnell] said. "That raises all the natural questions about how valuable the news is going to be -- how credible it's going to be. I kind of think that argument is moot at this point because it's happening."

McDonnell said it's important for news consumers these days to be savvy so they can spot conflicts of interest and assess the reliability of what they're reading.

d'ya think?

Amazon seems to think the Kindle will save newspapers. Read about it here.

More to the point, though, will it save journalism?

By the way, in the photo, that's Stephen King, who really doesn't need a Kindle to save his career. Though maybe there's a book in it. Kinda like Christine? Thanks, Casey. bk

Photo credit: Mike Segar/Reuters

Sunday, May 10, 2009

in search of new models

Thoughtful essay on the rise and fall of newspapers by Net guru Clay Shirky, and the need to focus on the future of journalism apart from the future of the newspaper model. Thought I had posted this before, but apparently not. Be sure to surf the comments.

From his essay:

Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism. For a century, the imperatives to strengthen journalism and to strengthen newspapers have been so tightly wound as to be indistinguishable. That’s been a fine accident to have, but when that accident stops, as it is stopping before our eyes, we’re going to need lots of other ways to strengthen journalism instead.

When we shift our attention from ’save newspapers’ to ’save society’, the imperative changes from ‘preserve the current institutions’ to ‘do whatever works.’ And what works today isn’t the same as what used to work.

We don’t know who the Aldus Manutius of the current age is. It could be Craig Newmark, or Caterina Fake. It could be Martin Nisenholtz, or Emily Bell. It could be some 19 year old kid few of us have heard of, working on something we won’t recognize as vital until a decade hence. Any experiment, though, designed to provide new models for journalism is going to be an improvement over hiding from the real, especially in a year when, for many papers, the unthinkable future is already in the past.

For the next few decades, journalism will be made up of overlapping special cases. Many of these models will rely on amateurs as researchers and writers. Many of these models will rely on sponsorship or grants or endowments instead of revenues. Many of these models will rely on excitable 14 year olds distributing the results. Many of these models will fail. No one experiment is going to replace what we are now losing with the demise of news on paper, but over time, the collection of new experiments that do work might give us the journalism we need.

More to the point, i got up close and personal with many of these new models last week when I was frantically searching for up-to-date info on the Jesusita fire in Santa Barbara. What i found, to my chagrin, was that the majority of the news on the web was recycled from a few traditional print or broadcast sources, and usually several hours old. Probably the best source turned out to be the website for the Santa Barbara Independent, the local alt-weekly, which was updated continuously. One night, desperate for news as the sundowners were sending the fire racing down the canyons toward the city limits, I dound that the most current piece of info I could get via Google News came from Reuters India.

I also checked a bulletin board for twitter posts -- and tuned out once the board turned into a tweeting match over whether the conversation should or should not include news of an earthquake in nearby Ojai.

Meanwhile, my computer crashed continuously. bk

Thursday, May 7, 2009

remember adrienne?

She just sent me a link to a show she has been working on, which was reviewed in the NYT.

here's the link to the review.

here's the link to her show.

pardon the lapse. have been consumed with the jesusita fire. I'd link to some news, but the most current update I could get tonight was from reuters INDIA. meanwhile, gotta love that facebook. i guess... bk

Sunday, May 3, 2009

more is less

Joe Garofoli, the SF Chron's media writer -- yes, they still have one -- incisively questions whether more information on the swine flu is resulting in a public that is less informed.

It's a problem that has been attributed to the 24-hour news cycle for years whenever a big story (with good visuals) broke: a constant barrage of too much information, designed to fill the space between commercials. But today the plague of TMI has been exacerbated by the deluge of scare-sites on the Web, which makes it hard for some folks to separate fact from fiction. Or reliable information (no need to panic) from rumor (beware the pork chop).

In this case at least, it seems like slow news may be good news. bk

Saturday, May 2, 2009

on the biz

Thanks to two students who did my work for me, wrt this post:

Casey forwards this link to a piece from Fortune that explains why bankruptcy -- now the billion dollar buzzword, thanks to yesterday's news about Chrysler -- may work to save the car biz, but not the news biz. It's all about alternatives: Sooner or later, we will all need to buy a car, at least until something better comes along. As for ink on paper, however, thanks to the web, that ship has sailed. At least according to this theory.

On a more hopeful note, Jackson forwards this link to a plan for ramping up n/p revenues courtesy of a most unlikely source: Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks. His plan? Turn the newspaper into a mini-Amazon, where you can buy whatever the paper advertises -- expanded sports sections, roses for mom, the Jonas Bros DVD -- with a point and click thru the newspaper itself once your credit card is on file. Genius? Possibly. bk

Friday, May 1, 2009

why the obit?

Here's why.

Great piece from The Smart Set from Drexel University. The timing couldn't be better for Comm 40 students, yeah?

Free market editting?

AP reports that 55 reporters and editors at the ailing Chicago Tribune have sent an email to the bosses, asking why the paper was allowing the marketing department to survey subscribers to find out their opinions on stories BEFORE they were published. Ugh.

Those who signed the email cited a number of problems with the practice, including ethical ones. I guess.

From the AP story:

"It is a fundamental principle of journalism that we do not give people outside the newspaper the option of deciding whether or not we should publish a story, whether they be advertisers, politicians or just regular readers," the e-mail read. "Focus grouping as done in the past is one thing. But this appears to break the bond between reporters and editors in a fundamental way."

The reporters and editors also said many have become uncomfortable that the marketing department appeared to be playing an undefined role in the newsroom.

No one will say what stories were under consideration or whether reader response shaped editorial decisions. Still. Scary practice that is unlikely to end well: It's like measuring news value by the click. bk