Ideologically Homeless

July 24, 2007

“Nonprofits have to fill up some of the space that newspapers are inevitably leaving behind.” Steve Coll, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, said this to the New York Times for a story about Coll’s appointment as president of the New America Foundation, a public policy institute in California.

Coll is referring, I believe, to the demise of newsprint as a viable medium for journalism. The story doesn’t elaborate. He could also be referring to the relentless consolidation of all media, including newspapers, into an alarmingly few corporate hands. The Wall Street Journal‘s devouring by Murdoch and News Corp. is a terrible case in point. Coll might have been referring to both print’s demise and media consolidation.

Regardless, I appreciate what New America is trying to do, and it is encouraging to see that there is an intelligent group that recognizes that the marketplace of ideas on which our democracy is based is a diminishing space. In providing a home for the ideologically homeless, a category that includes me, given our fundamentally corrupt two-party system, New America and collaborations like it indeed are fulfilling a roleĀ  historically performed by newspapers. The Times article points out two examples. New America helped Schwarzenegger on a new health insurance policy in California, and it revealed startling conflicts of interest in the student loan industry. As news staffs thin and ever more of the public sphere is turned over to Paris’s jail time, Anna Nicole’s fridge, Lindsay’s latest drinking binge, the health of our democracy must depend on non-traditional sources of knowledge (not merely information).

I wish Coll well.


Hyperlocal hype

July 15, 2007

American Journalism Review has a good piece on the demise of hyperlocal online news site Backfence.com, which ambitiously sought 160 sites in 16 metro markets. The article is good in both reviewing hyperlocal’s relatively brief past online and in raising questions about its future as a business model.

According to the reporting by Paul Farhi, independent hyperlocal news sites like WestportNow.com in Connecticut, iBrattleboro.com in Vermont and VillageSoup.com in Maine are thriving, but that as a business model, hyperlocal news is “financially marginal.” There are few success stories, and fewer still that actually pay its founders full-time salaries. One of the biggest, for example, Baristanet.com, is run by two part-timers not ready to give up their day jobs.

Here in Rome, Ga., the hyperlocal HometownHeadlines.com does quite well, at least in terms of attracting traffic and in providing news and nearly news the local newspaper for various reasons misses. As Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive’s Jonathan Krim says he aspires to do, Hometown delivers news people want, like when and where Starbucks is coming, when a cell of storms and high winds is headed our way. Krim calls this reaching an audience at “a granular level.” Ah, sugar.

Implicit in the AJR piece about why Backfence.com failed, which was the brutal economic truth of more money going out than coming in, is whether the genre is in trouble, whether Backfence.com is the first of many to exit. It probably is, but I argue that that does not indict the genre. Look at the failure rate among all businesses, any industry, at any time. It’s quite high. We will see a lot of failures — a majority of all of the startups, in fact. But some will stick, and those that do will yield a stronger, smarter field.

I’m reminded of the dot-com bubble-and-burst of 2000-2002, when so many launched and, several hundreds of millions of venture capital dollars later, crashed. But comparing averages, no more failed (or succeeded) than at any other point in business history. It was just that so many started at the same time. Timelines were compressed. It is a similar story now, with so many hyperlocal attempts now.

So join me in watching Rob Curley at the Washington Post, who is building a mesh of microsites (see LoudonExtra.com) to cover the Post‘s markets one by one, as well as other mainstream news media’s attempts, including Lawrence, Kansas’s Journal-World (a Curley creation) and the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, to name just a few. The media elite’s have quite an advantage in leveraging their brands and getting the word out. Let’s see how they do.


Second-Rate Perfection

July 15, 2007

A wonderful poem by A.R. Ammons, a fellow North Carolinian, titled “Second-rate Perfection.” For me, the poem wonderfully, albeit painfully, describes the crisis of writing.

From his book, Brink Road, from W.W. Norton (New York, 1996):

Poorly-made people
burning accuracy alive
make the best verses:

those they make them
for are
away on missions words

play indifferent parts in:
the lame invent walking,
and the blind know

light’s possibilities:
instinct seldom prowls
through to dumb

fulfillment: words are
briers to eat: in time,
the mouth no longer bleeds.


Print is dead

July 15, 2007

So said Egon Spengler in Ghostbusters before confessing his hobbies to Janine — collecting spores, molds and funguses. (Shouldn’t he have said, “fungii”?). That was in 1984. In 2003, I made this statement to my journalism students, and they thought I’d lost my mind.

In BusinessWeek this week, media critic Jon Fine asks the question, “When do you stop the presses?” When should a print newspaper, facing the worst fiscal year for the industry since the depression, with an even worse 2008 predicted, consider moving all of its operations online?

The logical candidate: The San Francisco Chronicle, a paper with a strong Web presence already, a Web-savvy readership and, as Fine points out, private ownership. The question for the Chronicle, as for all newspapers, is how to replace enough of the revenue streams that have long-supported print fast enough to continue to fund news and editorial operations, and do it while facing new competition on every front. Fine puts the Chronicle‘s subscription revenue conservatively at $24 million, which would be difficult to walk away from, not to mention the suddenly useless assets such as a truck fleet and printing press.

But it has to happen. Not all newspapers need wholly migrate to online, but many will have to to survive. And online needs these news gathering, original reporting enterprises. A study in the last year determined that more than 95% of blog content is derivative, leaving less than 5% that includes or delivers original reporting.

I’ve described this ecosystem to my students as a whale, with the whale being old-fashioned boots-on-the-streets reporting and news gathering. This entire ecosystem of dependent organisms feeds off this whale, the 95% of commentary, media criticism and observations based on the journalism. But the whale is ill, perhaps critically so.

The question: Can the whale evolve fast enough to stay alive, to keep this whole ecosystem alive? I hope and pray it can. With corporate ownership gutting newsrooms in the chase for profit margins, with Rupert Murdoch poised to ruin the Wall Street Journal by subordinating it to his own empire’s best interests and running off its best journalists, with TV “news” so obsessed with the likes of Paris Hilton and Anna Nicole Smith, our democracy probably needs its newspapers, and, more importantly, the news-gathering operations that make them, more than ever before.

Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” — Thomas Jefferson


The Rome Braves regime

July 9, 2007

This post has nothing whatsoever to do with the blog’s themes or purposes, but it’s my blog and I’m going to use it for a little First Amendment freedom of expression.

Yesterday’s visit to State Mutual Stadium for a Rome Braves game displayed local team ownership’s unbridled greed and preference for a regime of rules over true customer service. It was mind over matter; the polo-shirted police state didn’t mind and we fans didn’t matter.

Here’s the scene. It’s 87 degrees. There is a patio reserved for fans using the private suites. We have suite tickets. The suite, however, is overcrowded, by about double. One step into either adjoining suite’s outside seating area invites armed security — that’s right, a man with a gun reminding us that we have to stay penned up in our suite. The game started 45 minutes late. It’s 45 minutes into the game. Clearly, obviously no one is coming to use the adjoining suites. They remain off limits.
Sooooo, we walk out onto the sun-drenched patio. Ah! A tent with bistro tables. Unoccupied! Shade! Did I mentioned the armed “guard,” strategically positioned at the Bud Lite tent? Did I mention that any sentient being could reason that no one else was coming out to the game this day? That’s right, we have to leave. “Rules,” moonlighting police man says, flatly. “No shade for you!”

We were told, “No” no fewer than on three occasions, yet not a soul ever asked us if they could help, if a compromise might be found. But oh so prompt was the bill for the soft drinks at game’s end. Every can, every ice cube accounted for.

A word about “security.” I doubt State Mutual is on the list of terrorist targets, yet we waded through three levels of “security” to get to our “restricted area.” Clearly, the security is about no one without a proper set of tickets getting up to the promised land, which is in reality a lackluster collection of dorm room-odored, dorm room-sized boxes. It could not have less to do with true security.

Now none of this would bother me all that much if I were ignorant, if I could naively return to open seating and the pleasures of minor league baseball, which, despite the Rome Braves gestapo, remain abundant and pure. But I know too much. I know that the city provided ownership with rights of way, infrastructure and tax breaks to get the team, which, make no mistake, is a for-profit corporation. I know the local paper provides in effect free advertising for more than 142 days out of each and every year (the length of the season). At minimum, the team logo appears on the front page every day — win, lose or DNP due to rain. No other local business gets that kind of free publicity, all under the guise of civic pride. (I don’t blame the paper, by the way. Local support for the team is incredible.)

I’m done. I feel better. See you at the game. Maybe we can look for shade together.


Slainte! Happy returns from the Emerald Isle

July 3, 2007

Sorry for the long silence; I have been traveling in England, Ireland and, most recently, New York City. England and Ireland were part of a course I taught with Dr. Lara Whelan on the construction of national identity, using the Irish as a case study. The Troubles of the early 1970s were of specific interest to us, and visits to the Free Derry Museum and to Guildhall were moving, at least for me.

In New York City, I spent a week with history professors from throughout the country attempting to put the American Civil War into an international or transnational context, resisting the pedagogical tempation to treat the war as exceptionalist American history divorced from all else happening around the globe at the same time. Thomas Bender at NYU was our facilitator and his book, A Nation Among Nations, our primary text. My brain is full. I am grateful to have met several really smart and generous folks, including Leah Halper from Gavilan College in California (have a great time hiking in Canada!) and Dan Byrne from the University of Evansville, potlatch chairman and Jersey juggernaut. I’m also thankful for Gilder Lehrman and the Council of Independent Colleges for sponsoring the week-long seminar.

It has been a summer of theater and baseball. In London, we were able to take in performances of Othello and Merchant of Venice, both at the New Globe Theatre, and Spamalot. In Belfast, we caught Dancing at Lughnasa at the Lyric Theatre. In Derry, The King & I. In Galway, a perfectly dreadful Murdering Hole. And in Dublin, an absolutely unforgettable performance of Sweeney Todd, simply a miraculous production. In New York, the five boroughs-five ballparks-five nights plan took us to Brooklyn for the Cyclones on Monday, Staten Island for the Yankees farm team on Tuesday, the Newark Bears at Riverfront Stadium on Wednesday, Cards at the Mets at Shea on Thursday, and the A’s at Yankee Stadium on Friday.


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