Reporters, and why we need them.

Wednesday, February 28th, 2007

I had a chance tonight to watch part three of Lowell Bergman’s Frontline ‘News War’ opus titled What’s Happening to the News, and like the Linda Ellerbee documentary of a couple of years back, it chronicled the ongoing demise of American Journalism in the hands of publicly-held companies, whose managers in spasms of simplemindedness, throw up their hands and say that “Wall Street says make more money this year than last.

Doesn’t matter if you’re making refrigerators or investigating pedophile congressmen. Make more money this year than last. Show growth. Grow…or…die?

On a day where Wall Street rode a plunging roller coaster fueled apparently by fears about the Asian economy and a “computer glitch or two” (we’ll see how that plays out), it seemed even more absurd to have any respect at all for a system of capitalism that preaches blind growth above all.

“Cutting, cutting, cutting is not a strategy for survival.” I’m paraphrasing the former editor of the L.A. Times, John Carroll. Well, exactly right. By definition, in fact. But it’s one of the only tools moneymen have to show growth. There are only so many ways to pull rabbits from hats.

Bergman, himself a relic and refugee from the old, pre-Lawrence Tisch CBS News, has no shortage of greying heads to choose from to talk about how broadcast journalism used to be a mission of public service, and no shortage either of slightly younger shareholder-friendly replacements (like ABC News head David Westin) willing to redefine news as “anything people are interested in.” Westin also gives us the (I’m paraphrasing here) “what do you expect? We have so many hours to fill.” rationalization that he thinks excuses himself. Sorry, no.

It’s a rationalization that accounts for about 85% of the shiny moving objects we’re distracted by on YouTube, and of course embraces prime time television “newsmagazines” that have, like Dateline NBC’s “To Catch a Predator,” have gone full Chayefsky on us, with shiny abominations that are placed in a container marked journalism, but which fulfill none of the minimum daily requirements.

When our local affiliate carries more American Idol coverage than any other content in their 10 o’clock hour (I am not kidding) we see the New News Managers, guided by that memo from Wall Street, in full flower. Oh, well, there’s so much time to fill, and so relatively few apartment fires and car crashes.

The broadcast recounts the sad decline of network news almost in passing, and then turns to the youthful-ish Yahoo and Google managers, who seem to back away, way away, from the prospect of having a payroll-full of their own darn reporters, but who also recognize that if newspapers and their reporting staffs evaporate, they are so screwed.

The broadcast tries to assert, in telling the increasingly ugly Los Angeles Times/Tribune Company story, that more voices on the national and international stage—covering the big Pulitzer-worthy projects are needed…and I don’t disagree, but I also see those same entities as being the best places for micro-scale, hyperlocal journalism. I think you say yes to both.

Yeah, I’m an eternal news idealist. I just want whoever’s left in news management to wake up to the sobering realities and take a pledge. Here’s what I’m thinking, in convenient bullet point form.

  • We want, need, and celebrate lots of reporters, at every level, everywhere. There’s money out there in the vast system of internet television and print to pay their salaries. Get lots of them. Get spares.
  • Deploy them to Iraq and to every local school board meeting. Scrutinize enormous corporations and petty tyrants in small town councils. Learn the lessons of modern database journalism and pour what all of what they find into vast databases that are easily parsed, leafed through, thought about, and even occasionally printed out on good old fashioned paper.
  • Spend the energy and resources on gathering the information, and don’t worry that much about style and ‘storytelling.’ That can come, will come. But without the information, there can be no real storytelling—you get something like what cable news is now, which is nonstop speculation and prediction and froth.
  • Don’t worry about Craigslist. Don’t forget how to sell advertising by not forgetting the power of simple, local advertising that small companies can afford to try.
  • Make a fine profit, but don’t mandate that it must increase year upon year. If that’s a nonstarter in the land of public companies, if that means that these collections of reporters must all be employed by non-profits like the Poynter Institute and NPR, so be it. Maybe Wall Street has no place making a business out of journalism.
  • Release their hard-gathered content out there freely and widely into the cosmic mixmaster that is the internet, and be sincerely flattered as it is sliced, diced, repeated, and blogged upon.
  • Lobby for openness and transparency in government and business as if our democracy depends on it. It of course, does.
  • Be as open in your business as you want government and the corporate world to be in theirs.
  • Look upon this as a mission of public service, and do your best to live up to that charge in your conduct and ethics.

Ah, easy for me to say. Easy for me to hope. And, because Frontline (and PBS) is one of those aging journalistic institutions trying to stay as relevant online as on-air, easy for you to watch the whole show and read and view much more on their site. It’s worth your time.

Bumping up.

Thursday, February 22nd, 2007

Boy, I love bumpers. Strictly speaking, those are the graphics or animation elements that are the “padding” between a program and the commercials. They “bump” up against the breaks and..well, you get it. The old Late Night with David Letterman on NBC had a great set of them, reflecting humor and a sense of post-midnight in New York City. The Tonight Show had some great ones back in the 1960s.

But the folks at Late Night with Conan O’Brien, the hairs (oh, ok) apparent to this tradition, have surpassed their mentors, and thanks to internet fandom (someone named ‘CZ’, it appears), you don’t have to wait until commercial breaks late late at night to enjoy them. Just click here and enjoy a great (and abundant) gallery of visual puns…great use of design, in my book.

Who are these faceless design humorists? A quick Google says that Chryss Hionis and Jason Kirschner are the NBC design directors, and Marty Geller is their graphic artist.

Big finish!

Monday, February 19th, 2007

B.J. LeidermanOne of my favorite scenes—almost a throwaway moment—in the movie Broadcast News comes when two composers are demo-ing their news theme for the news execs…it comes together in a symphonic flurry of cresendoes and synthesized orchestration, and at nearly its climax, the music geeks say together: “Big finish!”

Dun da dun!

(Yes, that’s a link to a semi-listenable audio file of that very moment. Thanks, oh internet.)

Well, most days at the end of any of the network news broadcasts, I find myself saying that out loud…and probably annoying Sammy slightly.

But truth be told, my all-time favorite news theme was crafted for the public radio airwaves, specifically by the acknowledged master of public radio music, B.J. Leiderman.

From Marketplace to Morning Edition to my favorite, Weekend Edition Saturday, Mr. Leiderman makes music as varied as radio itself and in the classic tradition of big-B-Broadcasting, which as you may know, is a big deal for me. He has the smarts to use typewriter sounds for percussion when you’re introing a letters segment and to weave the gongs and hubbub of Wall Street into the Marketplace theme…an approach that which may or may not have been inspired by the ancient Wall Street Week theme, “TWX in 12 bars” composed by (I think) Donald Swartz, which featured a real Teletype ASR-33 on percussion.

And now, he has a new website, apparently crafted with the powers of iWeb, which features a great downloadable sampler of his NPR work, suitable for anyone’s iPod (and certainly mine.)

Late night imagery connects.

Sunday, February 11th, 2007

After a quiet evening of converting my business site (well, some of it) to a fiesta of MySQL and PHP, it’s somehow a warm treat for me to discover that one of the many collections of pixels I’ve cast to the wind have connected with some guy I will never know personally, but we have a beat-up old school in Ohio in common. He (‘callmebob’ is his nom du net) says:

I went to Robert Louis Stevenson elementary school in the late fifties and early sixties. I had no idea it still existed. I have lived in Alaska for a long time now. A lot of miles and a lot of years. Thanks for the memories.

You’re quite welcome. And I extend my thanks to the people who shot pictures of Goddard College I somehow neglected to snap in 1975, and to the folks who thought Breezewood, PA was as odd a place as I remember, and the many other photographers and random-camera-wielders who are turning this internet thingy into a repository of visual memories—of places where I’ve been, and places I wish I recorded.

Jobs: DRM does not work.

Tuesday, February 6th, 2007

Steve Jobs blogs even less frequently than I do. (I’m not counting the fake Steve Jobs here.) But this afternoon, Apple’s CEO has something to say about music and DRM, and that’s significant.

Why would the big four music companies agree to let Apple and others distribute their music without using DRM systems to protect it? The simplest answer is because DRMs haven’t worked, and may never work, to halt music piracy.

That’s pretty plain talk from a fancy CEO. And already, the sphere’o’blogs has started to parse and consider Steve’s words in the light of Apple’s deeds. I’m all for blaming the record companies, but if I were a musician, I’m not sure I’m totally sanguine casting my lot with the iTunes Store.

* * * *

In other news of interest to an enthusiast like myself, Apple released an ad (post-superbowl, imagine how much they saved!) that completely sums up my feelings about the security-by-nagging approach that Windows has always embodied. Are you sure? How about now? now? Allow or deny?

Signs of odd times.

Tuesday, February 6th, 2007

We’ve just completed (well, mostly completed) a move of our entire ragtag fleet of websites…this one, my business, Sam’s, James’s, Leslie’s, Bill’s, the works. Maybe it’s a tribute to the quality of the hosting company we picked, maybe it’s a tribute to my willingness to stay up late and try to puzzle out the mysteries of ssh and public key authentication…but things have gone smoothly and we’re now in the land of Textdrive. I hear it’s a hip neighborhood; I hope it’s not too hip for our crowd.

Meanwhile, the reaction of some in Atlanta to how some in Boston freaked out teaches me a few things about generations and perspective. My first reaction was “geez, how idiotic can you be to do something like this in such paranoid times?” I shook my head and listened for the sound of Time Warner vice presidents being ejected from Techwood Drive windows. (By the way, I never think of [adult swim] or any of those channels as being ‘Turner’ channels anymore since there’s no Ted connected to them, nohow. And yet all the coverage described the execs as from ‘Turner Broadcasting.’)

But after a while of seeing the foomfah rage on, I began to see it in a slightly different light (heh)…less “what were they (the marketing weasels) thinking” than “boy, do they understand their target audience. They (the audience) wants to see the rules broken, convention flaunted. This generation doesn’t protest the sins of our government by standing up and saying “This is wrong.” They do it by punking (punk’d-ing?) the authorities. They do it in ways that would delight, well, hey, the yippies. The ghost of Jerry Rubin is smiling (in digital LEDs) and giving the finger.

Does the world change a whit? Well, [adult swim]’s market share goes up, I spose.

UPDATE: The resumé of one of the Bostonian guerrila marketers. Art major, Final Cut, Mac guy. Well, of course! the Boston Herald reports:

[Peter] Berdovsky is a freelance video jockey and got hooked up with the New York company Interference Inc. through connections in the video industry, Rich said.
“He’s just a really good guy,” said his friend Jeffrey Woodsin. “I think it’s been blown out of proportion.”

Woodin said Berdovsky, the outgoing singer with the band Superfiction, would not want to cause mass panic. He said the pictures of his arrest were shocking.
“Here’s my friend being arrested as part of a bomb scare. I thought ‘There’s got to be a mistake.’ I’m worried for Peter. I’m worried that he’s going to end up with legal repercussions when really it’s the company,” Woodin said. “He was legally hired by the company to do this.”

Berdovsky’s biological father passed away years ago and his mother still lives in Belarus, Rich said. Rich says Berdovsky is in the United States as a political refugee from the authoritarian government of Belarus.

And the Boston Globe reported “an advertising executive at Interference Marketing Inc. instructed Peter Berdovsky to keep quiet while police scrambled across the metropolitan area responding to a series of bomb scares…”

In another era, in the movie version of this incident, Faye Dunaway would have been running Interference.