Monthly Archives: August 2010

The San Diego News Battle

This week I made final preparations for a trip out west to southern California.  The “Fit to Print” production is headed to San Diego and Los Angeles in a few weeks and we are scheduled to interview a broad range of former and current newspaper employees from the San Diego Union-Tribune and Los Angeles Times.  As well, we will be filming inside the headquarters of Voice of San Diego, a new local start-up news site dedicated to providing residents of San Diego with quality content from trained news staffers.

I must give an advanced thank you to the staffers of Voice of San Diego who have been more than welcoming of “Fit to Print”.  It’s my personal belief that if every city in America could be as lucky as the residents of San Diego with this new start-up for local watchdog news, we would definitely not be seeing the crisis within the news industry continue.  Unfortunately, VOSD remains small in staff size and has big shoes to fill as they gain the trust of a city in which the majority it’s news-goers have been reading the The San Diego Union-Tribune since 1868.

Former Union-Tribune reporters (names to be saved) have also stepped up to the plate and agreed to be filmed for the documentary as well.  I’m quickly finding out through talking with these people over the phone that they have an urgency to speak out and share their concerns over the state of the industry.  This is a great thing, because without their voices being heard, the private equity firms and public relations departments (who control most news outlets anyway) will continue to degrade legacy institutions.  This is true not just at the Union-Tribune, but at major newspapers across the country.

Reporters, editors, photographers, print pressmen, web designers and other staffers didn’t kill the newspaper industry — for those who are quick to lash out against them.  The industry has been eroded by a half-century of negligence and greed.  The old cliché of ‘printing money’ has finally caught up to those old rich white-men who have been dominating this industry for decades.  And the saga continues when examining how newspapers are attempting to “interact” with citizen journalists and non-profits.  Take for example what the Union-Tribune recently did by cutting it’s ties to the Watchdog Institute.  This would have supplied the paper with investigative journalism through a non-profit model. Instead, the idea has been abandoned.

Maybe some people out there believe protecting the First Amendment can come just as easily through a Beverly Hills investment firm (Platinum Equity in the Union-Tribune’s case).  Others, including myself believe this is not only a sick joke, but the degradation of an American institution.

The San Diego Union-Tribune has remained one of the oldest institutions in Southern California.  These days, however, it remains far removed from the era of  Copley family ownership.  Just another American journalistic tragedy.

…More to come on the struggles between “Fit to Print” and The Los Angeles Times next week.

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“Fit to Print” meets with Susan Jacobson

Temple University journalism professor Susan Jacobson sat down with me on Friday for an interview, and what was slated to be an hour conversation, ended up running closer to three hours.  Jacobson began her career with The New York Times in the mid-1980′s, serving on an experimental computer news service staff.

Our conversation about the Times’ early experimentation into digital technologies was a fascinating one.  Details on that will have to wait until the documentary is complete, however.  She even provided me with a copy of one of the original VHS (yes VHS!) tapes the Times developed within this early experimentation program titled, “New York Pulse:  The Video”.  If you’re a sucker for cheesy instructional videos from back in the day, like I am, be sure to check this one out.

Following her position with The New York Times, she worked within the internet industry during the web’s early years.   She went on to work for Scholastic and GTE, where she was head of content development.  Within this position she headed up GTE Mainstreet, an interactive television service.

Little did she know at the time that the web and new media would dominate the news industry as it does today.  Well actually …she did predict that.  She made note that the newspaper industry has “traditionally been much too slow in adapting”.  And while her experimental computer news service staff was there to forge the way for the Times back in the 80′s, investments in developing digital media within newsrooms was behind pace with the tech-industry, which was, for better or worse, sidelined from interacting with major newspaper companies.

Jacobson now teaches courses in web and experimental reporting at Temple.  Speaking to her makes me truly believe in the future of journalism.  She has a real passion for the experimentation of new media within newsrooms, and believes strongly in the future of the news industry, not just the newspaper business.  During our conversation she made the very strong point that none of her students read newspapers.  “Not a single person”, she noted.  Her primary concern rests with the current state of investigative journalism.  “Even a Huffington Post or ProPublica is limited in staff and budget size.  And those are two of most highly trafficked sites on the web.”

She’s also concerned about the quality and readership levels of stories produced for content farms such as AOL’s Seed, Demand Media, Associated Content and others. “The quality of the content is simply not good.  And nobody is reading it either”.

Jacobson has a number of  new developments in the works, which inlcude original hypertextual video projects such as “Countless Stories”, which has been exhibited at such venues as Digital Video Expo and Streaming Cinema Festival.

You can check out her blog site at:

http://susanjacobson.livejournal.com/

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“Fit to Print” interviews U.S. Senator Benjamin Cardin

This week I lugged 4 bags of camera equipment from NYC to D.C. on the megabus.  Then hauled it at a snails pace to an international hostel (don’t ask about the German guy who was snoring across the room all night). The following morning I collected a fascinating interview with U.S. Senator Benjamin Cardin.  A little over a year ago the Senator had introduced a bill called the “Newspaper Revitalization Act”, which was designed to help save the newspaper industry by allowing eroding newspapers to become non-profits.

Once I was able to get off the Megabus from NY to D.C. after nearly 3 hours of a crying baby who was sitting directly across from my seat, I needed a drink.  So I checked in to Hosteling International (a cozy little place if you like bunk-beds designed for midgets).  I locked up my four bags of camera and sound equipment, headed around ‘downtown’ D.C. and landed at a random kabob joint/bar where the owner and I talked for an hour about the rules of the game criquet (a conversation which started after I noticed a criquet match being played on some foreign sports network).  “Team Pakistan is good this year”, the owner told me as we watched Pakistan take on England.  After his broad explanation of the game (which I still don’t understand), he asked me if I was a tourist (I guess I’m that obvious).  I told him I was in town to interview a Senator the next day for a documentary on the newspaper industry.  With a cynical laugh he said, “Good luck with that.  Politicians practically own the news these days.”  I asked, “What about all these new grassroots journalists out there?”  ….he gave me a long stare as if to say, “Are you serious?”

I suppose everyone is entitled to their opinion.  But the following day, I strapped my four big bags over my back, neck and arms, schlepped 10 blocks down to the Hart Senate office building and collected an interesting interview with Senator Cardin, who came off as just another guy concerned about the state of the newspaper industry right now, and not some politician with a hidden agenda.

The Senator’s assistant, a very sweet woman who gave me iced-tea after noticing I had sweated through my dress shirt, seemed to be very in control of all the happenings within this place.  A place which I had imagined would have been as chaotic as an E.R. wing.  Instead, Senator Cardin’s office seemed more like a cozy den.  As I was ushered into a backroom, waiting for the Senator to arrive, I sat in a big office with various awards Cardin has collected over his career.  I stood up and began browsing around, looking at all the framed photos that were on his wall (Cardin with President Obama, a bunch of other old guys who are probably important and even Bono).  Just as I was reaching in to pick up a matryoshka doll of former President Bill Clinton which was sitting on a shelf — the door swung open and Senator Cardin looked at me and laughed.  “Betcha never seen Clinton like that before”, he said.  “No, I haven’t.  I just wonder if they make a Monica Lewinsky version.”, I said.

We sat down and began the already delayed interview.  I was imagining Cardin would have given me the usual run-of-the-mill answers to questions he’s already been asked about the Newspaper Revitalization Act.  He did.  At times, that is.  Towards the end of the interview I managed to get him to speak outside the lines a bit.  I asked him, “Why now?  Why introduce this bill now, after decades of the newspaper industry being in decline?”.    He sat there for a few moments, pondering.  “Good question.  That’s a great question actually.”   From there, he provided a fascinating explanation about his concerns over the transition between legacy newspapers and start-up news sites.  “It’s an echo-chamber”, he explained.  “News is being homogenized online right now.  I have a real problem with the type of content that is being produced out there.  My legislation is an option, that’s all.”

Currently that option remains dead in the water.  The bill has not been placed into action.

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