Monthly Archives: September 2010

Hyperlocal …in the best neighborhoods

“Free!”

That’s been the slogan in the news industry for quite some time now.  But what does this do for emerging journalists who are looking to break into the business?

I was contacted by a member of newmuseum.org a few weeks ago who informed me about a new exhibit being held titled “The Last Newspaper”.  The exhibit examines how artists digest and respond to stories, images and videos which “command the headlines”.  They have been following the progress of “Fit to Print” and will be showcasing some of our blog posts and still photographs within the exhibit. This is a great event which I hope everyone has a chance to see. It does something we could use more of in the news industry — examining ways in which the news affects us on a greater whole.  Perhaps if more publishers and technologists spent more time examining how news plays a role on our emotional psyche, they would be able to
create news platforms which would thus transform into more sustainable business models.

The exhibit is being held in the Bowery in downtown Manhattan.  As part of the “Fit to Print” contribution, I have been asked to examine how the relevance
of the location for the event ties in with The New York Times’ recently launched ‘East Village blog’ in collaboration with NYU journalism students.

As an artist’s colony, the Bowery has always been a beacon of culture which has defined Manhattan and New York City for quite some time.  Throughout
the 20th century, this area has infamously been known as “skid row”.  The artistic community flourished during that time with names such as Brice Marden, Eva Hesse, Mark Rothko and Roy Lichtenstein, who lived and worked in the area (something newspaper reporters hardly do anymore).

That neighborhood is hardly a skid row anymore.  It has undergone a massive gentrification with luxury hotels, restaurants and stores now lining the once ‘underbelly’ of the city.

What does this say about the type of news coverage it now receives?  Simple: it gets more of it.

It has always been the tradition of legacy news organizations to cater to wealthier neighborhoods in order to attract bigger advertising. Newspapers, until 2003/04, had enjoyed double digit profit margins by focusing on advertising which attracted people who would be sure spenders.  Gone was the mentality of serving the need of the public over the greed of Wall Street.  Organizations such as The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Miami Herald, Newsday and Baltimore Sun were only a few of the newspapers which made impressive efforts from the late 1960’s-1990’s to cater to wealthier neighborhoods.  With the rise of 24-hour cable news during the early 1980’s, news executives from television networks quickly discovered how profitable news could actually be.  The newspaper industry was quick to follow in their lead.  “What we were doing felt like redlining in a lot ways”, states Geneva Overholser, who worked for a number of years at the Gannett Corporation – the biggest newspaper chain in the country for the past 40 years. “We extended our reach to wealthy areas because that was where the money was. It got so bad that newspaper companies even started removing newspaper dispenser boxes from lower-income communities.”  The real skid rows, lower-income communities predominately made up of minorities, were left by the wayside.  It’s no wonder this was happening, they barely had any minorities fighting for them in the newsroom.  There still has yet to be an African-American or Hispanic newspaper publisher to run a major U.S.paper with the reach of a New York Times or Washington Post.

If we examine the ‘hyperlocal’ mentality newspapers are now zeroing in on, it’s easy to see how they continue to cherry-pick wealthier neighborhoods for experimentation.  Take for example, The Washington Post’s embarrassing hyperlocal experiment “LoudounExtra”, which targeted Loundoun County, Virginia.  It’s no surprise that Loundoun is one of the most affluent counties in the U.S.  According to author Jeff Kaye, in the “potential readership of big spenders, the site fizzled.”

Jump to The New York Times’ “East Village Blog”, and again, it’s no surprise to see a major newspaper reach for a more affluent neighborhood in order to test a hyperlocal experiment.  Except this time, there’s another added bonus:  free writing from NYU journalism students.  Why not knock two birds out with one stone?  Especially since The Times recently (again) reported a quarterly loss. The idea behind the hyperlocal wave is not something to be dismissed. It can, and will provide citizen journalists with the opportunity to engage with their communities on a much larger and more organized platform.

…But the “East Village Blog”?

The start-ups for hyperlocal news should begin in poorer communities, not rich ones.  The Times should be making the South Bronx, Bushwick or Bedstuy the priority.  Those are the local neighborhoods which need well-rounded community interaction in the form of journalism.  Maybe if The Times made an effort to work exclusively in these poorer areas where crime and poverty are higher, we would have a clearer understanding of where the problems in the city stem from.  My theory on reporters or publishers is the same as my theory on politicians: force them to live in the poorest neighborhoods in order to truly understand those they’re serving.

The idea of major newspaper companies jumping on the hyperlocal bandwagon seems a bit odd.  For one, it’s reactionary.  Big newspapers are desperately trying to keep up with the latest trends in journalism instead of creating them. They shouldn’t have to resort to citizen journalists in the first place.  That’s why they pay reporters to cover local areas (or once did).  Oddly enough, many of those former newspaper reporters are now teaching journalism courses.  The same courses which stress the importance of writing for an over-hyped New York Times blog.  Why?  Because it looks good on a resume.

The significance of newspaper company branding is dead, and should stay dead.  If you’re a journalism student with enough confidence to turn over your work to a newspaper company that has the balls to work their unpaid interns to death, while at the same time lay-off salaried staffers, you should have enough confidence to start your own hyperlocal news website and self-promote.  With the emergence of blog reference sites like Technorati, there is no need to worry about whether or not people will see your work.  If it’s well done, people will find it.  That’s the beauty of the web.  Self branding is the name of the game.  Just look at The Times’ Andrew Ross Sorkin who has others blog for him under the umbrella name ‘Andrew Ross Sorkin’.  I don’t know about you, but if I’m proud of my work, it sure the hell isn’t going to have someone else’s name on it.

For artists, reporters and anyone working in the media, now is the time to band together.  Carve out your own niche and work as hard as you can at it.  Newspapers like The Times and others will continue to suffer because of their own complacency.  And though their hard-working staffers certainly don’t deserve to be laid-off, the top brass has cut their own throats and forced those below them to suffer.

I say …let the talent from these once great newspapers evaporate.  The staffers and the public deserve better.  Let the talent they once had drain out from under them and form new and exciting ways to tell stories and provide news elsewhere.

The digital revolution shouldn’t be called a ‘revolution’ unless people actually have the courage to act on it.

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Slippery Slope: Soundbites in documentaries vs. newscasts and online video clips

I’ve  been asked several times by people, who are much smarter than I am when it comes to new media, newspaper history, advertising, even film history (that one especially hurt) …why I would gather up a production team (also much smarter when it comes to the above topics) to do a feature documentary on the newspaper industry.  Not a short, but a feature-length documentary.  For some reason the fact that “Fit to Print” is a feature-length film instead of a short film seems to surprise people.  

…Their questioning of this surprised me…

I thought about it and I realized:  they had a point.  Why would I proceed in a feature rather than a short?  Especially when you can simply log on to YouTube or a million different websites these days and check out videos, podcasts and slideshows featuring stories all about the newspaper industry?

 Then I remembered:  A major goal in “Fit to Print” is to evaluate how attention spans have changed.   It doesn’t take a genius to understand that attention spans have shortened. Whether you’re reading a newspaper article in print or online, reading a book, listening to music or watching videos, one thing seems to ring true every time out — we never seem to have enough time.  It’s as if someone woke up one day and decided to shorten our 24 hour day to 21.  

 My grandfather and I often talk about this.  He mentions to me how chaotic everything seems to be these days.  “It wasn’t like this in your day?” I ask.  “Hell no”, he tells me.  My grandfather grew up during the depression.  If you wanted to find a job, you picked up the newspaper and searched the job listings.  “How the hell do you find job listings these days?”, he asks me.  “You go online and submit your resume to places”, I tell him.  “Submit to who?  Who looks at them?”  …I didn’t have an answer for that one.  

 For my grandfather, who served time in WWII breaking German codes, reading as much as possible was just a way of life.  “I can remember a time when you’d walk into a diner or walk around in the streets and everyone would be carrying a newspaper under their arm.  These days, it seems like people want all their news but don’t have time to look at even the shortest articles or get through an entire newscast.”  

 According to PBS’s News Hour, the “average newtwork soundbite shrunk to 7.3 seconds from 42 seconds in the 1969 presidential election.”  The reason I like to point this out isn’t because I necessarily care that our attention spans have, and continue to shrink.  In a way, this may be a good thing.  Let the bottom drop out.  Let our A.D.D. ridden minds reach that breaking point where we stop feeding ourselves junk food for the mind, and start demanding to be challenged once again.  

 ..Give me content… not bullshit.  If only reporters could use curse words in their articles, maybe our attention spans would expand then.  Maybe not.

 What was I talking about?

 Oh yeah…soundbites.  

 People keep asking me how the soundbite culture we see in the media has affected feature documentaries these days.  My opinion is only my own, but in looking at hundreds of documentary films, it’s interesting to see how filmmakers edit talking-heads interviews, news clips or radio broadcasts for their work.  If you look at Michael Moore’s films, he uses quite a bit of stock footage from newscasts from Fox News, CNN, and others in an attempt to turn-the-tables on the news organizations themselves.   “Farenheit 9/11″, for instance, is probably his best example of this.  The first half-hour is composed mostly of news clips from network television with Moore doing a voice-over.  The voice-over serves to explain some of the contradictions newscasters were relaying after September 11th.  

 Documentary filmmakers these days face a very real challenge in understanding the role of the soundbite culture.  Vérité-style filmmaking seems more popular than ever.  Could a film like “Before Stonewall” be produced today without a storm of people criticising the heavy use of talking-heads?  I spoke with the filmamker of “Owning the Weather”, Robert Greene, who mentioned his concern over this.   Sometimes, it appears that filmmakers allow certain segments to play longer than normal, simply in an attempt to reassure their audience that their films are ‘soundbite free’ or ‘untampered’ somehow.  This is a mistake.  If all you need is three words of dialogue to get your point across and cut to something else, it should be done.  Newscasts, audio and video clips online which run on the short-side should never be compared to montages or segments constructed in documentaries.  Comparing the two is like comparing apples and oranges.

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Minority Report

An important issue “Fit to Print” will be covering is the lack of minorities seen within newsrooms.  During the course of filming thus far, we have done a great deal of research into how newspapers [television and radio news as well] have traditionally failed to hire minority employees.

Making progress for change within the newspaper industry has traditionally been slow.  Just look to how the industry failed to invest in digital newsroom technologies during the 80’s and 90’s for a clear example. But the lack of minority voices within the newspaper industry over the past 30 years in particular has taken a bigger toll than anyone could have ever imagined.  “It’s a very tough arguement.  It’s really tough to convince people [newspaper management] that ‘hey, it’s really a problem that you don’t have a Latino on an editorial board in a city that’s 40% Latino”, says Ruben Navarette, a former nationally syndicated columnist with the San Diego Union-Tribune.  Navarette was one of several minority newsroom staffers who have recently lost their newspaper jobs.

According to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, there are nearly 53,7000 journalists in the United States.  10% of them are minorities. During this rough transition within the newspaper industry, minority staffers have been hit especially hard.  ASNE also reported that 6,300 minority employees were laid off as of late 2008.   The overall number of newspaper journalists decreased at a rate of 11.3%.  Minority journalists departed from newspaper newsrooms at a higher percentage over the past 9 years.  Since 2001, the number of African-American journalists alone decreased by 539.

This trend is alarming when considering that minorities, who make up roughly one-third of the U.S. population, are predicted to become the majority by 2042, with 54% being legal residents by 2050.

The current trend in Television news is even more concerning.  According to the Radio-Television News Directors Association, minorities within TV and radio news  have been drastically cut as well.  In 2009 minorities made up 23.6 % of the televison news workforce.  Now they make up 21.8 %.   The number of minoritiy employees in radio news fell from 11.8 % to 8.9 % from 2009 to 2010.  Eric St. John of DiverseEducation.com comments, “42% of newsrooms in the United States have no minority presence at all.”

In the film, we will set out to capture minorty voices from current and former newsroom staffers and everyday readers.  With all the talk in various blogging and media circles on how newspapers failed to invest in the future of digital technology, we think it’s equally important to examine how minorites have been traditionally neglected by industry leaders who have simply turned their backs on them.

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“Fit to Print” in Los Angeles

This week, we visited Los Angeles for a series of interviews with former reporters from The Los Angeles Times.  A few of them optimistic about the future of the business, a few of them concerned about the loss of investigative reporting, and each of them angry over the erosion of their former paper, and the ripple affect the Tribune Co. has had over the entire industry.    

For those of you unfamiliar with the Tribune Co.’s involvment in the newspaper industry’s erosion, you will surely be educated when you see “Fit to Print”.  To give you a brief background , the Tribune Co. is the second-largest newspaper publisher in the U.S., controlling ten dailies.  Among them are The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Hartford Courant, The Orlando Sentinel, The Baltimore Sun, The Morning Call and several others.  Tribune Broadcasting controlls 23 television stations including WGN, WDCW, and a 31% controlling interest in the Food Network.  Tribune Interactive is another subsidary of the compnay and is currently drawing over 20 million unique visitors each month to sites such as Topix.com, Cars.com and CareerBuilder.com (and you wondered why submitting a resume online is so frustrating).  

The cross-ownership between Tribune and the television industry began in 1948 when  WGN-TV in Chicago and WPIX-TV in New York were born.  Throughout the 1980’s and 90’s, the Tribune Co’s reach expanded even further when they acquired the Chicago Cubs baseball team (in one of several family buyouts) from the Wrigley family for $20.5 million in 1981.  From there, the newspaper company was immediately emerged in the entertainment industrty as Tribune Entertainment was launched in 1982.  

When we examine how and why there is so much celebrity ‘news’ covered in ‘journalism’ these days, it’s easy to trace back to the Tribune Co. from over 30 years ago.  Though they certainly were not the only news organization to favor celebrity and entertainment news over hard-hitting investigative reporting, they were certainly pioneers of it.  

Just as so many of the great American institutions have done over the past half-century, Tribune, gave up it’s private owenership of 136 years to transform into a publically traded company in 1983.  From there, the sky was the limt as a loosening of federal regulations restricting television and radio ownership fell by the wayside during the 1990’s.  

Huge profit margins were enjoyed by most all major newspapers during the 80’s and 90’s.  A type of ‘get in and get out’ atmosphere where the sacred wall between the newsroom and business sides of the industry came crashing down.  In 2000, A merger with The Times Mirror Company doubled the size of Tribune.  Within this deal, an $8.3 billion transaction to add more newspapers to the company’s holdings became the largest newspaper transaction in history.  In 2007, Chicago-based investor Sam Zell bought the company for $8.2 billion and witin one year the company was bankrupt due to tremendous debt loads.  In January of 2010 alone, The Los Angeles Times — only one of many papers effected by the bankruptcy — announced that it would shut down it’s printing operations in Orange County and cut an additional 80 jobs.  

Before heading to Los Angeles, the “Fit to Print” crew was prepped to interview various reporters currently holding positions within The Los Angeles Times.  They had each agreed to the interviews (save for two who were waiting to hear more on the project in person).  More than that, I personally reached out to these reporters over the phone and via e-mail, and each of them gave fascinating takes about their concerns, their hopes and ambitions for the future of the paper.  

It’s important to understand the past in order to predict the future of anything.  This remains especially true in the rapidly changing news industry where companies are scrambling to figure out the next business model while still maintaining the traditions of quality journalism from previous eras.  

This same perspective is not held by the current Vice President of Communications with the Times, however, who commented that, “We choose not to take looks back.”  [Referring to previous eras in the paper's history.  Even the Chandler legacy as I came to find out].  In a 38 minute phone conversation with this PR  head I felt like I was being cornered in a really odd way.  I had reached out to the Times’ PR department to do right by the company in seeking approval to interview the reporters who had already agreed to do them.  I forwarded everything I could on the project, from the teaser trailer to the complete synopsis and lists of people we have interviewed thus far (those including other Tribune Co. staffers ironically).  After roughly 3 weeks of not hearing back from their PR staff, I was finally able to connect to the Communications Vice President I mentioned, who never once asked who I was interviewing (despite my efforts to explain why I had choosen certain reporters based on their local wacthdog roles in the city of Los Angeles).  Instead, I was bombarded with comments such as, “our paper has a set of regulations to follow in order to interview anyone”.  When I asked what the regulations were, she mentioned, “Each time out is different.  Our department reviews all requests through various members who say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to interviews”.  

‘Great’, I was thinking to myself, as it seemed my request would be reviewed by more than one person who would either greenlight the interviews or not.  

…Not so…

As our incredibly odd conversation continued, I asked who else would be reviewing the material and how the process would work and if I could speak with them.  “I’m Vice President of Communications for the L.A. Times, and I make the decision to pass along information or not.” 

…I think you can see where this is going.

So, long story short, I didn’t get to interview anyone from the L.A. Times’ staff on this trip.  I sent follow-up e-mails to each of the reporters I had reached out to, to tell them what the communications executive was telling me.  I relayed to them that she didn’t want me speaking to anyone.  With a job title like “Vice President of Community Outreach and Initiatives”, I still feel we got the short end of the stick on this one.  

Fortunatley, however, 6 former Los Angeles Times reporters (who each spent over a decade or more with the paper) stepped up and did interviews with us.  Quite eagerly when they caught wind of what was going on.  Several of them, including Henry Weinstein, voiced their concern over the very idea of a journalist having to ask permission to speak to a lowly filmmaker like me.  “I find the very idea completely ridiculous”, Weinstein commented.  

Granted, I am a filmmaker.  The Communications Vice President was simply trying to protect the company’s interests.  And who could blame her?  It’s just her job. She doesn’t have a background in journalism.  But what is concering to me is the fact that these reporters (and several other reporters who have spoken to me confidentially over the phone) have expressed great concern over the business which they are in.  These aren’t gripping rants over meager pay or working conditions, which any employee might complain about.  It has been commentary on public safety issues, stories not being covered, and frustrations over newsroom morale.  

I truly hope more current and former newsroom staffers will step up and voice their concerns and hopes for the future …because this wall of silence which has clouded the newspaper industry for so long shouldn’t stand any longer.  If we are to create any sustainable buisness model in news, it has to be with the bottom line goal of serving the public, not protecting a corporation’s public relations image.

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