2/29/2008

J'Accuse

I am so enraged right now I can barely see straight. A very good friend of mine was laid off from his job at the Los Angeles Daily News today, and another friend took a buyout to avoid crossing his fingers and hoping for the best. This is the same day that dozens more were laid off or consolidated at other papers in the same chain. In the Bay Area, a string of papers owned by the same company just offered buyouts to their entire staffs. Layoffs will follow next week.

I see no reason to rehash the tired clich├ęs about the desperate state of the newspaper industry, the declining interest in "news" on the part of the public, or the dangers inherent in having fewer editorial voices. That pointless debate can continue its ad nauseam reductionism somewhere else. What concerns me here is that this did not have to happen.

The problem with the newspaper industry is not what people are saying it is. It is not the Internet, or cable TV, or blogs. The problem with the newspaper industry is not rising prices for newsprint and the decline in traditional advertisers, like department stores. The problem with the newspaper industry is not Dean Singleton or (insert name of another newspaper company here).

The problem with the newspaper industry is that it has no clue how to escape its irrelevancy, and probably lacks the wherewithal to do so anyway.

When I was a newspaper reporter, I would regularly receive calls from subscribers who had not received their paper, who had canceled their subscription and were still receiving the paper, or whose paper was thrown in the gutter or on the roof. I had nothing to do with the delivery process, but I received these calls because subscribers were sick of leaving messages on the 800 number voicemail that had been set up for delivery complaints. When I would receive these calls, I would transfer them directly to the head of circulation, violating company protocol but getting my customers on the phone with someone who could do something for them. I don't know if the circulation director knew I was doing this, but soon after I started my job, we all received a memo explaining that we were not to transfer circulation complaints to him. And lest you think this is merely a single anecdote, rest assured that it was a problem at every newspaper I have worked at, and at every newspaper where I have ever known another employee.

I have chosen a customer service example to illustrate my point for a reason. People can bitch and moan all they want about how newspapers no longer care about putting out quality journalism, but if you can't even get your fucking newspaper delivered to your fucking house, who cares how good the articles are? I can't imagine any other industry relying on such horrible customer service as newspapers. Furthermore, I can't imagine any other industry that produces such a horrible product that manages to stay in business.

By product, I am referring both to the editorial content (articles, photos, etc.) of a newspaper, and the deliverables supplied to its advertisers. A newspaper could have great articles about a circulation of about two million, but if its advertisers see no benefit to advertising, it will go out of business. For decades, newspapers have offered little to no added value to advertisers, instead relying on their monopoly position to guarantee that they will have a positive cash flow. It is the migration of advertisers to other mediums -- not readers -- that has led to the current financial crunch.

Frankly, if I had a product or service to sell, I would never advertise in a newspaper. Never. What would be the point? More than half of the paper never gets read. Even the pages that people do read, they don't see the ads unless something really catches their eye. And the newspaper company can't even be bothered to deliver their papers to people's houses on time or with any sort of consistency. The only point to having a newspaper ad now is for a political message, such as the full-page ads that the Writers Guild placed in Variety during their strike. (Additionally, Variety is not even a newspaper.)

Sadly, better customer service is not the answer, because even if it was perfect, there would still be no reason to get the newspaper. Duh, it's free on the website. Plus you don't want to read half the shit they've got in there. Let's take a look at some "breaking news" from the website of my former employer:

11:23 a.m.: 12 African-American ministers to serve as volunteers at Pomona's Barfield Elementary
9:36 a.m.: Family pleased stop sign is installed
8:20 a.m.: School's art center opens Monday


These apparently required time-stamps so you could see how important and fresh they are. That "art center" story was 12 hours old by the time I wrote this blog post -- it must be old news. Or, perhaps, it is stupid, pointless, waste-my-time news. Not sure which.

The time some reporter wasted writing that article, and some web administrator spent putting it online, is time that was not spent doing the things that made journalism worth protecting in the First Amendment in the first place. And why? Because some dumb editors decided that the website needed countless updates a day, because that's what readers want. The problem is that you can't build a business on giving a small fraction of your customers what they want. I want twinkies and a back massage, but that doesn't mean that giving it to me makes good business sense.

Still, what if that reporter had in fact spent her time doing something better? What if she had been poring over campaign contribution records, or interviewing a whistleblower, or doing just about anything else? Would that have mattered? In 2006, I wrote a four-day series about mismanagement at a state prison that won a bunch of awards and prompted proposals for new statewide legislation to address some of those issues. I sincerely doubt the newspaper has made any money off of that series, or won over any new readers, or attracted any advertisers. If I still worked there, I would be just as likely to be laid off as anyone else.

This goes back to the clueless irrelevancy I mentioned earlier, and reporters are just as bad as the bungling managers. Too many journalists fail to realize that beyond a certain point, good work simply does not matter. What difference does it make that I always got my stories in before the deadline, or that my copy was always clean? Who cares? Reporters, it turns out, write articles for themselves. They frequently treat their readers with disdain. I know I did. In the same way, newspapers as institutions treat their advertisers with disdain, failing to return calls and basically offering nothing in exchange for your money.

There are people inside the newspaper industry who are trying to fight this battle, who are trying to inject life and energy and heat into everything they do, every story they write, every page they design, every subscription they sell. But these people are constantly stymied by countless layers of stratified incompetence and hidebound apathy. The same people who run the customer service department into the ground; the same owners who cut and cut and cut until reporters are buying pens -- pens -- with their own money; the same promotion-minded yes-men who talk a good game and haven't a clue how to accomplish what they say they'd like; the same people who spend thousands to open a bureau where the phones don't work, then hold a meeting to come up with a reason for having a bureau where one is not needed, then summarily shut down the bureau; the same people who hurt rather than help the cause by refusing to invest in technology: these are the obstacles.

Sadly, this is a struggle that happens in many industries, particularly those connected to the arts. Literary agents are always complaining that publishers only want books that will sell, not books that are good. Musicians are always complaining that their groundbreaking bands are being ignored by mainstream radio. And everyone is always complaining that Hollywood only cares about mindless blockbusters.

I resist this line of thought, because it is finger-pointing and a waste of time. We have to realize the world we live in, and figure out how to move within that world. There are many journalists who believe that doing good work should carry the day, and that if newspapers would invest in the core product, the readers and advertisers would come back.

This is simply not true.

Ask a trial attorney if they simply state the facts in their closing argument. Do they just think that is all they need to do, and the truth of their client's predicament will win out? Of course not. Similarly, do you think you heard "My Humps" on the radio 1,000 times last year because it was the best song around? Simply doing good work does not carry the day. Doing good smart work, however, does.

What newspapers need is innovation.

As I said before, there are people out there who want to try things out, who want to innovate. One of them just died a few weeks ago. Leo Greene was the videographer at my old job -- and he became the videographer because he got sick of going to meeting after meeting where middle management suck-ups talked about how we need to get video online, and he decided to just buy a camera and get to work. If we are all waiting around for the people who are unfortunately in charge of newspapers to save the industry, I have some very bad news: the industry is doomed.

Hence this accusation, and a call to action.

First, the indictment: you, the leaders of the newspaper industry, have presided over the destruction of the most vibrant part of this nation's most important private industry. No other job is singled out in the Constitution for protection; no other unelected individual can do more for the political process. And you have stifled whatever progress could have been made, either through your inability to foresee what was coming, or your sloth, or your powerlessness to change an already dying system. You have spun your wheels on half-baked initiatives just to get promoted; you have proven yourselves unwilling to model best practices throughout your industry. This is on you.

And here is my clarion call to journalists who are still in the newspaper industry: you have a choice. You can do as I did and leave the business. If you are probably going to leave in a few years anyway, you might as well just do it now. There is no point in staying; it merely increases the likelihood that you will be laid off. Additionally, as you are well aware, you can earn much more elsewhere.

Your other option is to stay and take over. I want innovative people promoted and running things, not sitting around like you are now, complaining about your editors' stupid ideas. How about you being the one coming up with ideas. Then maybe your newspaper will start moving in a new direction. The notion is distasteful, I know, because you would be joining the ranks of a bunch of sycophantic know-nothings, and you would still be powerless until being promoted further. But consider that getting laid off by someone who knows nothing is more distasteful still.

2/24/2008

Libraries: Hilarious, Useful

A friend and I had a discussion not long ago about the value of libraries. More specifically, about the value of actual, bricks-and-mortar, dead-tree libraries in a digital age. At the time, he was a scholar (read: grad student), and I was not; now, our positions are reversed. Regardless, we were both keenly aware of the importance of digital information to scholarship, and to general research as well. My friend posited that perhaps a physical repository of books and other booklike phenomena is not necessary in a world where books can be, and are, scanned into PDFs; where audio and video recordings can be similarly digitized; and where the latest scientific research -- which is the only useful scientific research, really -- is available online.

All of this is true, I noted. But the world of digitized information is not accessed the same way that a five-story building filled with stacks of books is. That is, you cannot wander among the shelves of JSTOR, nor can you easily pick up a 1980s-era report about financial mismanagement at the Department of Corrections on the Department of Finance website, as I did in 2006 while randomly wandering the library in San Jose; said report later contributed to some of my award-winning journalism. In other words, there are experiences you can have in the library that you can't replicate on your laptop's screen.

My friend was prepared for this argument. What if they make the interface on the screen look just like a stack of books in the library? This is now done on iTunes, as millions of people know, in an apparent attempt to make users less nostalgic for their CD jewel boxes.



That way, people can still make fun of your iTunes library the same way they could once make fun of your stack of 200 CDs purchased over a 10-year period. "Dude, how can you like Velvet Revolver, Veruca Salt, Warren G and White Zombie?"

Anyway, what if they make the online library interface look just like you are holding a book in front of you, so that you can thumb through the pages and "return" it to the shelf if it does not interest you? What if they use digital scent technology to make these virtual books smell like musty old books, to win the favor of bibliophiles (read: freaks) who like the odor of desiccated and decaying paper?

Huh? He prodded me. What then, huh? Huh?

I confess that there are few library experiences that cannot be replicated on the screen. You could even pump in a stilted library soundtrack: a five-minute MP3 with shuffling footsteps, turning pages, suppressed coughs, and the occasional thud of a dropped book. Put it on repeat, and you won't be able to tell the virtual nerd house from the real.

But there is at least one failing in the way that a computer replicates a library, and it is not as trivial as the smell of Little Dorritt. Namely, that a library occupies a large amount of space, which I can walk through and scan with my eyes; a 17-inch monitor cannot hope to compete with this. Additionally, the browse vs. search conundrum can produce pleasant surprises. In real libraries, I've wandered down the wrong aisle many times, only to find something useful that I didn't even know existed, and therefore would never have found via a search engine interface. For example, several weeks ago, while seeking a copy of Gulliver's Travels, I apparently ended up in the "old-ish British satire" section, from which I emerged with a copy of 1066 And All That, a tongue-in-cheek take on the history of the Isles composed by the only two English gentlemen alive in 1930 who possessed a sense of humor. To wit:

HISTORIES have previously been written with the object of exalting their authors. The object of this history is to console the reader. No other history does this.

History is not what you thought. It is what you can remember. All other history defeats itself.

Ths is the only Memorable History of England, because all the History that you can remember is in the book, which is the result of years of research in golf-clubs, gun-rooms, green-rooms, etc.

For instance, 2 out of the 4 Dates originally included were eliminated at the last moment, a research done at the Eton and Harrow match having revealed that they are not memorable.


Now. Should all libraries be preserved, at great cost to the governments and universities that operate them, in order to preserve this sort of serendipity? Most people would probably say no. But at the same time, most people would probably not want to pay for libraries anyway, if they really thought about it. Have you been to a library lately? They basically serve one of several not-so-hot purposes: free day care, homeless hangout, yesterday's newspaper storage, shameless Harry Potter paraphernalia, etc. In the America of today, people won't pay taxes to put food in poor people's mouths or rebuild a great U.S. city destroyed by government neglect. So why would we pay for freeloaders to thumb through IBM Compatible PCs For Dummies all day?

There are, of course, a million reasons to have libraries. It goes beyond a cost-benefit analysis; and even if you did do the math, you'd find that the resources provided to millions of people for no charge have paid for themselves in terms of free education, job searches, research, and so on. And since libraries are generally insulated from market forces, they can bear the shock of being in a digital world more easily than some other government agencies (U.S. Postal Service, I'm looking in your stamp-price-raising direction).

And there's the aforementioned thing about not being able to wander the stacks virtually. Until they release "Halo 4: Regional Learning Center," that is.

2/10/2008

Leo Greene: 1945-2008



For about a year and a half at my previous job, I sat at a desk directly across from this old guy, whom I assumed was either cantankerous or quietly obsolete, because that's how old guys are. For the first month or so, we never spoke to each other, so I pretty much assumed that my latter supposition was correct. We've probably all worked jobs where there's one or two really old people there, like 60 or so, who have the same job as a bunch of twentysomethings. We younger folks generally suspect that life has passed these people by, that they don't really know how to do anything else, and that they're only still around because nobody has the heart to fire them.

Boy, was I wrong about Leo Greene.

Where to begin? Leo had a master's degree in drama from Stanford. He had acted at South Coast Repertory, a well-respected theater company in Orange County. He'd worked as a local television news producer for decades, including a few on-camera stints. That also included a short period as a "video vampire" -- a freelancer who collects footage of car crashes and drive-by shootouts in the dead hours of night, then shows up at the local stations' back doors at 4 a.m. to sell them a few minutes' worth of news. He produced news in Los Angeles, in Seattle, in Little Rock, and in Arizona, if I remember correctly. He won three Emmys and shared a Peabody. Most amusing to his co-workers was his brief appearance in the 1995 TV movie, "The O.J. Simpson Story," in which he played Anchorman No. 2.

Leo had forgotten more about the news business than I had ever known, but by the time he came to the Daily Bulletin, his career in TV was over. He told me he'd had a falling-out with an executive at the Fox network in L.A. who wanted to cater the news broadcast to younger viewers. Leo mentioned that MTV had tried the same thing and came up short, which wasn't what the boss wanted to hear. By then, he was in his 50s, and found nobody wanted to hire him in television. He went to the newspaper and offered the editor this deal: His tons of experience with news and television, in exchange for a job and the concomitant training in how to write for print.

Suffice it to say that the newspaper got the better side of the deal. Learning to write for print is easy, especially if you've done any other sort of journalism before. And the video skillset they got from Leo was impressive, though unfortunately it took them too long to realize that potential. Everyone in the news business has been talking about Internet-driven "convergence" since about 1998, but by the time Leo and others pushed the Daily Bulletin leadership into greenlighting some real-life online video projects, it was late 2005. A year later, he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a.k.a. Lou Gehrig's disease.

Yet even in that short span of time, Leo took a lead role in several video projects that showed quite a few skeptical journalists that the way to get video on the web is not to just grab a camera and go shoot some shit. He joined reporters and photographers on a ride-along with the Border Patrol near San Diego, and shot video with me at a state prison in Chino, at a 100-year-old vineyard in Ontario, and at the Port of Los Angeles, where I'm pretty sure we were exposed to gamma radiation by Customs officers scanning a cargo container for drugs or illegal immigrants. Back at the office, he helped me and others draft our scripts for the videos, understanding how the footage informs the voice-over and vice versa.

The thing to keep in mind is that despite the simplicity of this concept -- newspapers putting video on their websites -- it was a pretty revolutionary act, akin to teaching baseball players the nickel defense. At most smaller papers, people just aren't hired to do that shit. But they will be in the future, and Leo played a big role in helping a lot of people realize that, and learn things they had to learn.

He also had a great sense of humor, and had no problem with going against the grain. I remember that after his diagnosis, he came across some research that showed medicinal use of marijuana could slow down the progression of his symptoms, which generally include the progressive loss of muscle function. His doctor said yes, that could work, but he was not willing to prescribe marijuana, over some stupid issue of his reputation among other doctors. Reputation is important, but so is helping patients. Anyway, Leo mentioned this to me and another reporter, and within two days had been approached by about a dozen different people in the office offering to "hook him up," through methods both legal and otherwise. As I said, I sat across from Leo, and the look on his face that one day when the third consecutive photographer came by to tell him about a doctor in Pomona -- priceless. (I should also note that Leo did self-medicate with pot and did not pay the outrageous prescription and doctor's fees.)

After Leo received a provisional diagnosis of ALS, he immediately proposed taking another photographer into the doctor's office with him to record his final prognosis and ongoing treatment. Keep in mind that this is a disease for which there is no cure. How many people want a TV camera in the office with them when the doctor says You Will Die Within Five Years? But Leo was a newsman, and that's what he did. I'll close with a link to that first video, because it shows what it's like to know you are going to die. Which makes it all the more poignant for us all.

Video from August 2006

2/01/2008

Britney Spears And The Moral Dilemma

It would be tempting to make fun of Britney Spears' most recent troubles, which includes her being forcibly removed from her home by mental health professionals and held against her will at UCLA Medical Center for treatment and evaluation. This was done under the auspices of the state penal code that allows family members and doctors to request such intervention, which is commonly referred to as 5150.

I, for one, spent the morning after I learned of this event coming up with jokes related to this issue. I will not be selling these jokes, because I am not a scab; more importantly, however, I am not certain whether I should tell them at all, for the reasons outlined by several people quoted in the Los Angeles Times following poor Britney's detention. That is, this may be an opportunity for the public to become more educated about the seriousness of mental illness, and to increase understanding of what mental illness is and is not. Making jokes doesn't help that situation.

Then again: does Britney Spears suffer from a mental illness? That depends on your definition of several different terms, all of which are open for debate among the medical community. Clearly, she suffers from a dependency on either alcohol or drugs, or both. She has been in and out of rehab several times, and lost custody of her children because of her inability to clean up her act. But would you consider an addiction to prescription drugs (or any other substance) to be a mental illness?

I suspect most people would not, despite the growing acceptance of the phrase "alcoholism is a disease." Perhaps this is the point that mental health advocates are getting at. Not enough people realize that substance abuse can be interrelated with mental illness, that one can and often does exacerbate the other, and that for some individuals, they are and always will be inextricably linked. As the National Institutes of Mental Health has noted, people who suffer from depression and bipolar disorder are "at significant risk" of developing alcohol abuse or dependence problems. And most armchair psychiatrists (a.k.a., most people who watch "The Insider" with Pat O'Brien) have diagnosed Britney with depression or bipolar disorder.

So, does that mean we can't make fun of the poor girl? We can't call her "51-Britney," or amend the phrase "going postal" to "going Britney?" I say no. Don't be a jerk. Especially not to America's sweetheart.

However, I do have some Britney humor that is left over from 2001, first published in the prescient online journal Fleece Magazine. I'll just post it here without further comment.

---

Britney Spears' breasts to come to UCLA

Singer brings star power, silicon to Westwood campus

Pop singer Britney Spears and her breasts will be enrolling at UCLA in the fall, where she can be closer to the film and television industry, sources inside the university say.

Spears, whose large breast implants are rivaled by few others in the entertainment world, is hoping to finally make her big break into acting, after false starts surrounding her guest appearances on such television shows as "Dawson's Creek," "Saturday Night Live" and "The Simpsons."

"My manager said, I mean, I feel that it's important for a girl my age to be looking to the future, and that's why I'm going to go to college," Spears said, displaying her ample cleavage, at a press conference earlier this week.

Much like the collegiate careers of starlets Jodie Foster and Claire Danes before her, however, Spears' "enrollment" at UCLA is considered by many at the school as little more than a public relations gimmick.

"Come on, does anyone really believe Britney Spears is smart enough to get into UCLA?" asked fourth-year history student Earl Watson. "She clearly got in for reasons other than her academic ability, which I think is wrong."

But not all students feel the same way as Watson. Many of them are glad for the exposure that having a fresh, young celebrity at their school will bring.

"Oh yeah, I'm definitely hoping for some exposure," said first-year math student Randy Horrnbahl. "Also some grabbing, fondling, and maybe some more grabbing."

But Spears and her breasts say there is little chance of the singer becoming involved with any UCLA students, since she is already dating Justin Timberlake of N*SYNC.

Industry insiders say that should Spears and her breasts be romantically linked with anyone other than Timberlake, the supposed "secret" that Timberlake is gay could be revealed, and the boy band's popularity could plummet.

"That could be a real problem for Disney, because they've spent millions promoting both Britney and the N*SYNC boys," said one entertainment company executive who requested anonymity. "And everyone knows you don't cross Disney. Just look at what happened to Joe Piscopo."

Spears herself said she is excited about the opportunity to bring her breasts to the Westwood campus, mostly because of its reputation for academic excellence and the proximity to Hollywood.

"Well, I like to dance, so I figure I can just head down to the clubs on Sunset during the weekend," Spears said, leaning way over so that her breasts hung temptingly in front of the salivating Fleece reporter.

"Plus I hear there's a hot dance club in Westwood that I really want to check out," she added.