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Wednesday, Aug 12, 2009
"Why," the BBC asks, "is Africa poor?”

It can’t get no more personal than this. I am sitting here, listening to streaming radio, writing on my laptop, with full WIFI coverage. Crickets and croakers in the background—someone speeds by in their boat—the motor roars. It’s 1:30 AM, and one wonders why these boys are speeding by?


I look out at the house nearest by, and it’s my uncle over there with his wife. His mother lived here, grew up here; and we are all here because he had the courage, and foresight, to genuinely, stake out a place on his ancestors’ location. They were poor- and so are we, by many measures—but poverty was never part of the equation.


We were wealthy—wealth, of course, measured right! Wealth measured by cash and shown in ostentatiousness is vulgar. Why is Africa poor? Ask yourself.


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Sunday, Aug 9, 2009
This year’s annual Investigative Reporters and Editors conference was less than an upbeat affair. In fact, with so many newspapers folding these days, you could say the sense of doom was palpable. Still, some speakers were able to show how they are keeping investigative journalism alive, though, it could be argued, just barely.

Investigative Reporting Conference: “It’s Over”


In “State of Play,” a recent movie set in the last-gasp world of newspaper journalism, Russell Crowe’s character is an investigative print reporter who joins forces with a young blogger to bring down a powerful senator and expose the evil intentions of a Haliburton-like company bent on world domination. It’s a great flick for celebrating old-fashioned shoe leather journalism.


But only briefly. The final image on screen is a sobering reminder of reality, i.e., printing presses stamping ink onto the front page of the paper while a mournful ballad fills the soundtrack. Message to old-fashioned shoe leather journalists everywhere: It’s over.


As it turns out, “State of Play” was a perfect set-up for the annual Investigative Reporters and Editors conference I attended in Baltimore earlier in the summer. Because even as industry leaders tried to be as optimistic as possible about the prospects for investigative journalism in a post-newspaper world, and even as they tried to extend a hand to Internet pioneers and talk up blogging, there was a palpable sense of doom.


The signs were everywhere. First of all, many of the presenters were wearing name tags that said “free lance” under where you were supposed to identify your news organization, which in most cases meant they had been laid off, some only the week before. During one session, I ran into an old friend with a highly successful political blog who said he expected his newspaper to terminate his contract shortly—as in, it could happen any day, which it did.


To its credit, IRE addressed employment anxiety at its conference by organizing a panel on free-lancing and setting up sessions such as “Doing great work in tough times.” The panel on “Alternative models for investigative reporting” was a slice of good news, a reminder that not-for-profit investigative journalism is increasingly finding a home on the Internet. Meanwhile, IRE also offered its usual sessions on court reporting, database searching and watchdog investigations to keep government accountable—all of which remain necessary endeavors in a democracy, to be sure.


It was hard to see so many worried faces and it probably didn’t help when former Washington Post editor Leonard Downie Jr., himself the recipient of a buyout, bluntly told a packed auditorium that “It’s over,” meaning that the network and newspaper news monopoly had ended and that a new model has yet to emerge. He acknowledged that it was going to be tough times for traditional news reporters in their 40s and 50s. (It should be noted that Downie, unlike many displaced reporters, has a lifeboat available to him: academia.)


Downie was part of a two-man “Showcase panel” at IRE in which he shared the stage with Bob Woodward (portrayed in another great journalism movie, “All the President‘s Men”).
In their dialogue, the two commiserated over the torment of enduring lunch with the long-winded Al Gore. They promoted Woodward’s new book in the works, an examination of the Obama Administration—not exactly a departure from his old books on previous administrations. Downie got to throw some jabs at Internet maven Arianna Huffington and then managed to get himself elected to IRE’s Board of Directors during the course of the conference.


As always at professional conferences, some unfortunates drank the Kool-Aid: One starstruck man in the audience prefaced his question for Woodward by saying that it was “an honor to breathe the same air” as the journalism legend. (Hey, I show “All the Prez” to my journalism class and I respect the man’s body of work. But this was overkill.)


If, at IRE, Woodward-Downie’s message was “see ya, wouldn’t want to be ya” to the rank and file journalists in the crowd, it was refreshing to see other presenters offering more inspiring and empowering lessons. The panel I liked best was an all-female trio under the heading of “Invisible populations.”


It featured Mimi Chakarova, who combines photography and recorded interview on dark topics such as human trafficking in Eastern Europe and rape in post-invasion Iraq. (Memo to Downie and Woodward: while you guys were suffering through lunch with Gore, Chakarova was posing as a prostitute in Eastern Europe and had to run for her life before the pimps settled on a price and conscripted her into human slavery!) She said it took years to earn the trust of the women she interviewed and photographed, and that many don’t have an understanding of what being on the Internet means, which poses an ethical dilemma as she approaches them about sharing their stories and being identified in photographs. She said some human trafficking victims have offered to remove their shirts in photos to show the burn marks of cigarettes that were put out on their breasts by abusive johns. In a rare show of concern for subjects by a journalist, Chakarova declined to take them up on their offer, powerful as these photos would have been.


Two other women on the panel also showed the kind of passionate commitment that makes the best journalism so fresh and exciting. Karyn Spencer, of the Omaha World-Herald, investigated the state of Nebraska’s irregularities in medical examinations. It seems that autopsies in Nebraska are routinely performed by county attorneys with no medical training and they often take their best guesses at cause of death—not a bad deal if you plan to murder someone. The other panelist, Ruth Teichroeb, who worked at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer until it closed in March, talked about the importance of reporters giving vulnerable people control over when and where the interview takes place, and how they want to be quoted.


Teichroeb and her fellow panelists represent a newer school of journalism in which reporters think about the effect of their work on the lives of the subjects they write about. But as IRE proved, it wasn’t time to write off old-school journalists yet.


In a lively panel discussion with Sy Hersh and James Bamford, prize-winning journalistic veterans who both write about national security, the outlook was a bit more uptempo than among some of the other old-timers. Bamford said he loved alternative media, citing Alternet in particular, and Hersh disparaged editors (“We could probably lop off 70% of editors and be better off”) and pretended to scoff at the notion of reading up on a topic before writing about it. He even mocked the New York Times for raising its rates while offering “an inferior product.”


Not surprisingly, Jill Abramson, managing editor of the Times, projected a far more sanguine outlook on the ‘grey lady’ during another IRE panel discussion. She told the audience she was “bullish” on her paper’s future, citing its still-large newsroom, successful website and undiluted commitment to news.  While I am a great fan of her newspaper/website, I didn’t quite believe her words of cheer. I hope I’m wrong on that one.


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Monday, Jul 20, 2009
Boston's guild unanimously votes to accept New York Times Co. proposal

And now, finally some good news from the newspaper world. Six weeks to the day The Boston Newspaper Guild narrowly rejected a concession proposal from The New York Times Company, thrusting the possibility of having to close The Boston Globe’s doors for good, the union unanimously approved a new contract Monday night, allowing newspaper lovers all up and down the east coast to breathe a sigh of relief.


The vote: 366-179.


From The Associated Press:


“We are very pleased that the members of the Boston Newspaper Guild ratified their agreement. With this vote, all of the Globe’s major union contracts are now settled,” Boston Globe spokesman Bob Powers said in a statement. “We deeply appreciate the sacrifices that Guild members are making to help sustain The Boston Globe’s mission of delivering high-quality journalism to the greater Boston community,” he added.


According to Poynter, the guild will take a 5.94 percent pay cut under the new deal. In addition, other reports cite the unfortunate notion that The Boston Globe is projected to lose $85 million dollars this year, and, along with the nearly six percent pay cut, the contract includes unpaid furloughs, a pension freeze, a reduction in health care benefits and the elimination of lifetime job guarantees.


“I’m relieved, but it’s sad because we gave up a lot and it was a very difficult negotiation,” Beth Daley, a reporter who cast a ballot against the new contract in the first vote, but changed her mind Monday, told The AP. “I don’t pretend the plight of the Boston Globe to be over by any means - but whatever it’s going to be, we’d get there quicker with this vote. We voted no with a narrow margin and we went back and we eked out a marginally better deal, marginally is the operative word. It was clear to me that if we were not going back to the table, it was going to prolong the agony.”


The deal obviously isn’t perfect, and we all understand that though this dispute is now finally over, that doesn’t mean The Globe’s workers aren’t going to feel any type of hit. But the silver lining in these dark clouds is the mere notion that the deal did get done, period.


Had this problem dragged itself out through more months, there was a very real possibility that one of this country’s premier newspapers would have had to shut its doors. That doesn’t have to happen now, and though it seems as though neither side truly won this war, the newspaper industry as a whole gained a vitally important victory Monday by displaying a sense of companionship and rationale when it needed to the most.


Yes, it isn’t ideal, but for the first time in a long, long time, positive news has finally come from the world of newspapers and modern-day journalism. And who knows? Maybe the industry as a whole can look at this development and keep the momentum moving forward somehow. Positive thinking, journalists. Positive thinking.


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Wednesday, Jul 15, 2009
Newswire service Associated Press gives new credence to this day in HIStory.

Look at this ‘normal’ news report from the acclaimed Associated Press news wire machine, marking this day, January 25, in history. It is a very correct example of how our media has seduced us into seeing Michael Jackson. This is exactly it. Despite his accolades, the American media portrays this entertainer through his dissent, rather than the fact that he has sold millions of albums more than Alicia Keys, the magic mulatto the press is favoring these days.


That’s stardom for you—we consume them & spit them out. People worshipped Michael Jackson at one point, so I guess he was uppity and had to be taken down. It’s one thing to acknowledge his faults, but quite another to vilify a person as such. We choose how we see and remember.


It’s not just that this day in history chooses to show the freed captives of Iran, and ignore the (expensive and embarrassing) Iran-contra scandal (and the destructiveness of Reaganomics). America’s moral authority was the casualty for which we’ve just stopped mourning. Nor even is the contention here a fact of Michael Jackson’s story is the only embedded news fact given a follow-up, as if to drive home the fact that the news got it right: Jacko is Wacko. Nor is the contention with such remembrance solely tied to admiration for a recently deceased pop icon.


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Saturday, Jul 11, 2009

Two bits of news reminded me of a story I wrote last summer for PopMatters. In the first, CBS Sports reported that, after Xavier’s Jordan Crawford threw down an ostensibly hellacious dunk on LeBron James, Nike operatives confiscated all videotapes of the event. Predictably, the Internet uproar over this has reflected far more poorly on James than even the worst dunk could have.


But even more predictable is the fact that James would fuss over his image. James is, by all accounts, a supremely decent person and a positively extraterrestrial talent, but, as I wrote in “LeBron James and the Beat Book”, which surveyed the surprising number of books about LeBron James, he’s also “the most hands-on athlete today—remember, he created his own sports marketing agency.”


Which brings us to the second piece of news: Buzz Bissinger just co-wrote a new book with (and about) LeBron. Do you suppose it will have any Friday Night Lights-like revelations?


Tagged as: lebron james, nike
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