Sunday, November 30, 2008

When It's Time to Let Go: the Danger of Nostalgia

An NY Times article caught my eye: the trend of departing long time local television anchors.

I'm pretty open about my distaste for local television, even though I have been spoiled by a decent glut in the Twin Cities. KSTP, FOX 9, WCCO have all had their moments (but not KARE 11, someone please make the Kare Bears go away). 

I think the nostalgia for local television news is similar to the same nostalgia for what my former professor Stephanie Coontz referred to as 'The Way We Never Were'. Her book explained how the 1950's ideal of the nuclear family came into existence - and how it shaped sexist, and harmful social policies. 

This article reminded me of the danger of getting too nostalgic. When we lose a news personality, we feel it personally. We get angry. We saw this in public broadcasting when the long time Morning Edition host Bob Edwards left NPR. I have been in so many situations where people have decried his departure and looked to me to back them up. I can't - I do think he had to go. I do think Morning Edition needed new energy. I do think he'd been there too long. And I like Bob Edwards - but my inner news manager recognizes that the industry is changing, and if you're people aren't, you have to find new people. 

And this is where the nostalgia can get dangerous. We start talking about "the good old days". When journalists were real journalists, when newspapers were real watchdogs, conveniently forgetting massive failures of our press, and recent ones too. 

Is this a reason to dismiss the independence of our press as a failure? Of course not. But we can talk about how to make it better. And it starts with acknowledging, in the words of Billy Joel, that the good, old days weren't always good, and tomorrow ain't as bad as it seems. 

Friday, November 28, 2008

Killing Newspapers Softly

Sitting at a coffee shop in Minneapolis, I glance at the newspaper stand stacked with USA Today and my adopted hometown's daily newspaper, the Star Tribune. I almost pull out my wallet to buy one, and then...


Who needs a paper when I can log on with my handy laptop? Which is exactly what I'm doing. I want more information about the violence in Mumbai, I surf around to a few online staples: the NYT, Wash Post, and blogs I check out. And the Star Tribune has a website too.


Coffee shops have always been the enclave of the reader. Parked in the corner with his or her espresso or tea (or in my case hot chocolate), they provide at once privacy and a social scene. Where we come together to be alone. Except now with wifi we're not alone anymore. We're emailing, posting comments, blogging in my case, posting pics, maybe even a few adventuresome folks are cutting up some audio or video for their own purposes. As the violence in Mumbai, India, however, drags on into day 3, I was struck by how meaningless the local daily paper is when international crises occur. The headline above the fold is "Mumbai hunts for survivors".

But I go to the New York Times online, and there's an interactive map, a photo gallery, analysis from reporters who've covered the region in depth. Before the world wide grid, the Star Tribune had a captive audience. People needed them to bring international and national news to their backyards. No more. I can now surf the world.


I have to give the Strib credit: they are still putting up a good face, doing what they've traditionally done. And by the way, the Strib has done some phenomenal work with their website on Minnesota issues. But it does beg the question for these legacy media outlets: how do they respond to these international crises? It's one thing when the bridge falls down in your background as it did in 2007, or when the Republicans come to town to nominate their presidential candidate, but what's your role as a statewide paper when the proverbial international shit hits the fan?


I'm not saying the Strib shouldn't have put the Mumbai headline on the paper. Its magnitude is too large to ignore. But what I would love to see is a sort of Miracle on 34th Street moment. Santa Claus, who is hired by Macy's to play Santa Claus, tells parents where they can get better deals at a competing department store, Gimball's (sp?).

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Why Media Access Matters

I'm back in my adopted hometown Minneapolis for a holiday visit and have been listening to my former employer, KFAI. KFAI's model is volunteer-based and they've made it work. A lot of my German colleagues scoff at this - they have something called "open channels" in Germany that in my opinion is a system set up to fail - but I'm listening to Truth to Tell as I write, and the host and executive producer, Andy Driscoll, has marshalled his granddaughter, and her classmates to talk about racial integration in school.

The show is terrific. The young women, who are 7th graders, are talking to a teacher, a policymaker, and a student who interned for KFAI's Youth News Initiative. Nissan produced a very personal radio story about her experiences as the lone black student in a wealthy, white, suburban public high school. Out of all of the students I worked with during the program, Nissan's was my favorite.

What I find most moving about this program though is when the 7th graders ask the adults "what do we do about racism in the schools" or "how do we address this". And the adults, who are accomplished and educated, respond in Adult Speak. "This is a complex issue" and "That's a big question". For at least this hour on the airwaves, I as a listener got to see the world through the eyes of a 12 year old, and to hear them talk about these issues re-energized me. It also struck a chord because for some reason I decided to revisit J. Anthony Lukas' classic Common Ground, his detailed reportage of the forced busing to achieve "racial balance" in the Boston school district. The recent presidential election has created a period of hope for the moment, but let us not forget our previous policy blunders.

Without media access, we wouldn't hear from these young women. The way most broadcasters are set up, there would be no forum to look at the world through their eyes for awhile. But KFAI does. It's a small, clear bell in the cacophony of the media landscape.

Monday, November 24, 2008

A Hero of Media Reform

I caught Lawrence Lessig on Charlie Rose before heading out for the Thanksgiving holiday, and was reminded of a great speech he gave in Minneapolis at the media reform conference this year. It's worth revisiting.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Online Incursions

I was sad to see KPBS bid farewell to its Citizen Voices project, but excited about what kind of results they'll find. I took the survey - and perhaps because I've just spent a quarter studying research methods in mass communication - was a bit disappointed at how they seemed to be measuring success. One of the questions on the survey was if you had changed your mind about who to vote for in the presidential election.

The implication is that the people who read the citizen blogs are seeking another portal with which to inform themselves to make decisions as members of a democratic society. And that's a fine thing to want to know - are the blogs useful to that end?

But there's another question that could be pursued: did the blogs stimulate discussion amongst you and your social network? I think this is one of the issues that public broadcasting is finding tough to measure: to what degree do people refer back to the content they hear/watch/read? And does public broadcasting play a role in stimulating civic engagement?

I hope more funding will become available for projects like this one at KPBS - and also that public stations will think about carving out some dollars to make space on their websites for participation.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Big Media Covers New Media

Interesting tidbit from the New York Times: how citizen journalism projects are uncovering stories in different parts of the country. 

I'm a bit disappointed though - they tend to focus on the big venture capital invested projects like Voices of San Diego and MinnPost. (Minnpost by the way approached the Twin Cities Media Alliance, which I helped found in 2005, about a content sharing agreement before they rolled out. I left the board of directors shortly after the presentation, so I don't know what happened with the relationship.)

I wonder if these citizen journalism projects like what we started in the Twin Cities with a start up grant from the J-Lab Institute will go the way of neighborhood newsletters started by unions and immigrants in the United States. Forgotten except by a few academics are dig into their meaning. Maybe that's the nature of news media - the big ultimately subsume the small. The big wait for the small to experiment with ideas and then incorporate them. 

There's something a bit sad about it. Maybe it's because I'm rooting for the little guy. Because I like to see media from the bottom up. Not from former editors and publishers and reporters of the era of newspaper hegemony. Not from venture capitalists. 

But on the other hand, it is gratifying to see people willing to spend the dough on an unsure model. Because we don't know what the model of news production looks like - we just know that we need news and information. 

Why I Love Free Speech

I was reminded recently why I love free speech. Frequently, it's uncomfortable. I always seem to be in a state of agitation, yelling at the television set at some pundit, or deeply moved by a comment I hear on a radio program. My relationship with media is an emotional roller coaster. 

I was moved yet again when I got a strange note in my email inbox about a New York Times Special Edition. Imagine my surprise when I read the headline that the Iraq War was over. Huh? 

And then I looked a little more closely at who sent the email: it was from the Yes Men. (To truly experience their satirical gloriousness, I highly recommend the interview my hero Bill Moyers did with them last year, hyperlinked for your convenience.)

The New York Times spoof wasn't just done by the Yes Men. In fact, there's a degree of mystery about who all was involved, because, dang! Doesn't it really look like the New York Times?

We all flex our free speech muscles in some ways, mostly small ways. I recently attended a protest. And we all take for granted that we can say in public how much we hate this politician or that law and not get arrested. It's so every day that we don't even notice it! 

But these guys are heavyweight lifter, pushing the limits of our great 1st Amendment. I'd like to see a Constitution with a six pack. 

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Public Radio is on a roll!

Just when I thought I couldn't be more impressed with public radio with the announcement of hiring a former online operations guru from the New York Times to the Big Public Radio Sandbox in D.C., I get a note from one of the many list servs I am on.

The Public Radio News Directors Guide is born.

I remember when PRNDI first started working on this, and the Local News Initiative. This is the first tangible fruit of the labor.

One thing I like about it is the acknowledgement that public radio is poorly equipped to produce for the web. We don't have pictures! Or video. We're sound artists, and we have to be brought kicking and screaming into the brave new world. Well, some of us. 

The public media landscape ranges from stations doing a lot of experimentation (they tend to be stations with a lot of dough, though not always) and stations uncertain about making steps towards developing a digital roadmap that will generate revenue, bring in new listeners, and perhaps attract foundation funding. 

The other notorious aspect of public radio is the decentralization. On one hand, this is great. Localism is at the heart of radio. But it makes change across the public broadcasting system incredibly inefficient, and uneven. Some stations have very savvy fundraising and diverse revenue streams, like Minnesota Public Radio, in a large market. They can afford change. But other stations, perhaps in more rural areas, and where there is more need for innovation and change, can't. So that's why I'm glad to see a place online where we can be inspired by each other. 

It's nice to see a group of public radio heads come together to share best practices. All of us is stronger than one of us. 

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Stop the Presses! Oh wait, this posting is about public radio

Vivian Schiller is moving from the New York Times to NPR. Holy cow. Talk about a sign of the times. 

Schiller ran online operations for the good ol' NYT - NPR announced her as the new CEO. 

If this seems inconsequential, consider the recent hire of Kinsey Wilson, former executive editor of USA Today, by NPR. Check out the interview with Forbes about upcoming changes to NPR and its relationship with affiliates when it comes to digital distribution. 

These hires are interesting on a couple different levels. One is the ability of NPR to attract big guns from commercial media. Rats fleeing the sinking ships of newspapers? I don't really think so, but I've said for a long time that public broadcasting represents a potential model of what might work in the digital age of news. It wouldn't be unheard of for digital media people to want to move to public broadcasting, which is still just testing its toes in the waters of digital media. NPR may also be in a position to offer more financially as well as a result of the Kroc Pot of Gold, but I don't know that for sure. 

The other level is the tone these two will set for the organization. NPR is not unlike other news organizations where veterans have balked at executive decisions to push eyeballs to the web, rather than ears to the radio. I've heard stories at newspapers where reporters refuse to file a piece when it's done, because they want it to come out in the paper first, then posted on the web. 

According to the Forbes interview with Wilson, those days are over. NPR is pushing digital distribution of their content. 

Well, I'm excited. Never a dull moment. Back to analyzing focus groups as a methodology. 

Europe is Color Blind, right? Riiiiiiiight.

I can't tell you how many times I've had arguments with Europeans about racism in America. As my ex-French boyfriend would point out, "We have laws against hate speech. You don't."

Poor example on his part. And let it be on the record I am a rabid 1st Amendment supporter, and that includes protecting the right to make bigoted comments. This makes me unpopular even in my own country. But I don't see the correlation between curbing speech and protecting the rights of minorities. I would point out that we have much stronger administrative laws in the U.S. about discriminating against people applying to rent an apartment, or buy a mortgage. Does racism still occur? Of course. But we have the rule of law to bend the arc a little closer to justice.


I wrote earlier about why I thought Obama would face more difficulty getting elected in Germany. I'm not alone in this view. I saw Chris Wallace from Fox News Sunday on the Daily Show, and he compared it to an Algerian getting elected as president of France. I agree with him. When a German party appoints a Muslim, or a German with Turkish roots, or a Jewish-German (yes, there are Jews living in Germany, quite a lot actually, and politically active) as chancellor, I don't think the American press would make the comments prominent European journalists and papers have made, even before Barack Obama got elected. In fact, I think the American press provided a measure of meritocracy when Angela Merkel became #1 of the Christian Democrats in 2005. It saddened me greatly to hear young German women talk both sides of the sexist coin: Frau Merkel either rose to the top because she "acted, or looked like a man" or because she submissively manipulated the mostly male party. Cheap shots at a clever politician.

But now, Europe, is revealing the racism they are so good at concealing in a recent Washington Post article.


"Integration" as its known in Europe is an increasingly sticky problem. The problem is this: most of the immigrants who come to western Europe are pretty socially conservative. The countries they emigrate to are socially liberal. So when conservative Muslims want to arrange marriages for their 14 year old daughters, there's a clash. And because they are nice, social welfare states, countries, such as Germany and Holland notably, have adopted a "transfer-heavy, service-light" model. That means the state puts money on a regular basis into bank accounts...but offers very few services to integrate immigrants into mainstream society. (Transfer-heavy, service-light is a political science term. I'm not smart enough to come up with this stuff.) While this means no one goes to bed hungry, it also means they haven't quite figured out a roadmap for immigrants to be economically productive, as well as socially secure straddling mostly white, Christian Europe and their own identities.


So they're afraid. Do we want to live in a society where we ignore the rights of 14 year old girls not to get married because we embrace "multiculturalism"? To what point do we respect the right of communities to live by their own cultural rules? This is what western Europe is grappling with at the moment, and is perhaps at the root of the comments made by prominent European journalists and policymakers.


Here's a taste of one of comments from the Washington Post article defending Europe:

"One cannot take reference in the least democratic politicians remarks which represent 1% of the european politicians. Stop taking sensational news at first level, look deeper and read more international news... the majority of European were looking forward to this election and celebrated with CHAMPAIGN even though this election was not theirs... but this may have been ommitted in the news... read deeper then condemn Europe."

The reader is right...but I think misses the point about the influence of the press and the leaders. The reason these remarks are disturbing is because they're being made by people who set the agenda, who hold prominence. The politicians may feel political repercussions...but who holds the press accountable?


I watched the European Cup at a former high school classmate's house in Germany this summer. As he watched the German National Team, he shook his head, and said, "This is probably the last time we'll see German names on the national team." (He's German by the way.)

I didn't press him - I was a guest in his home, and I didn't want to get into something that could erupt into unpleasantness.

But maybe I should have. Maybe that's what needs to happen in Europe: people who stand up and say, what the hell is a "German" name anyway. These conversations are probably happening already. And they're going to occur more frequently. Because like it or not, Europe is becoming more diverse. History will judge how well they handle the issues that arise, as it has judged the United States in the last 200 years. Let's just hope we learn from it.

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Digital Media Economy

I hear a lot of talk about the green collar economy. Training people as technicians to fix solar panels, wind turbines, other renewable energy sources. The government hiring researchers a la the Manhattan Project to think our way out of our dependence on oil and curb emissions.

But who's thinking our way out of the collapse of the media industry, which seems to hemorrage more jobs every month?

Conde Nast Publications announced a deal with Brightcove to start producing advertising-supported videos for the company's website. You've seen these already: the 15 second ads that play before a New York Times video starts, or my personal favorite: the Daily Show's website, which allows you to pick different segments of the show, gotta wait for the video ad first!


It's not suprising Conde Nast has waited this long. Its boutique publications (The New Yorker, Vogue, Vanity Fair, and so many others) caters to a hard copy audience. They have an older, higher income niche market, and dammit, they want their print!

But Conde Nast also got into reporting on the digital media business, publishing Wired. A new market for them. Still rich, but younger. In the Brightcove deal , Conde Nast is also expanding video options for, direct competition for People magazine. And don't forget, which rolled out in print in 2007. They are gunning after the already saturated business news market, competing with Bloomberg News, and of course, the Wall Street Journal.


The verdict is still out. Print ads still dominate the revenue for newspapers and magazines. And Conde Nast recently shed 5% of its workforce. But the fact that Conde Nast is teaming up with a video production group (who also by the way manage the New York Times video submissions from the public), indicates that the jobs are most certainly in production. And not only that, but it's a helluva lot easier for a print organization to hire out the production, than manage their own production crew on top of managing their writers and graphics folks.


The crossover between broadcast and print has been interesting to watch in my adopted hometown of Minneapolis. A multimedia producer for my adopted hometown's paper even wrote about it. I've never heard of a business like Brightcove at the local market level providing the multimedia services - dailies seem to be investing in hiring their own talent. They seem to think, unlike Conde Nast, that they can provide the content as well as the packaging just as well.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Proud Progressives...and Americans Too!

Very sad to lose Studs Terkel and John Leonard. It got me thinking about how the world perceives the United States. 


I spent all of last year in Germany, mostly in Berlin. I was saddened to see the limited vein with which Germans view the United States. Some German papers, like the Suedeutsche Zeitung, have relationships with the New York Times to reprint excerpts from the Sunday Times. On one hand this is great...but the New York Times does not reflect all of America. 


It's hard out there in the world to be an ambassador to the United States. But Studs Terkel and John Leonard made it easier for me. I would remind my German friends, as I am reminding the international students I meet here at Ohio University, that the United States has a great progressive tradition. In fact, it was born out of the failed revolutions of Europe! Russian Jews starting unions in sweatshops of New York City; Scandinavian farmers running as Socialist candidates in Minnesota and winning (until the labor unions and the Democrats sold them down the river)!; Mexican activists demanding public school access for children of migrant workers. 


These two grew out of that tradition. Studs Terkel listened to the diversity of Americans and transcribed their experiences. History is not written by kings and prime ministers - Studs Terkel made sure of that. 

And John Leonard holds a special place in my heart. I knew him best as a film critic for CBS Sunday Morning when Charles Kuralt was still the host. He firmly believed directors had a social obligation to the audience, and his prose cut like a scalpel. I later read him in the Nation magazine when my grandfather bought me a subscription (he called it protecting his investment.) 


Progressivism still lives vibrantly in the United States, even before this presidential election. Look at how American cities are defying federal immigration law, telling their police officers to not inquire about immigration status. Look at how mayors are signing off on green zoning policies (and in Portland, Oregon, have for a very long time.) And my personal favorite is when Somali mothers in my adopted hometown Minneapolis started their own parent advocacy group because they felt like their issues weren't being addressed by the school board. These stories aren't getting to the world audience about the United States. 

Studs Terkel and John Leonard wrote about these things, in different forms. Eloquently, powerfully. If you have room on your book list, check these two out. And if you're a young European who's worried about leftist values in the United States, let these two put your mind at rest. 

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Show me the money!

I was in WOUB's election HQ last night updating the results from Athens county. An exchange student from Germany, a young woman, made a remark about how the German election system is better. 

"We have 5 parties," she said, referring to the most addition of the Linke, or Left party. This populist group was catapulted onto the national German stage by winning over 5 percent of the vote in several state elections this year. 

Beside the fact the young woman has a simplistic understanding of western political science (ummm, are we really going to hold Italy's bajillion multi-party system as a model of democracy? They've had 50 different governments since 1945 and umm, Berlusconi....well, need I say more?), it was also clear to me she hasn't taken a very close view of how this particular American presidential election was won. 


Barack Obama outspent John McCain by opting out of the public financing system, a significant departure for a major party candidate. McCain, champion of campaign finance reform, stuck with the public money route. You could say Barack Obama beat the Republicans at their own game: the GOP is well known for their flush coffers from major donors and PACS. George W. Bush well outspent John Kerry in 2000, and even Al Gore too in 2000. Money talks, and money wins, as Barack Obama has proved yet again in this presidential election. 


Barack Obama's money came from a mix of lots of small donors and big ones. I think this is what non-Americans, especially our horrified democratic brothers and sisters across the pond, find so shocking: no limits. Let's take our German friend mentioned above. Her experience of political campaigns is that they are short, they are heavily regulated in their funding, and let's face it, German politics are pretty boring. No Barack Obama equivalent running for office in Germany. Not even a George W. Bush for that matter, although the CSU, the ultra conservative party, provides no end of amusement for Germany's liberal media - but they're not a major party in Germany either. 

There's no doubt in my mind that this election was not won on a level playing field when one candidate chose public financing and the other didn't. History shows us that every single president outspent his opponent. But we believe campaign donations are also a form of democracy - free speech if  you will. Obama not only proved his merit as a candidate on the issues: he also persuaded lots of people from diverse groups to give him money. That says more to the Democratic Party than anyone else, but it also shows a degree of civic engagement that does not exist in Germany. In fact, they are punished for it. 


One of the arguments I made against Germany's election system (where the party decides by a list who runs things, instead of directly electing a candidate) is that it limits minorities from participation. She of course adamantly denied this - Germans are sensitive about these things. But it could be worse for immigrants and minorities in Germany: they could be living in France

There's a great little book by Mely Kiyak, a Kurdish-Turkish-German, called 10 for Germany. Fuer die Deutschsprachigen das Buch heisst 10 fuer Deutschland: Gespraeche mit tuerkeistaemmigen Abgeordneten. It's a collection of interviews with politicians with Turkish roots in Germany. It's next to near impossible for minorities to get elected off the list within the parties in Germany - they have to be elected by mandate.  Like how we elect politicians in the U.S. - your name appears on the ballot. 

Kiyak provides one interview that I think is a classic example of what new Germans face when they choose to engage in the political process if they have a little initiative. One young gentleman ran with the Green Party for a local seat, he knocked door to door, and get this: he spent a few thousand euros of his own money to buy lawns signs and campaign literature. Sounds like a typical American campaign. 

He got into trouble. The Green Party slapped him on the wrist for violating campaign finance laws, which are quite strict in Germany. He won the election by quite a bit - surprise! Connecting with voters actually works. When he decided to run again, he fled the Greens and went to the FDP, the free market, libertarian party. What I love about this story is that the Greens hold themselves up as the party that defends the rights of immigrants and minorities (and I'll give them some credit - they thankfully changed Germany's racist citizenship laws in 2002 during the coalition government with the Social Democrats.)

If this guy ran in a local election in the U.S., at least where I'm from in Minnesota, he'd be courted to serve on boards of directors, courted by policymakers to work for them, or parties to run a race for office. But in Germany, this type of thing is frowned upon, nee, illegal! Barack Obama could not win in Germany, at least not at the speed which Obama has ascended to the presidency.


It's true: Europeans love him. The world loves him. They are enchanted with the cult of his personality, as some were by Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy. But I would argue that Obama benefits from a political system like the U.S. So this young German exchange student, who loves Obama, but hates our election system, is in a bit of quandary. Her European contemporaries think he's got it right on the issues - but what about how he got elected to office? If you're a true western European, you believe in public financing - and Obama doesn't. (Actually, I think he would argue that he used true public financing - by getting lots of small donations for his campaign.

But it's easy to love America, just as it's easy to hate America. It's a frustratingly complicated country. It's even hard for me as an American to understand the idiocy of policymaking, and yes, my fellow Americans. 

And yet I still believe the United States is the place for those who want a second chance. Or a third. Or a fourth. A place where the rule of law can devastate human rights, and then reinvent itself to create one of the freest societies on the planet. I suppose that's the great story of the presidential election: our ability as Americans to reinvent ourselves...and indeed, redeem ourselves. A lesson for the world to learn from, and a responsiblity we should not take lightly.