Tag Archives: journalism

No, you can’t be neutral in a debate about your own humanity

When Lewis Wallace first showed up in the newsroom where I was the digital manager a few years ago, I had no idea how much I would learn from someone with very little journalism experience.

For many years, my horizons had been expanding beyond the fairly white-bread missionary world I was raised in. Oh, I knew many people from different cultural backgrounds, and, for a while, I considered myself to be well cultured. The problem was they all shared the same ideology.  Continue reading No, you can’t be neutral in a debate about your own humanity

A Vocation Vacation

A strong feeling of suitability for a particular career or occupation.
A strong feeling of suitability for a particular career or occupation.

It’s raining, really raining.

Not just the little summer drizzle. The kind of rain that builds into a rhythmic melody on the roof and on the windows.

I’m sitting here in my parents’ kitchen drinking a big mug of green tea staring at a counter full of vegetables I want to ferment.

It’s Friday.

The Friday before I return to work after an overextended hiatus.

I thought about going back to bed after I dropped my daughter off at school. The sound of the rain and the thought of laying there under the covers and drifting off to the pitter patter of water on window was extremely hard to resist.

The only reason I didn’t, is because I know that next week I will completely rely on routine to get me through the week.

Continue reading A Vocation Vacation

The Lucky Hat

I went for a walk at half time and smoked a cigar.

It wasn’t a victory cigar.

It was a cigar of reflection.

I kept telling myself it’s only a game. It’s only a game. It’s only a game.

When I was good and cold, I walked back into my neighbors’ house to take a peek into that crystal ball and see what the future held.

The future still looks bleak.

It looks big and physical. Not pretty, just tough and gritty and textbook playbook. The way football has been played for more than a century.

Maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

Continue reading The Lucky Hat

My friend Kenny

The 303Kenny sat by me on the train tonight.

“How’s that phone working out for you?” he asked.

“Fine, fine,” I said.

“That the six?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“You have an iPad too, right?”

“Yes, but I forgot it at home today, so I’m working on my phone instead,” I replied.

“That must be nice,” he said, smiling knowingly.

I don’t know Kenny, but I sort of do.

I’ve been watching him work his social magic on the forward train car on the 5:30 train from LaSalle to Blue Island almost every night since October.

You see, every train car has its own culture, and I spent most of September and part of October trying all the cars out on the 303 to see which culture I fit into.

Continue reading My friend Kenny

Welcome to the Middle Ground

Springfield, Illinois
End of the legislative session. Springfield, Illinois

“Where y’all from,” asked the big bouncer at a nightclub called Stella Blue.

“Chicago,” someone replied.

“Welcome to the middle ground,” he said after checking our IDs at the door.

Upstairs, the club was an ironic polar opposite of its “Dead” namesake.

American-flag-themed Budweisers, a dance floor with bad dance music, a digital disco ball, five public radio employees and a whisky-voiced, bleach-blond bartender with electric-green-tinged contact lenses.

Continue reading Welcome to the Middle Ground

Live inquisitively, not judgmentally

Indian Toilet

Recently my daughter’s teacher told my wife that our incessant moving around the country seems to have benefitted her quite a bit.

I was taken aback by this, feeling a father’s guilt at loving a career too much to the detriment of the well-being of my children.

It seems Gabbers has a keen understanding of political boundaries like counties and state lines, well above that of her second-grade peers.

Her teacher even said that she had learned things about places and people because of her interactions with Gabrielle.

I shouldn’t be surprised.

This was my education too.

Continue reading Live inquisitively, not judgmentally

Navigating by Stars in a Digital Universe

image

I’ve had a particularly close look at the disintegration of legacy media. Close as in the front row of a movie theater, that uncomfortable place where you have to put your head back on the headrest to try to take it all in. 

The kind of front-row seat you would normally ask for a refund for. 

But I can’t ask for a refund, because this is the career I chose. Or perhaps it chose me, I don’t know. 

I used to write condolence notes to friends who were axed from their jobs as reporters, copy editors and photographers. 

And then I found myself in the sights of the hedge trimmers that are the corporate interests that run most of the traditional media in the United States. 

And my friends sent me their condolences. 

I wrote a private note to a few friends on Facebook, and someone sent it to the all-seeing Jim Romenesko, who published it and significantly changed the course of my career. 

Here is what I said:

“I believe in the process of news and the responsibility of a local newspaper to provide news to the citizens. Unfortunately, newspapers are helmed by old, decrepit captains who cannot see past their bifocals way down their noses reading about yesterday with all the relevance of the Hindenburg blimp disaster.”

I haven’t worked at a newspaper since I wrote those words.

And I only write it here again, because like everything else you ever do on the Internet, it never goes away. You only have to Google my name and scroll a little ways to find it.

At the time that I wrote it, my only experience was in newspapers. But now that I have worked in television and radio, the same applies to each of these legacy formats.

My point was not a personal attack on any one “captain,” but a condemnation of the bigger picture, the one that saw newsrooms excoriated to feed the bottom line. 

Rather than build something new and powerful to engage in public discourse, shed light on corruption and establish information that is truthful and accurate, we harvested all the old growth and sold it downriver so we’d have enough product to carry us through until the current set of leaders could retire comfortably on dwindling but still magnificent profits. 

Many years ago, after the full realization of the first dot-com bubble burst finally made it into writing and when talking heads could rattle off I-told-you-so’s on the morning shows and evening news, I said that legacy media should redefine itself like a startup. 

Risk, creativity, reinvestment in quality, innovation, strategic partnerships and chaos. All are hallmarks of startup culture. 

And all are exceedingly exciting when I think of how journalism could, should apply these to a new business model. 

Thomas Carlyle wrote that “(Edmund) Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters’ Gallery, yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.”

That was in 1787, when the press was little more than a political instrument wielded deftly by politicians for purposes of propaganda. 

Slowly we grew into the skin coined for us in the term and ideology of the Fourth Estate, never realizing that one day we might actually shed the skin for another to pick up and wear. 

The press has reverted to a propaganda instrument, wielded instead by corporate interests and less so by politicians. 

We’ve lost the mantle of the Fourth Estate to something not entirely proletarian, but more so than today’s media. 

Where did the Fourth Estate surface after we dropped the mantle? It surfaced in the colored revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine, Iran and in the Arab Spring in Egypt, Libya and Syria. 

It surfaced on YouTube and Twitter and to some degree on Facebook. It surfaced in lightweight storytelling technology like smartphones and inexpensive laptops with cheap USB cameras. 

It surfaced in the capable hands of the public, that very public the media has defined like so many define children, that is should be seen and not heard. 

And I stand on the other side of the glass wall of the 1A meeting room and watch as we continue to push out “all the news that’s fit to print,” without consulting or involving the very audience leaving us in droves for pseudo media outlets that allow them the interactivity they desire. 

Perhaps the most egregious difference between today’s media and the pseudo media that is outpacing it is the loss of talented thinkers, innovators, revolutionaries and leaders.

In my career I’ve been lucky to encounter a few of these for a short period of time and usually toward the end of their run of glory. These are the people who’ve imparted the most wisdom, insight, vision and direction to me.

These are the Yoda’s and the Obi Wan Kenobi’s to my Luke Skywalker, the Gandalf the Grey to my Frodo. 

The longer I stay in the media business, the more time passes between meeting the crazy ones, as Steve Jobs described them. They are passing on, either to newer and more welcoming industries or just out of the consciousness of our particular industry. 

And the helms of our ships are steered by captains who do not understand GPS and who would rather navigate by the stars instead. 

For nine years I’ve held on to the last thread of hope for media, a tenuous connection of legitimacy that is thinner now to the point that sometimes I can’t see the line in front of me. 

Maybe it’s time for the floundering dirigible to crash and burn, so that a Phoenix can rise from its ashes. 

You can listen to me read this article here:

Watched “Skyfall” tonight, finally. Besides being a tribute to Luddite ideology in general and a long and involved way of sending (Spoiler Alert) M off to a dramatic final retirement, I find that the series lacks the escapist spy vs spy entertainment value it once held for me. Bond girls are no longer thrilling and when Javier Bardem is the villain, well, they lose that cartoonish quality and take on a very dark and all-too-real feeling.

But one scene totally captured my attention. It was when Bond meets his new Quartermaster, or, as we have come to know him, Q.

Q, who is represented by thick-glasses-wearing, shaggy-haired geek, engages Bond in a museum while both are staring at a painting of The Fighting Temeraire.

The banter is traditional age versus youth, old versus new, it’s part of the film’s treatise on the methodology of fighting terrorism. It’s also interesting that one of the series’ youngest 007s gets one of the youngest Qs, and yet both are represented as at odds.

Yet when they part, Bond does so with a Walther PPK and a traditional radio that will allow his position to be tracked. You can’t get more simple than that. Now the Walther PPK does have a grip that recognizes only Bond’s thumb print, so as to leave a particularly lethal signature, if he so chooses, gone are the flashy cars, the cloaking devices and the exploding pens, as Q points out.

It’s funny, it’s tongue-in-cheek, and it’s actually kind of silly. But the scene stood out to me for the fact that it actually describes a position that journalism finds itself in today.

Technology has both helped an inhibited the grand old institution. And much like spies, the infrastructure is hopelessly technological and yet completely reliant on humans.

The attempts to have computers write journalistic stories, even with human help, have so far been colossal failures. And so yes, we get the message.

A human, and in particular, a human with deep and disturbing intuitions, is required to make the world continue to go round. Technology, for all its ability, cannot compete with a human with conviction or a human with purpose.

But then we’ve always known this. It’s not a mystery, which makes “Skyfall” a bit antiquated in its fight against technology. Tech, weapons, tools, exploding pens and invisible cars have always been part of the escapist fascination with these films.

Bond’s incorrigible behavior with the girls that bear his name and his penchant for martinis shaken, not stirred, Aston Martins and over-the-top bad guys are what keep me up all night during Bond week on the USA Network.

But here again we return to the geek and the spy. In the film, the geek is responsible for allowing technology to override the impenetrable system. And Bond, with nothing but brawn, brains and will, manages to pull the world right again.

“Age is no guarantee of efficiency,” Q tells Bond. “And youth is no guarantee of innovation.” Bond retorts.

Both are right, in this case. And in the end of the film, both are prophetic.

But in the world we live in today, it is best to remember the purposes for which we innovate, the reasons for technology and the truth that what we do matters.

There is no wall between technology and humans. Bond accepts his enhanced Walther PPK and uses his radio transmitter as efficiently as he would an invisible car. Neither youth nor age, technology nor human insight clearly wins out.

I’m trying a new train line out today.

I didn’t think it would be so difficult to change something like your choice of transportation.

As I stood in the warming shed at the Burr Oak Metra stop, I looked around and realized I didn’t recognize a single face.

That wasn’t that strange in and of itself, but it made me realize just how much I know about the people at the Palos Park stop where I’ve boarded the train for much of the last six months.

There was the coughing lady, who seems to be perpetually sick, but who prefers to board before everyone else, even if she has to act like a linebacker to do it.

It used to bug me, but now I sit back and watch her work her magic, and it makes me smile and sometimes laugh out loud.

The Catholic school boys in their khakis and Sox stocking caps nudging each other on the platform, while one of the boys’ dad would joke around with them about Notre Dame football, a dirty leather satchel at his side, and a newspaper clenched between his arm and his side.

The guy who would fall asleep as soon as his head hit the backrest after he boarded the train. He snored so loudly I thought about changing cars one more time, but I started listening to music, which provided a bit of a soundtrack to their lives as I watched them work, eat, sleep, play and converse.

These were just my car companions when I finally decided to ride the second car from the end, and they were a microcosm of the bigger world that is Chicago.

And since I had tried nearly every car on the train, I realized I had come to know a lot of people, if only by sight and habit.

There was a little trepidation as I boarded the train this morning. I looked around at the unfamiliar people wearing unfamiliar clothes and doing unfamiliar things.

But then I caught sight of a 60-something woman with dreadlocks and a dapper old fellow wearing a trench coat and sporting a fine cane, and dozens of the most interesting fur hats, and I was reminded that I’m not just a journalist between the hours of 9 and 5.

The good habits of a journalist fall somewhere between anthropology and voyeurism.

I call it people watching. And I learn so much about myself and how little I actually see or understand others by watching the people around me any chance I get. It’s my own private university.

I’ve moved around almost every two years for the past 8 years. My dear wife has suffered through 18 moves in our nearly 19 years together.

I’ve always needed new vistas and new horizons, new classes and new texts to study.

I love Chicago, because I have only to change the way I enter the city each morning to gain a new perspective. To witness life lived just s little differently than my neighbors live theirs.