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Saturday, August 23, 2003

 
YOUNGER READERS (cont'd.): PLEASE HELP

The post below was motivated by the news that the paper I work for is planning its own new effort to reach "younger readers."

I am a stringer copy/online editor and have almost no influence at the paper. I also have almost no knowledge of the paper's planned new publication. I can only hope it is not going to be modeled closely on the dismal existing precedents -- The Washington Post's Express, and the tabloids from Chicago's dailies, the RedEye and the Red Streak. Those efforts seem driven more by the kind of demographic focus groups that advertisers use than by any actual vision of how to best meed the needs of younger readers.

So help me out here.

What should a newspaper look like if it wants to serve the needs of a "younger" -- say, 22 to 36 -- readership?

What should such a paper include? What should it not include? What kind of format(s) should it take? Is there any real hope that it might exist to serve the journalistic needs of its audience rather than the demographic needs of its advertisers?

My no-frills Blogger template does not, alas, allow for comments, so please e-mail me your suggestions and comments at: slacktivist@hotmail.com.

I'll post your feedback here.


posted by Fred Clark 6:08 PM

 
REACHING YOUNGER READERS/MEMBERS

Newspapers and churches are trying to reinvent themselves to appeal to 18-35 year-olds. Nobody seems to know what they're doing.

There's an odd parallel right now between efforts at some newspapers and efforts at some churches whose graying readership/membership has them worried about their respective futures.

This is, on the one hand, encouraging. I am a devout believer in (and critic of) both institutions and I do not wish to see either one go gently into that dark night. The status quo, do-nothing strategy has been to hope all these readers and worshippers will return when they get a little older and settle down. This scenario wasn't very likely to play out for either newspapers or churches. And in any case, it ignores the fact that a vibrant, thriving newspaper or church cannot do without a whole generation of participants.

On the other hand, many of these efforts seem driven more by desperation than by a clear vision of what it would mean or require for either institution to regain the active participation of younger people. Some of these efforts seem merely clumsy -- like Eugene Levy's character in the American Pie movies awkwardly employing outdated slang. Others are insultingly condescending.

The Washington Post is getting into the game with a revamped Sunday Style section and with its new free tabloid, The Express:

The one-section commuter paper ... will include short, mostly wire-service news and entertainment summaries. ... The venture comes as newspapers face an aging, declining readership and have had spotty success at winning 18-to-34-year-old readers, many of whom are used to getting their news from the Internet.

The Post apparently thinks one good way to reach this Internet-savvy generation is to make the online edition of The Express available only in .pdf format (neatly combining the disadvantages of both print and online news sources in one gigantic, slow-loading, system-crashing file).

Slate's Jack Shafer has savaged The Express in his "press box" column, calling it "an advertising solution to the problem of declining circulation, having more to do with business than journalism" (here) and "Washington Post Lite" (here).

The most substantial point of Shafer's critique is this: "It doesn't sound like an indispensable read."

More on that point -- indispensability, necessity -- in a moment.

The strangest outbreak of this new effort to reach younger readers is in Chicago, where the city's graying dailies have both introduced "Red" tabloids aiming at that elusive younger demographic. The Sun Times launched its Red Streak on October 29, the same day that the Chicago Tribune launched its RedEye.

The two tabloids have the same format, the same price (25 cents), and the same transparent, Levy-esque desperation to appear "hip." (How well they're attuned to the sensibilities of younger readers might be perceived from the photos of some of the people behind these little-read Reds in this article from Newspapers & Technology.)

These attempts to Maxim-ize the news may wind up offending more young readers than they attract, as David Schneiderman, CEO of alternative-weekly publisher Village Voice Media, puts it in one of Shafer's columns:

Daily newspaper people don't seem to understand that young people are well educated, actually read books, and can carry on a conversation on a number of diverse topics. ... Just because they are into pop culture doesn't make them illiterate or lacking in the ability to concentrate on something for more than 60 seconds. They patronize them, and then wonder why they don't read their newspapers.

The efforts by churches to reach a younger "audience" haven't been entirely free of this patronizing attitude. But the churches have been at this longer, and with a bit more success, than the newspapers.

The folks involved with "The Vine" have taken a thoughtful, often fruitful approach, in trying to "build relationships now that will transform the future of the church and the culture." And like many of the efforts in the church, The Vine has this advantage over most of the newspaper efforts: It's led by people who are actually part of the generation it's trying to reach.

Mother Jones took a jaundiced look at one "alternative" church in Seattle, while Christianity Today takes a predictably more favorable view of another in Waco, Texas. (Disclosure: Chris Seay, the young pastor of Waco's University Baptist Church, wrote for a magazine that I used to edit. I like him.)

And there are several thoughtful bloggers from a variety of perspectives writing about the "emerging church" from Rudy Carrasco in Los Angeles, to Darren Rowse in Melbourne and the wandering Tall Skinny Kiwi. (Note that the most interesting thinking about this emerging church comes from outside of the white American evangelical subculture.)

These church efforts to reach the MIA younger generation are subject to many of the same flaws that hamper the newspapers' attempts: the desperate earnestness; the clumsiness of the non-native speaker; the reductive, almost astrological tendency to consider a diverse group of people the same simply because they were born at the same time.

The biggest hurdle facing both the newspapers and the churches has to do with motive. Why are they so eager to attract younger readers/members? Both efforts have been hampered by a transparent concern for numbers, which gives them an off-putting air of manipulation and makes them come across like any other advertiser trying to reach a niche market. As these efforts become more refined -- with more sophisticated and slicker, focus-group-tested methods -- they will only reinforce the perception of many in the "target audience" that the newspapers and churches are more interested in what they can gain from strengthening their own demographic numbers than they are in actually serving the needs of younger people.

Which brings us back to that phrase from Jack Shafer: "an indispensable read." What is "indispensable" about these new tabloids and these new churches? Why should younger people read a newspaper when they can get so much news from other sources? Why should they go to church?

This, it seems to me, is the key to reaching a younger audience -- or any audience -- indispensability, necessity. Unless younger people become convinced that they need to read the paper or that they need to go to church, they will not do so.

And no slick tabloid or rock & roll worship band will convince them otherwise.



posted by Fred Clark 5:58 PM


Thursday, August 21, 2003

 
WEEDING OUT THE WANNA-BES

In this post on domestic violence I noted that "the incidence of domestic violence is probably no higher among police officers than among the rest of the population."

That "probably" was a way of avoiding complicating the statement, but the situation is probably a bit more complicated than that. As Devra reminds us, there are good cops and there are bad cops. The bad cops do things like harass poor people by confiscating their ID for no apparent reason. Devra writes:

Fully one-quarter of the clients at my agency who need assistance replacing their Cal ID need it because a uniformed officer asked to see it ... then kept it. That's $6 per ID, and the occasional $12 or $15 if we are able to assist with Driver License replacement (most of the time, we can't - our funding can't really support it). With the money we spend every single day replacing these ID's - imagine how many other people could be assisted if we didn't have to pay for someone else's intimidation tactics.

I don't get it. If they aren't breaking the law & you're not taking them in, why keep their ID?


Most cops are good cops. But there's something about the idea of being a police officer that attracts a certain kind of person who should never, ever be allowed to be a police officer. Police Departments are desperately aware of this, and they work hard to screen out these Rambo wanna-bes.

Such screening mechanisms are an important part of the recruitment and hiring practices for the military, police departments and private security firms -- in that order. I worked for a year for a large private security company and one of the things their recruiters regularly looked for was to see if an applicant had previous military or police experience. In most cases, this represented an enormous asset -- but depending on why this person was no longer with the military or the police, it could also be an enormous liability. The biggest red flag of all was for the applicants who had previously tried, and failed, to enlist in the military or in Police Academy.

Despite the best efforts of the company's recruiters, some of these wanna-bes slipped through the screening process. The same thing happens with the screening processes the military and police departments have for avoiding the wanna-bes.

What constitutes a wanna-be? They tend to be control freaks with a misplaced sense of their own importance. They cannot be trusted with official authority because they are incapable of recognizing the limits of that authority. They may also have an inordinate fondness for guns and are more likely to see it as a toy and an extension of their ego than as a grim, but sometimes necessary tool to be treated with respect and responsibility. (The security firm I worked for only provided unarmed security. I heard many stories of wanna-bes getting fired for trying to bring their own personal gun with them to work.) These guys aren't NRA-members; they're the guys who think of Soldier of Fortune as bedside reading.

The traits that characterize the wanna-bes are many of the same traits that one finds among abusive men. Among such people, the rate of battering and domestic violence are certainly higher than among the general population. (I can't provide figures because the category of "wanna-be" is not precisely defined and measured.)

As I said, all police departments have hiring practices in place to prevent these guys from getting onto the force. And most good cops can spot the type in the course of a job interview. But the wanna-bes are also powerfully drawn, even compelled, to seek positions of authority. And with so many of them trying to become cops, some of them are bound to slip through.

As a result of that fact, the overall population of law enforcement contains a higher percentage of wanna-bes. So, contrary to Ruth Teichroeb and Julie Davidow of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, I would guess the rate of domestic violence probably is "higher among police officers than among the rest of the population."

This is not to say that men who wear the badge are suspect. Rather, that some few who wear the badge ought not to be wearing it.

UPDATE: David Hackworth keeps track of one variant of wanna-bes here.


posted by Fred Clark 4:19 AM

 
WHY "MAJOR OPERATIONS" AND NOT "WAR"

Once again, CNN's Suzanne Malveaux misses the point.

Here's another example of Suzanne Malveaux's reporting repeating what she's been told to say from Wednesday's "Lou Dobbs Tonight on CNN. Dobbs introduces the segment:

The White House today said President Bush did not mislead the American people when he said, major combat in Iraq was over. Hostile fire has now killed 60 soldiers since that announcement on the 1st of May. Today, gunmen killed a U.S. citizen working as a translator. Another soldier was killed in an accident after terrorists attacked their convoy.

White House correspondent Suzanne Malveaux joins me now from near the president's ranch in Crawford, Texas -- Suzanne. ...


Malveaux then discusses some of the day's developments and Dobbs brings her back to the question he raised in his intro with a clip from White House spokesman Scott McClellan:

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SCOTT MCCLELLAN, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: We've been very straightforward about where we are in terms of the theater in Iraq. Again, this is one of the theaters in the war on terrorism in Iraq. And the president was very clear that major combat operations were over.

He did not say that the fighting was over, by any means. That fighting continues. And I think that yesterday's attack crystallizes the true nature of terrorism for the world to see.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MALVEAUX: And, of course, Lou, the big gamble here is whether or not the Bush administration can really hold on to the international support. We've heard from a lot of leaders throughout the day, talking about -- really condemning this attack against the United Nations. But what really is going to be the true test is whether or not those countries are going to remain involved, remain engaged, inside of the country for the long term when it comes to Iraqi reconstruction -- Lou.

DOBBS: Suzanne, the president, as you said, on May 1, made the statement about major combat operations. But also, on that day, as he landed on that aircraft carrier, there's a big banner, as you can see and our viewers can see. It said "Mission accomplished" as the president set down in the aircraft on the decks of the Lincoln.

How much of a problem is that for the president, because the mission is far from accomplished, it looks like, at this point?

MALVEAUX: One of the major concerns that White House aides actually had right before that day coming up to that speech was just what was the president going to say. They had conversations about this.

And, of course, the debate was whether or not they were going to say the war was over or major combat operations essentially had come to a conclusion. They decided on major combat operations as opposed to saying the war was over, specifically because of that concern that there might be additional attacks and that Americans would turn to the president, turn to the administration and say: Hey, we thought this was over. You said that the war was over.

It was clear that they thought and that they needed to change the language in that way, because it may not be over, that the administration recognizes that there are continuous dangers and there will continually be dangers along the way. That's something that they were aware of for quite some time.


Besides providing the stunning insight that Bush's aides "had conversations about" the contents of a major speech before it was delivered, Malveaux does little more than repeat the official retroactive spin -- giving it an added sheen of authority because it's coming from a "journalist" instead of from a White House spokesperson.

But concern that "there might be additional attacks" was hardly the main consideration for why President Bush did not declare in his USS Abraham Lincoln speech that the "war" was over.

The main reason -- the reason that this "war" will not be declared ended even if the ongoing attacks disappeared -- has to do with the Geneva Conventions. Here's an excerpt from a different CNN report -- this one dated May 2. This is from a section of that report that comes under a subhead reading "Victory and the Geneva Conventions":

Bush did not formally declare the war in Iraq to be over.

There are several reasons, highlighted by aides and scholars. For one, although major combat is over, skirmishes in Iraq continue as exemplified by deadly exchanges in the city of Fallujah between protesters and U.S. soldiers. Also, although Saddam Hussein's regime was toppled, the former Iraqi president and members of his inner circle, including his two sons, remain unaccounted for.

Scholars familiar with laws governing war say that a formal declaration of victory would complicate efforts by coalition forces to track down the former members of Saddam's regime.

"If we say the war is over, it makes it more difficult to pursue these individuals," said Anthony Clark Arend, professor of government and foreign service at Georgetown University. He has written a book on international law and the use of force.

The Geneva Conventions also call for the release and repatriation "without delay" of prisoners of war at the close of hostilities.



posted by Fred Clark 3:57 AM


Wednesday, August 20, 2003

 
GIGI

"You're not at all that funny awkard little girl I knew
No, overnight there's been a breathless change in you
Oh Gigi
While you were trembling on the brink
Was I out yonder somewhere blinking at a star?"

— from "Gigi" (Alan J. Lerner/Frederic Lowe)

Generally, I don't think a candidate's personal life is any of the public's affair (so to speak). Yes, "character" counts, but please let's not reduce "character" to a single, tangential virtue or lack thereof.

A candidate's history of hanky-panky should only be relevant to their candidacy if: 1) they insist on preaching personal morality and "family values" -- since hypocrisy is also a measure of character; or 2) if the alleged affair involves an underage girl.


posted by Fred Clark 1:46 AM


Tuesday, August 19, 2003

 
VIOLENCE AT HOME

The Sacramento Bee did a tremendous, year-long project on domestic violence back in 1997. The entire series is online.

Why read a series that's six years old? Because nothing much has changed in the last six years. And change the names of people and places, and this series could be from this year, from any newspaper in America.

I fear the same may be true for this story from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

After the chief of police in Tacoma killed his wife and then himself, the P-I examined the incidence of domestic violence in Washington state police departments, and how those departments are dealing with it.

What they found is not encouraging:

Over the past five years, 41 officers in King and Pierce counties alone have been accused of assaulting, stalking, threatening or harassing their wives, girlfriends or children, a five-month investigation by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer has found.

The officers, employed at 12 police agencies running the gamut from metropolitan to rural, were identified through searches of civil and criminal records, and public disclosure requests for internal investigations.

Most have paid little, if any, professional price. Only half faced charges.


The article makes it clear that the incidence of domestic violence is probably no higher among police officers than among the rest of the population. Then again, that's really just another way of stating the problem.



posted by Fred Clark 4:39 PM

 
WHAT ABOUT BOB?

Why is Robert Novak sitting on the biggest scoop of the year?

It is the prerogative, the right and the duty of journalists to protect the identity and privacy of their sources. It is appropriate, therefore, for journalists to defend one other on this point and not to demand the identification of sources, even when their identity would be eminently newsworthy.

But this duty also has limits, and there are cases in which it becomes the prerogative, right and duty of a journalist to reveal the identity of his or her unnamed sources. Such might be the case when those sources are found to have broken the law, or when they have put national security at risk, or when they have exploited the journalist's position for petty and malicious partisan gain. Or when they have done all three.

I am referring to conservative columnist and "Crossfire" co-host Robert Novak, who in July became the plaything of "two senior administration officials" who coopted Novak's column for use in their vendetta against former ambassador and inconvenient truth-teller Joseph Wilson.

Novak gamely played his part as an access-whore, devoting his July 14 column to trashing Wilson in exchange for the vicarious thrill of gaining exclusive information from high-placed anonymous sources. These "senior administration officials" used Novak just like Frank Oz uses Fozzy the Bear (with approximately the same placement of hands).

The problem is that these SAOs weren't content merely to sling mud at Wilson -- they also went after his wife. If she were an average private citizen, say simply an "energy analyst at a private firm" -- this would merely be another distasteful and dishonorable example of "political hardball." But the SAOs claimed via Novak that Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, is not an average private citizen. She is, they said, an undercover agent working for the CIA as part of its effort to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Oops. Thanks to Novak, make that she was an undercover CIA agent. Her cover is blown now -- as is the nonproliferation work she was involved in, and the security of whatever other undercover agents around the world who were known to have associated with her.

Apparently these senior members of the Bush administration felt that payback against the inconvenient Mr. Wilson was more important than fighting terrorism or protecting the lives of American agents.

They blew the cover of an American spy. This is immoral, illegal and very likely treasonous.

It is also, a month later, old news. You've likely already read about all this through David Corn at The Nation, or Josh Marshall in The Hill, or from The New York Times or John Dean. Heck, even Time magazine has covered this story.

So why write about it now?

Because a month has gone by and, despite talk of congressional investigations, we still do not know the identity of the two senior administration officials who tipped off Novak and outed Plame.

Discovering their identity would be a major scoop. (Perhaps even a "big time" scoop, if you know what I mean.) It would be the kind of journalistic coup for which they hand out Pulitzers and Peabodies. Every reporter in the country would love to have this information, but only one reporter already has it: Bob Novak.

So there you have it, Bob. Your Pulitzer awaits. All you have to do is tell us who these mystery SAOs are.

And no, you may not hide behind claims that journalistic ethics require you to "protect" these sources -- not when doing so makes you an accessory to the criminal abuse of power and a contemptuous disregard for national security. And not when doing so makes you and your profession the stooge of a partisan political agenda. (This goes for you too, Matthew Cooper, Massimo Calabresi and John F. Dickerson of Time.)

Your keeping mum about the identity of these sources does not convey your loyalty to ethics or principles, Bob, but rather your loyalty to partisan politics. It shows you to be a Republican first, a journalist second, and a patriot third, if at all.


posted by Fred Clark 3:59 PM

 
"THOU SHALT NOT KILL"

I've been watching the news. This sums it up.



posted by Fred Clark 2:56 PM


Sunday, August 17, 2003

 
NATIONALIZE OIL WEALTH?

What do Saddam Hussein and Exxon-Mobil have in common?

Today's Tom Friedman column in The New York Times is about ... well, I'm not sure. It seems to be about how Iraq is different from other Arab countries because they hate Israel, but do so differently. Or something.

Anyway, since I can't discern Friedman's point, I won't contend with it, I'll just point to one phrase he tosses out in passing:

" ... Saddam used the Iraqi people's oil wealth ... "

This statement contains a host of assumptions, foremost of which is that the "oil wealth" of Iraq's most valuable natural resource rightfully and naturally belongs to "the Iraqi people."

Really? Says who?

Don't get me wrong -- I like this idea. I agree with Barbara Ehrenreich that if it's good enough for Iraq, it should be good enough for America too. But this idea is completely alien to the way we operate here in the U.S. There is no such thing as "the oil wealth of the American people." There is only the oil wealth of the wealthy American oil barons -- people who resist even the idea that they should have to pay minimal taxes on the vast fortunes they have amassed from America's natural resources.

Why does Friedman -- and the White House, and so many others talking about Iraq -- assume the existence of some self-evident public right to this public wealth in Iraq, when they would be horrified at the suggestion of such a right in Texas?

Meanwhile, Friedman seems eager to argue that Saddam's nominal support for the Palestinians was a sham lacking substance. He cites as an example of Saddam's "phony Arabism" the deposed dictator's practice of sending "$35,000 to the families of [Palestinian] suicide bombers."

While it's true that Saddam was a self-serving tyrant, it's also true that $35,000 is $35,000. That's nearly six times what America provides for the families of U.S. soldiers who die while on active duty.

A recent proposal would have doubled the $6,000 America provides for the families of our martyred soldiers. The Bush administration prevented that from happening. Talk about phony.




posted by Fred Clark 8:18 PM

 
WHAT IS EDUCATION FOR?

Excellent piece in the September Harper's by John Taylor Gatto titled "Against School: How public education cripples our kids, and why." Gatto is a former New York State and New York City Teacher of the Year and the author of numerous books, including Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling.

Here's a snippet:

Once you understand the logic behind modern schooling, its tricks and traps are fairly easy to avoid. School trains children to be employees and consumers; teach your own to be leaders and adventurers. School trains children to obey reflexively; teach your own to think critically and independently. Well-schooled kids have a low threshhold for boredom; help your own to develop an inner life so that they'll never be bored. Urge them to take on the serious material, the grown-up material, in history, literature, philosophy, music, art, economics, theology -- all the stuff schoolteachers know well enough to avoid. Challenge your kids with plenty of solicitude so that they can learn to enjoy their own company, to conduct inner dialogues. Well-schooled people are conditioned to dread being alone, and they seek constant companionship through the TV, the computer, the cell phone, and through shallow friendships quickly acquired and quickly abandoned. Your children should have a more meaningful life, and they can.


posted by Fred Clark 8:07 PM

 
EPSON: LYING BASTARDS?

So, I've got an Epson printer. It's the Stylus Color 740, which has two cartridges -- one for black ink, one for color.

I rarely print anything in color -- just the occasional compromising photos of Sen. Santorum downloaded from some offshore site -- so when the "low toner" light started flashing for the color cartridge, I was kind of puzzled. Is it possible to use something up when you've hardly even used it?

The flashing light indicates that the cartridge is "low," but not empty. So I simply stopped printing in color entirely. Lo and behold, through some miracle like the opposite of Hannukah, the color cartridge is now "empty."

And here's the really delightful part of Epson's little game -- when one cartridge is empty, the printer shuts down. So I can't even print in black ink, even though that cartridge is brand new.

So I propose an experiment:

I will change the color cartridge. Replacing this "empty" one with a brand new, unused cartridge.

And I will never use that cartridge.

Let's see how long it takes Epson's little scam to tell me that this never-used color cartridge has "run out" of toner.

These cartridges cost me about $7.50 apiece (via Ink4Art), which adds up. Plus it's a hassle and an environmental waste of (probably toxic) plastic cartridges piling up in a landfill somewhere.

I'm not happy about this.

UPDATE: Susan Ives isn't happy either. She found a printer that retails for $40 and actually costs less than the replacement ink it uses. Something is deeply warped about the pricing of these things. Ives breaks down the environmental costs involved and calls for a legislative fix.

posted by Fred Clark 3:29 PM


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