Let’s stop pretending the Sun-Times is the only news site with a comments problem

April 15, 2014

On Saturday, the Chicago Sun-Times announced it would temporarily suspend the hosting of comments on its sites. Managing Editor Craig Newman offered some additional comments about the decision to Digiday.

There’s been plenty of commentary about the lack of commentary. Locally, Robert Feder framed the Sun-Times as taking “two steps back for every step forward” and Chicagoist printed opposing views from two HuffPo bloggers. Poynter used it as a peg to discuss previous efforts to change comments sections. Many, many people weighed in on Twitter and Facebook. Several claimed the Sun-Times was quashing discussion of the news without sensing the inherent irony in their ability to use a digital tool to discuss the news about a removal of a digital news discussion tool.

(Ironically, this announcement came on the same day as this Sun-Times column from Jenny McCarthy in which she sought to re-cast herself not as an anti-vaccine advocate but as someone who is pro….something. The color gray? Sadly, this temporary shutdown of comments did not include comments from Jenny McCarthy.)

My theory is people who bemoan a lack of comment sections are Web 1.0 folks who remember when comments were discussions, not digital cross-burnings. Those same folks now use Twitter/Facebook for that discussion and haven’t spent time in daily news site comment sections in a while. If you’re going to build a place for a community, you ought to have the right services, processes and tools in place to serve it. But news site comments sections are there more because of inertia than anything else.

I’m all for not letting discussion be determined by gatekeepers but if you have access to a comments section, you have access to a blog or social media. So there’s no real argument to be made that a lack of a comments section silences either dissent or other voices. Especially when amplification is much easier in an open public space. If the point of comments section is to let a publisher know reader opinion, there are still many ways to do that. The Sun-Times hasn’t shut down its Twitter or Facebook presences. It still accepts mail via the Web and the Postal Service. Comments started as a place to tease out aspects of the story not covered. That conversation has moved elsewhere, mostly into other electronic mediums that are as public, if not moreso, as comments have been. In fact, the Sun-Times often features FaceBook/Twitter commentary about news stories on its blogs. It’s a much better way to offer commentary on the news than unchecked comments. (The Digiday story above notes some of the better news sites like Quartz, Vox and The Dish don’t have comments at all.)

In the early days of the Web, daily news site comments were self-policing and governed by online identities people invested in. They no longer are. They’re either anonymous or hidden in plain sight behind a volume of commentary that not even web editors can keep up with without crowdsourced assistance. While some sites still offer comments sections worth reading – usually those that speak to a niche audience – most quickly devolve into hate-filled screeds, at worst, or a parade of stereotypes, at best.

Yesterday, I linked to a comments discussion on Chicago Tribune attached to a story about this weekend’s religiously motivated shootings in Kansas City. A single comment contained a mix of racism, homophobia and suggestions of rape. Within the hour, the entire comments section was gone. It’s worth noting that comment came from someone using his Facebook profile. Meaning he’s not anonymous. Facebook-driven comments sections often bring a more civil discourse, but not always. The screengrab above from this story (warning: autoplay ad) at USA Today is at least on-topic but I’m not sure what would be lost if it didn’t exist.

Though they don’t discuss it much, the Tribune seems to block comments on breaking news stories, particularly those that involve violence or persons of color, a tacit acknowledgement that those types of stories seem to attract racist and violent comments. Perhaps the Sun-Times doesn’t have the technical or human capacity to take similar actions as the Tribune but there’s little motivation for them to do so. There’s not much audience engagement happening in most comments now (while some writers/editors might read comments they rarely engage) and nobody wants to be in the business of monetizing racism.

So let’s stop pretending we’re losing some kind of Algonquin Round Table when news sites do away with a freeform comments section. There will be a certain boutique segment of media commentators that clutches its collective pearls over this decision but it’s a better experience for readers and editors alike until a better system is in place.

Now if only we could do something about auto-play ads…

UPDATE: I had a spirited discussion with GigaOm’s Mathew Ingram about this topic. He Storified it here and wrote a post about it here.

If Stanford’s Future of Media Conference tells you people only read news on their phones for 70 seconds a day, check it out

March 5, 2014

This afternoon I was checking Twitter when I should have been working on a presentation and saw a retweet of something from @StandfordBiz:

Wow. That’s an astounding statistic about what you do in 2014! It really suggests something about your newsreading habits doesn’t it? Despite all the sites out there publishing great stories, you still seem to spend more time with print. A statistic shared with the Stanford Future of Media Conference and @StanfordBiz’s Twitter account’s 168K followers (receiving 41 retweets!) could be quite influential if it’s true. A flurry of trend pieces is sure to follow!

Except everything I’ve read in the past few years suggests people are reading more news online, particularly on tablet and mobile (phone) products. Even when compared with print products.

“Tablet owners spend an average of 51 minutes reading the news, whereas smartphone owners spend around 54 minutes. But people who own both a smartphone and tablet spend an average of 64 minutes on the tablet and 54 minutes on the smartphone checking in on news.” (via)

“Digital devices get slightly more than half of total media time — about 10 times more than newspapers and magazines.” (via)

“US adults now spend more time with their mobile phones than with print magazines and newspapers combined, at 1 hour and 5 minutes vs. just 44 minutes,” according to eMarketer.” (via)

But as someone once said, there are lies, damn lies and statistics. Rather than develop a counterargument against that statistic with others, I wondered about the original statistic. So:

@ChasNote, the speaker, is Chas Edwards whose Twitter bio says he is “president and publisher at California Sunday, publisher of The California Sunday Magazine.” He followed this reply up with:

Not particularly interested in waiting – again, I was trying to avoid working on a presentation – I started digging around myself.

Hal Varian first used that statistic in 2010. Four years ago. Before iPads and other digital devices changed the habits of news consumption.

Further digging revealed this post from Kiesow which says the original 70 seconds number came from a 2009 Nieman Lab story on a Newspaper Association of America study of Nielsen data, which makes that number look more like 90 seconds to me but I’m bad at math and avoid work by tracking down obscure stats cited at Future of Media Conferences so I could be wrong.

But for the sake of argument, let’s take a brief visit back to 2009 for a moment.

What were the best-selling phones – upon which people were supposedly only reading 70 seconds of news per day - in 2009? The iPhone 3GS was tops at 35 million but a CNet review of it from 2009 didn’t even see fit to mention its web browsing/newsreading capabilities. Numbers two, three and four of the top 10 phones sold that year (totalling some 50 million units) looked a lot like that bad boy on the right, the Nokia 2700. Do you remember owning that kind of phone? I do. And I didn’t read much news on it either. So that 70 seconds number could be totally accurate! Although why you’d stand up in front of a roomful of people at a Stanford Future (future…) of Media Conference in 2014 and cite a five year-old statistic to illustrate current media consumption, I don’t know. Maybe Edwards didn’t know how old it was.

Except in the list of links Edwards later posted, he linked to Varian’s original speech from 2010 as well as a speech Varian gave in 2013 when he revised his “70 seconds” number to “2 to 4 minutes” though he doesn’t give a citation for the new number. So Edwards knew Varian’s take on the number had changed since 2010 when Varian first gave the speech. And it certainly runs counter to some other stats Edwards found like the Buzzfeed readers who tucked into a 6000 word story on Detroit real estate and spent an average of 25 minutes doing so.

The other thing about the 70 seconds vs. 25 minutes numbers? The Kiesow post notes the 25 minutes number comes from a NAA study in 2005. Nine years ago and four years prior to the “70 seconds” online news study. And even that number is a little hinky. (“A realistic range is anywhere from 4 to 30 minutes per day – among those who read newspapers regularly.” Emphasis is Kiesow’s.)

So why use data that’s not only old but from two different years? Probably because it was cited by a Google economist (authority bias is a helluva drug). Plus, it’s “too good to check” as the saying goes.

After all, it makes for a great tweet.

Year Three

March 2, 2014

Abigail and I find ourselves at interesting turning points during this year’s shared birthday week. She finds herself turning from a toddler into a little kid. I find myself trying to become…well, an adult for lack of a better word.

At three, Abigail is full of agenda and opinions, just like her parents. (“I need to…” and “I have to…” are frequently deployed counter-arguments to explain why her actions run counter to our instructions.) Last year she evolved her speech to form sentences so this is now the year of the paragraph: mini-discussions on how she’s feeling, how you’re feeling and what’s happening in the lives of her favorite stuffed animals and TV shows. Speaking of, where last year was Abigail’s Daniel Tiger phase, this year it’s all about Doc McStuffins. Thanks to a gift of a doctor bag just like Doc’s there is not a day that goes by without me, Erin, her grandparents, her aunt or anyone else in her vicinity getting a check-up. (“Breathe in, please! Now breathe out. Sounds good!”)

At thirty-nine – dear God – check-ups have become more a part of my daily life. Not just the fictional variety but the medical, mental and chronological versions, too. I’m worried about things like high blood pressure and getting enough sleep. And I’m trying to make time for things that make me a more informed, well-rounded and thoughtful person so Abigail sees she has a dad who reads and listens to interesting things and doesn’t spend all his time checking his phone.

To that end, I’m wearing an Up bracelet now and obsessively documenting what I eat (who knew there was so much sodium in everything?) and how much time I spend sleeping and exercising. I’m putting things on my Google Calendar like “reading” and “running” so I’m reminded to do more of that and less listicle consumption. Digital tools are once again making my life worth living, and hopefully longer.

Of course, Abigail does not have any of these concerns. Her life is filled with books and discovery and new words and dispensing freelance medical advice. While not the omnivore she used to be, she’s settled into some favorite foods – cheese sandwiches, blueberries, black beans and couscous. When she’s not read to by me or Erin, she’s trying to sound out words in her books or learning vowel sounds with her reading apps. She got a new ukulele for her birthday from her saint of a nanny. She still loves dancing and music and runs around at every opportunity (“Chase me!“) when we’re not making caves out of pillows.

Her favorite thing to do right now is have “sleepovers” on the stairs. Blankets are retrieved, stuffed animals are acquired and everyone gets “cozy.” Everyone except the adults she’s wrangled into this situation as no grown human being is able to contort his or herself into a sleeping position on a set of bungalow stairs.

This was also the year Abigail started to figure out the world’s subtle differences. When she was very young, Erin and I thought ourselves geniuses because we purchased several of the small Pooh Bear security blankets Abigail sleeps with and carries around with her. If anything happened to one of them, another would be quickly pressed into service. Somewhere along the line, Abigail developed a preference for one over the others – he has a tag that’s worn through in a particular way. This one became known as Real Pooh. There is also Special Pooh which is the very first one she owned and looks a little different than the others. And then there’s Bathtub Pooh who is any Pooh who is not Real Pooh or Special Pooh and is OK for her to play with during bathtime so it’s not soaking wet during bedtime. So now we have the stuffed animal equivalent of the Ben Folds Five: a main guy you can’t do without and a bunch of other guys who fill out the ensemble.

Last year Abigail and I went to the toy store to get her a birthday present. This year we went to the comic book store after a pizza lunch at Pizano’s with Erin. I’ve been slowly introducing Superman into Abigail’s life and she’s been conscious of superheroes for a while. My boss bought her a kids’ book version of Superman’s origin story and we’ve been reading it at bedtime. She can identify most of the members of the Justice League. But when we couldn’t find a comic book with Elmo in it like the first one I got her, she lost interest in the rest of the store. She had an agenda and this wasn’t on it.

I’m glad we’re raising a daughter who has her own sense of what works for her and what doesn’t. Her dad’s still trying to figure it out.

Making work more pleasurable: How to date your job

January 4, 2014

With the new year, I’ve made more of an effort to read daily. I started a book of Wendell Berry essays (What Matters? Economics for a Renewed Commonwealth) when Erin and I went to Vermont and returned to it this week.

Berry is a writer of poetry, short stories and essays. What Matters? is full of essays mainly discussing Berry’s theories on agrarian economics. He’s a polemicist in the best way – the theme of the book could be boiled down to “when everyone stopped being farmers, everything went to hell” – and I’ve enjoyed his perspective because it’s so different from my personal and work experiences.

Though it’s largely concerned with matters of the land, there’s also a lot in the book about the relation of human beings to work, communities and each other. These essays have a more universal appeal, particularly “Economy and Pleasure” in which he says the following:

“It may be argued that our whole society is more devoted to pleasure than any whole society ever was in the past, that we support in fact a great variety of pleasure industries and that these are thriving as never before. But that would seem only to prove my point. That there can be pleasure industries at all, exploiting our apparently limitless inability to be pleased, can only mean that our economy is divorced from pleasure and that pleasure is gone from our workplaces and our dwelling places. Our workplaces are more and more exclusively given over to production, and our dwelling places to consumption…More and more, we take for granted that work must be destitute of pleasure. More and more, we assume that if we want to be pleased we must wait until evening, or the weekend, or vacation, or retirement…We are defeated at work because our work gives us no pleasure.”

He wrote that in 1988 but it really explains why people spend so much time on Facebook, Netflix and domestic beer bucket specials.

The above passage is part of Berry’s larger philosophy: we should not shy away from hard, physical work and the joy that comes from both the work and a connection to the land. But even if your job is largely desk-driven and that’s not about to change anytime soon, the above sentiment probably seems familiar.

This was taken on a recent work trip, one of those times I was combining business with pleasure.

This got me thinking about how to find pleasure at work, outside of the actual tasks that make up the day-to-day. How do we spice the stew of our jobs with new information, unexpected surprises or new perspectives? The more I thought about it, the more it seemed there were similarities between this effort and dating.

When you’re dating, everything seems unexpected. You’re getting to know someone better, trying new things and flush with the excitement of discovery. As you date someone (or someones), you discover aspects of other people you like and don’t like, what you want in a partner and – ideally – more about yourself, too. Your everyday is interrupted and you’re forced to get outside of your own head. It’s part of why they say people who are married should date each other; you’re engaging in the activities that made you fall in love with your partner in the first place, remembering what made him or her attractive to you and bringing new experiences to your life together.

So how can you date your job? I know of a few ways, but I’d love to hear yours.

None of this is going to be new information. If anything, writing this post is just a reminder for me of the things that give me pleasure in a job, outside of the work itself. I’ve often failed to do these things in previous jobs and it’s always been to my detriment. As in a marriage, you don’t want to wait until there are problems to start working on these things.

I also acknowledge the below doesn’t apply to all jobs and is more reflective of an office environment. But those are the jobs most often divorced from the outside world and the external stimuli that humans need in their lives. I hope this list somewhat reflects Berry’s love of communities and the people within them, even if it’s far afield from his point-of-view.

Here are three ways I try to date my job:

1. Make time for research/reading
Find some magazines, websites, columnists and e-newsletters publishing information about my industry. Make sure I have at least one or two that have a viewpoint different than my own. It tends to strengthen your views if you’re often presented with a good counterargument. I also create Review folders – physical and virtual – to store anything I fidn until I have time to read it. I schedule regular time in my calendar for this – usually Mondays at 4pm and Fridays at 10am when I’m in need of a productive winding-down or a kickstart, respectively. (I talked about why putting to-do items in your calendar is important here.)

2. Find opportunities to learn and teach outside of the office
Two to four times a year, I try to attend conferences, seminars or lectures about my work. If nothing else, it offers a better opportunity for networking than the usual name tags and cash bar events. Within that, I try to see something that’s completely unrelated to my job for some “right brain” stimulation. (The best talk I saw at SXSW last year was on artificial intelligence.) Asking myself “So how would I apply this to my work?” usually results in better insight than another presentation on something I already know.

And I also have a rule: if anyone in or just out of school asks me to have coffee and talk about what I do and how I got there, I say yes. Being a professional means you have a responsibility to help others who are trying to find their way. I also say yes to speaking in front of college classes and try to present something once a year in a professional context.

3. Get to know your co-workers outside of work
I’m not advocating having intensely personal relationships with co-workers but you should have a sense of the lives of your immediate team outside of the office. If you’re a manager, it makes you better at understanding your employees’ needs. If you’re not, it still provides more context for those moments when things get tense.

The best way to do this is to go hang out with them in a completely non-work context. Go to a bar, have a few drinks. Have some lunch. And do this as a team, when possible. Two to three times a year isn’t much. You don’t even have to avoid work talk completely – although I’d limit it. The informal setting often helps you see an active problem from a different angle but if you spend the entire time talking about work it defeats the purpose.

Those are my three. What are yours?

In digital marketing, #YOLO is a no-go

January 2, 2014

See what I did there?

It’s only January 2nd and I’m already exhausted by 2014 marketing trend pieces. Said exhaustion occurred two sentences into this guest column posted on Ad Age:

“#YOLO (you only live once) is the mantra for the post-millennial generation.”

Post-millennials (or,groan, Generation Z) are, at best, 8-10 years old. How anyone is able to determine true, discernible insights about them when laws on the books don’t allow marketers to acquire data on them is beyond me. But even if the above is true, I’m not sure you’d want to base a marketing strategy on an eight year old’s “mantra.”

Moreover, generalizations of generations – made before that generation comes into its own much less reaches puberty – are bound to look ridiculous a few years from now. Especially when they involve a line from a 2011 Drake song released when that generation was about six years old. **

Leaving aside my nitpicking of one line, the basis for the author’s larger point – that brands need to take advantage of a supposedly new trend of living in the moment – is obviously flawed due to its reliance on marketing-speak and mentions of cool new apps…and an absence of actual data.

Here’s a quick rule of thumb about marketing trend pieces: If the ratio of apps (or catchphrases) to data points is greater than 2:1 then it’s probably low on insight.  The Ad Age column doesn’t contain a single piece of data but mentions nine different apps and more than a few turns of phrase like “moment marketing” in a mere 560 words.)

The desire of young people to live in the moment is hardly new despite what the author wants you to believe:

“A side effect of all this cultural acceleration is that our brains are becoming hard-wired to crave instant gratification.”

Here’s an article I found after about five seconds of Googling that discusses the challenges of managing Generation X – the generation born 20 years before post-millennials whose brains are supposedly getting hard-wired all of a sudden.

In the executive summary, it states:

“If you want to retain these workers, be prepared to change your management style. This is the generation used to instant gratification.”

That was written in the year 2000. But how is this possible if our brains are still being hard-wired to crave instant gratification right now? Did a bunch of millennials travel back in time to enjoy grunge music as it happened and just stay there?

I could probably spend another ten seconds finding other (better) examples of how earlier generations were also into instant gratification (like the 1986 Time article about baby boomers quoted here that says “From the first, the baby boomers were accustomed to instant gratification”) but it should be clear to anyone who’s studied cultural patterns that “kids these days” will always be into “the now” or instant gratification. Anyone who is trying to tell you that youth are more into living in the moment now than they have been before is selling something.

In this case, what’s being sold here is the idea that clients should be using apps like Snapchat (oops) or Soundhalo and paying agencies or high-priced consultancies to guide them through this digital minefield so they can give those clients an Oreo cookie moment. Again, from the Ad Age piece:

The success of the Oreo Superbowl blackout tweet showed how effective this approach can be. More recent examples include British Airways’ #lookup London billboard that uses GPS to track the origins and destinations of real planes flying overhead.

The Oreo tweet certainly had an impact and brought the company a lot of earned media. But whether it’s sustainable as a means to break through the clutter is debatable. As it is, we’re now inundated with marketers trying to prove how relevant they are in social conversations with tactics that range from the mildly embarrassing to outright damaging. Whether this newsjacking really helps a company’s sales is still to be determined.

The trouble with new apps or newsjacking is they’re both experimental. They don’t have a proven track record for delivering the kind of results a business wants or the audience it needs. But they’re new so they get a lot of press and attention from both clients and agencies.

Should brands be experimental? Sure. But more importantly, any tactics they use should relate to a client’s business needs. They should stem from an overall strategy or story about the business that’s ownable by that business (if someone else can say it, say something different), be organized around a creative idea and be executed in a specific, sustainable way.

Like investing, marketing should involve a balanced portfolio. Any of-the-moment marketing that doesn’t support a long-term strategy is doomed to fail. And that’s a maxim that’s been true for several generations.

** EDITED TO ADD: This Ad Age piece from 2011 discusses the above cohort in greater detail – calling them iGen –  and actually includes data on “the 2011 top brands among 6- to-12-year-olds.” So, measurable they are. I’ll stand by my assertion as to whether you can proclaim a mantra for them. The article also contains a hodge-podge of data on 6-12 year olds and 13-17 year old but uses all of it to draw conclusions, which seems suspect particularly for a cohort whose lives are in constant change. Still, it’s much better insight than the piece I quote above. Notably, it demonstrates that this group favors trusted platforms and friends for insight into brands.

Chicago 2013: A year in review

January 1, 2014

Roger Ebert, newspaperman

Many of Chicago’s big events in 2013 were the “part two” of something that happened in 2012: IL’s marriage equality bill, Whittier’s teardown, the parking meter changes and Tribune’s bankruptcy emergence to name a few. Others were unique to 2013: the Sun-Times laying off most of its photography staff, Roger Ebert’s death and Everyblock’s shutdown.

This week I discussed the year in review on WGN Radio 720 (with host Amy Guth) and WBEZ’s Afternoon Shift (with guest host Justin Kaufmann). Since neither show is available online – holiday weeks operate on a skeleton crew – here are some of the stories I found notable in 2013.

The following isn’t meant to be a definitive list. It’s merely a compendium of stories I found compelling this year. (Crain’s has a good month-by-month list here if you want something more comprehensive.)

POLITICS/CIVIC ISSUES

Gun violence
We started the year with the murder of Hadiya Pendleton and ended it with an 18 percent drop in the murder rate compared to last year. Whether the overtime needed to make it happen is sustainable is one question as Chicago is still tops among major cities.

Marriage equality bill passes the Illinois legislature
Cardinal George  rang in the new year with a letter describing gay marriage as a violation of “natural law”  because it is not open to procreation between a man and a woman (nevermind that heterosexual adoption and marriage among the elderly are too, according to that definition).  After a few stops and starts, Illinois passed a bill in November extending marriage to all. History is speaking.

Parking meters get worse
Most news stories on the June parking meter changes led with the “Free Sundays!” part, which obscured the bad news of extended hours until 10pm or midnight.

Whittier fieldhouse teardown
Taking a page from Mayor Daley’s playbook, Mayor Emanuel sent in a surprise demolition crew under cover of darkness to tear down the Whittier School fieldhouse (without a permit).  The mayor claimed safety issues required him to act quickly but it wasn’t clear why. Even if it was true, tearing down the disputed fieldhouse didn’t strengthen his position.

Bill Daley runs for governor, sort of
It turns out running for – and being! – governor takes some work. Despite a lifetime in politics, this was news to Bill Daley. Maybe, unlike his brother, he’s not used to being “scrootened.”

Transit: Good news for Red Line riders, cyclists; bad news for Metra 
The CTA proved it can undertake a project as big as the Red Line rehab and bring it in on-time and on-budget with alternate service functioning as promised. An increase in bike lanes and the launch of Divvy increased Chicago’s bike-friendly city cred. And somehow the mass resignations at Metra over “hush money” didn’t dent Mike Madigan one little bit.

CULTURE

The death of Roger Ebert
I said about all I have to say on the topic here but this was easily the biggest real story in Chicago outside of the continued  gun violence problem.

People finally realize R. Kelly is a bad dude
Years after his trial on child pornography charges, (white) people finally started to realize R. Kelly’s shtick isn’t all that funny in the larger context of his life thanks to a Q&A with Chicago music critics Jessica Hopper and Jim DeRogatis. It’s tough to keep the art and the artist separate when his art involves sex and his idea of sex involves rape. A comprehensive discussion of the topic plus the recent backlash of coverage of his new album by the mostly-white press made people take notice in a way they hadn’t before.

Live lit really explodes in Chicago
Yes,  it’s a lot of the same people everywhere. But as the scene gets more diverse and each event finds its personality, more new folks will find their way in.

The whole Rachel Shteir thing
I spent multiple nights arguing with people over this whole thing but I’m tapped out on discussing it any further. Take the wheel, Atlantic Cities.

Taste of Chicago made money this year
A really underreported story. It went from losing 1.3 million dollars in 2012 to making a $272K profit.

Persepolis was banned from CPS reading lists
This was weird. Also weirder was that The Hunger Games stayed on the list.

Dennis Farina dies
Another Chicago avatar lost. Rick Kogan’s obit says almost everything. This roundup of his best vulgarities says the rest.

Cameron Esposito on Late Late Show 
I loved this. The former Chicagoan now ensconced in Los Angeles has every comic’s dream appearance.

TECH/MEDIA

There was good news in Chicago print media: Crain’s expands, DNA Info Chicago launches a print product for Lincoln Park, The Dissolve launched and RogerEbert.com expanded. But most of the big stories focused on continued upheaval in the media industry.

The death and rebirth of Everyblock
It was gone earlier this year and seems poised for a return. Why no one from NBC was able to walk down the hall and have a conversation with the folks about Comcast about buying it – before now – is confusing to me. Unless this was the plan all along but they wanted to cut all the staff first and this is how they chose to do it. Speaking of…

The Chicago Sun-Times cuts its photography staff
A local story that went national immediately in part because of the poorly-timed “iPhone training memo” that followed. On one hand was the argument that legacy contracts were making it difficult for the Sun-Times to become the nimble, digital organization it wanted to be. On the other is a quick and dirty way to cut costs. Maybe a little of both. But the S-T lost a lot of goodwill in its efforts (as was said above, it matters how you do things) and the move still haunts their efforts months later. Its chairman Michael Ferro isn’t helping.

Tribune layoffs, emergence from bankruptcy and a double down on TV 
A year after the emergence, a clearer picture of the future of the Tribune has emerged. But it’s a rough start, according to Crain’s.

1871 hires Howard Tullman
This is one of those stories that starts one year and has a big impact the next. Expect Tullman to shake things up and take 1871 from a pretty co-working space to a place that’s known for making new things and creating new sustainable businesses. Or else.

And finally…

The Check, Please host search and the media pile-on trend
The overcoverage of the Check, Please host search was crazy. I wrote about this specific issue earlier this year. When it was finally announced, every news outlet had to have their own exclusive host interview; DNA Info, Tribune, S-T.  It was indicative of a larger trend of all publications trying to get a bite at every story.

2013 was the year of the great news pile-on: Everyone tries to cover everything that trends in social or search or has its own micro-audience. We saw this in other local stories, too. Everyone is covering fine dining, for example. Eataly is only the most recent story that got the pile-on. Sure, that’s a reflection of more folks going to fine dining restaurants. But the takes on it are all remarkably similar. A publication ought to tailor its approach to its audience. I found Redeye Chicago’s gallery of crazy-expensive food products spot-on for them and a good way to approach the topic in a unique way.

But in some cases, there’s no way for a pub to own a story. In a year when Chicago rap conversation dominated, I’m still trying to figure out why Crain’s did a history of Chicago hip hop.

This isn’t just a Chicago thing either and it gets worse when the topic is breaking news or something that’s big in the social space and a news organization thinks it will look hip by covering it. The worst approach is when nobody adds anything new and they’re just parroting what someone else has reported. This happens often with breaking news when there’s nothing to move the story forward. We saw this especially in the end of the year with Elan Gale, Justine Sacco and Duck Dynasty. Or it’s just mindless opinion like Duck Dynasty or Miley.  As Esquire put it, this was the year we broke the Internet.

There’s also something in here about Twitter, the nature of privacy in public and whether tweets by private citizens ought to be used for publication.

But I think I’ll save that for 2014.

Of antennae, pizza, the French and Goats: What’s worth fighting for in Chicago?

November 21, 2013

It’s been a rough couple of weeks for Chicago points of pride, both real and imagined. How upset you got over these slights depends on whether you see Chicago as a real place or some kind of carnival ride. Based on our collective reaction, it’s sometimes tough to tell the difference.

First, there was the Sears/Willis Tower losing its status as the world’s tallest building because of an antenna. This one’s in the carnival ride category. New York has a bigger antenna, we have a higher occupied floor. At this point, it’s almost a literal dick-measuring contest and it does not behoove us to separate fly shit from pepper, as my mom used to say. You could maybe argue there’s a real economic loss here due to the possible tourism dollars that flow into a city with the tallest building in the U.S. but since we long ago lost the title of tallest building in the world it always struck me as a bit of a booby prize.

Besides, everyone knows the view at the Hancock is better anyway.

Then there was the whole “Jon Stewart insulted our deep dish pizza” thing, which is really just an outgrowth of the tallest building thing so come on now. It was a master class in trolling as Stewart drew Chicago in a gloriously caricatured sketch. Mayor Emanuel added his own flourish with a faux tough guy response, mailing a dead fish to Stewart – the fish, in this case, being anchovies on top of a pizza. Again, a carnival ride.

Besides, everyone knows the best Chicago pizza is served on a thin crust and cut into squares.

A better man than me, Chicago Tribune‘s Phil Rosenthal, sums up the above thusly:

Civic pride should be a knowing grin, not a battle cry. It’s the world stage on which Chicago wants to play, not some Montessori schoolyard. You are how you beef.

Speaking of the world stage, let’s discuss the French travel advisory which states its tourists may want to avoid the South and West Sides. You’d think this one could be easily dismissed with a Jerry Lewis joke, but no.

One one hand, there’s obvious ignorance at work here and ignorance should be mocked, whenever possible. Leave it to the inventors of the Maginot Line to determine that everything north of 59th Street is A-OK just because the Museum of Science and Industry and Hyde Park are down that way. But even arguing that point reinforces the idea that some neighborhoods should be avoided, that they are unsafe, that they should be left to rot. Just this week, Gapers Block published a post that deftly sums up this ignorance that makes it all too easy for some to decide kids in Englewood are animals.

Yet French idiocy is somewhat useful here. If anything, it demonstrates there are real problems on much of the South and West sides of the city and we aren’t dealing with them well at all. Those problems start at home though so let’s worry less about what the French think and more about why most of us are fine with taking the Dan Ryan to head south through the city but would avoid Wentworth Avenue at all costs. If we’re going to silently endorse the mindset of the French, we don’t get to be upset about it. Especially the mayor. *

Finally, there’s the likely (perhaps temporary) move of the Billy Goat Tavern (nee Billy Goat Inn) from its cozy, dark corner of lower Michigan Avenue. At first blush, this is a carnival ride issue.

It’s the place from the Saturday Night Live sketch! Royko drank there! And they put the curse on the Cubs! That’s Chicago history! 

All of those things are true and they’re worth preserving, in some way. Perhaps in a museum. But it’s not why it’s important for the Billy Goat to remain a vibrant part of Chicago’s downtown.

For some, the Goat’s as much a caricature of Chicago culture as deep-dish pizza: a tourist trap with lousy, overpriced burgers or a calcified tribute to the greatness of Old White Guy Journalism. And for those reasons, we should be glad to see it go. But these are folks who haven’t been to the Goat in a while – if ever – or have been there during lunch when it’s all too easy to bump elbows with, well, French tourists.

The key to understanding why the Goat remains worth fighting for is knowing The Goat at, say, 7pm or 10am is far different from the Goat at noon or 5pm. In the off-hours, you’ll see cops, construction workers and, yes, a couple of journalists. As someone who’s eaten there recently, I can tell you the burgers are a helluva lot better – and cheaper – than most of what you’ll find nearby (though too much bun for my taste). It’s still a place where you can find – in the words of my friend, Chicago Tribune reporter James Janega – “a bit of the realest Chicago I know…A credit to our future and this city’s value. [A reminder] of who you were comfortable being.”

A bar that serves a blue-collar customer in the basement of the National Association of Realtors building is literally underground subversion and that’s what Chicago – especially downtown Chicago which is too often given to showering developers with TIF funds intended for the city’s neighborhoods – still needs. The original Billy Goat Inn opened in 1934 on West Madison, near the old Chicago Stadium (itself replaced by the United Center which went on to create more Chicago history). In 1964 – post-curse but pre-SNL – the Goat moved to a tony Michigan Avenue address but lost nothing of what made it essential to Chicago.

I would prefer the Goat remain intact in its current location. But if the will of real estate developers means that can’t happen and we need to create the Billy Goat Mark III, let’s remember the great Chicago architect’s words “form follows function.” It’s more important to have a place off Michigan Avenue where people can still feel “comfortable being” instead of wringing our hands because you won’t ever hear cheezbooga, cheezbooga again (though I acknowledge the revenue from the latter probably allows for the former). Picture frames, old tables and chairs and tap handles can be moved with all their worn corners intact – if it can happen with Miller’s Pub**, it can happen with the Goat. But their use needs to continue. Move it, yes, but not behind glass lest the Goat turn into an amusement park like its namesake on Navy Pier.

Chicago needs to maintain its active third places to preserve its history and its future. It might keep us from having to pitch fits over pizza casserole and antennas and help us maintain the communities we have instead of abandoning them and letting the French pretend they don’t exist.

* After I wrote the above (but before I published it) Chicago Tribune‘s Mary Schmich pointed out Chicago’s tourism board doesn’t exactly endorse the South and West sides as tourist destinations. 

** Thanks to NBC Ward Room’s political columnist Mark Anderson for the above link.

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