Chicago media is getting rid of what it needs the most

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Last week, a new report from The Knight Foundation said a lack of local news and information was the biggest cause of declining turnout among millennial voters.

Meanwhile, these three things happened in Chicago media:

* The Chicago Tribune laid off ten people from its newsroom
* The Sun-Times cut its Homicide Watch editor
* WBEZ canceled The Afternoon Shift, cutting two hours – or half – of its local programming

I’ve often heard the phrase “cutting into bone” when describing particularly painful layoffs and it’s hard not to see the above that way. Especially when you consider the Knight Foundation’s findings.

(Full disclosure: One of the people Tribune cut is someone I’m friendly with, I’ve had an op-ed published on Homicide Watch and I’ve been on Afternoon Shift a bunch of times – including its last show – and became friends with its host, Niala Boodhoo, as a result. I’m not exactly a disinterested party here but I’m trying to keep my argument separate from all that.)

In the case of Tribune, the average person probably doesn’t recognize most of those names. Copy editors, image techs and associate/planning editors aren’t exactly star columnists or even as familiar to readers as reporters with a byline. But you’ll notice them when they’re gone. They’re the folks that keep bad grammar and typos out of the copy, ensure the photos look front page-worthy and decide what gets covered when and how. If you want quality local news coverage and not just filler, they’re the people that make it happen.

Yet it’s often easy to think those cuts can be made without damaging the organization. Your average copy editor doesn’t have a big Twitter following so the outcry will be limited to those in the know on a couple media-focused blogs. Everyone who’s left will be asked to “do more with less.”  The mistakes will slip by and everyone will hope no one really noticed.

But hey, at least the the three nationally syndicated columnists who published transphobic nonsense still have a spot on the op-ed page.

With the Sun-Times, you’d think a person whose entire job is to track the names and faces behind the numbers of murders in Chicago would still have a job. But no. How do you not have a spot for that guy in your Chicago newsroom in 2015? Especially with all the evidence that the CPD has previously played a shell game with the true murder count?

When you have something no one else has it puts you at an advantage but only if you realize what you have and know what to do with it. How does the editor of Homicide Watch seem less crucial to a news organization trying to create an engaged, loyal, paying audience than a strategy of Buzzfeed knockoffs with content scraped from social media and other news publishers? Publishers with deeper knowledge and pockets have tried and failed at the latter. Even something like Circa which attracted the best and the brightest, eventually learned that technology and distribution won’t matter unless a unique content strategy underpins it.

As for WBEZ, the Afternoon Shift‘s mission was to feature voices other than the usual slew of bold-faced names, pundits and academics. It was a two-hour show that devoted itself to issues like segregation, crime, jobs, arts and how all these topics interrelate. Award-winning bartenders were juxtaposed with authors, sports figures with community activists. A typical recent show looked at whether local doctors understand nutrition, Illinois’s state budget cuts, NASA’s plan to launch a flying saucer and the Blackhawks. It was unique, it was local, it was entertaining and it informed the public – the latter is a mission critical aspect of public media. It’s all the kind of thing listeners are willing to support with money.

Admittedly, I’m a novice about public media’s overall business model. Perhaps a strategy that creates more shows like Sound Opinions, Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me and This American Life – shows that can be syndicated throughout the public media universe – and fewer that only appeal to a purely local audience make more sense for WBEZ’s bottom line. And hey, those are good shows! But in just a quick perusal of their financial documents (page 4 of this doc is a good summary), it seems membership contributions, community service grants and other program-specific underwriting drives 70% of revenue. (As a comparative, Wisconsin Public Radio is 59% listener/grant/underwriting-supported.) That all seems driven by local programming, which WBEZ says it’s committed to in shifting staff from The Afternoon Shift to The Morning Shift (though the length of the show won’t change as of now and firing Niala, the show’s host, a journalist with several years experience reporting on Chicago and the Midwest, seems misguided, at best).

But again, maybe the health of the organization overall is in better shape if you’re less dependent on those three buckets so local programming isn’t a great bet for the future. How that delivers on a public media mission and less on a capitalistic one will be for them to figure out.

On the whole, it was a damn awful week for people who believed in the value of quality local news. Discussing it this way gives me no thrill. I want vibrancy in local media.

Now, back to that Knight Foundation report and a quote from the release about it:

“The report highlights that young adults care about their cities and have many concerns that local government can address, but these potential voters lack the information, habits, and social cues that would prompt them to engage and participate in local elections,” said David Mermin, partner at Lake Research Partners.

Chicago recently had a mayoral runoff election. It was historic. Never in the history of Chicago elections did something like this ever happen. The two candidates could not have been more different. Stakes, financial and otherwise, were real. Both candidates cranked up their get out the vote efforts…

Turnout averaged 40%.

I’m generally an optimist, even about the state of journalism and media. This week put me back on my heels a bit. In large part because I work in media so this is a direct concern of mine. But it’s one thing for me to be worried about the future of my friends. At this point, I’m worried about the future of democracy.

UPDATE: My friend Mike Fourcher has a response to the above. I don’t see my argument as “If only someone would provide good local news, people would care” so much as it is “Your audience says they need something and you’re choosing not to provide it.” And if you give an audience what they’re asking for they’ll probably see you as valuable and your chances of survival are better.

Winter apocalypse” image by Quinn Dombrowski. Used through Creative Commons license.

Sorbet

The other day I realized I’d written a grand total of three posts here this year and two of them had to do with death. This realization came after reading a friend’s status update lamenting a case of writer’s block. I’m not sure if I’m blocked per se, but the motivation to write here has been missing. Or at least not what it was. So I’ve been trying to figure out why.

I’ve rarely been prolific here, especially in the last couple years. I’ve mostly written when there’s something longform I need to get off my chest. Other than that, this space has mostly been a repository of live readings, announcements and a few bits of ephemera.

This never particularly bothered me before. I enjoyed the notion that I only wrote here when I really felt I had something to say. (I have a couple of drafts started in background but never finished them to my liking.) Twitter was the steam valve for everything else. But lately it’s been mostly jokes and work links from me there.

I’ve wondered if this particular dry spell could be attributable to work. The creative itch, the ability to tackle larger issues…much of that gets taken care of on a daily basis there; it really is great to be participating in a newsroom again. But as much as I’m helping guide that process, the real writing is handled by others.

And yes, I’ve been busy. The first event in the reading series I’m producing – it’s called The Frunchroom, you should come! – is this week. It’s one of the big to-dos on my #40in15 list. Then there was the parade and everything else. But everybody’s busy.

So I’m back to where I started.

I’m not entirely sure how much my friend Mark’s recent death is tied into all this. But quite a bit, I’d wager. The raw emotion of the experience is certainly why I didn’t have it in me to write my annual post about Abigail and I sharing a birthday week (he passed away in between our birthdays). And he was one of my favorite writers, particularly in the past year as he tackled some of the headier issues in Chicago politics. My better moments of intelligence came from discussions with him. I miss all that.

I’ve wondered what my first post back from that will be. And it’s probably kept me from writing – the need for it to be just right. But it won’t be so…

I’ve hesitated to discuss this in this space. It’s personal and I don’t tend to write like that here or do these kind of deck-clearing, head-clearing posts either. But at some point I realized until you do that, the fear is going to get the better of you. And you’re never going to get back to why you did it in the first place. And by you, I mean me.

So the above is a bit of a mess. That’s fine. It’s enough that it’s here at all. The publish button as an act of defiance.

An obituary and a celebration of Mark W. Anderson

My friend Mark Anderson died this week. This is the unedited version of the obituary that will run in the Chicago-Sun Times. I will link to their version when it’s posted. UPDATE: Here it is.

We’re also trying to raise money to defray the cost of his end-of-life expenses. More information about that – along with samples of his work, memories from friends and any updates – are posted here.

As mentioned below, we will celebrate his life at Celtic Crossings (751 N.Clark, Chicago) at 230pm on Sunday March 8th. If you knew Mark personally or through his work, you’re invited to attend.

markwandersonJournalist, thinker and survivor Mark W. Anderson, 51, of Chicago, IL passed away on March 2nd, 2015 at Midwest Palliative & Hospice CareCenter, Glenview after a yearlong battle against both cancer and Chicago machine politics. Though the cancer spread, the Machine is said to be in remission. Born December 11th, 1963 in Chicago he had several jobs, including one at a travel agency that introduced him to various parts of the European continent, before finding his place as a financial writer at Morningstar and other companies, bringing a creative verve to a dry topic. He later went on to form his own small communications firm.

Both a student and teacher of Chicago history and tavern culture and a lover in equal measure of rock, jazz and moments of quiet reflection, Anderson graduated from Columbia College with a B.A in journalism in 2005. He is best known as a writer for NBC’s Ward Room. In the tradition of Algren, he wrote of the faults of his beloved city but always believed in its capacity to be better. Through his writing and activism, he played significant roles in the elections of at least one Chicago alderman and a member of the Illinois House of Representatives. He is survived by his wife, Sarah, and several acts of journalism that reverberate to this day.

In keeping with his wishes, Anderson’s body was cremated. His spirit will be present in a celebration of his life at Celtic Crossings (751 N.Clark, Chicago) from 230-630pm on Sunday March 8th. It will be as he was: full of kind words, colorful stories and occasional vulgarities.

UPDATE: The following comes from Scotty Carlson.

Random memories of the late Mark W. Anderson, Columbia alum, Ward Room fighter, veteran of the Columbia Chronicle, and my friend:
– It’s 2003-2004 and I’m taking History of Journalism. Manders is the oldest student in the class, probably by about 10 years. He takes notes on a laptop every day. Other classmates, with notebooks and pens, think it’s a weird thing to do.
– It’s later that year. I’m a news editor on Columbia College’s Chronicle newspaper; Manders is an associate editor. Somehow we find out we’re both Beatle freaks. He gives me a printed copy of an email that his friend forwarded. His friend worked for Eric Idle’s touring concerts. The email is from Eric Idle, written on George Harrison’s home computer, regarding George’s health shortly before he passed.
– It’s 2009. We’re at Manders’ house in his front room. I bring two recent vinyl acquisitions — the Japanese pro-use pressing of ABBEY ROAD and a bootleg of GET BACK — to listen on his famed stereo. We sit in front of his speakers, not saying a word. Just smiling and listening.
– It’s 2010. Our friend and mentor, Jim Sulski, has passed away. Manders is the one — and the only former comrade of the Chronicle — to let me know. We go to Sulski’s funeral together. On the car ride home, we tell each other neither of us would have had the strength to go by ourselves.
– It’s 2013. Over the years, we’ve fallen out over stupid reasons, but we still keep in touch. I’m spending a month interning at the Grateful Dead archive. The archivist presents me with a tour program from the 1983 tour. I snap a pic and send it to Manders. He replies: “What’s funny is, I still have that very tour program, from my second set of Dead shows ever. I remember buying it at a little booth the first time I was at Alpine in 1984.”
– It’s late 2014. Mark emails me about his health issues and having to sell his beloved vinyl collection. He needs Kinks albums. I Dropbox him 6 gigabytes — everything I have. I tell him I’m coming back home for Christmas and want to see him. We try to schedule coffee. It’s the last time I hear from him.
Rest in peace, Manders.

Beware the bubble of your own understanding

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David Carr died this week. He was a media reporter for the New York Times, a former alt-weekly editor, a man in recovery from addiction, a father, a husband, a defender of the good, a champion of the great.

Rather than idolize him, I tried to idolize his work and his approach: be open to the new, skeptical of the conventional wisdom and crucifying of the fatuous. He brought down the barbarians in the Tower with a single (meticulously reported) article. Few of us will be as good as he, but I hope it’s enough that we try.

I’m as guilty as anyone for occasionally thinking the world as it exists through my eyes is as it is for everyone. So after an evening watching colleagues in the media memorialize and celebrate Carr in specific, loving memories on Twitter, I wondered how many people I knew, knew him.

I asked some friends on Facebook:

Non-media people: How does David Carr’s death resonate for you, if at all? He was a giant in this field and an idol of many but I’m trying to get outside the bubble to truly understand it. I have thoughts on this but would rather hear from you.

(Granted, this is still a biased sample but far more helpful than asking the same question on Twitter which overindexes for media types.)

Here were some of the responses.

“Lived in DC and read the Washington City Paper when he was writing for them. Still, I had to be reminded who he was.”

“His name was familiar enough that I would have guessed he was a columnist or editor for the Times, but I didn’t know him for anything specific.”

“I vaguely remember an interview with Fresh Air. I think it was him, and if so all I took away was he’d had a drug problem. I used to be more up on these factoids.”

A few folks who are active in media even chimed in:

“I guess I am a media person, but have no idea who he is/was”

“I had heard of him, but hadn’t really followed his work or identified it as his work” 

“Chiming in from the goofball community – never heard of him” 

“Had to Google him. And I consider myself to be pretty savvy when it comes to media & media personalities” 

“Maybe I don’t count as a non-media person, but Night of the Gun was a rad memoir. I didn’t connect his NYT personality with the writer of that memoir until I saw a documentary on the NYT a while ago.”

Thirteen people responded. Six of them in media, seven who aren’t. All said they either didn’t know him, sort of knew some of his work but didn’t know him or had no idea.

I somewhat expected this response but it was really surprising to hear this from people within media (though they’re all outside New York).

This isn’t to minimize Carr’s impact though I debated publishing this because it might come off as such. To be clear, he shaped or changed many accepted narratives. His work was crucial to understanding media in the 21st century.

But as we as a society become more fragmented in our media choices and assume the world at-large mirrors the conversation in our social feeds, it’s worth fact-checking that from time to time, even anecdotally.

To return to the Tribune example, he saved the paper from an awful fate. In many ways, they’re still rebuilding from the damage Zell and Michaels wrought both within the Tower and with its constituencies. If you believe in the need for a vigorous watchdog press, thousands of people in the Chicago area were helped by his work without even knowing it. For this reason alone, many more people outside media circles ought to know David Carr’s name.

Carr’s writing offered a reminder that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and the points in-between are often the key. Checking assumptions is crucial. You have to go out and look for truth because it is usually hidden by those who’d rather you didn’t find it. These values were never more apparent than when he turned his own considerable reportorial skills on himself, fact-checking his memories from when he was in the thrall of addiction.

Even those close to you see the world very differently. It’s important to ask them how from time to time. I’ll try to remember that.

Photo by Eddie Cordel via Creative Commons

#40in15

Photo credit: Flickr user Palo via Creative Commons

Photo credit: Flickr user Palo via Creative Commons

I turn 40 this year.

After rushing into an ultimately failed first marriage, I no longer get particularly hung up on where or who or what I’m supposed to be at a certain place in my life. While I’m not consumed by an existential wave of self-reflection, I have to acknowledge my 2014 went off the rails a bit, if for good reasons: deaths in the family, dog fighting cancer, armed robbery, etc. Now that we’ve turned out of the skid (great new job, healthy dog, etc.) it seemed a worthwhile endeavor to make sure 2015 had a magnetic north.

So I made a list.

The overall vibe I was going for was somewhere between basic weekly achievements and shoot-for-the-stars goals that would require some advance planning. It wouldn’t be the sum total of what I’ll accomplish this year. I wouldn’t include any goals related to my job, for instance. My ongoing fight against the forces of high blood pressure wouldn’t merit a mention aside from the efforts to work out more.

Some of these seem ridiculously easy (listening to new records, for instance) but I’ve found it’s easy to forget to do them even if they provide the spark to do more. Some are already in the planning stages and some (especially the activity goals) are grouped into one related topic.

I’m sharing them here because it makes it real. I won’t be posting updates unless they’re worth it. Though I suppose the whole point of making this list is to make my 40th year full of things worthy of discussion.

Health/productivity goals
1. Read six books
2. Work out three times a week
3. Listen to 12 new records and watch 12 new movies
4. Take an ongoing class in krav maga (or something similarly physical)
5. Re-learn Spanish

Family/house goals
6. Have a dinner date with Erin once a month
7. Paint our back porch stairs
8. Refinish the kitchen counters
9. Travel to England with the family
10. Go on a family road trip
11. Financial goal #1
12. Financial goal #2
13. Have a father/daughter outing with AG once a month

Creative/professional goals
14. Get published in a book and write a book proposal
15. Write 100 blog posts
16. Subscribe to at least one new magazine/newspaper
17. Read at six live events, including one I’ve never performed at and one that requires me to memorize a piece
18. Subscribe to the Beverly Review
19. Launch a South Side reading series
20. Learn to play the ukulele
21. Publish a piece in the Chicago Reader
22. Get on Chicago Tonight‘s Week In Review
23. Appear on a national TV show

Service goals
24. Join a board
25. Volunteer at a new organization
26. Launch a scholarship fund
27. Help a friend achieve one of their own year goals
28. Start Operation: Hydrate (more on this later)
29. Establish an ongoing recycling program in our house
30. Make an ongoing contribution of my mind, hands and time to the fight against youth gun violence in Chicago

Activity goals
31. Make a cocktail for every season
32. Buy and consume a bottle of Lagavulin (not all in one sitting, may be shared)
33. Pitchfork Fest, Hideout Fest or Riot Fest – pick one and go this year
34. Visit six Chicago museums: The National Museum of Mexican Art, Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, Driehaus Museum, Hull House and International Museum of Surgical Science, Museum of Holography, Museum of Contemporary Photography
35. Visit five Chicago bars: Cuneen’s, University of Chicago Pub, Twin Anchors, Schaller’s Pump, and Glascott’s Saloon
36. Visit five Chicago restaurants: Superdawg, Palace Grill, Nuevo Leon, Tufano’s, Gale Street Inn
37. Visit five historic Chicago places: South Shore Cultural Center, Pullman, Fourth Presbyterian Church, Union Stockyards Gate, Glessner House
38. See five bands live, including one I’ve been putting off for too long
39. Either finish The Wire and Battlestar Galactica or don’t but make a decision for crying out loud
40. Buy a new suit and a tux

Photo: Flickr user Palo via Creative Commons

And now, back to the news

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Next week, I’m starting a new job as editorial director of Touchvision, an independent video news startup. It’s based in Chicago, but national in its reach and point of view. Our work can be viewed on mobile, tablet, desktop or television – anywhere there’s a screen. I’ll oversee the creation of our news product, make sure it has a compelling, relevant, distinct voice and get it in front of the right audience. Like most jobs of its type, it’s both creation and distribution. It’s a fantastic opportunity and I’ll be there with a couple of old friends, which is always a plus.

Not having started there yet, it’s a bit premature to talk in detail about what Touchvision does and where it’s headed other than to say we create straight-ahead video news as well as features. But this video about a young woman who’s a dancer with the Joffrey Ballet gives a sense of the possibilities.* It tells a beautiful story with strong emotion at its core and reveals something about the world.

I really liked working at Cramer-Krasselt. It’s full of smart people who do great work and they tolerate a lot less BS than other places – especially agencies. I learned a great deal about how big international brands launch new ventures and conduct their business. When I turned in my notice, colleagues told me they appreciated what I do and will miss having me there. Everything you could ask for from a job.

And there’s no denying we’re in a difficult period for the larger media world and, more specifically, the business of journalism.

But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t eager to be a part of it again. As much as I wanted/needed the experience of working in an agency environment, this is one of the most exciting times ever for news. It’s what I know best and what I love. And when I’ve had the most fun.

I’m incredibly excited. Can’t wait to get started. The thought of being in a newsroom again makes me a little dizzy.

That’s probably a good sign.

* It probably goes without saying but just in case it doesn’t: I didn’t have any involvement in the creation of the Joffrey piece. But I really dig it all the same.

Image by Theo Curmudgeon. Used and adapted via Creative Commons license.