Touchvision ends with a proud legacy

touchvisionYesterday, the staff of Touchvision was informed our company would be shutting down, effective immediately. A bunch of my fantastic and talented colleagues are looking for work today so if you need writers, producers, editors or any other kind of content-slingers, I got a list for you.

A little more than a year ago, Justin Allen – a guy I’d briefly worked with on a video series for Chicago magazine – said he was rebooting the two-year-old company into a place that allowed for creative risks and asked if I wanted to join as the editorial director. For someone who looks for fun and creative challenges in his work, it was perfect. Plus, I got to work with Jessica Galliart again who makes everything she touches better. (Hire her.)

This piece in Crain’s by Lynne Marek talks about what it was like to turn around that company. I give her an enormous amount of credit for getting what we were about and digging into what we do.

While its end may suggest we didn’t succeed (media critic Robert Feder calls it a “noble failure” and says we did “a lot of good work”), I’ll say here that a company trying to move from a traditional TV model to one informed by digital and social media has a lot of challenges. We just ran out of time. Maybe the task was greater than us. But we worked our asses off trying. We had a lot of support from our board and our investors, too.

I still think something like this can work and make money. Touchvision’s end and the shutdown of Al Jazeera America’s TV outlet may seem like a counterargument but I’d point you to its digital arm, AJ+. They do excellent work in the vein of what we were doing at Touchvision and have had a lot of success with it.

Feel free to skip the rest of this if you like but I don’t want to wrap this without calling out some of the excellent things that Touchvision created in little more than a year and would not have been possible without someone like Justin at the helm and many talented people behind-the-scenes.

(Click these links now because I’m not sure how long they will be around).

On my first day, I saw a preview of a feature we did on cleaning up a former meth house. It’s bracing and sad but I knew then that this was a place that was capable of wonderful things.

One of the first things I helped produce was this four-part (!!!) series on Uber and its effects on the economy. If anything, the issues we raised there have become even more prevalent since then. (Check me out in part 4 as I moderate a discussion between our two producers and briefly fulfill my dream to host a news and civic affairs show!)

We also did a great job at making TV seem more like the Internet. This daily news series called Speaking of News started on the live streaming platform Periscope. I’d point an iPhone at the incomparable Molly Adams while she sat in our company’s kitchen talking about whatever important stories and angles she felt were being ignored that day. It evolved into this shot-in-the-newsroom show mainly made for Facebook and YouTube and aired in a shortened form on our daily TV show.

Using that model, we launched another Periscope show called We Should Talk About This with Gwen Purdom and Erik Niewiarowski. It was pop culture-focused and would run for fifteen minutes on Periscope while a three minute version ran on YouTube, Facebook and TV. The show was a joy to watch because of Gwen and Erik’s incredible chemistry and really hit its stride when Gwen brought in a stuffed deer head to hang in the background.


Also worth noting here that WSTAT was produced every day by our social and digital producer Angie Jaime. For years, I’ve been in places that talked a good game but never quite empowered their social/digital teams to make, produce and improve our content. I’m really glad we did and we were the better for it.

We had one of the best social commentators anywhere in Felonious Munk. You’ll see more of him soon as he’s already appeared on The Nightly Show. Working with him on his pieces was always a highlight of my day.

Plus, our docs team – run by Lauren Mialki – did some of the most beautiful, moving work you’ll ever see. A look at youth affected by Chicago violence, a profile of a guy who runs The First Church of Marijuana and what it’s like to be a 25-year-old with cancer. Our special projects group, under the guidance of Julie Svetcoff, cranked out new, experimental projects every week with some of the best comedians in Chicago.

We did long pieces of cultural analysis, we talked about Internet harassment, we had series on everything from science and psychology to marijuana to cocktails to bullying to gender issues.

Every single day we produced a morning news show (with headlines, culture and business news) and figured out how to make it work as social media content.

And we held a Chewbacca impersonation contest.

That’s just a few highlights. We got to hire and work with people I’d long admired. Every single day, I was stunned a place existed that was doing this kind of work and my team and I were a part of it.

I say all this not to brag on us too much but to tell you that there are some peerlessly talented people out there looking for work. And anyone who tells you it’s not possible to run a high-caliber media company in Chicago is trying to sell you something. We had some pretty solid plans for how to make money at it, too.
And if you’d like to know how…well, I have some time on my hands and I know some other folks who do, too. Get at me.

A year of good intentions 

I should have known my grand plan for this year might hit a snag or two when my most enterprising, driven friend told me he thought my list of 40 goals for 2015 was “really amibitious.”

Almost everyone I talked to – while expressing good wishes and excitement over such a list – said they thought it was too much to pack into a year. It was. But purposely! It was a set of achievable and stretch goals, for sure.

And yet…

In project management, you’re taught to not only account for what needs to be done but also the unforseeable that might push back a project’s schedule.

The other thing they tell you is to create accountability and tracking processes.

Without any of this, most projects are doomed to fail.

From a sheer numbers perspective, this one did.

I know I achieved some of the goals on this list, but trying to remember the details behind them (outings with AG, records I listened to, books I read) is proving somewhat challenging.

The unforseeable played a huge role in my year. No one expected my friend Mark to succumb so quickly to cancer. His death left me sad and angry in ways I’ve only fully accepted over the past month. You know how you injure yourself and the pain subsides but then you realize you healed up all wrong and need to rehabilitate a new injury now? That’s the best way I can describe it.

I’ll also note here that some health issues in my extended family pulled my focus for several months in the spring and summer and left me without a lot of mental or physical energy to knock out some of the more fun things on this list. Superdawg will have to wait for 2016.

Plus, some of these things weren’t fully under my control. A book with one of my essays in it got pushed back a year, some date-specific goals had unavoidable conflicts, etc. And I forgot to anticipate how much starting a new job pushes other things to the background.

Some of the important things on that list did happen though. I did launch a South Side reading series, The Frunchroom (the next one is January 21st, you should come out for it!). Some friends and I created a scholarship fund. I’m about halfway through that bottle of Lagavulin and know about four chords on a ukelele. I appeared on a national TV show (and even though it’s the place I work I’m still counting it).

Unexpected accomplishments also popped up. I went to L.A. for the first time this year. We took Abigail to her first White Sox game. I stood up in a friend’s wedding. I took a photo that made my ice-cream-holding-hand locally famous as the death knell of winter. I coached kids’ soccer despite not really understanding soccer. Erin and I went to Moto. And wrote my first obituary, which will probably go down as one of the most important things I will ever write.

The whole point of this list was to learn new things this year. Whether I expected to or not, I learned a lot about myself. I developed new priorities. I discovered more about what needs my attention.

Looking back on this list, it’s full of some really great things. They’re all worth doing.

I’m just going to push back the due date on some of them.

May the tavern rise up to meet you: The Frunchroom – 07.16.15

This is the piece I read at The Frunchroom back in July.

img_2192Oh hey, did I mention I produce/host a South Side reading series called The Frunchroom now? (Not here, apparently, because I’ve only written seven posts in all of 2015 so mostly I get my creative juices flowing by producing/hosting The Frunchroom, going on WGN Radio to talk about media stuff and directing editorial things at work.)

I explained here that me doing a reading at The Frunchroom was somewhat unintended. But it was good for me because I’ve been on a bit of a dry spell lately. The ideas for this piece had been rolling around in my head for a while and it made a lot of sense to do it at O’Rourke’s Office, where The Frunchroom is held, for reason’s that will become clear.

Can we talk about bars for a minute? I really love bars.

They’re like going to the gym but in reverse.

Have you ever heard of the idea of the third place? It’s the idea of a place other than your home or work that offers neutral ground, is open to everyone and – most importantly – features conversation as its main draw. There are lots of kinds of third places from parks to barber shops to churches or libraries. But most are somewhat purpose-driven or encourage conversation only amongst those you came in with.

Bars are different. By design, they force you into conversation with someone that isn’t family but might be a friend by the time you leave. No less than Mike Royko called the neighborhood tavern “the working man’s country club” or a kind of “group therapy.”

I’ve spent many a meaningful moment in a bar. I celebrated turning 30 at Blackie’s in the South Loop. I courted my wife in a number of bars on the North Side. Earlier this year, I mourned the death of one of my closest friends at Celtic Crossings. It was an Irish wake. (He wasn’t Irish.)

If I have to write something important, I prefer to do it in a bar. If I have an hour to kill somewhere, it’s my first choice of a place to spend the time. But it’s a culture that, in Chicago, has been in decline.

Back in 2012, Whet Moser at Chicago magazine took a look at some of the facts and figures behind this. According to USA Today, in 1990 there were 3300 places in Chicago with tavern licenses. By 2009, the number fell to 1200. Mayor Daley seemed to take a particular interest in closing bars but there were trends like more drinking at home and restaurants that figured into this, too. In fact, if a bar opens in Chicago nowadays it’s likely to get most of its revenue from food sales. Not just because of changing habits but because it’s a bit easier to get the nod from the city that way.

Even though they’ve changed a bit and are as likely to offer small plates as shots, we’re losing many of our third places. But if it weren’t for a bar, specifically this one, my wife and I might not have moved here.

Now, before you start whispering to the person next to you (“Oh god, the host of The Frunchroom has a problem with the drink….), let me assure you we looked at things like schools and property values and what have you. Also, you are in a bar on a Thursday so calm down and don’t be so high and mighty.

We were in the final stage of house-hunting when we drove down from Roscoe Village one Saturday to see what the Beverly/Morgan Park nightlife was like. This was in 2009 before we had a child and “nightlife” to us then had not yet become sitting on the couch and passing out in front of episodes of The West Wing.

The people at O’Rourke’s seemed nice, they served a decent cocktail and it also had a cool little back room that seemed like it could be interesting.

Prior to that we’d had a post-looking-at-houses dinner at the bar/restaurant on 111th called Ritchie’s (it’s now been renamed Joseph’s under new owners) and warmed to both classic Italian menu and our server Adam who was apparently given to sitting down at an old piano against the wall and banging out Billy Joel and Elton John songs. As he hit the second verse of “New York State of Mind” Erin and I looked at each other and said “We’re definitely moving here.”

We needed a sense of the neighborhood so we came to a bar. I hope the folks from BAPA are taking notes.

But our neighborhood’s had a weird relationship with bars. For example, there are – if my math is right – 16 bars along Western Avenue from 99th to 119th. Many of them are Irish in nature, in keeping with the tradition of the neighborhood. They’re full of friends, family and memories. But there’s a nickname for it. The Western Avenue Death March. (Editor’s note: I’ve since learned there are about five other names for it.)

It’s an odd dichotomy – a culture that’s at once celebrated and maligned.

The South Side Irish Parade – which, full disclosure, I volunteer with – became the legendary powerhouse it was – hosting mayoral, gubernatorial and presidential candidates – in part because of the bars along Western. Yet the attraction of drink drew busloads of Iowa college students and caused it to be shut down for two years before coming back more in the family-friendly spirit of its founders.

And sure, we have 16 bars along Western Avenue but nothing to the east of it as those precincts are dry. Both candidates in the most recent aldermanic election said they believe a restaurant serving beer and wine would help anchor development along 95th street or 103rd. Yet in 2009, the last time the matter was put to a vote by the residents of one of those precincts, an effort to open development of this type between 103rd and 107th on the north and south and between Longwood and Walden on the west and east ultimately died in the face of stiff opposition from the community and a confusingly worded referendum.

The theory goes that if the area east of Western was wet again, we’d be besieged with package liquor stores or the dark spirits of rowdy taverns. That this would bring in the wrong element.

It’s worth noting here that the area in question isn’t zoned for either liquor stories or a standalone tavern. It’s only zoned for restaurants or specialty grocery stores.

But I also think about the last bar/restaurant that opened in this neighborhood, Horse Thief Hollow. And what it’s done to change bar culture on Western Avenue, from the number of places that now proudly proclaim the number of craft beers they have to the rehab of Keegan’s to allow for a different kind of atmosphere. Not to mention the number of gallery showings or parties it’s hosted for the Beverly Area Art Alliance. (Note: Keegan’s has, post-rehab, been named Barney Callaghan’s.)

I also think back to a few months ago when one of our readers, Dmitry Samarov got up on this stage and lamented that Hardboiled Coffee, another wonderful third place at 91st and Western, might not make it. Sure enough, earlier this month owner Gregg Wilson announced he was closing the shop. But the wholesale coffee business would remain a growing concern and move inside another local business: Horse Thief Hollow.

And not for nothing but hosting The Frunchroom here at O’Rourke’s was a considered choice. I wanted it to be in a bar, to be in a third place. To add to the place, to the culture that made me want to move here.

If we want more arts, if we want more businesses – the kind that can help other businesses – if we want to reflect more of who we are to people who might want to move here and help carry on our traditions…if we want all that…then maybe it’s time to think about attracting that kind of element to areas east of Western. To 95th Street. To 103rd Street. Maybe 2016 should be the year we try again and pass a referendum allowing restaurants and grocery stores to offer beer, wine and liquor.

We could use a few more third places here.

Because I really hate going to the gym.

Timing is everything in the Laquan McDonald shooting case

On October 20th, 2014, Laquan McDonald was shot 16 times by a police officer. McDonald was a 17-year-old teenager who was, according to reports, high on PCP and carrying a knife. According to the video released this week, McDonald was walking away from police, not toward them, and 14 of the 16 shots appear to enter Laquan’s body when he was lying in a fetal position on the ground. It took more than 400 days for State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez to charge the officer, Jason Van Dyke, with a crime and also that long for the video to be released and then only because of a judge’s order.

The video is evidence of a horrible crime and in the current climate of racial protest in this country, you’d expect a significant reaction from local activists. If you were Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, you might be worried about riots like those in Ferguson or Baltimore.

It would be almost impossible to draw attention away from release of that video.

And yet…

The day before charges were announced in the Van Dyke case, Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy announced his decision to fire Dante Servin, a Chicago police officer who, while off-duty, shot into a group of people and killed 22-year-old Rekia Boyd. By all accounts, Boyd was unarmed and doing nothing wrong.

The shooting occurred in 2012. Servin had been acquitted of charges in the shooting five months ago on something of a technicality. In the trial, the judge said he had been incorrectly charged. The case, according to the Chicago Tribune, caused “outrage from the black victim’s family and leaders in the African-American community.”

A police review board recommended firing Servin two months ago, but McCarthy seemed to only come to a decision this week, two days before the required release of the Van Dyke/McDonald video. He made the announcement not in a pre-arranged press conference, but unexpectedly after a graduation ceremony for new police officers at Navy Pier.

McCarthy said the timing was unrelated to the Van Dyke/McDonald case.

The day before the release of the van Dyke/McDonald video, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel met with several political, religious and community leaders and activists in an effort to control the expected reaction.

The day after that, a 22-year-old activist named Malcolm London appeared on TV with another member of his activist group, Black Youth Project 100, to explain why they – seemingly alone amongst other invited community activists and political leaders – refused to meet with the mayor. The refusal received a significant amount of attention.

The video showing the killing of McDonald was as awful as it had been described in media reports. It appears as if McDonald is shot twice, causing him to fall to the ground. While on the ground, he is shot several more times. Smoke or debris appears to rise from the area around his body. His body is left in the street while officers walk in the vicinity. No one offers him medical assistance.

It would be almost impossible to draw attention away from that protests over that video.

And yet…

Protests marched through downtown Chicago the night the video was released, mostly organized by BYP 100. They were largely peaceful. Only five arrests were made that evening. Two of the five were members of BYP 100, including London. Police allege London threw a smoke bomb, which fellow activists deny. Many fellow protesters saw London’s arrest as payback for both his group’s refusal to meet with the mayor and their organizing efforts.

The day after the protests, London’s court hearing was the story of the day. Very quickly, London was released and charges were dropped with no comment from either the judge, the prosecutor or police as to why.

Most of the attention around the McDonald/Van Dyke case was focused on London’s arrest though some stories began to circulate about McCarthy and Alvarez’s roles in delaying the release of the video and charges in the case. City Council aldermen within Chicago’s black caucus called for McCarthy to be fired. The National Bar Association, the oldest and largest association of African-American lawyers and judges, called for Alvarez and McCarthy to be fired.

A day before the release of the video, Father Michael Pfleger, a white activist pastor at St. Sabina in Chicago’s predominantly black Auburn Gresham neighborhood, announced his intentions to protest against the McDonald/Van Dyke case along Michigan Avenue on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. He called on others to do the same. As the week went on, more groups announced their intention to join him. Protesters would meet at Michigan and Wacker at 11am and march along the Magnificent Mile, a draw for city residents and tourists alike. Blanket media coverage would be a given.

It would be almost impossible to draw attention away from that protests over that video.

And yet…

At 4am on the day of the planned Black Friday protest, Chicago Police announced they had made an arrest in the November 2nd murder of nine-year-old Tyshawn Lee. There was no word as to whether the person arrested was the shooter or an accomplice. Additional information would be made available later that morning.

Tyshawn’s murder was especially heinous. He was gunned down in an alley near his house. Reports said it was retaliatory for his father’s involvement in gang activity. The killing of Tyshawn received national coverage with some commentators suggesting his death did not receive as much attention or protest as the McDonald/Van Dyke case though few in the community see it that way.

As of this writing, the extent of the charges against the person involved in Lee’s shooting or how it will be prosecuted is not yet known. UPDATE: Chicago Police arrested Corey Morgan on murder charges and have a warrant out for a second man. Chicago Tribune has details. The Sun-Times‘s Andy Grimm documented Morgan’s bond hearing on Twitter, which included statements from the prosecutor.

More protests are planned in Chicago while residents still await answers as to why it took 400 days for charges to be filed by Alvarez against Jason Van Dyke in the killing of Laquan McDonald and why McCarthy continued to keep Van Dyke on the Chicago Police force during that time despite the obvious nature of the crime.

Mayor Emanuel has made no public comment on the case since the release of the video. As protests filled Michigan Avenue, he attended the city’s official tree lighting ceremony.

It was impossible to draw attention away from the protests occurring just blocks away.

At Mizzou, the tension between the message, the medium and the marginalized

Graduate student Jonathan Butler leads the protestors in a chant in Jesse Hall at the University of Missouri in Columbia, Missouri, on Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2015. (KOMUNews image via Creative Commons license.)

Graduate student Jonathan Butler leads the protesters at the University of Missouri on Oct. 6, 2015. KOMUNews image via Creative Commons license. Link

I’ve been struggling to reconcile competing thoughts on what’s happening at Mizzou, specifically between students and reporters.

This Vox post, quoting a Washington Post article about the parallel conversation at Yale, talks about an important part of these stories that’s often ignored:

One of the purposes of college is to articulate stupid arguments in stupid ways and then learn, through interactions with fellow students and professors, exactly how stupid they are. Anyone who thinks that the current generation of college students is uniquely stupid is either an amnesiac or willfully ignorant… As a professor with 20 years of experience, I can assure you that college students have been saying stupid things since the invention of college students.

The difference today is that because of social media, it is easy for college students to have their opinions go viral when that was not the original intent… If you are older than 22 and reading this, imagine for a second how you would feel if professional pundits pored over your undergraduate musings in real time.

So on one hand, I get it: Nobody wants an unintended gesture made or statement said in the heat of a chaotic situation to represent you on the Internet for the next 10-15 years. On the other hand, a cause that’s just and fair should withstand the scrutiny of an open press. The most newsworthy part of the Mizzou story was the black football players banding together and refusing to play – a story that touches on lots of hot-button issues: race, the ongoing conversation about unpaid student athletes, worker protections, social justice, etc. These issues should get a proper vetting in the press.

Still, how do Mizzou students exercise their collective right to protest and make change, do it in a transparent way and protect their rights to privacy? Honestly, I’m not sure. Yes, this is all being done in public space and on some level this isn’t private. But the coverage often outlasts the moment and at some point it affects the comfort level sources have with the press.

Is it possible to protect the right to make a mistake in protest efforts but also keep traditional media close? Does that get you anything as a protest group in 2015? It’s as much a risk as a benefit. If you have access to social media, which – thanks to Black Twitter and other groups – can amplify a story to its intended audience and understand it in a way traditional press cannot, why risk talking to CNN? Yes, there’s a First Amendment right to a free press, but these student groups aren’t a governmental body. Late today, the groups seemed to realize they’d perhaps started to do themselves more harm than good.

Prior to the last year, the national media has often undercovered stories on race. Even with an increased effort to cover these kinds of stories, they’re usually filmed through a Manchiean lens – this view vs. that view. A story like Mizzou is far more complicated with some folks seeming to act in a contradictory way. After a year of watching the way on-the-ground stories have been twisted by a virality-driven national media, I’m not surprised there’s a distrust of people who parachute into an event that has a complicated backstory. Somewhere in here, the affects of all the cuts that have happened to newspapers’ local and regional bureaus have prevented an ongoing dialogue between the press and their potential sources and the press now finds itself literally blocked out.

I don’t have a clear set of answers or a way forward here, but it’s clear this won’t be the last time reporters will be challenged in how to cover on-the-ground stories with marginalized groups. Just like their counterparts on the business side, they’ll need to stop insisting on a return to a previous model and adapt, perhaps – as local stories like this blow up into national stories quickly – by rebuilding the bureau model around beats, rather than geographic areas.

EDITED TO ADD: Having said all that, I pretty much sign on to the views expressed in this Atlantic article, too.

Mark Kirk has a very specific image of the South Side

Image: Republican U.S. Senate candidate Mark Kirk of Illinois celebrates at election night rally in WheelingThis week, Illinois Senator Mark Kirk referred to Lindsey Graham – an unmarried Presidential candidate – as “a bro with no ho.” He further intimated “that’s what we’d say on the South Side.” (Kirk was born in Champaign, IL and is a resident of Highland Park, IL where the median income is $108,393.)

The Washington Post heard that second sentence as “on the street.” Either way, it found “bro with no ho” is not in colloquial use on the South Side or anywhere else and is likely something Kirk made up.

It’s tempting to think of this as a one-off remark from an out-of-touch white guy who’s trying to adopt an urban patois that both enhances his cred while simultaneously critiquing the language patterns of a lower socioeconomic population.

In fact, it’s a pattern of Kirk’s who clearly sees the black neighborhoods as a wasteland of violence and corruption.

Back in April, he referred to “the black community” as “the one we drive faster through.

Then there was the time in 2013 when Kirk said he wanted to spend $500 million dollars to have federal agents roll into South Side neighborhoods and round up gang members:

The freshman Republican senator visited Englewood as part of a deal with Chicago Democratic congressman Bobby Rush to help smooth over tensions from earlier this year.  In May, Kirk proposed spending $500 million in federal funds to arrest 18,000 members of the Gangster Disciples street gang as a solution to combat violence. Rush responded that Kirk’s idea was an “upper-middle-class, elitist white boy solution to a problem he knows nothing about.” [SNIP] Kirk responded: “Oftentimes when people say you cannot police your way out of this, I would say thank God that Illinois and Chicago didn’t believe that. We could’ve just let Al Capone run the whole place.” The audience scoffed at the decades-old crime reference and tried to explain street crime to Kirk.

At least then he actually toured the neighborhood instead of hitting the gas when he approached it.

As Kirk approaches a re-election fight, it’s also worth remembering the time in 2010 when he said he wanted to “voter integrity” monitors to the South and West sides because Democrats would be likely to “jigger the numbers somewhat” there. Nevermind that voter fraud of this nature barely exists and such tactics are usually intended to suppress minority voter turnout.

So it was interesting to hear Kirk proudly wear the mantle of the South Side this week when he so often seems to want nothing to do with it.