I believe the interns are our future

This post is a little “inside baseball” and I’m kind of burying the lede. So if you want to immediately see what I’m building up to, read this.

A couple weeks ago – as we were going to press on the blogging issue of Time Out Chicago – I found out that the cover story of Chicago magazine’s February issue was “171 Great Chicago Websites.”

Initially, I hit the roof.

Our feature involved critics from almost every major media entity in the city – I interviewed a handful of them for my story and Theater writer Kris Vire hosted a critics’ chat room with many more – so we were a bit worried that another publication would get wind of it and scoop us on our story.

To the casual observer, it probably looks someone’s a copycat. But Chicago magazine is a monthly, so they were probably closing their feature before we started writing ours, and I can honestly say that no one at TOC knew about what they were doing until we closed. It’s a coincidence that occurs often when you’ve got so much media out there.

After perusing a copy of Chicago, it turned out that both features covered different ground. Ours was focused on online criticism, specifically, and they cast their net wider to include every informational resource in town, and then some. They did a very thorough job, and I was hoping both stories would spur more of a discussion about what’s happening online in Chicago, but so far that hasn’t happened.

While Chicago beat us to the punch on the newsstands, we beat ’em online. In fact, I’ve been waiting for weeks for the story to show up on its website, as its other stories from February are already up. It’s been a running joke in the TOC offices that Chicago‘s story about websites wasn’t actually on its website even while people were commenting on the placeholder page.

As someone whose job depends on all media recognizing the importance of the Internet, I was irritated that Chicago wasn’t gettin’ to business. I was complaining about this to one of the NYC directors that was in town, and she said “Well why don’t you just put the links on our blog?”

And that’s how this happened. And then Metroblogging Chicago did us both one better by creating a newsreader file of both their story and ours.

So far, no reaction from the folks at Chicago magazine, but I’m hoping they’ll take it in the good-natured spirit that it’s offered. There’s already a troll in the comments section at Chicagoist who’s making the predictable arguments. (The notion that because our intern was working on this story, all other work in our offices stopped is amusing, but not worth addressing).

Blogging and remixing content of other media outlets isn’t “stealing” so long as credit is given where credit is due (for example, Gridskipper routinely Google-maps TOC content for stories like this). I’ve had dust-ups in the office about how our content’s being used online. Over the past year, one of my goals has been to get folks there to understand that this is the way that media works now, it’s ultimately good for us, and TOC needs to be doing it as much as Chicagoist, Gapers Block and all the rest do (so long as we stick to standards of journalism ethics, even if other folks don’t).

If we – or any other media entity – fails to recognize the importance of what’s happening online, someone else will.

U2's manager is barking up the wrong metaphorical tree

Mega-selling bands – and their managers – need to stop presenting themselves as the standard bearer for artists who are losing money due to illegal downloads. If you have ever toured with a giant lemon as part of your stage show, you lose the argument before you begin.

Having said that, here’s what U2’s manager Paul McGuiness has to say about the role of ISPs vis a vis illegal downloading:

“‘If you were a magazine advertising stolen cars, handling the money for stolen cars and seeing to the delivery of stolen cars, the police would soon be at your door,’ he said. ‘That’s no different to an ISP, but they say they can’t do anything about it.'”

Leaving aside for the moment the whole notion that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 means that ISPs are not, in fact, liable for such behavior, let’s look at what McGuinness is really saying here.

If a “magazine” was taking possession of stolen cars and receiving money for them, they would, in fact, be breaking the law. But let’s go with this and say that possession of copyrighted material that you do not own is like a stolen car (better return that copy of Freakonomics or The National album now!). ISPs neither receive money for the possession of copyrighted material (his first point) nor do they provide the programs that allow one to access copyrighted material (his second point about “seeing to the delivery” of stolen material). This would be like saying that the builder of a garage used to operate a chop shop is responsible for the thievery that goes on there. Or that Xerox is responsible for people who photocopy books.

I could go on, but what’s the point? This is like the time I told my sister that the government wasn’t responsible for providing for a particular service because it wasn’t in the Constitution and she replied “Well asparagus isn’t in the Constitution…” How do you argue with logic that isn’t logical?

This whole argument is stemming from Canada’s efforts to tax ISPs (they call it a fee, but come on now) and funnel that music to artists. Anyone who’s been following the business of music for the last 50 years ought to be suspicious of such a plan, even if such a fee goes directly to the music publishers and bypasses labels altogether. Sound Opinions also discussed this topic recently and I’m surprised they jumped on board with it. If for no other reason but that not everyone uses his or her Internet connection to download music they haven’t paid for.

But hey: let’s compromise. How about anyone who buys an album by crap Canadian bands has to pay a “bad taste” tax? So if you by the next album by Celine Dion, Nickelback, Sum 41 or Avril Lavigne, you have to pay an extra five bucks. Who’s with me?

25 in 12: Never A City So Real by Alex Kotlowitz

I’ve seen and heard about the “52 Books in 52 Weeks” meme, and marveled that anyone could read that many books in a year, even though I’m a huge fan of reading literature and non-fiction. Between reading blogs, devouring new issues of The Economist, and listening to podcasts, the amount of free time I have for reading books often falls by the wayside so 52 in a year would be impossible. If I added in comic books, though…

I’ve decided to make more of an effort this year to hear that delicious sound of a newly cracked book spine, and will be blogging about it to keep myself on track. But my goal is modest, hence “25 in 12.”

The first book I read was one I’ve been meaning to pick up for a while, and it was this month’s Gaper’s Block Book Club selection. I was unable to make the actual discussion, but I’m not sure that it interfered with my appreciation of the book. Because I think for any Chicagoan, Alex Kotlowitz’s Never A City So Real feels like a very personal look at his or her city, whether they see themselves in it or not.

Chicago is a city of neighborhoods, and by extension a city of persons (not people, but persons). It’s (we’re?) a city that’s often derided – even shamed – for corruption that silences the voices of individuals in favor of the groups that wield power in both the city and county. Despite their efforts, a walk around the city still reveals the power of the individual in shaping the city as a whole, and Never A City So Real is part of a series of books that explores just that.

Kotlowitz references the great Chicago chroniclers like Studs Terkel, Nelson Algren and Carl Sandburg – both directly, and in the stories he tells. The most direct line can be drawn from Terkel’s Division Street: America. Like Division Street, the story of the city is told here by those affected by the actions of the larger forces at work in the city. But unlike Division Street‘s arms-length storytelling, Never A City So Real shows us Chicago through Kotlowitz’s friends and acquaintances, whether it’s the owner of a diner that begrudgingly serves as a way station for migrant workers, a lawyer who describes her job at 26th and California in terms usually reserved for those that speak of their work as “a calling,” or the former union steelworker who takes his students on field trips through the forgotten parts of a once vibrant industry.

The one quibble I have with Never A City So Real is that it doesn’t stop to tell the story of the Chicago transplant, which is as much a legitimate part of the city’s history as the stories of its natives. Kotlowitz himself says at the beginning of the book that when he arrived here, he planned to stay for only two years, which turned into 20-plus. Chicago hosts plenty of temporary residents who see the city as a way station to somewhere else or as a place to carve out an identity before moving onto another life. But there are also many who move here and find it to be home. Why does that happen? What is it about this city that allows people to thrive? Why is it a city that’s often the right mix of comfort and challenge? I have my own theories, but it’s a story that ought to be told from more than one viewpoint, just like the story Kotlowitz tells here.

Kotlowitz plays to his strengths here, as he’s a storyteller who’s been on the front lines of the toughest parts of the city; his earlier, indispensable book There Are No Children Here offers a similar, sadder tour of the city’s forgotten areas. Throughout his works, we find a central theme, and that is this:

This is a city of fighters. Some of us fight silent battles, while others of us use whatever means at our disposal – our voices, our connections, our jobs, our keyboards – to rise above the din and carve out a niche that feels like home as we offer a counterargument to the conventional wisdom. It’s expected that you will meet people who challenge your point of view, while embracing your challenge all the same. The Chicago motto is “Urbs in horto” or “City In A Garden”, but I think we’d be better served with “In Varietas, Civitas”: “In Differences, Community.” *

* I never took Latin, so if that’s an inelegant translation, blame the Internet.

TOC tackles blogs

This week’s Time Out Chicago is devoted to an important question: as blogging and user reviews become the most widely-read forms of reviewing and criticism, how do you know who to listen to?

The answer is simple: Read more.

I’ll just dispense with two bits right off the bat: anyone who doesn’t take blogging or amateur review sites like Yelp seriously is an idiot and anyone who doesn’t read any critic or reviewer with skepticism is too.

I wrote the lead story in the feature package, in part because I was so mouthy about how it should be written during the early brainstorming sessions that the Features department finally called my bluff and said “OK, you write it then.” It’s already engendering a little hysteria on the Yelp forums – hysteria that quickly dissipates when someone actually reads the piece.

I’ll admit to being in the pro-blogging camp, thanks to my time at Chicagoist; there is simply no better medium than blogging for writing about the immediacy of culture. But even though it’s a medium that’s been around for a decade, people are still coming to terms with it as its effects shape the consensus about not just movies and music, but also restaurants, businesses and current events. I believe online writing ought to be treated the same way as print criticism: one should take the time to understand the person who’s doing the critiquing before they can really understand the writing.

This was a risky subject for us to tackle, since the fact that we’re published on paper will automatically make anything we have to say on the subject of blogging seem suspect. And truth be told, this issue was a difficult birth. But overall, I’m really happy with the job we did. We take a critical, but respectful look at online writing that addresses the pros and the cons.

I count many bloggers as friends and acquaintances. So perhaps there was a bit of myopia at work when I began this issue. I think I felt that the Chicago blogging community was much larger than it actually is. We really had to push ourselves to find people in Chicago that were looking at their chosen subjects with a critical voice (and weren’t blogging as an extension of their profession), while not being too duplicative in the people we chose to profile over eight different stories, most of which profile several different blogs. Some fields (theater, food) have more voices than others. But some that you’d expect would be overrun with criticism – music, for instance – were not.

Let me be clear: there are lots of great music bloggers in Chicago. You can click on any of the folks in the Chicago Music Blogs section at right, and find wit, intelligence, and great writing (and Lord knows that blogroll needs and update cos there are lots of people I’m missing). But the folks who are writing actual criticism – writing that puts the works they discuss in context and measures what the artist is trying to do against what they accomplished – are rare. The field is still wide open for someone to step in and have an influential voice. And this isn’t just me saying this. Most of the folks I talked to, bloggers and professional critics alike, had a tough time naming local online writers they checked out on a daily basis.

But it’s really true of any field of culture right now, despite the fact that Chicago magazine is able to name 171 great websites* in the city. There’s a lot of information out there, to be sure. But the world could really use someone to put it all in context. That ought to be a challenge to anyone reading this. Frankly, it ought to be a challenge for me to do more with this space than just making snide comments about 80s metal, but I could use a break from work sometimes.

I’d encourage you to read all the articles in the package, but in particular check out the online roundtable featuring local print and online critics and the rundown of amateur critics’ blogs we found most worthy of bookmark status.Oh and my piece, of course. But you’ve done that already, right?

* Their story is more about informational websites, rather than critical/reviewing websites. It’s something you’d be able to see for yourself if the damn thing was posted. I know what it’s like having a small Web team, Chicago magazine. But get this story online already!

Too long for Twitter, and not quite postworthy but…

…whatever happened to the casual relationship America used to have with Scott Baio? He was sort of like Leap Year. Every few years you’d hear about some hot woman he was having sex with, then respond with something akin to “Wow, how does that guy do it?” then make a Joanie Loves Chachi reference and be done with him until the next time.

I miss those days.

It's tough being Chicago's transit authority

OK, that’s a bit of a stretch. But this transit bill has been taking up an inordinate amount of my time at work what with interviewing the governor’s spokesperson, pointing out Blago’s own confusion over the bill, and live-blogging the Illinois House vote. As Yoda would say, tired I am.

Of course, it’s not over. We still don’t know who’s going to end up paying for free rides for seniors (hint: it’s probably you come 2009), whether we’re going to get a capital bill anytime soon and whether there will be blowback when people realize not all seniors will get free rides (only the RTA area and 14 downstate districts).

Barring any other Illinois governmental hijinx, next week I’ll be rolling out my “25 in 12” series of book reviews here.