The willingness to be uninformed (5×8 – 6/14/12)

The newspaper canary dies, the comeback of the street in Minneapolis, revisiting bike-to-work day, a sense of place in the Twin Cities, and Minnesota Nice.


1) THE NEWSPAPER CANARY DIES

What a lousy week for the newspaper industry! This week the Rochester Post Bulletin announced it’s going to cut jobs and send the job of designing and laying out the local paper to Illinois. In Birmingham, Alabama, only 41 of 102 people in its newspaper newsroom are left. Hundreds of employees of the New Orleans Times Picayune lost their jobs when the newspaper decided to stop printing the dead-trees edition most days during the week. In all, 600 newspaper employees in the country lost their jobs on a single day.

And not many people who don’t make their living in the business could give a rip. That is the story.

There are lousy newspapers that don’t matter, but the death of the Times Picayune — its half-hearted attempt to survive online will fail; trust me. You don’t cut half your staff and still have the ability to do good journalism — is a significant one because it was a good newspaper. A bunch of cops who shot unarmed citizens on a bridge during Hurricane Katrina got stiff prison sentences because the newspaper was relentless in uncovering their attempt to cover it up.

Twitter didn’t uncover with the story, Facebook didn’t uncover the story, radio, TV, and podcasts didn’t uncover the story. The Huffington Post didn’t uncover the story. A newspaper brought people to justice.

“The main thing is I’m sad for this city,” photographer John McCusker tells NPR this morning. “You take away the Times-Picayune, and there are a bunch of police officers that were on the Danziger Bridge that would still be on the streets today.”

During the hurricane, newspaper employees left their families and flooding homes to put out its electronic edition, literally saving lives. For that, the people — people — won a Pulitzer Prize for the newspaper. Many of those people are now out of work.

Former staffer John McQuaid, writing on The Atlantic website, suggests if New Orleans is losing a paper of quality, no others are safe.


There are many promising experiments underway, whether with aggressive community engagement and social media, or paywalls and premium content. But with nola.com, the owners have so far promised to deliver only the barest bones of what an online news operation does: 24-hour coverage. In a click-centric website this can mean a hamster-wheel ethic, with staffers churning out blog posts, tweets, and video snippets 24/7, with little time to go deeper.

That is a shame — a travesty, really — because New Orleans is the ideal place to build a sustainable, innovative local newsgathering operation. In 2005, The Times-Picayune won widespread recognition its brave coverage of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the devastating flooding that followed. Staffers camped out with most of the city under water and without electricity, and documented the unfolding FEMA snafu. (I worked on flood coverage as well, though from a safe remove in the Washington bureau.)

Since then, the Times-Picayune has expertly handled the most challenging ongoing story a newspaper can encounter: the drama of a city literally rebuilding itself, body and soul. And despite diminished resources, it has ably covered major news including the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and continued to do investigations, such as this recent deep dive on Louisiana’s prisons. The paper hasn’t been perfect, by any means. Some love it, some hate it, but everybody reads it. It has one of the highest so-called penetration rates — percentage of residents who read the physical paper — in the United States.

The Times Picayune is the canary in the coal mine. Its death signals the end of the watchdog to prevent cops from killing citizens and politicians from being corrupt without impunity. That has to still matter to a national citizenry that has increasingly, it seems, been willing to accept being uninformed.

Watch Times-Picayune Editor on Commitment Amid Cutbacks on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.

2) THE STREET COMEBACK

“Skyway or street?” has become the “plastic or paper?” of urban living again, at least in Minneapolis. The second-floor economy that made the street-level irrelevant — thanks to the skyway system — is giving way to a new reality, Streets.mn says, because it’s worth it hitting the street, again.


First, food carts. They are popping up all over downtown, and elsewhere. They line Marquette Avenue, and out come the crowds to the sidewalks (the publci realm) where nobody but smokers used to hang out. I guarantee the designers behind the recent rebuild of Marquette and 2nd did not have food carts in mind. But in a happy coincidence, there are no midday buses, so the northbound curb lane of Marquette is the perfect space for a row of food carts. It just goes to show that people yearn to embrace and enjoy their public realm, if you give them a reason to do so. Take that, skyways!

3) POSTSCRIPT: BIKE-TO-WORK DAY

There’s a guy in this who walks to work. From Woodbury.

4) A SENSE OF PLACE

What’s the deal with the people who named Minnesota’s cities? Here’s a terrific commentary in today’s Star Tribune on the similarity of names. Shoreview, Shorewood, St. Paul Park, St. Louis Park, Maplewood, Maple Grove, Maple Plain, Spring Lake Park. And we haven’t even talked, yet, about West St. Paul being south of St. Paul, just as South St. Paul is.

Greg Cunningham’s op-ed will have the native circling the wagons:


It is perhaps more than coincidental that Shoreview, Spring Lake Park and Mounds View were given names similar to Shorewood, Spring Park and Mound — three affluent Lake Minnetonka cities. When I lived in Los Angeles, real-estate agents referred to the unincorporated neighborhood next to Beverly Hills as “Beverly Hills Adjacent.” The thinking was that the name tie-in resulted in an automatic increase in the property values in the copycat neighborhood.

Still, the operative word was “adjacent.” Anyone who mistakenly found themselves in the wrong “Beverly Hills” had only a five-minute drive (20 in traffic) to the other. A Minnesotan who mistakenly finds himself in Shoreview, Spring Lake Park or Mounds View has to traverse half the metro area to get to the corresponding Lake Minnetonka city. Indeed, you can’t even see Mound from Mounds View. What sense does that make?

Over to you, natives.

5) MINNESOTA NICE

Today’s favorite in the Minneapolis 48 Hour Film Project competition…

Minnesota Nice 48 Hour Film Project Minneapolis 2012 from X140lu on Vimeo.

TODAY’S QUESTION

A new report says Minnesota is warming faster than most other states. Today’s Question: What possible evidence of climate charge have you observed in your daily life?

WHAT WE’RE DOING

Daily Circuit (9-12 p.m.) – First hour: The battle over national security leaks.

Second hour: How scientists are finding ways to fix once incurable disabilities, by using our own minds.

Third hour: When do kids become adults?

MPR News Presents (12-1 pm): Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, speaking at the Commonwealth Club of California about his new book, “The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future.”

Talk of the Nation (1-2 p.m.) – Daniel Okrent, and Marilyn Sokol, of the off-Broadway show, “Old Jews Telling Jokes.”

All Things Considered (3-6:30 p.m.) - A string of high-profile wrongful convictions has raised awareness of serious problems with the work of medical examiners and other forensic experts around the country. The Innocence Project and some of Minnesota’s top medical examiners and forensic scientists say defense attorneys need to do a better job of challenging junk science at trial. But attorneys are not scientists, and it’s not easy to identify when an expert is bending the truth about a complicated lab test or making up a story about the type of knife used in a stabbing. Many in the legal community say the first step is education. In response, on defense attorneys from around the state attended a day-long crash course in forensic pathology, sponsored by the Innocence Project. The group hopes the training will help prevent wrongful convictions. MPR’s Madeleine Baran will have the story.

In the U..S., manicures were once the exclusive province of the rich and famous. That’s before Vietnamese immigrants arrived and cornered the market on inexpensive nail-care salons. How they came to dominate the market is the result of a community’s dream for economic self-sufficiency. NPR will have the story as part of its new series on the American dream.

  • Jim Shapiro

    Bob – Don’t you feel just a teensy bit ironic bemoaning the death of newsprint while writing for a digital media?

    Yes, the feel and the smell and the habit will be missed by many of our generation.

    But the quantity and quality of professional investigative journalism not only survives but is arguably increasing.

    And everyone and their dog owning a smartphone with a camera can do more to fend off abuse by authorities then all of the surviving print reporters in the world combined.

  • Susan

    4) During the housing boom, my husband and I were looking for a house in St Louis Park. In driving around, my husband came across one we hadn’t seen. He asked our realtor to arrange a showing. It took the realtor some time to find the posting, because it was listed under Spring Lake Park. We ended up purchasing it for much less than if it had been posted in the right city.

    And, the author of the piece is Gregg J. Cavanagh not Cunningham.

  • Chuck

    In re #4, “Sense of Place”: The Minnesota Historical Society website has an entire section on Minnesota place names (http://mnplaces.mnhs.org/upham/index.cfm). I don’t know if this will lessen the confusion (for example, I lived in Shorewood for 6 years, and I still have to stop before I speak to make sure I don’t say “Shoreview”), but it is an interesting look into our state’s development.

  • Bob Collins

    // Don’t you feel just a teensy bit ironic bemoaning the death of newsprint while writing for a digital media? Yes, the feel and the smell and the habit will be missed by many of our generation. But the quantity and quality of professional investigative journalism not only survives but is arguably increasing. And everyone and their dog owning a smartphone with a camera can do more to fend off abuse by authorities then all of the surviving print reporters in the world combined.

    There are some minor examples of “new” journalism doing good investigative work, but, you know, look at who’s involved and you probably find someone who trained at a newspaper.

    Everyone, when they’re honest, who’s in the media, knows that the newspaper sets the news agenda and it’s not because it’s a habit. It’s because the newspaper has the resources and tradition to throw at stories. No other medium does.

    It’s a monumental mistake to think that a person with a cellphone can make up for this for a simple fact: Corruption often doesn’t happen in plain sight. A LOT doesn’t happen in plain sight. And the person who has a cellphone camera doesn’t know how to ask the right questions and doesn’t have the resources to keep asking questions in a fashion that can replace newspapers.

    I realize that there are plenty of organizations who specialize in going to out-in-the-open events and hearings, broadcasting it online and saying they’re an effective alternative to real journalism. They’re wrong. They’re a nice addition; they’re not an effective replacement.

    There is simply no sustainable argument that the people of a newspaper’s newsroom can be eliminated without a corresponding decrease in the ignorance of the public.

  • MikeB

    Not enough people want to pay for investigative journalism, or even what used to be referred to as hard news. People want to be entertained. As for public issues or politics, people gravitate to sources they agree with.

    We are seeing the effects of an uninformed public more and more, especially with the fragmentation of how/where people get their news and information. People choose their own sets of facts now and can be comforted by web sites and news channels that reinforce that short sightedness.

    But these are commercial forces at work. What used to be a comfortable business is now seen as a profit center, to be squeezed dry and resold before anyone notes the decline in value.

    Not sure what will come of this over the long term, other than it won’t be what we used to know.

  • Jim Shapiro

    Bob – Well articulated. I was arguing the glass half full position.

  • SomeGuy

    If big print news go away then online, magazines (see:matt taibbi), smaller print (lillydale press, PAtch, et al.), and tv will take its place.

    The world is changing and the old guard is afraid for the future. Wow, that’s never happened before.

    Maybe, just maybe, if prior to this “collapse” papers weren’t mouth pieces for PR and corrupt government things would be different, but I doubt it.

    You use the example of scum-bag cops being taken down as a result of this paper and it’s a good example, but really — reading most papers is just reading a collection of recycled corporate talking points, PR garbage, and old A.P. stories.

    I trust what I read in the paper about as much as gossip on the street. Maybe I’ll head to the Strib now and see what’s up with the weather, a sex scandal, or some athlete. Journalism?

  • Disco

    I’d argue that the whole “watchdog” function has been gone for years. What rules the mainstream media these days is conflating Democrats and Republicans. The whole false equivalency thing. Fairness at the expense of accuracy. You don’t want to be tagged with the scarlet “L” — the “liberal” media.

  • Ken Paulman

    Based purely anecdotally on the volume of calls I received as a features editor and as an assistant city editor, I can assure you that a large number of newspaper subscribers – if not a plurality – aren’t (or weren’t) buying the paper for the journalism.

    Even our most groundbreaking investigative work couldn’t match an error in the crossword puzzle or a change in the comics page in terms of generating a reaction from readers.

    People bought newspapers for a lot of reasons – not just the news of the day, but for puzzles, comics, ads, movie times, restaurant reviews, recipes, community events, a daily outrage from the letters to the editor – functions that we now generally accept as better performed by digital media.

    And the reality is that newspapers aren’t in the journalism business, they’re in the advertising business. No amount of sturm und drang over the decline of investigative reporting will change the fact that daily print is no longer the only game in town for advertisers.

    I don’t disagree that newspapers have – and still do – provide the bulk of shoe-leather journalism that we rely on. But I’m not aware of any evidence that the public values this information any more or less than they did 20 years ago.

    The decline of print newsrooms (or specifically, the ad revenue that paid for them) will certainly impact the quality of our discourse. But it’s a change brought about by economic forces, and I think it’s a mistake to conflate it with some sort of rising indifference among the public. People marched in the street to protest the Times-Pic’s reduced publication schedule, but until that outrage can be converted into dollars, it doesn’t really change much.

  • Ken Paulman

    Also, West St. Paul is so named because it’s on the “west” bank of the Mississippi.

  • CHS

    Regarding the death of the newspaper…. I’m not sure that the death of print newspapers will essentially mean the demise of good journalism. The need and more importantly the desire for good news coverage and investigative journalism is there, it just needs to adapt to a changing consumption model. I am waiting for the backlash against the entertainment news cycle, and I actually am fairly hopeful that it will come sooner than later. When that does, the newspapers that have adapted or at least started will be poised to fill the gap and succeed. It’s a brave new world.

    That said, I love reading a paper, and I think many younger people do as well. The problem is that with the current work environment it is nearly impossible to enjoy it or have the time to do it. Nearly everyone is commuting longer distances, needing to leave early to get to work the longer hours required in our employment market. With public transit not used by most, it’s no wonder no one reads the print paper.

    Regarding #4: It actually makes pretty good sense why the names of West St. Paul and South St. Paul are geographically challenged…. they are named in relation to the river, not the compass. West St. Paul is over the west bank of the river, South St. Paul is downriver (south). It just happens that the river takes a nice funny bend through St. Paul and doesn’t run north/south there.

  • Bob Collins

    // Even our most groundbreaking investigative work couldn’t match an error in the crossword puzzle or a change in the comics page in terms of generating a reaction from readers. People bought newspapers for a lot of reasons –

    but in many ways, it doesn’t matter. The newspaper still is the only medium that can publish a story on Sunday, and a bill or investigation is underway at the Capitol as a result of it on a Monday. That still has a positive — mostly — impact on people, even if they only read the paper for the horoscopes.

  • Bob Collins

    // I’d argue that the whole “watchdog” function has been gone for years.

    and I would argue that there are six cops in New Orleans who would disagree with that. I would argue that the focus on PTSD, largely as a result of the work of newspapers makes that untrue, and I would argue that the now abandoned practice of tossing returning soldiers body parts in a landfill in Virginia renders the argument untrue.

  • Mark Gisleson

    The Times-Picayune was a very good newspaper. I do not recall them having taken point on building the Super Dome, or lying to their readers excessively about proposed tax cuts for the rich.

    The news is the news is the news. Whether it’s printed with soy ink on processed dead trees or beamed through the ether you need reporters to report and, if we’re lucky, editors to edit, but the rest is just formatting.

  • Ken Paulman

    The newspaper still is the only medium that can publish a story on Sunday, and a bill or investigation is underway at the Capitol as a result of it on a Monday.

    Really?

  • fasolamatt

    Maplewood, Maple Plain, Maple Grove… and Chanhassen (Dakota for maple)

  • Bob Collins

    // but the rest is just formatting.

    If that were really true, you wouldn’t lay off half your newsroom because of a change in format. You’d lay off your printers and drivers and circulation people.

  • Mark Gisleson

    They didn’t? I really don’t know because the news media rarely seems to talk about layoffs other than to lay them at the doorstep of some politician. Blue collar job losses are traditionally a statistic and not a subject of media mourning.

    And, of course, I’d be loathe to miss this opportunity to point out that newspapers have for at least the last couple of decades been delivered by independent contractors whose jobs clearly fall under the heading of “employee.” State governments never challenge that illegal arrangement because few politicians are willing to challenge folks who buy their ink by the barrel (sadly, it seems they couldn’t care less how much ether you own).

  • Jim Shapiro

    In light of the general quality of much of the “news” reporting,

    I wouldn’t mind so much if numbers of reporters were laid off, if they could be replaced by a couple of quality editors.

  • Mark Gisleson

    Jim, I dunno. I’d rather have poorly sourced news than punctuationally correct news that’s been adjusted for local sensibilities.

    Is there any stuff out there about the role of news editors evolving away from objective standards to hewing the company line?

  • Kevin

    My neighborhood in St Paul is sometimes called Crocus Hill, especially by real estate agents. But we live in the part with the small bungalows interspersed with apartment buildings, not in the part with the fancy Victorians. Plenty of people claim that Crocus Hill really is just a small area of the neighborhood east of Dale, but don’t tell that to Cooks of Crocus Hill.

    We’ve jokingly called our part of the neighborhood “Lower Crocus Hill”, but I may have to try out “Crocus Hill Adjacent”.

  • Jim Shapiro

    Mark – I was referring to the editorial task of directing writers to fact check and include relevant background and context information.

    Sadly, many editors are middle managers who report to the big boss, which is often the big advertiser.

    Happily, there are honorable exceptions to that rule.

  • Mark Gisleson

    Jim, I guess I was thinking about Abby Simons coverage of the Amy Senser trial. Every day she’d write long (online) and by day’s end the editors would chop her copy down and in so doing they’d invariably remove a lot of the details that were hostile to Senser.

    A friend who attended the trial every day told me about some of Mrs. Senser’s testimony that was never adequately reported on, and which very strongly suggested she was involved with her boss (he was one of the people she called immediately after the accident).

    If you read the PiPress, the guilty verdict seemed inevitable, but I think a lot of Strib readers were shocked. Now this morning I see that the Strib is again muzzling comments on a hit and run story, which is pretty damned odd seeing as how the cops are still trying to identify the driver.

  • Jim Shapiro

    Mark – Thanks for the info on the editing of Simons’ work on the Senser trial. What I read by her was flagrantly biased pro-Senser, and I told her so in no uncertain terms.

    She did not respond – either to stand by her writing or to say that she had been heavily edited.

    In spite of her silence, your comment will result in my giving her more slack, if not the benefit of the doubt.

  • Mark Gisleson

    Jim, it’s my understanding that there are before and after screenshots of the articles, and each day as the articles got shortened, they very consistently removed the stuff that made the Senser family look bad. The examples I’ve been given indicate that most of the local media failed to pick up on Senser family testimony that spoke volumes about how utterly bogus their case was.

    Despite a couple of jurors who were clearly awestruck by the Senser family (and no, I cannot begin to explain that) it was painfully clear to those who heard all the testimony that the Sensers lied almost constantly about what happened.

    You need to remember that the Strib was literally shamed into running an op-ed by True Thai’s owner (both the PiPress and City Pages ripped them a new one). Her op-ed was sparked by her outrage at how some local media folks were quick to defend the Sensers while failing to report on the victim, and yes, she mentioned Bob Collins but I think that was more of an afterthought. Bob was being very journalismo about the case but after reading Esme Murphy and Gail Rosenbloom, I think her patience with local media was exhausted and she was just trying to make her list longer.

    And here’s a free front page story for anyone who wants it: Amy Senser’s victim, Anousone Phanthavong, originally lived in Milwaukee when he came to the U.S. His best friend there was another Lao immigrant, Konerak Sinthasomphone. If that name rings a bell, it’s because Konerak was one of Jeffrey Dahmer’s victims. So far as I know, the only reason why that connection wasn’t in the news despite this being shopped around is that no one seems to have the budget to verify the facts (which tend to be elusive after twenty years).