Wednesday, March 20, 2019

News Makers 3: Media Talk with Wendi Thomas of MLK50 and Storyboard's Mark Fleischer

Posted By on Wed, Mar 20, 2019 at 1:29 PM

This post is supplemental to the Memphis Flyer cover package Going to Pieces about the state of print journalism in Memphis. This, and other posts featuring additional commentary by Wendi Thomas of MLK50, Jacinthia Jones of, Eric Barnes of The Daily Memphian, and Mark Fleischer of StoryBoard Memphis were created to include voices and ideas that didn’t make it into the main story.
Wendi Thomas
  • Wendi Thomas

Every day I wake up and discover I'm not on the wrong side of Wendi Thomas’  Twitter feed, is a good day.  I kid, but  when I typed that I’m pretty sure I heard a faint chorus of voices from Memphis' political and business communities saying “Amen.” And that’s a good thing. Whether she’s dragging area media because newsroom diversity (and its lack), determines content and perspective, or calling out bosses who won’t pay a living wage, Thomas is one of Memphis’ most critical journalists — castigatory, elucidative, and vital.

In spite of her long history as a columnist and editor for The Commercial Appeal, I didn’t sit down with Thomas to talk about struggling dailies or the print journalism business. We didn’t get too deep into discussing the reporters she’s cultivated and work she’s published online as founder of the digital “Justice Through Journalism” forum, MLK50, either. I asked Thomas to help me develop a working definition of “information justice,” a topic I’ll come back to in future posts. But some of our conversation did overlap with the Memphis Flyer cover story, Going to Pieces, so I’m sharing some lightly edited excerpts that complement both Jacinthia Jones’s vision for mass partnership and Madeline Faber’s thoughts about transparency and engagement.

Like Jones and Faber, Thomas thinks outside the traditional newspaper bundle. She shared some common sense ideas for distributing less commodified, hyper-local news directly with those the news most likely affects.

Memphis Flyer: I want to talk about information justice but I’m not completely sure I know what I mean by that.

Wendi Thomas: I think information justice starts with "just us" — and who the "us" is. The media doesn’t provide everybody with the information they need to live better lives, or make better decisions about things that are critical — housing, shelter, you know… I read a story about FedEx expansion plans. There’s new tech for getting boxes on planes but not a word about how this might affect employment. When you’re writing with an eye toward justice, these are the kinds of questions you’d ask. So that story wasn’t written for people who work in the hub, or even worried that they might have to ever work in the hub.

I try to imagine a media environment where the information people —low income people in particular — need to make better choices is accessible without too much expense or hassle. And I wonder who profits from the current media environment, where you have to make an effort to get information.

WT: I've never found out much about it, but you’ve probably seen a quote I tweet: “If you want to solve any problem in America, don’t study who suffers from it, study who profits.” That’s a huge gap missing in journalism as a whole. There are exceptions, like reporting about expensive calls from the jail. That story was out one week. The next week we weren’t going to make juveniles pay to call their parents anymore. Period, full stop. Public policy can be changed quickly in ways that affect vulnerable people. But somebody has to systematically examine industries, and government organizations, to find where those places are.

I don’t know anything about that quote’s provenance, but I've seen you share that and thought it was absolutely right.

WT: I was at a people-powered publishing conference where they were talking about, instead of trying to put our middle class selves in the shoes of a person in poverty, they should be involved in every step of the process. In my 25 years in journalism, this is something I’ve only done sporadically. We tend to think, you know, you report the story
– you go out and talk to the people, you write the story, you do the follow-up. But what if we completely dismantled that process? What if people are involved at every step, and you report on your reporting, in maybe less formal ways. Maybe it’s not 8 paragraphs or 400 words. Maybe it’s using Facebook Live or posting in a group. We talk about growing audience. Part of growing our audience is involving people in the process, and not always deciding what’s best.

You see that kind of transparency sometimes. I’m thinking of the Washington Post's investigation of the Trump Foundation, which involved posting notebooks, and keeping the process front and center. That changed things a little. But the level of engagement you’re describing is still rare, I think.

WT: It’s not built into our process. Your editor’s going to ask you, “Do you have art?” “Do you have diverse sources?” They’re not going to ask you, “How many times you engaged the people most affected by this?”

Let’s talk for a minute about how people get information, which obviously isn’t always the same as “news.” People weren’t always coming to the newspaper bundle for news. There are entertainment listings, housing and help wanted ads. Now people with public service information partner to multiply resources. Like if you’re doing a voter registration drive, you might piggyback with a health services opportunity, and engage people in barber shops and other third spaces. Can newsrooms learn from that?

WT: The library may be a more economically diverse third space. If we’re rethinking how we distribute information, there’s this system where you can send direct mail. Political candidates do it all the time, but I’ve never seen a journalist use it. So, say you’re writing something about 38126, which I think is the poorest zip code. So what if you used direct mail to distribute stories or solicit information in 38126? Or, you know, use the inserts you get in your MLGW bill? What if there was something in that? Or billboards? I have seen the Commercial Appeal do a little bit of that. Smaller outlets probably think they can’t afford billboards. But what if a non-profit found a way to underwrite [it] and every week maybe they worked with a different [news] outlet?

For justice-forward reports you can follow MLK50 — now part of ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network here.
Mark Fleischer says he’s heartened by the changes he’s seen at The Commercial Appeal since they hired new staff. But when Fleischer’s monthly newspaper Storyboard Memphis was in the works, Memphis’ daily was, “getting worse by the day.”

Fleischer, a California transplant now living in Midtown, describes himself as an urban studies enthusiast and “news junkie.”

“I started talking to people and realizing how many other stories need to be told,” he says. “And people have no means to tell them.” That’s when Fleischer, who’d already been blogging about Memphis, got an idea to start a digital magazine. That idea evolved into Storyboard Memphis, a monthly  broadsheet-style newspaper with original historical and urban-themed reporting, supplemented with news articles from many of Memphis’s digital-only news organizations like Chalkbeat and High Ground News.

Memphis Flyer: An online magazine sounds great, but how does it work? It’s tough putting even quality content behind a paywall if it’s not unique or if similar content is available somewhere else free.

Mark Fleischer: I didn’t see a digital magazine taking off. A couple of guys we all know in publishing said, “You should think about print.”... It took a year for me to convince myself that was doable... For-profit seemed the most straightforward way to go. I don’t want to be chasing non-profit money all the time.

You’ve solved at least part of the newsroom riddle by aggregating content from several of Memphis’s digital-only content providers, which is great for a lot of reasons. You get content, they get a sampler platter where they’re included in one nicely curated space with all these other information providers you’d have to track down individually online. Also, the digital divide — there are a lot more people who aren’t online than most people think.

Mark Fleischer: I remember thinking, if I can just convince High Ground to partner with me, and I can be their print medium. Then I’ve really got something.

The kind of deep dives into neighborhoods High Ground does seems like it really lends itself to the urbanist-focused work you’re doing.

Mark Fleischer: Yes. And I talked to Tom Jones at Smart City — same thing.

Another good fit.

Mark Fleischer: I realized, the more I talked about this, the more I realized there was an appetite for print. Maybe more like a hunger.

And there’s already all this content out there...

Mark Fleischer: It’s out there. But it’s out there in digital format. When I came up with Storyboard, I originally thought about telling a stories through all media: audio, podcast, video, photography, art. All that. Well, there’s no reason I can’t do that in print. Not audio and video, obviously, but we can certainly use the medium and get as close to that as possible... High Ground isn’t going to print any time soon. It’s just not in their model. Tom Jones can’t go to print, he doesn’t have enough content. But together we do have enough content. It’s like showing all the work being done by High Ground and Smart City and all these other niche publications.

Storyboard also features original reporting by Fleischer, fiction, poetry, puzzles, and children’s pages. Distribution is free but not forced. It’s available in coffee shops and other public places around Memphis.

This is the last supplemental post to the Memphis
Eric Barnes
  • Eric Barnes
 Flyer cover story Going to Pieces. For readers interested in a more in depth conversation with Daily Memphian executive editor, Eric Barnes, he and I spoke at length shortly after the digital daily's 2018 launch.  Our more recent conversation, was brief and to the point, so there wasn't really enough leftover content to make a stand-alone post.

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Monday, March 18, 2019

Memphis Comedy Show "You Look Like" Begins Airing on LOL Network

Posted By on Mon, Mar 18, 2019 at 3:55 PM

Keven Hart's LOL Network launches a new made-in-Memphis show Tuesday, March 20th. After almost two years spent searching for the right home, Midtown's favorite insult comedy event, You Look Like, show will be available to comedy fans nationwide.

For the back-story on how filmmaker/TV producer Craig Brewer hooked up with a bunch of Memphis comics to make this series, check out "You Look Like a Cover Story," originally published in May, 2017.

Katrina Coleman - JUSTIN FOX BURKES
  • Justin Fox Burkes
  • Katrina Coleman
 You Look Like a Cover Story

Photographs by Justin Fox Burks

So a gaggle of comedians from Memphis walk into a bar in Western Arkansas ...
No, this isn't the beginning of a joke. It's an origin story for Memphis' most popular monthly, game-based comedy event. You Look Like — so named because the competition's mean-spirited jokes all begin with the words, "You look like" — recently tickled film and television director Craig Brewer's funny bone, so now it's being developed as a streaming digital series.

You Look Like is beginning to look like a comedy institution in the making, but back in the summer of 2015, the embryonic thing that rapidly evolved into You Look Like (YLL), just looked like local funsters Katrina Coleman and Benny Elbows swapping off-the-cuff insults to pass time over a long, boring haul to Fayetteville. Once the other comedians on the evening's bill were introduced to the concept, they jumped right in and started playing along, too, saying terrible things to each other, such as: "You look like you really believe you're going to get custody this time," or "You look like the youth minister who needed a talking to."
Amanda Walker and Craig Brewer in the bar that inspired Brewer’s The Poor & Hungry
  • Amanda Walker and Craig Brewer in the bar that inspired Brewer’s The Poor & Hungry

"One time somebody told me I look like Malcolm X-Man," says Black Nerd Power host Richard Douglas Jones, an early YLL player and convert.

The seminal Arkansas, gig at Nomads Music Lounge (regrettably titled "Memphis in Fay") started late, in part because the Bluff City comics couldn't stop playing their fun, new game. When the comedic bloodsport finally broke up, comic and YLL co-founder Tommy Oler grabbed Coleman by the elbow and told her the silly, mean, hilarious thing she'd started needed to grow into something bigger.

"I wasn't sure. I just thought it was a thing I like to do," says Coleman. For her, You Look Like was a warm-up exercise — the funny person's equivalent of a gymnast stretching before a tumbling routine.

Oler took the idea to the P&H Cafe, where he was already hosting a popular Thursday night open mic. The idea was instantly green lit, and it wasn't long before the eclectic Midtown bar famously associated with poor and hungry artists had to reconfigure its seating to accommodate bigger and bigger crowds turning out for comedy.

"I remember when I'd have 10 or 15 people at one of my shows, and I'd think it was the greatest thing," Coleman says. "I'd get all excited and call my mom. Now, if there are only 50 or 75 at a show, I wonder if there's some big concert at Minglewood Hall or something."

Now, when episodes of the accompanying YLL podcast post late, out-of-town subscribers send grumpy messages. "It's this really weird show that audiences seem to like and that the comics love to do," Coleman says, floating a theory: "If you really love somebody, you'll cut their heart out for a giggle."

For all the terrible things being said on stage, the love inside the P& H is thick and sticky when, over the course of a week, Brewer and his local production team shoots the entire pilot season for a digital You Look Like series.

"You got robbed," the winner of one round calls out, chasing down his opponent. "I know. I totally beat you," the loser shouts back. Nobody's angry. They're all in this together.

"I'm not drunk enough to cry," Coleman announces from the stage as the camera crew prepares to shoot the last five episodes of the 10-episode trial season. "But set your watches."

Coleman, who certainly looks like the person most responsible for assembling the current big tent of modern Memphis comedy, then gestures to a ridiculous, clearly homemade crown spinning on a turntable just offstage: the winner's prize.

"It's still the You Look Like show," she assures the "studio audience," acknowledging that, in spite of the many physical upgrades to her show's homemade aesthetic, "I made that motherfucker in my living room."

A machine pumps fog into the room, standing in for the P&H's famously thick cloud of cigarette smoke. Local writer/director Morgan Fox orders the cameras to roll, and the games begin in earnest.

The rules for You Look Like couldn't be simpler. Two comics stand face to face, trading appearance-based insults: "You look like heroin might improve your life." Or "You look like the Sorting Hat put you in House of 1,000 Corpses." Like that. The meaner it gets, the more respect you can feel radiating from the combatants. When a round ends, the audience chooses a winner, and the loser has to gaze into a mirror of shame and play the game over again, solo, hurling insults at him/herself.

Brewer encountered the You Look Like Show while attending the 2016 Memphis Comedy Festival. The Hustle & Flow filmmaker had no idea that such a mature comedy scene had grown up in the artsy little beer joint at the center of his own filmmaker origin story.

For that festival, the show was moved to the Hi-Tone, and Brewer had initially assumed it was put on by a visiting troupe of comics from Chicago.

"I was like, 'Wow, it's so great that this touring group came in and did this,'" Brewer says in a phone interview from Los Angeles (where he recently added a new credit to his resume: co-executive producer of the hit show, Empire). Brewer was immediately corrected by fans who told him it was, in fact, a Memphis-based show that had been running for about a year at the P&H.

"Do you know where the P&H is?" someone asked. "Yeah," Brewer answered. "I think I might know where that is."

Seeing Brewer at work again inside the P&H causes epic déjà vu. The Madison Avenue bar, with its rotating cast of oddball regulars inspired his first movie, The Poor & Hungry. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, when he was still an aspiring filmmaker and part-time bookstore employee, Brewer would go to the bar to write his screenplays, shoot scenes, or screen daily "rushes" on the P&H's ancient TV.


Although The Poor & Hungry never received wide theatrical distribution, the award-winning digital feature, shot on an impossibly low budget of $20,000 with a two-man crew, became Brewer's Hollywood calling card. When other wannabes were slinging pitches, he was mailing out VHS tapes of a little movie about life at the P&H Cafe that arguably helped step up Hollywood's digital shift.

"I felt like grandpa," Brewer says, shocked but not all that surprised by the revelation that he and YLL shared a creative womb.

The following June, two-months after the comedy festival, Coleman received an unexpected voicemail: "Hi, this is Craig Brewer. I make movies. I saw your show and was wondering if you'd maybe like to get together and talk about it."

Like any any mother faced with sudden, unknown change, Coleman's initial response was caution. "Please, please, Hollywood, don't take my ugly baby away," she pleads emphatically, recounting her initial worry. "But Craig was great. He walked me through the whole contract and explained everything." All Coleman really needed was assurance that the live show would be always be hers to do with as she sees fit, which had been the plan all along.

"See, the whole live show fits in this little, pink duffle bag," Coleman says, giggling. As long as she could continue running it out of the P&H and taking it on the road, Coleman says she was up for just about anything else that might happen.

Brewer has always scouted opportunities for exporting Memphis talent and weirdness. In the 1990s, he shot footage of the city's burlesque scene, resulting in his early short, Clean Up in Booth B. His team-up with MTV on $5 Cover resulted in Midtown's rock scene playing a semi-fictionalized version of itself.

Unlike earlier projects, where Brewer was starting from scratch, You Look Like was complete and alive. Adapting it as a digital series was additionally enhanced by an all-local crew he's been collaborating with for a decade and an uncommonly united comedy scene that's spent the last five years learning to work together.

It's like what comic Josh McLane says, making his way from the stage to the writers room: "I get paid the same if I win or lose. All that matters is if it's funny." That was the dominant attitude backstage during the YLL shoot, giving the whole event an old-school Memphis wrasslin' vibe. Unlike wrasslin', outcomes to the matches weren't predetermined, but the beefs aren't real, and everybody's working together to bring serious pain from the top-rope.

"I'm addicted to this feeling now," Brewer says, remembering the electricity in the room when the comedians hired to write jokes between rounds gathered around the P&H's pool tables and built their insult database.

Richard Douglas Jones described the writing process as "completely organic." When one vein of material ran dry, somebody would open another. "I will reinvent the wheel and run you over with it again and again," he said. Brewer had one big concern. "There needed to be something positive coming out of You Look Like," he says. "If you were looking at comedians tearing each other apart, you need to feel that they are friends. So, in a weird way, it could be inspiring."

The backstage cooperation insured that that would be the case. "I left the experience asking, 'How can I create that again,'" Brewer asks. "Can I go narrative with it? If we did a TV show, what would it be? And what are the jokes?"

That wasn't the only feeling Brewer left with. He'd drifted away from the P&H after the passing of its colorful proprietress Wanda Wilson, the big-wigged protector of artists, misfits, and backgammon gamblers. "For a while that place lost its energy," Brewer laments. Working on YLL assured him that the bar's original spirit is alive and well under the current management.

So what's next for YLL? The live show continues as usual but now with a new guest host every month. What happens with the pilot series is anybody's guess, but there are some interesting possibilities: Maybe it gets snapped up right away by a streaming content provider. Or maybe the original series, like The Poor & Hungry, simply becomes a calling card — something Brewer can screen on his phone when he's pitching ideas. Maybe a producer likes the web series but wants to know if the show can be adapted as a reality show or narrative comedy. "So many times you walk in with a pitch document, and you just don't know how it's going to turn out," Brewer explains. "The network might say, 'Oh, that's great, but we want it with Snapchat stars.'"

YLL was a perfect catch for Brewer, who'd been actively looking for right-sized projects for his Memphis-based company BR2 and longtime collaborators like David Harris at Gunpowder & Sky, a production company co-founded by Van Toffler, a former MTV executive instrumental in purchasing Brewer's Hustle & Flow at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. He sums up YLL's appeal — particularly for companies looking for unscripted material — in one exclamatory sentence: "Oh my God, you can highlight 20 comedians per season, and it's already a living thing!"

Brewer thinks a few scenarios seem more likely than others. "These days, there are celebrities who want their Facebook page — or whatever — to be a channel. So there are comedians and celebrities who might buy it just to put on their channel," he explained.

"And there are networks who might say, 'Okay, this works on the digital level; what does this look like on the network level?' But what I really wish is that we can take what we've made and just keep making more of that. We just made 10 episodes this first time, but if we do it again, we can make 50. Just plan for three or four solid weeks of work, where we just go in and bang it out."

Oler, who no longer hosts the live show but remains affiliated with the digital project, says it's exciting to imagine what YLL might be like as a movie or a sitcom. But he can't shake the joy of knowing, wherever it goes, it started with a bunch of knuckleheads insulting each other on the patio at Nomads Music Lounge in Fayetteville.

"I'm just really thankful to have had a chance to work on this," he says. Oler and Coleman are funny co-founders; they don't agree about much. But they do agree that, given an opportunity to show its stuff, the Memphis comedy scene stood up.

The You Look Like Show is the third Saturday of every month at the P&H Cafe. Doors at 8 p.m. show at 9 p.m.

You Look Like a List
What comprises a perfect you look like insult? It has to walk a fine line between credibility and the absurd. Some require context, some are just funny no matter who they're aimed at. Here's a completely subjective list of great You Look Like lines.

You look like:

You support displaying the Confederate flag, but only because you don't have any other good towels.

You masturbate with ranch dressing.

People who look like their dogs.

The most well adjusted person here, surgically.

One more sandwich and that shirt's over.

You ask to speak to managers.

You regularly delete your search history.

Your head mole makes all your decisions.

You think the Dakota Access Pipeline is a porn trilogy.

The target audience for Buzzfeed articles.

You pronounce the L in Salmon.

You grew up outside a trailer.

Your spirit animal is a chain wallet.

You fucked up the proposal because you left the ring in your other cargo shorts.

You don't mind talking to people while they're using the bathroom.

You broke someone else's ankle auditioning for Grease.

You were designed by scientists for the purpose of disappointing women.

Birdwatching makes you horny.

Group photos are always your idea.

Your husband hides your yoga pants.

The side bitch of Frankenstein.

God swiped left.

The guy other guys are totally okay letting their girlfriends hang out with.

You're still waiting to hear back about that job.

Your dad is more proud of his other family.

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Friday, March 15, 2019

News Makers 2: Chalkbeat’s Jacinthia Jones Proposes More Media Partnerships

Posted By on Fri, Mar 15, 2019 at 1:29 PM

Jacinthia Jones
  • Jacinthia Jones
This post is supplemental to the Memphis Flyer cover package Going to Pieces about the state of print journalism in Memphis. This, and other posts featuring additional commentary by Wendi Thomas of MLK50, Jacinthia Jones of, Eric Barnes of The Daily Memphian, and Mark Fleischer of StoryBoard: Memphis were created to include voices and ideas that didn’t make it into the main story. They will be published throughout the rest of the week.

“I heard from another reporter today asking if we were having issues with the School Board,” Jacinthia Jones says. As it happens,, the digital education policy newsroom where Jones works as Memphis bureau chief, had been experiencing problems gathering needed information. So she answered, "Yes."

Sometimes Jones sounds more like a old school union organizer than a veteran reporter and editor: “There’s strength in numbers,” she says. “We’re all out there fighting this battle by ourselves instead of collectively fighting it.” She thinks the best bet for survival is some kind of strategic, symbiotic partnership between competing organizations.

“As government agencies and entities become tougher to get information from, there’s strength in us being able to go as a united front,” she says. “For us to be able say, “This is a public record, you shouldn’t be able to charge this ridiculous amount!” We’re all losing. Now we need each other. At the end of the day our goal is to tell the stories that need to be told here in Memphis.”
Jones’s proposal is a variation on the old riddle, “How do you eat an elephant?” On one hand, there is a lot of redundancy in reporting — many microphones in the same official’s face collecting the same boilerplate comments for various organizations. Meanwhile, there are complicated stories in Memphis that aren't being told as well as they might be, if they are even being told at all — Stories large enough that every media organization could cover some unique aspect, playing into that newsroom’s specific strengths.

Mass partnership on a deep-dive topic might be a consumer-immersive way to take big, hard-to-reach stories apart, “one bite at a time.”

Memphis Flyer: This is maybe more of a prompt than a question. With search engines and social media gobbling up so much of advertising budgets the narrative is always about how competitive organizations have to be to compete over the scraps. There’s less talk sometimes, about the different ways they may lean on one another as newsrooms shrink and partnerships become more important, particularly in the not for profit world.

Jacinthia Jones:There is a competitive nature to what we do. But if you look at it just that way, we’ve got such a small share. And when I say “we” I mean traditional and online media, because of Google and social media, even though those aren’t news organizations. That’s where a lot of people go to get their news. So, from my position — particularly since I moved into the nonprofit world — is that things are better when you partner. We don’t have the money we used to. We don’t have the resources to staff these large newsrooms. So you’re seeing more and more topic-specific organizations and smaller newsrooms in general. In Memphis we’re all doing the same thing— local journalism. We may want the story first, but we also want to leverage the audience of our partners. That’s why at Chalkbeat we make our content free. We want everybody to re-publish. Another benefit of partnering — We're all smaller now.

MF: Education is a community cornerstone. It’s always such an important issue at elections. It’s something that was always part of the daily news bundle — and still is. But the work you do is filling some big gaps.

JJ: One of the beats you see cut in traditional papers are education reporters. That’s why Chalkbeat was able to expand. Look at the cities we’re located in — places where the newspaper cut that part of coverage. Also, and obviously with notable exceptions, you typically see entry level reporters moved into that position. But once a reporter gets experience on the education beat you move on.

MF: It’s such a clear example of public interest reporting losing out to the newspaper economy. Education is allegedly something we prioritize. But the most important stories aren’t always the best read.

JJ: When started at The Commercial Appeal we had three education reporters and a higher-ed reporter. Now they have one education reporter and that’s not her title. She covers K-12 and also covers higher ed.
With other editorial responsibilities.

MF: So you are very clearly filling a gap in coverage resulting from layoffs and a shrinking paper.

JJ: And we don’t just cover education at Chalkbeat. We’re covering equity issues and inequity. You see newspapers you see them moving away from covering the large school districts chasing readers in the suburbs. This isn’t just chasing advertisers, but subscribers. It’s essentially chasing the money.

MF: Where do your readers come from? Or, how do they find you?

JJ: We have readers who come directly to us. We get a lot of support among educators, teachers, administrators, and policy makers because we cover education more deeply than mainstream media. Our mission is, we want to partner with as many people as possible. We want to partner with you! That enables us to reach audiences that may not know us and come to us. So yes, I want The Daily Memphian, the new kid on the block. I also want to partner with smaller, activist organizations like MLK50.

Editor's note: Going to Pieces looks at Memphis' information providers and news environment at a time when the city's daily newspaper has been greatly diminished. We hope these excerpts provide some depth/context, and give readers a better sense about what's unique about various organizations in terms of product and process.

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Thursday, March 14, 2019

News Makers #1: Meet Madeline Faber of High Ground News and The Tri-State Defender’s Karanja Ajanaku

Posted By on Thu, Mar 14, 2019 at 11:37 AM

This post is supplemental to the Memphis Flyer cover package Going to Pieces about the state of print journalism in Memphis. This, and other posts featuring additional commentary by Wendi Thomas of MLK50, Jacinthia Jones of, Eric Barnes of The Daily Memphian, and Mark Fleischer of StoryBoard: Memphis were created to include voices and ideas that didn’t make it into the main story. They will be published throughout the rest of the week.
Madeline Faber
  • Madeline Faber

High Ground News is an online publication that’s been in Memphis four-and-a-half years. It’s part of network of 15 small, digital newsrooms, each unique, but all parented by the Issue Media Group in Detroit. Issue was created to get beyond tyrannizing negative narratives that contributed to the Motor City’s decline, and tell more complete stories about the place and people who live there.

“We stand out among the other publications because we have this explicit focus on neighborhoods,” High Ground executive editor Madeline Faber says. A different approach to community engagement, combined with not being held to the rigors of daily publishing, creates a petri dish environment where new strategies can be tested.

• On identity and adaptability
“Our on-the-ground program within High Ground News started out as a kind of 'special section' where we would cover Memphis neighborhoods. Now that’s really all we do, because we saw people responded to this kind of coverage. It fills a gap in the landscape — covering neighborhoods in context.”

• On High Ground’s “pop-up” newsrooms:
“We open pop-up newsrooms for four months. The first month is for research, relationship building, and working with partners in neighborhood, followed by three months of weekly coverage — written articles, profiles of business owners, nonprofit leaders, elders, and video and photo essays. We’ve piloted community engagement techniques that other publications don’t really have the capacity to do. So we do a lot of face-to-face with our readers. We do that with community newsrooms. We have office hours where residents can meet with journalists, talk about how their neighborhoods have been depicted in the media. We convene residents and ask them, ‘What is the information you need about your neighborhood? What are the problems going on now? What are the themes here we need to really flesh out?’ And and events. We do lots of events. Storytelling panel discussions.”
• On a “positive” news identity
We’re not in the positive news business or the advocacy business, but I do feel like it’s our responsibility to put some heft in the other side of the scales that have been so unbalanced over the years. It surprises me there are still people who don’t know about Orange Mound’s legacy as the first subdivision where African-Americans could own their own homes on their own property, and that it was built on top of a former plantation. That’s such cool information.

But what we do is take that knowledge and consider it when we consider the fact that there hasn’t been quality affordable housing built in Orange Mound in forever. The affordable housing they have may not be quality affordable housing. The elders of the neighborhood don’t know how to encourage the young people to stay and grow because there isn’t any housing being built or rehab that speaks to a young professional demographic. We show that people choose to live there, thrive there, and open businesses. They shouldn’t be pushed to the margins because there aren’t multimillion-dollar deals happening in these neighborhoods. And a lot of Memphians don’t live in our economic centers, they live in neighborhoods.

• On capacity
We are limited by our capacity in what we can do. It was just me ... But what we’ve been trying to do in our own small universe is rebuild trust in these neighborhoods with media. To explain to them, we’re not helicoptering in. We’re here to show a side of the neighborhood that hasn’t been shown. That’s important to us ethically as journalists and personally as Memphians.

• On Transparency
One of the antidotes [to issues in contemporary journalism] is going to be transparency. We should connect people to other resources … . It’s not up to us to hoard access; we should be sharing access as much as we can. Even putting footers at the bottoms of stories explaining how we came to stories. The more we decentralize that process the closer we get to information justice.


Executive editor and sssociate publisher Karanja Ajanaku has been with the Tri-State Defender since 2007. He had previously worked for the Commercial
Karanja Ajanaku
  • Karanja Ajanaku
Appeal for, “26-years, 6 months, three weeks and two days.”

The Tri-State Defender is 68 years old, having launched in 1951. “Our intent was to be an expression of the desires and needs of the African American community,” Ajanaku says, quoting copy from an early editorial page. “That intent and that need is as fresh today as it was in 1951. That’s what we stay focused on,” he says.

Like many of Memphis’ print news businesses, The Tri-State Defender is trying to develop new revenue streams. Online content is being reorganized behind a paywall.

•On The Tri-State Defender’s unique position
“When we look at ourselves, we understand, generally speaking, what’s going on with the newspaper industry and the challenges. But when we look at it specifically relative to Memphis and specifically relative to Memphis, we’re in growth mode. We have reason to think we have been underperforming relative to our possibilities.
•On the Tri-State Defender’s role relative to The Commercial Appeal
“Even if the Commercial Appeal was at full capacity, the need that we meet isn’t affected. It doesn’t matter if the Commercial Appeal is at full capacity or goes out of business.”

•On being uniquely positioned to tell the story of African-Americans and Memphis
“We’re the longest ongoing entity that can tell the story from the inside out. The Commercial Appeal does a good job. I did a good job when I was there writing about the African-American community. But you still can’t quite tell it from the inside out. There is a value to that position.”

•On what matters.
"We have to do better as journalists, better in Memphis. What does better mean? We have to be what we’re supposed to be: Watchdogs. We have to ask questions. We have to get in there and dig. If we do a better job with that we may just find a larger market."

Editor's note: Going to Pieces
looks at Memphis' information providers and news environment at a time when the city's daily newspaper has been greatly diminished. We hope these excerpts provide some depth/context, and give readers a better sense about what's unique about various organizations in terms of product and process.

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Monday, March 4, 2019

Memphis In May Scientist Warns Against Dinosaurs In Tom Lee Park

Posted By on Mon, Mar 4, 2019 at 3:08 PM

"Artistic" rendering of proposed changes to Tom Lee Park.
  • "Artistic" rendering of proposed changes to Tom Lee Park.
Dr. Ian Malcolm, Senior Chaos Theorist for Memphis In May, warned of grave danger to the public if a plan devised by the Memphis Riverfront Public Partnership (MRPP), to exhibit genetically engineered dinosaurs in a newly revamped Tom Lee Park, is allowed to go forward.

“Life will find a way,” the dashingly handsome, black-clad scientist told an enraptured crowd at a recent public forum on the proposed revamp of the city’s premiere riverfront acreage. 
MRPP was represented by Dr. Perceval Petrodopolos, a paleo-genetic engineer who said new advances in CRISPR technology has enabled him to reconstruct the genomes of dinosaur species that have been extinct for millions of years. The dinosaur DNA material was recovered from blood found in the stomachs of mosquitoes trapped in amber and spliced with that of dinosaur descendants such as frogs and birds. Plans and renderings unveiled by MRPP showed brontosaurus, tyrannosaurus rex, and velociraptors playing whimsically with school children among the rolling hills of Tom Lee Park.

“The lack of humility before nature that’s being displayed here staggers me,” said Dr. Malcolm, pounding the table. “Don’t you see the danger in what you’re doing here? Genetic power is the most awesome force mankind has ever seen, but you wield it like a kid who has found his dad’s gun!”

“I don’t think you’re giving us our due credit,” said Dr. Petrodopolos. “I have done something that has never been done before!”

“But you were so preoccupied with whether they could, you didn’t stop to think whether you should,” replied Malcolm. “Isn’t that right, Dr. P.P.?”

Dr. Malcolm described the prospect of revived, probably carnivorous thunder lizards  sharing a park with some of the top musical acts in the country and tens of thousands of revelers during the Beale Street Music Festival as “chilling. I simply cannot guarantee the safety of the food trucks and merchandise vendors in such a situation.”

Dr. P.P. was incredulous at what he called “Luddism from a scientist” and questioned why Memphis In May even needed a chaos theorist on staff.
Dr. Ian Malcolm
  • Dr. Ian Malcolm

“Have you ever been to Music Fest?” replied Dr. Malcolm.

City officials are expected to rapidly approve the Jurassic improvements to Tom Lee Park, which will include pterodactyl roosts on the heavily populated bluff overlooking the riverfront.
YES! This article is a parody. We said so in the tab up top!

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