Thursday, April 25, 2019

Choosing Choice: The Great School Voucher Deception

Posted By on Thu, Apr 25, 2019 at 1:25 PM

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Except for conversations about a woman's right to control her physical destiny, "choice" is a popular word among Conservative politicians and policy makers. For the businessman, it's a near synonym for freedom, and something Rhetoric professors might call a "god word," with high propagandistic value. "Choice," is the banner word on The Beacon Center of Tennessee's page advocating for Educational Savings Accounts, like Governor Bill Lee's re-branded and Tennessee House of Representatives-approved school voucher program. In a similar vein, fear of losing the ability to "choose healthcare providers" is key to most narratives opposing anything approaching universal healthcare coverage, just as it was when the same Beacon Center took credit for defeating medicaid expansion in Tennessee.

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"While stopping the expansion of Medicaid under Obamacare was a necessary first step, it is still our responsibility as Tennesseans to find affordable healthcare solutions for our most vulnerable neighbors," Beacon CEO Justin Owen told media. Instead of Medicaid access, Beacon supported  "right-to-try" legislation, allowing terminally ill patients access to choose certain unapproved FDA treatments. A Trump-backed Federal "right to try" bill was signed into law in 2018. As noted in The Atlantic, the catchy name and promise of personal autonomy disguised a decreased ability for people who aren't medical experts to determine if treatments were effective or safe. 

If you don't know The Beacon Center of Tennessee, previously called The Tennessee Center for Policy Research, they self-describe as "an independent, nonprofit and nonpartisan research and educational institute." They're the group that "exposed" former Vice President Al Gore's energy use as part of an effort to counter "climate change alarmism." They're also affiliated with a right-wing cut-and-paste legislation web called the State Policy Network. It's one of those places where movements to preserve and expand "choice" by way of free market insurance and publicly subsidized private schools are born. Tennessee's decision not to expand medicaid didn't make anybody more free, it put families at risk. Around 71,000 children were left without coverage. Now that Tennessee has moved a step closer toward embracing Education Savings Accounts (aka vouchers), another "choice"-forward initiative from the sewer of America's policy factories, it's important to understand how the word is paradoxical and may not always mean what it seems to mean.

Fred Hirsch, a former professor of International Studies at the University of Warwick, wrote about the limits of choice. In his book The Social Limits of Growth, he showed how choice can't be made available to everyone, no matter how clever we get with technology. This is particularly true in regard to superlatives; the best doctor, for example, or the best teachers. This sounds elitist at first, but means and privilege only mitigate the effects of scarcity, they can't erase the fact of it. Hirsch calls these troublesome things "positional goods," and Barry Schwartz, the  Dorwin Cartwright Professor of Social Theory and Social Action at Swarthmore College, expanded on the concept in The Paradox of Choice: How the Culture of Abundance Robs us of Satisfaction.

"We might all agree that everyone would be better off if there were less positional competition," Hirsch wrote, swimming against conventional wisdom that competition is good in every case. "It's stressful, it's wasteful, and it distorts people's lives."

"Parents wanting only the best for their child encourage her to study hard so she can get into a good college. But everyone is doing that. So the parents push harder. But so does everybody else. So they send their child to after-school enrichment programs and educational summer camps. And so does everyone else. So now they borrow money to switch to private school. Again others follow."

Sometimes the supply of positional goods just runs out — There are only so many spots in the best teacher's classroom. Value also decreases as the result of overcrowding. Schwartz illustrates his point with a metaphor made for sports fans:

"It's like being in a crowded football stadium, watching the crucial play. A spectator several rows in front stands up to get a better view and a chain reaction follows. Soon everyone is standing just to be able to see as well as before. Everyone is on their feet rather than sitting, but no one's position has improved."
 Those not standing, by reason of choice or inability, might as well be somewhere else, Schwartz concludes. They aren't in the game.

Whatever you choose to call them, voucher systems aren't a new idea. The University of Chicago's Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman wrote about the role of government in education in 1955, and choice advocates have been inspired by his arguments ever since. He determined that government should fund schooling. It should not run schools. Friedman advocated vouchers as a means of increasing freedom through choice in the marketplace.

Educational policy analyst Diane Ravitch related this history in her data-laden 2010 mea culpa, The Death and Life of the Great American School System. While working on national education policy for President George H. W. Bush, Ravitch had gotten caught up in choice mania, but came to regret it. Advocates of voucher systems and charter schools, "were certain choice would produce higher achievement," and "reduce the rising tide of mediocrity," she wrote. The collected data told a conflicting story. After reviewing the 20-year history of a voucher program in Milwaukee, Ravitch determined "there was no evidence of dramatic improvement for the neediest students or the public schools they left behind." As with the football stadium metaphor, everybody moved, but nobody's position really improved.

"Business leaders like the idea of turning the schools into a marketplace where the consumer is king," Ravitch wrote, taking on presumptions that choice and competition are necessarily a public good. "But the problem with the marketplace is that it dissolves communities and replaces them with consumers. Going to school is not the same as going shopping. Parents should not be burdened with locating a suitable school for their child. They should be able to take their child to the neighborhood public school as a matter of course and expect that it has well-educated teachers and a sound educational program."

Schwartz concludes that the scramble for positional goods creates what's commonly called "the rat race." That's expressed here as "the burden of locating suitable schools" in a sea of "buyer beware." That parents cannot "take their child to the neighborhood public school as a matter of course and expect that it has well-educated teachers and a sound educational program" isn't a failure of teachers or public school systems or the communities where public schools are located. It's an enduring expression of political and economic will backed by an unwarranted faith in market-based solutions.

"When people have no choice, life is almost unbearable," Schwartz wrote in The Paradox of Choice.
"As the number of available choices increases, as it has in our consumer culture, the autonomy, control and liberation this variety brings are powerful and positive. But as the number grows further, the negatives escalate until we become overloaded. At this point choice no longer liberates, but debilitates." 
That's the problem with punishing and stigmatizing needy schools and pumping public education money into private markets. Or, as Ravitch put it, "With so much money aligned against the neighborhood public school and against education as a profession, public education itself is placed at risk."

That absolutely seems to be the goal. 

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Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Giant Tim Urban Hologram Playing Graceland, Nashville; Graceland, Tokyo; and Graceland, Dubai

Posted By on Tue, Apr 9, 2019 at 3:01 PM

Fans having fun at authentic Elvis home Graceland, Nashville, Tokyo, and Dubai.
  • Fans having fun at authentic Elvis home Graceland, Nashville, Tokyo, and Dubai.
Apr. 9, 2084, DUBAI — You know, it's just like American idol Elvis Presley said to the people, when asked what he missed about his authentic Graceland home in Nashville, Tokyo, and Dubai. "I am missing everything about my authentic home," he said. And fans of ElvisHouse Concerts are missing everything too when Giant Tim Urban Hologram isn't playing the GhostHouse in Nashville, Tokyo, and Dubai.

"We are very excited to have Giant Hologram Tim Urban back in Nashville, Tokyo, and Dubai," Gracespokesbot-6000 told the Memphis Flyer in a lively Psychlosian mind-link interview last Trumpsday. "Although he only placed seventh in season 9 of American Idol, Tim Prime's reality TV cover of Jeff Buckley's cover of Leonard Cohen's 'Hallelujah,' had a profound influence on future reality TV covers of Jeff Buckley's cover of Leonard Cohen's 'Hallelujah.'"


Performed as the climax of Giant Hologram Tim Urban's high energy concert, Jeff Buckley's cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" has been transformed into a powerful duet with the Living Head of Lisa Marie Presley, who performs live via Xenusian magic from her jar in Las Vegas.

"We are excited to have the Living Head of Lisa Marie Presley back at the GhostHouse in Nashville, Tokyo, and Dubai and performing with Giant Hologram Tim Urban," Gracespokesbot-6000 says. "Although he only placed seventh in season 9 of American Idol, Tim Prime's reality TV cover of Jeff Buckley's cover of Leonard Cohen's 'Hallelujah,' had a profound influence on future reality TV covers of Jeff Buckley's cover of Leonard Cohen's 'Hallelujah.'"

Although he only placed seventh in season 9 of American Idol, Tim Prime's reality TV cover of Jeff Buckley's cover of Leonard Cohen's 'Hallelujah,' had a profound influence on future reality TV covers of Jeff Buckley's cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah."
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YES, this is a PARODY POST. Just check the tab up top. 

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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 Chalkbeat.org, 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.
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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
by CHRIS DAVIS

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.

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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 Chalkbeat.org, 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, Chalkbeat.org, 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

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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 Chalkbeat.org, 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.
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YES! This article is a parody. We said so in the tab up top!

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Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Hail Caesar: Gannett Papers Announce Changes in Opinion Strategy

Posted By on Wed, Feb 20, 2019 at 9:10 AM

There's no good way to illustrate these stories but posts without images generate less clicks and "the need to establish consistent expectations about content pushes news outlets to cover stories in predictable ways and to use personalities as a way to build brand recognition." So here's a picture of me in front of weird paintings of fish. I'm sorry.
Today's terrible journalism news: Gannett newspapers saw fourth-quarter losses in circulation and revenue. According to Marketwatch the company is reporting a 12 percent dip in sales, with circulation revenue dropping 9 percent and print advertising dropping 24 percent. The one area where Gannett has been growing also took a hit as "digital advertising and market services declined about 3 percent."

I've been anticipating this news since all three of Gannett's major Tennessee newspapers individually announced changes framed as big improvements to their editorial pages.  Those changes, like the disappointing quarterly report, fit a pattern and seem to be part of a downward trend with no bottom in sight. 

Gannett newspapers across the state of Tennessee, including The Commercial Appeal, have run similar editorials letting readers know they are "listening.” They've heard you and are, per you, developing new and improved strategies for kinder, more inclusive opinion journalism.

Redesigns can be a good thing and the print real estate traditionally reserved for unsigned editorials and nationally syndicated columnists, absolutely should be reappraised. At the same time, relinquishing the former has to also be seen as the final gasp of an era when local and regional newspapers had (or believed they had) some weight to throw around — when thick bundles of newsprint stacked as high and wide as you could see stood in evidence. But as the marketplace of ideas flattens into the marketplace, the land and physical assets these once powerful newspapers own and occupy, are seen as possessing more immediate value than either the medium or its message.   

Gannett Tennessee's new editorial plan, as variously/similarly described in its Knoxville, Nashville, and Memphis papers, includes weird Aristotelian ideals for letters to the editor which, in accordance with natural law, should not exceed 200 words in the west, 250 words in the center, and 300 words in the east of the state. The columns also suggest we'll be seeing less national political commentary and “more about solutions than takedowns of the people and organizations trying to do things,” whatever that tragically vague construction means. Of course people and their sense of place/community matter very much, as they often do in communications seeking to persuade people who live in places and communities. Obviously, there will be more local stuff! And there will be more you!

Via the CA:

"By tradition, opinion has long been the section where readers found the institutional view of The Commercial Appeal. It is also where you read guest commentaries, local and syndicated columnists, letters to the editor, editorial cartoons and, of course, the daily Bible verse.

Starting this week, we are moving away from that approach to one that showcases more community voices, puts an emphasis on analysis and an expanded newsroom engagement with Memphis through community events we sponsor.

Readers have repeatedly told us that they want to see more locally produced guest commentaries and letters to the editor. And we want to deliver more of what you want."

What also has to be understood, whether it's spelled out or not, is that all this "more" is the direct result of newsrooms constantly struggling to produce a viable product with less.

The "different but same" nature of Gannett's editorials makes it hard to take their grass roots too seriously. As a rule, newspapers have always cast a wide net but walked a narrow path, as they've attempted to attract and inform readers while also being an exciting, activated, and (most importantly) safe place for advertisers. Not to mention the fact that, newspapers have frequently listened to consumers and then intentionally adapted away from their needs/demands in a misguided effort to attract lost and non-readers. This was always done with full awareness that it made bundled distribution less attractive to the same loyal, long-suffering consumers that sustained newspapers when changing technology screwed all distribution and revenue models. Naturally, we'll observe more content shifts reflecting the relative value of newspaper properties as measured against their tangible assets or lack thereof.
This pic used to help generate clicks, but now I think it makes people think they've already read the post. Economies, content, etc.
  • This pic used to help generate clicks, but now I think it makes people think they've already read the post. Economies, content, etc.
Unbundling content is easily justified on a spreadsheet. Art columns, for example, may be well read, but they aren't given the importance of public affairs reporting (which isn't prime for advertisers), and when it comes to straight clicks, little can compare to food and beverage columns. Restaurants and national food/drink brands buy ads, so if you're a business major working for a holding company that owns a bunch of newspapers, it makes total sense to calculate the small number of readers you'll lose completely by eliminating arts coverage as long as you can effectively sell the perceived public value of hard news while expanding popular dining and related soft/syndicated news. In another example, as page counts dwindle in print space, and digital content is prioritized, sports sections may run trend stories or business/recruiting analysis instead of next day scores and review. Similarly, election results may go digital-only, etc. But as more diverse, professionally created content is stripped away in favor of paid, nonprofessional, or owned off-market content, it becomes evident that the bundle is/was exponentially more useful and valuable than any particular sets of content. And by "the bundle," I don't just mean box scores, election results, stories about street names, horoscopes, and housing, I'm also counting newsprint's famously pejorative applications as fire-starter, birdcage liner, and hand prop for would be demagogues.

To borrow from the Columbia Journalism Review, "Despite all the flaws of the traditional newspaper — and there are many — the bundling of hard news and civic information with soft news, sports, comics, and more is amazingly effective at supporting broad-based political and civic engagement."

"From 2008 to 2009 civic engagement declined more sharply in Denver and Seattle than in other major cities—a result he attributes to the closures of the Rocky Mountain News and The Seattle Post-Intelligencer during that period, which left them as one-newspaper towns. His conclusions are consistent with a 2013 study in the Journal of Media Economics, which similarly found that after The Cincinnati Post closed in late 2007, electoral competition and voter turnout declined in areas of Kentucky where the Post was the leading paper. It’s hard to prove a direct causal connection between the papers’ closings and reduced engagement, but other research has found that residents of areas where the newspaper market doesn’t match up well with congressional district boundaries were less informed about their representatives, which in turn caused legislators to be less responsive to their constituents’ needs."

So, you're a Gannett newspaper in Tennessee and your "readers have repeatedly told [you] they want to see more locally produced guest commentaries and letters to the editor." Have they? What a wonderful coincidence these super-thoughtful consumers are demanding such cost-effective (mostly free) content! Clearly Gannett, you have raised them right.
   
Consumer habits are no big mystery, so it's no insult to observe that allowing the public's interests determine public interest is like letting a toddler determine household nutrition standards. It's also bad business for companies who aren't nihilistically calculating managed blood loss against short-term profit. As an aside, and regardless of whether or not pulp has a future, this last bit touches on one of the reasons why fully digital models for local general daily news delivery, are still a sketchy proposition. Using both the digital-forward CA and Daily Memphian as examples, what's on offer is a basic selection of popular content (food/business/sports) and the kind of hard news everybody used to know about due to the social function of widely circulated newspapers, but which relatively few people may actually read/subscribe for.

As a perceived public good, journalism's power/value has always exceeded the technical reach of public affairs reporting and consumer advocacy. In other words, when newspapers were widely circulated, nobody had to actively consume hard news or advocacy to benefit from it. Going forward, this age-old assumption has to be modified to exclude deep familiarity, and with the understanding that presumed universal benefits for non-readers fade when techno/economic scales tip and enough non-readers can also be described as non-subscribers/consumers. This will be especially so in the absence of strong reciprocity and community engagement. Like newspaper properties whose practical worth is now weighted against tangible assets, once credit is lost, you're discredited.


The clip linked above is from the movie Hail Caesar. In it, you'll see George Clooney, dressed as a Roman soldier for his role in a manufactured religious epic. He's been kidnapped by a gaggle of weirdo communist writers who tell him that a man who understands economics and history can accurately predict the future. Now I don't claim any extraordinary insight into either of these fields, or any gift for precognition. But I did, rather flippantly, predict this change in direction, while ranting about newspaper history and economics, and their relationship to a controversial opinion column published in several of Gannett's Tennessee newspapers. I regret that the political-sounding headline, "MAGA Bro Pens Love Letter to MAGA CAP,"  may have kept some from reading media criticism that anticipates how modern economies and user habits will eventually yield more populist, probably non-professional content.

Welcome to eventually; Hail Caesar. 

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Friday, February 8, 2019

Information Control: Why TVA Ratepayers May Pay For Coal Ash Fallout

Posted By on Fri, Feb 8, 2019 at 1:33 PM

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Reporters sometimes do reckless things to bring home a story. By the time I got to Kingston, TN, in January, 2009, 24-hour police barricades blocked all apparent access to TVA's catastrophic pond breach — a massive coal ash spill NBC nightly news had  described as an environmental disaster 30-times larger than the Exxon Valdez oil spill. National news organizations and environmentalists had gotten in early before safety concerns and concerns about TVA's reputation turned the area into a forbidden zone, off limits to everybody, especially media. Of course, roadblocks are a mere speed bump for reporters armed with scribbled directions on the back of a bar napkin. Team Flyer would make it back to Memphis with photos of the "ash-bergs," as the enormous toxic sludge formations were being called, even if it meant playing a little Smokey and the Bandit.

I'm reminded of the scene in Kingston by Gannett's sobering report highlighting extraordinary information quietly buried in a TVA earnings report. The utility is finally admitting that ratepayers may soon be on the hook for legal settlements against Jacobs Engineering, a contractor working for TVA that has admitted under oath to misleading 900 employees about the  risks of coal ash exposure. This news follows 40 deaths and more than 400 reported ailments ranging from respiratory problems and rashes to heart disorders, neurological disorders and cancer.

Via Gannett:

A jury in U.S. District Court in November ruled Jacobs violated its contract with TVA for the cleanup work and endangered workers as a result. That trial revealed TVA ratepayers had paid Jacobs $60 million for that contract work.

I'm not posting today to revisit past adventures in journalism or to advance Gannett's top notch summation of what's transpired over the past decade. In keeping with a recent theme on this blog, I'd rather look back to the weeks immediately following the disaster. Knowing what we know now, I'd like to look at this in terms of access and transparency and think about what happens when there's a disaster and information is treated like a private concern rather than a public good.  
p._18_cover_story_1.jpg

If you have the time, I recommend taking a look at "Shades of Gray," my vintage coverage of the Kingston disaster, published as a Memphis Flyer cover story shortly after the event. I think it makes a good companion to Gannett's latest revelation and retrospective. Like the sub-head says, confusion reigned in the early days following the spill. It was driven, in part, by a concerted effort on behalf of TVA and coal-related interests to make sure the citizens of Kingston and Roane Co. had the absolute best possible information for TVA and coal-related interests.

Via me, 2009:

A nattily dressed man with snow-white hair waited patiently, then, when he got his turn at the microphone, erupted like a volcano: "Who can I trust? Tell me, who can I trust?" he asked, his voice quivering.

The man ran down a list cataloging the incongruous viewpoints he'd been subjected to for 18 days — the time that had passed since the waste-retaining wall at the TVA's Kingston Fossil Plant gave way, and his hometown — once a water-lover's paradise tucked into the postcard-perfect hills of East Tennessee — became the new synonym for environmental disaster. 

"Tell me who I should trust," he pleaded, obviously doubtful that [famous organizer Erin] Brockovich or the panel of scientists — and legal consultants from New York's Weitz & Luxenberg law firm — assembled in the gymnasium at Roane State Community College were less self-interested than the environmentalists, media, or coal-industry spokesmen, all of whom seemed to offer conflicting answers.

"'Who can I trust?' was the most prescient question anybody asked,"  Owen Hoffman, the president of SENES Risk Management in Oak Ridge, told The Flyer in an interview following his appearance on Brockovich's panel. In a conversation ranging from hard science to the social dynamics at play in Kingston, he described environmentalists as being so accustomed to thankless uphill struggles, they can always be counted on to accentuate negatives while acknowledging that industry spokespeople and real-estate developers "trivialize" realistic consequences to protect financial interests.

"The ties between government and industry have been too close for many years, so it's not unreasonable to wonder if the information we get from our government agencies is reliable," Hoffman said.

Private industry was a notable player in the Kingston response. And while some residents were thankful for Brockovich's contravening presence, others expressed worry about "out of town interlopers" and "sharks." There was a lot of good reporting around the Kingston disaster, but when distinctive sides present themselves, media narratives tend to favor the controversy over the concern. That was not always the case here, but was generally as the big question became, "is this sludge REALLY ALL THAT toxic?" instead of "what's the best way to get people the relief and recompense they deserve while managing this toxic sludge?" 

"I think the public has been very poorly informed,"
p._18_cover_story_5.jpg
 one toxicologist said to the crowd at a food-and-drink-heavy event sponsored by the American Coal Ash Association (ACAA). "It's wrong to characterize the ash as toxic sludge. That's a pejorative term," he said. "It's like my wife complaining that she had to drink toxic sludge because she recently had a gastrointestinal exam and the doctor made her swallow barium."

Via me, 2009:

On the night before Brockovich's town hall-style meeting, another group of scientists held a different kind of gathering at Kingston's Midtown Elementary School. Consultants from the American Coal Ash Association (ACAA) hosted a meet-and-greet event that included a massive buffet table weighted down with shrimp, meatballs, croissants stuffed with chicken salad, fruit, pastry, cookies, and a selection of exotic cheeses.

There was no official presentation, but Kingston residents could walk around and ask questions of the ACAA's scientists...

There was also a medical doctor on hand to address — and minimize — concerns about long-term health risks and a coal-ash expert who explained how using fly ash in concrete helps mitigate the greenhouse gasses released in the coal-burning process.

"I don't think anybody's going to see Blinky the three-eyed fish in the river," said Dr. Michael Bollenbacher, a radiation expert and the one showman among the ACAA's consultants. He took on tough questions from Harriman resident John Hoage, a retired attorney who has sued tobacco companies.

Bollenbacher's reference to Blinky was likely a response to the opening paragraphs of a 2007 article in Scientific American called "Coal Ash Is More Radioactive than Nuclear Waste" that had been making its way into e-mails all over Kingston.

Bollenbacher worked the crowd like a blackjack dealer, running a pair of Geiger counters over bags of local dirt and coal ash, as well as over typical household objects. The dirt and coal ash triggered little response from the machines, while the household objects made them screech...

"Did you hear what happened when I held it over the plate?" he asked, as if the red Fiestaware on the table was typical of contemporary kitchenware. But red Fiestaware, which hasn't been produced for decades, is somewhat infamous for containing uranium and lead that can be leeched out by acidic foods such as tomato sauce.

"But what do I know about any of this?" Bollenbacher asked rhetorically. "I'm just a dumb scientist, an independent consultant who doesn't have a dog in this fight."
It's only as radioactive as this plate.
  • It's only as radioactive as this plate.
Let's generously presume that the ACAA's indie consultant didn't know the plate he used to represent an ordinary household object was infamous for tickling Geiger counters. And maybe nobody assembled at the coal-friendly event had a "dog in the fight." But 10 years, and many deaths and illnesses later, it looks like coal ash loose in the environment might be at least a little more hazardous than dinner service. 

John Hoage, a retired attorney who attended the coal-friendly eat-and-greet, wasn't having it. Hoage, who had sued tobacco companies in the past, pulled out a folder of information he'd collected about the ACAA. He said the organization's membership page reads like a "Who's Who" of coal industry heavyweights. He said he didn't think anybody was telling him the whole truth.

"All of this reminds me of the 1950s," Hoag said. "The tobacco industry had scientists, too, and they used similar arguments to minimize the risks of cigarette smoke."

Hoag was particularly interested in cases related to prolonged exposure to smoke — like flight attendants trapped in smoke-filled cabins. He thought this was a more apt comparison to the situation in Kingston, than odd shots of barium related to occasional medical procedures. 
Now here's the real question: Why was there a controversy for media to report and residents/consumers to contend with in the first place? While it might be entirely true that coal ash, an ingredient in various modern building materials, can be essentially harmless when it's stabilized by containment, that information, no matter how accurate, isn't useful to anybody when vast quantities are dumped into the environment. To get to the bottom of things The Flyer found a scientist named Bryce Payne with a 15-year history of working on unrelated coal ash piles. He essentially affirmed the ACAA's most optimistic claims, but that wasn't anywhere near the end of Payne's informed assessment.

If the ash is released from the pond and exposed to substantially different environmental conditions, as happened in Kingston, however, Payne thinks there is then a substantial chance that the previously stable elements will become unstable. If that occurs there could be a net release of the toxins "that will accumulate to potentially threatening levels."
 Also:

"Among humans, the tolerance for exposure to toxic elements can vary widely," he explained. "Some can tolerate high exposures, some only very limited exposures. The same is true among plants and animals. Carp are a rough fish species, tolerant of pretty poor water quality. Other fish species cannot tolerate conditions that carp thrive in."

Payne was extremely reluctant to be interviewed at the time because, in his opinion, the  news media does a terrible job reporting on science. He worried about sensational treatment and that his comments would be decontextualized to support pro-environmentalist positions he wasn't endorsing. As Memphis fans of Dr. Heckle's science news podcast already know, bad science reporting is a legitimate concern. I think I did okay by him though, and four months later he's quoted in The Nation expressing even grimmer concerns about the state and federally backed cleanup project:

Despite warnings that the dredging may trigger a major toxic event, the TVA, backed by federal and state officials, is following through with its plans. “There apparently has been horrendous pressure to dredge at any costs,” said Bryce Payne, an independent environmental consultant who has been working on fly ash for more than fifteen years. “But the fish and similarly vulnerable biota in the Emory and Clinch River system simply will not be able to tolerate additional selenium.”

More from The Nation May, 2009:

Payne, who has offered his consulting services to the TVA and state regulators, wants officials to understand why so many of the best-laid plans could be heading toward disaster. In the March 20 e-mail to Sloan, he questioned the TDEC’s assumptions, pressed the agency to make its selenium data public and criticized Tennessee’s water-quality standards as too permissive regarding selenium. He zeroed in on the state agency’s pledge to follow up on fish tissue studies. The problem with fish tissue tests, he explained, is that selenium “bioaccumulates,” inching its way into fish and animals over months and years, not days and weeks. If you find selenium in high concentrations in fish tissue, the theory goes, you’re already in trouble. “[Fish tissue data] will not tell you how much more selenium may still come after you have finally detected that a threatening amount was there in the first place,” he told Sloan. In a telephone interview, Payne said that the threat was hard to detect: “Selenium, by its nature and chemistry, will sneak up on us,” Payne says. “It’s like the frog in the pot of slowly heating water.”

Among scientific experts, Payne is far from alone. “The folks in charge feel they don’t have the luxury to consider other ways to clean the river out,” said Joseph Skorupa, a biologist and selenium expert with the US Fish and Wildlife Service. “But they should understand that letting loose selenium is a momentous decision.”
So why did it take 10 years, possibly 40 deaths, and more than 400 illnesses to get a quiet admission in an earnings report that ratepayers might be on the hook for liabilities resulting from TVA's bad stewardship at the edge of real darkness? There are lots of reasons, obviously, but I'm going to let TVA and politicians off the hook momentarily and answer in words I've typed too often lately — words readers will probably grow tired of seeing as I write more media and information-related posts over the next several months: Markets determine news content.

Let's face it, producers can only squeeze so much reality appeal from the chemistry of  Selenium, an element that, according to studies cited by the EPA,  may result in things like "discoloration of the skin, loss of nails and hair, excessive tooth decay, listlessness, lack of mental alertness etc." According to The Nation the agency "also labels selenium sulfide, a selenium compound, a 'probable human carcinogen'”  But that's not my point. Responsible science reporting doesn't make for gripping, accessible prose or TV news content attractive to the most broadly attractive consumers (to advertisers) who, according to the best sources I know on the topic, don't give a flip about public affairs reporting. Still, many commercial newsrooms thought this story worth investing in. The Flyer, a small, typically hyperlocal newsweekly from the other side of the state, thought the incident was valuable enough to send a reporter when it happened. Regional news teams followed the story year after year and the incident only received sporadic statewide or national notice. But if the Kingston spill was 30-times larger than the Exxon Valdes disaster, it wasn't half as hyped.


Gannett's latest summation, as reported in its various Tennessee papers including The Commercial Appeal, accomplishes everything good newspaper reporting is supposed to do, covering and contextualizing a lot of complicated ground. But from the onset, Kingston's narrative turned on controversy rather than urgent common cause. As is often the case with shocking events, when it stopped being breaking national news, it was never again amplified or sustained by social or legacy media long enough to force scrutiny, build mass-trust or foment opinion in the face of considerable public relations efforts by coal-related interests including, by TVA's own self-congratulatory account,100-million in dollar diplomacy investments "that improved or enhanced Roane Co." Not to mention that generous seafood-laden buffet I once covered. I can't deny, those fat shrimp assured and delighted my disaster-deprived tummy all those years ago.

WBIR's Dec., 2018 retrospective noted that TVA had given $32-million to area schools after the disaster — more dollar diplomacy. The report stated that the $1.2-billion cost of cleanup was spread out over 15 years, at no additional cost to ratepayers. 

There's a lot of blame to go around, but the worst of everything that happened in Kingston was amplified by people not knowing who to trust or to turn to for help finding good information. The death, discomfort, displacement, and personal loss is an indictment of private, state, and federal priorities. But it also represents the failures of an information industry that may never find an economic platform for sustained and meaningful public affairs reporting in the modern age. Absent that, there will always be too many deterrents, distractions and roadblocks preventing consumers from accessing the information they need and never enough barricade-evading directions scribbled on the back of bar napkins. 
Yes, we dumped a bunch of coal ash in your backyard, but aren't you hungry?
  • Yes, we dumped a bunch of coal ash in your backyard, but aren't you hungry?
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Erin Brockovich in Kingston
  • Erin Brockovich in Kingston


  

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Monday, February 4, 2019

Sick Burn — Gannett: MNG "Not Credible"; MNG: "Gannett's not Believable."

Posted By on Mon, Feb 4, 2019 at 3:24 PM

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Is it just me or is reality bending to look more like reality TV all the time?

In case you missed the news, Gannett has rejected a "vulture capital" firm's proposal to acquire the USA Today newspaper network and parent company to The Commercial Appeal.

Not only did Gannett reject MNG/Digital First Media's proposal, they also characterized the deal as being "not credible." That's not a complete surprise since the deal's prospects have ranged from "who knows?" to "it's all a sham" since it was announced and the market voiced its soulless approval.

“Buying Gannett is a tall task…I’m not sure Alden can get the financing to buy Gannett,” a media banker told The New York Post last week. The Post's story went on to note, "In fact, sources say that MNG’s ambition for years has been to be acquired by Gannett — and some speculate that friendly talks have already begun."

TWIST!

But Gannett's rejection was unsubtle: “Indeed, given MNG’s refusal to provide even the most basic answers to Gannett’s questions, it appears that MNG does not have a realistic plan to acquire Gannett." Shortly after the announcement MNG took its beef live.

Via ADWEEK:

MNG said in a statement that Gannett was the one to set up roadblocks to the discussion, which demonstrated that it was “not interested in seriously evaluating our premium cash proposal.”

MNG went on to say that Gannett’s plan for its digital businesses was “pie in the sky” and “not believable.”

This is in keeping with previous disses from Alden Global Capital, the hedge fund behind MNG/Digital First, which had previously released statements dogging “the team leading Gannett" for having, "not demonstrated that it’s capable of effectively running this enterprise.”

"The Death Star of Newspaper Chains," as  MNG had been called, still publicly insists that Gannett overpaid for digital assets and is currently "presiding over a declining core business," and cash flow. "Gannett’s deep structural problems are better fixed by experienced operators such as MNG,” MNG concluded.

Maybe this is all over now. Sniping happens when mergers loom. Still, it would make better television if, as the New York Post and Nieman Lab have considered, all this shit talk was just Alden Global secretly hoping to get with failed Gannett so the so called "pie in the sky" company could manage its newspaper properties too.    

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Friday, February 1, 2019

MAGA Bro Pens Love Letter to MAGA CAP: Dammit Gannett

Posted By on Fri, Feb 1, 2019 at 9:14 AM

"Nonpartisan" and "fair and balanced" journalism sound like great ideas. But they probably aren't what you think they are. They've been made to sound like best practices for ethical news gathering. But historically these ideas are artifacts of technology and capitalism.

I bring this stuff up because getting beyond all the usual ideological mess and straight bullshit like this tone-deaf nonsense from The Tennessean, is crucial to understanding why "writer and social media personality" Ryan Moore's weird love letter to his Make America Great Again (MAGA) hat appeared in Gannett newspapers including The Commercial Appeal.

A screen shot/excerpt from The Commercial Appeal.
  • A screen shot/excerpt from The Commercial Appeal.

America's partisan-funded press came skidding to a halt in the last quarter of the 19th century when new, high-speed printing made it possible for newspapers with enough up-front investment capital to distribute their products farther than ever before. Lots of attention is paid to the idea that "a biased news medium is bad for a self-governing people." But the thing is, at scale, it was also bad for business. Politically neutral papers could reach bigger markets becoming valuable to local interests and emerging national brands wanting less partisan places to advertise.  Economic realities forged the new journalistic ideals regarding what makes appropriate news content, not idealistic struggles for better information and freer reporting. And they still do.

A similar technological disruption bent the modern media mythos away from big-market "objectivity" toward a more useful narrative for an exploded economy: "fair and balanced." This works in a crowded field because you can't know the truth until you've heard every [hardline ideological] side, right?  When cable news blew up and America went from having only three major news networks to having so many choices you could no longer get by without a remote control, the basic idea of what constitutes respectable market shares reduced considerably. Niche marketing and partisan reporting made sense again. This is where Fox News comes from and with it the logical fallacy that all tits require right-wing tats. 

So what does any of this have to do with Gannett's MAGA-Man-crush?

Like I've said before, markets determine content and Tennessee remains a solid red patch on the political map. Gannett's earnings are in the shitter and its products, deformed as they are by a loss of local autonomy and investment, waste like plague victims. So much reporting and media opinion following the infamous MAGA-Teen's 15-minutes in the barrel, cast MAGA caps in a bad light, and judging by the color of those electoral maps I've linked above, that's the favored headgear of many if not most Tennesseans. In other words, the news smacked lots of Gannett's subscribers and potential subscribers right across the brim. 

Market served. "Tat" accomplished.

Moore's editorial is mostly familiar rhetoric about folks needing to be respectful of other folks and judging people by the content of their character, not the color of their stupid, racist hats. I could do a whole post on irony and the character of Moore's content, but that's not my purpose.

This stuff's candy — bulked up by outrage-shares and sweetened with hate-clicks. click to tweet
If serving readers/viewers/listeners is important it's probably not a good idea for news-oriented media to be in the business of promoting standard, white-male victimization narratives. If media serves a public good it's also probably a bad idea to participate in softening symbols that, regardless of what secret, special things they may mean to social media personalities, are also, inarguably, touchstones for white supremacists.

But c'mon! From a commercial POV this stuff's candy — bulked up by outrage-shares and sweetened with hate-clicks. Win-win for everybody! Unless the consumer was looking for information instead of a daily rise, in which case, not so much there.

Nevertheless, the story went big opening Moore's complaint up to a wider dialogue.

Top comment, Newsweek
  • Top comment, Newsweek

I'll conclude my rant by answering some rage-posts I've seen in my social media feed from folks justifiably wondering why MAGA-bro Moore is fronting all over their social media feeds. The real question is, why are you sharing it? And are you ready for more?

It's just business; thanks for yours.   

 

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Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Memphis TV News Has a Dateline Issue

Posted By on Tue, Jan 29, 2019 at 3:24 PM

TV 5
  • TV 5
I almost didn't post this because I worry about sounding like a broken record on this topic. But a recent WMC Facebook post stands out as a special example of how our broadcast media has abandoned any responsibility to the idea of "first do no harm."

For years Fly on the Wall has observed local news teams over-reporting crime and padding their broadcasts and social media feeds with crime reporting from other markets. Most out of town stories aren't introduced with a dateline, giving the initial impression that these scandals and abominations might be local. This dislocation is amplified by headline driven "scroll and share" consumer habits. I'm hardly the first critic of this cheap, media economy approach to news delivery, nor am I the only journalist to suggest that an over-saturation of fear-based reporting coupled to endless stream of brown faces builds stereotypes and cements misleading cultural narratives while triggering racist anxiety and public policy crafted in response to racist anxiety.

The post in question:

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On one hand, the link attached to WMC's post does eventually identify Houston a the location of the event. Many, similar posts don't even do that and one has to be clicked in order to see a dateline pegging the story to Florida, California, or somewhere else in the heartland. Only, people don't read news in blocks, taking in all the content at once. We read top to bottom, left to right. So the first information consumers get from WMC's post is the station's logo followed by news that five officers have been shot and are being transported to the hospital. At this point in reading, anybody with a husband, wife, son, daughter, or friend on the local force experiences a little heart failure. It may be allayed if they read on, but the messenger has already failed by not providing key information up front while appealing to raw emotion and cravenly picking at the scabs of discontent.

As if on cue one of the first commenters emerges from the disinformed fever swamp to pin this mass shooting of police officers on an imagined "race war" ginned up by President Barack Obama.

So why would the commenter think this drug raid-related shooting was somehow related to younger generations and Obama's secret race war? Although the linked story doesn't include the usual mug shot and one has to Google a bit to get the details, these perps were 50-ish and white. 
Rhogena Nicholas and Dennis Tuttle
  • Rhogena Nicholas and Dennis Tuttle

But an endless news stream showing crime after crime — brown face after brown face — creates a misleading narrative that lends itself to irrational conclusion. Per the old programmer's maxim: Garbage in, garbage out.

None of this is accidental. It almost feels trite to remind consumers that content is a market run by enormous financial interests who use trusted, appropriately coiffed personalities to anchor their brands and make you think they care about anything besides where the next dollar's coming from. That's glib, but it's neither incorrect or an understatement to say that news content is determined by market, not the public good. 

For newsrooms, police blotter crime reporting with no context and no followup stories requires very little investment and no investment at all if you're sharing from an affiliate market. This stuff is as close to free as news content gets. Meanwhile, to borrow from media critic James T. Hamilton, useful and informative but more costly and potentially less clickable stories are left undone due to the "difficulties of translating the public benefits from excellent news coverage into private incentives for [media] owners."

If TV news is our window on the world, the view is constantly grim and brown is the color of mayhem. The market has spoken and the second comment to the post is the kind of dividend it pays. 

All WMC's social media person had to do to make this post not abhorrent was include the word "Texas" somewhere in the first sentence. That's it. So, at this point it may be fair to assume that showing a jot of responsibility really would kill our TV news folks, and someone would no doubt interpret their tragic death as yet another victim of Obama's fantasy race war.

In other words, we're doomed: Scene at 11. Thanks WMC. 

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Thursday, January 24, 2019

Gannett Layoffs Hit Commercial Appeal Newsroom

Posted By on Thu, Jan 24, 2019 at 10:14 AM

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In December of last year, Fly on the Wall predicted layoffs would be forthcoming at Gannett sometime after the new year. It had seemed like an inevitability since November's dismal quarterly report and the call for early buyouts that always presages another round of cuts. 

Yesterday, it finally happened. On Wednesday, January 23rd, Gannett laid off newsroom employees at newspapers across the country.

Via Poynter:

Another brutal day for journalism.

Gannett began slashing jobs all across the country Wednesday in a cost-cutting move that was anticipated even before the recent news that a hedge-fund company was planning to buy the chain.

The cuts were not minor.

The CA, which lost many top-of-pay scale employees to the Daily Memphian startup and has been under a hiring freeze, appears to have fared better than many Gannett publications.

As of now only one newsroom layoff has been confirmed. Four open positions have been eliminated. This story will be updated as more is known.

  

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Thursday, January 17, 2019

On Gannett, The Commercial Appeal, and Digital First

Dead Pools & Death Stars

Posted By on Thu, Jan 17, 2019 at 1:59 PM

"I am most afraid of our important, consequential work getting upended because our business model is further disrupted."

- Commercial Appeal managing editor Mark Russell in an interview published by Poynter.org, 1-13-2019.

"In April, The Post published the editorial headlined 'As vultures circle, The Denver Post must be saved,' calling on Alden Global Capital to sell the newspaper after it cut 30 more positions in the newsroom, leaving it at a fraction of its size just a few years ago. Then in May, three top figures at the Denver Post, including its former owner, resigned amid budget and staff cuts."

- From an AP report about Alden-backed Digital First Media's move to acquire The Commercial Appeal's parent company, Gannett Co. Published 1-14-2019.

If MNG/Digital First Media successfully acquires The Commercial Appeal's parent company, Gannett Co., it's time to start a dead pool. Only, instead of celebrity deaths, we'll bet on daily newspapers. Also, I'm calling first dibs: The Commercial Appeal, 2021 — RIP. 

After news broke that Digital First media was making moves to acquire Gannett, many local media watchers wondered if there was any juice left to squeeze from Memphis' already greatly diminished daily newspaper. It's a fair question, but only a tiny piece of the bigger picture. Whether or not the CA can withstand another round of screw-tightening, the market's certainly interested in finding out. Gannett stock rose 21 percent following the announcement and, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal, this makes it harder for Gannett to, "justify turning its back on the offer," or go forward with plans to expand its own digital footprint by purchasing Gizmodo Media (Previously Gawker Media).

Frankly, if not for Digital First's reputation as "The Death Star of newspaper chains," the company's reasons for making an offer and encouraging Gannett to pursue other offers, might sound downright noble.
From the WSJ:

In the letter, Digital First accused [Gannett's] management of poor stewardship and of damaging the company’s financial position by making several “aspirational digital deals” that haven't paid off. It demanded that Gannett put all digital acquisitions on hold and hire bankers to review strategic alternatives. 

That sounds like the Gannett we all know. But to extend the Star Wars metaphor, this isn't Han Solo swooping in with his blaster to save the day. To borrow from Will Bunch at Philly.com:

"The dirty little secret is that DFM learned — at least for now — that it can sell longtime readers an inferior (or, to use the technical term, crappier) newspaper and only 10 percent of reach each year will cancel. Do the math, though, and it’s clear that much of America outside the biggest cities will become news deserts by the early 2020s, after Smith and his fellow hedge-funders have sucked out every last drop."

Is Bunch being alarmist? He's certainly not the only media watcher to sense a disturbance in the force. I caught a similar chill and the market's positive response to the Digital First news instantly called to mind a line in James T. Hamilton's 2003 book All The News That's Fit to Sell. When applied to the information business, economics really earns its reputation as "the dismal science."

Hamilton's book is aging well. It delves into how markets shape media bias with attention paid to how little the value of well-informed communities has to do with the value of commodified media product. It more or less describes and defines the kinds of changes we've all observed in local media markets. It's what happens when the public's interest shapes public interest and profit drives all.

via GIPHY

What happened to Alderaan can happen here.

The Digital First news took me back to that happy moment in 2018 when The Daily Memphian, a new startup, siphoned away much of the CA's top talent, effectively cloning the ailing Gannett property in a locally owned but digital-only environment. Most media consumers cheered, but I went full Cassandra on social media and any excitement generated by the prospect of a new information startup was dampened by the sense that we'd now crossed some kind of risk threshold. Every media  startup's a dicey proposition; now the Gannett-damaged CA had been cut in half — its talent gutted by a digital twin with good intentions. The idea of having no daily non-broadcast news source in Memphis within the next decade had to be seriously entertained.

In spite of recent and well-justified optimism, I once again submit my modest observation: The sky is falling. Maybe not for everybody and maybe not right now. But someday and soon and as reported elsewhere, there are no good guys in this deal.  But if Digital First takes Gannett there won't be a Commercial Appeal in 2022.

Write it down. 

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Thursday, January 10, 2019

Local 24 Quietly Deletes Controversial Tweet

Posted By on Thu, Jan 10, 2019 at 10:00 AM

WATN, Local 24, had an interesting way of framing news about Cyntoia Brown's commuted life sentence.

Brown, the teenage sex trafficking victim who killed a john when she was 16, was granted executive clemency Monday, January 7th.

Here's WATN's original tweet on the story:

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Local 24 quietly deleted the tweet Tuesday, after it started receiving negative attention. The account has made no official mention of the deletion, nor has anybody accounted for the unfortunate framing of a tragic and complicated story.

Commissioner Tami Sawyer cuts to the heart of things:


Over the past week, MLK50 founder Wendi Thomas has been taking local broadcast stations to task for the huge role they play in linking African-Americans and criminality. She's been particularly vocal about the number of black faces linked to crime that show up in local social media feeds whether the news is local or not.


If you want to know just how disproportionately crime is reported in the Memphis market, the Memphis Flyer does an occasional survey.

This isn't a condition unique to Memphis and since, at a national scale, local TV news stations reach more viewers than all the top cable stations combined, it's fair to say that regional broadcasters across America play a huge role in shaping urban narratives related to race and crime. Local 24's tweet is just the latest example, and an especially egregious one. 

By deleting the tweet, someone has acknowledged its inappropriateness or, at least, the potential for controversy. But deletions like this require some accompanying public statement. For example, when WMC distanced itself from a deleted tweet reading: "Nashville is still trash,"  a subsequent tweet explained the deleted post didn't represent the station's "values or views."

Whether there's an accounting or not, here's something to think about. Negligent and incendiary headlines and the over-association of black and brown faces with violent crime isn't new, and neither is criticism pointing it out. The people responsible for organizing and distributing the news in 2019 know exactly what they are doing. They do it anyway. 

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