An Old Video I Just Re-Found

And now, for something completely different…

This is a video I made last year working with the homeless population in Silicon Valley, in Northern California. I came across this again as I was gathering some clips and organizing some old blog materials. I felt like reposting this. Hopefully it will inspire some more regular blogging again.

(Heather and the Girls from Danny Fenster on Vimeo.)

This video came from my website UnhousedMedia.com. Feel free to check that out too.

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Changing Aesthetics, and Other Stuff Too.

“One word is key: interdisciplinary.”

-Steve Outing, from his #jcarn                                                                             submission yesterday

I was very fortunate. By my last year of J-school I was studying long-form narrative journalism–craft and the like, the New Journalists, etc.–and a new course had just sprung up out of nowhere. Within the last semester or two this “Online Journalism” course became extremely popular. People raved about it throughout the halls of the 2nd floor of 33 E. Congress, in Chicago, IL.

One (of the many) great thing about the class was that it asked, very deliberately and fundamentally, what the role of the journalist is. This is a significant question to ask a young person in their third or fourth year of journalism school. So much of the last few years of your life have been spent rewriting the inverted pyramid and memorizing the AP Stylebook that those sort of things come to symbolize the profession. You forget that your main objective is to record and convey information that people can use. I hadn’t been thinking so much about making people want to use that information though; it seemed a given to me that people want information about the world, and they seek it in newspapers. I was out of touch with my own generation, perhaps, but perhaps that’s what four years of studying professional dogmas and platitudes will do.

We are getting all kinds of new answers these days about what a journalist is. You see journalists as computer programmers, data visualizers, social media strategists, community organizers. I’ve been thinking about something maybe less technologically innovative. I’ve been thinking about the aesthetics of journalism, and I think my thoughts are clearest in an example involving multimedia.

It’s surprising to me now, coming from a form of journalism so much about craft and narrative and point of view, that at the time it seemed so foreign to me when the Online Journalism teacher presented a video of a massive pillow fight on Wall Street, recorded from multiple perspectives in slow motion and set to something ambient sounding with a dance beat. There were no voice-overs, and minimal text to give context. It was just a few minutes, and then it ended.

“Is that journalism?” he asked us. He played another video reporting on the pillow fight, probably from a local New York network station. It had an introduction by an anchor, probably beginning with an awful joke about a sleepover gone wrong, a man on the street interview or two, and a clear exposition, perhaps something like “kids will be kids!” He didn’t have to ask if the latter was journalism. “Now, which do you think gave a better sense of what it was like to be there?” He asked.

It’s kind of tricky. I think it’s obvious that the first video provided a better sense of the chaos and hilarity of the event, but ambient music infers emotion, is not really “objective.” It’s actually antithetical to a lot of whats taught in J-school. But such is life.

I suggest we start getting more honest about “objective reality.” I suggest we not shy away from the artistic and the playful and the color that emotions and perceptions cast on real events. Especially when reporting on large-scale pillow fighting.

The most popular and engaging journalism out there right now plays with form. It breaks down the fourth wall and acknowledges that journalism is a human process of gathering and trying to understand information, like This American Life and Planet Money. It tells stories that illuminate more than mere “reports” do, like the items curated by @longreads and others. It blogs with a voice, as distinct from an opinion. I emphasized the word engaging for a reason. All of the examples above have deeply devoted followers, what you might call “engaged community members.” It is a buzz word in journalism right now, everybody seeking to “engage the community.” It’s assumed, rightly, that deeper engagement means loyalty, devotion, and–mostly but unspoken–a gateway to profitability. Nobody would let This American Life disappear.

Alright, so what am I going on about? Few of these skills come from a journalism curriculum, and many come from the arts and humanities and from the creative process in general. So my suggestion is for newspapers and fellowship programs and the rest to get the aesthetes from the other departments into journalism, the photographers and filmmakers and english majors who use communications in inventive ways to be more engaging. Young people don’t trust traditional media anymore, and much of it is about style as much as philosophy–the straight-faced anchor just reporting, the remoteness from the subject implied by the straight and unaffected language of the newspaper report or the inverted pyramid. The effect has eroded with the qualitative decline of mainstream media. Staff the paper with investigative and beat reporters, but also humorists and satirists and filmmakers and artists.

Maybe it’s a New, New, New Journalism, more artistic but ultimately more honest. Anybody can get a scoop on Monday and lose out on the next big one on Friday, and the crowds will follow. I long to see the day when news organizations are making videos like California is a Place. Because the technology is cheap and the barriers so low, we can all create stunning multimedia journalism now. See Kirk Mastin on this.

I am not calling for the death of the inverted pyramid or the straight-news style for explanatory journalism. There will always be a need for the pure, direct voice of explanation. And in fact, I think the blog is the perfect format for the inverted pyramid, a newer and more versatile appearance of the telegraph that birthed the form. Blogs are perfect for very quick updates and breaking stories where we need to get the information up front. I am calling on news organizations to expand their definitions of journalism–the traditional rags, not just the glossy magazines and quirky radio programs. Let’s make journalism more beautiful.

Not long ago I was editing a video of my own at a new job on the West Coast, trying to copy the Kirk Mastins’ and the California-is-a-Places’ with lesser cameras, when a story on the Atlantic broke from back in Chicago–a story that will likely cause half of you to disregard this post completely and half of you to praise it all the more. They reported that Dan Sinker, my Online Journalism professor, was the man behind @MayorEmmanuel.

No, it wasn’t “journalism.” He never claimed it was. But it also wasn’t a selling out of the profession, as some d-bags quickly claimed. Without reading too much into a foul-mouthed fake twitter account’s impact on journalism, I will say that it certainly fucking built a massive mother-fucking community of people, deeply engaged and all in on something, young people who just might have been given more incentive to follow Rahm’s campaign much more closely.

To carve myself out a unique perch to sit on, my argument is aesthetic. But to echo so many other carnies, the point is that the future–in the physical and social sciences too, but here in journalism–is interdisciplinary. Give fellowships to artists but also to historians and politcal scientists and philosophers to redefine the goals and objectives of the press. Give them to the marketers and economists and business grads to find new means of profitability. We may find out that @FakeAPStyleBook has more value to add to the profession than the AP Stylebook.

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Some Thoughts on Possible Roles for Non-Profits (and other community actors) in Journalism

AFFORDABLE HOUSING CRISIS

At the close of 2010, with real estate markets around the country still reeling from foreclosures and the financial crisis, home and rental prices in the San Francisco Bay Area remained high, even making modest gains.

The weather is nice and the tech industry is, for the time being, strong. Talented and highly-educated young engineers and programmers and marketing gurus pour in from elsewhere, and the rent goes up. And in one of the most affluent regions in the country people sleep on all-night buses because they can’t pay rent, along waterways and under bridges. Disproportionately minorities and immigrants, there are more than 7,000 homeless residents in Santa Clara County.

More than half are Black or Hispanic, and 51 passed away prematurely this year. A full accounting of life in the bay would look much differently than the tech juggernauts and young professionals popular image often imagines.

A small and dedicated army of social workers, bureaucrats and general do-gooder types fight daily in the trenches of homelessness, making significant and consistent reductions in the number of those sleeping outside over the last decade. For the past year I’ve had the fortune to have been able to count myself among that army.

Some months back the non-profit I work for asked for my thoughts on a social media plan. One aspect I proposed was a very basic digital media training curriculum that could be taught on-site to social workers and case managers, and to the individuals struggling for a place to call home—to fellow soldiers in the army, as it were. The idea was that by giving voice to those actively engaged in the day-to-day business of ending homelessness, this often hidden or ignored world could be publicly documented for the wider community. Out of the chaos of so many individual advocates and homeless individuals blogging and tweeting and uploading, some organizing blog or website would curate and contextualize the new information—my non-profit’s blog.

The suggestion hung stagnant in the air until an opportunity to apply for a Knight grant was hinted at a month or two later. We had been conducting early-morning street outreach walks through encampments and along the banks of a creek nearby and a steadfast volunteer partner for the effort had been the student body at a local Jesuit university. I had been thinking about collaborative social media projects with local journalism schools, and it occurred to me that the community volunteer requirements Santa Clara University students had to meet might be leveraged to our advantage.

In broad outline, the idea was that teams of media and journalism students from Santa Clara University would—in fulfillment of volunteer hours—create and conduct digital media and literacy trainings among the homeless and the staff of service agencies, and through a class project curate the content being produced in the wider context of homelessness in Silicon Valley (that context: drastic changes in social policy over the last three decades regarding homelessness; the ten-year plans instituted in the last decade across the country; the transition from continuum-of-care approaches to the housing first model—and how that is working in San Jose specifically; the public costs to hospitals and jails and all taxpayers of chronic homelessness versus the costs of different solutions; the very pertinent fact that San Jose and Santa Clara County specifically have been progressive about this, though that’s not widely understood).

As the San Jose Mercury seeks bankruptcy and slashes its newsroom staff (down 60 percent in the last decade), I also suggested that whatever class project came of this should partner with local media outlets in need of content and coverage. Not just the Merc, but the exciting new ventures in the area like the Bay Citizen and the SF Public Press, among so many others. It’s no coincidence that so many of the emails of new carnival entries flooding my inbox this morning are looking specifically at j-schools. Vadim Lavrusik was inestimably correct in the last carnival. “The days of journalism school content living on islands that are not a part of their community should come to end,” he said.

This was not at all what my boss was looking for, and the proposal I set forward was blended with the more managed message of our organization. I’m not optimistic about our receiving any funding, but I still think there is something to this idea.

A NOTE ABOUT “INDEPENDENCE”

Much has been written about the ideal of objectivity and the “View from Nowhere.” As Jay Rosen put it:

What authority there is in the position of viewlessness is unearned– like the snooty guy who, when challenged, says, “Madam, I have a PhD.” In journalism, real authority starts with reporting. Knowing your stuff, mastering your beat, being right on the facts, digging under the surface of things, calling around to find out what happened, verifying what you heard. “I’m there, you’re not, let me tell you about it.” Illuminating a murky situation because you understand it better than almost anyone…

In the old way, one says: “I don’t have a horse in this race. I don’t have a view of the world that I’m defending. I’m just telling you the way it is, and you should accept it because I’ve done the work and I don’t have a stake in the outcome…”

In the newer way, the logic is different. “Look, I’m not going to pretend that I have no view. Instead, I am going to level with you about where I’m coming from on this. So factor that in when you evaluate my report. Because I’ve done the work and this is what I’ve concluded…”

If the View from Nowhere continues on, unchallenged, trust in the news media will probably continue to decline.

The obvious logic that the best people in a given community to report on the issues their community is facing are those facing the issues head on has been ignored. That community groups have an agenda—to build the community, to make it safer and more livable—is a a benefit, not as a bias. They are there—let them tell us about it. We know where they’re coming from.

The role and definition of the ‘professional journalist’ is anybody’s for the remaking right now. One potential role is perhaps simply to bring communities together online and let them tell their own stories—to broaden the discussion by moderating the conversation with as many interested parties contributing as possible.

Here in the Bay, Oakland Local knows this. From their website:

The mission of Oakland Local is to democratize access to new media and web social media skills by partnering with community organizations to provide them with the skills, resources, and awareness to tell stories and make their voices heard through publishing on Oakland Local and on the web. We believe there is a digital divide based not on access, but on knowledge, so we teach news writing, multimedia and social media skills to bridge that gap.

Journalists as teachers and tutors of digital media literacy may seem a far wandering from the job we thought we signed up for. But in other ways it’s very much the same. Where journalists once offered the unheard access to the press, they now have the power to hand the entire press over to them. This will not make us obsolete. Indeed, with more information available, context and filtration become even more demanded. Jason Barnett wrote in the last carnival that “the most overlooked and generally dismissed skill (of journalists) is that of community organizer.” I would suggest that journalism—journalism schools in particular—learn to become community information organizers. Students should serve as the catalyst and curator of this new world of content. As we get our sources online, we can not only curate their content but plumb it for story ideas.

DOLLAR DOLLAR BILL, Y’ALL

Last November the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art held a panel discussion on the future of investigative journalism. The panel included A.C. Thomas, investigative reporter for ProPublica; David Cohn of Spot.us and this-very-carnival fame; a photojournalist; a newspaper editor and a publisher. The discussion was tied, tangentially, to an ongoing photography exhibit. It wasn’t long before someone asked what a panel of journalists were doing debating the future of news at a museum of modern art. After struggling with the question for a moment, Thomas concluded that investigative journalism was his art—a calling, he said, he felt a need to do. “This process of following up on tips, of investigating claims of wrongdoing and turning that into a story that people engage with,” he said, “is my art.” The panel nodded in agreement.

People don’t like being lied to. Whether is stems from self-interest or from some humanitarian impulse to expose and right wrongs, investigating corruption is something civilizations will always yearn to do. We create anonymous wikis so people feel comfortable leaking information. It became apparent to me at the museum that it wasn’t the future existence of investigative journalism we feared would fall with the newspaper industry, it was a steady paycheck (which is also very important, admittedly).

Homelessness amid affluence is no secret waiting to be exposed. Sandwiched between the stone halls of one of world’s most prestigious universities and the high-end retailers of a manicured downtown, the people sleeping at the Palo Alto Transit Center with backpacks and shopping carts every night are not hidden. What is less visible are the innovations in social policy that are changing the way cities deal with homelessness; the outreach workers and case managers and doctors and nurses working every day to bring people inside; the process of returning from war or foreclosing a house and a dream, or of losing an entire family in an instance and coping with the ensuing depression.

It is not investigative journalism that we risk losing. It is the sustained, day-to-day work of covering a particular beat, the unfolding stories of our society that point at truths so present and obvious we stop seeing them, that we risk losing. There are dedicated people in just about every community deeply involved in these stories, at churches and non-profits and out in the trenches; let’s help them to share, like we’ve always done.

See more ideas on Twitter via #jcarn.

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So Damn Dirty

From the since-shuttered blog The Hotel Bedspread, by Noah Feldman.

“Why Are hotel bedspreads accused of being so damn dirty?

A. Because they are dirty. God created them dirty and that’s what they are.

B.  Because they don’t wash them.

C.  Because everyone throws them on the floor, in the corner, which is probably the dirtiest spot in the room, and they don’t wash them.

D.  Because it doesn’t matter if they wash them or not.  The fact that everyone throws it on the floor, in the corner, makes them dirty in the first place and might be the real reason they are so damn dirty to begin with.  We are just perpetuating the problem by saying, “throw that on the floor, it’s dirty, they don’t wash them,” then throwing it on the floor, making it dirty.

E.  Because the point of asking that question has nothing to do with hotels or bedspreads and everything to do with being aware of the actions we take everyday that are irrational and based solely on the facts that we have been indoctrinated with since childhood.”

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The Color of Beliefs

From the introduction of the book Blood of the Liberals, by George Packer.

“…At twenty I thought I was the author of my own life and could go on willing it into any shape I wanted–being myself had nothing to do with being my father’s son. In my thirties I discovered how much had been fixed by the accidents of birth. Not just the twisting chains of nucleic acids that gave me the broad mouth of a long-dead Jewish grandmother, the freckles of southern cousins, my mother’s temper and flair for rhetoric, the listening gesture of cupping chin in hand that came from my father along with high cholesterol and a tendency toward depression. Along with these, I also inherited a history that went in one direction back to the Jews who came to New York City around 1900, and in another down into the defeated and impoverished South. I was born, like everyone, into the legacy of a genetic makeup, a family tree, a historical moment–even a worldview.

“Call it liberalism. A notoriously elusive term: like “irony” and “culture,” it has multiple nuances and shifting emphases, sometimes meaning opposite things. Goethe said that there are no liberal ideas, only liberal sentiments. But sentiments and ideas are more closely related than we usually think. Few people reach a political decision by deduction from an abstract system of philosophy; most feel their way into the opinions they hold, often contradictory ones, and are hardly aware of the forces within and without that drive them. Among the liberal sentiments that run in my family are a tendency to side with the underdog, to feel that society imposes mutual obligations from which no on is excused. The rational mind, unconstrained by religion or tradition or authority, has the capacity to solve our problems. Progress is possible, if not inevitable; reason is the means, human happiness the end. Politics is lifeblood, an arena of moral choice, and more often than not a place of pain. Each generation has prided itself on being practical, yet found its own way to avoid the worldly success that might have come with compromise–the temptation to lose on principle has seldom been resisted. In general, the men in my family have been defeated and the women have endured.

“But the ideas that these sentiments produce can clash between the generations, or even within a single individual. Personal troubles change the color of beliefs. Historical tides go out and leave people stranded with convictions that no longer have any way of being realized. The meaning of key words like “freedom,” “equality,” “democracy,” “truth” can be turned inside out…”

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