Archive for the ‘California’ Category

Helping fix the error-filled news

I’m very happy to announce my involvement in a new startup called MediaBugs, where I’ll be serving as associate director and community manager. I’m joining with project founder and director Scott Rosenberg (with whom I had the great pleasure of working during my years at Salon) for what we anticipate will be an exciting and, hopefully, groundbreaking effort. We are now in the process of building out our Web site, with plans to start rolling out the service in early 2010. The two-year project is funded by the Knight Foundation, and will focus on all manner of media in the San Francisco Bay Area.

In a nutshell, MediaBugs will provide a neutral, civil forum where the public can report errors they encounter in the news and try to get them fixed. The idea is to leverage the open-source power of the Web to achieve greater transparency and dialogue among media institutions and the public, and thereby improve the quality of the news.

1948_DeweyDefeatsTruman

We see it as a winning proposition for everyone involved — a way to begin rebuilding public confidence in the media, while offering our fellow journalists a compelling tool they can use to enhance their work in this ever-dynamic digital age.

Why focus on fixing errors in the news? For one, public trust in the media wallows at a historic low. As Scott explained in a recent blog post, there are several reasons for this — perhaps chief among them that the news is riddled with mistakes, and an extraordinary percentage of them go uncorrected.

There are different kinds of errors, but even the seemingly trivial ones matter. (And there are a great many of them, as detailed at the above links, a status quo surely not helped by today’s painful editorial cutbacks.) If the local paper or news site regularly publishes misspelled names or inaccurate dates, how can its readers trust that it got the really important stuff right?

The problem afflicts small and big players alike. This week, the Washington Post’s public editor Andrew Alexander was compelled to explain why a respected sports columnist at the paper whiffed big time with some of his World Series coverage.

“By my count,” Alexander wrote, “the column contained at least 20 typos, grammatical errors or misspellings.”

Curiously, the Post treated a cleaned-up version of the piece, posted online after the shoddy print version went out, as separate. That’s a questionable distinction, with the lines between blog posts, columns and articles rapidly blurring these days, and with digital and print newsroom operations fast merging. There is still no correction appended to the online version of the World Series column, so unless you’d already caught wind of Alexander’s write-up you wouldn’t even know about the flurry of mistakes that appeared in print. Doesn’t seem like the best way to win over skeptical readers.

For more details on how MediaBugs will work, visit our site here, and stay tuned for more soon.

Bay Bridge boondoggle

The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge has been “closed indefinitely” after a rod installed during last month’s emergency repairs snapped during rush hour on Tuesday evening, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. I’m extra thankful this morning that in 15 years of living and working in this city I’ve been able to commute almost exclusively by public transportation or bicycle. Compared with the 280,000 daily car commuters suffering today’s fallout (not to mention all the train riders getting further jammed in by them), that probably makes it too easy for me to say this: There are at least a couple of reasons to be thankful (relatively speaking) for this latest meltdown.

First, it’s a live exercise in what could happen when the most important transportation artery in the region gets knocked out under more perilous circumstances — a terrorist attack, another catastrophic earthquake, etc. Nobody can say there wasn’t an opportunity to prepare. Second, it again puts a glaring light on key questions about the boondoggle that is the new eastern span of the bridge — namely, why is it billions of dollars over budget, beset with quality-control problems and years behind schedule?

Bay Bridge

Aerial view of an empty Bay Bridge on Wednesday. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

It’s an understatement to say that the project has long been ripe for serious journalistic investigation. If the beleaguered Chronicle can’t get it together, perhaps others will rise to the task. According to Baynewser, an interesting collaboration is underway from SF Public Press and McSweeney’s. “Our reporters have been digging up documents for close to two months on the massive construction project, one of the most challenging, costly and complex bridge projects in U.S. history, and have found some surprising new facts about how and why the costs, currently projected at $6.3 billion, continue to rise,” says Public Press chief Michael Stoll. With this latest setback, perhaps the new Berkeley-based California Watch will get interested as well.

“Preparing for a tough day with Bay Bridge closure,” tweeted Mayor Gavin Newsom this morning. He recommended following @BayBridgeInfo to stay informed. As of about 6:30am, the prognosis there was not good: “Repairs are now under way, still unknown how long repairs will take or when bridge will reopen.”

UPDATE: Given the rapidly changing media landscape here, how did initial coverage of the Bay Bridge crisis flow?

Dave Eggers, Peter Orner and more

I’m at work on a couple of freelance projects that will soon take me back to the great northwest. More bits here in a couple of days; in the meantime, I must recommend a visit to The Rumpus, a great online culture mag launched a few months back in San Francisco.

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It’s got entertaining and informative and sexy stuff of all sorts. (Disclosure: A few of my posts have also been published there.) Editor Stephen Elliott recently interviewed Dave Eggers, who has a forthcoming nonfiction book, “Zeitoun,” about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina as seen through the eyes of a Muslim-American family in New Orleans. I was struck by Eggers’ comments about his collaborative (and exhaustive) approach to the project:

With a book like this, I think you get the most accuracy when you involve your subjects as much as possible. I think I sent the manuscript to the Zeitouns for six or seven reads. They caught little inaccuracies each time. They have to live with the book, of course, as much as I do, so I needed their approval. With What Is the What and with this book, I consider the book as much theirs as mine. So they were intimately involved in every step, as were their extended families. We had many months to get everyone’s approval over everything, to make sure it was accurate.

Eggers recommends an edition of the Quran to read, discusses why he’s optimistic about print in the digital age (“Do we all want to look at screens from 8am to 10pm? There’s room in the world for both online and paper”) and describes some intriguing plans for McSweeney’s to put out a newspaper.

thelonelyvoiceAbsolutely also check out Peter Orner’s new column, “The Lonely Voice.” His appreciative ruminations on the art of the short story are as engaging and illuminating as any literary writing you’ll find online. (Or in print, for that matter.) Not to be missed.

No honeymoon for gay marriage in California

Everybody knew that Tuesday’s ruling on Proposition 8 from the California Supreme Court could only be another charged moment in a long and continuing battle. Even though the 18,000 marriages that followed a favorable court decision here last May will stand, Tuesday’s decision upholding the ban on gay marriage was a near-term victory for social conservatives.

The court had signaled back in March its reluctance to intervene in the ballot initiative process and overturn the will of the voters. But the lone dissenter in the 6-1 decision Tuesday, Justice Carlos Moreno, wrote eloquently (see pp.151-175) about just how much is at stake:

The rule the majority crafts today not only allows same-sex couples to be stripped of the right to marry that this court recognized in the Marriage Cases, it places at risk the state constitutional rights of all disfavored minorities. It weakens the status of our state Constitution as a bulwark of fundamental rights for minorities protected from the will of the majority.

If California invariably serves as America’s cultural vanguard, what seems odd now is how the state appears to be behind the times. Iowa, of all places, is looking more socially progressive. Moreno cited the recent decision striking down a ban on gay marriage by that state’s high court, whose justices pointed out “the long and painful history of discrimination against gay and lesbian persons” in many parts of the country.

Moreno continued: “I realize, of course, that the right of gays and lesbians to marry in this state has only lately been recognized. But that belated recognition does not make the protection of those rights less important. Rather, that the right has only recently been acknowledged reflects an age-old prejudice … that makes the safeguarding of that right by the judiciary all the more critical.”

Reactions on both sides of the ruling have been heated, to say the least, and San Francisco is abuzz with demonstrations.

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“Well, looks like religiously inspired hatred has won the day over the values this formerly great nation was founded on,” said one of nearly 1,800 commenters on SFGate.com Tuesday afternoon.

“Its not about equality folks. It’s about bowing down to the homosexual agenda or being called a bigot,” said another.

And as another made clear, the costly battle is far from over: “As expected from a legal standpoint, but nevertheless disappointing from the larger view of justice for all. Back to the voters and if the trend continues Prop 8 will be repealed by a decent majority in 2010. Onward!”

A fevered case of swine flu hype

Will the outbreak of the H1N1 virus get historically serious? According to global health experts, the answer is that nobody really knows. Pandemics tend to hit in waves, and the biggest danger could come this winter.

pigFor now the news media is maintaining its fever pitch as long as possible, of course, hungry to feast at the ratings trough. As one analyst told Howard Kurtz yesterday, “Cable news has 24 hours to fill, and there isn’t 24 hours of exciting news going on. If you scare people, they’ll tune in more.” Still, when flipping past CNBC on Monday afternoon I was a bit shocked to encounter the blaring graphic “Pandemic Pandemonium” accompanying a discussion about reaction on Wall Street. (In fact, the market barely budged early this week.)

Naturally, some news consumers are caught up in the hallucinatory chatter. From an inquiry to Bay Area physician and blogger Doc Gurley — posted, I kid you not, under the headline Swine Flu Sex? — on SFGate today:

Dear Doc,

My husband and I are trying to get pregnant. We’ve just recently “put the pedal to the floor” and are undergoing fertility treatment. Now I’m concerned that I may be putting myself and an unborn fetus at extra risk for the Swine Flu that is wending its way down the pipeline. Included in this concern is the fact that I’ve heard that anti-virus medications can adversely affect a developing fetus, which means it would be a lose/lose case scenario if I had the opportunity to prevent an imminent case in the future. Should we shelve this project for a few months or what?

Gurley replies that pregnant women do have “very mildly” suppressed immune systems. However, she continues, “The fact is, given the way the world (and media coverage) works, there will, undoubtedly, never be a time when the world looks rosy, all-welcoming, and risk-free. Yesterday’s potential nuclear annihilation is today’s swine flu. It’s a wonder, in fact, that any baby ever sticks its head out.”

If they only knew about the likes of AC360 or Countdown with Keith Olbermann.

Mexico, meanwhile, now suffers from a confluence of maladies. As GlobalPost’s Ioan Grillo reports from Tijuana: “Amid a U.S. recession, a fever pitch fear of the Mexican drug war and now an epidemic of swine flu sweeping across Mexico, Humberto Beltran says business at his border city store has nosedived 85 percent this April compared to the same time last year.”

From North America to the Far East, another pressing question has arisen amid the swine flu scare: Is it still OK to love bacon?

UPDATE: As of Wednesday afternoon the World Health Organization has raised its alert level, determining that a “pandemic is imminent.” So too is plenty more cable news yammer.

Google, Kindle and The Library of Babel

Technological innovation seems almost strangely commonplace these days, from say, contact lenses that could layer data directly onto your view of the world to robots fighting far-flung wars to computer systems perhaps smart enough to compete on “Jeopardy!” All astonishing developments in their own right, and yet the most profound change of our times may yet be purely informative in nature: The digitization of all that we read.

At the University of San Francisco on Sunday I participated in a symposium on “Life after the MFA” for students graduating the writing program. Unsurprisingly, the technological upending of books, magazines and newspapers was a particular focus. Fellow panelist Patrick Dunagan, a poet who works as a specialist at the USF library, spoke with some alarm about the rate at which books and print periodicals there are going the way of the dodo. The idea is that many are being replaced digitally. I expressed a bit of surprise to him about this afterward, whereby he asked me when I last conducted any research in a library. Point taken. If only Borges were still hanging around and could rejoin the discussion.

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One theme I hoped to suggest in my part of the talk was that print vs. digital isn’t a zero-sum equation. We can still love books and newspapers while getting charged about the possibilities of digital publishing. In many ways the latter remains a Wild West — and without a doubt has blown holes in some old ways of doing business. But in my view the rising digital infosphere is far more expansive and generative than it is destructive.

In a recent essay published in the Wall Street Journal, author Steven Johnson explores both the thrill and potential chill of electronic books, a fast-growing realm thanks to Amazon’s innovative e-book reader, the Kindle, and Google’s Book Search service, home to approximately 10 million scanned titles and counting. One exciting aspect Johnson flags with regard to ideas and research:

Before too long, you’ll be able to create a kind of shadow version of your entire library, including every book you’ve ever read — as a child, as a teenager, as a college student, as an adult. Every word in that library will be searchable. It is hard to overstate the impact that this kind of shift will have on scholarship. Entirely new forms of discovery will be possible. Imagine a software tool that scans through the bibliographies of the 20 books you’ve read on a specific topic, and comes up with the most-cited work in those bibliographies that you haven’t encountered yet.

But there will be pitfalls, too, especially with respect to evolving market forces. The all-powerful search engine that is Google, and the ways in which it guides users to digital content of all sorts, could impact how books actually get written:

Writers and publishers will begin to think about how individual pages or chapters might rank in Google’s results, crafting sections explicitly in the hopes that they will draw in that steady stream of search visitors.

Individual paragraphs will be accompanied by descriptive tags to orient potential searchers; chapter titles will be tested to determine how well they rank. Just as Web sites try to adjust their content to move as high as possible on the Google search results, so will authors and publishers try to adjust their books to move up the list.

What will this mean for the books themselves? Perhaps nothing more than a few strategically placed words or paragraphs. Perhaps entire books written with search engines in mind. We’ll have to see.

A strength of Johnson’s essay is that he doesn’t pass judgment on these possibilities; he concentrates on laying out in lucid terms what he sees coming. (Another recent piece of his, on how the web’s information ecosystem changes how we get our news, is also well worth reading.)

The latter segment above, under the subhead “Writing for Google,” got me thinking about a worn adage heard in MFA programs everywhere: “Write what you know.” If that advice translates fundamentally to writing from a place of experience and passion, it could take on fresh meaning in the digital future — when the suggestion to “Write what you can search engine optimize” may well become a growing temptation.

UPDATE: Some wonder if Google already has too much sway with its Book Search service, including the U.S. Department of Justice.

Waking up to America’s economic nightmare

April2DowWith the roughly 1,500-point rise in the Dow Jones average since early March, it seems investors have been dreaming about the good old days. This Bloomberg chart from last Thursday’s trading marks the apparent disconnect — you don’t have to be a stock market maven to sense that the dramatic rally will likely prove to be, in the parlance of Wall Street, the kaput kitty hitting the pavement.

Take your pick of grim indicators. For the last two months the Consumer Confidence Index has plumbed its lowest depths since its inception in 1967. As we learned Friday, the nation lost another 663,000 jobs in March, bringing the total to 5.1 million since the recession began in December 2007. Unemployment may be a lagging economic indicator, but there’s little to suggest that the wave is cresting or will be any time soon.

But the worst sign of all right now may be this: America is still stuck in the anger stage. Recently I overheard a classic strain of the outrage in a coffee shop in Noe Valley (hardly ground zero for hard times), in a conversation between two rather comfortable looking middle-aged adults. One was wailing away on America’s preferred punching bag, Mr. Wall Street Executive, for “raping the taxpayers” without remorse. His hair was so on fire that I feared his head might actually explode. Soon the talk hit on the hypocrisy of the Obama administration’s forcing General Motors chief Rick Wagoner to fall on his sword while Wall Street’s lords of finance so unfairly kept feasting on federal bailout funds. Somehow the disastrous story of the SUV-bloated American auto industry didn’t come up.

Indeed, we must also be in a recession of genuine awareness. While New York Times columnist Frank Rich can himself be shrill at times, he’s got it right regarding the continuing blame game:

Why is there any sympathy whatsoever for a Detroit C.E.O. who helped wreck his company, ruined investors and cost thousands of hard-working underlings their jobs, when there is no mercy for those who did the same on Wall Street? Might we, too, have a double standard? Could we still be in denial of the reality that greed and irresponsibility were not an exclusive Wall Street franchise during our national bender?

A prominent financial expert I interviewed last week for a forthcoming magazine piece on the economic crisis said to me at one point in our conversation, “Almost everybody who was part of the system failed.” He wasn’t only talking about Wall Street institutions, government regulators and the media.

Easily enough we get whipped into a frenzy over unjust executive bonuses or the sins of the media’s prime time ding-dongs. But what of America’s common financial lifestyle over the last two decades? As Rich continues, in answer to his own question: “Any citizen or business that overspent or overborrowed in the bubble subscribed to its reckless culture. That culture has crumbled everywhere now, and a new economic order will have to rise from its ruins.”

Even better put, it will have to be built from them. That will be painstaking, no doubt — block by block, brick by brick, as has been said by a certain someone. But right now, it seems, too many people are still standing on the outskirts shouting about who plundered the village, rather than heading into the collective rubble and really starting to pick up the pieces.

UPDATE: On a related note, Wall Street conspiracy theorists and/or Hollywood screenwriters will find plenty of grist in this Times front-pager on Larry Summers’ enriching hedge fund days at D.E. Shaw prior to joining Team Obama:

D. E. Shaw does not like to talk about what goes on inside its modish headquarters near Times Square. There, esoteric trading strategies are imagined, sketched on whiteboards and modeled on supercomputers by an elite corps of math wizards and scientists, most of them unknown to the outside world….

At Shaw, Mr. Summers, the professor, was often the student. The arrogant personal style that turned off some Harvard colleagues seemed to evaporate, Shaw traders say. Mr. Summers immersed himself in dynamic hedging, Libor rates and other financial arcana.

He seemed to fit in among Shaw’s math-loving “quants,” as devotees of math-heavy quantitative investing are known. Traders joked that Mr. Summers was the first quant Treasury secretary because he had once ordered dollar bills to be printed with the transcendental number pi — 3.14159… — as the serial number.

Paging Dan Brown and Ron Howard?

Could marijuana light up the economy?

The debate about whether to legalize marijuana in the United States has never been a mainstream one. So it’s been fascinating to watch how much attention the concept has gotten lately, however viable it may or may not be.

Preoccupation with Mexico’s violent drug war is one factor; marijuana is the largest source of revenue for the cartels’ multibillion dollar business north of the border. Commodify the major cash crop through legalization, the idea goes, and its cost will plummet, putting a serious dent in the bad guys’ bank accounts.

taxing_marijuanaBut the larger issue lighting up the idea seems to be the battered American economy. In February, California state lawmaker Tom Ammiano proposed legislation that would regulate the cultivation and sale of marijuana, with a potential tax windfall of more than $1 billion to help bail out the state from a severe budget crisis.

On Thursday, the legalization concept wafted all the way up to the presidential level. In a live Internet “video chat” with Americans, President Obama found himself responding to a question that had been voted among the most popular of those submitted by the public: whether the controlled sale and taxation of marijuana could help stimulate the U.S. economy. “I don’t know what this says about the online audience,” Obama quipped. “The answer is no, I don’t think that is a good strategy to grow the economy.” By Thursday night, CNN’s Anderson Cooper was jabbering at length about the idea with law enforcement officials.

The issue of taxation just cropped up in another intriguing way. The Drug Enforcement Administration caused a stir in San Francisco on Wednesday when it raided a locally permitted medical marijuana dispensary. In part there was outcry because just days prior U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder had announced that the feds would no longer prosecute medical marijuana dispensaries where they are allowed under state and local law. So why the bust now?

So far the DEA isn’t sharing any details, but according to the San Francisco Chronicle, “A source in San Francisco city government who was informed about the raid said the DEA’s action appeared to be prompted by alleged financial improprieties related to the payment of sales taxes.”

It’s difficult to gauge the Chronicle’s anonymous source, but if accurate, the explanation seems rather odd. Last I checked, there was no national sales tax in the United States, so why would the federal government be interested in that issue? Moreover, while I’m not sure whether it applies to medical marijuana, prescription drugs are exempt under the current California sales tax regime.

The federal government does oversee interstate commerce, and U.S. border security, of course — perhaps better clues to the DEA’s continuing interest in the case. (Was supply at the SF pot club the real issue?) Which takes us back to the headline-grabbing drug war. You don’t have to stare for long at this DOJ threat assessment map tracking the Mexican cartels to notice the densely covered trajectory that runs the length of I-5, from San Diego to San Francisco to Seattle.

It’s no longer the war next door

Rising talk stateside about Mexico’s violent drug war has included a lot of buzz about potential “spillover” of the trouble — but it spilled over long ago, reaching far and wide. According to a report in December from the U.S. Department of Justice, the Mexican cartels maintain distribution networks or supply drugs to distributors in at least 230 American cities, from Orlando to Omaha to Anchorage. They control a greater portion of drug production, transportation and distribution than any other criminal group operating in the U.S., filling their coffers with billions of dollars a year.

Indeed, the war against the cartels is very much a Mexican-American one. Just take a look at this current threat assessment map from the National Drug Intelligence Center, showing U.S. cities implicated:

U.S. cities reporting the presence of Mexican drug trafficking, January 2006 - April 2008.

U.S. cities reporting the presence of Mexican drug trafficking, January 2006 - April 2008.

Violence has also been imported in no small quantity. Although the most sensational killings have taken place south of the border, brutal assaults, home invasions and murders connected with the drug trade have plagued U.S. cities and towns, particularly in the south but reaching as far north as Canada.

Buzz in Washington has also included the specter of Mexico becoming a “failed state.” Journalist and author Enrique Krauze says the talk is overblown. “While we bear responsibility for our problems,” he wrote this week, “the caricature of Mexico being propagated in the United States only increases the despair on both sides of the Rio Grande.” It is also profoundly hypocritical, he said.

America is the world’s largest market for illegal narcotics. The United States is the source for the majority of the guns used in Mexico’s drug cartel war, according to law enforcement officials on both sides of the border. Washington should support Mexico’s war against the drug lords — first and foremost by recognizing its complexity. The Obama administration should recognize the considerable American responsibility for Mexico’s problems. Then, in keeping with equality and symmetry, the United States must reduce its drug consumption and its weapons trade to Mexico.

Apparently this concept has reached the presidential level. At a prime time news conference on Tuesday otherwise dominated by discussion of the economy, President Obama reiterated a major border initiative unveiled earlier in the day and acknowledged: “We need to do even more to ensure that illegal guns and cash aren’t flowing back to these cartels.”

One way to help achieve that goal, it seems, would be to reconfigure policy with the recognition that the war on drugs as we know it is a proven failure.

Update: The San Francisco Chronicle reports about how cheap and easy it is to get high-powered assault rifles in Nevada. Many of them filter south to Mexican gangs by way of California. One of them was used to kill two police officers in Oakland on Saturday.

Sex commune and the city

Ah, San Francisco, you gotta love this town. And loving it must include acknowledging that from time to time certain of its, um, cultural stimulations can seem a bit absurd. This was on display yesterday in the Sunday Styles section of the New York Times, which reported on the One Taste Urban Retreat Center, a 38-member live-play arrangement housed in “a shabby-chic loft building” in the city’s South of Market district. Its men and women (their average age the late 20s, the Times says) make meals together, practice yoga and meditation, and run communication workshops for groups of visitors. Oh, and also:

At 7 a.m. each day, as the rest of America is eating Cheerios or trying to face gridlock without hyperventilating, about a dozen women, naked from the waist down, lie with eyes closed in a velvet-curtained room, while clothed men huddle over them, stroking them in a ritual known as orgasmic meditation — “OMing,” for short. The couples, who may or may not be romantically involved, call one another “research partners.”

Apparently there are benefits to this of all sorts. One recently divorced man, “a baby-faced 50-year-old Silicon Valley engineer,” told the Times that “the practice of manually fixing his attention on a tiny spot of a woman’s body improves his concentration at work.”

Past practices at the center, which has been operating for over four years, include naked yoga. Anyone who has ever participated in a public yoga class knows this would be a remarkably ill-advised idea, no matter the direction in which it might be stretched. One Taste reportedly discontinued it after word got around and “many voyeuristic non-yogis showed up.” (Ya don’t say.)

San Francisco and surrounds has a well-known heritage, of course, of communal sexual experimentation and spiritual seeking. As far as I know per the history books, combining the two has never led to any particularly enlightening results.

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What I find intriguing about this story isn’t a matter of morals or taste — it’s that the language and marketing themes are age-old, and not newly convincing. One Taste’s web site says that “Orgasmic meditation is a technique that develops mindfulness, concentration, connectedness and insight in a paired practice that focuses on sensation generated through manual stimulation of the genitals.” The practice can “facilitate greater physical and mental health, deeper connection to relationship” and can even be “a method for spiritual aims.”

In the Times report, a once timid patron turned instructor speaks of “the lingering velocity of my desire and my hesitation to give into it.” The proprietor and leader, Nicole Daedone, admits “a high potential for this to be a cult.” And while the article notes toward the end that Daedone’s current boyfriend, a wealthy software entrepreneur, “makes financial resources available” in support of the business, curiously, one stone remains unturned: cash flow. One Taste’s own program listings are also conspicuously absent information about what its participants are required to pay.

This just in: No newspaper at all

More American newspapers appear to be accelerating toward demise. For anyone who’s been paying attention to the industry, it’s been clear at least since last fall that 2009 would be a year of considerable destruction. Take the spreading flame of digital technology, pour on a vicious economic downturn and quickly you have a raging forest fire. In the New York Times today Richard Pérez-Peña reports on which U.S. cities soon might not have a major daily print paper at all. Perhaps it’ll be Seattle or Denver. Or maybe San Francisco. Just a short while ago the prospect would’ve been inconceivable.

I like the forest fire metaphor here because it suggests an essential part of the picture that in many quarters still isn’t getting its proper due: The fertile rebirth that follows the destruction. I’ve been surprised to see a degree of pessimism even from some who’ve already been toiling on the frontier:

burningnewspaper“It would be a terrible thing for any city for the dominant paper to go under, because that’s who does the bulk of the serious reporting,” says Joel Kramer, the editor and CEO of Minneapolis-based MinnPost.com, in the Times today. (Kramer was formerly editor and publisher of The Star Tribune.) “Places like us would spring up, but they wouldn’t be nearly as big. We can tweak the papers and compete with them, but we can’t replace them.”

Really? There’s a tendency to equate the withering of the old medium (newsprint) with the demise of what it has delivered (news reporting). But increasingly it’s going to be delivered digitally. If the old media companies don’t do it, others will, because the demand (and therefore market) for it is undeniable. Sooner than we probably realize, we’re all going to be walking around carrying some kind of digital newspaper in our hands. Organizations will arise and mobilize to provide the reporting in it. And people will pay for it. (Businesses are also likely to advertise around it.)

Indeed, formidable challenges remain to working out viable business models. But the field is increasingly wide open and waiting to be seeded. (New tracts soon available!—see above.) You can look at the crisis as a tragedy, or you can look at it as an opportunity.

As Pérez-Peña notes, the Washington Post had a newsroom of more than 900 people six years ago, with fewer than 700 now. The LA Times newsroom is half the size it was in the 1990s, with a staff of about 600 today.

Call me crazy, but that’s still an awful lot of resources with which to gather and produce stories. Without the major printing and distribution costs of their antique brethren, digital ventures still will probably need to be considerably smaller and more nimble to succeed. (In the near-term economy, at least.) Even if some early experiments haven’t been so impressive, my sense is that those who survive and thrive will do so especially via robust local and regional reporting, fast dwindling in many places now. (Apparently the LA Times has some other strategy in mind.)

Self-described “newsosaur” Alan Mutter offers some intriguing advice for those who reportedly may launch the first digital-only newspaper in a major U.S. city, from the ashes of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. “Be different” and “cop an attitude,” he suggests. “Think of the site as more of a blog than a newspaper.”

Hmm, it seems there’s no shortage of that to go around… but I like his closing thoughts: “The work you do will play a major role in helping to define the future – and the future economics – of local news coverage. Take risks, try everything and have fun. Whatever you do, don’t look back.”

Precisely the poet we needed

Kay Ryan was in town for a reading on Friday night at the San Francisco Center for the Book. It was packed. It occurred to me it was absolutely right she’d become our U.S. Poet Laureate in a time of so much turmoil near and far. The universe has a way of balancing itself, even when it seems barely to be standing on one foot. Some comic concision to cut through all the gloomy cacophony—just the thing.

jamjarI’ve been an admirer for years of Ryan’s pithy assessments. They seem even more necessary right now, and not just for their luminous resuscitation of dead language and reanimation of cliché. As she put it on Friday, one of her interests has been considering extremity and trying to “cool things down” a bit. Claims found in “Ripley’s Believe it or Not!” became the source for her latest collection The Jam Jar Lifeboat & Other Novelties Exposed. The poem “Murder at Midnight” departs from Ripley’s assertion that “If everyone who was told about it told two other people within 12 minutes, everybody on earth would know about it before morning.” Determines Ryan:

But people would begin getting it
a little bit wrong. Long before daylight,
the ‘murder at midnight’ would be
‘sugar stolen outright.’ The fate
of the dead man would not extend
beyond his gate. Only those
right now missing his little habits,
his footfall, his sleeping noises,
will know, and they can’t really tell;
news doesn’t really travel very well.

Whether Ripley’s math quite holds up under scrutiny I can’t say, but no matter. This morning a friend from a group of old high school buddies emailed to suggest that we all start using the trendy messaging service Twitter to banter and keep in touch on a more frequent basis. With three email accounts, IM, Facebook and a blog already running me apace on the digital information wheel, I’m thinking I’ll gently decline for now, and refer him to Sasha Cagen’s fine essay posted yesterday, This Is Your Brain on Twitter.