Monday, May 30, 2005

"Close Guantanamo" t-shirts?

We all ought to be wearing t-shirts that say "Close Guantanamo".

Tom FRIEDMAN made the case very well in his New York Times column on Friday.

Someone should send one to Ed KOCH. He went on at some length last Saturday in North Carolina extolling the merits of this approach taken from this page:

""It is a certain fact that not all Muslims are terrorists, but it is equally certain, and exceptionally painful, that almost all terrorists are Muslims." -- Abdel Rahman al-Rashed, general manager of Al-Arabiya news channel, responding to recent Islamist terrorism in Russia, Iraq and across the Middle East"

And it would be an excellent idea to include a copy of this Bob HERBERT column along with the t-shirt.

Where are the marches supporting the closing of Guantanamo that KOCH laments Muslims do not mount over the killing of innocent people, mostly muslims, in Iraq by "terrorists" there.
this is an audio post - click to play

Monday, May 23, 2005

Ideal community at my age

Ideal community at my age

Chapel Hill, North Carolina --- I am 57 years old. Never imagined that I would be writing that number next to my name.

But here I am, and where do I want to live at this young age?

(I must confess right up front that my wife and I have been blessed, so far, to be able to divide our time between two of the places that rank highest on our list - Chapel Hill, North Carolina and Nice, France. We have modest homes in both places, a little larger in North Carolina and a little smaller in France.)

Jane JACOBS, the Canadian sociologist/urban planning critic probably influenced me more than anyone else along the way. I was at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island when I first read Death and Life of Great American Cities. That would have been in the late 1960s. I remember looking at the historic neighborhood around Brown's campus and seeing dead buildings, many dying, and a few upstarts that somehow did not look like they quite belonged. But there was and is a heart to College Hill in Providence and subsequent leaders of that city have shown us better than almost any other place how a city can nearly die and come back to an amazing new life.So, for me, being at the center of that is critical.

I want to see things happening around me. Sure, that includes nature and quiet, but I also want to see human interaction and change. My ideal location needs to be a place where I can walk everywhere I need to go, where the car is not a necessity but a rainy day option. So the transportation system needs to be excellent. But the shops and bigger stores need to be first rate and responsive my interests as well.

That's not to say that my ideal place has to have my name on it, or that most of what is in this place needs to be something of interest to me. Quite the contrary. I seek only a minimal level of convenience and satisfaction. On top of that, I wand to see as much diveristy and difference as possible.

Culture needs to be as diverse as the people. All points of the compass, all shades of color, all points of view.I just want there to be some basic rules and understandings to help guide how we live. It does not have to be paint color charts for all the houses, although there is much to be said for that. It does mean some common acceptance of very low speeds for cars and trucks, those that are necessary. It means helping everyone in the community present the exterior of there homes in a way that we all are happy to look at them. That's really not such a hard standard when one gets right down to it.

Having spent as much time as we now have in places like Washington (for 30 years), 20 years+ in Nice and 6 here in Chapel Hill, a few more things stand out:

+ I want to be close to some water.

+ I want the buses to be free and frequent.

+ There needs to be a seat of considerable learning nearby.

+ An airport is essential.

+ People of all ages are part of that needed diversity.

+ The people need to be dedicated to getting out and talking and getting to know the neighbors.

+ There need to be plenty of reasons to walk ranging from exercise and good conversation to places to shop and to visit.

We have gone through a many generations of planned communities in the US and some overseas. We still don't have it right. I hope we can respect both Jane JACOBS, who urged us never to tear down a whole community to rebuild it, and all the good things that have come out of communities like Southern Village in Chapel Hill where we live and all the rich traditions of the villages of Europe and the US which seem to perpetuate themselves despite heavy odds against this happening.

It is possible to get there from here and I think it is worth the effort to arrive!

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Test - Eudora

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Ballot boxes in France and the US

Ballot boxes in France and the US

….Chapel Hill – In the next ten days, there likely will be at least two of the most critical votes ever taken in the US and in France.

French voters will decide whether to accept the draft European Constitution.

In the US Senate, our elected senators are likely to “vote” on whether to change decades of history and eliminate the filibuster.

Much rides on each vote.

In France, many believe that a rejection of the document will threaten the fundamentals of the European Union, an organization created at the urging of France, among just a dozen that created the first version of the Union.

In the US, many believe that the rights of whatever is the minority party in the US Senate will be eviscerated by ending the filibuster which gives less than a simple majority of the Senators the ability to stop the majority from taking certain actions.

Those who support the constitution in France are more defensive than offensive in their advocacy. They say it is simply a way to make the Union a more lasting one and to insure certain rights and roles, explained, they say, in the several hundred pages of the text. The advocates try to assure a nervous French public that the constitution will not interfere with labor benefits and other “social” protections.

Those who want to see the filibuster ended mostly argue that the majority should get a chance to rule, unencumbered by the minority or minorities. That is a sound argument if it were not for the public policy here in the US strongly supporting the rights of minorities in the face of majorities who want to deny those minorities certain rights.

Our forefathers who drafted the constitution, and those charged with protecting it and its institutions like the Senate have done a remarkably good job. They moved us from a slave-owning nation to one committed in public policy to equality. But the same forces that created slavery in the first place are not necessarily dead and we will always need, it seems to me, to be able to bend over backwards in order to keep majority rule in check.

The filibuster capability is a marvel in allowing that to happen.

Now, it is true that it can be used for less than good purposes. But, when it is, we look to our courts to help straighten out the damage done.

Inbetween the judicially-correctable and the clearly majority-controlled decisions, there are ones like the votes on judicial nominees where there is more to it than a simply majority vote. This is not a dog-catcher appointment and it ought be treated with the intense scrutiny that it demands. The filibuster provides a critical check on that process.

Why change an institution? The case has simply not been made.

In France, it looks like the case has not really been made either for that constitution. If it passes, it will be a minor miracle.

If it fails, it will be in large part because the execution of the whole process has been handled in a manner reminiscent of various French kings. Here, subjects, take it or leave it. Several hundred pages is simply too much to take on board without a clear reason to process it and vote for it. The supporters – the government and others – have not provided that rationale.

It is a shame that the text is as long as it is.

It is a shame that the execution of the process has been so bad.

It is a shame that a vital institution – the European Union – is going to suffer in important ways and threatened, at least, at its very foundation.

So, the votes this week are votes at that foundation level. The foundation of a system that respects minority interests and provides a time-tested largely positive check on power in the US Senate and the foundation of another system that is crucial to the future of France and which is being attacked inadvertently by shocking incompetence.

Technology beaten back again!

Technology beaten back again!

....Chapel Hill - Technology lost another round! By changing the template for the blog, and the typeface, the function that allows (at the bottom of this page) anyone to sign up to receive e-mail messages when new posts are added - one a day on average - can now do so. So feel free to sign up!

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Technology and frustration of communications

Technology and frustration of communications

……Chapel Hill, NC – I did not write anything yesterday because I spent too much of the day trying to solve a problem that has been gnawing at me for months as I have added content day after day to another blog relating to the Mediterranean

The problem is a simple one – how to allow people who are interested in what is posted there to receive e-mail alerts of new content. This does not seem very complex to my non-technical mind, but few seem to offer this capability.

Yes, a couple of paid blog hosting services do offer this, but it seems wrong somehow that one can post to a blog for free but not let anyone know about it unless you pay. Well, maybe that is just capitalism. I don’t think so. If it were, the firms offering this would be approaching those with the free blogs trying to get them onboard or the hosting organizations would be offering it themselves for a fee.

They are not.

Instead, the techies (and I mean no disparagement) who control most of these offerings, are so enamored of Really Simple Syndication (RSS) that they have given e-mail the heave-ho or the cold shoulder. Why? Because it is not the flavor of the month, to mix a few metaphors.

For most of the connected world, e-mail remains the place where the most important happens. It is where friends, family, and business connections are made and where people turn first.

Anyway, I will keep trying.

This points out a bigger issue – the ways in which technology can be both an enabler and an inhibitor of better communications.

We have seen huge advances in the technologies that relate to communication and most are being used all over the media landscape.

Telegraphs and even normal telephones have been replaced by portable phones and handheld devices of all sorts that allow reporters and other collectors of information to do so better and more efficiently. They can capture words and pictures, video and sound, and all sorts of data and other content whenever and wherever they wish and because of the telecommunications connections, that content can be shared with the center of the media organization almost instantly.

Editing technology is super-sophisticated and often even automated. That means that content coming in can turn around and go to customers almost in that same instant.

If not instantly, it can all move very quickly.

What are the implications?

It means less reflection and more quick reactions. It means more fascinating with the live shot from the helicopter than the content resulting from an intense discussion between reporters and editors over what that content ought to be. The middle person formerly known as the editor is reduced or eliminated and the marketplace seems happier because of it. Speed is more important than delay and review and the accuracy and perspective often produced as a result.

How do we at least raise the questions of what is happening and where is it headed?

David WESTIN did an excellent job of raising some of this in the Wall Street Journal yesterday. WESTIN is president of ABC News.

He, in effect, said that technologies and the marketplace have brought the two bastions of media power and influence – daily newspapers and network television – together facing a common problem. Neither institution is doing very well in the face of marketplace changes, and there seems to be no crusade underway to reverse that trend. The market simply seems no longer to value what institutions like network television and daily newspapers can add to public debate, or at least the value is much diminished.

If one can get the media content quicker, just as if one can buy the t-shirt cheaper, we seem quite willing to do so. It does not matter that it is somehow of lower quality of either case. And whether it is textile workers or reporters whose jobs are put at risk, it simply does not seem to be as important as it used to be.

Are we prepared to have all our news manufactured in a low cost factory in central China?

Monday, May 16, 2005

The Mediterranean

The Mediterranean

Chapel Hill – There are a few places around the world that seem to bring mostly pleasant thoughts to people’s minds when they hear the name.

One of them is the Mediterranean.

People tend to think of beaches, sun. good times and good food. They usually overlook areas of racial and religious tension and conflict. They tend, for sure, to overlook poverty. And they pay at least some lip service to history.

That history of the region – made up of more than 20 countries that you can reach from a rowboat from the middle of the Mediterranean Sea – is served by about as diverse group of media as one could find anywhere.

There are scrolls and tablets that go back to the beginning of western civilization. They were the first rough drafts and the final drafts of history of their times. There is all that was written on the famed papyrus paper of the Nile. In neighboring Tunisia, there is the source of the some of the highest quality “bible” paper in the world. In Italy, the telegraph was invented, and in Israel all sorts of new media technologies are evolving.

Several of the countries of the region are notable for their involvement in the movie business. Many cities are frequently the international meeting sites for major slices of the global media pie.

There are major international news agencies in three countries and many other national and regional agencies spread along the Mediterranean coastline. Huge television broadcast and production operations encircle the Sea as well.

Books that go back to the beginning fill the Vatican library and books of the present and perhaps future fill the electronic an other shelves of the new Alexandria library.

More than two dozen languages are spoken around the Mediterranean resulting in much missed communication and the ever present challenge of finding a common language or good translators.

This is the homes of the Balkans, and so it is not surprising that “balkanization” is a big problem. Most corporations and international organizations divide the Mediterranean into three pieces – north, east and south. The result is very few regional organizations bringing together interests other than the beloved Sea itself.

There are fledgling efforts to create a Mediterranean “parliament” and other such initiatives, but it is tough “sledding” and requires tremendous perseverance. Other initiatives are in the tourism area. Occasionally, some unity gets created as sporting and other events move between cities and countries. This usually involves boats. We have not yet seen a Tour de la Mediterranee bicycle race, for example.

Tremendous opportunities await us in terms of the ways in which the Mediterranean and its media could take on a more decidedly Mediterranean air. It starts with more communication, more exchange of ideas.

The European Union has fostered some of this, but it would be so much better for this to emerge from the region as a thoroughly Mediterranean initiatives with no strings attached. The EU has a responsibility first to its member countries. An organizing authority for the Mediterranean needs to have a more independent aire about themselves in order to gain support.

The Mediterranean Media Center is one such initiative. Initially, we are keeping track of reported media news from the region, or relating to it. You can see this at . A basic description of the MMC plan is here

The Mediterranean and its media have a great story to tell. One hopes that they will recognize this and join forces, where possible, to achieve more by such combinations that any of the media people could achieve working on their own.

Imagine the kinds of exchanges and professional opportunities that could be fostered through such an approach. There is a huge potential to serve core business interests and in the process to create the kind of connections and dialogue among people that likely would not happen without some additional connection potential. In order to get people of all kinds talking with one another, one needs to provide a means to do so. The MMC and other initiatives are designed to help make that easier, and therefore more likely.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Getting started with the newspaper

Chapel Hill - We all comment, at least on some days, on whether we “saw” something in the newspaper or whether we’ve “read the paper”. If we do not raise it, inevitably someone else does.

Usually it’s either a very big news story or a very small one. As television has become our primary means for following the big news, it is becoming more likely, it seems to me, that we are going to mention, or hear from someone else, a smaller, more local, story.

People choose to “consume” a newspaper in many different ways. How they do this has a lot to do with how often they buy a newspaper, and how often they “read” it. Therefore, it has a lot to do with where that proverbial “hockey puck” is headed in the future.

One of the ways I enjoy consuming a newspaper is to receive a PDF (portable digital format, for those not following!) of the front page of Liberation in Paris each day as I do by e-mail.

From there, in the NewspaperDirect service (for which I have done work, in the interest of full disclosure) I can access all the other pagers just as though I were sitting at a Paris or Nice café doing so. Well, ok, so it is not quite the same. The wind does not blow these pages, and there is little chance of croissant crumbs falling on it. And, true, it is easier to recover from a coffee spilled on Libe, the paper paper, than it is to recover from coffee spilled on my laptop’s keypad.

Anyway, a few people do that.

Some do the older equivalent, at least in those places where the newspapers that might interest them are presented in vending machine windows. I often wonder how many people buy based on that window view. Some do, no doubt. But I seldom encounter a waiting line at vending machines (which are a very US phenomenon, although existing in some number of other countries, even beginning in France) of the curious reading enough to decide if they will put coins in that newspaper fountain.

Around the world, people peruse newspaper options at newsstands. There is something more inviting about a good collection of newspapers at a newsstand that puts them within easy reach. You can actually “feel” them before you buy. No one seems to mind if you read a front page of a paper, even “below the fold”, but vendors seem universally annoyed when you open the paper in the shop, or at the kiosque as part of the “deciding to buy” ritual. I cannot blame them.

Those who have their newspaper delivered to their homes have a new technology challenge. They must decide if they can read enough through the plastic bag that often the bag in order to get a sense of what’s “in” the paper today. Some papers make this easier than others; they use clear plastic. The New York Times, on the other hand, has a distinctive blue that makes it very hard to see what is inside. This has its advantages, however, when the plastic bag becomes the disposal receptacle for the dog’s walk.

Finally, there are those whose newspaper comes via the Postal Service. That puts the newspaper in tough competition with junk mail, some bills, and whatever else someone may have dropped in the mailbox. The choice is between being annoyed, often, by one of those letters and being unhappy with what is in the newspaper. I’d say that newspapers are winning, as I think we all get less good news mail than used to be the case. Then again, on balance, are you happier or sadder after reading the newspaper on most days?

There is one more – those people who allow, for many reasons, the newspapers to stack up. Maybe it was a trip. An emergency. Other work, etc. But there they sit in a pile, occasionally emitting a whiff of dust signaling their need to be tended. Old news is old news, but occasionally it’s worth more than the recycling box.

Lots of newspaper people time has been spent on discussing the front page and how to design it to get your attention. The belief in the business is that color is more attractive, and you are more likely to buy and consume a paper with some front page color, usually a photo. That may be true for those making that choice on the spot, but I question just how many of them there are and whether it is as important as it is often made out to be.

There really is a lot of positioning involved in getting a newspaper front page firmly in the hands, in electronic or print form, of a customer.

Friday, May 13, 2005


Chapel Hill - Malcolm GLADWELL’s relatively new book, “blink”, sits in our Nice home, halfway read. I look forward to finishing it next month.

But it has gotten me thinking a lot about first impressions and the news media.

GLADWELL’s point, if I am following it so far, is that we often are able to exercise some quite amazingly good judgment by our first “blink” reaction to something. Of course, sometimes we do no, but when we do, we all can be very good.

I hope toward the end of the book, the author will explain more about how we can first identify those times when our first reactions are the best, and then improve our ability there and elsewhere.

Back to the news media……

Every minute of every day, reporters around the world along with their editors and other colleagues make judgments about what news to cover, how to cover it, and then how to bring it to us.

Those decisions are taken based on lots of considerations. Some relate to tradition – we “have” to cover that school board meeting. Others relate to impact – imagine if we could get a picture of that guy dangling from the tree limb. Some relate to importance – how will that Iraq story affect us here? Still more are taken for business reasons – how do we design our front page so that this picture of dying people gets people attention?

Many of the decisions made by reporters and their editors and colleague are made on first reaction. The phone rings. Something comes over the “wire”. A news flash is seen on television. An e-mail arrives. An item pops up on a website. Someone walks in the office or says something in another place.

And from that often quick reaction start, many things unfold. Time is allocated by or to a reporter. Maybe a video person. Sketch artist. All sorts of possible people involved as the decision maybe made in an instant turns into a major time-driven project.

Along the way, instant decisions are made one right after the other. Is this a call I should take? Is that a photo I should take or get someone to take? Do I need another source? Do I need to get a document? Often, the answers to these come with little reflection and little collaboration. There is no time.

On this amazing timetable, in most cases, the rest of the process turns into a series of blinks as well. Quick decisions about whether this is going to be a lead or front page story? How much space will it get? How much time does it deserve? Is there a great photo to go with the story or is there something filed away we have to use instead? What will the headline be? Will it be written by someone who has the time to reflect fully on the entire story or by someone who is given a few minutes to come up with something “catchy”?

By the time all of those actions are taken the whole undertaking is over, often forgotten in terms of tomorrow’s collection of “news blink” decisions. There is usually very little time the next day to go back and look at how all those decisions actually turned out today. Yes, there is a morning meeting to talk briefly about yesterday’s work, but it is not much more detailed than were the blink judgments that went into the day.

A tremendous amount thus rides on the ability of journalists to make quick judgments about all that they confront in their work. Yes, part of their skill is being able to anticipate if we will agree with their judgments – at least for the most mainstream of news media. Sales of newspapers and radio/television ratings can tell them a lot about whether they were right.

But is being “right” all that matters? I would argue that it is not. Perhaps we need to both finish GLADWELL’s book and understand better how “blink” affects the news we consume today, and whether the blinkers need to know more about that themselves. Surely, there is a rich heritage of “running” ideas by “sages” in the business to get their “first reaction”. That’s clear. But what about all those decisions taken in a blink where there is not that input? How well do we understand what happens? Is it in the best interests of all to understand that process better?

There is a good reason why newspapers have often been called the “first rough draft of history”. As for radio and television, they remain for me largely onlookers. That’s another story.

Coffee and the world

We read different things about coffee all the time. Sometimes it is that coffee is bad for our health. Other times it is good. Sometimes we read about high prices, over supply and the challenges for the people and countries who grow the beans.

Most often, we read about a new coffee shop, see an ad for Starbucks, and learn about some event that is designed to put more coffee in more coffee cups.

What is it about coffee that makes it such an intriguing product.

Well, many might not say “intriguing”. In fact, they may curse coffee that keeps them up, stains their desks, and costs too much.

For me, coffee is an icon for much of the world that interest me most.

It starts in front of me with the daily joy of being able to read a printed newspaper with a cup of coffee in hand. Whether I do that at home, in an office, on an airplane or in a faraway location, it is a wonderful experience for me.

Many others must do it, or at least Starbucks and other coffee places seem to work very hard to put plenty of newspapers within easy reach of their customers. In fact, Starbucks and The New York Times even have an exclusive deal or two that tries to make two important trademarks reinforce one another.

People make their coffee in different ways. Some prefer the easiest route, and others prefer a more complicated route. Some like their coffee doctored up with sugar and dairy products (real or imitation) to the point of where any sense of it being coffee is lost. Others are purists, who drink only espresso or at least undoctored black coffee. In-between, there are so many choices of preparation and serving. It is a truly personalizable drink and surrounding ritual.

In our house, we like to foam it up in the morning and we do so with a manual “frother” that also serves as part of the morning exercise program. Working that frother is a great way to get the juices flowing, or at least to get them ready for the coffee to do its work.

I think a lot about the world beyond the coffee cup, the one we read about it in some of the newspapers we read while drinking.

Having visited a coffee plantation in Kenya some years ago, I feel closer to the bean, and closer to the people who work very hard to produce them.

The production of coffee, when one lays it out graphically, looks a lot like the way much of the developing world - and its relation to the rest of us - actually works. As with textiles and the like, we move toward low prices from overseas and don’t worry very much about how all that happens.

The result has been the establishment of coffee bean prices at a low level around the world, not yet giving coffee growers and others in the supply chain a chance to benefit from all those Starbucks cups that get sold in all those Starbucks cafes every day.

We could learn a lot about development, globalization and related subjects by studying the organigram for this, and attaching notes and prices along the way.

Suppose we were all paying twice what we pay today for coffee beans, what might happen? Well, a lot of people in very poor countries around the Equator would be a lot happier. They would be eating better and wearing better clothes (wherever they might be made).

This is not likely to happen, though, because the biggest buyers are able to exert incredible pressure on the suppliers. The contracts are huge.

Fair Trade projects are helping and we should patronize those vendors. That is good. We should also think about how important it is to pay more for the clothes we buy from overseas.

What we don’t understand, we cannot be expected to address, can we?

The beginning efforts to help us understand global supply chains deserve our support. The marketplace will respond if we all ask for more of this.

When you buy your next coffee bean or cup of coffee ask specifically where the beans came from, and how much they cost when purchased from the growers. Do the same for that next pair of pants.

Perhaps you will find an interesting story tomorrow morning in that newspaper as you read it with your coffee.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Thoughts about the International Herald Tribune

The International Herald Tribune has a new editor, or will this summer – Michael ORESKES. I do not know him personally, but have heard very good things about him.
He has a formidable task.

The incumbent – Walter WELLS – is a fine journalist and a great editor who has served the IHT well over the bulk of Walter’s career. He and his wife, the legendary Patricia WELLS of cooking fame, have had a big impact on the lives of many and have shaped the thinking and stomachs of thousands and thousands of people. I hope they will continue to do so!

Usually a piece about the Trib talks about its circulation numbers, or its ownership, or its innovations in the global publishing world, and sometimes about its content.

I want to talk about the IHT as a customer.

My first trip overseas was in the late 1960s, but I remember another Herald Tribune in New York where I was born and grew up. For me, the IHT will always associate a part of itself with that city, and now with its full owner, the New York Times Co.

But it is Paris where I most feel the link to the Trib and what it conjures up in me.

Frankly, the internet now becomes an unavoidable lens through which I see the paper. Each day in North Carolina or in Nice, or wherever I may be, I receive an e-mail summary of top stories in the IHT. It is free, and I look at it every day. Often, what it tells me about are stories that I have already read in the NYT, but I relish finding something there that I am seeing only because I consider myself an ongoing IHT customer and get the e-mails!

Did I receive an e-mail from them today telling me of the new editor? No. But I did read it in the NYT.

As I travel around, it is not the IHT that I seek in the morning; it is my computer and a link to the internet.

I still enjoy the feel of the paper when I am overseas but my obsession with reading it has drifted down to it being something interesting to consume at a French or other country café or on an airplane where the paper is free, if available.

Newspapers are often much more expensive overseas than we pay here in the US. The IHT is no exception. With the dollar/euro exchange rater, I pay almost 2 USD for the paper in France. Anything over a euro or a dollar gets my attention.

While I buy the local paper in France (Nice), I seldom buy the IHT. I may look at its front page on the newsstand, but I buy it now less than 10% of the time.

Do I still associate good things with the IHT?
Yes, including credibility. I have high confidence that what makes its way into the Trib is both important and accurate. This is true whether it comes from the NYT, another sources, or is written by the small IHT staff in Paris, and a few other people elsewhere.

But, somehow, it is just not enough to prompt me to fork over all that money.

Could the IHT make me more committed? Yes. And it does so in Lebanon.

There, it is packaging that does it. The local partner, the Daily Star (independent and very good) prints the IHT and its own paper in such a way that the first section is the Star and the second section is the Trib. It is more than the latter inserted in the former. Just a few adjustments, additions and a splash of color tie the two together.

For me it is the best of all worlds – quality local news combined with quality national and international coverage, with a special link to the US.
This model, with the same partner extends to other countries in the Middle East/Gulf region.

I hope it spreads more widely. I want to feel again that I “need” to buy the IHT today.

In Ireland, it was often said that if you failed to buy the Irish Times – a large format newspaper of highest quality chock-a-block full of great writing – on any given day, you would miss the world. The Times has done a great job of covering Ireland AND the world.

It is also said that if you do sit down to read the Times on any given day, you will lose a week in so doing!

I am not sure the IHT should aspire to that level, but it should and can become a more essential – “can’t live without” – newspaper in the lives of hundreds of thousands people around the world.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

What is a newspaper today?

Many years ago I was working with an advertising executive who had agreed to speak to a newspaper publishers’ meeting.

We had a nice conversation in his office, covering lots of issues related to newspapers. He explained to me that he did not regularly read any newspaper, and so he wanted to think about “promise and performance” when it comes to the newspaper.

He said he would think over the weekend and call me the next week. He did.

What he had concluded was that a daily newspaper is – and I am paraphrasing from memory – “the physical representation of the community it serves”.

Think about that.

He explained what he meant. When the entirety of a daily newspaper opens on a kitchen table, a bus, or a desk, it “should” be telling its reader that this is this community and pretty much what’s important about it in the last 24 hours and some sense of what is going to be important in the next day.

It ought to be doing this through its selection of both stories and opinions as well as its advertising.

When someone reads any day’s newspaper, he or she should feel like the newspaper is a thoughtful mirror of the community reflecting all of the diversity and excitement, along with the challenges and problems, of that community.

Newspapers today do not do that very well, and so I don’t think most measure up to this fellow’s definition.

Too often, they are instead a reflection of what the Associated Press decides is important as far as national and international, and often states, news is concerned. There are a few local opinions reflecting hotspots and peccadillos of contributing commentators. The advertising simply shows whatever it was the advertising sales staff was able to induce, helter-skelter, into the newspaper.

So what is a newspaper today?

It is a largely dysfunctional institution which makes a good deal of money in most cases, and rests on historic laurels and habits hoping that a combination of interest and obligation will lead to more than half the homes in the community subscribing to the paper. News reports address traditional subjects, such as government, passing on press release content, often better written, sometimes not.

I have not seen any studies of this, but my guess is that a smaller percentage of people than ever views the newspaper as “my newspaper”. There is a yawning gap between the newspaper and the people who read it, and an even bigger gap opening with those who do not read the paper.

Those who do subscribe often do so, other than out of a sense of obligation, in order to get one or at most two items out of the paper. It might be advertising preprints (advertising inserts), the comics, some of the sports, television listings, and…..maybe, a desire to understand that community better.

Recently, I cancelled one of the local daily newspapers we received. My wife and I decided it was too much like its competitor and that we were flipping through too many pages finding no added value. So we picked one to eliminate.

This was especially discouraging to find that competition was not producing more differences. It made me think about “competition” in the airline business, the kind of competition that makes one airline virtually indistinguishable from another today.

When I called to stop our subscription, the person on the phone took the information and never once asked me why, or expressed regret at losing a 7 day/week subscriber. No follow-up calls and no letter.

I told friends at the newspaper what had happened, and I now have calls from the editor and the circulation director. Did they say how sorry they were to lose us as subscribers? No, they wanted a report from me on why we did it. Well, that’s better than nothing.

To be the physical representation of the community, the newspaper must be an integral part of the many splintered lives of the market. It has been a very long time since I recall having that feeling.

It comes down to a “cannot live without” test. Most newspapers today are failing badly in an effort to satisfy that test. They are connected to readers through just a few thin threads, and when provided with options or upon some analysis, that link breaks and the subscriber is lost.

When was the last time you read your newspaper and felt that it was the “physical representation of the community it serves”?

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Neighborhood improvements

We moved into a “new urbanism” community in North Carolina almost six years ago. It is called Southern Village, and it lies within a 40 minute walk to the south of the University of North Carolina campus at Chapel Hill.

That 40 minute umbilical chord is psychologically critical for me. Just knowing that I can get downtown on my own two feet in that short space of time is a real plus.

Yes, we need to improve the sidewalks along that route in a couple of key places, but at least that work is on the calendar albeit now delayed for several years. UNC and the town of Chapel Hill seem to have reached an accord and it is just a question of allocating necessary funds from the State and other sources.

Not to worry, however, because we also have – a change since our arrival – free bus service in Chapel Hill. You can get to most places on one or two bus lines that pass within either 2 or 8 minutes walking time from our front door.

Training people to use this service is much more difficult than getting it up and running. And like so many grand plans, all of the energy seems to have been spent in that startup process and little is being done now to explain where people can go and what they can do if they take the bus. I, at least, try to fill some of that gap with friends and others with whom I get the chance to make my bus pitch.

What else is changing here?

Just yesterday, our town fathers and mothers approved plans for the first stage of a new neighborhood park which will cover tens of acres and be about a 9 minute walk from our house. That will provide another nice destination for an exercise outing.

Our health club is expanding into triple the space and will finally get a full rowing machine, in part because a number of us asked for one. That arrives in the next few months.

We will get another new restaurant, 8 minutes of walking away. It will be an Asian theme we look forward to testing it. Almost alongside will come yet another restaurant, this one a more all-purpose American place, and we look forward to testing it out.

Our first neighborhood bank arrives next month. In an age of globalized everything, this will be the first branch office for this Chapel Hill institution.

The trees in the neighborhood are growing more confidently along the sidewalks. Many died in the first couple of years, but now those that have survived, and replacements for the others, seem to be much more settled in their new homes, as are we. The image of tree-lined streets is becoming a reality, at least for the middle months of the year.

The birds, too, seem to be quite comfortable now that the only hammering comes from a few renovation projects and the occasional picture hanging exercise. We are blessed with a forest full of some of the prettiest looking and finest singing birds we have ever “known”. Add to them a few deer now and again, and the odd possum and other unknown creatures, and you have a real nature paradise continually unfolding out our windows.

The season for entertainment on our village green has started, too, with concerts the two last weekends, films to start shortly, and various events planned to get people out on the street and mixing it up and keeping the merchants in business!

We are all tackling our individual landscaping challenges, with some having better luck than others. The homeowners association is addressing some of those who have dropped below the acceptable line of yard presentability, and we are all happy to help do something about those neighbors if we can just figure out what that help might be.

Just outside our community, another new commercial center is beginning to rise, and we will all be anxious to know what it will bring us, and whether the residential community planned around that center will come to pass and what it will finally be.
And we hope for good weather for the occasional workers who are focused on finishing the widening of the main street in front of Southern Village. They have been working on this for many years, but their coffee breaks seem to last for weeks at a time, and what should have been a year’s project has been stretched way too long. That said, traffic has continued to flow well, and the inconvenience has been minimal. It will, nonetheless, be nice to have the road finished.

Oh yes, we have yet another park planned to the north of us which will give us a wonderful walking destination and a route that we can walk into the next town, Carrboro.

Although never perfect, we are watching a community establish itself and get better with almost every day.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Web teaching for the world’s media

We have come to believe, or at least be told, that the sky is the limit when it comes to what the web and the larger internet can do for us. There remain, however, significant gaps in what “can” be done and what “is” being done, and global media education appears to be one of them.

The US Government, through the US Agency for International Development, has spent millions of dollars attempting to provide journalism and other media “training” for people in the developing world. Private foundations and other governments and governmental organizations have done a great deal as well.

Some of this has been successful and most of it has been helpful.

Debates continue to occur over whether it is better to conduct such training programs in the countries where the “students” work, or whether it is better to bring those students to the US or to some other country for the classes.

So, too, in some circles there remain important discussions about whether a media person, most often a “journalist”, is better served by learning the “tools” of the trade or whether that person is better off studying the subjects he or she might be asked to “cover”.

Somewhere in the midst of all this spending, all this organizing of travel and conferences and training sessions, as well as teaching philosophies, the internet appeared.

If one were to look at the internet’s impact on all this global media training, one would see a number of changes. The organizers, as well as the “students”, are able to communicate using e-mail, descriptions of courses and programs are available to prospective participants in an easier to access fashion than had been the case. Some materials for the classes can be moved between and among people and locations more efficiently using the web and e-mail. Even some collaboration among “instructors” is possible today in new and innovative formats.

The same is arguably true for journalism and media education in the US and in some other countries. There, too, internet-based technologies have made it easier to do a number of things between and among instructors and students.

What seems NOT to have happened is that there has been no traceable burst of actual courses available online in which “students” can enroll regardless of whether they are across town from a university with a media program, or on the other side of the world.

The opportunity is significant. The reasons for it not being exploited are unclear.

I had thought that by now that if someone wanted to take a course on “effective reporting on the environment” or on “successful uses of the web by media organizations in the developing world” that Google would bring them to the screen in front of me.

Alas, I find virtually none.

Yes, there are a few schools, like the University of North Carolina and a few institutions like BBC Training, that offer some courses online in this field. A quick check of schools and a number of web searches bring up very few others.

If there were more, it would be possible to concentrate on more of the content of these courses, some of the critical language questions, for example, and many other matters of quality. Instead of recreating the virtual “wheel” each time a course is considered, one would be able to combine “on the shelf” courses with other material to tailor a program to a country or to a group of “students”.

The people who produce these courses deserve the opportunity to be compensated for their work, of course. And where that compensation is sought, the web ought to be able to provide a means to address the need to pay, or to finance the project in other ways, including through advertising.

A study of this area seems in order and a plan ought to be developed to produce some type of clearinghouse for the programs that exist and a project undertaken to encourage more, based on the demands of the marketplace.

The alternative is a patchwork quilt of programs, some of which are undoubtedly very good. The resources that could be saved are large, and the value of their redeployment into quality teaching tools and content could be immense.