NolaAnarcha

Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Murder of the Times-Picayune: Part Six

the future of the journalist

WHITE AND READ ALL OVER

Heard of this "Bounce Music?" It came out of our city's predominantly African-American housing projects. It's been around a couple decades, so it's clearly more than a fad. Regardless of my own feelings towards the genre, there's no denying lots of people love it.

In the twenty-first century, the Times-Picayune's music writer Keith Spera has published four articles about bounce musicians. In 2003, he profiled a West Bank web developer named Rami Sharkey who makes joke bounce songs under the name "Ballzack." You decide how much it matters that Ballzack isn't black-- I don't care enough about him to even have opinions. In 2004, Spera wrote about Juvenile. Then, in 2005 and 2008, Spera wrote two more articles about Ballzack.

This isn't just a Keith Spera problem-- besides a few profiles in the mid-'90s, you can find almost no Times-Pic mentions of bounce musicians before 2009, except those in obituaries and crime stories ("victim was rap singer, in-demand at 'bounce' parties"). The dismissive tenor of the '90s bounce reportage is summed up by (the also white) Scott Aiges' 1994 piece titled "THE SOUND AND THE FURY: NOT EVERYONE LOVES NEW ORLEANS BOUNCE."

Not everyone. Let's take a look at the Times-Pic's Entertainment and Living writers in January 2009. Two dozen writers, just before the rescinding of the Pledge and the first big wave of layoffs. Click the image on the right to open a larger version, but please adjust your monitor's brightness setting before doing so; I don't want you burning your retinas.

They're all white.

A lot of these people are and were superb at their jobs, but does this panoply of honkies really look to you like New Orleans entertainment and living? Don't get me wrong-- some of my best friends are white. I'm not attacking these individual writers for the color of their skin; I'm attacking the Times-Picayune for having an entirely white staff covering "Entertainment and Living" in this historically black city. It's inexcusable.

If you look at the team NOLA Media Group has covering Entertainment & Living these days, you see nothing has changed percentage-wise. Fewer faces, still all white. The Times-Picayune did finally begin covering bounce music beyond Ballzack; in '09 they brought on Alison Fensterstock, a good writer who's built a career documenting African-American music. Still a white person, of course, but she at least diversified the paper's interview subjects.

In June 2012, the racial composition of the already overwhelmingly white Times-Picayune changed again. According to Poynter, those fired in the Times-Picayune's demise were disproportionately African-American, leaving the organization even whiter, if such a thing seems possible... nor does Poynter take into account the entirely white NOLA.com editorial team.

Onwards and upwards soars the NOLA Media Group into a new, brighter, whiter, higher-tech new New Orleans. Perhaps it's only fitting for a city with a white Mayor, white Police Chief, white D.A. and majority-white City Council. Let's make sure white Kristen Palmer signs off on giving lily-white @MichaelTMartin and his white staff another $275,000 to "culturally revitalize" the historically black St. Roch.

It's just progress. As Ricky Mathews said, the NOLA Media Group is now positioned to "attract the best and brightest from around the country." Bright people from elsewhere, not like the boring old non-bright, dingy staff they've sloughed off. Bright, shining, iridescent people from elsewhere to come down here and tell us the stories of New Orleans.

Ricky Mathews and Steve Newhouse know best. They know what New Orleans deserves and needs.


WHAT IS NEEDED

"I signed my non-disparagement agreement."
When you kill as many jobs as the new NOLA Media Group has, a few will inevitably be messy. The mass-generated automated digital pink slips sometimes get mixed up in the Advance LLC Human Resources e-mail outbox-- the bolt gun sometimes jams, merely stunning the steer. Strive as you might to cleanly automate the slaughterhouse, the annoying unpredictability of living creatures means the process is never as tidy in practice as it looked on the actuary's spreadsheet.

In one notably gruesome clusterfuck, the NOLA Media Group fired the Times-Pic's revered restaurant critic Brett Anderson, only to then retract the firing and deny it happened. Jim Amoss, the editor, posted a revisionist non-retraction in which he says he hopes Anderson will accept a position with the NOLA Media Group.

Will Brett Anderson accept this sweet new gig as Food Blogger? If you care, you're proving yourself a dinosaur. Perhaps you haven't heard: the sun has set on "gatekeepers" like Brett Anderson, and on any of us who'd foolishly posit Anderson's few prize-winning decades of food writing make his opinions somehow more valuable than a dashed-off Yelp review from some random tourist's iPhone.

In the comment stream beneath Amoss' walkback of the firing, someone using the name Maurepas (also the name-- coincidentally, I'm sure *-- of a new fancy-pants restaurant in the Bywater ) shared this insight:
"I've always loved restaurant reviews... but the days of a Gene Bourg or Tom Fitzmorris or Richard Collin having tremendous influence on the local restaurant scene are no longer because of social media and the ability of restaurants to promote themselves directly to clients. What is needed from the Picayune is more restaurant industry news - chef changes, menu changes, new restaurants, and more short reviews."
Multiple NOLA.com staffers who've otherwise been silent throughout this brutal transition used the NOLA.com comment software's new "Like" feature to "Like" that comment... and the very next story to be published in NOLA.com's food/dining section-- coincidentally, I'm sure-- was a perfect example of what commenter "Maurepas" was asking for: a tiny four-graph press release about the restaurant Maurepas' new Greek wine selections.

Remarkable synergy!

Speaking to the New York Times, the fired editorial columnist Stephanie Grace characterized the Times-Picayune staff losses as "People who know where the bodies are buried, people who know who had what fight with which person 30 years ago... the stuff you need to know in New Orleans."

This obsolete regionalism-- supposing someone in New Orleans might know more about New Orleans than someone elsewhere-- is part of the elitist attitude characteristic of old media. What's needed at the new NOLA Media Group isn't knowledge, or expertise, or experience, or anything else costing money. What's needed is content, as much of it as possible.


THE CHURN OF THE SCREW

As discussed in part five, on the new NOLA.com front page all content from all blogs and all departments goes into one front-page column, mingling undifferentiated like so much hog-farm runoff flowing into the lower Mississippi. In a comment below that piece of the series, Rodger Kamenetz asks, "[I]s there any business logic to such a crappy site?"

"There's news in there somewhere...
just don't get any comments on ya."
There is, and it goes far beyond removing the expense of human editorial oversight. Dumping everything into a single front-page column creates the best possible rate of what sites like Gawker and the Huffington Post call Churn.

"Churn," in this case, means a high volume of new content crossing the front page. It's a new-media model in which the appearance of vigor, freshness and liveliness is more important than accuracy, usefulness or any specific virtues of the churned content itself.

The consultants have reached consensus: in an alienated online existence, in our individualized high-tech isolation, the rapid flow of information across the NOLA.com site will draw us to it. Just as moths mistake a porch light for the sun, we will come and batter our virtual bodies against the warm glow of the Churn, absorbing countless advertiser-impressions as we do so. We may flutter away, yet we shall return to the churn time and again because its carefully staged endless waterfall of McNuggetized content evokes the cheerful vibrance of group interaction-- the sort of interpersonal communion we isolated digital consumers crave, the itch we seek to scratch online since we've all become too fragmented, agoraphobic and obese to interact with one another in the real world.

In the foamy pools and eddies below this churning content, down in the notorious NOLA.com comment sections, our avatars-- preferably our Facebook identities, a meticulously curated version of self built on a foundation of brand-names and media tastes-- will argue and inveigh endlessly, creating mini-waterfalls of churn below each article, an exponential, fractally multifarious outward spiral of content and debate: what advertisers like to call "community."


CASUALTIES OF CHURN: A MURDER IN THE FRENCH QUARTER

From a post on the excellent Media of Birmingham blog titled "Insiders detail Birmingham News’ lurch toward digital future," we get a sense of life inside the new Advance media churn.
For the past few months, early shift reporters have been instructed to post just about anything every 15 minutes from 7 to 9 a.m. to AL.com to drive traffic. Often, the posts would be based primarily on media releases.
Posting press releases as news sucks, but the big sacrifice journalism makes for speed is accuracy. We see this in giant news outlets misreporting historic Supreme Court decisions; we see this in high-profile print publications using scammers as "sources", and we'll see ever more of it on the "churn-driven" NOLA.com.

Paula Devlin, a Times-Picayune copy editor for 25 years, was moved to the Online News Desk created to oversee postings on the redesigned NOLA.com website. In remarks I was first made aware of by a comment below a Gambit blog post, Devlin spoke to the National Conference of the American Copy Editors Society in April 2012 about how copy editing suffers in the online news environment-- though her characterization of these changes was very positive, as behooves someone working in the field. "Mistakes = opportunities for engagement," the published version of her notes says. "Readers really enjoy pointing out our errors."

Shouldn't reliability and accuracy be hallmarks of the journalistic mission? One of the major differences between the reporting of a reputable news outlet and a rumor from Facebook or a screed on examiner.com is the level of trust readers feel towards the source. To whatever degree readers trusted the Times-Picayune, it was because we knew its individual journalists to be fundamentally ethical. They considered truth-telling part of their mission, and the hard work of editors like Ms. Devlin kept the newspaper mostly free of factual or typographical errors-- free enough that exceptions were noteworthy. On NOLA.com, mistakes are the rule; they're considered inevitable. Inaccuracy is policy.

One of my pet peeves is New Orleans journalists incorrectly identifying the city's different neighborhoods and regions. Most of our local news sources have been guilty of this. Reporters are human, and some of the designations and boundaries are so arcane that even the most fanatical 5th-generation geographers can't agree on 'em. Usually these geographical misreportings are no more than an indicator that yet another New Orleans media job has just been awarded to an out-of-towner (or in Gambit & the Lens' cases, an out-of-continent-er), but I was struck by one recent example: an article on NOLA.com titled "Suspects arrested in French Quarter murder."

Turns out the murder wasn't in the French Quarter at all, as many (subsequently deleted) comments pointed out, but the headline and opening paragraphs detailing a "French Quarter murder" were posted at 6:30 pm and not updated until after midnight the next day, long enough for the mistake to be tweeted and retweeted, syndicated across the internet, aggregated into various other news services including Google News, and show up in searches for "french quarter murder."

In a city dependent on tourism, why is NOLA.com inventing murders in the French Quarter?

The writer in question, a new hire fresh from college, doesn't deserve to be pilloried for her mistake. We all make mistakes. She isn't the problem; the problem is the dynamic into which she's been hired-- at, it's safe to assume, a salary much lower than those of the recently fired. The problem is that greenhorns without experience or news judgement are, with no oversight or copy editing, publishing stories under the byline of a formerly reputable newspaper. That lack of oversight, that hurry to get something, anything up there and into the conversation, is a reality of the robust new NOLA Media Group's churn-centric model. It's the reality behind all the corner-office horseshit about a sustained post-newspaper commitment to journalism.

If you don't like these kinds of inaccuracies, if you notice NOLA.com disseminating falsehoods, why, you should "join the conversation" via registering to post, so you can point the inaccuracies out via comments. Tweet angrily about it-- be sure and include a link to the article in question, so others can come view the advertisements and give NOLA.com more web-hits. Why should NOLA.com be accurate, when inaccuracy generates so many more clicks and comments?


YOU WERE A JOURNALIST

For those who survive these layoffs, and for those who may be hired down the line, what's a journalism job with NOLA Media Group like? I quote a searing examination of "clicks-driven journalism" by departing Times-Picayune reporter Sarah Carr:
A precedent established at the MLive Media Group in Michigan, the first Advance Publications property to go digital, offers a telling clue: In Michigan, reporters say their bonuses are based on the number of stories they post, the number of times they engage with readers through the comment stream, and the number of pageviews their stories receive
Wade Kwon's post on the Media of Birmingham blog I referenced above tells us that at AL.com,
Journalists are also now being instructed to participate in the often unruly comment sections following most stories, a directive that is already meeting resistance.
Comments, clicks, controversy: once we understand the imperatives and priorities of the churn, the bizarre boilerplate in the new jobs posted by the NOLA Media Group begins to make more sense. For everything from their Saints reporter to their entertainment beat, the new NOLA Media Group seeks someone who will be an "authoritative voice" and a "discussion leader on high-value topics." They also want someone who has "the ability to leverage relationships with sources to deliver content."

Once, you were a journalist who produced journalism. Now you are yourself the commodity-- your relationships (to be "leveraged") are part of what you're selling to your employer. You are a personality, a discussion leader. YOU are the attraction; you are now the product.

Once your personality and identity and relationships are the product your employer is profiting from, you're naturally subjected to more rigorous regulation. Jeffrey over at the library chronicles blog pointed out this article: NBC News staffers are now prohibited from tweeting, posting or distributing via other social networking means, ever, in any context, "anything that compromises the integrity and objectivity of you or NBC Universal."

Al Tompkins of the Poynter Media Institute explains, "When you work for a media company, it is different than working for a plumbing supply warehouse. You represent your company in all you say, do and write."

Once, you were a journalist who produced journalism, which people paid money for. Now all "content" you create, on the clock or off, is a part of your brand, which your employer owns. You are permanently, indefinitely answerable and accountable to your employer, in all you do and say... and yet you are paid a salary and benefits based only on an eight-hour day, if that.

In new media you have no right to privacy, neither to a personal life nor to personal opinions. Your identity and your personhood are a thing to be bought and sold by media conglomerates; you're new-media chattel.

Not so long ago a million sad nobodies craved fame, craved the spotlight of reality television or youtube notoriety, but Fortuna's wheel is turning. In this technologically fixated phase of late capitalism, with both the government and advertisers craving and compiling historically unprecedented amounts of personal information, it's privacy that will be invaluable and unaffordable.

Soon only the super-rich-- like the Newhouses-- will have the flex and connections to avoid every detail of their lives being available online. They alone will remain hidden from sight, surrounded by bodyguards and lawyers, occult and unaccountable, protected by laws like the Citizens United ruling that even keep secret the millions of dollars they pour into our broken, corrupt political processes.

They, the wealthy, will set the terms of the debate. You, who were once a journalist, you who are now a "content provider," will keep a steady trickle of content going over the NOLA.com dam.

You will aggregate links from elsewhere, elevate user comments into posts, and generally keep the maximum volume of output flowing by any means necessary, flinging all the spaghetti you can get your digital mitts on against the endlessly scrolling wall, hoping to attract controversy and lead discussion. Your own measly trickle of content will combine with the trickles of your fellow Content Providers and the steady generic effluence of the Associated Press wire to create a mighty, flowing stream. Whoosh! Don't let up, not even for a moment! Keep it flowing... peon! Isn't this what you went to journalism school for?


I BELIEVE THE COMMENTS ARE THE FUTURE

If the New York City Newhouses feel it makes sense to combine the geographically and culturally disparate cities of Huntsville, Montgomery and Mobile into a single news location, why stop there? I bet there are English-speakers in Southeast Asia who would generate a hell of a lot of content for AL.com and NOLA.com even more cheaply than the freshly-minted U.S. undergrads who will be replacing long-time regional reporters.

Since investigative political reporting is to be replaced with TV-show recaps and press releases, why do the recapper and press-release repurposer need to be anywhere in particular?

Outsourcing seems the logical next step-- but that's limited thinking. The truth is, ever paying anyone for anything is an outdated model. The churn's advantages go beyond merely removing the expense of editors; they extend into the future, where there are also no paid reporters.
"The Commenters," ca. 1490

Recall the emphasis on comments and commenters in the duties of those NOLA Media Group positions. The major responsibilities of what used to be a journalism job are to "Post frequent and incrementally posting [sic] throughout the day... Monitor and engage in reader comment streams... elevate comments into new posts..." The goal is more comments.

Back several thousand paragraphs ago I mentioned Reddit.com, one of the Newhouse family's online properties. Reddit is a peculiar website that functions as a vast, geographically unspecific nola.com comment section. It's an "information site" with no actual news, just links to other things elsewhere. The content of Reddit itself is all comments-- a dense weave of angry male voices shouting over one another about Japanese cartoons, discontinued television programs and the global conspiracy of circumcision. It's a labyrinth of pathologically lonely minotaurs, each mooing his alienated rage and then anxiously pounding the "reload" button to see if his response has itself provoked any responses. When you multiply this effect by the number of unloved video-game enthusiasts in North America, the result is a heavily trafficked website.

I single Reddit out because it's the high-profit digital future. Having abandoned real-world interactions, the site's users build status within their pallid and sedentary tribe by seeking out and posting the newest links and the angriest commentary about whatever's being linked to. It's the online equivalent of a skinhead boot party, except the virtual participants don't have to be able to unstick their thighs from their office chairs to participate. It's like YouTube if YouTube was only the comments, and it's tremendously low-overhead and high-profit for Advance. Reddit's users themselves generate all the site's content. No paid "Discussion Leaders" needed!

This is the maximally profitable future; it's the direction everything's going in, including what used to be our daily newspaper. The field-leading Huffington Post was there early, explaining back in '07 that paying for content wasn't in their "financial model."

Just as killing the Times-Picayune and replacing it with a thrice-weekly print dipperful of stale blog entries is prelude to discontinuing print altogether, repurposing professional journalists into humiliating new roles as "discussion leaders" and "buzz reporters" is a prelude to the elimination of the entire field.

Gawker.com, a protean snark sweatshop that began as NYC-regional but long ago cost-efficiently genericized into a global content mill, is on its way, eliminating all barriers between the site's few remaining paid writers and the unpaid commenters.

Consider the notorious cesspool that is the NOLA.com comment section, and then consider this:
Now, with a new commenting system called Kinja, [Gawker honcho] Mr. Denton is offering a set of housekeys to anyone who wants them... Under the new order, the commenters babysit themselves, while a secret algorithm ranks their conversations by relevance. In fact, their contributions are not even called “comments” anymore. Internally, the company has instituted a $5 penalty on anyone who uses the c-word.

“These are posts,” Mr. Denton explained, reclaiming a word once reserved for professional prose. “And we intend to hold the posts contributed by readers to the same standards as those of writers—and erase the rather old-fashioned distinction between the two castes.”

THE END

Journalists have no career future under capitalism. They can become freelance-contracted "discussion leaders" for NOLA.com, or they may find niches in nonprofits, as long as they can stay in favor with the rich and powerful grant-givers who underwrite such endeavors. Capitalism will stamp out those inefficiencies soon enough. There's always public relations jobs, if you have no ethical objections to propaganda.

Journalism is fucked. It's not the journalists' fault, and the notion that we the readership are to blame for how awful "news" has become in the 21st century-- that we are to blame for being interested in the lurid sensationalist stories, or that if we didn't click on them they wouldn't exist-- is just the usual way capitalism justifies its horrors.

The working-class schlub who needs a car to commute to the only job he can find is to blame for the oil industry's destruction of South Louisiana-- never the wealthy international industrialists who profit from oil, never the lobbyists and politicos who sign the oil leases that ensure our state sees none of the money, who slash public transportation to make our civilization more oil-dependent and who export jobs overseas.

If only people had purchased more newspapers, if only people had clicked more on the other stories... if only we... that's all fucking lies. The system is rigged to maximize profit. The illusion that we as "consumers" have control over this nightmare is how we're kept in our place. If you don't like the Norco refineries poisoning our communities, purchase a new Prius! Anything beyond that's unthinkable; buying or not-buying (boycott) are the only choices we're permitted.

Good journalists have hard-won and important skills, including vanishing skills like research and how to talk to strangers. Journalists understand better than most how the systems of our sick civilization work. They know, as Stephanie Grace said, where the bodies are buried. New Orleans' tiny regional ruling class has responded to the rude awakening-- that people with vastly more money and power are calling the shots-- by throwing a tantrum. Journalists know better.

How the journalists fucked over by Advance here and in Alabama will respond remains to be seen. Most of them still have access to their newspapers' arcane and fragile computer systems and passwords-- if not their own passwords, then certainly those of their lazy, less tech-savvy overseers. They have all kinds of access to e-mails, to behind-the-scenes dirt, to the specific ways the editors and higher-ups who betrayed the rank-and-file have, over the years, unethically accommodated the agendas of the powerful.

Many of those fired know a great deal. They know about things that happened in the wake of the flood that still haven't come to light. Now that they've been thrown into the street, how will they use that knowledge? 

Will they continue to serve the powers that be, hoping to scrape by another year or decade? Will they continue to beg for scraps, and swallow the humiliation of being repurposed into "discussion leaders?"

Crisis, as we along the Gulf Coast have learned, brings certain people lucrative opportunities. There are people making money off the suffering of those fired.

Perhaps the destruction of our newspaper and the assault on our region it represents will prompt some of those fired to apply their skills, knowledge and abilities towards something new, something unconventional, something that directly challenges the power of the new-media moguls who've crowned themselves our kings. Surely those fired aren't content to let Steve Newhouse and Ricky Mathews tell the official story and write the official history, one smug, disingenuous op-ed at a time.

How will the laid-off press workers and delivery drivers respond? They know a thing or two. Some people take betrayal lying down; some don't. I wonder if September's three-day-a-week delivery will go smoothly, or if it will encounter problems-- problems with delivery trucks, problems with newspaper boxes, problems with the presses themselves.

I'm just a New Orleanian who values good journalism. This outlandishly long series of blog entries is my response to the murder of the Times-Picayune... but how will those who've been most directly affected respond? How will those who've been stabbed in the back by their bosses respond?

I'm as curious as you are.


THE MURDER OF THE TIMES-PICAYUNE


a six-part series on the destruction of New Orleans' daily newspaper
Part  One - Two - Three - Four - Five - Six
written by Jules Bentley

8 comments:

  1. This is an incredibly small part of your overall piece to comment on, but I want to point out that in the Scott Aiges bounce story from '94, the hed "Not Everyone Loves New Orleans Bounce" referred to the fact that more serious lyricists in the hip-hop scene were dismissing the new sound as lightweight and frivolous.

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    1. Duly noted-- thanks for the clarification.

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  2. A really thoughtful series, Jules. Well done.

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  3. And thank you for the link to the Media of Birmingham post in this part, too, Jules. I appreciate it.

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  4. Correction/clarification: I sarcastically implied that "maurepas" the nola.com commenter may be linked to the restaurant Maurepas Foods. It's since been made clear to me (with really remarkable courtesy, considering) that the two are not connected.

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  5. Good job...Old media should take note of your foresight. Times Pic writers like Stephanie Grace were overpriced dead weight for over 10 years and she just got fired ...morons wonder why they are broke and have a horrible business model.

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  6. Solidarity from San Diego. Our capitalist paper was never worth a damn, so this was kind if a nostalgic read for someone from the occupied atlantic coast. I spent my morning on this and certainly hope it gets a lot of comments ;)

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