Friday, February 17, 2006

RedEye syndrome: the downfall of newspapers

Newspapers, they say, are slowly dying.

And it should be obvious why: the rise of web sites, blogging, competition for attention growing more and more fierce. After all, who wants to slog through a inch-thick stack of newsprint when they can pop on to and get news now. And it's free.

I read an article about how the Chicago Tribune is using a free, "edgy" publication called RedEye (I saw and read it while I was there) to attract the younger and commuter crowd. It's free, and it highlights fashion, pop culture, trends, celebrities, etc. - with a few wire reports thrown in.

The writer raised the question: Is it okay to sacrifice newspaper readership to "hipper" papers like RedEye?

What I want to know is - are the kids learning anything?

Most of RedEye is filled with celebrity gossip and trendy styles, not news. Given the two, which do you think the average 20-something will go for?

I wonder what they should go for.

As a newspaper guy, I mourn the loss of newspaper readership. Forget TV, forget radio - there is nothing that can cover local events and happenings like your hometown newspaper (forget national news - everyone does that). You get local voices on local issues, and pictures to boot.

But now some web sites are siphoning the very purpose newspapers used to fulfill: that of a bulletin board where community groups and companies, politicians, even the yokels, can post their thoughts and aspirations on the printed page. Now? You have the bulletin board called "message board" or "comments section" (like you all leave comments right here).

Nothing, however, can beat the portability of the newspaper. Sure, you can drag your laptop around to some WiFi station and log on to catch the latest breaking story. But that assumes you own a computer. For the everyman/woman, the newspaper is a bit more affordable.

I liked RedEye, because it filled a particular niche. It had good design, and some semi-interesting stories, and a great "What's Happening This Weekend" section, perfect for out-of-towners like myself.

But I don't think it should be the only thing kids are reading. No where but the newspaper are you going to get in-depth analysis and investigation.

Remember that journalism serves as a watchdog against government excesses and stupidity. If everyone's reading about Angelina and Brad, no one's paying attention to the dopes running Washington. And that's a very bad thing.

After all - if no one cares, they will be free to do what they want.

Even my workday revolves around reading the newspaper. I scan it mostly to see if the credit union made it in a headline, or to see one of our ads, or to check and see what the competition is doing. But I also get to know my community in a way no other source can let me.

Sure, pick up a RedEye. But also grab the Tribune, and see what the heck is really going on.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Thoughts for the day

I read an article last April in Harper's by Erik Reece about strip mining in the Appalachian Mountains - how whole mountain tops are being bulldozed and leveled, and how it affects the locals.

Turns out the author wrote a book, featured here in I was so angry by the time I finished Reece's article in Harper's, I'm scared to pick up the book.

But maybe others should.

- - - - -

Leave it to Sen. Russ Feingold to raise some much-needed hell.

A few days ago I railed against fellow Democrats for being wimps. Well, Feingold is feeling the same way, especially in relation to the "Patriot" Act. In December, Dems also blocked an extension of the act's provisions. Lately, however, they've displayed their wimpiness yet again.

Democrats could fight, Feingold says. "Instead, too many Democrats have folded, and momentum for critical changes to the Patriot Act to protect our freedoms has been squandered. Some Democrats may be breathing sighs of relief that the president can't use this issue to paint them as "soft" on terrorism. But we're not doing the party or the country any favors by refusing to challenge an administration that views our freedoms as collateral damage in the war on terrorism. If Democrats aren't going to stand up to an executive who disdains the other branches of government and doesn't worry about trampling on the rights of innocent Americans, what do we stand for?"

Amen, brother.

- - - - -

Last night I played "Mr. Bah-humbug."

I walked into Meijer to grab some groceries and saw a bunch of schmucks in the flower section. Talk about last minute.

I joked with the greeter about "last-minute Joes." Mostly blue-collar guys (it was east-end Meijer, after all), a few more wandering over to the candy aisle.

Suckers, all of them.

But I'd probably be doing the same thing under different circumstances...

Thursday, February 9, 2006

From then to now: progress in our time

"Is it getting better, or do you feel the same?" - U2, 'One'

- - - - -

When talking about progress - whether it's a reality or a myth - it's good to have some perspective.

For instance, grandma and I were chatting last night about her recent discovery of the Internet. About a month ago, I got her hooked up and logged on to find a job and/or a date. She's found a date and she's making progress (there's that word) on the job front. But what most interests her is learning what the Internet is, does, and offers.

I always ask her what we did before the Internet, even though I can remember - because it wasn't that long ago. It's a wonder what a few years can do.

Monday night I saw a scene from "L.A. Confidential" where a business man had this giant, wooden desk. And you know what? It didn't have anything on it.

Come look at my desk at work. Come on, don't be shy. See all that stuff? See that glowing screen? That high-tech phone, the picture CDs, those stacks of paper?

What did companies (financial institutions, especially) do before computers?

My grandma told me. She worked at Consumers Energy, a giant, multi-state utility company headquartered here in Jackson. She said that, at their old HQ downtown, the entire bottom floor ("The Vault," she called it) was filled with nothing but file cabinets full of everything the company had done since the 1920s.

Today, all that information could fit on my iPod.

A lot of times I take for granted how much technology has changed out lives. Then I think about our account software here at work. With it, we know your name, address, what accounts you've opened with us, a complete account history - all for 40,000-plus members. And it all sits in a little box in our IT room. Before that, it all had to be tracked on paper in paper files in filing cabinets.


My iPod brought a lot of this to light. On road trips, I always take a stack of CDs to listen to on the way. Now? I bring my iPod, and my entire music collection, and it all fits in the space of about one CD and jewel case. Plus, it's pretty - oh so pretty.

Grandma's ignorance operating the Internet has also opened my eyes. We 20-somethings probably discovered the Internet at home or at school. Shucks, it was part of my junion year curriculum. We know computers, we know the Web - we just plain know.

Simple things like accessing your e-mail anywhere amazes Grandma. "But where is it?" she asked me.

"It's out there," I said, flapping my hands. "In the ether, somewhere."

The concept was totally alien. As was saving pictures on the Internet to her computer ("You can do what?").

I can't say that progress has improved life all that much. Sure, I love my iBook. But I also understand we have to employ people that just work on our computers at the office. That's all they do. Fix the machines that were supposed to make life easier.

Plus the lack of security (issues like identity theft are all the rage now) and the two-years-and-its-obsolete mentality. Computers make some things easier, sure, but some things get a bit more complicated.

But I'll enjoy Google - how I can learn anything there ever was to know about anything in just a few keystrocks - and take heart in the fact that we don't have an entire floor devoted to member files or cabinets.

It also excites me to think of what's coming. Who knows what commonplace, everyday task we handle now will be totally and utterly altered in the years to come (though, with a warning - we've all seen The Matrix and Terminator 2).

Change, it's a comin'. It always has.

Friday, February 3, 2006

Yes Virginia, there is a coney dog

After calling in an order for lunch today, I found that I have become a regular.

You know - one of those folks who goes to the same spot and the same time and orders the same thing. That's me.

I use my Fridays as a sort of "me day." I grab a red-eye coffee on the way in to work, I treat myself to lunch out (as opposed to my regularly packed sandwhich-and-chips), and I take a nap when I get home from work. Pretty regular.

This week, however, it all came in to sharp focus. I made the call to the Virginia Coney Island across the street, my regular spot, and the woman on the other end knew (a) who I was, (b) what I wanted, and (c) when I would make it across the street. She was good.

Before I ate my first lunch at the Virginia I was warned that the clientele was "shady" and the atmosphere was "too blue collar." In other words, it was a real live local restaurant, full of working people who loved crinkle fries as much as I did. You can't beat the prices ($5 for my lunch, usually) and you can't beat the view of Michigan Ave. out the steamed-up windows.

There's an obsession with local, Jackson-made coneys. We make them different than any other place in America, and are nationally known for our dynamic coney dogs. Supposedly, the "coney stuff" we put on top of our coneys - a dry mix, as opposed to the wet, sloppy-joe style coney mix - is unique to Jackson. Damn tasty, too. As a result, a local fascination with the weiners has sprung up, and given Jackson a sense of local gustational pride.

I love the coneys at the Virginia. And the cute waitress - the one who answers the phone - doesn't hurt either. To achieve true "regular-hood" however, I'll have to learn her name.

When I first started going, the waitress yelled at me because I dumped my ketchup on napkins. Now she gives me a bowl, a ketchup depository, for my condiments. Today she even had a Diet Coke waiting for me at my usual spot. They know me there. And that's a good feeling.

Sometimes a person's "regular-hood" can be unwelcome. If you're a regular at the local jail or brothel, a co-worker pointed out, it can be a bad thing.

But being a regular at the Virginia is a good thing, no bones about it.

Who's up for crinkle fries?