Saturday, June 25, 2005

Voices from the commercial Underground

It's always interesting to sit in the breakroom of a chain bookstore, one that's nestled between a Foleys and a Hallmark in a dilapidated mall in a two-college town. Two-thirds of the staff is currenly enrolled in one of the two universities, the other one-third is graduated and has kids. While my ham and cheese sandwiches are heating up in the microwave, I see a library copy of Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs on the table. I assumed it belonged to the music manager - a 40-something woman with a boyfriend and an ecclectic music taste that ranges from the Flaming Lips to Michael Buble - and thought it best to avoid the conversation because of how she tends to go on-and-on-and-on, not because i didn't like the book or love to talk about it. It's one of my personal favorites actually, but I'm sure, she'd give me a reason to say, "no, I've actually never read that one."

It turns out, the book belonged to a part-time employee we just hired a month ago. She's the type you can see getting a day-job because she hated being at home while her kids were at school. You see her and you instinctively think PTA and Bible School leader. I couldn't resist. Instead of reading my copy of Klosterman's latest book, I sat and talked with her about this one. I was intrigued. Why would she have picked it up? More importantly, how did she even know about it? It's not a book most people would actually seek out unless they're looking for that critical view of society and/or embarassing insight about all the American flaws we're exposing our kids to. What's more, she went on various rants about Klosterman's takes on the SIMS and other points that she didn't agree with...her arguments were completely valid and coherent. I was in shock.

After the initial embarrassed blush for my premature judgement of her character, I found myself arguing points with her and reminiscing the good points Klosterman makes with her. It was a good, healthy conversation...in the breakroom of a chain bookstore.

I come home and read the news on my feed reader. This article by Slate, was the first I actually took the time to read. Maybe critique is more the word. Not a book or movie review, but a critique of Chuck Palahniuk and Slate's elite observation that he's sold-out - writing what his audience is asking for rather than what he wants to write about and that his latest novel, Haunted, is more gore than literature. Oh, they praised Fight Club for all sorts of philosophical, 10-letter-word reasons, but, Haunted, is nothing like that they said.

They said Fight Club focussed on the new male - one that is both gruesome and sensitive. Having read both Fight Club and Haunted (and all his others) I can agree that the duality of men - the sex - does exist, but it's not the central point. Chuck P creates extraordinary characters that are really just ordinary people. He brings out that part of our society. As i judged my co-worker in the breakroom this afternoon, most of us judge strangers by their appearances. Most of us wouldn't be able to point-out a serial killer if we were standing in line behind him/her at the grocery store. All of his characters look normal and act normal until they are pushed to their limits and then, he does what any novelist does, he takes their lives one step further, but still in the realm of understanding. We can see his characters knowing this information or having seen this happened to someone else. His characters are believable in that sense. We don't necessarily want to believe it, but we know that real people like his characters exist all around us.

The truth is, maybe Chuck P did sell-out to his audience from the Cult website. Maybe they wanted him to take his characters to a whole new, gruesome level. He did, but still in the classic Chuck P style. The only difference is that what they knew, what they saw, and what they did was still in the realm of what's possible, if only we would allow ourselves to admit the reality in which we live. We're a society that finds cliched fascination with car wrecks and professional-hit murders. In this novel, he just catered to that American obsession.

But, wait...there's more. Chuck P has become a sort of poster-child for the underground, generation X culture. so much so, that he's commercialized. Everytime someone asks me for Fight Club at the bookstore, I roll my eyes. Most just saw the movie or have just had friends recommend the book over the movie and they want to find out for themselves. They might read the book, they might not. Whatever, they won't be back to get any of his others. They'll think they understand everything about the fascination surrounding Chuck P after reading that one book that they'll probably rush to their local coffee shop and start talking about it as if they knew their nose from their ass.

Chuck Klosterman has become the same way. Everyone's reading Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs and then spouting pop culture insights as if they weren't a member of it. Yeah, talk to me when you read his monthly column in Esquire magazine, and/or his other books. Even then, you won't know shit about pop culture or music culture. That's the point these two authors are making in the real underground. They're not necessarily speaking truths, they're speaking their opinion, their views on society and that's it. They're not trying to speak for an entire generation, they're just trying to make some money. What each has to say about society is good...it's not the holy gospel...but it's good and insightful. The problem does not lie with them, it lies in the majority of the population that either disagrees with their sentiments or is trying to make a name for him/herself.

This latter point isn't original. Think of The Postman or the Chronicles of Riddick - the ending of both hinges on the principle that whomever kills the man in charge takes control of the entire empire. That's what this population of reviewers is becoming - to become respected in that field, you have to knock off a giant. Whatever happened to inspiration? or originality. Instead of telling me why someone is wrong, tell me what you think is right.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Journalists Still Inexplicably Read Your LiveJournal

Journalists Still Inexplicably Read Your LiveJournal: "

To those of you who are used to seeing nuggets of your internet goodness regularly reprinted in Page Six or reinterpreted in New York mag, the following will come as no surprise. For the rest of you innocent waifs, however, it's time to realize that your trusted journalists rely on the most questionable of sources:

...A new study by Euro RSCG/Columbia University shows that more than 51 percent of journalists use blogs regularly, and 28 percent rely on them to help in their day-to-day reporting duties.

What's more, the study found that journalists mostly used blogs for finding story ideas (53 percent), researching and referencing facts (43 percent) and finding sources (36 percent). And 33 percent said they used blogs to uncover breaking news or scandals.

Blind leading the blind, people.

Study: Majority of Journalists Use Blogs [Micro Persuasion]"


Of course journalists are looking to blogs for information. Journalism is a profession of silently speaking for those without the mass media mouth. Blogs cut out that middle man; journalists must not only respect this, but report on it. Just because they report on everything, they don't know everything. They must research and communicate. They can't write a Trend Story based soley on what they enjoy or think - there has to be some communal interest, and community can span miles or continents.

Journalists cannot logically talk to every reader and citizen in their market. They must either find someone willing to speculate or track down the trends themselves. Some of the best speculative research is found in Google's hot searches tally. From there, one just follows links...eventually, you'll end up in a blog that references another blog that references another blog... Trend?

When journalists once could not talk to Joe Public, now he/she can read Joe's diary. A good journalist would nose around blogs just as quickly as he/she would peak at any and all loose papers lying around the president's desk.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Young people shunning papers, warns News Corp boss

Young people shunning papers, warns News Corp boss: "Media: Rupert Murdoch's right-hand man has warned that fewer and fewer young people are reading newspapers, blaming free papers for the decline."

It's true, young people don't read newspapers. Why would they pay for stories that have been cut-and-pasted from syndication services like the AP when one can simply type in web addresses like the Guardian Unlimited or Reuters and get all the same, shoveled information.

For the last month, I've been glued to the television watching the San Antonio Spurs work their way through the Western Conference playoffs. I live in Denton, half an hour north of Dallas, and it's sacreligious to be anything other than a Mavs fan. If I missed a Spurs game, why would I choose to read the Dallas Morning News for game information? I utilize my RSS reader and tap into the San Antonio Express-News sports page everyday as part of my news diet. For the best information, I go as close to the source as I can get. Today's kids are no different. Why pick up the local paper to read about national news when one can turn on FoxNews or CNN and get it from a source that is in the business of reporting national and global news.

Why free papers work

For most newspapers, the Sunday issue is the cash-cow. Advertisers knows this which is why most ads are bought for that day and newspaper managers knows this which is why all Sunday editions are more expensive. I think the Denton Record-Chronicle charges a dollar for its Sunday paper and 25 cents for its weekday editions. A dollar can buy you a song on iTunes. As an example, this iTunes purchase is a better investment for a computer-savvy kid budgeting an allowance or a minimum-wage job. Why buy a newspaper full of information you get free on the web and that you're just going to throw away after reading when you can download a song you can listen to repeatedly?

When I was a kid, I didn't care about city council or school board meetings. I didn't care about tax increases or mayoral races. I cared about the funny pages and any pictures from my high school's Friday night football games. Kids get their local "news" from school hallways, or at least the information that they think they need. It's not until these kids grow up and start families of their own that they start caring about school boards and highway taxes.

Free papers keep this in mind in hopes of providing a service to the community, educating young readers, and hopefully attracting future subscribers. Reading of all sorts is down, unless you count the multiple pages of web text available. (It's not necessarily literature, but it is words on a page.) Kids exposed to reading at an early age will continue to read as they grow and mature. That's what these free papers have in mind - attracting kids who have been exposed to reading to their papers, and attempting to re-create a thurst for knowledge through the written word for kids that weren't taught the values of reading at an early age.

Society is changing and so is the media. The big sharks are learning that being big fish in a small pond hurts if more and more small fish start to inhabit the pond. The small fish are finding food easier because the bigger fish are just swimming around with their mouths open hoping to catch something. Our culture is splintered by niches, there is no all-encompassing school that any of us swim with. These free papers are passively getting audiences to come to them rather than actively seeking-out the mythic American - the ideal audience member.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Truth, Integrity, the Big Story - Mainstream Entertainment Media

Where's the drama in city council meetings? It's not the atmosphere, environment, or even what's discussed. The drama in these mundane, routine institutions lies in what's not said, and what's growling in the closets of each council person. These hidden truths are too big for a single person to keep locked away; someone else knows where the key is. That person has become symbolic for American journalism.

Maybe we're second-in-command, ensuring the institution is protected by any means, or maybe we're the office snitch, unafraid to kiss some ass to advance, whatever it is we are, journalists have strayed from taking pride in a story, attracted, instead, by the shimmer of our bold bylines.

Since Watergate, journalists have aspired to be the next Woodward or Bernstein. They made themselves gods through tedious research, tireless interviewing, and a desire for truth that seems second only to breathing.

With the revelation of "Deep Throat" last week, countless articles and columns have been written on Mark Felt's significance to journalism and how Watergate would be different today. In Saturday's Houston Chronicle, Loren Steffy wrote a brilliant piece about Deep Throat and the following trend to search for "the big story." I stumbled on the column via Poynter's Romenesko feed under a larger Baltimore Sun article by John Woestendiek and Paul West.

Both pieces allude to a much larger concept of Journalism - the glamour of it. Watergate and Deep Throat made Woodward's and Bernstein's careers. Respected before; famous after. Their names will be in history books long after their grandchildren are buried - not to mention the notoriety they have received ever since the stories ran in the Washington Post. What journalist, expected to be always objective, voiceless, and faceless, wouldn't want this type of attention, especially in a time when reality tv rules the national television audience - everyday people doing absolutely nothing extraordinary getting their 15-minutes of fame every week for an entire season?

Steffy mentions the allure of writing for a larger paper and how that dominated his every story angle, only to come back at the end of the piece to remind his successors or maybe even his contemporaries that respect in the field of journalism comes from discipline, patience, and diligence. What he didn't add, that I - a recent college graduate with no experience - feel is also as important is the everyday story and its significance to a single person.

Obituary writing is a tough assignment because those articles are read and saved by families and friends of the deceased. When stories about President Bush's social security reform plans have been read and discarded, obituaries will be placed in a shoebox that will travel generations. Not all city council meetings have this same longevity, but if the same approach is applied, the truth will be told and the story will mean something. Those are the stories that get noticed, maybe not by editors at large papers, but by government officials who could very well be the next Deep Throat and will only talk to you because they see where your priorities lie.