Thursday, February 17, 2011

College-based community media workshops

This month's Carnival of Journalism topic asks those of us participating in it to address how the sources of news in a community could be expanded, playing off the recommendations of the Knight Foundation's exploration of information needs of communities in a democracy.

I think universities with communications programs are especially well positioned to help address one of the 15 needs cited by the Knight Commission report, specifically:

Recommendation 7: Fund and support public libraries and other community institutions (my emphasis) as centers of digital and media training, especially for adults.
Our college is a community institution, right?

One of the ideas that's been in the back of my mind for a while that would articulate this recommendation is using the school's resources to help local citizens learn more about being news providers with some sort of workshop or seminar.

I could see it taking shape as a day or day-and-a-half event, consisting of a combination of lecture, exercises, small-group and large-group discussion of issues in the emerging news ecosystem, followed by break-out workshops on principles of basic journalism and skills development for writing and multimedia. We have faculty, staff and even student expertise in these areas plus a core of alumni who are working professionals who might be involved as guest presenters. We have the facilities, including classrooms, computer labs, large and small meeting spaces, and on-campus catering capability for meals or snacks.

Or, more formally, it could be done as a certificate program for non-matriculated students who could take some combination of our traditional (or non-traditional, e.g. online) courses on topics such as journalism basics, multimedia journalism, Web design, digital video production, and desktop publishing.

All the potential is there. Finding the human and financial resources to act on it is the next step.

UPDATE (Saturday Feb. 18) : Courtney Shove has created a roundup summary with links to all of the posts in this month's carnival. Check it out.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Budget conundrum

I dislike paying taxes as much as anyone. But I have to wonder when Washington politicians are going to get serious and talk about tax increases to stem the tide of progressively deeper national debt.

President Obama's 2012 budget proposal, according to The New York Times, totals $3.7 trillion with a $1.1 trillion deficit. That means it budgets $2.6 trillion in revenue. Obama says it's fiscally responsible; Republicans say it doesn't cut deep enough. All kinds of arguments are taking place about little nips and tucks to the budget of a few billion here and a few billion there to try and bring it into better alignment.

But here's the thing. Four areas of the budget that no one is talking about cutting add up to a figure that already surpasses total revenue by a wide margin. Thus, it's mathematically impossible to make enough cuts to areas of the budget where everyone is looking to bring this budget into balance, or even to reduce the projected deficit by a meaningful amount.

Three of the four areas -- Medicare/Medicaid, Defense, and Social Security -- are supposedly untouchable for political reasons. The fourth is interest on the national debt, which we have to keep paying because defaulting on it would truly collapse the world economy.

Those four areas added together total about $3 trillion in spending (see table below). With projected revenue of $2.6 trillion, this means that if every remaining dollar in federal spending were eliminated, the country would still be in the hole by $400 billion. Read that carefully. Not just trimming some programs, but completely eliminating EVERY federal agency except for the Defense Department, Social Security Administration, and portions of Treasury and Human Services that deal with debt issuance and Medicare/Medicaid, respectively, wouldn't be enough to get the budget back to positive.

And the cuts that are being talked about are, by comparison, a pittance. $1 billion sounds like a lot of money, but here's an analogy to explain what that amount means in relation to the overall budget situation:

Picture an upper middle class family with a very comfortable -- what some people would consider truly lavish -- income of $260,000 a year. But for a variety of reasons they were overspending their income by around $110,000 a year, and need to cut back. How effective would they be in closing the gap with savings of $100 here and $100 here? Equivalently, that's what $1 billion is in a $3.7 trillion spending plan. So when you read about $5 billion here or $10 billion there, it's like that family trying to close its six-figure deficit with tweaks of $500 or $1,000. Realistically, it cannot be done.

This federal budget has reached a point at which it cannot be balanced with cuts. Sadly, none of our political leaders has the courage to say so.

$1100 billion (1.1 trillion) Medicare and Medicaid
$808 billion Social Security
$677 Defense
$474 Interest on debt

= $3059 billion ($3.059 trillion) total spending on "big four" areas


$2600 billion ($2.6 trillion) projected revenue

= $459 billion deficit

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Funny line from TV's Big Bang Theory

One of the things I like best in a TV show is smart writing, and one of the shows out there with that characteristic is the CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory.

For those who may be unfamiliar with the show, it centers on the interaction of four researchers at a university who meet every stereotype of the classic nerd. The nerdiest of them all is an astrophysicist named Sheldon Cooper, well played by a talented actor named Jim Parsons.

It's not the most high-brow show in the world; in fact, a disappointingly large proportion of episode plot lines and within-the-show jokes resort to the "nerds-never-get-laid" cliche. (Even the show's title plays off that theme, of course.) I'm no prude and the jokes don't offend or bother me. I'd just like to see the writers reach beyond them more often than they do. They're surely capable of it, as last Thursday's episode illustrated with some of the funniest lines I've heard on TV in a while.

The storyline begins with university president "inviting" the four compadres -- more of an ultimatum to attend than an invitation, really -- to a reception with major donors. Sheldon initially refuses to go, feeling it is beneath him.

He changes his mind when a friend persuades him that unless he's there to argue for donations to support the work of hard science, the money might go to the geology department -- whom Sheldon disparages as "the dirt people." He admits the prospect scares him.

Then prepare to be terrified, his friend continues, because the benefactors might even decide to support -- gasp! -- the liberal arts. Millions, she implies, could go to poets, literary critics and "students of gender studies." I was already laughing at that as she said it.

Sheldon's horrified reply: "Oh, the humanities!"

I laughed harder than I have in a long time at a TV show. Good job, Big Bang writers. More smart stuff like that and fewer cheap sex jokes and I'll like your work even more.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The power of viral media

Buffalo-area Congressman Chris Lee isn't the first politician to resign in the wake of publicity over a personal scandal, and unquestionably won't be the last. But his case may have set some kind of record for speed with which the downfall took place, and shows the power of viral dissemination of information outside of the mainstream news media.

Not so long ago, when news cycles were measured in hours or even days, it would take quite a while for a scandal to play out far enough to result in a powerful person's downfall. Weeks or months could go by as news came out and slowly made its way into public consciousness, those affected by it could work to get favorable counter-information into public view, etc. Even the situation with Eric Massa, another upstate New York congressman who resigned over some unsavory personal behavior, took a few days to unwind.

But with Lee, news of a flirtatious e-mail conversation he apparently had with a woman he contacted via Craigslist was posted on Gawker in mid-afternoon, and led to his resignation by dinnertime. In a story posted at 2:30 p.m., his spokesman was saying that the congressman believed his e-mail account had been hacked; at 5:30 Lee was calling it quits. That was before it could even be reported on a traditional TV newscast.

Traditional media were still trying to figure out how much credence to give a report on Gawker when Lee made it easy for them by giving the story both a more powerful angle (his departure) and instant credibility (why would he have resigned if it wasn't true).

News truly does move in hyper-speed these days.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The downside of constant connection

I check my e-mail pretty frequently, from first thing in the morning until maybe 9 or 10 in the evening. (More on what "first thing" means shortly.) I have Facebook and Twitter accounts that I check a few times over the course of a day, too. I don't post a lot, just a few times a week to each; mostly I check to monitor information other people are putting out there.

However, I don't have a smart phone. I don't want a smart phone. I don't use my "dumb" cellphone all that much; a few calls and texts a week mostly to my wife and kids. (Only a few people other than family members even have the number, and it's turned off more hours of the week than it's turned on.) Without a smart device, of course, e-mails, tweets and Facebook updates can't reach me constantly. Sometimes, a few hours pass before I get them.

Does that make me a Luddite? If you took what's said in a lot of the news ricocheting around the tech world at face value, it would seem so. Being technologically up to date is equated with being constantly connected, constantly on. When Mashable posts an entry titled "31 New Digital Media Resources You May Have Missed" there's a subtle implication that unless you have all of these latest and greatest tips, tools and tricks, you're just not with it. (That post was shared 105 times on Facebook and tweeted more than 1,700 times, BTW).

But being constantly connected can take a toll, as an article from today's New York Times points out:

All of this amped-up productivity comes with a growing sense of unease. Too often, people find themselves with little time to concentrate and reflect on their work. Or to be truly present with their friends and family.

The Times writer quotes Ana Dutra, 46, a top manager at a Chicago-based executive recruiting firm, as saying that technology has afforded her more freedom, “but there’s a little bit more slavery as well ...If you are available all the time, what does that mean?”

Balance of work and life is something professionals have always struggled with, but technology has torn down some barriers permanently, in the eyes of people who study it. The Times quotes Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project, as saying that "home has invaded work and work has invaded home and the boundary is likely never to be restored ... The new gadgetry has really put this issue into much clearer focus.”

The theme of the Times article is nothing new; I've seen others almost exactly like it. Perhaps it is a recurring theme because of a growing recognition of how corrosive an always-on life can be.

Being connected is important to me, which is why I check my e-mail and social networks numerous times over the course about 13 or 14 hours a day, seven days a week. But balance, and downtime, are equally important. Without them, there's no time to synthesize or think about the information flowing in. That's why it doesn't bother me that it might take a while for me to get to an e-mail or see a tweet, even about something that's interesting and important to me. Very little of it is SO urgent that a few minutes or few hours will make a difference.

And, I've even redefined "first thing" in the morning. Until a few weeks ago, that meant about 6:30 a.m., right after breakfast, when I'd pour a second cup of coffee and fire up the computer to check e-mail, Facebook, Twitter and some online news sites. But I found that spending 20 minutes or so doing that was a real impediment to getting out of the house in a timely fashion to go to the gym and get some exercise before work. So these days, when the computer gets turned off for the evening it goes into my briefcase, and the next time I'm online is when I get to the office around 8:30 or 9 the next morning. I can honestly say I haven't had to address anything since the beginning of the semester for which those two hours in the morning have made a difference.

(Granted, not all people could say that. If I were still a working journalist, I doubt I'd make such a blanket statement because in that world, these days, urgency of information delivery and dissemination is the cardinal value.)

To me, having the time to assess and think about information flowing in is crucial for understanding it and what it means. Constant connection to an endless torrent of data undermines the ability to do that.