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Kill The Newspaper

A new Facebook group has launched, aimed at saving the printed newspaper. Almost everyone I know in the news business has joined this group in the last few days. I haven’t  joined, and I won’t. Here’s why.

The newspaper, as in the actual printed product, is quickly becoming irrelevant. Any news organization continuing to print a newspaper is practically guaranteeing their eventual failure, because they will never learn to become an online news organization. Their focus will remain on the printed product and the business model of that product, which runs counter to online success.

For me, this is a scary thing to say. I grew up on printed newspapers and have made my living working for them. I still do, in fact. Even suggesting that newspapers will not survive is considered sacrilege by many fellow journalists.

But let me be clear: I am not just saying that newspapers will eventually die. I am saying they need to be killed now if news organizations want to survive.

My entire career, I’ve listened to those who believe in newspapers preach the irreplaceable societal benefits of a newspaper, the civic importance of a local daily, and the resiliency of those newspapers (hell, I’ve even given the speech myself). After all, they survived radio, they survived television. They can survive the Internet.

Except, they can’t. Radio and TV had new, exciting features, but the same business model: Our readers/listeners/viewers will come to us instead of everyone else.

The Internet, especially in the last few years, has turned that model on its head. Online, people expect things to come to them. By things, I mean everything from friends to advertisers to news organizations. Specific to news, they are getting their news from news aggregators, bloggers, friends sharing links, and (for old-school new-media types) e-mail blasts. In all of those cases, the information is coming to them.

Yet newspapers continue to try to bring people to them, only now it’s with their websites. Those newspaper look and feel like a daily newspaper, which is not a compliment. Annoying ads interfere with reading, good stories with bad art are buried in a dead sea of headlines while weak stories with good art dominate the sliders. Technology that was new five years ago remains a foreign concept, especially tags, RSS feeds for specific writers or topics, and (amazingly) hyperlinks to other stories on their own sites.

When a newspaper actually does venture into social media, it’s sually nothing more than glorified spam, in the guise of headlines. The focus remains getting people to their websites, instead of trying to make themselves part of conversation. (Attempts by individua journalists are much more varied, and really a topic best left to another post).

As for those who still prech the intangibles of newspaper reading (the Sunday paper with coffee argument), I don’t dispute them. Only, my Sunday morning coffee is going to include something else that has been lost to the online revoluton: conversation. The headlines can wait.

Global warming claims get legislators hot and bothered.

Climate change happens, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. What is not happening, however, is a definitive reason attributable to man.

People, put down the pitchforks, at least the ones pointed at me. That’s not my argument, that’s the argument made by Rep. Kerry Gibson, R-Ogden, in pushing HJR12. That resolution urges the Environmental Protection Agency to step away from regulating greenhouse gases as pollutants. It also originally referenced “tricks” played to support the global warming “conspiracy,” although that was amended.

The resolution passed the House Natural Resources Committee Thursday morning, with only Rep. Phil Riesen, R-Salt Lake, voting against it.

First off, a little legislative education: resolutions mean nothing. Squat. They sound good and are great ways for mid-level legislators with a passion for a specific issue to rally their troops. Resolutions are also great time wasters, as evidenced by the 75 minutes spent by the committee railing against climate change.

Resolutions, however, make great political theater. And this debate was no exception. In short, here’s the highlights:

  1. Gibson says that those who believe that man is causing global warming don’t want to hear opposing viewpoints. They also get emotional, which makes debate difficult. “When we become so emotional, the facts get lost. Too many times, when facts are presented on the other side, they are ignored by the so-called experts.” He also said that the proponents of CO2 caps rely too heavily on “sky is falling” arguments.
  2. Randy Parker, Utah Farm Bureau chief executive officer, then tells the committee that, in fact, the sky is essentially falling because of proposed taxes taxes on CO2 production. “It will create energy shortages and will, in fact, create food shortages.” Also, “alarmists have hijacked the debate,” which apparently angers alarmists on the other side of the debate, like Parker. He also references the “global warming credibility crisis,” and points to leaked e-mails as proof that this whole global warming issue is a sham. Taking a left turn into Messin’ With The Big Dog Land, Parker spends a few minutes smacking around BYU professors who questioned a scientist who testified in 2009 to the committee, and demands that BYU apologize for the professors. Finally, he gets to the real heart of the matter: cow farts. Don’t tax them.
  3. (Note: At this point, we’re about 30 minutes into the hearing). Gibson and Parker expand on threat to farmers if cow farts are, indeed, taxed and energy prices rise due to the CO2 taxes, since farming cannot happen without using lots of coal power or fuel. Parker drives the nail home by asking, “Do Americans really want to rely on China, Mexico, and India to meet their basic needs?” In other words, the sky is falling, and it will suck for Americans when they have to climb the gigantic wall on the Mexican border to meet said basic needs.
  4. Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, asks a question. Well, he’s supposed to. He basically rants about … well, the sky falling. And global warming (human-caused) is a conspiracy that the weather is disproving.
  5. Riesen also asks a question, sort of. He talks about how he wants to protect Earth and air for future generations, because he will die in the next 20 years (but will live forever as the voice on Trax trains … that is him, right?). I’d love to say he ranted, but he doesn’t rant. (In fact, nobody rants like Noel, which is actually a skill I highly admire. He is really a Utah Republican version of Lewis Black.)
  6. Gibson says that what he really wants is substantive debate where everyone gets a chance to air their opinions on global warming. By the way, at this point, he has had the floor (which he shared with Parker) for almost an hour.
  7. Rep. John Mathis, R-Vernal, the committee chair, asks for public comment. He also reminds the public that the committee is running out of time, so they need to keep their comments “short and concise.” You know, for the sake of debate.
  8. The public speaks, including a U. engineering professor who introduces the other side of the global warming debate into the mix with, well, blah blah blah (everyone has heard the reasons, right?) That, however, only incites another Noel rant that is, sadly, cut short by Mathis. Also, a couple of other industry folks who support the resolution testify.
  9. Noel rants, again. This time, it’s about why the global warming research is part of a deep conspiracy. The committee, running out of time, soon passes the resolution.

SMILEY.jpgBlooming Legislation

Capturing rainwater is an easy “green” renovation for homeowners. It’s also illegal in Utah, something Senate Majority Leader Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, wants to change. On Feb. 1, the Senate approved his bill with a 25-2 vote, which would allow property owners to collect up to 2,500 gallons of rainwater on their property for use on that same property. Senate Bill 32 now moves to the House, where Rep. Ben Ferry, R-Corrinne, a farmer, has said he wants to amend it to require people collecting rainwater to register with the state. However, this is an important issue for Jenkins, whose clout as majority leader will likely trump objections from so-called small-government conservatives like Ferry.

SAD.jpgSenior Moment
Sen. Chris Buttars, R-Pluto (er, West Jordan), has apparently decided that education—at least, the senior year of high school—is wasted on the youth. In Buttars mind, the 12th grade is just one big party and should be canceled so that those ne’er-do-well seniors can do something useful with their time. (Exactly what Buttars thinks 17- and 18-year-olds would do with more free time isn’t clear.) Buttars actually suggested this informally prior to the start of the 2010 Legislature, but at the time it seemed so outlandish that seasoned political observers (read: me) assumed that Buttars had said it after (accidentally, of course) living life more elevated than the Mormon Word of Wisdom allows. During a Feb. 1 budget subcommittee, however, Buttars expanded on his idea and promised a bill to accomplish it. Cutting the 12th grade would save the state $102 million, which, if passed, would mean that no other state funds education as piss-poorly as Utah.

SMILEY.jpgThe Weis Stuff
John Weis might not be the next congressman from Utah’s 2nd District, currently held by a kinda-Democrat, Rep. Jim Matheson. But he will be a challenger within the Democratic Party to Matheson, who is typically anointed as the candidate without question. Weis was selected as the “Citizen’s Candidate” by a panel of liberal political activists on Jan. 30 at the Salt Lake City Main Library after responding to a Craigslist ad. Weis, an immunology professor and researcher at the U of U, describes himself as a married father of two who is a gay marriage supporter, outdoor enthusiast and “logical” thinker. In response to the challenge, Matheson organized another conference call with people who love and adore him.

Originally published in the Feb. 4, 2010 City Weekly.

Nixing Nicotine

The e-cigarette is touted as the healthier alternative to smoking cigarettes, at least if the marketing is to believed. For at least some current e-cig users, the marketing is not a lie.

Brian Anderson told the House Health and Human Services Committee Tuesday morning that the e-cigs, which are essentially inhaled shots of nicotine, have given him the best shot at escaping cigarettes and their harmful additives.

“I found a way to get away from cigarettes,” he said. “I feel healthier because I’m not getting the tar and carcinogens.”

Anderson and few other citizen activists went to the Legislature Tuesday to testify against HB71, which would ban new tobacco and nicotine products. That includes e-cigarettes and what the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, described as flavored tobacco candies.

Ray said those candies are intended to bring in a new generation of tobacco users, by appealing to kids and teenagers who find smoking distasteful.

At one point, Ray even compared the tobacco companies to terrorist organizations — an analogy that is probably appreciated by all of those legislators who accept political donations from said tobacco organizations, aka Al-Ciga — and said that “if terrorist organizations were killing as many people as tobacco companies in a year, there would be all-out war.”

Note: At this point, it’s probably fair to point out that, in fact, the U.S. is at war with terrorists, and has been for quite a few years. His confusion may understandably have stemmed from the fact that for most of that time, it has been called the “War on Terror.”

The bill eventually passed the committee, with the ban on selling e-cigarettes firmly in place (possession will still be legal). There is a caveat, however, that if the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approves the e-cigs, they automatically become legal to buy in Utah.

During public testimony, however, another citizen lobbyist told the committee that the dangers of cigarettes are the chemicals, which e-cigs eliminated. Joyce Mitchell urged them to consider how they could help smokers and others, since e-cigs don’t have nasty side effects like secondhand smoke.

“Nicotine is being horriblized (sic) here. It does reduce aggression and anxiety and improves mood and alertness,” she said during public testimony. “They’re a pharmaceutical that you can take for yourself.”

Jerry, To His Friends

J.D. Salinger’s friends recount tales of his life, proving that he was anything but a recluse.—

To some people, such as City Weekly’s own Stephen Dark, J.D. Salinger had a seemingly huge impact on their teenage lives, especially with Catcher in the Rye. The book did not have that same impact on me, but it was possibly because although I didn’t really enjoy high school, I survived my teenage years with only a normal amount of angst and minimal heartbreak. Also, even though I went to school with students that were eerily similar to the classmates Holden despised, I never felt violent towards any of them.

Probably the main reason it didn’t completely connect with me as a disenchanted teenager was that it’s heart is in New York City, and I lived in the polar opposite, Mt. Pleasant, Utah. Holden escaped as any city kid does (still) by finding dark corners in the thriving urbanity to hide. My escapes were wide-open country highways and mountain hiking trails, the places where not only could I hide from people, there were no people. Because of that, I found my literary guides to angst in On The Road and The Razor’s Edge.

Still, when I read Catcher in high school, I knew I was in the presence of genius. That opinion has not wavered in subsequent readings. It is a perfect work of fiction, and for me is only rivaled by only a few other books as the Great American Novel. One of the aspects that makes it classic is that it reflects very specific time and place, but it also can represent any time and place.

As is well-known by now, Salinger died Wednesday after decades essentially hiding from his public fame. With his death, however, his friends are willing to step forward and talk about how he actually lived, which had very little to do with recluse. He avoided publicity, not public. He also continued to write on, apparently, an almost daily basis, and he did it because he loved the written word, not the published word. It’s an interesting thought, really:To be successful at something you enjoy for your entire life, you almost have to keep it private.

Among the many stories out there, the three best I’ve read so far about Salinger popped up yesterday afternoon on The New Yorker’s website, in their “Talk of the Town” section. Lillian Ross writes about how deeply Salinger loved children. John Seabrook recounts his first encounter with “Jerry,” as his friends called him, at a movie night at Salinger’s house. And critic Adam Gopnik talks about Salinger the writer that few people knew.

So, read those on this snowy Sunday morning, and then go find some of your old Salinger.

Hits & Misses, Jan. 28

SMILEY.jpgNetroots Activism
Three groups pushing statewide ballot initiatives have launched online petitions where registered voters can sign digitally (only Utahns for Ethical Government lacks the online petition, but is planning to have one). Since electronic signatures are permitted for all sorts of other government activity, including filing taxes, the groups say that signing a petition with an e-signature should be permitted. However, Utah Elections Office administrator Mark Thomas says that the groups may fail to meet the excessively stringent requirement for ballot initiatives with their e-signatures, because current laws are for “paper-based” initiatives. In other words, the initiative laws are outdated in the same way that current ethics laws are designed for “paperbased” transactions between lawmakers and lobbyists.

SAD.jpgTalk to the Hand
In late January, Logan Mayor Randy Watts instituted an unwritten policy requiring that all media questions for city officials be submitted in writing, and all responses be given in writing. Watts says, in a news release, that the policy is to “ensure that the information provided to the media is accurate.” Unwritten speculation is that the policy was motivated by several “negative” articles written in the Logan Herald-Journal, but when asked, via e-mail, if that were the case, Logan spokeswoman Teresa Harris told City Weekly to listen to an interview on Logan-based radio station KVNU on Jan. 25 for more details. However, as long as Watts keeps his wrong-headed policy in place, City Weekly will only accept written responses to its questions.

SMILEY.jpgBurden of Wealth
Take from the rich and give to the students. Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, has introduced a bill in the 2010 legislative session that would skim a bit more tax revenue from the wealthy. Every dollar earned up to $250,000 would be taxed at 5 percent, which is the rate of the current so-called flat tax. Anything between $250,000 and $750,000 would be taxed at 6 percent, and anything over $750,000 would be taxed at 7 percent. King has estimated the tiered-tax system would bring in another $370 million to fund public and higher education. Those dollars could greatly help Utah schools, which perennially struggle for funding. Of course, as a Democrat sponsoring a tax hike, King has little shot of passing his bill, especially because it actually makes sense.

Back Road Gonzo

Driving the country highways and rural routes in the Rocky Mountain states, especially in Montana or Wyoming, means eventually stumbling across a roadside bar. These provide food, gas, and booze, and, generally, good company on a nearby bar stool.

At one of these bars, I met Mister. Over the course of two hours, Mister told me three stories: he recounted his years building the railroad; he told me about driving from Idaho Falls to Salt Lake City for the birth of his first grandchild; and he told me about his wife’s slow, heartbreaking death.  While he talked, he sipped whiskey through a straw. After each sip—one every five minutes or so—he switched to another story. He kept them sequential, and he picked up the story where he left it, three sips previous.

These stories came organically, and without a hint of self-pity or congratulation. I prompted all of them because I told him I was from Utah, was driving to a friend’s wedding in Montana, and did not have a job because I wanted to spend my last summer before college graduation fishing, drinking, and writing.

Mister sold me on a journalism career. That summer, I really did live in a cabin, fishing, drinking, and writing (I also worked, part-time, at a convenience store, so I half-lied to Mister). I had left Logan, Utah, where I had a job as a full-time correspondent for The Salt Lake Tribune, to escape to the woods.

That was the second time I burned out on journalism and left the profession. Mister brought me back, because I realized that I wanted to tell his story, and the stories of many others like him. Hunter Thompson also brought me back, because that summer I read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

I finished college, and being a drunk writer with some journalistic talent (especially for my age), became a full staff writer at another daily newspaper. Since that time, more than a decade ago, I have burned out at least a dozen times. I’ve looked at becoming a farmer, a PR hack, a novelist, a politician, a teacher (I even went to a year of additional schooling a few years ago for a license), a nonprofit development director, a bookstore owner, a professional brewer, a chef. Some of those ideas never went beyond wistful dreams, others I aggressively pursued. Through it all, I remained a journalist, and despite my best attempts to derail it, I kept climbing the goddamn ladder.

Sadly, I’m a rare beast. Very few journalists in my age range have survived. Good for them. This is a rotten profession, and one I would almost never recommend to any sane or sober person. The hours are longer and getting longer, the pay shitty and getting worse, the professional respect tanked and sinking. People make jokes about lawyers because, even if they despise them, they envy their power and money. Nobody makes jokes about journalists, because they simply despise them or, at best, pity them.

Why stay with it, you ask?  I have no idea. There is the thrill of the chase, the triumph of a great story, the ability to make powerful people stop and talk to you (sometimes). But all of that is idealism, and idealism is a well that only runs so deep.

That’s a question asked of many, many journalists, especially anyone under 40. And all of them will have, basically, an identical response. The collective we, that batch of journalists who started in the late ’90s that Zombie Journalism calls “the lost generation,” are flailing for a purpose. As she points out, most of us were educated as old school journalists and now work as Web 2.0 multiplatform personalities. We are tech-savvy, but no matter how much we embrace Twitter, Facebook, blogging, et al it still feels … uncomfortable.

Sure, some are better at it than others. Personally, I understand social media and blogging. I don’t fear it, and at times, I really enjoy it. Kinda like techno music. I’m an acoustic musician in a digital world, a pen-and-paper scribe who cannot break the habit of editing something 5+ times before publication, who struggles to write a blog (which always feels like a column) under 950 words, who needs to source of all his facts to other people, who wants original quotes instead of hyperlinking to somebody else’s work. I started at a college newspaper that still used Xacto knives and wax to lay-out the paper, at a time when e-mail was so novel I actually wrote an entire (rough) novel draft based on this “unique” form of communication.

We have, for the most part, lost the hyper-idealism that drives 20-somethings into the profession (for their take on journalism’s current state, read this great post at Endemic—yes, he has limited journalism experience, but sounds like a grizzled veteran). Our dreams of riches as novelists have faded. We realize that Hunter Thompson would probably never get published these days, and that nobody really cares about the “Misters” of the world. Yet we still believe, deeply, that something in journalism will work again, and that we may even lead the revolution. At the same time, we fear said revolution, which (we fear) means the loss of basic news writing skill (anecdotal leads, anyone?), the degradation of ethical standards (reporter, meet our best advertiser), and entertainment value replacing civic duty (what’s a city council).

Maybe that’s what keeps the remaining few of us in this work: We are the bridge from journalism’s Golden Age to its rebirth. Or, alternatively, we are the roadblock. Hopefully, we are not its pall bearers.