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Top Reads of the Week
Published on October 28, 2011 by Sara Foss

Music: Tony Are on how his niece Was right about Tyler the Creator

Parenting/Family: J LeBlanc on joining the club

New Media: Sara Foss on the virtual village

Games: Sara Foss lists her favorite childhood games

Politics/Current Events: Sara Foss on why she doesn't like drum circles


Worst Lead Ever?
Published on October 27, 2011 by Sara Foss

My head almost exploded today while reading one of the worst newspaper leads ever written.

Here it is:

"There's an old saying that the Russian military has two great allies: General January and General February. Dozens of people camping in Academy Park as part of the Occupy Albany movement will soon encounter their own foe: Lieutenant October Snow."

The article goes on to talk about some of the challenges facing the Occupy Albany group camped out near the state Capitol as snow approaches. But I struggled to get past the first paragraph, which made me want to dig out my battered copy of "War and Peace" and reread the sections that describe the winter struggles of Napolean and the French army. Especially confusing was the phrase "Lieutenant October Snow." So, January and Feburary are generals ... but October Snow is a lieutenant? Is there a database of meteorological military metaphors where I can double-check that ranking? Why do January and February get to dbe generals, while October Snow is only a lieutenant? Is it a severity thing - an indication that January and February are worse, more painful and grueling, than October snow? Or is it simply an attempt to be clever?

Then there's the lead's nonsensical comparison. To the Russians, winter was an ally ... but to the Occupy Albany protestors (and \the French), it's a foe. I'm sorry, but why are we comparing foes to allies? Reading that paragraph makes me feel like I'm playing the opposite game. Which might be intentional. Maybe the reporter wants me to figure out who Lieutenant October Snow's ally is on my own. OK, I'll bite. If Lieutenant October Snow is a foe to Occupy Albany, does that mean he's an ally to ... Governor Andrew Cuomo? Cuomo does want the protesters out of the park. Maybe he's hoping they'll get cold and go home. Which would make Lieutenant October Snow Cuomo's ally. And everyone will nod their heads and say, "This is just like what happened to the French, when they starved to death in the brutal Russian cold." Or something.

In short: Reporters should only incorporate Russian history into their stories when they're writing about Russia. They should resist the temptation to use overwrought metaphors that make no sense, and coin cutesy terms like "Lieutenant October Snow." It's for the public good, trust me. We'll all be better off for it.


Occupy Newsrooms
Published on October 24, 2011 by Sara Foss

Newspapers aren't particularly well run.

This is a basic fact that anyone who's spent more than two weeks working at a newspaper could probably tell you. Almost every newsroom contains talent, but it's undermined at every turn by wrong-headed managerial decisions and a basic cluelessness about what people are interested in reading about.

In his media column at the New York Times, David Carr takes a look at some of the more venal characters currently screwing up newspapers, while giving themselves handsome bonuses. He sets his sights on the leadership at Gannett and Tribune, but his critique goes beyond that, occasionally getting at the heart of what's wrong with journalism.

Carr writes:

Almost two weeks ago, USA Today put its finger on why the Occupy Wall Street protests continued to gain traction.

'The bonus system has gone beyond a means of rewarding talent and is now Wall Street’s primary business,' the newspaper editorial stated, adding: 'Institutions take huge gambles because the short-term returns are a rationale for their rich payouts. But even when the consequences of their risky behavior come back to haunt them, they still pay huge bonuses.'

Well thought and well put, but for one thing: If you were looking for bonus excess despite miserable operations, the best recent example I can think of is Gannett, which owns USA Today.

The week before the editorial ran, Craig A. Dubow resigned as Gannett’s chief executive. His short six-year tenure was, by most accounts, a disaster. Gannett’s stock price declined to about $10 a share from a high of $75 the day after he took over; the number of employees at Gannett plummeted to 32,000 from about 52,000, resulting in a remarkable diminution in journalistic boots on the ground at the 82 newspapers the company owns.

Never a standout in journalism performance, the company strip-mined its newspapers in search of earnings, leaving many communities with far less original, serious reporting.

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The Virtual Village
Published on October 24, 2011 by Sara Foss

I find social networks fascinating, and Facebook particularly fascinating. I know people who manage their accounts carefully, and think long and hard about whether they want certain people to be their Facebook friends.Teachers can be especially careful, as they don't necessarily want pesky students and parents snooping around their Facebook page and digging up dirt. Other people are simply wary of dredging up painful high school memories, or cluttering up their feed with comments from people they barely know or haven't seen in years.

My attitude is quite different. I'll basically be friends with anyone, as long as they're not a serial killer, and even then I might think long and hard about unfriending them, especially if I've known them since I was a kid. This is partly because Facebook is good for networking - I've used it for work, to track down sources and set up interviews, and sometimes comments and articles posted to Facebook alert me to interesting events and possible story topics. But it's also because I view Facebook as a virtual village, where people from every phase of my life gather together and gab. Sometimes the gabbing is interesting, and sometimes it's not. But I like seeing what people are talking about, and the variety of opinions and ideas is refreshing. Of course, sometimes people say things I don't like. This is something I'm OK with, because I feel it reflects the diversity of beliefs out there in the world.

But that's just me. Some people find it difficult to tolerate comments they find distasteful, and often their reasons for unfriending people are perfectly valid. A gay friend of mine, for instance, decided to unfriend a classmate from high school because he was actively lobbying on Facebook to overturn California's gay marriage law. My friend said, "It's OK if people are conservative. But if they're actively anti-gay, I don't see why I should have to read what they say." This seemed logical, and I briefly considered unfriending my anti-gay high school classmate. But I couldn't bring myself to do it. He remains in the virtual village, writing comments I often find offensive. At some point, I might get sick of him. But for right now, I'm leaving him alone, because he's just one voice among many.

Over on Salon, Kim Brooks wonders whether her Facebook page has become a liberal echo chamber, after an anti-president Obama comment caused her to unfriend an old high school classmate. She writes:

"A few months ago, for reasons I don’t quite understand, I thought it would be a good idea to become Facebook friends with some people I knew in high school. Nostalgic, bored, procrastinating, emotionally unguarded after wrestling the kids into bed, Facebook’s algorithmic magic produced these old classmates’ names and before I knew it, I’d reached out to them with a click.

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Top Reads of the Week
Published on October 21, 2011 by Sara Foss

Parenting/Family: Cindy F. Crawford on how her daughter won't stop eating stuff, J LeBlanc on co-sleeping and Sara Foss on how sometimes you get the children you deserve.

Sports/Recreation: Cindy Pragoff on taking up running, Sara Foss on the appeal of a ninth-inning rally beer and Ann Williamson on rooting for the Detroit Tigers.

Books/Writing: Dan Schneider wonders why there aren't more poetry blogs.

Cinema: J.K. Eisen on the Barbara Stanwyck movie "Baby Face"

Work: R.B. Austen enacts some workplace revenge.


I'd Like Some Different Opinions, Please
Published on October 20, 2011 by Sara Foss

Over at Think Progress, Alyssa Rosenberg comments on the New York Times' announcement of their expanded online opinion pages, noting that only one contributor is a woman.

Rosenberg writes, "The plan announced by the paper certainly leaves room for more female contributors, whether in the 'Frequent Op-Eds that will be exclusively available to online readers' 'Op-Docs, opinionated, short-video documentaries, with wide creative ranges, about current affairs and contemporary life from both renowned and emerging filmmakers'; the 'among others' category in the new Campaign Stops blog, for which all announced contributors are men, or the 'Additional enhancements to the Global Opinion section.' But it’s absolutely true that of all the names of people who are meant to get us excited about this new section, only one, that of naturalist Diane Ackerman, is a woman’s.

... And more to the point, it’s always astonishing to me that the folks who put out these press releases, and these white dude-heavy lineups, don’t seem to understand how they look to other people, to other potential consumers. If you’re surrounded by older white men all day, I understand that might not look aberrational to you. But do people seriously not recognize that what is normal (and desirable) for them is not necessarily normal or desirable for everyone else? That doesn’t seem particularly hard to consider. And yet it’s a small cognitive effort that a lot of publishers seem to have tremendous difficulty making."

If there's one thing newspapers and magazines are good at, it's finding middle aged white men to write opinions for them. Gender is an issue for papers, but so is age (not to mention race, and sexual orientation); I'd like to see more op-ed pieces written by women, as well as the occasional piece by someone under the age of, say, 50.

The lack of diversity in newspaper opinion pages is actually more infuriating once you get a little older. When I started working at newspapers, I was 22, and I felt awfully young. But now I'm 36, and I still feel awfully young whenever I look at the opinion page, which generally reads like a series of lectures delivered by people my parents' age, or older. My enduring hope is that one day I'll wake up, look at the opinion page, and suddenly feel like I relate to some of the voices represented there. I fully expect this to happen ... in about 20 years, if newspapers still exist.

In the meantime, I'll just seek out interesting opinion writing on the web.


Top Reads of the Week
Published on October 14, 2011 by Sara Foss

Sports: Tatiana Zarnowski on the Milwaukee Brewers, and Sara Foss on the Boston Red Sox.

Music: Tony Are on Pentangle, and Eric J. Perkins on Grouplove.

Film: J.K. Eisen on extreme cinema and Sara Foss on "50/50."

Cindy F. Fisher on overcoming the preschool blues.


But Is It News? Tell Me Something I Don't Know
Published on October 9, 2011 by Sara Foss

Over at the DG, I wonder why people considered Sarah Palin and Chris Christie not running for president news. And I take some shots at political reporting, which is, for the most part, pretty terrible.

Here's an excerpt:

"Earlier this week the country’s political reporters breathlessly told me something I could have told them 12 months ago.

Sarah Palin isn’t running for president.

Then they told me something else I already knew — that Chris Christie isn’t running for president.

This was reported months ago, but then the speculation flared up again, forcing Christie to once again announce his intention to remain governor of New Jersey.

I glanced at the news articles about both Palin and Christie but didn’t really read them.

I decided a long time ago that Palin’s main goals were being famous and being on TV, and that what’s known as her unfavorability numbers — the percentage of voters who already have a negative opinion of her — were far too high for her to win and that she knew this. Every time a newspaper article wondered whether Palin was running, I shook my head. I am not especially good at math, but I’m smart enough to know that when more than half the country can’t stand you, you cannot be elected president of the United States.

Then there’s Christie.

I follow politics closely enough to know that Christie keeps saying that he’s not going to run for president, and although you can’t always trust politicians to keep their word, I’ve decided to believe him. So far, this has been a sound decision. And if he changes his mind, I’m sure he’ll make a big announcement, and I’ll hear all about it. I’m actually grateful to Christie for staying on the sidelines, not because of any deep-rooted opinion about what a Christie candidacy would be like, but because I don’t want to read 7,000 stories about his weight and whether he’s too fat to be elected president. Those stories are stupid, and now we’ll be spared.

Unfortunately, equally stupid political stories are likely to take their place.

I don’t know exactly what we’re going to wind up reading about during the presidential campaign, but I can guarantee that at least 90 percent of it will be pointless and dumb. Much of it won’t even qualify as news, at least not in any conventional sense. Instead, it will focus on things like whether eating arugula or being a lousy bowler means a candidate can’t connect with ordinary voters, or whether anonymous reports of temper tantrums behind the scenes mean a candidate is too unstable to be president. All of this blather will take place far, far away in a media fairyland, where politics is little more than an entertaining contest, similar to fantasy football or 'American Idol.'"


On Iraq
Published on September 12, 2011 by Sara Foss

One of the more problematic consequences of Sept. 11 was the invasion of Iraq on false pretenses. Iraq did not possess weapons of mass destruction, as we were told, nor was the country involved with 9/11. Recently, prominent pundits who supported the war have started trying to explain themselves, such as Bill Keller, who earlier this month stepped down as executive editor of the New York Times.

Keller writes:

"But my prudent punditry soon felt inadequate. I remember a mounting protective instinct, heightened by the birth of my second daughter almost exactly nine months after the attacks. Something dreadful was loose in the world, and the urge to stop it, to do something — to prove something — was overriding a career-long schooling in the virtues of caution and skepticism. By the time of Alice’s birth I had already turned my attention to Iraq, a place that had, in the literal sense, almost nothing to do with 9/11, but which would be its most contentious consequence. And I was no longer preaching 'the real-world vigilance of intelligence and law enforcement.'

During the months of public argument about how to deal with Saddam Hussein, I christened an imaginary association of pundits the I-Can’t-Believe-I’m-a-Hawk Club, made up of liberals for whom 9/11 had stirred a fresh willingness to employ American might. It was a large and estimable group of writers and affiliations, including, among others, Thomas Friedman of The Times; Fareed Zakaria, of Newsweek; George Packer and Jeffrey Goldberg of The New Yorker; Richard Cohen of The Washington Post; the blogger Andrew Sullivan; Paul Berman of Dissent; Christopher Hitchens of just about everywhere; and Kenneth Pollack, the former C.I.A. analyst whose book, 'The Threatening Storm,' became the liberal manual on the Iraqi threat. (Yes, it is surely relevant that this is exclusively a boys’ club.)"

Media critic Eric Alterman is less than sympathetic to Keller's explanation. In a recent column, he chastises Keller and the other "liberal" war supporters, writing:

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The Blooper Wall
Published on September 8, 2011 by Sara Foss

All Over Albany posted a photo of a DG headline that's been immortalized at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. Apparently, the Newseum walls are covered with blooper headlines.

All Over Albany theorizes that maybe someone at the Gazette was having some fun when they wrote this headline. My theory: Probably not. Anyway, you can check the photo out here.


Most Commentary is Worthless
Published on August 29, 2011 by Sara Foss

Last week the Columbia Journalism Review posted an item posing a question I've been wondering about for some time: Why do we never hear from the working class on op-ed pages?

Now, before I go any further, I'd like to note that the newspaper I work at, a mid-size daily paper, features a fairly diverse range of voices in its Sunday opinion section. But big city dailies tend to restrict themselves to op-ed pieces from "important people," and although those people might have expertise and stature, they cannot be said to represent the vast majority of Americans, because they belong to an elite.

I suppose the argument could be made that average citizens lack the education and experience needed to voice an opinion on the op-ed pages of America's daily newspapers, but I don't buy it. Most op-ed content isn't very good, and I find it hard to believe that average citizens would do a worse job of expressing themselves than the elite. Also, if the elite read what the non-elite had to say, about what it's like to work in a blue-collar job, or in a town that has seen its manufacturing sector disappear, they might learn a thing or two.

The CJR piece notes that "While political debate in the past few years has centered on issues critical to working class Americans—like health care and entitlement reform, unions, taxes—America’s most prestigious op-ed sections rarely feature contributions from actual members of the working class on these issues. (The same could be said about war fighters on America’s wars)."

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Rupert Murdoch is In Trouble
Published on August 16, 2011 by Sara Foss

The British phone hacking scandal just gets worse and worse, and although I haven't followed every single twist and turn, it seems clear that Rupert Murdoch is in a bunch of trouble, and deservedly so. The latest revelations "implicate everyone," as Salon wrote, and it's becoming increasingly evident that this scandal isn't the work of a few bad apples, but rather a symptom of a corrupt and repugnant business culture.

The one thing that amazes me is the level of shock being expressed in certain quarters over how far-reaching the scandal is. Were people under the illusion that Rupert Murdoch is a principled businessman? And if so, why? There's never been any reason to believe Rupert Murdoch is a good person, and the fact that he built a corrupt and morally bankrupt corporate enterprise should come as a surprise to exactly no one.

The government of David Cameron is also looking pretty compromised, and although I'm hardly an expert on British politics, I don't find this particularly shocking, either. Governments throughout the world ally themselves with powerful yet unprincipled people, and I don't see any reason why the Cameron government would be any different.

So far, the scandal has largely been framed as a British issue, but this month Rolling Stone reporter Tim Dickinson makes the case that all of the dirty tricks exposed in England - hacking, political payoffs, hush money settlements - are also happening here in the U.S.

Here's an excerpt:

"Indeed, an examination of Murdoch's corporate history reveals that each of the elements of the scandal in London – hacking, thuggish reporting tactics, unethical entanglements with police, hush-money settlements and efforts to corrupt officials at the highest levels of government – extend far beyond Fleet Street. Over the past decade, News Corp. has systematically employed such tactics in its U.S. operations, exhibiting what a recent lawsuit filed against the firm calls a 'culture run amok.' As a former high-ranking News Corp. executive tells Rolling Stone: 'It's the same shit, different day.'"

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