Friday, August 31, 2012

Conventional wisdom

It says here that Republicans accomplished their primary goal at this week's convention: Reintroducing Mitt Romney to Americans in a more personal, less robotic manner.

Moreover, Romney's acceptance speech was generally stirring, certainly well-delivered. In short, it was widely acclaimed as the best speech he's ever given. His personal story was touching and memorable. His economic promises - albeit hardly specific - were authoritative. But his negative tone about climate change and his cowboy stance on Iran and Russia were disturbing.

That said, Romney no doubt will get a big bounce in the polls, as most nominees do in the days immediately following a convention. By a variety of measurements, his official coronation was a success.

But that doesn't mean the convention was without its head-scratching moments.

For example:

- Clint Eastwood's appearance was a disaster. It was even more troublesome when you realize that some bright convention planner(s) actually made him the lead attraction in the 10 p.m. hour on the final night, the time when all the major network cameras are focused on the podium for the dramatic conclusion of the event. Eastwood's rambling, often incoherent remarks were bizarre, at best, disrespectful to the nominees, the delegates and the incumbent president, at worst.

- Even if Eastwood had hit a home run, his prime time slot meant that a film profile of Romney aired before 10 p.m., not as the lead in to the nominee's acceptance speech. Even Romney's political foes likely would say the film, which aired on cable, was well-done and effective. It deserved the much larger audience that the networks would have provided, and it absolutely should have been followed by the dramatic spotlight on the nominee as he strode to the microphone.

- Marco Rubio's introduction of Romney was nicely delivered. But, as with other convention speakers, like the GOP governors, including keynoter Chris Christie, it was less about the nominee and more about the speakers themselves. Who's coming out party was this, anyway?

- Paul Ryan impressed as an orator, if not as a truth-teller, as has been well-documented by many fact-checkers from both sides of the aisle.

- There were several accurate and admiring references to America being a nation of immigrants. Meanwhile, many in the party are trying to close the door on immigration.

- There were several accurate and admiring references to government project - Romney's salute to astronaut Neil Armstrong and America's moon mission among them. Yet the GOP is marketing itself as the "less government" party.

- Ann Romney's gave a moving speech with a central theme of "love." Then Chris Christie came on to ditch "love" and push "respect." No need for those two terms to be mutually exclusive. As for the back-to-back contradictions, convention organizers blamed it on the one day delay of the proceedings due to the tropical storm, forcing a condensing of the schedule. OK, but this was too important an event for a better adjustment not to be made.

- The polls say Republicans have little chance of attracting minority voters. There sure weren't many of them in the convention hall.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Another daily newspaper cuts back

Today's announcement that The Post-Standard, the well-regarded daily newspaper in Syracuse, will cut back its print publication schedule from seven days to three in January, may have been a stunner to casual observers, but it shouldn't have been.

The Post-Standard and its sister paper in Harrisburg, Pa., the Patriot-News, a Pulitzer Prize winner in a state capital city, which also is cutting back to three days, are part of the Advance Publications Co. It's the same company that previously announced a three-day-a-week shift at four of its other properties, including the legendary Times-Picayune in New Orleans and three big dailies in Alabama. And Advance's former daily in Ann Arbor, Mich., went to twice a week three years ago.

If there was an element of surprise surrounding the decision in Syracuse it was that The Post-Standard appeared to a uniquely secure large newspaper, sitting there by itself on a perch in Central New York.

But those of us in the business are aware that the days of secure newspapers, large and small, are no more. Drops in circulation and advertising revenue are commonplace and the trend lines offer little encouragement for print.

That's why forward-thinking companies long ago ("long ago" being a relative term in the rapidly changing communications world) began shifting their focus to digital publication.

It's why the Freeman's parent company, the Journal Register Co., has led the way in the digital newspaper universe. Indeed, combined with the giant Media News Group, our companies are now jointly managed by Digital First Media, the second largest newspaper company in the country.

“If we simply maintain the status quo, if we continue to do just what we have been doing — no matter how well we do it — The Post-Standard would face extinction in a matter of years,” said Steve Rogers, the Syracuse publisher and editor.“This is an irreversible trend. We either adjust, or we perish.”

My old friend Mr. Rogers is sounding amazingly like John Paton, my boss at Digital First Media, who's been preaching that message for several years.

So does that mean newspapers like ours also are on the verge of cutting back publication days? Let me be clear, there's nothing imminent planned for the Freeman. For other Digital First Media properties? I'm not aware of any timetables. Surely there must be discussions. How could there not?

Indeed, when (not if) more newspapers go the way of Syracuse, Harrisburg, New Orleans, etc., don't say it caught you by surprise.

Print still holds a lucrative place in the newspaper business (albeit much less so than in the industry's salad days). The future, however, is digital. And it's a future about which most of us are rather optimistic.

In short, the newspaper business isn't going away. It's evolving for the 21st century.

Friday, August 24, 2012

The disbelievers

It's been bothering me for a long time. It's frustrated me, too, because as someone who's made his living in communications for 42 years, I haven't been able to come up with the right words to fully describe the situation and my angst about it.
I'm talking about how the hyper-polarization of this country not only has the political extremists staked out in a constant and heightened state of disagreement, but how that condition of dispute has invaded nearly all corners of life.
In short, people are hard-pressed to believe anything, including what we've commonly considered to be facts.
I talked about it a bit with my Media Project radio colleagues (our discussion airs at 6 p.m. Sunday and 3 p.m. Monday on WAMC). And when I returned from Albany, I engaged Tony Adamis, our managing editor, on the same topic. Fortunately, Tony remembered a column he'd read some months ago and -- hooray for Google -- he forwarded it to me.
Please take the time to read it below. I only wish I had thought of it first:


Memoriam: After years of health problems, Facts has finally died.

April 19, 2012|By Rex W. Huppke, Chicago Tribune reporter

A quick review of the long and illustrious career of Facts reveals some of the world's most cherished absolutes: Gravity makes things fall down; 2 + 2 = 4; the sky is blue.
But for many, Facts' most memorable moments came in simple day-to-day realities, from a child's certainty of its mother's love to the comforting knowledge that a favorite television show would start promptly at 8 p.m.
Over the centuries, Facts became such a prevalent part of most people's lives that Irish philosopher Edmund Burke once said: "Facts are to the mind what food is to the body."
To the shock of most sentient beings, Facts died Wednesday, April 18, after a long battle for relevancy with the 24-hour news cycle, blogs and the Internet. Though few expected Facts to pull out of its years-long downward spiral, the official cause of death was from injuries suffered last week when Florida Republican Rep. Allen West steadfastly declared that as many as 81 of his fellow members of theU.S. House of Representatives are communists.
Facts held on for several days after that assault — brought on without a scrap of evidence or reason — before expiring peacefully at its home in a high school physics book. Facts was 2,372.
"It's very depressing," said Mary Poovey, a professor of English at New York University and author of "A History of the Modern Fact." "I think the thing Americans ought to miss most about facts is the lack of agreement that there are facts. This means we will never reach consensus about anything. Tax policies, presidential candidates. We'll never agree on anything."
Facts was born in ancient Greece, the brainchild of famed philosopher Aristotle. Poovey said that in its youth, Facts was viewed as "universal principles that everybody agrees on" or "shared assumptions."
But in the late 16th century, English philosopher and scientist Sir Francis Bacon took Facts under his wing and began to develop a new way of thinking.
"There was a shift of the word 'fact' to refer to empirical observations," Poovey said.
Facts became concrete observations based on evidence. It was growing up.
Through the 19th and 20th centuries, Facts reached adulthood as the world underwent a shift toward proving things true through the principles of physics and mathematical modeling. There was respect for scientists as arbiters of the truth, and Facts itself reached the peak of its power.
But those halcyon days would not last.
People unable to understand how science works began to question Facts. And at the same time there was a rise in political partisanship and a growth in the number of media outlets that would disseminate information, rarely relying on feedback from Facts.
"There was an erosion of any kind of collective sense of what's true or how you would go about verifying any truth claims," Poovey said. "Opinion has become the new truth. And many people who already have opinions see in the 'news' an affirmation of the opinion they already had, and that confirms their opinion as fact."
Though weakened, Facts managed to persevere through the last two decades, despite historic setbacks that included President Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky, the justification forPresidentGeorge W. Bush's decision to invade Iraq and the debate over President Barack Obama's American citizenship.
Facts was wounded repeatedly throughout the recent GOP primary campaign, near fatally when Michele Bachmann claimed a vaccine for a sexually transmitted disease causes mental retardation. In December, Facts was briefly hospitalized after MSNBC's erroneous report that GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney's campaign was using an expression once used by the Ku Klux Klan.
But friends and relatives of Facts said Rep. West's claim that dozens of Democratic politicians are communists was simply too much for the aging concept to overcome.
As the world mourned Wednesday, some were unwilling to believe Facts was actually gone.
Gary Alan Fine, the John Evans Professor of Sociology at Northwestern University, said: "Facts aren't dead. If anything, there are too many of them out there. There has been a population explosion."
Fine pointed to one of Facts' greatest battles, the debate over global warming.
"There are all kinds of studies out there," he said. "There is more than enough information to make any case you want to make. There may be a preponderance of evidence and there are communities that decide something is a fact, but there are enough facts that people who are opposed to that claim have their own facts to rely on."
To some, Fine's insistence on Facts' survival may seem reminiscent of the belief that rock stars like Jim Morrison are still alive.
"How do I know if Jim Morrison is dead?" Fine asked. "How do I know he's dead except that somebody told me that?"
Poovey, however, who knew Facts as well as anyone, said Facts' demise is undoubtedly factual.
"American society has lost confidence that there's a single alternative," she said. "Anybody can express an opinion on a blog or any other outlet and there's no system of verification or double-checking, you just say whatever you want to and it gets magnified. It's just kind of a bizarre world in which one person's opinion counts as much as anybody else's."
Facts is survived by two brothers, Rumor and Innuendo, and a sister, Emphatic Assertion.
Services are alleged to be private. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that mourners make a donation to their favorite super PAC.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Media whirl

- Rather than bemoan the level of discourse in the presidential campaign, the TV talking heads might send a memo to anchors and producers, asking them to ignore the mutual potshots and only cover substance.

- Sports chatterers and scribes love the word "circus," as in the Jets' Tim Tebow circus and the Red Sox Bobby Valentine circus. Long ago, in the George-Reggie-Billy era, it was the Yankees' Bronx circus. They not only love the word "circus," they concentrate a disproportionate amount of their coverage on it, all the while disparaging it as a distraction. Again, why not concentrate on the field instead of the clubhouse?

- If you missed the first season of "Boss" with Kelsey Grammer as the ruthless mayor of Chicago, catch up quick, then check out Season 2 starting Friday night on the Starz channel.

- More good news from the world of quality TV: The new season of "Boardwalk Empire" begins later this month on HBO.

- I'll tell you more about my new favorite network sitcom - "Ben and Kate" - closer to its launch next month on Fox.

- Just as I've given up on NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams (I now opt for Scott Pelley on CBS), I've just about had it with the Today program on NBC. Why that show is still under the NBC News umbrella is incomprehensible most days.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

It occurs to me ...

- Michael Phelps has won the most medals in Olympic history, but it shouldn't necessarily make him the "greatest Olympian ever." Taking nothing away from Phelps' swimming prowess and longevity, but the fact is he had many more opportunities to win medals, given the number of events in which he competes. Several other names immediately come to my mind as "greatest Olympian", Jesse Owens, Rafer Johnson and Jim Thorpe high among them.

- I like seeing young women in skimpy bikinis as much as the next guy, but I can't say I was disappointed that many of the Olympic beach volleyball players had to cover up. The chilly, damp London evenings through a monkey wrench into NBC's plans, which gave me perverse joy, given the commercialization and jingoism the network exemplifies when it "covers" the Games. That said - and despite the "old news" pre-recordings NBC has aired in prime time - the network's ratings are golden and it may actually laugh all the way to the bank with an unexpected profit.

- Political journalists have largely let Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., off the hook. Reid floated an unsubstantiated claim that Mitt Romney didn't pay taxes for 10 years. Instead of insisting that Reid prove it, most of the press knee-jerked over to Romney and put him on the unfair defensive. Understand, I, too, think Romney hasn't been forthcoming enough on releasing tax returns. His relative silence is suspicious. But if a candidate has to disprove every wild charge, this and all campaigns will further deteriorate and the public won't be well-served.

- Spent part of my Sunday in Kingston, Ontario, during a long weekend on the Canadian side of the Thousand Islands region. Kingston, Ontario, is about four times the size of Kingston, N.Y. We found our way to its waterfront. Not bad. But Ontarians ought to send someone down to the Rondout for pointers on how to make it better. That said, I wouldn't have expected to find the kind of quality Tex-Mex joint that we enjoyed north of the border.

- By the way, don't believe in the rumor that even in mid-summer you'll always find "cool Canadian air" to escape the heat. The temperature and humidity were as brutal in Canada last weekend as they were here. And air conditioners, generally not necessary, were in short supply. Stifling.

- Headline of the day from ABC News: "Unnecessary heart surgery can be dangerous." You think?