Posts Tagged ‘journalism’

(Un) Happy Labor Day

September 2, 2011

A long time ago, labor unions were a powerful force in American society and newspapers had reporters covering the labor beat.

Then unions faded and newspapers replaced their “labor” reporters with “workplace” reporters. Still, there was one day a year when organized labor could count on getting a front page story and it was…. (you guessed it) this weekend, Labor Day.

Then newspapers themselves started to disintegrate and most of them don’t even have a workplace beat anymore, let alone a labor beat.

If I’m sounding mournful, it’s partly because of a story this week by the excellent dying-breed New York Times *labor* reporter Steven Greenhouse about the sorry state of affairs regarding labor and workers’ rights in our nation’s capital.

Greenhouse reported that the chair of the National Labor Relations Board had stepped down at the end of her term under severe fire from right-wing and corporate critics. Conservative newsletters had attacked the board as “Marxism on the march” and “socialist goons.” Michelle Bachmann promised to shut down the labor agency entirely if elected.

And the reason for their ire?

Among other things…

Critics were also quick to denounce an action that the board took last Thursday: for the first time, it ordered all private sector employers to post notices about their employees’ rights to unionize and bargain collectively.

Posting notices! Oh my God, can you imagine anything worse? Once they force employers to start posting notices, it’s only a matter of hours until we are all in the Siberian gulag fighting over moldy potato peelings.

Anyone who has ever worked anywhere knows how many pieces of paper employers already have to post, and how little difference it makes to anyone except possibly the shops that do the photocopying. This is yet another example of the right’s outstanding ability to turn the tiniest little tilt toward the left, even the tiniest tilt toward the rational center, into an apocalyptic crusade.

This happens on every kind of issue, from health care to air pollution. But let’s just focus on labor for now since, well, it is Labor Day weekend.

There are some dynamic unions out there with dedicated activists and creative tactics. When I covered the *workplace* beat at the Chronicle, I loved writing about Mike Casey and Local 2, the hotel and restaurant employees union in San Francisco.

But the overall picture is pretty depressing. American unions are increasingly limited to health care and government, and even there they are facing growing attacks from small-government Tea Party types. No one has figured out how to maintain strong industrial unions in an era when industry has fled overseas. Union members are a smaller percentage of our population than ever. There’s still too much infighting and narrow thinking within the labor movement itself.

Even many liberals don’t care much about labor anymore —  the trendy lefty issues of the decade are gay marriage, overseas wars, climate change, local food. Think about it: When was the last time you talked about labor organizing with someone? And when was the last time you talked about heirloom tomatoes or free-range chicken?

So why does it matter? Do we really need unions anymore? Aren’t we all “free agents” these days, each cultivating our own “brand of me”, cutting great deals for ourselves as we savvily negotiate our way through the post-industrial economy ?

In a word: No.

That works for some people — if you’re a skilled software engineer or even, say, a former-newspaper-reporter-turned-freelance-writer with Harvard and Berkeley degrees. But most of the time, such negotiations end up pretty lopsided, one little person against a corporation with a legal department larger than most Fourth of July family picnics.

This global economy is a rough sea. Some people can float with their own personal inner tube. But for most of us, it helps to be able to band together and build a boat. It’s the difference between passively reacting to the job market, and trying to shape that market — between being a victim and an actor.

Everything in our current culture militates against unions — not just how jobs have moved overseas, but the focus on individualism and the blind worship of the “free market” here at home. So when government attempts some modest moves towards helping people exercise their right to unionize, I see it as a good and timely thing.

And then the right shoots it down.

Both the potentially significant moves — like an effort by the NLRB to speed up the process of union elections — and the insignificant ones like that dreaded Communist beachhead of posting notices.

I mentioned above that I was feeling mournful. And now, a dozen paragraphs later, that old quote from Joe Hill* pops into my mind: Don’t mourn — organize.

Happy Labor Day.


* I haven’t read it, but have heard good things from my former Chron colleague Carl Hall about The Man Who Never Died, the just-released biography of Joe Hill that presents new evidence that Hill was innocent of the murder for which he was executed.

What to do when you are covering a tsunami (or other foreign disaster)

March 21, 2011

I’m on an e-mail discussion list of women journalists, where USA Today reporter Elizabeth Weise recently shared notes about what she learned covering the Japanese tsunami.

The closest I ever got as a reporter to covering an international disaster was David Duke’s gubernatorial campaign :-) , but I found this really interesting — useful tips for reporting, yes, but also a  glimpse of what it takes to produce the news coverage that we all rely upon to understand our world.

You can read Beth’s notes on her blog or here, where I’m reprinting with permission:

Things I Learned Covering the Japanese Tsunami

By Elizabeth Weise

The first call you make is to the airlines to book a ticket.

The second is to get a fixer.

(A fixer is someone who knows the local language and culture and helps you do what you need to do – whether it’s tracking down the local funeral parlors, making hotel reservations or finding out where you can get buy a pair of rubber boots. Going in to any country where you don’t speak the language and most people don’t speak English, this is key. Freelance photographers are excellent fixers because 1) they’re fearless 2) they’re adrenaline junkies 3) they’ll go anywhere.

The third is to your credit card companies so you can use your cards outside the US (otherwise they think they’ve been stolen and turn them off).

Use social networks. I sent out notices on Facebook and most of the lists I was on saying I was heading to Japan and asking for contacts.

If you can’t find a fixer, ask for one on every social network and email list I’m on. It’s amazing how things get passed along. I started looking for one before 12 hours before I left the States (basically as soon as I knew I was going) and within three days was getting emails and calls from possible folks, one of whom heard about it from the ex-pat rugby team email list in Tokyo.

Get an international driver’s licence and keep it up to date. I couldn’t drive in Japan because I didn’t have one.

Wear boots.

If it’s not summer, bring long underwear. You’ll be outside in the wind and there’s no inside to go to to warm up.

Write down every phone number anyone gives you in your notebook. Your phone’s charge will run out and you’ll be dead in the water but pen and ink abide.

Bring more business cards than you can imagine you will ever need. Hand them out to everyone. They give you legitimacy and it’s nice to be able to exchange something with someone.

Get people’s email addresses and send them photos you (or your photographer) have taken.

When you go into a large group of people, look around and see who makes eye contact. They want to talk to you. People who don’t look at you don’t want to talk. This can take awhile so don’t leave too quickly.

Sit down as low as you can get to people when you talk to them. Crouching down is good, getting down on your knees even better.

It’s okay to cry. But save sobbing uncontrollably for private moments.

Press credentials (the dog tags you hang around your neck) are vital. The more the better. I saw one guy waving US Open credentials at police officers and getting through roadblocks. One photographer created his own, with a photo and a press association that only he belonged to. They calm officials down.

Talk to other reporters. Ask them what they’ve seen, where they’ve been and what was worth visiting. Give information as freely as you get it.

Go back to places a few days later, to see what’s changed. People you spoke to the first time will be happy to see you and will tell you stories of what’s happened to them since you last spoke.

Don’t take no for an answer. In Japan after the earthquake and tsunami the freeways were closed to anyone but emergency personnel and press. (Which I learned from chatting with a Dutch film crew at the Aomori airport.) You had to go to a local police station to get the press pass. We just kept moving from town to town until we found someone who would give us one.

Photographers are fearless, shockingly courageous and will go anywhere and climb on anything. Follow them. They have become my new reporting heroes.

Corollary: Don’t be lazy. Photographers have to go to where the story is to capture it, they can’t make a phone call or check a wire. It’s a useful reminder for those of us in print.

Have your translator write the following in your notebook the local language, so that when you don’t have him or her around you can still talk to people. They can translate it when you get back together. I could pantomime interviews to an amazing extent, using broken English and Japanese, but without names I couldn’t use them. This way I could.

My name is XXXX. I am a reporter with XXXX.

What is your name?

Could you please write it down for me?

How old are you?

What work do you do?

I’m so sorry that I don’t speak XXXX.

The iPhone is the best invention in the history of mankind. I filed almost my entire body of stories in Japan from my iPhone. The data plan works where cell phones don’t.

A GPS is the greatest invention since the iPhone.

Twitter is your friend. It comes into your iPhone (see above) and tells you what’s going on in the world. In Japan, it was our main source of information on where the radiation was and what was happening in general. (Breaking News is the feed to subscribe to.)

Shoot video if you can. Even if it’s on your iPhone, you can show things you can’t tell (just as you can tell things you can’t show.)

Corollary: Unless you edit a lot of video, iMovie is your friend.  FinalCut Pro is your enemy.

When in doubt, get in your car and drive as far out as you can get, to where the emergency personnel haven’t gotten yet. Stop and talk to people you see on the road.

Expect some flat tires. We had one. One photographer we ran into had two, on the same day.

Sit with people. Silence is okay and it gives them the space to start talking.

Always offer people walking in the direction you’re going a ride. It’s the right thing to do and they might tell you a good story.

You can never have too many Clif bars in your backpack.

Carry a toothbrush and use it multiple times a day – you never want someone to avoid talking to you because you have bad breath (I actually learned this from one of my first editors at AP.)

It’s hard to have too much cash.

Some Sudafed to help you sleep is nice to have (if Sudafed makes you sleepy, that is.) It’s not so much to go to sleep but so that when your editor wakes you up at 3 am and then another 6.1 earthquake wakes you up again at 4 am you can go back to sleep.

There’s something about music that short circuits the defenses. I held it together for days, and then I listened to music on my iPod in the car one day and it just opened the floodgates of emotion. I don’t know why it has that effect but it does. Be warned.

My book of job(s)

October 19, 2010

It’s absurd to compare a midlife career crossroads with the sufferings of the Bible’s most tormented man. So I won’t. 

But when have I ever been able to resist a bad pun? 

Though far from tormented, I’m feeling a decent amount of confusion around my next job – in particular, around what I would like it to be. 

My problem isn’t the recession, or being turned down for job after job. I’m not even at that point yet. My problem is that I don’t really know what I’m looking for. 

Not newspapers, but what?

I do know that I’m done with newspapers. And I don’t have the stomach for the constant marketing and insecurity that are part of being a freelance writer. But beyond that… I’m not sure. 

  • I’m not sure, at this point in my life, whether to approach job-hunting with a Long-Term Career Goal. Do I want to work my way up to the top of xxx to do yyy?  Or should I look for something that is simply fun and interesting for a while? And then find something that is also fun and interesting but totally different?  
  • I’m not sure whether to work for a business or a non-profit. I’ve always needed to feel that I’m helping make the world a little better – tikkun olam and all that. But after decades with newspapers and non-profits, I’m attracted to the idea of working for an organization that doesn’t make you buy your own pencils. And living on the edge of Silicon Valley all these years, I wonder if there is a bright, shiny cutting-edge world there that I should experience.  
  • I’m not sure what I want to do all day. I like writing. I like working with people. My ideal job would include some of each. But what does that translate into as a job title or category? There’s the broad function of “communications” within organizations. But what does that boil down to on a daily basis? And would I like it?  
  • I don’t have my heart set on any particular industry. The career-mentor folks I’ve spoken with have said, “Sure, I can give you some leads. But first decide what industry you want to focus on.” Okay, I do have an interest in renewable energy and green technologies. But beyond that – honestly, it’s more important for me to be around smart folks and do interesting, useful stuff than to be in any particular industry. 

Yikes! Too many open questions. And this is before I even approach the nattering voices of self-doubt (“English major with no skills!”) or the practical questions of how to retool my resume, present my strengths etc.

The Bible’s Job is given advice by three friends when he can’t understand why he is being hammered with so much misery. What I’m trying to do right now is talk with former reporters and other acquaintances in different kinds of jobs to see what their work life is like – informational interviews. 

Amazingly, this is the first time since graduating from college that I’ve faced such a wide-open, anything-goes career crossroads. 

For about 25 years, I was pretty well ensconced in journalism, and opportunities presented themselves. Now I’m not ensconced in anything… and I have to make my own opportunities. 

After figuring out where I want to make them.

And you thought daily papers had challenges!

August 28, 2010

This month I attended my first meeting as a board member of the J., the Jewish weekly newspaper for the Bay Area. 

Here’s what I won’t be doing as a board member: Writing, editing, or getting involved in the content of the paper. 

Here’s what I will be doing: Helping the paper strategize for a sustainable, thriving future. Helping it raise money. Providing the perspective of a veteran journalist on the all-volunteer board. 

Anyone who’s been involved with a daily paper over the past few years  — heck, anyone who’s even read a newspaper  — knows that the industry is in crisis. Newspapers have been hit with a triple whammy – losing virtually all their classified ads to the Internet, gradually hemorrhaging readership, and then losing still more advertising due to the recession. And while it may be possible for papers to replace print readers with online ones, no one has figured out (yet) how to make enough money from an online news site to support a real news-gathering operation 

Challenging enough, eh? Well, look at what the J. is facing, on top of those universal newspaper woes: 

  • A Jewish community that historically has been more assimilated and unaffiliated  than most other major U.S. cities. (There are an estimated 175,000 Jewish households in the Bay Area! But 57 percent don’t belong to a synagogue or other Jewish organization. Many don’t have a clue that the J. exists.)
  • A Jewish community that is also geographically diffuse. Unlike other major U.S. cities, there are no “Jewish neighborhoods” here. This makes it hard to attract advertisers – an Oakland deli, for instance, is unlikely to get business from J. readers who live in Marin, San Francisco, or Palo Alto.
  • Most of the J.’s circulation has come through the San Francisco and East Bay Jewish Federations, which give a free subscription to their donors. But those donor bases have been steadily shrinking as younger Jews tend to give directly to specific non-profits rather than through a Federation. 

Big structural challenges. Going against a historical and cultural tide. Doing all this in a time of budget cuts and economic uncertainty.

Yeah! My type of organization! 

Here’s what the paper has going for it: An experienced editor who knows journalism, knows the community, and is willing to try new things. Some dynamic, very sharp board leaders who are looking at new approaches to financing the paper. (More on that in a future post.) 

And an important mission. 

It’s weird to hear myself saying that, since until this year I was among those tens of thousands of Bay Area Jews who did not read the J. regularly. But one of my personal resolutions, since my early 20s, has been to help perpetuate a thriving Jewish community here in the U.S.  And a thriving community requires some kind of communication structure connecting all the different parts. A community is more than a thousand individuals going about their own individual paths – it is connections between those individuals. It is people being aware of and influencing each other. 

And the J. is really the only thing connecting all the disparate parts of Bay Area Jewry – from synagogue preschool families to secular Jewish peace activists to devotees of Yiddish theatre to Chabad proselytizers. 

Like any newspaper or magazine, there are stories and opinions in the J. that make me mad. (Maybe more than in other newspapers, since so many of those opinions are about Israel!) There are also lots of stories that hold no interest for me. But in every issue, there’s at least one “huh!” item that intrigues me. For instance, without the J. I would not have known:

Want to check it out yourself? The J. is offering a free four-week trial subscription to readers of this blog.

(Well, to anyone, really, as long as you live in California. But doesn’t it feel nice to think you’re getting a special inside deal?) 

You can sign up for the free trial by clicking here. (Or if you’re out of state, you can visit the J. web site and sign up for a free weekly e-mail newsletter.)

Let me know what you think!

On Zeitoun, and sorrow

July 25, 2010

We’re back in hurricane season. That wasn’t the reason I just read Zeitoun by Dave Eggers, but it provides a timely peg to talk about it. 

Zeitoun is a masterpiece of what, in j-school, we called “literary journalism.” It’s factual, well-researched reporting that is written in a narrative style that is as readable as a good novel. 

Without being heavy-handed, Zeitoun is also powerful social commentary. It’s an example of how one person – one writer – can bear witness to injustice and make a difference. 

Zeitoun follows the story of a Syrian-American small business owner and his wife through Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun own a respected painting and construction business in New Orleans. When the hurricane approaches, Kathy flees the city with their children but Zeitoun (as his New Orleans friends call him – it’s easier than saying his first name) opts to stay behind to keep an eye on his home and business. 

Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers

The first half of the book tells the story of Zeitoun’s experience during the hurricane and levee breach – how he used a secondhand canoe to paddle through the flooded streets, explore the eerie landscape, and rescue people. In the quiet canoe, he could hear cries for help that the motorized army boats didn’t notice. He shuttled elderly neighbors from flooded homes to safety; he brought meat to dogs who had been abandoned by their owners; he checked his rental properties to make sure tenants were gone or safe. At first he is transfixed by the strangeness of the watery landscape; he is elated by his ability to help people and feels that his decision to stay behind (which Kathy opposed) was actually the hand of God at work. 

The second half of the book tells what happens when Zeitoun is suddenly, inexplicably arrested, strip-searched and imprisoned – for looting? as an Arab terrorist? No one tells him, no one arraigns him, no one lets him make a phone call or talk to a lawyer, although guards berate him for being “Al Qaeda.” 

For over three weeks he is held incommunicado in ad hoc and then regular maximum security jails by FEMA and the Dept. of Homeland Security.  Kathy tries frantically to track him down but can’t find a trace of him and starts to accept that he is dead. Zeitoun ultimately is released, but the two other New Orleans men who were imprisoned with him remain in jail for five and six months before their charges are dropped. 

The Zeitoun family had the misfortune of being at the confluence of the Bush administration’s two worst policy blunders – the Katrina debacle and the heavy-handed excesses of the war on terror. 

Eggers does a great job of writing this all up without preaching, simply letting the Zeitouns’ personalities and story speak for themselves. And it’s an easy read! I tore through it in about two days. 

Meanwhile, a note that is unrelated to the main thrust of the book: 


Eggers describes how Zeitoun develops a piercing pain in his side, possibly in a kidney, while in detention. He is unable to get any medical attention for it and fears he may die. Later, Eggers writes that after Zeitoun’s release “the pain in his side dissipated, and this convinced Zeitoun it had been caused not by anything visible on an X-ray, but by heartbreak, by sorrow.” 

As I read that, it struck me how rarely these days we use the word “sorrow”. 

We talk a lot about feeling sad, bummed out, down, disappointed, unhappy, miserable. We say we are depressed (I’m talking colloquially, not clinically here). 

But we don’t talk about sorrow. 

Sorrow has a very different connotation. Those other words – sad, unhappy, miserable —  convey intensity but short duration, almost a melodramatic state of being. “Bummed out” and “depressed” convey a dampening of feeling, a tamping down or muffling. 

Sorrow is different. It is deep and it endures. It’s not something you feel intensely for an evening and then set aside. You live with it; you get to know its nuances and its creases; it becomes part of you. There are good reasons for it. It’s not a whim, a mood, something that can be banished by positive thinking or a nice glass of wine or even a warm evening with friends. I think of it as similar to mourning, and am reminded of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. 

We’re not comfortable with that. We want problems to be solved, things to be made better. We want troubled marriages to heal with an appearance on Oprah, guilt to be assuaged with words of apology, past mistakes to dissolve with the decision to turn over a new leaf. 

We’re proud of our feelings in America these days. We like to FEEL things, intensely! And then a minute later, we want to FEEL something else! 

The idea that sometimes we have to live with quiet sadness and regret – for a long time – is alien to us. 

But sometimes we do have to live with sorrow. And not just because we can’t find the right activity or drug or incantation to make it go away. 

Sometimes we have lost something so meaningful – a person in the case of mourning, a belief or ideal in the case of Zeitoun – that sorrow is the only appropriate reaction.

Anything less would be unjust, a disservice to ourselves and what has been lost.

Fame and fortune — well, at least fame

April 13, 2010

Midlife Bat Mitzvah makes the headlines!

Well, that’s an overstatement if I ever heard one. But the J, the weekly Jewish newspaper of the Bay Area, ran a story about this blog and about yours truly several days ago.

You can read it here.

I always find it somewhat unnerving to be on the other side of the interviewer/interviewee line.  When I was a newspaper reporter, the subjects of my stories generally gave me high marks for accuracy. But still, being a journalist gives you a ringside view of how many things can be gotten wrong in a story — through carelessness, misunderstanding, the need to condense long comments into short spaces, or reporting that begins with a preconceived conclusion.

There are also situations where the reporting isn’t  wrong — just different from how the subject views the world. It’s like when our mental images of ourselves don’t  correspond with what we look like in a photo, so we tear up the photo.

When I was a reporter, I was always surprised by how few people were leery of being interviewed. Maybe most folks didn’t know enough to be nervous.

I was nervous. When I sat down with J reporter Stacey Palevsky, I found myself deliberately trying to find places to connect with her. I’m a journalist, you’re a journalist. You taught in Oakland Midrasha, my daughter goes to Oakland Midrasha.  It was the mirror image of what I used to do when I was the reporter writing the profile: Find little things in common with the subject. Put them at ease. Win them over so they open up to you.

It’s a somewhat strange dance step — reach out, build trust out of mistrust, so your dancing partner tells you their full story. Or listens, with a friendly ear, to your story.

In any case, Stacey Palevsky did a very good and professional job. Caught the essence of what I’m trying to do. No significant factual errors. Chose a good anecdote to open the story, and a good, related final quote to end it. Didn’t leave me hiding under the bed with embarrassment or feeling like I wanted to (figuratively) tear up any photos.

Plus… on the literal level… she got a great photo of our new kitten on my lap at the computer!

Photo credit: Stacey Palevsky/The J Weekly

Content may settle

December 29, 2009

Since leaving the San Francisco Chronicle 15 months ago, I regularly read the writer/editor job listings on Craig’s List. The result is usually more sobering than inspiring – lots of listings for 23-year-old college grads who can live on intern salaries or people with esoteric translation skills. 

Like “Intern for green social website.” Or “Community bloggers: Sonoma County.” Or “Local data editor (Swedish).”

Yesterday I saw one that took the cake, though. “Exciting opportunity for writers,” the headline read, with a location of Downtown Oakland. Now I know that anything on the Web that bills itself as an “exciting opportunity” is probably trying to sell you Viagra, penis enlargement, or a Nigerian get-rich plan. But still, why not look? After all, downtown Oakland – I could bike to work like my Mr. Stud husband. 

There was in fact no Viagra in the ad (although apparently no downtown Oakland office either). It read: 

“We are an online publishing company that needs excellent article writers. Whether you have professional writing experience or want writing experience, we need you. You will be writing on many topics and will need a good command of the English language. Work is on-going – You can choose to work full time or part time.” 

Okay, so I proceeded to their Web site. The company appears to be one of many that offers content – i.e. articles – to various Web sites and uses freelance writers to create that content. The site looked attractive and fairly professional. My antennae went up at their requirement that all writers be “native English speakers” — in 20 years of writing for California’s top newspapers, no one had ever told me that being a “native English speaker” was a prerequisite, but what the heck? Maybe things are different on the Web. 

But clicking through the site, it became apparent that the people running this venture may not be “native English speakers” themselves. For instance: 

“Since more than two years now we have established a good reputation as content supplier…. 

“With us you’ll never have to worry again from where to get the next writing job or if your next customer will pay you or not.

“Our customers mainly need articles for their web sites and for article marketing. This means they ask for general informative that are a good, easy and entertaining read but are not too promotional because that turns readers away. However, some customers ask us to write promotional.”

Then I checked their pay rates: 

Minimum of  300 words:      $2.00 per article
Minimum of  400 words:      $3.00 per article
Minimum of  500 words:      $3.50 per article
Minimum of  750 words:      $5.00 per article
Minimum of  1,000 words:    $6.50 per article

Yow! Were my aging, old-media eyes missing a decimal place or two? 

Let’s see… when I started out as a summer intern at the Sacramento Bee in 1987, I was earning $350 a week. To make that much money through this company, I would need to write 54 thousand-word articles per week. Or 175 three-hundred-word articles per week! 

And to make as much as a somewhat experienced, Media Guild-covered newspaper reporter – say, $1,000 per week?

That would be… seventy-one 300-word articles each day, working seven days a week! 

Now I could go on a rant here, but this is so absurd that I can’t even bring myself to get upset. It’s just funny. 

I’ll save the rant for another day. 

For now, I’ll only say that the word “content” – digital lingo for everything from James Joyce and the Bible to celebrity tweets and pet photos – always makes me think of Costco-sized bags of junk food. 

Cheetos. Chips. Popcorn. Deep fried pork rinds. Doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it’s big, cheap and salty. 

As they say on the box, “contents may settle.” 

We all may settle.