Hail to the victorious dead: A COVID-19 elegy

This is, strangely, a time of war, as consequential as WWII, and our choices will have impacts for generations to come.

Like all wars, this one is full of fallen heroes — martyrs. They are worthy of remembrance and a life of commitment to honor and live up to all they gave.

I say war but it is not like any conventional, unconventional, symmetrical or asymmetrical conflict.

There is a villain, an aggressor, an antagonist, if a virus can be such. But really, the virus is just a contagion brought into this world by our choices as a people. By our disregard for the sanctity of the natural world that gives us life. By the disregard of our political and economic system for basic human needs such as … housing. Health care.

This society of ours, that cannot house all its citizens, that depends on the impoverishment of a major segment of the global population to enrich itself, that rations health care rather than invests whole-heartedly in it, that fails to provide sufficient and healthy food, and produces through its mass media a mental environment that cultivates division, sadism and acquisitiveness, that heedlessly devours the blessings of this Earth …

This is what we are fighting. The virus is just a symptom. In confronting the symptom we are confronted with life-altering choices about our priorities for our society and our selves.

This war, this conflict, is with ourselves — our whole people, our whole society, our entire set of priorities for the lives we are given.

To win this war, we have to conquer our worst impulses, our worst instincts, our worst behaviors as homo sapiens on Planet Earth.

I have been full of sorrow and fear, these past weeks, because of this awful affliction that is sweeping the blue-green globe that we live upon, that has borne us up through the eons, through its evolutionary alchemy, to our astonishingly exalted yet so profoundly fallen state.

But today I feel some hint, if not of gladness, then of hope, and confidence, that we can overcome this enemy, who is after all only our selves.

I am full of devotion to the future that is ours to make real, thanks to the heroic efforts and sacrifices of those who’ve gone before us, who’ve made real all the beauty and hope and truth in our lives.

Because, yes, there are heroes in this strange time of war, and martyrs, and the victorious dead should be remembered as such.

I salute the great heroes of our age who have been taken from us. For me, I feel the loss of great artists and arts advocates, such as John Prine, and Hal Willner, and Ellis Marsalis.

Closer to home is the bitterness and sorrow of a dear friend from childhood who lost his father, a great man who brought love and laughter and life into this word, and who was taken, taken, who is gone now.

I think of the other heroes and martyrs. The medical workers, from orderlies to EMTs to nurses to doctors. The grocers and service workers. Who put it all on the line to heal us, keep us fed, keep the wires alive with electricity and the web of communication humming and buzzing and alive.

I think of those voters of Wisconsin whose lives will be lost due to their exposure to the viral symptoms of a petty, unjust, pathetically cruel political culture.

I think of the black families in America whose losses to the virus _right now_ are exacerbated by a system that has neglected and rejected their needs and lives for countless generations, for the entire span of this country’s history.

I will not let their sacrifices be in vain. I will remember and fight for their honor, if it is given to me to do so. I will do my best to bear their gifts into the future, or open the way, in some small manner, if I can, if it is for me to do.

The virus is just a symptom. “I have seen the enemy, and he is us.” It has never been so plain, and this moment, this lesson, must never be lost, forgotten or distorted.

Those who have been taken from us have given us too much, shown us too much — of the better world that awaits, that they brought into being merely by the fact of their blesséd lives — for us to turn back now.

Their sacrifices will not be in vain.

Our better natures will yet triumph.

Hail to the victorious dead.

Press Club panel on ‘Big Tech’ and journalism

Someone put me on a panel about Big Tech — Google and Facebook, mostly — and then someone else wrote an article about it.

The event was at City College, and was staged by the Press Club of San Francisco.

Check out the article here.

It was a fun panel. Also starring the extremely astute Ryan Singel (late of Wired and currently running the Context.ly recommendation engine), plus two Danish journalists — Peter Keldorff, a foreign correspondent at government owned subscription television station TV2, and Johanne Hesseldahl Larsen, the digital editor at Denmark’s national public-service broadcaster.

Kim Shattuck of The Muffs was awesome and died too young

I don’t know where my old Muffs cassette is these days, but that band carved out a little space in my music-loving heart, and I was so sad to learn that their frontwoman, Kim Shattuck, has died way too young — age 56, of ALS.

It’s not just their catchy little snarky/world-weary/get-over-it ditties. It’s the delivery, the embodying of those tunes, that expression of attitude through Kim’s huge, raw, roaring, gloriously fed-up and totally whole-hearted singing, shouting and screaming.

Gods, what a voice!

Though she wore her cutesy-L.A. punkette style with panache and flavor, Kim Shattuck’s voice was physically huge. Louder than just about any other rock’n’roll shouter that I can think of except, maybe, I dunno, Robert Plant? Paul McCartney belting it out in “Oh! Darling”? I mean, there’s no shortage of big voices in rock’n’roll, and I don’t intend here to diminish them. Specific to genre and gender, for example, Courtney Love, certainly, can bring it as viscerally as Shattuck did.

Yet they are different singers and different musicians. And Love’s songs have a depth of despair and anger that The Muffs never really plumbed.

But then again, The Muffs didn’t really need to plumb those depths; that wasn’t what they were about. Not knowing details of their personal lives, The Muffs did not come across as a band about life as a train wreck. Their songs were about moving on, about rising above, about living it and getting over it through sheer gumption, gusto and a game face. The mundane indignities of life’s stupid imbroglios, the scorn-worthy behavior of one’s self-absorbed, oblivious or just-plain-petty peers — you can deal with it all, and grab hold of some beautiful rock’n’roll catharsis along the way, by singing it all out as loud and as hard as you can.

And on any Muffs album, Shattuck’s voice is all the way on, all the time.

She was by any reckoning a top-notch guitarist and bandleader, and wrote great little tunes, but she took herself to another level by putting her whole being into every note she sang.

R.I.P. and thanks for such tremendous sound and feeling, Ms. Shattuck.

Noted: “Taking Stock of the State of Web Journalism”

Tom Stites, an accomplished and indeed storied news hound (and a mentor and great inspiration to me), has produced this important article about the continuing decline in civic investment and recognized value of journalism, and original reporting in particular.

Read it, share it. You already live it.

“Taking Stock of the State of Web Journalism”
http://www.niemanlab.org/2011/12/tom-stites-taking-stock-of-the-state-of-web-journalism/
By Tom Stites

It’s stocktaking time — five years since the Big March to the digital journalism future stepped off in 2006, strutting toward what was widely trumpeted as inevitable triumph. Auspicious events amplified the cheering:

  • The City University of New York launched its Graduate School of Journalism with an innovative curriculum and hired the outspoken citizen-journalism advocate Jeff Jarvis to direct a new interactive media program and teach entrepreneurship.
  • Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society widened its interest in the growing edges of news by adding to its roster of fellows Dan Gillmor, author of the seminal 2004 participatory journalism book We the Media, and the protoblogger Doc Searls.
  • In his widely followed PressThink blog, New York University journalism Prof. Jay Rosen headlined an item The People Formerly Known as the Audience; it immediately became a defining meme for journalism on the web, which empowers everyone to participate.
  • The Knight Foundation, the premier funder of journalism projects, kicked off its $5-million-a-year News Challenge grants program.

So, five years later, how’s the Big March working out for journalism — and for the democracy that’s so dependent on it?

  • As the digital march began, newspaper advertising revenue began its own march — off the cliff: five straight years of decline, verging on a 50-percent plunge. The decline is a bit less grim as it moves into its sixth year, but it shows no sign of turning around. The number of dailies has been in decline since 1973 and — no surprise — the failure trend accelerated with the ad crash. Newspapers are just starting to make some headway with metered website paywalls that show promise of generating Internet revenue that can offset more than a tiny fraction of print losses.
  • A parallel march, of laid-off reporters, editors, and producers leaving newsrooms of all kinds, has cut the nation’s salaried news personnel by almost a quarter over the same period. Despite contributions from varied web journalism efforts, the net amount of original reporting, the bedrock of journalism’s public good, is declining sharply. And so is journalism’s nourishment of civic health and democracy.
  • Two Knight-funded studies of web journalism efforts, including the comprehensive 2009 report of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities, have praised lots of interesting efforts but found no business models that are both self-sustaining and replicable from community to community. The Knight News Challenge has run its five-year course and, after strategic review, the foundation says it will shift to three 12-week rounds in 2012; the foundation says it is shifting to include more of a “social investing” venture capital strategy in its work.
  • The most prominent web journalism business model with corporate millions behind it, AOL’s Patch, is drawing wide scrutiny and little if any optimism outside AOL that it will prove sustainable.

“Even as the [Knight] Commission did its work, the situation was getting dramatically worse,” Mike Fancher, the retired editor of The Seattle Times who helped write its report, wrote recently in a follow-up white paper. “Perhaps most importantly, emerging media struggle to be sustainable businesses.”

The buzz about how bloggers and citizen journalists will save the day, once almost deafening, has died down to a murmur ….

Read the whole essay at Harvard’s Neiman Lab Dot Org.

Delivery matters.

So you produce some top-shelf coverage, but the target population — the people who need to see it — are not connecting. Why not? More to the point: How do you solve that?

Enter California Watch, a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting. Turns out they have an on-staff Public Engagement Manager, who made this cool thing happen:

California Watch’s stories about earthquake safety problems in schools reached hundreds of thousands of people through a statewide network of radio, TV and newspaper partnerships.

But the ones most affected by nonprofit news agency’s investigation were the ones least likely to read it — children.

That’s where Ashley Alvarado comes in. Her job as California Watch’s public engagement manager is figuring out how to deliver information to the audiences who need it most but are hardest to reach. This means that her techniques have to be as unique as the diverse communities that she’s targeting.

With the earthquake safety story, the solution was putting information in a kid-friendly format — coloring books. And not just in English, but also in Spanish, Vietnamese and both simplified and traditional Chinese, the most spoken languages in California.

California Watch had planned to print 2,000 copies, but the demand quickly exceeded that. By the time the outreach campaign ended in June, California Watch published 36,000 coloring books and distributed them for free. The site, Alvarado said by phone, is still getting requests for books from schools and organizations.

A fine example of nonprofit journalism making itself matter.

Source: “California Watch’s engagement efforts show staffers what hard-to-reach audiences want,” Poynter Online, June 23, 2011