Friday, March 9, 2007

Saving newspapers - Part 2

By Erin Solaro

Dumbing down newspapers is a self-defeating strategy.

Until very recently, much human technological development was driven by people instinctively seeking quality, not just in their own lives, but in their work, because fine craftsmanship in any field is a statement about the human dignity and the worth of manager, worker, and customer.

Our lives are made of time; work is often what we use that time to make, and money is the fungible medium of exchange: when maker and customer each offer value given for value received, they honor the times -- the livess -- of all involved. To offer little or nothing is to rob the maker, just as to offer garbage is to rob the customer, and both are acts of contempt for that portion of their lives that went into making and selling the product, or earning the money to pay for it. For this reason, I, a great scavenger of used bookstores, have come to regard it as a moral imperative to buy books new whenever possible, because buying quality creates a market for quality.

But if you don't know what quality is, you lose your ability to appreciate it. My friend K., a fine horsewoman who I suspect (never having made use of her professional services) is an equally fine nurse, collects sewing machines.

(Her husband C. is also a nurse who built, by hand out of scavenged wood, a wonderful weekend cabin six miles off the power grid. When he tired of hauling diesel up for the generator, he decided to create his own solar bank. C. explained to me that I, too, could also create such a solar bank, and that it would be economic to do so.)

The pride of her collection is a Singer from about 1910, all black enamel and gold and red decals, gleaming like jewelry, in its original fine wood cabinet with graceful ironwork gears to transfer power from the treadle to the needle. Nothing about this machine is not beautiful, including the stitches it sews.

K. explained to me that unlike modern computerized machines, it can only sew a straight stitch, but because the internal gears are machined to finer tolerances than modern ones, its stitching s more precise, even after a century of use. She loves old manual typewriters for the same reasons: the precision of their manufacture and their ability to do only one thing extremely well.

But appreciating fine sewing and printing, like fine writing, is very difficult to do if you are drowning in a sea of garbage. For one thing, quality simply becomes hard to find and so, whether you are a producer, a consumer, or, as most of us are, both, your senses become dulled by a constant diet of coarseness. You lose the ability to appreciate fine work and understand why it can cost money, just as you lose the skills needed to make fine work, or manufacture the tools used to create such work.

This is why dumbing down newspapers is a race to the bottom that amounts to no more than industry suicide. If people do not have good writing available on a daily basis in their local newspaper, perhaps the single thing most people are likely to read and to lead them into exploring other writing on a huge variety of subjects, they will lose the ability to appreciate it.

Editors, I have come to believe, must take the lead in explaining to their readers what is at stake in newspapers written for their readership as if they are citizens with a stake in the Republic. They must say this loudly, clearly, and constantly, or they will destroy their market, and that in a time when people need more than ever ready access to good writing that speaks to them as if they are citizens.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Saving Newspapers?

By Erin Solaro

I've recently had several conversations about the fact that I am trying to go into journalism at a time when many papers are shedding readers (see the New York Times article on the subject).

Then I received a virtual suicide note from an editor: "Thank you for your interest in [my paper]. Your letter arrived at just about the worst time in recent memory to be looking for a newspaper job and, unfortunately, [we are] no exception.

"We're in the middle of a hiring freeze that shows no sign of abating any time soon..."

When I read that, I felt this busy man, who took the time to write me a kind and personal note, also deserved an answer. (I will be sending him a copy of this.)

Everyone knows newspapers are dying; it's been going on for decades, so rather than fail by what has become a common-place formula of dumbing it down, trashing it up, and shipping it out to a readership you think won't notice, I thought I'd propose an alternative.

You can't get rid of the garbage, like Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. It's too common and it brings in too much money. So, continue to make money off it, but also start offering a premium version of the paper, written by and for serious people.

By serious, I mean bringing comprehensibility to complex issues.

I am proposing a fundamentally new genre that is neither an op-ed or a feature article. I call them critical essays, harking back to the idea of the old military critic, offering more information than is normal in a newspaper, but not as much information is common in specialist publications. They would be in the realm of the magazine article, but a bit shorter than something you would find in The Atlantic or, for that matter, The National Review: about 1,500-3,000 words.

The key to the writing would be both a lack of ranting and the pseudo-objectivity of dueling quotes by opposing experts, often leading to the impression that no solution may be possible. And when readers finish these articles, they should come away saying: I understand the problem or the issue.

Again, the goal of these essays should be critical comprehension on the part of both writer and reader, not ranting or the pseudo-objectivity of balanced quotes or straight reportage, devoid of "ideology." Indeed, if the writer is rational and thoughtful, an ideologically informed opinion can be a good thing!

Given that my own ideology is to revive the idea of citizenship to include women, my bias is that these articles should be written by the writer for the reader as a conversation between citizens. You could organize these articles thematically, with several targeting different aspects of an issue, and indeed not always agreeing with each other, with an overarching editorial bridge.

In short, these articles would fill a gap: between newspaper and magazine, between academic and trade journals, and the general reader.

Now for financing, because newspapers are running a business: people have to be paid, after all, and this included the writers of these essays, if they are not staff. Quite frankly, even if publication means exposure, it costs the writers to write them: the newspaper staff is getting paid and so should your freelance essayists; this is simply a normal business expense. These articles should be available to the readership at a premium charge, and targeted to your more thoughtful (and thus usually more educated and affluent) readership. Then sell advertising space, including for literate infomercials. You could probably get premium advertising dollars for placement in premium venues.

You can always fill a page with garbage, but that's a race to the bottom no one wins. Not the newspapers, composed as they are of people who often genuinely care about the written word, not the communities they serve and the citizens who live in them, least of all the Republic that depends upon an informed citizenry.

(A slightly different version of this was posted on The Woman Citizen in December.)

Welcome guest blogger Erin Solaro!

By Diane Silver

I am pleased to welcome Erin Solaro, author of Women in the Line of Fire, to Becoming The Change. She will be guest blogging over here for a bit. First up are her thoughts about the news media and the death of newspapers.

The news media are an important topic for this blog. We can't promote progressive change in society without having a free, open and functioning media. If newspapers -- or more importantly, newspaper style journalism -- is dying, then this country is in big trouble.

As a former newspaper reporter, I know all too well the problems in the industry. However, we dare not allow the newspaper style of journalism to choke to death on the demands of Wall Street.

Independent investigation and a willingness to go into issues in depth keep a democracy healthy. Although newspapers have been known to fail at those tasks from time to time (well, often many times), at least newspaper editors still believe those are priorities. Whether that style of journalism survives in hard-copy print, on the web or in some other form, it has to continue or else our society will become a democracy in name only.

Thanks so much to Erin for offering her thoughts on this vital issue and on other issues to come. Erin also blogs at The Woman Citizen.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Conventional wisdom in foreign policy is crippling the United States

By Diane Silver

One thing I've noticed as I've looked at the news media from a changemaker's point of view is that the biggest truths are often buried within a piece.

Today New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, I think, got it right in his entire piece about the need for politicians to learn to admit mistakes. However, what struck me the most about his column was a paragraph in the middle. It highlights the differences between conventional wisdom (call that the "water" I was discussing here) and the change we need to see in our foreign policy.

Krugman writes:
If we want to avoid future quagmires, we need a president who is willing to fight the inside-the-Beltway conventional wisdom on foreign policy, which still — in spite of all that has happened — equates hawkishness with seriousness about national security, and treats those who got Iraq right as somehow unsound.
The emphasis is mine because I think that's an important point. I contend that knee-jerk hawkishness does not, in fact, denote seriousness about national security. Instead, it denotes an inability to see the world as it actually is and an inability to respond with actions that will solve real problems.

Unfortunately, Krugman's full column is hidden behind the Times paywall, but if you get a chance to look at it, do read it. I have to admit that access to Krugman's work is one reason why I shelled out the $50 for TimeSelect.

The sun rises on a new life

By Diane Silver

That's the sun peeping over the horizon of Lake Ontario as a new day dawns on the Great Lakes.

And yes, although I grew up on the lakes, I now live on the Prairie. However, I wanted to mark today with what for me is a beautiful image of a new dawn. That is because this Monday is a new dawn for me personally and for this blog.

Today marks my return to full-time writing and activism, and I couldn't be happier. What this means for me personally is that I get to tackle projects I've been putting off for years. I also get to work harder and longer than ever before, but oh, the satisfaction of being able to do what matters to me. And yes, I suppose I am that selfish.

What this means for Becoming the Change and the other Hope & Politics blogs is that I'll have the flexibility to update more frequently and to pursue independent reporting. In some ways, Becoming the Change is one of the most important projects I've ever started. I look forward to putting more time into contemplating, reporting and seeking a true understanding of how we can bring about the change we want to see.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

A new day dawns at "Becoming The Change" on February 19.

By Diane Silver

Well, I have to admit that I neglected this tiny, but important blog. We started with a flurry, posted nicely for a week and then walked away. Many apologies to anyone who started reading us and then wondered if we'd all gotten hit by a bus.

I've got some good news. "Becoming The Change" will see its own change on Feb. 19 when we will get back to regular posting. This little blog is dear to me, so I promise that it won't be neglected anymore.

Stay tuned. Be patient. This is gonna be a whole lot of fun.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Take care of yourself, take care of others, take care of our planet

By Nancy Jane Moore

This morning I had a massage. I lay on a warm table in a darkened room while a strong but gentle woman kneaded all the aches and tensions from my body.

A massage can be very good for you, but in many ways it is also the ultimate indulgence. You lie there, passively, while another person focuses all of her attention on you. Her purpose is solely to relieve your pain, your stress.

This massage was all the more special because a friend of mine paid for it as a Christmas gift. He is one of my fellow students at the Aikido dojo where I train, and he gave this same gift to several of us who teach there -- a perfect present for people whose bodies are wont to use pain to point out the errors we have made in our training.

As I was lying there, I thought about the first comment posted to Pamela's post, "This I Believe: We must do more than talk; we must act." An anonymous person said:
I don't need to act or talk about politics at all. I do not have television or newspapers in my life. I used to and they made me angry and unhappy all the time.

Perhaps this sounds ironic -- I was indulging myself in a great pleasure and yet contemplating whether one should act, or at least think, politically. But I am not engaging in irony.

In truth, both taking care of oneself -- including indulging in the occasional luxury -- and acting in the larger world are important. All too often people who are committed to "saving the world" drive themselves into the ground, never taking care of themselves, never allowing themselves the joys of life. (The same is often true of people with demanding careers that don't necessarily further the needs of the world.)

Others live in a world of total indulgence. I wonder if a massage would feel so special if you could afford one every week.

Anonymous, I'm sure, does not live in total indulgence. But I would suggest that by opting out of the political affairs of her community, her nation, her world, she tends toward the indulgent side. Just because you don't know what is being done to your neighbors, or to people you never heard of, or to your planet, doesn't mean that it isn't happening. And not paying attention does not absolve you of responsibility, especially when evil or careless things are done in your name.

There is no way any one individual can do everything that needs doing in the world. And political action is not the only thing that needs doing. But everyone needs to do something to help make the world a better place.

It's a balance -- we need to take care of ourselves and we need to take care of our world. Going too far in either direction puts things out of whack.

I would challenge those who think they must save the world to make sure and leave a little time for themselves. And I would ask those who have concluded that they will only be happy if they ignore what's going on out there to open their doors just a crack and see if there's not something they can do -- write a letter or tutor a child or vote in the school board election -- to help address the problems we all face.

Find the balance. Take care of yourself and take care of our world.

If everyone did that, I bet we'd have fewer problems crying out for solutions.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

This I Believe: We must do more than talk; we must act

By Pamela K. Taylor

[An In This Moment blogger, Taylor shares her insight and a link to an essay]

Last year I wrote an essay for the NPR Program, This I Believe, about the challenges of acting on deeply held, but very controversial beliefs. In my case, it was giving the sermon and leading the prayers for a mixed-gender congregation in a mosque.

The essay describes some of my decision-making process, and my conviction that we must go beyond belief in our principles, beyond writing about our belief in them, and step into activism to implement those principles.I just found out the essay was published on the This I Believe website, and can be read here.

The most salient points:

After much thought, it became clear to me that I had I no choice. I had to accept this invitation [to officiate the prayers], even if it cost me venues in which to publish, even if it meant subjecting myself to public disdain by more conservative Muslims, even if I had to endure the pangs of performance anxiety. Especially because I had to endure the pangs performance anxiety. What was the point to all my passionate writing in defense of women's rights if I refused to exercise those rights when they were offered to me? Why bother asserting women's competence in all endeavors if I shrank from demonstrating that competence in the very field where I possessed more expertise than most people? How could I expect others to step forward to enact the principles I promote, if I, the advocate, would not?

Is Barack Obama a real changemaker, or is he just a slicker-than-usual politician?

Illinois Sen. Barack Obama has taken the first step toward running for president, and I am left wondering if he is for real.

Is he truly a changemaker? Can he help us break out of politics as usual? On the surface, he certainly sounds like he a true seeker after change. He knows the right things to say. For example, in yesterday's announcement that he is forming a committee to explore running for president, Obama said:
"I've been struck by how hungry we all are for a different kind of politics."
That is most decidedly an understatement.

I am starving for politics that go beyond conservative or liberal, left or right. I am starving for politicians that care more about good government than power. I am desperate for leaders who have dealt with enough of their own hang-ups to act authentically and courageously.

Is Obama such a person? I think the jury is still out, but there are some positive signs. For example, PlanetOut news reports:
In 1996, he was elected to the Illinois state Senate, where he earned a reputation as a consensus-building Democrat who was strongly liberal on social and economic issues. He supported gay rights, abortion rights, gun control, universal health care and tax breaks for the poor, but set himself apart from others by working with opponents to resolve policy disagreements and refusing to become a rubber stamp for his allies.
Those are all good signs, at least to me. However, only time will tell if Obama really is who he claims to be, and if he has the wisdom and maturity to be the leader we need.

By the way, you can watch Obama's video statement at his campaign web site.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

What is a changemaker's perspective?

In my first post, I talked about how one of the regular chores of this blog will be to look at the news from a changemaker's perspective.

The next thought that popped into my head, of course, was: So, what the heck IS a changemaker's perspective?

There are several answers to that question.

1. Honestly, I have no frigging idea. You do realize, don't you, that I'm making this up as I go along.

2. Different folks will probably have different, and equally valid, ideas about such a perspective. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the subject.

3. Given that I've assigned this task to myself, though, I really do have to make a first attempt to define the phrase. Thus, my first, best guess is that a changemaker would view the top stories of the day with a skeptical eye and would ask herself the following.
  • Is the lead -- the angle or theme -- of the story what's really happening, or is the true story being missed?
  • What questions should have been asked, but weren't?
  • What is the frame of the story, and is that the only way to think about whatever events are being reported?
  • Is this the most important news of the day, or is the real top story being missed?
  • Based on the information in this story, should I take action? If so, what should or can I do?
Am I on target? Do I have rocks in my head? What do you think?

The problem with water, & why I started this blog

We are all fish.

Some of us are little fish, darting past the lumbering giants known as corporations, the government, the military. Sometimes we attach ourselves to one of those giants in the hope of nibbling enough off of them to survive. Sometimes we fend for ourselves, flitting here and there to glean what we can.

But some of us are the giants. We are the political leaders, the CEOs, the vice presidents, the generals, the executive editors and big-time journalists, the middle managers climbing the corporate ladder.

A tiny few of us are even the hated CEOs who lead our companies to failure, but take hundreds of millions of dollars with us when we leave. We are the people with the power – the presidents, both Republican and Democrat; the speakers of many houses of many state legislatures, not to mention the fact that some of us are the leaders of Congress.

All of us, though, no matter how powerful, are struggling. We may succeed, but never quite the way we want. Often, we don’t even get close to doing what we set out to do when we were idealistic youngsters. Even worse, we may well decide that idealism is suited only for children.

As practical adults, we give up the idea that we can live in a society where all can get a fair deal and all can live an authentic life. It’s simply the way it is, we think, that some are poor, some are desperate, some are second-class citizens and many (most?) of us are struggling to put meaning into lives that seem to be without purpose or connection.

We accept limits. We make our paychecks.

We live in such a way that we know we’re poisoning the world, yet we can’t figure out how to stop. We know about the genocides (Darfur today; where else tomorrow?). We know about war and death and dismemberment (Iraq today; where else the day after?). We know about terrorism ( New York and DC on 9/11, Madrid and London after that; where else next?) We know about torture. (Guantanamo Bay today; where else next month?) What can we do, though? We yearn to break free, but our lives are constrained by the water we swim in.

We believe the problem isn’t the water itself, but our closeness to it. As metaphorical fish, all we truly know is water. Day in, day out, we swim round and round in our culture, and even though we feel constrained and yearn for something different, we can’t fully imagine what that other thing could be. Because we are immersed in our culture, we can’t get enough perspective to see how to create the change we all need.

That’s why I created this blog. Call it the audacity of a lowly fish who wants to see what the ocean really looks like.

This blog is an attempt to leap straight out of the water of our culture and to look around. By doing so, I hope Becoming The Change will provide the perspective us dreamers so desperately need, along with giving us a safe haven where we can discuss ideas, tactics, frustrations and successes.

Becoming the Change will:

• Review the news from a changemaker’s perspective;
• Provide resources on political issues and links to organizations and individuals engaged in creating change;
• Provide a forum for discussion.

Among the topics this blog will tackle are:

Changing Politics (How can our civic life be transformed so that it is fair and representative of all the people?)
Changing the News Media (How can journalism morph itself so that citizens get a more complete and accurate view of our culture?)
Changing Ourselves (How can we learn to step beyond our own fears and issues? How can we participate in civic culture in a constructive and effective way?)

Read. Comment. Email me your thoughts.

Right now, I will be the primary blogger at Becoming The Change. Writer and attorney Nancy Jane Moore, a woman of perspective and great humor, will post periodically.

I'm also looking for other bloggers to help with this project. If you want to get involved, please email me directly at

As many of you may know, I’ve been blogging for more than a year now at a little place called In This Moment. I intend to continue to keep In This Moment going. Now, though, that blog will include links to posts on Becoming The Change, as well as In This Moment originals.