For the first time again: Revisiting a late-90s pop gem

I spent some minutes opining on the legacy of Third Eye Blind’s late-90s stuff earlier this month. (They played Nautica May 29, and it was fantastic, but that’s not really the point.)

And so here’s another quick thought that I want to move on in greater detail. Or, if not a coherent thought, a heartfelt tangent for whom it may concern.

Probably the bulk of people who I’m connected with on [Facebook] were like 10 when the band’s self-titled debut came out. AND IT WAS AWESOME. Semi-Charmed, Jumper, How’s It Gonna Be, even London was accessible as one of the edgier tunes on the album. Graduate, duh. Losing a Whole Year, etc. But the themes on this album (most albums? most music?) tend to elude even the worldliest 10-year-olds, far as I was from that qualifier.

If you turned up the volume on Jammin’ 92.3 in your parents’ Chevy when Semi-Charmed Life came on but then sort of let the album drift from your consciousness and further back into your stash of CDs, then you might have missed out on some of the stuff Stephan Jenkins was doing with his lyrics. You had to grow up first. Or at least *age* a little. (Then again, maybe I’m projecting or something.)

College was a great time for these songs — a bunch of 10-year-olds from the late 90s aging into an amorphous bar scene and still having at least *the hits* to belt out at closing time (including, separately, Semisonic’s iconic Closing Time). Then, amid the haze of, say, a Court Street apartment living room, the deeper cuts would make a great soundtrack. Even as the band dropped a new album sometime around junior or senior year, the contrast between those (fine enough) songs and the early stuff just further illuminated the latter.

I dosed myself pretty heavily on the album over the years, now and then finding that a song here and there had burrowed into a strange place in my psyche. Time will learn you a few things, if you let it.

I remember very specifically that I got the album for my 10th birthday (thanks Mom & Dad!), unwrapping the telltale shape on hardwood floors in a home we had just moved into. Fall of 1998. Got my turn at being a “new kid” that year in school. But I wanted to hear Semi-Charmed Life and Jumper. It was upbeat and poppy enough to cling to; I couldn’t have told you what I thought the music meant at the time.

Each song on that first album is smothered thick with metaphor, which is one of the great things here. Jenkins was never talking about *the city of* London. The alcoholic weight in God of Wine is a placeholder (same for the meth bender in Semi-Charmed Life). Vampires, narcoleptic trips, graduation (well, that’s an easy one), the sink full of dishes, etc. etc. Distinctly tough shit for a kid to grasp in fifth grade. But yeah, it was upbeat and poppy on the surface.

It actually feels odd to enumerate that sort of shit — the signals I’ve weirdly homed in on — because how does a reader or a listener relay what they pick up in poetry? I guess, as I’m writing this, I’m falling back on the old ecstatic problem with art: The musician ‘encodes’ his/her message, I ‘decode’ it over the years, then ‘encode’ again in this highly unnecessary little thing here, then you’ve gotta ‘decode’ my riff again and either fire up Spotify and revisit this nigh 20-year-old spark of an album or ignore it altogether. Either way.

I think the main thing is that this is very much an Important Album. It’s a druggy, moody, depressing bitch of a thing to work through. It genuinely rocks at times, yeah, but it’s an extremely heady collection of songs (and I’m not even touching the instrumentation here, the time signatures, the effects, the guitar tones, the percussion, the jangly late-night lounge math tucked into each measure). I think I know where American culture is filing it away, but I’m confident that it’s another misstep in how most people treat music.

The show was great last week, by the way. Concerts are terrific because they’re so transitory. “This is only happening right now!” The great thing about albums, though, is that you can listen to them for the first time over and over and over…

(Excerpted from an ongoing series/book pitch)

Quick memoirish thoughts on Stuart Hall’s encoding/decoding theory and Ferguson, Mo.

Here’s something I wrote earlier this week for a broader project that I’m dropping for the time being. I do believe this little excerpt will make it into a broader essay, but for now I’ll post it here:

I had watched for more than a week the frenzy of news reports flashing across the TV, across newspapers’ front pages. Each dispatch brought with it simultaneous heat and distance. The former was obvious: Something heavy was going down in Ferguson. The latter, however, reminded me how messy the truth can become when forced through the journalistic process — how a story can morph semiotically through what Stuart Hall termed “encoding and decoding.”

Suddenly I was back again in JOUR 101, the very first class I attended at Ohio University in 2006. I was sitting toward the back, as was my tendency back then, in a massive classroom in Morton Hall. Bill Reader was the professor, and he sort of egged on the students and got them riled up a) with a passion for visceral community reporting and b) nearly constant tongue-in-cheek references to how boring some of this journalism theory shit could be. I didn’t see it that way (re: b). In fact, after finishing the assigned reading on Stuart Hall’s theories, I actually went up to Bill Reader and told him how I thought it was some pretty interesting stuff. Deadpan, he responded: “You’re lying.” And then he kind of went off to other freshman students who were similarly crowding around him, all vying for a dose of attention and attempting to cross off meaningless pre-college checklist items, like “Do make time to introduce yourself to your professors!”

I was disheartened in a very small way, but I also realized two things: What people think of how I interact with the world means nothing to me, and this encoding/decoding theory actually was important. I would go on in the ensuing years to find plenty of holes in life where Hall’s theory could be inserted.

Here’s the gist, distilled through journalism: An event unfolds, and a reporter takes down information (visual stuff, interviews, research, etc.). In assembling a piece of journalism, that writer (and editor and photographer and graphic designer, etc.) encode the news with their own realities. The reader then decodes the news in his or her own way.

You could think of that pattern in terms of interpersonal communications, as well, of course.

And so but what I was realizing as the Ferguson story unfolded was how all of these intersecting elements (race, law enforcement, geography, personal histories, business, politics, etc.) were forcing a dramatic encoding narrative on the back-end of this incredible surge of journalism coming out of Missouri.

2014 storylines I plan to follow

I’ll publicize briefly the sort of thing I usually jot down in a moleskine or on Evernote, particularly in times of looking ahead. Like the new year.

There are a handful of storylines I plan on following and reporting on – whether on the blog here or for various publications. Most immediately, I cover these sorts of issues through commentary and aggregation on Twitter.

The legalization of marijuana, medicinal or otherwise

This issue is rearing its medicinal head in Ohio, where my reporting will be based. There are plans to get a measure on the November ballot, which will prove to be a heavy-handed one (governor’s race and the possibility of a gay marriage initiative). Nationwide and statewide, the support seems to be there. And the Ohio Rights Group has posed an interesting hybrid of several other states’ medicinal models.

Income inequality in the US

Pundits are terming this one the “hot-button issue” to kick off the new year. That in itself makes me want to watch how the national press handles coverage in particular. Ohio lamely increased the minimum wage by $.10 (!), which means I’ll be looking to more significant bellwethers across the country.

The national climate change discussion

Whoo-ee, I can’t count the number of times I’ve gnashed my teeth as some anono-troll points to this week’s Polar Vortex horseshit as proof that “global warming don’t exist.” It’ll be interesting to see how the national discussion evolves this year, if at all.

I’ve been wanting to dive deeper on my environmental reporting, and this may be one (really broad) entry point for that. There are plenty of local attempts at solutions, etc., under way, but how local can an effectively solution really be? I feel like there needs to be some sort of concerted global effort. That dichotomy will be especially interesting in writing about all of this.

This is what we’ve come here for: The Louisiana Newspaper War

Via Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon:

Former New Orleans Times-Picayune managing editors Dan Shea and Peter Kovacs will serve as General Manager and Editor, respectively, of the Baton Rouge Advocate, which announced it had been purchased by New Orleans businessman John Georges Tuesday night. Current Advocate Executive Editor Carl Redman will remain as senior editor, The Advocate’s announcement says.

The news would seem to signal a newspaper war in Louisiana.

So, yes, I’m borrowing the phrase for my header here. But he’s right: There’s war fomenting in Louisiana, and the Baton Rouge Advocate is setting up some some pretty hefty bulwarks. The Times-Picayune, meanwhile, is doing weird things.

Shea sent a message to Beaujon, detailing the undercurrents of this move in Baton Rouge. He makes damn fine points: “This was too good a prospect to pass up: we’re preserving local ownership of great newspaper, showing how the trend to digital is not incompatible with seven-day print, and bringing our enthusiasm and experience to a great staff.”

It’ll be interesting to watch things play out down there. It will also be prudent to steer our gazes northward, where similarly antagonistic market forces may bring newspapers wars into the 21st century. Competition is good and healthy, and that notion’s been in flux since the advent of digital media.

Of course, competition ABOUNDS online in markets like New Orleans and Cleveland. There’s never been a more competitive time to practice journalism. But to have two behemoths engage each other? It’s a throwback to more prosperous, profitable years. It’s also a chance to apply a referendum on the “Print is dead” theory.

More to come…

Times-Picayune leadership announces a fresh twist

In the latest round of How Much Can Advance Bungle THAT Newspaper?, Times-Picayune management has announced a new, three-day publication called TPStreet.

The whole thing is equal parts bizarre and par-for-the-course for the paper’s parent company, Advance Publications. Journalist John McQuaid pointed out that you’re gonna need a spreadsheet to figure out the delivery/publishing schedule. Maybe the T-P will print that and deliver it to subscribers every third Wednesday during Leap Years?

Before once again disclosing my own interest in this development, it’s worth pointing out that quote offered up by Vice President of Advertising Kelly Rose: “We are excited about this opportunity to extend our daily reach in print.”

But… But. But… The company HAD a seven-day print product! And it was profitable! Aside from the irony of the corporate maneuvering, Rose’s declaration also lends credence to the idea that advertisers aren’t entirely buying into the types of digital packages that companies like Advance and, you know, THE REST OF THE INDUSTRY are shilling. Print still matters in many ways, especially when it comes time to take a wayward glance across those balance sheets.

Anywho… This news rings with fascination for me over here in Cleveland, because it simultaneously dispels and upholds the cookie-cutter notion that we’ve all feared when analyzing Advance’s moves. The notion is dispelled as the company’s holdings in markets like New Orleans and Cleveland begin to employ somewhat different tactics en route to the digital revolution. (See The Plain Dealer’s three-day-a-week home delivery announcement.) The notion is upheld because all roads still clearly point to the same black hole of reader disgruntlement, market monopoly and page-view tabulation.

To borrow a turn of phrase from one T-P commenter: “Oh, come on…”

Washington Post kills Greg Mitchell’s piece on Iraq War media coverage failures

Greg Mitchell submitted an assigned piece to the Washington Post on the failures of major news media outlets’ coverage of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. WaPo summarily rejected the piece and ran a milquetoast Paul Farhi story that kinda let the American media off the hook for its tacit and overt support of the military op.

And the Post is defending its rejection:

Outlook editor Carlos Lozada told The Huffington Post that the Post didn’t run Mitchell’s piece because it didn’t draw the “broader analytical points or insights” the paper was looking for on the topic of Iraq War mea culpas. (Mitchell has posted his article here.)

The 10th anniversary of the invasion is the cause for all of this journalistic reflection, but a lot of disinterest, ignorance and sighing accompanied the occasion, as well. Mitchell’s piece deserves publication (see The Nation, thankfully). Illustratively, he does point out WaPo’s own failure to offer an apology, even well into the Iraq efforts. He points out that Howard Kurtz authored a lengthy critique of the paper’s work.

Regardless of the rationale behind the rejection, the action is notable. A decade has passed since some of the mass media’s most dire government complicity took place, sending the country down a path from which it could never return. The straightforward accounting in Mitchell’s piece paints the picture. And the picture is worth revisiting.

Unrelatedly (but equal in importance here), check out FAIR’s blow-by-blow roundup of press accounts as the invasion took place.


NSFWCorp’s impending print launch is a really good move

That’s my quick takeaway, at least, following the Las Vegas CityLife interview with NSFWCorp Editor-in-Chief Paul Carr.

This quote in particular called out to me (re: what some might see as this backward-oriented sense of innovation”):

“They all want to keep their jobs, and the way to do that is by slashing print, because that looks forward-thinking. They’re making ‘tough choices.’ Great, you can make tough choices, but — it’s the Tim Armstrong at AOL thing. He’s great at making tough choices. They’re all stupid, but they’re tough.

No one gets fired for making tough choices. No one gets fired for gambling on the Internet; these are not fireable offenses. Doubling down on print, someone’s getting fired, and then replaced by someone who makes tough choices.

So we’re making tough choices, to do print.

I feel sorry for big media companies, because there’s such an expectation of stability.”

Bold. Yes, very bold. But it’s a smart move in terms of both editorial freedom and, of course, revenue. In fact, NSFWCorp seems to be doing what the nation’s best alt-weeklies have been doing for decades: smart, niche journalism packaged with a smart, humorous angle. And Carr is spot-on when he says that this simple idea actually serves to broaden news writing – not shrink its scope.

So I’ll be watching what sort of content these cats publish in the coming weeks/months. I think it’s an exciting prospect.

And either way, the interview above is full of really killer insights into the current state of our industry.

The Advance Monster roosts in Cleveland

Save The Plain Dealer, a local campaign that’s been trying to highlight the inevitable “big changes” coming to our local daily, share this really great CJR story about how The Times-Picayune’s “big changes” really threw a wrench in New Orleans’ cherished journalism traditions.

It’s a story that’s been *out there* for years. In Cleveland, the whispers grew to a dull roar sometime last summer, shortly after the Times-Pic newsroom began collapsing in on itself.

I worked for Sun Newspapers, the weekly chain of community papers also owned  by Advance, from 2010 to late 2012. The company is intrinsically connected to the PD and to, the digital arm of the local op. Much of what Ryan Chittum discusses in his piece IS going to happen in Cleveland. But more still is already happening here. I titled this piece “The Advance Monster roosts in Cleveland” because its presence is always lurking just beneath the surface, just behind the walls in your home.

It’s a click-based strategy – the kind of thing the Old Guard considers Internet savvy. It’s a strategy that eats time and other abstract resources as if they were fat-laden prey in the woods. It’s a strategy that pushes mediocrity and fast-tracked news blurbs to the top, which inevitably reveals a cost-cutting method that will kick committed journalists to the curb. Many have left The Plain Dealer and Sun Newspapers already, as sort of preemptive nosedive from the tower. John Soeder’s one of the few ex-PDers whose gone on record as describing his exodus. I’m here doing the same. And there are others – former coworkers, former columnists, former illustrators, etc. etc.

I referenced Dean Starkman’s work earlier on this blog and pointed to his hamster wheel analogy. The free model of online journalism that Advance espouses with so much secretive absurdity is one that inevitably incentivizes a quantity-over-quality ideology. Other media scholars jumped on his article and completely missed his argument. The key word is “incentivize.” On the ground and in action, this process accomplishes that unfortunate end via quotas, a hunger for numbers and a strong emphasis on news polls and events promotion. Hardly “journalism” on any level.

Which is all to say that my use of the word “unfortunate” is apt. The Advance Monster encourages laziness – as long as the numbers and reports and data GROW month over month. A picture of a cute puppy by the lake is treated equally in the system alongside an in-depth analysis of the mayor’s budget proposal. And the picture of a cute puppy will likely lend itself to a fair bit of local “virality,” to turn a phrase, and, ultimately, satisfy the Advance Monster to a greater degree.

Fuck “going viral.”

That’s a minor mantra in my world. Because mediocrity has a tendency to rise to the top, it seems worthwhile to avoid “the top.”

So the Save the Plain Dealer campaign is sharing the news of the impending “big changes” and its members are right to do so. But don’t kid yourself. The Monster is already here.

Seismic cultural shifts ahead

Lots of great takeaways from last night’s main event, but this one is particularly powerful *and* succinct. Ben Smith and Zeke Miller (the latter covered the race this year with, ahem, APLOMB) point out that there is indeed a seismic cultural shift under way in America.

These times bear no resemblance to what was seizing for prominence in corners of the 1960s. But the forces of reason and rational thought are strong and we’re not letting pockets of hate and selfishness and, oh, I don’t know, the THEFT OF WOMEN’S RIGHTS, the BURIAL OF TRUTH, the LIES OF CORPORATE ‘PERSONHOOD’ thrive.

I’m doing a great deal of writing on this season today, but I wanted to post my quick take. When I read the piece from Smith and Miller last night, that really hit the point home. My girlfriend and I had been talking about the triumph of reason following the networks’ call in favor of Obama. More than a victory, last night was a reaffirmation.

I was tense last night, anxious that things might go horribly wrong. So I watched Obama’s acceptance speech with relieved pride and a healthy look toward the future. What made the night so much better were the marriage equality votes, the marijuana legalization votes, the defeats of Republicans who thought they could speak over women and their rights and the consolidation of a Democratic majority in the Senate

The line between liberal and conservative has never been so bold and etched into our collective present. But I wish there wasn’t this line.

Far from knowing what sort of future lay ahead, the best I can say now is that Obama’s calls for an active and celebratory hope serve as a worthy backbone going forward.

If you were duped into complacency following the progressive let-down of Obama’s first term, that’s understandable. But this reaffirmation should help rekindle thoughts of cultural equality, love and the ceaseless tides of truth. (Not trying to sound starry-eyed right now, but…)