Sunday, January 07, 2007

Red Electric submissions invited

Call this further adventures on my Cyberian learning curve....

It has taken three months' experience with this site to get me to this point, but I now realize that The Red Electric should be more than a place where I post my thoughts and where you are limited to commenting on them.

The site obviously should be a posting place for you too.

A request from my friend Jim Metcalfe to post an essay he is writing led me to expand my vision for the site.

I believe that broadening the content to include your writings will transform the Red Electric from being "my blog" into being a dynamic, community web site.

Please send submissions to me ( I'll act as editor (More on that later, but, yes, I get to be the "decider.")


U of O's new School for Spinmeisters

A large attention-grabbing ad “dominates” (as they say) page A13 of yesterday’s Oregonian. These things don’t come cheap. Using experience as a guide, I’d put the cost in the $10,000 to $15,000 range, plus a few extra grand for design and production.

The ad features the following: the smiling face of a winsome young female student, the University of Oregon’s “Zero/Zilch” O logo, and a big, white-on-black headline…

“Heard The Latest PR Buzz?”

At the bottom is the baffling “If UOnly knew” tag line, which is, at best, clever typographically.

But it’s the text of the ad and “the product” that is maddening.

The ad’s body breathlessly tells us The UO School of Journalism and Communications is opening the new Turnbull Center in Portland as a “fast track to hands-on experience and a real job in media” for its students.

If only we were talking journalism here.

For years Portland has needed a first-rate journalism program. Sadly the Turnbull Center, named after the late journalism professor George S. Turnbull, isn’t offering it.

The Turnbull Center’s curriculum, with a few exceptions, is counter-journalism. The center, bankrolled by Lorry Lokey, who made millions by starting a public relations wire service, will be devoted to —surprise, surprise— Public Relations.

Trained in the ways of, but not the higher calling of, journalism, effervescent UO students, like the one depicted, will be taught how to be “public faces,” “damage control specialists,” and “spokespersons” for corporate clients. The ad proudly names a few: Nike, Waggener Edstrom Worldwide and Fleishmman-Hillard.

Missing from the list are any Portland news media organization.

And while not all PR is bad, and some is even helpful to journalists, the curriculum touts the need for “strategic communication.” The ad even announces that the Center is planning a “Masters in Strategic Communication.”

The PR stratagems behind “strategic” are often all too familiar: story spinning, flack-catching, truth twisting, topic changing, media manipulating, best-light casting and question begging.

Meanwhile the State Legislature has convened in Salem to, among other things, bolster higher education in the state. The lawmakers might begin by changing the Turnbull Center's mission to higher pursuits, like good old-fashioned journalistic truth-telling.

P.S. If you want to witness “strategic communication” in action, look no father than the same issue of The Oregonian, page A1. Shades of the film “Thank you for smoking” are the professionally chosen words of R.J. Reynolds spokesman David Howard. In the story, he defends the test marking in Portland of tobacco packets called SNUS. Highly addictive, they contribute to mouth and throat cancer, and Howard claims, as if it’s OK, that they are “only” targeted to adult users.

Just like Joe Camel, huh, Dave? For more on the SNUS Portland targeting see the Portland Tribune's coverage. The Tribune story brilliantly lays out what we in the media literacy movement call media "deconstruction."

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Saturday, January 06, 2007

Funds awarded for Hillsdale web sites

Two city-funded grants announced last week will allow me to move ahead with web sites for the Hillsdale Alliance and the Hillsdale Business and Professional association (HBPA).

The grants, awarded through Southwest Neighborhoods Inc (SWNI) and the Alliance of Portland Neighborhood Business Associations (APNBA), total $2500.

Based on my experience of less than three months with The Red Electric, building readership is key. The Red Electric is averaging 11 visitors a day, not bad for a start-up, but nothing like what I'm used to.

Last week my colleagues at the Hillsdale Book Club helped me find what I hope will be a solution. It is related to the way I distributed The Hillsdale Connection. After a couple of false starts, I put the monthly out on stands where people could see it and let them decide whether to pick it up. Now many get The Connection in the mail as well and have the choice of reading it. I suspect most do.

So the new web sites will be actively promoted, and readers will have the choice of getting a weekly digest and summary newsletter in their e-mail in-boxes. A click on items listed in the newsletter will take them directly to the web sites.

Of course the content for the new sites will not range as widely as The Red Electric's.

I hope to continue this site as a personal commentary page.

I plan to have both new sites and the weekly electronic newsletter up and running no later than June.

I'll keep you informed on my adventures on the learning curve.

As always, I welcome suggestions.


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New Template for the New Year

I've decided to give The Red Electric a new, "cleaner" look. I'll probably be fiddling with it over the next few days.

Print journalists will find a Web home

Writing in the current issue of the Columbia Journalism Review, Mitchell Stephens, a professor of journalism at NYU and author of “A History of News,” argues that for print journalism to survive it can no longer compete with on-line journalism in covering news.

What newspapers can and must do, he argues, is provide dot-connecting, insightful analysis, and yes, informed opinion.

In short, print must be, in his words, “informed,” “interesting,” “intelligent,” “industrious” and “insightful.”

His recommendation is commendable but flawed as a cure for what ails print. Clearly on-line journalism already offers journalism steeped in the same “Five I”’s. Print does not own the franchise.

Certainly, as Stephens points out, print journalism is dying in part because it can no longer match the speed of on-line journalism. But print’s core problem is that the new technologies are cheap (as in free) and flexible. They are also readily and easily available. As a result, we are becoming acculturated and even conditioned to turn to them.

Instead of going out to gather in newspapers each morning, we routinely log on to computers—often laptops—and increasingly to mobile phones.

Where these convenient, multi-media information portals lead us is often where we choose to go, not where some distant editors decide to take us. The choice is ours: We are free to reinforce our biases—at our peril, by the way—or easily seek out new, challenging views.

And we can go to just about any depth of information we desire, all at the click of a mouse.

Lastly, if writing and reporting in the new media isn’t informed, industrious, interesting, intelligent and insightful, it simply won’t be read.

If Stephens persuades newspapers that their salvation is primarily in much needed news analysis and opinion, ultimately he will be doing readers of both old and new media a favor. As newspapers shrink and wither away, their unemployed but insightful, interesting, informed, industrious and intelligent journalists will find themselves right at home on the web.

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Thursday, January 04, 2007

Memo to state lawmakers from a voter

Back on Dec. 6, I e-mailed three state legislators about concerns I want addressed.

Two, Sen. Ginny Burdick and Rep. Mary Nolan, represent me and probably you if you live in southwest Portland.

The third is Rep. Larry Galizio, D-Tigard, who happens to be a teaching colleague at PCC. Larry and I share many concerns about media's influence on us and our children.

In the past these three, all Democrats, had limited power to accomplish much, but now all are in the majority. In this session of the Legislature, they have real power.

That's one of the reasons I wrote them. I'd like some action, please.

I want the Legislature to set up a commission to implement media literacy education in our schools. Instituting a volunteer Media Literacy Commission would cost nothing.

I also wanted to know why the state isn't enforcing highway beautification on I-5 between Portland and Salem. Thumbing its nose at the public, Jobdango is using the public right of way as a free-fire zone for illegal billboards.

The result of my letter-writing? After a month, nothing. Not a word.

I'm sure that Salem legislators get a lot of mail, indeed they have set up a computer-generated system to invite it. Now they need a human system to deal with it, or at the very least acknowledge it.

It's time for these three, and no doubt others, to get back to basics: namely communicating with those who put them in office in the first place.

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Rocking hoppers, a matched set and a neo-ugly tower

What do Seattle and the District of Columbia have in common? According to a family source embedded deep within the Lindy Hop community (That’s right, they’re back!), both cities are known to be hot spots for producing top-notch swing dancers.

That bit of trivia comes with a bonus. As my source puts it, “Seattle and D.C. have more than their share of ‘rock stars.’” A “rock star” is a term for a dancer who draws attention on the floor and is sought after as a partner. The result: Rock and Swing, music from adjacent eras, meet in the language of today’s young Lindy Hoppers.

This from a story in yesterday’s New York Times about a baggage-theft ring at the George Bush (Which one? It matters!) Intercontinental Airport in Houston….

“Officials on Tuesday announced the arrest of five men charged with stealing bags, including 23-year-old twins.”

Must be two from an old matched set.

We seem to be making progress on undergrounding utilities around the under-construction Watershed Senior housing project. A project official told the Hillsdale Neighborhood Association last night that City Hall seems stirred up by our complaints about leaving wires above ground. In the one small right-of-way stretch that project designers hoped to underground, Comcast and Qwest, citing costs, refused to use the subsurface conduit. PGE agreed to go underground. That's another reason to cancel your cable subscription.

Hillsdale Neighborhood Association meetings have their incendiary moments. Not that neighbors disagree. Of the six or so resolutions passed at last night’s meeting, all were approved unanimously by the 25 attendees.

The heat is usually saved for City or County officials required to share some plan that, as they say, “will impact” the neighborhood.

Last night it was the planned construction of a new tower in the much loved, historic Council Crest Park. A three-person City delegation explained that the new tower, to be used for emergency communication, will replace the old Erector-Set ugly. The park, at 1,073 feet, is Portland's highest point and tower-strategic.

So far so good. The problem is that the new tower will look exactly like the old ugly one, but on steroids to withstand greater winds and, well, we don’t want to think about THAT….

The mechanical design drew a blast from Arnie Panitch, known for his unminced, Detroit-tough words. He compared the tower to certain invasive plant species (English Ivy, Clematis, Japanese Knotweed, Himalayan blackberry) we are trying to root out in Southwest.

Then, mixing his metaphors nicely he shouted: “It STINKS!!!”

Panitch's words ringing in their ears, the stunned delegation retreated into the night, and, we hope, back to their drawing boards to think aesthetically.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Time in "Cyberia"

At one point over the holidays, three of our family/guests—adults one and all—were sprawled out around our living room, each staring into some kind of screen—two laptops (we have wireless access in the house) and a Play Station.

One checked e-mail, another visited MySpace "friends," another was on a quest for a sniper gun in some cyber warehouse.

An eerie glow bathed their faces; no one spoke; no one cared or particularly noticed that they were together.

And yes, I confess that in the pre-dawn hours, I too put in "screen time." After feeding the cat, I "feed" The Red Electric, just as I am as I write these words.

One of our number was a true TV junkie. As we prepared dinner, he sat in the TV room and channel surfed. Alas, he kept running out of channels. We have a mere 32 on our "basic service" but he is accustomed to clicking through 246 or some astonishing number. We could tell when he surfed beyond our cable's limit. It was a kind of video wipe-out. The unfettered static from the frenzied, foamy screen would simultaneously roar and hiss and squawk at him.

He would grumble and fuss in disbelief before righting himself and surfing back to some working channel.

Media in upheaval are throwing us into upheaval.

A couple nights ago the Lehrer News Hour had a segment on the demise of print journalism. "The experts" have taken to calling newspapers a "legacy medium."

The term reeks of doom.

A legacy is something valuable you leave to posterity after you die. I happen to have started a newspaper in this community. I'd be kidding my self to think of it as one day being my legacy. At best it will survive in musty, bound volumes hidden away, unread, on some archival shelf.

McLuhan would say that new media are literally changing who we are. Kids, especially boys, are much more dexterous with their thumbs than their forefingers because portable video consoles are operated with thumbs. Blackberries, the electronic kind, require the same thumbs.

The language is changing too—words unheard a year ago are now in common usage. Math, of course, is something you do on a calculator, if you do it at all. Multiplication tables anyone? And what is a dictionary or a phonebook or an encyclopedia in a Google world?

I teach at Portland Community College and in my first “Information Gathering” and “Writing for the Media” classes next week, I will ask the questions, "What does it mean to be informed?" and "Given your answer, how does one become informed?"

The answers should serve as markers.

A more relevant question might be “Who is your avatar?” Avatars are those video role-playing creatures created to represent (be?) each of us in the cyber world. Fat people can have thin avatars, dull people can have clever avatars, those who have failed can be successful, etc.

This is the stuff of science fiction. Dreams come true in a dream world. Which world (or persona) is more real, the "real" one (with real friends and real family and real love in a real living room on a real holiday) or the hyper animated, time gobbling "cyber" one tucked behind the glow of the computer screen where we can shape and edit ourselves and gather “friends” on MySpace?

We know that time spent in cyberia is spurting ahead, pushing aside other activities. At some point we will spend more time the cyber world than we do the real one. We will care more about what happens in "cyberia" than we do in "reality."

Many people now have stronger attachments to media-concocted creatures—actors or celebrities or, god forbid, politicians—than they do to friends and relatives. With precious few exceptions, the feelings are based entirely on carefully orchestrated imagery. When people say, "I just really love Katie Couric (or Brian Williams or Tom Hanks or George Bush or John Kerry)," I still ask, “Really? How well do you known them?”

Often they just shrug and say, “Well, you know what I mean.”

I’m not sure I do.

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Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Seven books for the New Year

A windfall in the form of a massively generous holiday check from my mother-in-law prompted me to go on a book-buying binge.

The purchases were made on Amazon, at the downtown Powell’s, and in Multnomah Village at Annie Bloom’s Books and Post-Hip store of used CDs and remaindered books.

Here’s what whim and interest led me to purchase:

Ellen Lupton's “Thinking with Type,” because type is beautiful and, McLuhan-like, conveys a message within the message. The carefully crafted book’s design and illustrations celebrate the topic.

D.J. Taylor’s “Orwell,” which I hope deepens the answer to the question: Why does the world need another biography of Orwell? Before I read the book, my own answer is that the world can never know too much about Orwell and his works...and is in danger of knowing too little.

Jeffrey Sach’s “The End of Poverty,” which was remaindered at Powell’s. A bad sign for a topic of this timely weight. Solemn fact: 15,000 children die of malnutrition and starvation each DAY in Africa. Fifty will have died in the time it takes you to read this post.

“The Lessons of St. Francis,” also remaindered at Powell’s, an equally bad sign for similar reasons relating to our times.

S.J. Perelman’s “The Swiss Family Perelman” with illustrations by the estimable master of line, Al Hirschfeld...also remaindered, a good sign for me. Conclusion: with astonishing flourish, acerbity and accuracy, Perelman was the fastest word slinger in the East.

P.D. James’ “The Children of Men,” proclaims on the cover, “soon to be a MAJOR MOTION PICTURE.” A review of the film, with a description of the plot about a childless world, inspired me to buy the book.

Peachpit Press’s Visual Quick Start Guide to HTML….This one’s for you, dear Red Electric reader. I hope it will tell me, among other things, how to center a photo’s caption and “flush right” its credit line.

This modest pile now teeters atop earlier piles. Because they are on the uppermost stratum, these volumes will be the first I reach for. Either directly or indirectly, I hope to share their eclectic content in the weeks to come.

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