May 4, 2007

My Connection to the Vision

The mission of journalism is to find truth and tell it. Tell stories about what's really happening to real people and tell them so that real people can connect to those stories. So many people have animosity toward the media these days. How much of that is successful spin by our current administration and its pundits and how much is it that the stories are not accessible to everyday people? There are lots of challenges. Journalists are human and have weakness and bias just like everyone else. But the niche media that panders to a particular political sector conflicts with journalism's responsibility to diseminate information to all people, regardless of their affiliations and politics. That's a challenge.

It seems trite to call myself a life-long student, a student of life, but that's the truth. I am great at being a student, too, but not so great at earning money doing something I'm passionate about. They say "do what you love and the money will follow." Writing - telling stories about what I learn - may be the magic combination.

I see myself writing freelance. I am interested in so many things. I have the often contradictory capacity for skepticism and empathy; I expect they will both come in handy.

It is a turbulent time in the history of the profession of journalism, not just technology-wise, but also the "flattening" of the earth due to globalization (I dislike Thomas Friedman, but his characterization is accurate). Media elites have more power to shape the message than ever.

Cynics (including me) say it's all downhill, that conglomeration will be its death and t.v., cinema, the Internet will only transmit hegemonic propaganda from now on- it already does to a large degree. But then I meet the people working on the front lines like Eric Black, Michael Caputo and Bill Salsbury, and read stuff from activists like Robert McChesney, Bill Moyers, Sheldon Rampton, Greg Palast, and meet the J School teachers and fellow students and I am reinvigorated and encouraged by their intelligence, committment and vision. I have to check myself, did I say that? I guess I am one of those optimists, too.

April 30, 2007

Poisoned Pet Food

"Filler in Animal Feed Is Open Secret in China" has some distressing news for pet owners. The product that has been killing American pets, illegal as a food additive in the U.S., is widely used as filler in animal food that is sold to the U.S. from China.

“Many companies buy melamine scrap to make animal feed, such as fish feed,? said Ji Denghui, general manager of the Fujian Sanming Dinghui Chemical Company, which sells melamine. “I don’t know if there’s a regulation on it. Probably not. No law or regulation says ‘don’t do it,’ so everyone’s doing it. The laws in China are like that, aren’t they? If there’s no accident, there won’t be any regulation.?

Also distressing (but not surprising to me) is this statement, considering the huge volume of products coming from China:

“They have fewer people inspecting product at the ports than ever before,? says Caroline Smith DeWaal, the director of food safety for the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington. “Until China gets programs in place to verify the safety of their products, they need to be inspected by U.S. inspectors. This open-door policy on food ingredients is an open invitation for an attack on the food supply, either intentional or unintentional.?

It was probably a challenge for these two reporters to get all the sources they did. Is one of them stationed in China?

Last Friday here in Zhangqiu, a fast-growing industrial city southeast of Beijing, two animal feed producers explained in great detail how they purchase low-grade wheat, corn, soybean or other proteins and then mix in small portions of nitrogen-rich melamine scrap, whose chemical properties help the feed register an inflated protein level.

They have done some good research on a timely subject and gotten it out to the public quickly.

Another article found at from the Puget Sound Business Journal localizes the issue to that area of the country(western Washington State). "Pet deaths scare owners to premium, local food" tells the story of how sales of locally produced food have jumped recently after the pet food scare.

Sales at the seven All the Best Pet Care stores in Seattle and on the Eastside have gone up by 5 percent in the past month, said owner Susan Moss.

"A lot of our staff are saying they're seeing people coming in they've never seen before," Moss said.

And price isn't a sticking point: "Darwin's said it typically attracts about 20 new customers a month. It recently drew 80 new clients willing to pay a premium for Darwin's product."

A good job of localizing a national (even international) issue that probably effects most Americans. Also a good humanizing quote to end an otherwise numbers-oriented article:

While pet-food stores and suppliers are encouraged that more consumers are seeking out healthy food, they also aren't celebrating the recall.

"I don't take much pleasure in business growing because people are losing their family members," Lybrand said.

April 26, 2007

Castro Countdown

Everybody and their brother seems to be anticipating the end of Castro's reign. A New York Times article today lead with "Major League Baseball officials are quietly preparing to re-establish a relationship with Cuba if the United States lifts its trade embargo."

Baseball is contemplating a strategy for teams to sign Cuban players in an effort to create an orderly system for acquiring talent from the island, according to three baseball officials and a scholar who was briefed on the plans . . . Baseball is also considering moving a minor league team to Cuba and building training academies similar to those that nearly all teams have in the Dominican Republic, according to a report earlier this month by Fortune magazine.

This is one sports article that doesn't cause one's eyes to glaze over with stats and war analogies. The reporter included context and history to make the story appealing to both baseball fans and Cuba-watchers.

Fidel Castro took power in 1959, and the United States imposed sanctions on Cuba in 1961. Some of the Cuban players who have since reached the majors have been defectors, like pitchers José Contreras of the Chicago White Sox, Orlando Hernández of the Mets and his half-brother Liván Hernández of the Diamondbacks.

Over all, Cuba has produced 152 major league players, according to, including Minnie Minoso, Camilo Pascual, Luis Tiant, Tony Oliva and Tony Pérez.

Outside the United States and Canada, only Venezuela, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic have produced more players.

But baseball, in accordance with United States law, prohibits clubs from scouting in Cuba or any country affected by sanctions. Because major league scouts are permitted to watch Cuban players only when they compete in international tournaments off the island, much remains unknown about Cuban baseball. It is unclear how deep the talent pool is, how developed the youth leagues are and what shape the fields and equipment are in.

That last bit about "much remains unknown" seems unlikely since journalists - even sports writers - can get visas to visit Cuba, and thousands of people visit unofficially each year, despite the "Trading with the Enemy" prohibitions (risking heavy fines), and some of them are undoubtedly baseball aficionados.


Another article about Cuba today from the McClatchy newswire concerned itself with Castro's continued absence from his role as the country's leader and a prediction by a U.S. intelligence official that Castro will never regain his position because "An 80-year-old man who's gone (from public appearances) nine months and still wears a track suit when he meets with foreign dignitaries suggests this is an extremely serious illness still." It's a colorful quote and I probably would have used it, too.

The reporter of the McClatchy article relied soley on the views and quotes of the official who no doubt is also a keen Cuba-watcher, so this is a one-sided piece.

Everybody wants a piece of Cuba. Even The Nation got in on the conversation this week.

April 25, 2007

Mauled - and mad

The ridiculous headline of the Pioneer Press article about the recent dog attacks sets up the reader for the emotion-laden tale - and conflict - to come. The story was compiled by a team of 3 reporters, perhaps each responsible for a different section of the article. It starts by recounting the most recent attack of a pit bull on Monday of a woman delivering legal papers. It includes an incendiary quote from the victim - "I want this breed of dog off the face of the Earth" - which is counterbalanced by another outrageous claim - "If you target a specific breed, it's akin to racial profiling," among other colorful tidbits (a dog rescue group called A Rotta Love Plus). Eventually they get to thefacts and history of the story and explain the laws surrounding dangerous dogs. The print front page, top of the fold version features about a quarter page-size photo of the recent victim crying, presumably as she retells the horrific story to the reporters, and the 2 culprits. The sidebar has some helpful hints about how to avoid and react to a dog attack and training resources.

Those reporters squeezed every ounce of juice from this story. By contrast, MPR had a short and concise story about the attack and what the city can and will do: "Minneapolis City Council member Don Samuels said he might propose changing the city's dog ordinance to allow the city to destroy dogs after just one attack."

April 20, 2007

Wolfowitz's Chief Nemesis

The San Francisco chronicle article "Wolfowitz's troubles disrupt World Bank" tells the story of the "rift between employees and embattled bank President Paul Wolfowitz" after it was discovered that he arranged for a promotion and pay raise for his paramour. The reporter explains that the Pentagon "concluded there was no wrongdoing," yet employees at the bank, one in particular, are calling for his resignation.

The reporter should have included a sentence or two about how the World Bank operates and what the Pentagon has to do with it.

The Washington Post article "Leader of World Bank Staff Group Becomes Wolfowitz's Chief Nemesis" is a little better at describing the conflict, but still doesn't explain the Pentagon report or its involvement with the World Bank.

April 19, 2007

Proposed Viking Stadium

"Area by Metrodome would have whole new look" in the Star Tribune Thursday briefly describes the design for a new Vikings stadium commissioned by the Metopolitan Sports Facilities Commission. The article is accompanyed by a video tour of a 3-D mock-up of the site. The reporter doesn't say that funding for the stadium hasn't yet been discussed until paragraph 10: "The big caveat: Who pays for all of this?"

The Strib's story is told from the perspective of the Commission, whereas a Pioneer Press article adds the perspective of the city council president, the chairman of the Senate Taxes Committee and a community leader.

The Pioneer Press's "Minneapolis Downtown/Post-Dome possibilities offered" is more balanced and starts talking money by the third graph: "But finding money for a football stadium that might cost more than $900 million may be the biggest obstacle."

The reporter emphases that the plan is in the dream phase, that funding hasn't been identified, which I believe readers are most interested in.

It may be too late this year, too. State Sen. Tom Bakk, chairman of the Senate Taxes Committee, said no one has introduced a Vikings stadium bill.

"The timing is such that it's pretty unlikely that it could happen," he said. "But I'm interested in seeing what the proposal is and seeing if there's any public support for it."

David Fields, community development coordinator for Elliot Park Neighborhood Inc., said he saw a preliminary version of the plans earlier this year and was impressed with Roma's vision.

"The whole idea of the new stadium is to have a much more positive and regenerative impact on the neighborhood," he said.

Of course, officials said the Metrodome would do the same thing when it was built 25 years ago - and that never happened.

Still, today's event will be "a presentation of the possible," Lucas said. "It's a very exciting vision to get the ball rolling."

April 17, 2007

VA Tech Massacre Coverage

"Deadly Rampage and No Loss for Words" in the NY Times today (4/17/07) is about how the TV networks have handled the Virginia Tech shooting story thus far. The reporter starts the article thusly:

Television anchors said over and over that the shooting rampage at Virginia Tech was the deadliest in American history, but that was not the only shocking aspect of yesterday’s continual coverage.

The amazing thing is how familiar campus shootings have become.

I think the lead was buried in the last paragraph:

It was the worst shooting ever, but it was also yet another tragedy in which television turned first to amateur reporters on the scene. “Stay out of harm’s way,? the CNN anchor Don Lemon said, addressing students at Virginia Tech. “But send us your pictures and video.?

Editor & Publisher may not be a mainstream outlet, but it covers the media in the tradional reportorial way. The article about the print news coverage of the massacre is very interesting and similarly analyses this style of news gathering by various outlets. The first two paragraphs in "Local and National Papers Cover Massacre -- Often Blog-Style" are:

NEW YORK The massacre on the campus of Virginia Tech this morning came so suddenly, along with a constantly updated death count, that many newspapers both local and national responded by basing much of their breaking coverage on brief blog-like entries.

The New York Times, for example, carried a top story on its site by the Associated Press, then by staff reporters, that changed slowly -- while it directed readers to its The Lede blog which had frequent entries.

Both these articles point to increasing use of blog-style entries to post up-to-the-minute reports.

Assistant Managing Editor Michael Stowe at the Roanoke paper said the blog approach is the best way to move breaking news quickly. "We have found this works well," he said. "It won't stop as long as there is stuff coming in. Everyone is working."

The trend can be seen online frequently while doing these assignments, as articles posted on a unique web address are updated from day to day - often keeping the same headline - instead of giving them unique addresses. I'm thinking that either the lines between tradional articles and blog postings will blur or outlets will be more careful about where their articles are placed on their sites so that readers are not confused about what is news reporting and what is editorializing, similar to print media.

April 9, 2007

Public Document Retrieval

Trying to find data for comparison of the number nonprofit-sector jobs between the Twin Cities metro and Chicago wasn't too difficult. First I looked for information on the number of nonprofits in the TC 7-county metro. On the website of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development there was a labor market analysis helpline. The "analyst" told me he didn't have that information at his finger tips but he could call me back with it. A couple hours later he did just that, and told me that nonprofits make up 8.5 percent of the jobs in the TC. I was able to verify that with the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits. I spoke with the Communications and Marketing manager at the Council, who directed me to a report on their website with that information, the 2006 Minnesota NonprofitEconomy Report, which also breaks down the categories of nonprofits and what services they provide. She told me I was welcome to call her anytime with questions about the report of the services they provide.

I thought I'd look at how that compares to Chicago, since it is the nearest metropolitan area and also has a population very close in numbers to the Twin Cities. It took a few more steps than the first search, but I eventually got the info I was looking for. First, I tried the Illinois Department of Labor. Their website didn't offer anything close to what I was looking for, so I tried the "contact us" page for the Chicago area. The woman who answered their helpline told me they don't separate nonprofits from other kinds of companies, but she sent me to another website where she thought I might find what I needed, the website for the Illinois Department of Employment Security. I was transferred to a very nice man named Lamar who said he didn't think they had the info I was looking for, but then directed me to a web page with some census data, gave me his toll-free number and said I could call him with questions after I looked over that document. He was right, the info I needed wasn't there.

Next, I Googled "Illinois Nonprofits" and few other search terms and found the Donors Forum of Chicago. "A Portrait of the Nonprofit Sector in Illinois" was not hard to find there, and I read that 8 percent of workers in Ilinois work for a nonprofit, most in the Cook County, which includes Chicago. Additionally, the health care sector is the largest employer, as it is in Minnesota.

From there I linked to the website of the Urban Institute, which helped with the Donors Forum report, and got some countrywide statistics on nonprofit employment.

I've also requested some information from the Minneosat attorney general's office, specifically the number of new, closed or merged nonprofits over whatever time frame they measure. Mike Nelson, who who took the request, told me they might be able to gleen that info from their raw data and he'd get back to me this week and let me know.

Everyone I spoke with was helpful and tried to direct me even if they didn't have the information I needed. This represented maybe 3 or 4 hours of work, including web searches and phone calls. And the Web provided me with documents instantly, unlike the old days when I would have had to wait for a fax or a document through the mail. Man, I love the Internet; it's an advantage being old enough to appreciate it.
Illinois Dept of Empl. Security.: 866-663-7723 Lamar Johnson
Mike Nelson:

April 4, 2007

Best Buy Earnings Rise

The stories I compare are from the Star Tribune and the Associated Press. The Strib begins right off by showing how Best Buy increased their profits, through "aggressive price cutting." This is a bit obscured in the AP article, where the reporter describes the strategy in the 14th paragrah:

Best Buy's revenue grew faster than its profit -- meaning Best Buy profited slightly less from each dollar in sales than it did last year. The company said that was because of growth in areas that carry lower profit margins, such as video game consoles, online sales, and its Five Star electronics retail stores in China. Best Buy also said margins were pressured by tough price competition in home theater, music and movies.

I think that appears so far into the AP article because the responsibility of the AP reporter is to a national audience, while the Strib reporter's readers might be particularly interested in Best Buy as a Minnesota company.

For the rest of the articles, my eyes pretty much glazed over.

Federal Reserve Bank Explained - Story Idea #5

The Federal Reserve Bank and its operations are continually in the news. Most people believe "the Fed," as it is called, is a government agency, but it is actually an independent organization, much like the U.S. Postal Service. There is a branch of the Fed here in Minneapolis. It's a beautiful building, maybe something about the building itself and the artwork housed inside could be included. A story could be sort of a walking tour, describing the building, the art inside, what the various departments do, how their work has changed as checks are used less and less, stuff like that. The Fed has recently been critcized for its lack of oversight over subprime lending explosion and exploring that would make it topical. However, I'm not convinced that the sources below would give a balanced picture, so any suggestions of local sources would be helpful (I can think of many national ones).

David Fettig is Minneapolis Fed Vice President and Director of Public Affairs: 612-204-5274
U of Mn Department of Economics Associate Professor Fabrizio Perri, author of “Financial Globalization and Real Regionalization?: (612) 625-7504
Chris Farrell, economics analyst for MPR, NPR and other publications: 651-229-1378 (he would not be so easy to get, so another suggestion would be welcomed)

April 2, 2007

EPA Can Regulate CO2

Two articles in the New York Times - one by a Times reporter and one from the AP - explain the decision by the Supreme Court that the EPA "has the authority to regulate carbon dioxide from automobile emissions, and that it has shirked its duty in not doing so."

The AP report is concise and explains just enough for the reader to understand the decision, and offers some views from the dissenting justices about why they didn't agree. The reporter gives a little background of the issue, then on paragraph 10 provides a list of the questions the court was asked in the suit and what they decided. The article ends by analyzing what the decision means:

The decision is also expected to boost California's prospects for gaining EPA approval of its own program to limit tailpipe emissions of greenhouse gases. Federal law considers the state a laboratory on environmental issues and gives California the right to seek approval of standards that are stricter than national norms.

The Times article, on the other hand, is much more in-depth, providing all the above and then some, and also explains the reason the case was before the Supreme Court at all:

Secondly, the five justices declared that contrary to the administration, Massechussets and the 11 other states and various other plaintiffs that sued the EPA do indeed have legal standing to pursue their suit. In order to establish standing, a federal court plaintiff must show that there is an injury that can be traced to the defendant's behavior, and that the injury will be relieved by the action the lawsuit seeks.

Must be nice to be the New York Times, plenty of space to tell your stories. Once again, however, the link to the times article leads to a different article which, while having the same headline, isn't even written by the same reporter. So here's a cartoon.


March 30, 2007

Olmert Rejects Right of Return

"Olmert Rejects Palestinian Right of Return" in the New York Times Friday shows Olmert as intractible as Bush! The reporter is repetitive, repeating the declaration of Olmert not to allow any Palestians to return to what were once their homes. I don't think the reporter does a very good job of explaining the issue, but he does give some background finally in paragraph seven, which would give a reader who doesn't know the history some information to conduct their own background search:

The 2002 initiative essentially offers Israel peace and acceptance in the region in return for a settlement with the Palestinians on 1967 lines and an agreed solution to the problem of Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war and their descendants.

But even though the stance is clear, he gives it to us again in paragraph 10:

Mr. Olmert insisted that the refugee problem was caused by the Arab attack on Israel in 1948 and called it “a moral issue of the highest standard.? He said “I will not agree to accept any kind of Israeli responsibility for the refugees. Full stop.? Then he added: “I don’t think we should accept any kind of responsibility for the creation of this problem. Full stop.? He said the return of even one Palestinian refugee to Israel is “out of the question.?

In a UPI article, "Palestinians protest for right of return," which is a much shorter article, the reporter explains better what the issue is, although he/she doesn't tell us how they became refugees:

There are an estimated 4.4 million Palestinian refugees registered with the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees scattered in camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and Gaza.

March 29, 2007

Deadly Job - Story Idea #4

Earlier this month there was an international story about 1,000 journalist being killed on the job in the last 10 years. I didn't see it much in the local or national press. Tuesday night (3/27) Frontline had a piece by a Philipine journalist highlighting some of the more prominent journalist assasinations, such as Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, that was very compelling. While newspapers are cutting down on their foreign coverage, arguments can be made for newspapers recommitting to supporting foreign correspondents on their staff.

A local angle could look at journalists who have worked overseas, not necessarily in war zones, and their thoughts, ideas, fears about relatiation against journalists and why (or whether) the danger is worth it. Students of journalism can also be included in the conversation for a "what am I getting myself into" perspective.

Kevin Diaz, foreign correspondent for Star Tribune and McClathy:
Mark Pedelty, author of "War Stories: The Culture of Foreign Correspondents": (612) 625-6383
Doug McGill, writes about the need for more "glocal" reporting that ties local communities to the broader world: 507-535-0951

March 26, 2007

Pentagon Budget Explained

"Consumer Confidence Index Falls More Than Predicted" is an article that uses figures that don't mean much to describe a common economic measurement.

The Conference Board said that its consumer confidence index fell to 107.2, from the revised 111.2 in February. Analysts had expected a reading of 109. The March index was the lowest since November 2006, when the reading was 105.3.


An index that measures how shoppers feel about economic conditions increased slightly to 137.6, from 137.1 in February, while an index that measures consumers’ outlook in the next six months declined to 86.9, from 93.8.

Huh? This story and so many others like it does nothing to advance my understanding of what is a normal CCI or what a good or bad one would look like. The story is located in the business section of the Times, so the reporter must be assuming anyone reading that section is in the know.

At the other end of the explanation spectrum, an NPR reporter gave a clear and illustrative report about the pentagon budget, just in time for me because I had been wondering how this recent supplemental budget bill for war spending could be so desperately and immediately needed, I mean, don't they budget out at least a year in advance? I did my best on the transcript below. It is not verbatim and the story deserves a listen.

Say our defense department was an indepentent country, then it would be the 11th richest country in the world . . . One of the ironies is that even though we're spending (a lot of money) that's not enough. We actually spend significantly less on defense today than we did at any point in the last 60 years. Today, defense spending is 4% of our GDP. It works out to $4,700 dollars for every tax payer in the U.S. With as large a budget as the Pentagon has, can't they find money somewhere else? Because of the way Congress manages their spending, it's difficult to just take it from somewhere else.

March 22, 2007

Immigrants, Identities

"Illegal Worker, Troubled Citzen and Stolen Name," in the March 22 New York Times, tells the contrasting stories of a troubled California woman with no work and a bleak life and an illegal immigrant working in Iowa under the Californian's identity.

Going back to the beginning of the story of the raids (December 2006), the Strib article "ID theft ring exposed before raids" tells one aspect of the story that came out of the raid of the Swift company in Worthington, when I first heard about the issue of identity theft for reasons other than thievery.

Immigration agents first zeroed in on an identity-theft operation in Worthington, Minn., in the summer, when a man selling Puerto Rican birth certificates and Social Security cards for $850 made a deal with an informant . . . Minnesotans who are in frequent contact with illegal immigrants say that selling authentic Puerto Rican documents is just one way to obtain work papers.

Some middle men actually try to buy the identification of homeless people, poor people giving blood at blood banks, or otherwise living on "skid row," Cumiskey said. They then sell their identity to illegal immigrant workers.

Fast forward to the present, when the Times article helps explain that, because of increased scrutiny of identiyy documents, trade in real - stolen - identity docs has increased, and details what that means for both sides of the trade.

With little in common but their shared identity, the two women are unwittingly linked by an illicit trade that is the focus of a new federal crackdown on illegal immigration. Detained in a recent raid on the Iowa plant, the Mexican worker admitted that she had used the California woman's identity to get her job. Now she is in jail on felony charges of identity theft, her trial set to begin in Des Moines on Monday.

Court papers show that the accused did not use stolen documents to loot bank accounts or credit cards, the primary crimes that identity-theft laws seek to attack. Instead, they used the birth certificates and Social Security cards to get jobs.

Still, Matthew C. Allen, the senior investigations official at Immigration and Custom Enforcement, said that 326 Americans had reported financial complications and tax liabilities from having their identities used at Swift. "The victims have suffered very real consequences," Mr. Allen said.

This comparison shows how stories progress over time, how details get flushed out according to what is considered newsworthy. The issues of illegal immigration and identity theft are very much in the news.