PubliCola succeeding in its niche

Josh Feit, Photo courtesy of PubliCola

When Scripps Newspapers asked me to profile a new media venture in Seattle for a series they’re running in papers across the country, I immediately thought of PubliCola.

Unlike some of the newer start-ups, the online political site has been around for a year and a half. In addition to that track record, PubliCola is attempting to make it as a for-profit company. Many of the journalism experiments emerging in Seattle are opting for grants and donations. I wanted to see how PubliCola, in this new age of media, was attempting to make it on old-fashioned advertising sales.

I discovered that PubliCola is hanging in there because founder and editor Josh Feit created a lean staff with a very focused mission. The site appeals to political junkies hungry for City Hall, Olympia, and Washington D.C. coverage. When PubliCola experimented with additional, broader content earlier this year, they spent more and didn’t attract more advertisers. And because of this, they retreated back to their original niche.

Scripps Newspapers targeted Seattle for one of the stories in its media coverage because this city is full of journalists who are experimenting. We can’t say for certain yet which ventures will take root, but PubliCola is an interesting study of a work in progress. They aren’t profitable just yet, but Feit believes he’s steering the operation in that direction.

The article on PubliCola appeared in the Kitsap Sun this week and will run in other Scripps papers and online. Here is a link to the piece.

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Ira Glass on broadcasting’s “failure of craft”

A radio personality filling a concert hall with fans? That’s pretty rare, but it happened Aug. 21 when Ira Glass, host of “This American Life” (TAL) on National Public Radio (NPR) appeared at Seattle’s Benaroya Hall. The place was packed.

Introducer Dan Savage, publisher of The Stranger, which co-sponsored the event along with KUOW-FM and Northwest Associated Arts, dead-panned that Glass “slept his way to the top…which sounds like fun until you remember he works in radio.”

Savage, who writes a sex-advice column, is a regular contributor to TAL. “He [Glass] keeps me around just for the sex advice,” Savage quipped, adding that “I know what Ira likes” but “I can’t tell you.”

(Glass is married. His wife is from Iraq, he said later in the program, and her family fled that country because of Saddam Hussein.)

After Savage’s intro, the house lights went out and Glass’s distinctive voice was heard: “I tried to talk them into doing the entire show in the dark, but they said no,” he joked. For those who find his voice somewhat affected, that’s really just the way he talks.

Glass described TAL – a program he originated in 1995 after 16 years as an NPR employee — as “applying journalism to things it doesn’t normally get applied to.” His goal is to add “fun,” “joyfulness,” and “surprise” to stories, he said. He noted that this “never happens in broadcast journalism,” which is “a failure of craft.”

Glass noted wryly that he used to listen to NPR stories thinking: “I would be a better person if I can get through this story.” The crowd applauded knowingly.

As TAL fans know – and they are a devoted group – Glass consistently tells interesting stories in an engaging way, unlike much of the broadcast media.

“Part of the job of journalism is not to describe what’s new, but to describe what is,” Glass said. “The world they describe is so much smaller than the real world.”

This is “one of the lousy things about doing journalism,” he added – i.e., that much reporting focuses on “massive, unsolvable” world problems. That “makes most of journalism such a drag and also makes it so inaccurate,” he said.

Describing broadcast journalists, he said that they sound like “talking robots….the esthetics of the language is so stiff” He called that “one of the reasons why journalism is having such a tough time now.” Television journalism is “doing terribly,” he said.

“The only people who are doing well is public radio,” Glass boasted – to more applause from his loyal fans. Seattle-Tacoma listeners on KUOW and KPLU make up TAL’s third-largest regional audience nationwide.

“Opinion in all its forms is kicking the ass of journalism,” he said. However, opinion and commentary – including much that is on NPR (even on TAL) – is clearly a major part of journalism. Surely Glass would acknowledge that. In fact, the lines between reporting and editorializing have crumbled, if not fallen.

Glass mentioned Glenn Beck, Rachel Maddow and Jon Stewart as primarily news  commentators, adding that he’s a fan of Maddow and Stewart. As for Beck, he said: “That guy is fascinating,” but moved on without adding much detail. Too bad. Maybe Glass will do a story on Beck sometime. That would be interesting to hear.

Glass spent a lot of time talking about his approach to story-telling. A story is “not about logic, it’s not about reason, it’s about emotion,” he said. “You can use incredibly banal action to create suspense.” On radio, “you tell a story like you tell it in real life.”

He played several sample cuts, complete with the brief musical interludes that are a staple of TAL. His story about the veteran who allegedly dumped his wife’s ashes in a parking lot was fascinating; the story of the couple who went to a swingers’ party was really lame.

TAL’s basic formula is “action, action, action” followed by “thought,” Glass said. He noted wryly that he had “spent three years of [his] life inventing” that format – then realized that his rabbi did exactly the same thing, as did every other deliverer of religious sermons. In fact, he quipped, the entire Bible follows that formula!

TAL now has a staff of eight (it used to have four), and they review 25 to 30 ideas a week to produce three or four stories for the program. He invited the audience to suggest story ideas. (Hey, Ira, how about a story on the “TAO of Journalism”?)

“From the moment we wake up to the moment we go to bed, we’re bombarded by stories,” Glass said – on television, radio, print, and the internet – but “it’s rare to have stories that we can empathize with and that can touch you.”

That’s TAL’s goal, he said: “We live in such a divided country, it’s rare to get inside somebody else’s shoes. That’s what we try to do.”

Glass got a standing ovation. Clearly TAL fans think he succeeds — and most of the time, he does. TAL plays a unique and valuable role in American journalism and in American life. More journalists – print, broadcast and online – could take a lesson.

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Kirsten Grind at work on WaMu book

A month ago, Kirsten Grind pounded out daily banking industry updates in the hectic downtown Seattle Puget Sound Business Journal newsroom.

These days, she’s more likely to be found driving around the state to the homes of aging former Washington Mutual executives. Grind spent an entire recent weekday in Skagit County with onetime WaMu CEO Lou Pepper. The two talked for hours.

“It’s therapy for them,” Grind said. “There’s a lot of anger and sadness about what happened.”

Grind’s life took a dramatic turn this summer when she began a nine-month leave from the PSBJ to write a book about the demise of WaMu. She landed the book contract after covering WaMu’s story extensively for the Business Journal, and receiving a prestigious Pulitzer nomination for her efforts.

(Full disclosure: I worked with Grind at the PSBJ and remain good friends with her. I’ve been hearing about her journey into the book writing world for the past several months, and found the project so interesting that I thought others would enjoy reading about it as well.)

Grind stumbled into the book world by chance. While she loves journalism, she’d never dreamed of penning her own book. But early this year, Seattle literary agent Elizabeth Wales heard Grind talking about WaMu on local public radio station KUOW. This could be a book, Wales thought.

Grind’s story with WaMu began when she took a job as the banking and finance reporter for the PSBJ in spring of 2008. A relative newcomer to Seattle, Grind knew very little about WaMu.

Six months later, on Sept. 25, 2008, federal regulators seized the bank. Grind was at a best friend’s wedding in California. She came back to Seattle, figuring the story was over. Not even close.

At the urging and support of PSBJ managing editor Al Scott, Grind spent the next year doing extensive investigative reporting on why WaMu failed. At times, she wanted to give up. She requested thousands of documents through public information requests, and received many back with pages blacked out. Since many sources refused to talk to her on the phone, Grind tracked down the addresses of former executives and bank regulators and drove to their homes.

“It was pulling teeth the entire way,” Grind said.

Grind’s efforts paid off. On a Friday in April, she signed on with Wales. That Monday, she found out she was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Two months later, several publishing houses entered a bidding war for her book, with Simon and Schuster winning out.

“I had a really lucky few months,” Grind said. “I worked really hard to get to the bottom of WaMu, and it set me up as someone who really knows the story.”

Grind believes publishers were eager for the book because readers want to understand the financial crisis. The WaMu story in particular sparks interest, Grind said, because unlike a massive New York City investment firm, the average person had a WaMu account or worked for the bank.

“People can relate to WaMu,” Grind said.

On a recent Green Lake walk, Grind and I talked about why someone like myself – an avid reader, but not a banking or finance guru – would buy her book. We agreed that the various tragic personalities behind WaMu, from former CEO Kerry Killinger to the shareholder who lost everything, would sell the story.

“I don’t want to write a book only for people interested in banking,” Grind said. “I think a lot of people could find this fascinating because WaMu has such a great cast of characters.”

Grind began her nine-month leave from the PSBJ on Aug. 2. She’s adjusting to life away from a bustling newsroom, and learning how to plan her own daily schedule.

“It’s hard to not have coworkers running around and an editor breathing down your neck,” Grind said. “I miss the newsroom activity, but I also love having this big project I’m working on.”

Since Grind’s book covers the last 30 years of WaMu, she’s beginning with the 1980s. For the past few weeks, she’s been spending days with the former executives, driving to everywhere from Carnation to Anacortes.

When Grind begins researching the bank’s more recent past, she’ll make trips to California and the East Coast to talk to the bank’s former mortgage executives and federal regulators. WaMu’s onetime home loan center is just a half hour from her parents’ home in the San Diego area, so she’s planning on research time in California.

As for her own next chapter after WaMu, it’s too early for Grind to know.

“I never thought I’d write a book,” Grind said. “This has really been a surprise.”

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New journalism ventures in the works

In a city filled with unemployed reporters, creative talent, and entrepreneurial spirit, journalism experiments abound.

Among the new efforts brewing in Seattle are 10 projects that came out of the “Journalism That Matters” conference at the University of Washington in January. The four-day conference, “Re-imagining News and Community in the Pacific Northwest,” brought about 250 members of the media and the broader community together to brainstorm ideas on journalism’s future.

Recent years in Seattle have been marked by the closure of two daily newspapers (the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the King County Journal) and ever-shrinking staffs at other local news outlets, so the discussions seemed particularly timely and urgent.

“In times of crisis, people start talking about new possibilities,” said Mike Fancher, former executive editor of The Seattle Times who was one of the dozen or so conference organizers and stewards.

Journalism That Matters was co-founded by Peggy Holman of Bellevue and Stephen Silha of Vashon Island. She’s author of motivational books “The Change Handbook” and “Engaging Emergence.” Silha is a former Christian Science Monitor reporter and now a documentary filmmaker.

JTM meetings have been held around the country since 2001, but the Pacific Northwest efforts are unique. In Seattle, business and civic leaders are as involved as members of the media, said Fancher and Holman.

“Seattle has attracted the broadest mix of activists,” Holman said. And the conference organizers, who now call themselves the “Collaboratory,” continue to meet monthly to help nurture the projects that spun out of the winter confab.

Since January, 10 different groups have been moving forward on various initiatives. Last month, representatives from nearly all of the groups met to report on their progress.

(Full disclosure: John Hamer, president of the Washington News Council, is a member of the Collaboratory and the WNC is sponsoring two of the projects. I, however, have had no involvement in this group.)

Whether all 10 initiatives that came out of the JTM Pacific Northwest conference can score the necessary funding to survive remains uncertain. While some have obtained initial grants, others remain unfunded. Fancher acknowledged that each will face heavy competition for financing.

“It won’t be easy,” Fancher said. “But the passion people have for this is encouraging.”

Here is a brief run-down of the 10 initiatives:

1.                    Seattle Digital Literacy Initiative: The UW School of Communications is funding this project for two years, led by Sarah Stuteville of the Common Language Project. Journalists visit local schools, leading discussions about the role of the media and teaching students how to become more informed consumers of the media, as well as better story-tellers.

2.                    Building on Transparency: Journalist and former Seattle Times op-ed writer Matt Rosenberg is leading this project, which is developing a public document database called “Public Data Ferret.” The project is part of a bigger public engagement project in King County called Countywide Community Forums, which has received private funding from donors such as the Spady family, owners of Dick’s Drive-In Restaurants.

3.                    Abundant Journalism: Led by Fancher, this group eventually wants to link journalism projects and initiatives with potential donors.

4.                    Microfinance: The initiative would provide business and micro-finance training for journalists who want to launch new media ventures.

5.                    Media Mapping: Jacob Caggiano of the Washington News Council is working on a project that maps media news and information outlets across the state. A detailed spreadsheet provides their contact information. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation provided matching funds for the WNC’s efforts.

6.                    TAO of Journalism – Transparent, Accountable, Open: Another Washington News Council effort, led by John Hamer, asks individual journalists and news organizations to sign a pledge and display a seal on their websites committing to be transparent about who they are, accountable if they make mistakes, and open to other points of view.

7.                    Global Health Reporting: In a nod to the significant global health work being done in Seattle, members of this initiative, led by Sanjay Bhatt of The Seattle Times, are surveying the sector to see what needs to be covered in the future.

8.        Seattle Happiness Index: This group, led by Michael Bradbury of REALscience, is developing the Seattle Happiness Index, which would measure community well-being

9.                Civic Communications Commons: This group wants to create an online commons that will serve as an information hub and conversation place for news topics. They plan to look for partnerships within the civic, business, and media communities.

10.                     JTM Website Technology: Journalism That Matters Pacific Northwest is developing a new website, expected to go live this month.

Heading forward, the Journalism That Matters Pacific Northwest Collaboratory is scheduling monthly presentations by the individual initiative teams, and the entire group plans to check in quarterly.

Time will tell if any of these projects gain traction and become sustainable. What do you think of these efforts, and which of them would you like to see move forward?

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Seattleites hungry for history

The Luna Park amusement park in West Seattle in 1907. From the Seattlepi.com photo archives.

Seattleites can’t get enough of history lessons these days.

That is, if the lessons include taverns, amusement parks, sports stadiums, or other popular topics from the last 30 to 40 years.

“Very few people are going to click on an old photo of a Seattle pioneer,” said Feliks Banel, a local producer and historian. “They want to read about things they can identify with.”

Banel has been spreading history to the masses in a variety of new venues these days. In June, he began a series for Seattlepi.com called Seattle Rewind. The weekly episodes include a podcast and historic photos.

So far, Banel has covered the amusement parks of Seattle’s past, stadium plans that never came together, J.P. Patches, Seattle radio, Seafair, and the 4th of July. Next up are pieces on the Beatles coming to Seattle and the Seahawks.

Banel tries to tie the history pieces to current events. The Beatles, for instance, played in Seattle in August of 1964. The Seahawks just started their pre-season training camp. Seattlepi.com editors haven’t given the project an end date, as they want to see what kind of attention the stories receive.

Banel made the transition to freelance journalist in late 2008. Before that, he worked as deputy director at the Museum of History and Industry, and then at the Seattle Channel. He decided to go his own path in order to do the projects he wanted to, not realizing that the economy would crash just as he quit his job.

“The first year was rough,” Banel said.

At the same time, Banel recognized that the decline of traditional journalism and the rise of online news meant openings for individuals like him. News outlets need freelance producers to fill segments that regular staff members once took care of.

With web journalism, Banel can easily utilize historic videos and photos to tell a story. The Seattlepi.com pieces, for instance, take advantage of Hearst’s extensive historic photo collection.

“History has become so much more accessible in the last 15 years,” Banel said. “A 50-year-old television clip is as easy to watch as yesterday’s television clip.”

In addition to the Seattlepi.com podcasts, Banel writes for Crosscut.com, talks about recent history on KOMO’s “Not Quite Historian” twice a week and produces the occasional history radio program for KUOW on a segment called “This NOT Just In.”

So far, he’s created three shows for KUOW, and they’ve signed on for 10 more.  Planned programs include the 1962 Columbus Day storm, John Lennon’s assassination, the Kingdome implosion, and the War of the Worlds broadcast.

Banel believes Seattleites are eager to learn about history, so long as it is somewhat recent history. Unlike cities like Boston, Seattle doesn’t have the weight of hundreds of years of stories.

“The paint hasn’t dried yet in Seattle,” Banel said. “We’re still shaping our identity to the outside world, and we gravitate toward the more recent.”

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