Friday, November 28, 2008

Shop 'til you drop

I've never been a big shopper. 

I like to go out and get whatever it is I'm looking for, usually after some comparative price searching on the Internet, and that is that. Done deal. 

So when I joined the mass of shoppers at the Mall at Rockingham Park today, it was the first time in my life I've participated in the Black Friday spending spree. In fact, it was probably the first time since I was six that I got up before 7 a.m. on the day after Thanksgiving. 

My job was to get reactions and shopping stories and the key to eliciting a good story from a man-on-the-street perspective is asking the right question. Unfortunately, when it comes to shopping, I have no idea what that question is. 

Thankfully, despite the long lines and heavy crowds, most of the people crowding the mall (known affectionately by the local police as the M.A.R.P) were in good spirits.

"I'm spending more (this year). I'm trying to help the economy," said one laughing man. "This is the busiest I've ever seen it here. I don't know who's pulling whose leg on the economy."

A glum faced gentleman holding a bag full of purchases outside of an Aeropostale told me he was there for his wife.

"Anything for the wife," he said, before mentioning something about getting skinned alive if he hadn't been at the mall shopping with her on Black Friday. 

The last person I interviewed, a mother shopping with her two daughters, had been up since 3:30 a.m. When I asked her for her motivation, she smiled and said it was an annual tradition with her daughters. 

"I'm not a big shopper," she said. 

Sure. Maybe not 364 days out of the year, but waiting in line for a register at Kohl's for an hour is more than I'm willing to go through. 

I was happy to sneak out of the parking lot with a minimum of problems and be back in bed by 9:30 for a quick nap. Between drop-dead-deals and dozing, I'll always take a few extra hours of sleep.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Salem's Lot

Salem is a town in transition. 

It's known mostly for the Rockingham Park racetrack, Canobie Lake Park, the mysterious America's Stonehenge archeological site and a downtown strip made up of pawn shops, smoke stores and tattoo parlors.

Situated next to Methuen, Mass., and closer to Lawrence, Lowell and Haverhill than Manchester or Concord it can at times feel like Mass-Lite. Most of the residents are from south of the border - a fact that has been attributed as a reason why Rockingham County remains a "red" bedrock of conservatism in an otherwise left-leaning state (Obama won by the some of the closest margins in New Hampshire in Rockingham County which also backed John Sununu and gave Jeanne Shaheen a run for her money and elected a slate of republican candidates - and only one democrat - to Concord).

In Salem, a Boston accent is more commonly heard than in Western Massachusetts. 

Much of the crime is imported from out of state as well. According to Capt. Shawn Patten of the Salem PD, about fifty percent of crime is committed by out-of-staters. 

Salem is very much a collection of vividly different people; a mesh of separate communities with very little in the way of town spirit outside of the local schools and the Boys and Girls Club. North Salem is the only part of town that feels like New Hampshire, complete with lakes and a forested horizon. The Route 28 corridor encompassing North and South Broadway streets is littered with cookie-cutter "big box" style stores like Best Buy, Target and the rapidly liquidating Tweeter store. Aside from the stores and shops lining Rt. 28 and nearby Rt. 38 the rest of the community is relatively quite and composed of suburban-style homes ranging from the sprawl of working class ranches to even a few McMansions. 

At the moment, the town's planning board is considering a proposal that would require the development of land larger than 25 acres undergo a "master plan" process that would let board members work with developers to create a mixed-use piece of land that would incorporate commercial, residential and recreational facilities. A downtown pedestrian district, board director Jim Keller told me earlier today and several other times in past interviews, is something Salem is very interested in creating. 

I've heard the same response from Ross Moldoff, Salem's planning director and from members of a group that is rebuilding the Salem Depot Station (part of the new defunct Boston-Manchester rail line) with public donations. 

At the moment, Salem's downtown consists of a municipal complex that houses the high school, library, town hall, local DMV, housing authority and district courthouse all on the same stretch of road off of Main Street. The closest thing to a town common is the old veteran's cemetary next to the historical society down the street that houses two first world war era artillery pieces.
Creating a downtown district that would encompass parts of the old Salem Depot - where Main Street intersects South Broadway Street creating horrific traffic between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. - remains a vision for the town's planners. 

They understand that it is not going to happen in the near future and if the management at the Rockingham Park racetrack ends up opposing a new ordinance that officials believe would encourage such development as it did in 2003 it may take even longer than that.

In the meantime, Salem will remain a distant suburb of Boston. 

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Post-post-election coverage

I strung for the Associated Press on election night.

I like to tell people that without explaining the background or really adding any context because it just sounds cool as a stand alone phrase. Plus, it helps me convince everybody that I've become a successful journalist.

I strung for the AP on election night.

Doesn't it just have a ring to it?

The truth is much more mundane. The AP office in Concord was looking for extra stringers to help get the ballot counts from communities in Rockingham County (southern New Hampshire) into their database. I agreed to sit in the gymnasium of the public high school in Pelham, NH and wait for the town clerk to tally up the absentee ballots and combine them with the numbers from the voting machine.

Two hours of waiting, sitting in a school desk with absolutely nothing. Next time I'll bring a crossword puzzle. 

Still, I do like to tell people that I've worked for the AP before. 

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Critical thinking on media criticism

The problem with media criticism is that it is mostly handled by current or former members of the media. True, they are likely in the best positions to speak intelligently and offer a naunced critique of the coverage, bias, trends and tools of the media world, but after years of wheeling and dealing in the press themselves, doesn't it open them up to an ethical dilemma?

It strikes me as having about as much of a potential for conflicts of interest as say, a the chairman of your local selectmen's board writing up articles for the area weekly.

Washington Post's Howard Kurtz took a look at the love affair between the press and the Obama Campaign on Nov. 17, only a couple of weeks after the election. It might have been more interesting - not to mention timely - had he taken the time to analyze the bias (or lack there of) in the press prior to Election Day. 

More interesting was the New York Times' subtle declaration of death of the conservative movement in the United States this morning. 

Skip over the editorializing for a moment (though do notice the lack of sources): 

"Now, thanks to the coarsening effect of the Internet on political discourse, the (National Review) may have lost something else: its reputation as the cradle for conservative intellectuals and home for erudite and well-mannered debate prized by its founder, the late William F. Buckley Jr.

In the general conservative blogosphere and in The Corner, National Review’s popular blog, the tenor of debate — particularly as it related to the fitness of Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska to be vice president — devolved into open nastiness during the campaign season, laying bare debates among conservatives that in a pre-Internet age may have been kept behind closed doors."

Now I'm not one to overtly criticize a major journalistic institution in this country, but I fail to see how this article is in fact newsworthy. It appears to be a non-story that has been blown up into a mountain.

Certainly, the reporting raises some interesting points. William Buckley's son endorsed Barack Obama during the campaign and popular writer David Frum is leaving the publication to strike out on its own. 

But the storyline, the larger whole, that these bits of information have been presented as part of is a thinly stretched piece of veneer: 

"The magazine, like some others devoted to ideas and politics, has the luxury of not needing to make money. It is judged by how fervently it can incubate ideas — not as a going business concern. This year, there has been a small increase in circulation. At the start of the year, its circulation was 169,000, which has grown to about 185,000 for its latest postelection issue, which will arrive this week in mailboxes. The magazine’s Web site has also been successful. In October, it had 788,000 unique visitors, up almost 200 percent from the previous year, according to comScore. By comparison, The Weekly Standard had 490,000 unique visitors in October."

So, circulation is up, online hits are up, but let's sound the death knell anyway. And yes, I do see the irony in criticizing media criticism. 

UPDATE: Click here for the National Review's response to their fading into irrelevancy.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Credit where credit is due

Leaving behind a lasting legacy is a drive that propels most people forward in life - some more so than others, it would seem - on a daily basis as well as over the long term. 

The evidence is in the decisions people make on a daily basis and the goals they aspire to in the long run. Marriage, a stable career and raising a family, though a bit less glamourous than someone shooting for the Oval Office, is certainly a reflection of that drive; children mean a physical and genetic legacy. 

On a smaller scale I think each and every one of us hopes to leave something behind at every stop on the long, meandering bus ride that is life. How else do you explain nostalgia?

Looking back at the Daily Collegian I take a significant amount of pride in the legacy that I like to think I left there five months ago. When I click over to their web site I see an incredible amount of well written news articles, something that has been going on all semester as far as I can tell. Last year, just getting student stories into the newspaper was a weekly challenge and I hope my successors have found it easier than I ever did. 

I like to think - especially when I'm falling prey to my excessively enlarged ego - that the foundation laid by the staff last year plays into that success. Reorganizing the news department to encourage student-staffers to essentially give it their all to a publication that did not pay well (or at all) and suffered a fair amount of on-campus insults was something I took an inordinate amount of pride in. 

Now the "kids" have taken it to the next level, bringing in a massive writing staff of names I don't recognize at all from my two and a half years working for the Collegian and probing the issues that I was forced to gloss over in my own tenure in the basement of the Campus Center. 

Just last week I was on the verge of writing an e-mail to the staff congratulating them for the work they've done already in a year that is still fairly young (though as they gear up for finals, it probably doesn't seem that way). What drove me to that point?

Well a couple of glasses of wine, some nostalgia and the terrific job the entire staff did at covering the election. Check out their rolling coverage of Election night here. I was blown away at the work done and a little bit jealous; adapting old print journalism to "new media" has proven to be a bit more clunky and less driven in the real world where making mistakes in order to learn has a bit of a stigma associated with it. I miss posting audio from live meetings and doing podcasts with James and Will, just like I miss trying to convince Kate that she needed to blog more often. 

So I sat down at my keyboard to bang out a quick e-mail to the desk editors, but a piece of inadvertent advice that Eric Athas gave me last year stopped me from going forward. 

To paraphrase an e-mail I got from him in October of 2007: It can be annoying when past editors try to advise you.

Which was never the case when it came to Athas' advice - he was usually right on the money about the things that needed improvement - but I can see how it could be that way.

So I shut my laptop and figured that the next time I'm out in Amherst I'll run into Will or Joe or Kate (maybe even King if he's not too busy) and congratulate them in person. In the meantime I'll leave this blogpost up as a heartily written "congrats" and a thanks for keeping the up the work that all of us put so much into last year.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

A good old fashioned school scandal

Say what you will about "new media," but it takes a good old fashioned newspaper story properly convey this kind of a story.

I spent Friday bombing around Salem trying to get in touch with teachers, administrators, students and parents. 

My favorite quote came from senior leaving school early to beat the daily traffic out of Salem High's parking lot. 

"Most of us think it's funny," he said. He laughed and then took off. 

It brought back some memories of my own high school experience that I had forgotten over the past couple of years. Several dozen students and athletes were suspended from their sports teams after photos of them drinking and smoking "illegal substances" turned up online. I don't remember if it was MySpace, but it probably was. 

I ended up getting interviewed by a young man hanging out across the street from the school. He was a reporter from the Brockton Enterprise (the local daily in southeastern Massachusetts). It reminded me a lot of what I was doing yesterday, trying to catch reactions from students as they tried to get out of the parking lot on a Friday afternoon. 

The reporter at that time was doubly happy to get a quote from me once he found out I had played football that fall. Six months earlier one of the fathers had arranged for a stripper to do a show at one of our night before the game fires/pasta dinners. 

After the team captains talked it over, they decided to thank the father and the stripper, but sent her home. 

That didn't stop Fox 25, CBS 4, NBC 7 and everybody else from showing up. On a national level, Howard Stern called us all "gay" on his radio show and during SNL's Weekend Update Jimmy Fallon mocked us after delivering the news by fist pumping.

"Goooooo Northeastern Gay Birds," he said. 

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

11:15 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 4, Election Day

Hey, it ended at a reasonable hour. 

Usually Monday Night Football lasts longer.