Tuesday, August 30, 2005

People vs. Customers: Getting The Numbers Right When Disaster Strikes

A common media mistake is confusing the number of utility customers who lose power during a storm or disaster with the number of people affected. Sometimes, it's local officials who facilitate those mistakes, but more often than not it's a case of sloppy writing or reporting.
Often times, "customer" and "people" will be used interchangeably, when one customer is actually a single bill-payer, but could be the head of a family of five. So, that means six people in that one house are affected, even though it's only one customer, as far as the utility is concerned.
One utility in the New Orleans area, Entergy, says all of its customers, about 750,000 people, are without power, according to the Times-Picayune. Presumably, not all of them pay a bill, but its customer base accounts for 750,000.
It's important to provide the proper context for these numbers. Suffice to say millions of people in three states are without power. And judging by what officials are saying, it could be a month or more when they can say otherwise.

By the way, the latest dispatch from the Times-Picayune might be the last one for a while. An item posted on www.nola.com at 9:40 a.m. revealed the staff was evacuating its building while they still could. Meantime, the .pdf version of today's paper, with photos that are nothing short of stunning, is available at http://www.nola.com/hurricane/katrina/.
The staff has our thanks and our best wishes.


This Reuters story makes it clear the customers are who the utilities are trying to get to, and has the full scope of the story in its sights.
Meanwhile, the Times-Picayune remains on the run, but James Varney managed to file this compelling slice of life as Southeastern Louisiana now knows it.

Walk All Over Jeff Probst

"Survivor" Host Floored By Latest CBS Promotion
Throughout the north corridors of New York's Grand Central Terminal are large ads for the CBS fall lineup, with various airbrushed cast members for new shows smiling away (pre-Nielsens you'd smile too) as well as posters for some of the sitcom warhorses who would have been put out to pasture had not reality shows sapped network programmers of any creative thinking ("Yes, Dear" I'm talking about "King of Queens").
Anywhoo, all of the ads were along the walls, except for the one for "Survivor," which is on the floor at a busy spot in the terminal. That means thousands of people daily are stepping on Jeff Probst's face without giving it much notice.
You'd think Probst would get more props given "Survivor" is a major reason CBS is at the top of the ratings roost. But no.
In the end, though, expect Probst, Mark Burnett and the next fat naked guy who wins an immunity challenge will still be smiling at the end of sweeps, just like they have ever since the gang on the first show in Borneo was caught grilling rats.
You could say they'll walk all over their competition.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Now This Is More Like It! Post and the News Have Big-Time Hissy Fit Over Gotti Cancer, Or Whatever It Is Today

Tabloid Tsarinas Get Extra Bitchy
Yesterday, the Post took a swipe at a front-page exclusive in Sunday's Daily News that Victoria Gotti had breast cancer. But while the News got the story right, that didn't prevent the Grown-Up Gotti from backtracking, clarifying and stupefying to the point where the only thing now clear is that she's nowhere near death's door.
That was cannon fodder for the Post yesterday, who took square aim at Gotti, a Post columnist from 2001 to 2003, who now toils for the Star when she's not yelling at her sons on TV. Gotti felt sufficiently chastened to give a bizarro-world interview to Post columnist Andrea Peyser, where Gotti literally bares all to prove she's no model of health even if she's not due for a round of chemo.

Victoria Gotti unbuttons her charcoal jacket and in structs me sternly, "I want you to feel this."
Now, I realize that for many men on this planet, and at least some of the women, I'm in an enviable spot.
But standing there wearing a pair of gray hotpants, nude from the waist up, in her sumptuous Old Westbury, L.I., house, Victoria is determined to make me feel her pain.

Must-see TV. I don't think so.

Meanwhile, News gossip doyenne Joanna Molloy, who got the original scoop, launched a fresh set of missiles toward the Post and Gotti.

How embarrassing for the New York Post to have yet another wildly inaccurate front page yesterday with the story "Victoria Gotti never had breast cancer" - even as Victoria Gotti told the nation she did on "Good Morning America."
Gotti told GMA host Charlie Gibson, "What I have is considered by most to be cancer.
"They refer to it as noninvasive cancer.
"I like to say it is not, because I don't want to be labeled as having cancer. Not that there is anything wrong with it."


Peyser and Molloy! In the steel cage! A slap fight for the ages! Be there!

Don't Tell Scott McClellan About This

A buzz in Bangkok when the PM holds court with reporters
Thailand's prime minister has a new way of letting reporters know he's not pleased with some of their questions, you know, the ones that actually question his policies. Democracy Fever. Catch it.

Hurricane Cantore

It's Never A Good Thing When This Guy Hits Town
Weatherman as rock star? Believe it, when it's Jim Cantore doing live stand-ups in the hurricane zone du jour. He's got fans, even though if you see him on a beach or street corner near you, that's not what we in the business call a good sign. But it makes for good TV. The Miami Herald caught up with Cantore as he spends his day courting Katrina.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

News Of The World Admits It's Not 'N Sync With The Truth

That Means A Big Payday in London court for Justin Timberlake
One of the banners on the home page for British tabloid king News Of The World, www.newsoftheworld.co.uk promises "We Pay Cash, Big Money For The Top Stories."
Of course, that's standard practice for the tabs on the other side of the pond, who then find themselves hurtling down a slippery slope of their own making.
Which is how NOTW cozied up to aspiring model Lucy Clarkson, who told the tab last year she boinked Justin Timberlake. That especially got tails wagging because of his longtime, public relationship with Cameron Diaz. Timberlake was not amused, and sued Clarkson and the paper.
Today, the defendants were in court, with their lawyers falling over each other in court trying to issue the most profuse apology, thanks to the UK's severe libel laws, and admitting the story was lies, lies, all lies.
The Guardian's account of the court proceedings was restrained, and free of gloating. At least there was an account. And in a real shocker, no mention of what happened at NOTW's Murdochian brethren, The Times and The Sun. The truth is out there. Sometimes it's just hard to read about it.

NY Post Suffers A Case of Gotti Amnesia

Not That Being Selective With The Facts Ever Bothered Ol' Rupe
The Daily News and Post dispense of tons of ink annually belittling and berating each other, especially when one of them may have made a mistake. Usually, the Post stores all its venom on Page Six, arguably the paper's most-read feature.
The latest contretemps involve Victoria Gotti, who the News reported on Sunday in an exclusive interview with gossip columnist Joanna Molloy was battling breast cancer.
Not so fast. As Page Six gleefully reported, Gotti was bobbing and weaving with the "real story" on Monday, saying she only had precancerous cells that she chose to have aggressively treated. A little different from a malignant tumor, eh?
Molloy uncharacteristically spoke to her bitter rivals about Gotti's new tune, conveniently timed for the third season of "Growing Up Gotti."
"Don't tell me Victoria is shape-shifting the truth again. She told us in January she had breast cancer, and that's the reason she took a leave of absence from Star magazine. She told us again last week, and we recorded it."
While Page Six drove a Hummer through Gotti's credibility gap, it, not suprisingly, left out one crucial fact about Gotti that leaves the paper bloodied by association: She used to work for the Post as a columnist.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

The Economy's Confused, According To The New York Times

Sometimes it pays to read more than just the headlines
On A-1 today, the head reads: Economy Shows Signs Of Strain From Oil Prices.

But then we have on the front of Business Day: Healthy Housing Market Lifted The Economy In July

A little confusing, no?

The first story highlighted how inflation surged due to oil, and how consumers are finally responding in kind.
"Across the country, families are trying to figure out where to cut corners so they can afford gas...."
OK, but then the second story highlights how while oil prices are a drag, the economy is still expanding because of housing and consumer and business demand.
"Outside of energy, the consumer is fine," said Anthony Chan, a senior economist at JP Morgan Asset Management.
Outside of energy? When you've just paid $50 to fill up your tank for the second time this week, there soon won't be much outside of energy.
True, the lengthy jump on C5 [the whole article is not printed verbatim online] tries for some context, but is too prone to waffling. To wit:

Forecasters still expect economic growth to remain healthy for the rest of the year ... But the high cost of oil already appears to be curbing growth, translating into unusually modest gains in employment and pay.

More than a little confusing? Yes, indeed.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Wetting Yourself To Get an iBook

Atypical AP lead captures computer frenzy. But why is local paper using wire copy?
Perhaps by necessity, wire leads are more utilitarian than artful. Here's one that's both and is a winner:

Associated Press Writer
RICHMOND, Va. - A rush to purchase $50 used laptops turned into a violent stampede Tuesday, with people getting thrown to the pavement, beaten with a folding chair and nearly driven over. One woman went so far to wet herself rather than surrender her place in line.

Full story: http://www.timesdispatch.com/servlet/Satellite?pagename=RTD%2FMGArticle%2FRTD_BasicArticle&c=MGArticle&cid=1031784470261&path=%21news%21vaapwire&s=1045855935241.

Only one thing wrong with that link: It's from the Richmond Times-Dispatch, which then begs the question of why it's relying on the AP for what is surely the story everyone in the area is talking about.
Or are incidents like this a common occurrence in Richmond?

Jesse Sandler said he was one of the people pushing forward, using a folding chair he had brought with him to beat back people who tried to cut in front of him.
"I took my chair here and I threw it over my shoulder and I went, 'Bam,'" the 20-year-old said nonchalantly, his eyes glued to the screen of his new iBook, as he tapped away on the keyboard at a testing station.

Nice when a wire reporter can actually take the time to think about what she's going to write, before it's written. For us "deadline every minute" scribes who sometimes felt like stenographers instead of reporters, it's a damn good feeling.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Missing The Story In Your Backyard, While Getting Your Butt Kicked by the Times


Pharmacy fraud story in Westchester reveals homefield advantage for The Journal News means nothing when most essential details of the story are left out
Gannett's The Journal News, like so many of its corporate brethren, has long been interested in style over substance. The only daily covering New York City's tony suburbs in Westchester and Rockland counties, it has consistently underachieved compared to other metro suburban papers such as Newsday and The Bergen Record (full disclosure: I worked at the Journal News and The Record in the late 1980s and early 1990s).
Still, The Journal News does serve its purpose, providing much of the local news the New York dailies won't bother with except when there's a sensational death or something of that ilk.
Which brings us to a story yesterday about a pharmacist charged with $4 million in insurance fraud. The story grabbed my attention as the drug store is in my hometown, and the accused was a supposed pillar of the community who had persevered despite having a CVS a few doors down while a mega Walgreen recently opened nearby.
The Journal News put the story on the bottom of page 1. So far, so good. But the headline was a clueless "Tarrytown pharmacist says he is not guilty." Of what?
The subhead told us Neil Norwood is accused of fraud, but provided scant detail of just how widespread it might be. Instead, the story focused on his pro forma arraignment and tussle over his bail. Who cares.
The real story was found in The New York Times on B4 headlined "Westchester Druggist Held in $4 Million Fraud"
The article by Anahad O'Connor details how Norwood allegedly overcharged customers, shorted their prescriptions, substituted generic drugs and billed insurance companies for brand names, and in several instances withheld fertility drugs from women trying to get pregnant.
The Journal News article from apparently stretched-thin veteran reporters Jonathan Bandler and Liz Sadler alludes to some of that in the lead, but then barely touches on it in the article. And the best part of the story, the fertility drug angle, is totally missing.
A bad day for Neil Norwood. Not much better for The Journal News.

While I neglected to note that The Journal-News had a story on the arrest the day before The Times, the point remains that with a second-day lead, that's when you have a time to develop the story further and elicit the more juicy details that a deadline may not afford a reporter. In this case, The Journal-News stumbled badly, choosing to focus on an arraignment rather than zeroing in on details freely offered up by a media-friendly D.A.

Mad Hot Bleeping Ballroom--How American Airlines Shields Its Passengers From History

Is it possible to be too sensitive about 9/11?
It had been a while since I had been on a flight with a movie, let alone one with a movie that I actually wanted to watch. So, it was a pleasant surprise Wednesday when my American Airlines flight from New York to Dallas had the documentary "Mad Hot Ballroom" on offer, a winning film about a ballroom dancing competition in New York City public schools.
It's rare that a documentary would be a featured film on a plane, but this one was engaging and harmless, though not harmless enough for American.
In the beginning, the principal of an elementary school near Ground Zero expressed reservations about her school taking part in the competition, which began in 2002, "just after 9/11." Except that "9/11" was bleeped out. At first, I thought it was a glitch in the plane's sound system, but quickly enough realized the context of the statement.
Taking into account that American lost two planes that day, I nonetheless had to wonder what the hell they were thinking. Would passengers start breaking into uncontrollable sweats or have anxiety attacks at the mere mention of 9/11? Would the sky marshal seize the tape?
Studios have a long history of bleeping out, excising or re-editing anything that might push a film beyond PG so airlines can show it to everyone without fear. "Mad Hot Ballroom" has no such concerns.
Nearly four years after 9/11, I think it's time to give airline passengers a little credit lest they miss out on a poignant moment in a special film that they unexpectedly get to see.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Top 10 TV Shows Ever

The blogosphere's been bustling with Top 10 lists of favorite TV shows instigated by Jeff Jarvis' BuzzMachine blog.
Our contributions, and you're welcome to chime in with yours:

In no particular order:

Arrested Development--In two seasons, it has always delivered episodes full of loud, consistent laughs. Best watched on TiVo to catch all the jokes you missed in real time.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show -- The best ensemble comedy ever.
St. Elsewhere -- Rare is the show that can last as long as this one did, with as fair-to-middling ratings as it had. But there was a reason, with compelling, quirky characters and the best in-jokes anywhere.
Boomtown -- Brilliant show that highlighted the myopia that frequently inflicts network execs who cancel a show rather than trying to nurture an audience.
Northern Exposure -- Sure, it got dumb and borderline unwatchable toward the end, but at its height, the eccentric charm, humanity and humor of Cicely, Alaska, was a winner.
The Wonder Years -- If you were of a certain age, of a certain time, you knew this progam rang true. And even if you weren't, it was still a pleasure to watch.
The Prisoner -- Perhaps the best science fiction show ever, even if it never left the earth. Or did it?
The Bob Newhart Show -- What a tandem on Saturday nights with MTM. Lost a little steam in its final season, but only a little.
The Shield -- Bare-knuckled cop drama at its best, which hasn't stood still. Characters have come full circle to reveal new dimensions. And guest turns this year by Glenn Close and Anthony Anderson were nothing short of brilliant.
Hill Street Blues -- At its best, which was most of the time, you cared deeply about this often motley crew. Bochco recognized the brilliance of Dennis Franz, who after a guest turn as psycho cop Sal Benedetto, returned as schlumpy-but-compelling Norman Bunz, the antecdent for Andy Sipowicz.

Giving New Meaning To Ball Buster

Testicular tribulations for one man who endured a scrotum conundrum for a fortnight (and oh, what a night it was)
Either this guy lost a bad bet, got really drunk and did something stupid or is bucking to be enshrined in the Fetish Hall of Champions real soon. You could say he was having a ball. But we won't.

New York Times Grammar Corner

Who's Modifying Whom?
From an NY Times story today about the Jim DeFede dismissal:

"Executives at The Miami Herald, which fired a columnist late last month......"

Shouldn't it be "who fired"? After all, it was the executives who did the firing, not the Herald, per se.
Yes, the comma would trigger a "which." However, the sentence could just as easily have been written:
"Executives at The Miami Herald who fired...."

Of course, this is moot if the Herald has assumed anthropomorphic attributes we previously didn't know about. Being that we're talking about South Florida, anything's possible.

The Third Dimension of Magazine Ads

Or Trying to Find the Line Between Being Edgy and Just Plain Obnoxious
You'll often find me sifting through a Vanity Fair or GQ feeling smug that I've already made it to page 110 and I've barely read anything. Too many ads, telling me too little. I want an express ride to the next Christopher Hitchens or Alan Richman piece.
Of course, I'm not alone. Which means advertisers aren't going to leave me alone, according to this WS Journal piece that heralds (warns? threatens?) ads that will literally be getting in our faces.
If you're used to passive magazine ads, welcome to the new reality. Or call it the New Desperation sweeping Madison Avenue. And it's coming to a mailbox near you, assuming your magazine will still be able to fit in the mailbox.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Old Magazines Never Die, They Just Become Podcast

Tracks magazine to let listeners do more than just read about music
Like hundreds of its brethren, the music magazine Tracks bit the dust in April after three years, its ambitions to focus on the alt-country, Americana and AAA artists favored by boomers outweighed by too much red ink.
Alan Light put out a quality product, and the sampler that came from each issue didn't hurt. This week came an e-mail that Tracks was going to emerge in a podcast format, with interviews by Light, shorter features and music from artists the magazine pushed, such as Kathleen Edwards, Sufjan Stevens and Iron & Wine.
Can't tell you yet what I think of it, as the download came up empty. More importantly, Tracks eventually wants subscribers to pony up three bucks a month for its efforts, which puts it into uncharted podcast territory.
It's a risky strategy at best, given the paucity of successful, free Web content, and the plethora of free podcasts, even if most are devoid of the professional sheen that will accompany the Tracks effort. And Tracks' dilemma comes down to the most nagging question about podcasts: who has the time to listen to all this stuff?
Meantime, for those hungering for the latest on the likes of Lucinda Williams (the last Tracks cover girl), there is still Harp, which covers much of the same waterfront, and Paste, which arrived in my mailbox yesterday, and said they'd honor my Tracks subscription for up to a year.
The bi-monthly Paste, http://www.pastemagazine.com/, is slick and suprisingly thick, pushing 200 pages, filled with a melange of interviews, news and reviews for those of us a tad old for Spin or Vibe, and looking for more than the small amount of coverage this music gets in Rolling Stone.
Like Tracks did, Paste backs up its enthusiasm for the music it covers with an eclectic CD sampler that's great for the road if your car doesn't have XM or Sirius. The CD comes with a twist, namely a DVD on the flip side with one hour's worth of concert footage and music videos.
Given that it charges $7.95 on the newsstand, Paste makes it worthwhile to plunk down $26.95 for a subscription, though Tracks subscribers can sign up for $20 through Sept. 15.
Many of the artists these magazines cover don't sell scads of albums. But they often make up for it with small but fiercely devoted followings, which Paste and Harp need to latch onto

Short Attention Span Theatre--Ebert and Roeper Style

I recently noticed that Ebert and Roeper have started showing the running time of a movie when they first start showing a clip.
Hard to tell if that's to satisfy people who need to know when to tell the babysitter they'll be back from the multiplex. Or maybe it's for the old folks who don't want to or can't sit through a three-hour flick and have to make the early bird at the local seafood joint after the matinee.
Whatever the reason, it would be lamentable if more people chose movies solely on the basis of how much time they'd have to invest. There are three-hour plus movies where you never look at your watch (Dances With Wolves and Titanic come to mind), while there are 80-minute jobs that feel padded.
Given all the dreck Ebert and Roeper have to sit through so we don't, it's a safe bet the running time

Niger Making Cameo Appearances on U.S. Networks

Possible Starvation of Millions Starts To Be Noted, But Still Not Compelling Enough for Regular Treatment?
It was nice to see over the weekend CNN having a diplomat from Niger on live Sunday morning to discuss the famine that imperils his country. More so, it was startling to see later in the day on NBC Nightly News two reports on the situation, first a Q&A with an ITN reporter there, second a New York-based dispatch from Dawn Fratangelo on why aid is not getting there faster.
Networks nowadays traditionally relegate much of their foreign coverage to the weekends, particularly when nothing is stirring on the homefront, which is often the case during the summer.
When 3.6 million people are threatened with starvation, you'd think that should be the focus of more in-depth treatment. But of course the networks' coverage of anything in Africa is intermittent at best. Too expensive. Too hard to relate to. Too much time taken away from stories about Natalee Holloway. And so on.
True, no one said it's easy to cover a crisis in one of the world's poorest nations. The satellite phones may not work and there's no Marriott to retreat to after a hard day of witnessing untold misery. But that's news biz. Seems it would be hard to find a more compelling story right now. News organizations have no trouble parachuting in journos when bullets are flying on the Continent. Why not a similar treatment when a nation is weakened by a more pernicious enemy than greed or power?
Some interesting dispatches are getting out, including this one from the AP that highlights how food is available if you have the cash that few in Niger have ever possessed.
And if Niger's president is to be believed, the food crisis may actually be easing:
Nonetheless, it's a story that won't go away soon, and as the Christian Science Monitor reports, is one that is an issue elsewhere in Africa and will continue to be so. Which means it demands our attention, and not just on Sunday.