Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Sorry for the extended silence, but the local media has been so good, so thoughtful and careful, that I've had nothing to say. Nah, just kidding.

"Get the name of the dog." It's a mantra of good journalism. It means, get every little detail, because you never know which one might be telling. As Brendan McCarthy shows is this Times Picayune article, it's not enough to get the name of the dog. You also have to know when to use that detail and, more importantly, when to leave it in the notebook.

McCarthy has great material. It's a bank robbery like you'd see on K-Ville. An organized team robbed an armored car in the middle of the day. Allow me to quote at length so that that you can hear the tone deaf delivery:
Three men in ski masks with assault rifles at their sides pulled off a highly choreographed armored-truck heist late Thursday morning and exchanged gunfire with a security guard outside a bank in the bustling Riverbend neighborhood.

A just the facts lede. Nothing wrong with that.
The brazen armed robbery, according to police and witnesses, went like this: Shortly before 11:30 a.m., a black Dodge Intrepid squealed to a halt -- diagonally across the road -- outside Mona's Cafe at 1120 S. Carrollton Ave. Car horns began blaring. Drivers started swearing.

A man dressed in black with a ski mask covering his face got out of the car and walked down the block.

He starts to slip here. If you're going try a narrative approach, it's best not to start so bland.
Across the tree-lined street, children at St. Andrew's Episcopal School reveled at recess, playing a game of Octopus, when the commotion erupted. A teacher ushered the students into the chapel and led them in prayer.

Ah, the revelry of youth! I bet you didn't know this, but it was also a beautiful morning in New York the day the terrorists attacked the Twin Towers. Innocence and evil! How can they both exist in this world of ours?
On the Zimpel Street side of the building, an armored truck idled. An armored-truck guard pushed a cart stacked with encyclopedia-sized boxes of coins and money toward the truck. The other guard held the door open.

The gunmen confronted the guards.

Bennett Luke, a bank customer, said he was inside leaning against a wall, chatting on his cell phone. The room suddenly went quiet.

Well, now that it's quiet Luke will find it easier to talk on his cell phone.
The gunmen fired several rounds. Across Zimpel Street, a young man in his pajamas heard the shots. His cat was clawing at the window.

"Dut-dut-dut-dut . . . It sounded like firecrackers going off," said the man, who asked not to be identified.

"I came out of my house and this guy had a straight-up AK-47," he said. "It even had a banana clip on it. This was a professional job. No doubt about it."

The robbers got away with an undisclosed amount of money, authorities said. They never entered the bank, according to sources.

My word, man, it's 11:30 in the morning. Time to take a shower and get dressed. No wonder he didn't want to be identified. And watch that cat. Sounds like it's trying to escape.

What I want to know is whether any puppies witnessed this brazen crime. And what was that puppy's name?

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

I hate to nitpick...who am I kidding? Media Maven loves to nitpick. Check out this section of Gordon Russell's TP piece on Oliver Thomas:
The prosecution's memo was filed last week with a request that it be sealed. It was introduced into the court record Tuesday morning after Vance denied the motion to seal it.

Ironically, Thomas' own crime came to the attention of authorities as a result of another convict's cooperation.

Restaurateur and political operative Stan "Pampy" Barre, who is awaiting sentencing for his role in skimming money from a City Hall energy contract, told authorities that Thomas had extorted roughly $15,000 in bribes from him in exchange for a pledge that he would help Barre retain a portion of a French Quarter parking contract.
Help me out here. Where is the irony in this situation?

Monday, November 19, 2007

We had another election on Saturday. Instead of actually writing some original thoughts, I'll just link to Library Chronicle, Celius and Pistolette, who all wonder why they local media made these races all about race. Good question.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

If you read the Picayune online, you probably don't know about the copydesk's latest blunder. Yesterday an A1 headline said, "Downpours outpace new pumps' capacity." Not quite.

Today, there was a front page correction. The new pumps, installed by the Corps of Engineers, are only used in a tropical storm. The old, repaired pumps, which are operated by local governments, were the ones that were overcome by rain.

When was the last time you saw a page 1 correction? Of course, no only won't you see the correction online, but you'll still read the erroneous headline.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Your Right Hand Thief takes the Gambit to task for twice endorsing a politician and now begging for us to boot him out of office:

The Gambit Weekly endorsed Derrick Shepherd twice. In 2003 they endorsed him "wholeheartedly", and then later in 2005 they endorsed him with the laughable hope that he would "bridge divisions" in the legislature. The Times Picayune also endorsed Derrick Shepherd in the summer of 2005.

These publications helped the political ascendancy of Derrick Shepherd with their endorsements, and now, once State Senator Shepherd is entrenched, these ultra-informed publications suddenly tell us that Derrick Shepherd's district "desperately needs a new senator. The incumbent is among the least effective-- and least trusted-- members of the Legislature" (quote from this week's Gambit).

Thanks a fudging lot, Intrepid Fourth Estate!!

Like in so many other areas, the Gambit would have more credibility if it could just admit its mistakes.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

A couple of links. Ashley Morris would like to remind the TP that Cowen, as in Tulane president Scott Cowen, is spelled with an "e" and not an "a." Over at Library Chronicles, there is more discussion of Reckdahl's article (and thank you LC for the link).

Monday, October 8, 2007

The property assessment saga continues, and the TP weighs in with an update that's the work of not one, but two reporters.

"Appeals pay off for many in N.O.," says the headline. Ok, many got a lower assessment. Let's move into to the story.

"The endless hours that thousands of New Orleanians spent standing in line in early August..." (uh, if the hours were endless, then aren't they still there?) "...paid off for at least some of the disgruntled owners." Guess the headline was wrong. We talking about at least some, not many. It looks like the overall property base is now $2.684 billion instead of the $2.602 billion that it was before the initial appeals. Finally, real numbers.

"Some of the reduction resulted from assessors correcting mistakes, or adding homestead exemptions or 'age freezes' for property owners who forgot to file them." Ok, some. But what percentage is some? It's less than many, I'm guessing.

"In other cases, owners apparently persuaded assessors that their property simply was not worth as much as the assessors first decided." Ok, how many cases? Two? Two thousand?

Despite the slightly lower tax base (a roughly 3% decrease in property values after initial appeals, if my numbers are right), we're assured that millage rate will still decrease significantly. How much will taxes decrease?

"Such a decrease would greatly soften the blow of higher assessments for most residents." Most, huh? "Many would actually see a reduction in their tax liability, although many who have received upward reassessments greater than 41 percent would still have to pay more." Many would see a reduction, you say? Is that more or less than the many who will have to pay more?

And while we're asking questions, who provided all this reliable data? We're 7 paragraphs into the story and not a single source has been named.

In general, too many reporters are sloppy about numbers. Sometimes, it doesn't matter that much. This story, though, is all about numbers. If you don't have even vague numbers, then you don't have much information. From my perspective, you either wait until you know more, report only what you know in detail now or admit explicitly in the story that at this point your numbers are vague.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

On Wednesday, Katy Reckdahl filed an article in the TP about police breaking up a second-line parade and the arrest of two musicians:

The confrontation spurred cries in the neighborhood about the over-reaction and disproportionate enforcement by police, who had often turned a blind eye to the traditional memorial ceremonies. Still others say the incident is a sign of a greater attack on the cultural history of the old city neighborhood by well-heeled newcomers attracted to Treme by the very history they seem to threaten.

She quotes one long term resident by name and several unnamed residents as sources that newcomers dropped a dime on the parade:

But Curry and other longtime residents point fingers at Treme newcomers, who buy up the neighborhood's historic properties, then complain about a jazz culture that is just as longstanding and just as lauded as the neighborhood's architecture.

Any evidence in the story that newcomers are to blame? Nope. Any attempt to even define who these newcomers are? Nope. Any research that the demographics have changed in the Treme? Not in this article.

The next day, Reckdahl filed this article, which ran on the front page, about the good character of the two musicians arrested and their plans to plead innocent:

In many ways, the Police Department could not have nabbed two musicians more reflective of the neighborhood. Part of a large extended musical family, the brothers were raised in Treme by their mother Vana Acker. And the men are determined to give today's children a Treme-style cultural education. "If you're around music, like we were in the 6th Ward, you're going to be a musician," Andrews said.

So, one more day of reporting and not a single shred of evidence that this is actually a conflict between newcomers and the old residents. But Reckdahl takes one more crack at the story in the next day's metro section. The musicians plead innocent and neighborhood leaders again denounce the newcomers:

Speaker after speaker also described the turnover in population they've seen, as outsiders have bought an increasing number of houses in old Treme, where renters and homeowners often lived side by side for generations.

Neighbors believe that some of the newcomers triggered Monday's police response with 911 calls. Police said they were required to respond to the complaint and considered the celebration to be a parade that requires a city permit.

Again, after three days of covering this story, we have nothing but unsubstantiated hearsay and no attempt to verify this facts.

John McIntryre, a copy editor at the Baltimore Sun, recently listed the red flags that make copy editors take a closer look at a story:

Exaggeration. Any claim that something is the first, the only, the largest of its kind is automatically flagged for inspection. Superlatives are not to be trusted.

Anonymous sources. Readers wonder about stories with anonymous sources, and with good reason. By definition, an anonymous source has something to hide. It may be a good reason — and at The Sun, there are two legitimate reasons: apprehension of physical harm if the source is identified and apprehension of significant economic harm. Reporters are not supposed to grant anonymity casually, just to spare someone embarrassment.

Unsupported statements. Single-source stories make editors sit bolt upright. Anything that comes only from a single source — a person, a document — without support, without independent confirmation of its factual accuracy, can’t be trusted. Has The Sun been burned by stories with single-source information in the past? Oh yes.

Quality of the support. Who or what actually backs up the source? Is the person a figure of credibility? Does the person verifying the source have an interest in the statement? Have reliable reference works been cited? Better not mention Wikipedia.

Copy editors as well as reporters live by the motto of the Chicago’s City News Bureau: IF YOUR MOTHER SAYS SHE LOVES YOU, CHECK IT OUT.

In the Reckdahl articles we have anonymous sources, unsupported statements and questionable quality of support (a random resident isn't exactly an authority). Did the copy editors raise concerns? Reckdahl might be right that "newcomers" are to blame, but her articles doesn't try to answer that question.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

In giant type the Picayune announced today that "Pump station plans may erase landmarks." You know the paper is serious about this story, because they drew some pictures to go with it.

Oh my, that's terrible news. What landmarks might we lose? A historic mansion? A great work of art? Oh God, I hope we're not losing the Super Dome! No, we're talking about some volleyball courts, a Baptist church and Deanie's, a neighborhood joint that serves not so great fried seafood. You call those landmarks?

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The Picayune has an odd neurosis about not mentioning any other publication in New Orleans. They'd rather give their readers vague information than, God forbid, commit to print the name of another magazine or newspaper. Nothing like having your priorities straight.

Recently, they got a nice nostalgic quote from Errol Laborde and identified him simply as a "writer and magazine editor." Would it have killed them to mention that he edits and partially owns New Orleans Magazine, the city magazine. Wouldn't the readers have been better served with more information.

Although today, I bet one publication is glad about this policy. In an article about Melissa Williams soliciting sex through Craig's List, the Picayune reported that the woman wasn't new to the sex industry: "the Sheriff's Office vice squad arrested Melissa Williams in 2004 after deputies answered an ad she had placed in a New Orleans alternative newspaper." Now what "alternative newspaper" could they be referring to? Me, I don't know. I only read the Times Picayune.

Monday, September 24, 2007

The Picayune plunges into the at-large council race and addresses head-on the issue of race. Historically, one at-large council-person has been white and the other black. With Oliver Thomas gone, that balance might end.

A Mr. Banks, a leader of disgraced councilman Oliver Thomas' political organization BOLD, says, "I hope race is a factor and I hope the makeup of the council in on voter's minds, because this is a diverse community and we need diverse leadership."

Helpfully, the Picayune shows photos of the top five contenders on the front page. I wish I could show them to you, but it's not online. How would you arrange the photos? Alphabetical by last name? That would be my neutral choice. The Picayune decided it made more sense to group the candidates by race. Up top, we have the two whites--Boulet and Brechtel Clarkson. Below, we have the top black contenders--Vassel, Bajoie and Willard-Lewis.

Just because some people believe race is the most important character of each candidate, it doesn't mean the paper has to adopt this.

What I couldn't figure out at first is how they organized the black candidates. After staring at the photos for a while, I had to conclude that the blacks are arranged from darkest (Vassel) to lightest (Willard-Lewis).

Monday, August 27, 2007

Did you seen that A1 headline in the TP? Political Bad News Takes a Toll: But State's Reputation Isn't Necessarily Fatal. Well, thank God that a chance exists that the state won't die. What does the article say? Oh, nothing of the sort. There is corruption, but most lawmakers won't punish the residents for bad leaders. Also, Mississippi has stronger and more senior leaders, so they've scored more money. Also, Landrieu and Vitter are competitive with each other, so that might be slowing down the process. Then again, it keeps them both working hard.

Wait a minute, that headline wasn't really about the article, was it? Once again, the TP writer turns in a well-written story and the copydesk acts like they work for a cheap tabloid and slaps on a hysterical hed. Can someone teach the copydesk some reading comprehension skills?

Friday, August 24, 2007

Brett Anderson, another regular TP columnist who has only worked irregularly since the storm, files a real story today. It's about Rocky and Carlo's in Chalmette. Not a bad piece, if a bit uninspired. Ah, but this is the odd part. It sounds like all the interviews were done in November. And the restaurant reopened in February. So why is this running in August? I thought dailies were supposed to break news.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

I'm not always a fan of Chris Rose, but in today's column he did what few of his colleagues ever dare to do--he called out fellow writers for their foolishness:
I realize that corruption exists elsewhere in this country and one of my colleagues at the paper has gone to great lengths to document it as to make Louisiana seem no more remarkable than other locations in this matter.

But we are. Because our process is infected, rotten, dying from the inside out. In other venues, corruption is the shocker. Here, it is expected, and that is the sad truth and I guess that's where Oliver and Honor went their separate ways, on the power climb.

Another colleague at the paper -- and many political elders in the state -- are finding a soft spot in their hearts for Edwin Edwards, implying that because the man is old and has served half his prison term, that he should summarily be released to live a life of genteel retirement by some pristine waters, fishing instead of mopping prison floors.

What a load of hooey. Edwards is lucky he didn't spend more of his life behind bars and he should bank that when he goes to bed at night in his prison cot. The operative systems that guys like him set in place is one where their cronies -- these obvious, pathetic and ill-spoken lowlifes -- walk off with state and city money while the state and city fail, falter, die.
Good work. (And I swear this blog will not be all about Chris.)

Monday, August 6, 2007

Chris Rose surfaced from his undisclosed location (I believe it's called rehab) to file some copy. What do you bet that he disappears for another few months to flog his new book?