Saturday, July 30, 2011

Film Review: The Help (Aug 10 in US and UK)

Viola Davis in "The Help" photo courtesy of Dreamworks ©2011

review by Michael Orton
copyright 2011 ImageProviders
All Rights Reserved

At the Sundance Film Festival this past January, a memorable appearance by Harry Belafonte offered the young filmmakers in attendance a personal understanding of his involvement in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and of his fervent desire that above anything else, they be society's radicals (his emphasis). Citing the Works Progress Administration and the work of Dorthea Lange and Ben Shahn, he described artists as "the caretakers of truth," and perhaps even guardians of our culture and he said that "radical thought is the energy of the Universe."

Harry Belafonte (right) "sitting"

Belafonte told those assembled that day that he felt he had been "fortunate to interface with the harbingers of radical thinking," people like Eleanor Roosevelt and Paul Robeson. "The power of art is not to portray life as it is, but life as it should be..." but he also warned, "To be a radical is to be an outcast. We definitely paid a price."

These themes multiply the force and effect of the Tate Taylor film version of Kathryn Stockett's 2009 debut novel, "The Help," a story set in and about Jackson, Mississippi and the Jim Crow south. With breakout performances by Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis (note that several Oscar nominations are predicted, here), and with Stockett's author adequately played by ingenue Emma Stone, the film also contains a stunningly appropriate cameo by none other than Cicely Tyson herself. When Ms. Tyson takes the screen, one feels as though history has indeed come alive. Allison Janney offers a welcome presence as part of Jackson Mississippi's plantation establishment and Sissy Spacek's unabashed comic relief allows the overarching social tension to be almost welcome.

(l to r) Bryce Dallas Howard, Sissy Spacek and Octavia Spencer in "The Help"

America in the sixties included television's "Andy Griffith Show" for those privileged enough to have "Ozzie and Harriet" and "Leave It to Beaver" memories of their childhood, they were  idyllic for some but not for all during that convulsive time of our nation's history. Ironically, one of the most caustic characters in the story is very well delivered by Bryce Dallas Howard a generation after her father (director Ron Howard) was Andy Griffiths' cherubic "Opie" in the Mayberry series of the sixties. 

In "The Help," white hot performances including a revelatory soliloquy, delivered with piercing effect by Ms. Davis, help us truly understand that those famous years were not idyllic for everyone who lived through them. This is the transcendent effect of "The Help," and one that will definitely be recognized during Oscar's upcoming "For Your Consideration" season beginning in just six months. (Perhaps it is significant to note here that the nation's general election will occur only eight months after the Oscars are awarded this coming March).

And after viewing and feeling this story, which forcefully reminds us of how far we've come as a nation, one might conclude that as strenuous and painful as it was, the effort of Harry Belafonte, Martin Luther King and those other harbingers of radical thinking, was just The Help we needed.

"The Help" a DreamWorks release of a Reliance Big Entertainment feature

from the novel by Kathryn Stockett
screenplay by Tate Taylor
directed by Tate Taylor

The film is far better than this trailer portrays it to be...

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Future of Journalism Utah?

by Michael Orton
copyright 2011 – all rights reserved

Salt Lake City –
First filed July 26, 2011

There is a saying among courtroom reporters who acknowledge the influence of journalism that “even judges read the newspapers.” It would be difficult to find many or any judges who would admit doing so prior to a ruling. Being informed is one thing, being influenced is another. Judges cite case law and legal precedent, yes. Newspapers, no.

In a packed federal courtroom for the district of Utah, Judge Dee Benson listened attentively to pre-sentencing arguments in the matter of The United States v. Timothy DeChristopher, the environmental activist convicted of disrupting a BLM lease auction under fraudulent pretense.

Judge Benson allowed Patrick Shea, one of DeChristopher’s attorneys to lead off. Then DeChristopher spoke on his own behalf, then John Huber spoke for the prosecution, followed by a rebuttal summation and plea for “creative” leniency by defense counsel Ron Yengich.

Then it was the judge’s turn to make some comments on the case and pronounce DeChristopher’s sentence. During his attempt to “do something appropriate,” as a penalty, Benson, with 20 years on the bench, did something quite unusual for a federal judge justifying the imprisonment of the accused: He quoted the Deseret News, the wholly-owned newspaper of Utah’s Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the Mormons). “Civil disobedience cannot be the order of the day,” noted Benson before sending DeChristopher to federal prison for two years and fining him $10,000.

Utah’s independent daily, The Salt Lake Tribune, (owned by the Denver-based Media NewsGroup) had issued an editorial that day calling anything more than a token sentence an act of “retribution,” given other public figures in Utah who had blatantly violated federal laws governing public lands, and who had not even been indicted. This overt influence of Utah’s dominant culture, through its church-owned media, left many in the courtroom stunned.

The Flailing Model in Legacy Media

“Stop the presses,” says Marc Andreessen, founder of Netscape. “Stop them right now,” he says with an emphatic index finger diving to the table. He says that because he feels the business of newspapers is a losing proposition and will continue to be. He describes it as a failing industry that is still scrambling to make sense of itself. “It is an industry that is struggling to be profitable amidst post-recession economic realities, the accelerating adoption of new technologies… and the growing number of people who have something to say to the connected world,” …many of whom were present in that Utah courtroom.

Journalism may not be “in trouble,” as much as it is “in revision.” Yes, 20,000 journalism jobs were lost in 2010 and newspapers have closed in major metro markets such as Denver, Baltimore and Cincinnati. But just like typewriting has changed in the past 25 years, so has a media profession which began with wooden type and handbills. This is not to say that the investigative reporter or the city council watchdog are job descriptions of the past. Where we will find them and when are the real issues of the new media.

“Information distribution via newspapers is based on an industrial age paradigm using fossil fuels to obtain wood turned into pulp and then paper using assembly-line methods and child labor for distribution,” observes Ric Cantrell, who, before becoming Utah Senate President Michael Waddoups’ Chief Deputy, coordinated communications for the state’s senate majority. The implication is unavoidable, especially in Utah, where broadband has penetrated three out of four households. Endorsements by federal judges notwithstanding, many newspapers as we have known them are on life support in this part of the information age.

LISA CARRICABURU of the Salt Lake Tribune -- Photo copyright 2011 ImageProviders

So when Lisa Carricaburu, the assistant managing editor of the Salt Lake Tribune says, “the journalist’s role is changing immensely right now,” is she observing that journalism students graduating in the 21st century have learned to write the basics of HTML coding, or does she really mean that the journalists’ systems and delivery are changing immensely right now? Has their role in society really changed very much?

“Agency shops,” like the Los Angeles Times and the Valley News and Green Sheet of years ago, adopted the efficiencies of scale economies for profit after the Newspaper Agency Corporation came into existence. Competing newspapers simply couldn’t support two different delivery channels, but society recognized the value of two different points of editorial view and patronized them. An agency shop was one served by the same distribution company as its competitor. Two different papers were delivered by one “paperboy,” often on a bicycle working in the neighborhood before or after school. For some, it was a good gig while it lasted.

“Newsies” photo courtesy of Disney Pictures Marketing -- all rights reserved

This is when Utah’s Deseret News first looked toward becoming the Deseret Morning News, after being an evening paper for decades. Today, the distributor for Utah’s major dailies is a company called “Media One,” and has diversified into real estate brokerage and employment agency functions. In the 21st century, their warehouse in Salt Lake City is a shell of its former self. Much of what was transported by trucks in the wee Utah hours (including the daily New York Times, also printed for western distribution in Salt Lake City) is now transmitted at the speed of light, and updated several times per day.

Reporting Technologies

As analog communications technologies were overcome by the digital wave that began in the nineteen eighties, entire careers depreciated and worker expertise became obsolete. Can this be said of journalism? Yes and no…

If electronic devices like laptop computers, smartphones, tablet e-readers and others are considered fully depreciated and even obsolete within three years, and with software outdated even faster, a provocative question with an uncertain answer is surely, “What is the future of journalism?” A panel of local reporters and editors recently assembled in Salt Lake City and tried to illuminate that topic by taking a few steps into that tunnel at the end of the light.

L to R: Ben Winslow, Jeff Robinson, Lois Collins and Lisa Carricaburu

In that panel, Ms. Carricaburu declared that “What we [journalists] do, is worthy of pay, as opposed to what is often happening where journalism is treated as something that everyone can do and doesn’t have value to it.” Perhaps, but to those who witnessed the crackdown in the former Soviet Union, where police were flown in from Moscow to quell an autoworkers’ rebellion, or where dissidents in Iran pleaded with Twitter’s management to forestall a planned Twitter maintenance shutdown until their protest could be organized, directed and reported, citizen journalists and their newmedia most certainly have value with their audience. More recently, the last of the pharaohs was undone by “social media practitioners” in Egypt who couldn’t have cared less for remuneration but who did see their work as their calling. Because they’re being paid, a whole generation of “Mommy Bloggers” who have lured brands like Johnson & Johnson, MacDonalds, Hanes and Aveda (it goes on) to sponsor their websites now must be some kind of “journalists,” with that view.

Lois Collins of the Deseret Morning News

“Community is what is subject to definition because [journalism] goes out broader and broader as technology progresses,” offers Lois Collins of the Deseret Morning News, “Journalism, practiced well, is a good set of eyes and ears in the community to help you be grounded and know what’s going on around you.” Hence the Twitter messages emanating from Tarir Square, Yemen and now Bahrain must be viewed as some kind of journalism or at least “reportage,” right? “Live Tweeting,” as it has come to be known, is a valid way of receiving the news, as evidenced during Utah’s 2011 legislative season and subsequent re-districting discussions. The hashtag has come of age, and very rapidly so.

“We do have to deliver the news any way people want it,” says Ms. Carricaburu, “It’s a moving target, and we’re always trying to figure out what’s next and what our role is.”

That hasn’t always been the case, even in the days well before the digital doorstep. In fact, in its earliest relationship with government, journalists and newspapers were steeped in partisanship and bias, a notion that would be tempered by professional organizations and emerging efforts at ethical standards as reporters’ reach, frequency and sophistication increased.

The journalism trade now has a cadre of “backpacker” journalists who, operating alone, can file a story from a daypack containing a solid-state video camera, a laptop computer and a cellular or satellite phone, from anywhere in the world (with very limited exceptions). News producers and editors have embraced the “multi-media journalist” model, where advances in communications demand that a cub reporter know the basics of HTML5 coding. Why? Because today, when the story originates electronically, those who insist on reading the inked version are at least 12hrs behind the breaking stories when the newsprint hits their driveway or newsstand. When was the last time you bought an ink ribbon for a typewriter, if you ever did?

Current Governance and Management of Journalism

In the U.S., the discussion of the role of government in regulating the internet as medium for news outlets has centered around the concept of “net neutrality,” where the big corporate players like Comcast and the telecommunications companies would prefer more profit when more bandwidth is required (esp. in the distribution of news and entertainment). Consumer advocates resist this metering or tiered pricing, saying that the internet, developed by the government, should work for people, not corporations. The Obama administration has promoted the concept of “The Internet Bill of Rights,” and uses it in discussions with emerging democracies in many parts of the world.

At the regional level, and in an era of radically changing workflows and job descriptions, people like Clark Gilbert of Deseret Digital Media (including the Deseret Morning News) are revising the human architecture of news and information systems. Owned by the LDS (Mormon) church, the new structure of Mr. Gilbert’s newsroom is being watched closely by his industry. Breaking news is often assigned to both electronic and print reporters, so that the story can be prepared for distribution on subsidiary outlets including KSL-TV, the Deseret Morning News, and corporate websites simultaneously. Longform, or “investigative” assignments can also be covered by multi-platform teams of reporters for the same efficient purposes. A third level of reporting at DDM is comprised of freelance, sub-contracting information gatherers who are part of the variable cost budget.

News economics in the Information Age

In a post-recession business climate, monetizing an online information enterprise is as daunting as any startup, but with fewer barriers to entry. Starting a WordPress template and puting your words, pictures and video in front of the entire connected world, is not the chore it once was when Andreessen's Mosaic and file transfer protocol was more difficult to understand. Until Rupert Murdoch announced that the online edition of the Wall Street Journal would not be given away, the online consumer has had little responsibility in acquiring content from their favorite columnists and reporters. When the New York Times decided to put a paywall in front of their online content and charge for “all access,” the industry decided that there might be a model worth pursuing. As porous as it may be, the NYT online edition is pushing its way toward a breakeven point, and adjustments along that path are expected.

Arianna Huffington and Tim Armstrong explained some of the reasoning behind their recent merger of The Huffington Post and America Online. “To us, the history of the internet has been about platform development. As that has matured to its present state, we feel that the internet will now focus on content curation,” noted Ms. Huffington, whose online enterprise had been purchased by Mr. Armstrong for a reported 315 million U.S. dollars. Controversies about that aside, it represents an indelible fact that the journalistic landscape is changing.

This does not mean the kind of mindless aggregation assembled by online publications like, where RSS feeds offer an automated view of what is currently floating in cyberspace, will and should prevail. It does mean, as veteran journalist James O’Shea notes, that “the answer is out there, perhaps in a fledgling not-for-profit operation like the Chicago News Cooperative,” (Mr. O’Shea’s company) or in the currently popular notion of “entrepreneurial journalism,” which is the hottest topic in the hottest j-schools in America. O’Shea says that the new model is emerging with an audience that “is small, discerning and willing to pay if the information is good and the reporting is solid.”

There lies the future of news in Utah and perhaps the world.

Michael Orton is a native of Salt Lake City. He has earned degrees from UCLA and the Annenberg School at the University of Southern California, and has worked with national media organizations including CBS and ABC Television. He is currently a freelance multi-media journalist working between Denver and Los Angeles.