7 Sep

It’s going to go off.

The phrase is repeated over and over again in a chapter called Turin in Among The Thugs. It’s after a soccer match between Manchester United and Juventus. Author Bill Buford is pressed tightly against English “supporters,” all of them hemmed in by each other and a locked gate, waiting to be let out of the stadium by the Turin police.

Union Jack

There is much to be said about pace and repetition in story development, and Buford spends about a page and a half hinting at what is about to happen after the gates open up.

“It’s going to go off,” he keeps hearing the United fans saying. He hears them talking about knives. They say “Stay together, zip up your coat.”

When they are let out of the stadium, all two thousand or so supporters start into a light jog through the city. Buford doesn’t know what to think at first. Then, after several blocks, the group stops and turns around. Turin residents have been following them. The United fans charge and start breaking windows and everything else in their path. Worst of all, the United supporters run over the Italians, both young and old, picking off stragglers and stomping their faces into a bloody pulp.

Published in 1991, Buford wrote the book after spending several years with English football hooligans in the 1980s. He started going to matches while still studying at Cambridge as an American abroad. For most of the book he hangs around Manchester United supporters, but he also mingles with West Ham and Chelsea hooligans, who all fight with each other over the course of the book. Accounts of the destructive fans are accompanied by the author’s interpretation of crowd violence at its truest form.

Much like the author’s original premise, I assumed hooligans were of Great Britain’s downtrodden working class, struggling to get by. But during this era of football hooliganism — 60s and 70s are a different story — Buford found that many of these young (teens to early 30s) Englishmen had steady jobs and were not without a future.

So why did they break everything in sight, steal, stab each other and kick in each other’s teeth on match days? It’s hard to say.

Buford asserts that it is partly because they were a generation of the working class that didn’t really belong to anything important or special. He writes that they were “members of the first non-working class working class generation.” The reason being, much like the U.S., Great Britain’s industrial jobs were fading away by the 1980s.

Wembley Stadium in London

Buford cites Gustave Le Bon and Edmund Burke’s theories about crowd violence and disagrees partially, pointing out that they tend to attribute “other” when talking about the crowd and mob mentality. After watching football hooligans, Buford finds that it can be anyone. He finds himself being wrapped up in the adrenaline and excitement of it all.

There’s a threshold that has to be broken, Buford realizes. In many cases he notes a window being broken, or an individual taking the first step, which is soon followed by the rest. And even though there are leaders, it takes the actual crowd to act as one for anything to begin to happen.

It’s not until the end that Buford finds just how bad a beating can be. I was anticipating it every time he was in the middle of a brawl between supporters. But it didn’t happen until the end and it wasn’t supporters.

The sequence of events is equally horrific as it is comical at times. Buford’s descriptions of the hooligans are great. He describes a tooth of one United leader as being the color of pea soup green. A lad he meets in a pub bathroom, as Keith Richards during the worst time, “long, leathery, lined face; the druggy offhand manner; the endless cigarettes.”

This book is a compelling read and I recommend it to anyone interested in sports, sociology, psychology, history or journalism. It was very hard to put down and my own adrenaline kicked in many times on quiet afternoons last week.

Patio Shop Peril

16 Aug

If I had known he was stocking up for the end of the world and thought of himself as a healer, I probably wouldn’t have shown up on the first day. I got the job partly because the owner was the father of my roommate’s girlfriend at the time. I had heard stories from both of them, that he wasn’t quite all together in the head. But I hadn’t worked for six months and was desperate, so I began working for Mr. Kettler (I’ll call him).

A thin man with a gray mustache and bald head, Kettler ran his patio furniture shop like one of those sleazy car salesman you see in movies, wearing a Hawaiian shirt every day of the week. The job I had was putting together patio furniture and loading it into customers’ vehicles. When he didn’t have the color of chair or table in stock, he would send one of us warehouse workers to grab a can of paint and change the furniture piece to the color the customer wanted. None of us had experience with painting furniture, so sometimes it was missing spots and the paint rubbed off. Kettler would then yell at us and grab the can of spray paint to do it himself.

He also had furniture outside, behind the warehouse, which had rusted and gotten covered in mud over the rainy winter months. We brought those out to be sold as new items. Just clean them up and paint them, he’d tell us.

Sometimes, if we were missing a part, he’d say, use some wood glue, or he would grab a rubber mallet and start pounding away till the pair of table legs fit. The moral dilemma was hard to suppress, but I needed a paycheck.

This was somewhat normal, I figured, considering the kind of job I was doing. But I shortly found out more about him from others who worked there.

During cigarette breaks it was kind of a hushed conversation that started out as a whisper and might turn into laughter if they knew Kettler wasn’t around. He owned property out west of Portland. On his land he was building a compound to withstand hordes of hungry people when the world economy collapsed. Even though this was 2009, after the housing market and Wall Street fell apart, his notion that the unemployment rate would hit 40 percent in the U.S. seemed improbable.

Out on his property he was building greenhouses to produce food and had livestock such as pigs, chickens and goats. He was digging holes in the ground for future storage of food. If this was the extent of it on his own time I guess it would be okay, but he made his employees become involved.

I didn’t stay long enough, nor did he fully trust me, perhaps, but he took other warehouse workers from the furniture shop out to his property. He’d have them build fences and structures for him while on the clock at the patio shop.

I was forced to listen to all his crazy theories while working there. But I got really scared when I found out that Kettler had bought guns and asked the warehouse manager who had been in the Army to teach him how to shoot. I could just imagine him at his gate shooting at everyone he saw when the world would supposedly end.

This somehow was separate from a whole much more creepy part of Kettler. Not only was he a survivalist, buying silver and gold, but he was really into New Age spirituality and thought he could heal people by getting rid of negative energy.

I had fallen going downhill on a skateboard and scraped up my elbow pretty bad. He called me over when he noticed it and started swatting away at the air around my bandages. It took about three minutes, but he said it would heal. The bad energy had to be taken away.

This was all too much. I stopped coming to work for a couple days and then gave him the courtesy of a phone call. I told him I wouldn’t be coming back to work. He hung up the phone on me.

That was three years ago. I’m not sure what he thinks now. Maybe he has a new date for the end of the world.

A Story Without A Real Story

14 Aug

We can find stories in just about anything when it comes to the realm of fiction. With a keen imagination, great writers can develop a storyline out of a restaurant or room if they want to. But in non-fiction storytelling, sometimes there really isn’t anything there. How do you engage readers in a boring subject? Some writers can find a way around that and dig deep to find an intricate detail and exploit it for a readership. However, the subject of this essay is a person I believe has no purposeful story.

The subject is a scrawny and short 19 year-old, who lives in Gresham, Oregon. By short, I mean that he is five-foot two at most. He has black hair and I always remember him having blurry eyes and a haggard face from lack of sleep. How do I know him? I worked the graveyard shift at a grocery store with him for almost a year. The grocery store we worked overnight at definitely has a story, but he has nothing really to do with that. The late-night prostitutes and derelicts that shopped there don’t make him any more interesting.

I’m not sure his history prior to this job because even though he mentioned it off and on, I never really listened to him or trusted what he had to say. The reason being is partly why I decided he has no real story. The guy had the most fantastical lies I have ever heard someone try and pull off. Now, that hidden psycho-analytical reason why he lied may be a story, but to me it pointed out that his life was so mundane that he had to make up stuff in order to impress all the rest of us that worked there. I’ll have to give a few examples to illustrate why I couldn’t trust him and why I have been led to believe that his real life has no narrative qualities.

It’s hard to gauge which lie was in fact the best, but my favorite one is that he claimed he had introduced ecstasy users to the common practice of putting a binky in their mouth. To elaborate, a binky is a baby pacifier. Ecstasy users put these in their mouth because they tend to grind their teeth when they are high. This teenager tried telling all of us (who were almost all five years older than him) he introduced ecstasy users to this practice. I remember hearing about this phenomenon when I was in middle-school. This guy was probably five years-old at that time. I’m sure the use of a baby pacifier goes back farther than 1999, or whenever it was I heard about it.

My second favorite is related to drugs as well. One time, while standing around after work, he tells a group of us co-workers that he was, at a recent stage in life, the second or third largest drug dealer in all of Portland. Remember, he is just over five-feet tall. For some reason, I don’t picture him brandishing a pistol and knocking someone across the face with it. If you’re one of the top dealers in a city like Portland, I imagine you have to be pretty ruthless and able to defend yourself, which he claimed he could do. Another lie was that his grandfather trained with Bruce Lee and he said he had extensive knowledge of the martial arts as well.

The lies are important for my argument because of what comes next—what I believe to be his true life. The job of a graveyard grocery worker is inherently boring. One reason being is something called “facing.” At the end of the shift, the whole crew goes around making sure every shelf of the store has the products pulled to the front with the label facing out. This is done at about 6 a.m. when workers are about to drift off to sleep. It is a monotonous and seemingly never-ending task. This young 19 year-old decided the only thing worth talking about during this period was videogames. While facing, almost anything will put you to sleep and make you fall forward into the shelf, knocking over boxes of cereal or worse—canned food or jars of marinara sauce.

This may point to my own inherent bias. I didn’t grow up playing a lot of videogames. I played at my friends’ houses, but never owned a game system myself. When this liar started talking about videogames it depressed the hell out of me. He knew every detail of this game or that game; how to shoot faster or get a bigger and better gun. He tried talking to me about games at first and then quickly realized I had no idea what he was talking about.

A typical day for this teenager was after work he’d go home and sit down on the couch and play games all through the day until about fours hours until the next graveyard shift; then he’d sleep for three hours and come in to the store. Sleeping would have been more interesting and rewarding—that’s what all the rest of us did. But I can just imagine his bloodshot eyes staring at the screen all day, trying to kill bad guys that don’t really exist. He’s pouring in all this time and energy into something that is so worthless and meaningless.

One day, I can’t take it anymore. He’s facing next to me and talking to somebody else about how he defeated this certain level. He’s got all the codes and the technique. This guy is so proud of himself. I wanted to scream at him, “You never see the sun! When are you going to get up and go outside.” Just the thought of him still working there depresses me. I can imagine him there still telling the same old lies every week, at the same old job and doing the same old videogame routine.

A New Era For Journalists

18 Mar

“Journalism isn’t like brain surgery, or piloting a Boeing 747,” Jay Rosen writes in “The Journalists Formerly Known as the Media: My Advice to the Next Generation,” a graduation speech from 2010. He adds, “A professional journalist knows how to get information, ask questions, tell stories and connect isolated facts. These are not esoteric or specialized skills, just heightened versions of things any smart citizen should be able to do.”

Journalists provide information for the public, but the job description isn’t particularly exclusionary. It is true, much of the public can do the tasks that journalists perform on a routine basis. For a long time the media establishment had a monopoly on these tasks. Now, with production becoming easier in the digital age, Rosen argues that the mass audience has become more participatory and less waiting to be told what is going on, but rather wanting to be involved.

As journalists move toward a new era, the key thing to hold on to, as Rosen points out, are the skills that have been cultivated over the years — “editing; reporting; areas of expertise; access; a title, or brand, that people trust; ethical professional standards and an extremely large community of readers.”

One of Rosen’s most important points in his list of changes, is made eloquently by Dan Gilmour: “My readers know more than I do.” This revelation should be taken to heart by journalists of the next generation. A story can be better told with the help of the public, or as Rosen updates: “the users.” Journalists want to get the story right — or that should at least be one of the foremost ideals — and by utilizing input from the populace, that is now more possible than ever before.

But what I take away from this article more than anything else, is the mantra that has been around and I believe will continue to define journalism: “I’m there, you’re not, let me tell you about it,” which Rosen credits to James W. Carey. This is at the heart of journalism and will continue through the digital age. Journalists go out and find information. They witness and report. Journalists need to remember this moving forward.

No More Privacy

10 Mar

Our lives are online for the world to see now. The question is: what if we don’t want it to be? Too bad?

In the Internet age, it has become easier than ever to access someone’s personal information. Go to zabasearch or spokeo and you can find where a person lives and their phone number, or if you’re willing to pay, you can find much more.

From a journalism perspective this is great. Yesterday, I was trying to track down a retired firefighter to ask him some questions about what had happened during a fire in 1970. I typed his name into zabasearch and found his home address, his phone number and saw that he was 84 years old.

This technique is valuable for getting in touch with a source, but what about the privacy of private citizens?

Even if a person doesn’t have Facebook, Twitter or any social media in their name, there is still information out there — and it’s not easy to get rid of. In a New York Times article titled: “How to Fix (Or Kill) Web Data About You,” it is made clear that the solutions are not easy. Some people actually hire a service that goes through and tries to erase all personal information about you on the web. They can be successful, but there is always a chance they missed something.

Google has started linking information from gmail and google searches to youtube and vice versa. You can opt out of it by going to your google account settings and erasing your web history.

I don’t think there is a solution for privacy in the digital age. It’s something we have to live with now and be aware of. There’s no going back to the days when someone couldn’t see a satellite image of your house. The only approach I can think of, is even though you may be typing away, alone at your desk; your co-worker, friends, family and potential stalker will be able to see it too once it takes flight on the web.

What would have been considered private in the past may very well be dead.

Reporting with the help of computers

22 Feb

Computer Assisted Reporting is a common technique in American newsrooms of today, but that wasn’t the case until about the early 90s. Steve Doig, a journalism professor at Arizona State University’s Cronkite School and former Miami Herald investigative reporter, helped marry computer data crunching with news reporting back then.

Hurricane Andrew ripped through south Florida in 1992 and many people were wondering what had gone wrong. The Miami Herald answered that question in a Pulitzer Prizing winning series that exposed Florida’s construction industry, which had managed to get building codes relaxed by lobbying the state government. Doig was using what he now calls “dinosaur equipment” to analyze data. The information showed that if the hurricane had hit farther north it would have caused more structural damage and taken more lives. He also found out that housing inspectors were being asked to inspect 50 houses day—an impossible task if a thorough inspection of each were to take place.

Old IBM computer with magnetic tape

Doig was working with magnetic tape on big reels for this project. When a class of mine interviewed him on Monday, I thought he was going to gripe about how laborious it was at the time, but he managed to write the first story based off information he compiled in one afternoon. He did point out that the computers we were sitting near were so far beyond what he had been using at the time. I got a sense of how powerful computers of today can be for helping reporters.

It was exciting to hear how this story developed from Doig. I imagined what it would be like to come across the information that the construction industry might be partly to blame and other bits that people really needed to know about. Doig said a lot of people at the time were having houses built that should have been built in places like California. They had glass doors and other features that would not stand up to a hurricane. This is the kind of information that the public needs to find out from newspapers and other media outlets.

Computer Assisted Reporting is an important aspect of journalism today and reporters really have it easy compared to Doig’s experience with inputting numbers on to reels of magnetic tape. It’s exciting that the technology is better now and therefore can be utilized to a greater extent for investigative reporting.

The Art and Science of Future Journalism

17 Feb

Photo: Susan Lesch

Journalism exists at a delicate balance between art and scientific analysis. Writers of what has become known as “New Journalism” pushed stylistic boundaries. Their books used literary devices such as character development and scene building to engage the reader in a much more compelling way. With the evolution of the computer, social science became more technical and driven by hard data. Journalists began utilizing statistics to a larger extent for reporting. Which is better for journalism? What will the future hold?

Philip Meyer, a renowned newsman and Emeritus Professor in the School of Journalism and Communication at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, believes both camps should be united in this evolving, specialized media world. Last fall he gave a lecture on this subject at the Austrian Academy of Sciences. An adapted text, Precision Journalism and Narrative Journalism: Toward a Unified Field Theory, was published on Nieman Lab’s website.

Journalists want to tell a beautiful story with vivid descriptions, but also want data to back it up and lend credibility to what they are writing about. I guess the question is can it really be equally art and scientific, or does one have to be emphasized to a larger extent?

One of many questions surrounding journalism’s future is whether organized information should be put into the form of a story. Meyer brings up Jeff Jarvis, a media theorist, who believes the future of media is an existence where information will be accessed through the internet without much help from journalists. The role of journalism would be to make sure people get the information, but it wouldn’t be organized and packaged in the traditional form of an article.

Meyer makes a compelling case that this will most likely not be the future of                      media. People want stories and they want information assembled. Precision journalism and narrative journalism combined can deliver the type of news stories people want and need in the 21st century.

“Both precision journalism and narrative journalism appeal to a sophisticated audience,” Meyers said in his lecture. “One that appreciates the need for information to be structured in a way that focuses attention on the truth.”

As an aspiring investigative journalist this text cemented what I wish to accomplish as a reporter. My desire is to use the techniques of statistical analysis that Meyer describes, but also create a developed story with a human element. This combination is the only way to truly engage readers.


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