Sunday, February 22, 2009

Chestnut Hill Yokels: Avoidance 'Journalism'

by John Lombardi

At a time when its future is hanging in the balance; when yet another vote on the editor's job is skedded for yet another backroom Exec Committee stab session Feb. 26th; when a much-needed Feb. 25th Town Meeting at the Library will try to rev enough community outrage to finally blow the Hitchcock/Vardakis/Keintz Perplex out of 8434's back door -- this week's Local comes online late Friday afternoon, crammed with stories, editorials, op eds & letters about -- journalism!

But nothing on its own dire situation. Rootin' Tootin' Local staffer and self-furloughed Northwest Notebook blogger Joel "Braveheart" Hoffman does one of his specialized business-longies about poor Karl Biemuller, former editor of the combined Germantown Courier / Mt. Airy Express weeklies, on the road again after a 10-year stint giving Yardley's JRC publishers a reason to hang some ads on the bones of their formerly solid papers. Then the editor chimes in with a looong editorial pondering the vagaries of print weeklies in the Appomattox of their time, confusedly mourning their end -- victims of the Old Technology mindset in the new digital age, he implies . . . but then, whoops -- catching himself and remembering that he's looking for a job . . .So he reassures readers that "Northwest Philadelphia is a vibrant neighborhood full of interesting personalities, political intrigue and rich history . . . literally a gold mine for stories."

Right. You can hear the corporate PR sonar. But where has the Local been on covering the sins of, say, Donna Reed Miller in Germantown, a story which is, though maybe a little off the demographic for CHCA Exec. Committee poltroons, a true piece of Northwest Philly's "gold mine for stories" provenance? Or an investigative piece on former mayor John Street's doings in the deal that helped Germantown Settlement acquire the Germantown YWCA , with Ms. Miller? Or an examination of realty problems in Mt. Airy and G'Town in the wake of the current subprime quake? Or maybe a stab at hooking up Michele Obama with some of her husband's local supporters in a community print roundtable at this historically important moment for readers across the race spectrum . . . Instead of republishing a mediocre story about candidate Obama's visit to G'Town from last summer? Or failing to say anything editorially when the first black president was elected? "The demand for the services of a competent paper has been high," the ed. maunders on. "That demand is often greater than we can service."

Uh-huh. But don't despair, he continues: "I have no doubt that something will replace the Express & Courier. And . . . [it] will likely be better."

Hmmmm. The front page is further taken up with a long encomium for Eric Mayberry, the publisher of the Philadelphia edition of the Metro, an international weekly throwaway gourmet baloney sandwich for "upwardly mobile urban professionals," designed to be read in "14 to 24 minutes," while you're riding from, say, Chestnut Hill to Center City on the R8 SEPTA, trying to ignore North Philly. The ed. trotted down to see Eric in his corporate offices in Penn Square with their "towering view of City Hall" -- pretty heady stuff after the ed.'s own pygmy view of R. Snowden's rotting apartment house across the street at 8431 Germantown Ave. -- ahhh, the joys of being young, positive, business-savvy, and having a post-Old Technology mindset.

Mayberry's been living in Chestnut Hill for eight years, so why the puff job now? Well, he's a postmodern publisher and a likely employer if the main gig the ed.'s reportedly trying for here in the Northwest doesn't pan out. Eric wears a black suit and black tee-shirt to the office, shaves and buffs his head like Michael Jordan used to, and has the kinds of views about journalism the ed. likes to hear:
'Free newspapers are like Japanese cars. Just enough features that people will use them, not all the bells & whistles that killed our auto industry. A society that's not [seriously informed ] is a society at risk, but most people just want to know if the Eagles won last night, stats, what stocks are up & down, who died that I know of . . . At the end of the day it's a business. 'If you talk to most traditional journalists they laugh at what we do. The problem with journalists is that they still think they get to make the choice. But it's the market that makes the choice.'

This is exactly the same thinking that Hitchcock and her Exec Com. poltroons have been trying to beat the ed. over the head with since they disbanded former president Ron Recko's Oversight Committee back in '07. The O. C. was born in the wake of the awful Sturdivant Affair in '05, to keep the choice-making up to the editor. Yet the Local , under the present ed., breathed not a word protesting its obliteration. It hasn't reported or editorialized against any of the squeezes against its own freedom to choose, though it's let Op Ed and letter writers defend it with varying frequency. It hasn't produced any investigative work of note, except a piece on the closing of Caruso's Market by the grad-schoolish Mr. Hoffman last summer. I tried to counsel Ms. Hitchcock in the blog last month that the ed. was easily handled if she'd just stop barking at him. Hold out possibilities -- the publisher's job, so that he could get out from under all those moral deadlines. Business opportunities with Sanjiv Jain (another guy he refused to investigate), somewhere down the line . . .

All in vain. And the paper's defenders ignoring the paradoxes of its actual performance, in order to keep the whole circus swirling . . . "It's amusing, you have to admit that!" one enthusiast on my side of the line insisted last week.

"Just how weird can you take it, brother?" the late Hunter Thompson used to ask, when explaining his disgusted resignation from a corrupt Rolling Stone back in the 80s. "Before your love will crack?"

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