Friday, September 30, 2005

Planet of the Apes Gone Wild

Gonzo journalism is alive and well in the Bay area thanks to the Weekly Planet. Hunter S. Thompson would be proud – may he rest in peace, or pieces, as the case may be.

The best example of this journalistic genre is – what else? – WP’s recent “BEST OF THE BAY 2005” issue, a publication that should be rated PG-13 up-front and R (plus or minus) in back.

“Best ‘Best-Of’ Issue Since Last Year!” boasts WP’s Sept. 21-27 cover. No self-promotion there, aye?

TBM accepts WP doesn’t take itself too seriously. How else to explain the colorful, cut-and-paste, “running gag,” tabloid-'omage pages sprinkled through-out, the best of which displays a Terminator-style, cyber-borg Congresswoman Katherine Harris, with a close second featuring a slick, black-clad, St. Pete Mayor Rick Baker as Frank Zappa. (There are some lame visual gags as well, which will be mercifully ignored here.)

And yet, garbanzo gonzo as it is, a patient reader can dig amongst the more outlandish offerings and uncover some real gems, such as John F. Sugg’s thoughtful piece on former St. Petersburg Times columnist, Bill Maxwell (a TBM favorite before he left the Bay to teach at Stillman College in Tuscaloosa). That Maxwell left the Times because of what Sugg calls “the newspaper’s increasingly rightward tilt” seems extreme, but otherwise his column adds insight to the untimely exodus of Maxwell, a solid writer many loyal readers enjoyed, regardless of political leanings.

But, of course, WP isn’t perfect. (Why should it be?) One almost wearies from the unsubtle, left-leaning, lock-step, correctness framing its political worldview. (Yeah, we get it: “Bush bad; GOP evil.” Pass the Kool-aid; let’s move on.) Still, ya gotta love a publication that creates a “Best Job” category as a way to highlight Paul Wilborn’s luscious sweetheart of a deal as Creative Industries Manager for the City of Tampa. ($90,000-plus dollars? Whoa, Nelly! Gotta get me summa that.)

Besides, anybody can tell you about the Best Bagel (St. Pete Bagel Company) or Best Chain Pizza (Westshore Pizza) or Best Gyro (Athenian Garden). But who takes the time to point out the “Best Place to Slip on Vomit”? (Answer: Guavaween.)

That last category/answer sounds made-up – it isn’t. And therein TBM identifies the Kryptonite that ultimately reveals the Weekly’s weakness. Too many categories do sound made-up, which makes one wonder whether there was a sober adult (read "editor") in the room when the categories were created.

But, if advertisers don’t mind and readers (probably) don’t care, TBM suspects such comments will be met by WP staffers with a thud, a dud (a "dude!") or a “duh?". (One can only hope Weekly readers have other news sources when election season rolls around or somebody like Che Guevara will end up being Tampa’s mayor.)

WP’s “Best of the Bay 2005” boasts more than 100 pages (172 to be exact) with many of them full-page ads. The Trib’s Friday Extra and the Times’ Weekend would no doubt love those numbers. (One can almost hear the drools emanating from the ad managers’ offices.)

What does it all mean? TBM suspects it means there’s an import beer-swilling, tattoo-sporting, green-alien lovin', sub-sub culture that finds its outside-the-box entertainment needs met within WP’s hip, mind-teasingly colorful, (sometimes) humor-tainted, almost always information-filled, pages.

What happens when/if these readers grow up? Who knows . . . Maybe, by then, they’ll be reading AAWP. Stay tuned.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Putting the ‘Journal’ Back Into Journalism

Jack Perkins’ biography is so good, it looks made up: correspondent, commentator and anchorman at NBC News; covered the (Winter) Olympics, Vietnam and exclusively interviewed Sirhan Sirhan. And speaking of “Biography,” he used to host it. (Did I mention his seven Emmys?) All that, and he gets the moniker of "America's most literate correspondent" from the Associated Press. Those are just highlights, of course.

If Perkins did nothing else in his career, he’s made his mark. He could simply wander off and indulge himself in photography and poetry – but he hasn’t, and we are the beneficiaries.

Perkins hosts “A Gulf Coast Journal” on WEDU. His monthly shows show that quality, in-the-field programming can be produced at the local PBS level, something that EDU has not shown a proclivity to do in the past. But “Journal” isn’t just good “Public Television.” It is good journalism – and may be the finest example of consistent story-telling by a broadcast or cable entity in the Bay area. Perkins certainly deserves the Lion’s share of credit for that, but the pride in his collegial pride no doubt goes deeper – and wide.

Yet, consider this: Many of his “Journal” entries have been waiting (perhaps even yearning) to be told well, long before falling within his journalistic crosshairs. Take, for example, his Sarasota Scullers segment, a tale of teens and teamwork. From a technical standpoint, there seemed not a single aspect of that story that could not potentially have been handled by an able cameraperson at any Bay area ABC, CBS, NBC or Fox affiliate. (Let’s toss SNN6 and Bay News 9 into that mix as well.)

The editing for the Sarasota Scullers was first-rate, but TBM suspects that skill-set is available in abundance around town. The writing? Well, writing is a significant factor, but let’s say it’s at least possible.

Perkins’ voice? Gold, it’s true. But every major Bay area outlet has at least one golden throat. (Bob Hite and John Wilson spring to mind.)

No, TBM thinks the difference is a combination of patience and attitude.

TBM submits for your approval this thoughtful, qualitative judgment: that broadcast journalists can get into such a deadline groove that they (or perhaps their higher-ups) forget that occasionally everybody needs to take a deep breath and give “the story” a little extra thought, care and time.

All other things being equal, there’s no reason why Bay area viewers ought not to get more programming on the level of “A Gulf Coast Journal.”

TBM understands the pressure of deadlines and competition, but there are many stories that deserve to be simmered and sautéed before being served rather than microwaved and slapped on a dish – or cable.

Let’s all jot that down in our journals . . . courtesy of Smilin’ Jack.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

As Easy As Uno, Dos, Tres

Perhaps long overdo, but right on the money, comes ENTRO Mi Diario, a new Spanish-language newspaper serving the Tampa Bay area. The weekly publication will launch late next month and comes on the heels of, which went online Sept. 15. The two will become three when Centro Cápsulas, a media partnership with radio and TV providers, starts up later this year.

This eventual trifecta will fall under the umbrella of the Florida Communications Group, which oversees The Tampa Tribune, WFLA News Channel 8 and All are owned by Media General Inc., a Virginia-based firm that describes itself as “an independent, publicly owned communications company situated primarily in the Southeast with interests in newspapers, television stations and interactive media.”

That said, TBM hopes this newly minted media brand – aptly dubbed CENTRO Grupo De Comunicación – turns out to more than an excuse to mint money. Not that corporations can take risks without expecting a reward (and any new communication venture is definitely a risk) but there is a substantial opportunity here. Will this trio turn out to be the media equivalent of a fast-food place, like Taco Bell, or will it be more of a Columbia Restaurant? (You can guess TBM’s preference.)

Here’s why this is an important question: Pull out a globe. Study the strategic geographic location of Tampa Bay. Let your eyes follow the curve around the Gulf of Mexico, and amble south. Then ponder this: Tampa could one day be the “Gateway to the Americas,” an International City where trade and commerce flourish, and whose Hispanic heritage helps facilitate this transformation.

The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once said, "Let us not underestimate the privileges of the mediocre. As one climbs higher, life becomes ever harder; the coldness increases, responsibility increases."

Media General could make a lot of money with a mediocre effort as a result of its historic Hispanic initiative. TBM hopes they climb a little higher, where the air is cold, and possibly a different kind of reward awaits. The result will be just as profitable . . . maybe more so.

Friday, September 16, 2005

A Journalistic Mecca in Our Own Backyard

In truth, TBM is a guy with an iMac drinking coffee in his backroom. (Four dogs barking in the background; Vivaldi wafting through the house.) Who should be taking “a look at the stations and publications that cover Tampa Bay”? Why, the Poynter Institute, of course. PI is the New York Yankees of media magnets in terms of attracting talent to an academically altruistic “dream team.” So, why don’t they do it? Well, PI is an example of the best of Times and the worst of Times – literally. Namely because it was set up in 1975 by Nelson Poynter, then chairman of the St. Petersburg Times. The best? Journalists from all over the world arrive (sometimes starry-eyed) to ponder the finer points of their craft – and they do so with panache. To be accepted at PI as student or staff is heady stuff. The quality cross-pollination that takes place assures a high standard of education and helps give PI’s imprimatur on journalism the aura of a higher calling. Kudos. The worst? In effect, PI owns the St. Pete Times, which for years has oozed a sort of “ivory tower” éclat as it relates to the great unwashed masses clustered within its circulation base. The tendency toward isolation produced within the cocoon of a journalistic think tank only adds to the insulation of "Florida's Best Newspaper," which sometimes gives the impression it doesn’t wish to get its manicured fingernails dirty. Still, when it comes to the Poynter Institute, the Bay area is fortunate to have this journalistic jewel in its crown. TBM challenges PI to step outside its tower within a tower and produce an objective, lively, insightful look at the media in the Bay area. Then maybe TBM can get back to walkin’ the dogs. (And that would make TBM’s wife very happy.)

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Latest Florida Trend: Wiki Mania

If Jimmy Wales is the new Bill Gates, does that make St. Petersburg the new Redmond? (If so, maybe green benches will be the new Starbucks.) Decide for yourself by reading the September issue of Florida Trend magazine. That may sound like an advertisement, but TBM gets no cut. On the contrary, TBM wants to be on the cutting edge. That's why the editorial "we" give you a strong "buy" signal for this entertaining (though still business-like) look at Wiki Mania. In its on-line lead-in summary, FT describes Wales as "the brain behind Wikipedia, a free internet encyclopedia that’s become a cult phenomenon." FT then asks the question: "Can he expand the brand into a money-making enterprise?" Of course, true Wikipedia believers (guilty as charged) understand that Wiki's "open source" approach makes it (philosophically) a kissin’ cousin to Linux, which easily explains the cult-like aspect of what makes it attractive. (Are you listening Bill? It’s not always about the money.) But decide for yourself: Visit or prep by reading Florida Trend’s cover story titled “Dot-Com Phenom.”

Friday, September 02, 2005

Katrina Hype Can Help Wake Us Up

Bay area news outlets have done an exceptional job covering the tragedy in New Orleans and with good reason – it CAN happen here. Kudos. We’ve seen powerful images, good reporting and gripping headlines, like today’s CHAOS on the A-section of The Tampa Tribune and CITY OF SORROW on the front page of Thursday’s edition of the St. Petersburg Times. TBM's favorite piece is from the Trib's Steve Otto in a column headlined “A Sorrowful Warning From The Big Easy” in today's Metro section. (The super-sized columnist is better known for being a humorist/curmudgeon – as well as inspiring chili and guava lovers everywhere, but he showed his serious side here.) Otto painted a fair (meaning balanced) word picture of what happened (and didn’t) re: the disaster in New Orleans, but without the addled shrillness displayed by some of his colleagues. Plus, and more importantly, in his folksy, conversational way, he related The Big Easy's unfolding tragedy to our own highways and waterways. Otto closed with this warning:

“ … if we don't learn from this, if we don't make realistic decisions about housing and transportation in the event of another Katrina ... well, just look at the images in our newspaper and on television.”

TBM hopes those compelling images provoke an alliance of government and corporations (including Bay area media), as well as independent agencies such as the Red Cross and Salvation Army, into meeting NOW and re-assessing evacuation plans, especially as we move into the peak of hurricane season. Typing and griping isn't enough. Katrina coverage shouldn't be just about hype – it must be a wake-up call ...