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Monday, May 18, 2020

Movie review, plus some thoughts on the state of local media in the Hudson Valley

Everybody knows that girls softball practices are the best place to discuss embezzlement schemes.
Wow - been a while, sorry for the absence. When the lockdown and layoff happened to me, I had already been energized by the rapid-response journalism we'd been doing as the Covid crisis cranked up, That urgency persisted for about three weeks or so, then petered out as the New Reality of Indefinite Quarantine set in and I sort of creatively shut down for the three following weeks. (I think; like many, my sense of time has become unreliable of late.) But hey, as I always say to myself when I go to the gym for the first time after having not gone to the gym for a loooong time, it's not how many times you fall off the horse, it's how many times you get back on. (Full disclosure: I have never in my whole life actually been on a horse. Donkey, yes. Elephant, yes. Horse? I say thee neigh.)
So there was a good movie on HBO the other night - "Bad Education," starring Hugh Jackman and Alison Janney. It was a look back at the Roslyn school scandal of some 20 years ago or so, where a school superintendent (Jackman) and the district business manager (Janney), plus the supe's boyfriend and the business manager's niece, got in rather serious legal trouble after it was found they'd ripped off the district to the astonishing tune of $11.2 million. The semi-fictionalized movie recounts how the whole thing unraveled, due in part to the intrepid reporting of a kid writing for the high school newspaper. Jackman and Janney are both fantastic actors, the rest of the cast is very good, the film is well-written and competently paced. And to me, at least - someone who's covered New York State public school districts for 30 years - the details of how a school district operates all rang true. (The screenplay was written by someone who actually went to Roslyn schools, based on this contemporaneous article in New York magazine.)
"Look, kid, underground student newspapers may be fun,
but think about how it will look on your permanent record ..."
I chortled when Alan Hevesi's name was dropped - the ex-assemblyman, who I talked to a few times as a Legislative Gazette intern and remember being a nice guy, was at the time of the Roslyn scandal the state comptroller. As it turned out, Hevesi himself was rotten-ass corrupt and did his own time in prison.
But yeah the movie is definitely worth a watch. (I have not begun the locally filmed and allegedly soul-crushingly bleak Mark Ruffalo thing yet; reality is currently providing all the crushed soul I can use and then some.)
The movie awoke some semi-fond memories of all the school board meetings I used to cover. These are not for the faint-of-heart or those with focus issues; they usually ran about three hours and most of that time was discussion about dense and technical material that was really easy to fuck up in a newspaper story unless you paid very strict attention. One of the mistakes I made as an editor was to assign beginning reporters the school board - I did my best to offer some prep beforehand, but I think they must have felt like Lucy and Ethel at the candy factory trying to keep up with everything going on. (Planning board meetings are close to this level of difficulty; with a few exceptions, I salute those who serve on both kinds of boards as those jobs are some of the toughest in local government.)
Oh so THAT'S what executive sessions look like.
Some reporters survived - if you can sit through one of those things and produce a coherent and accurate narrative of what occurred, you have a future in this business.
Wait, what business? What's happened to local journalism lately?

Friends and readers, the state of local media in the Hudson Valley is … blasted beyond recognition. Like a World War I battlefield, but somehow less hopeful. Like the Statue of Liberty at the end of “Planet of the Apes” or that mall that had lots of space and even more space, after Jake and Elwood drove through it. (I will walk this back some later.)
The venerable traditional outlets we all grew up with and thought would last forever are on a serious waning streak. Besides Ulster Publishing’s Covidic contraction, the Freeman has had its own round of layoffs and furloughs. While the virus might be looked at as like the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs, it’s closer to the point to say that the virus is doing to local media what the virus is doing to people — taking a toll on those with underlying conditions and compromised fiscal immune systems. It's a cruel irony, appropriate for a cruel time, that during the most significant story of our lifetimes (any readers who were around during the Depression and WW II excepted), so many of the most skilled and experienced journalists who've covered this area for decades aren't doing journalism anymore.
The community without its media is diminished, and endangered. It took a news outlet based in Great Britain, fer cryin' out loud, to tell us which barber in Kingston was cutting hair in defiance of the state order while he had the Covid himself. But that's what happens when you've laid off and furloughed so many journalists. Those left behind don't have the time to go beyond a simple reworking of a press release. Just get it done and get it posted ASAP and maybe there will be time later to dig deeper. Or maybe something else or several something elses will come up first.
But in fairness and in recognition of those who are still working, let me point out the bright spots: The River, Chronogram's online venture into harder regional news, is doing good stories, including this one by my friend and colleague Jesse Smith about how local eateries/drinkeries are getting along these days. Lissa Harris, truly one of the area's best writers and a legend in disaster reporting from when the hurricanes ravaged the Catskills, has, with the help of Roger Hannigan Gilson and Phillip Pantuso, been doing really good daily roundups of locally relevant C-19 stuff. The Shawangunk Journal, via its News Atomic website, is holding things down out Ellenville way and offering a convenient one-stop destination for a lot of regional news from various outlets. While it will be a while before the foodie scene hums again, newer entry Hudson Valley Epicurean is well-poised for quality coverage of it. And of course Ulster Publishing, which will be back in print early next month with one publication to rule them all - named after its website, Hudson Valley One - keeps keeping on the best it can, and that's not bad at all. (I seriously believe that sitting next to Ulster Publishing publisher Geddy Sveikauskas for 15 years increased my IQ by at least five points and maybe 10. Reading his economy column is vital insight into the various forces and trends that make our reality.)

I think it's impossible to, with any sense at all of intellectual honesty, make any kind of reliable prediction as to what a post-coronavirus world, or a post-coronavirus Hudson Valley will be, if one even ever emerges. (The worst-case scenario. No one ever budgets for the worst-case scenario.) The same can be said about local media.
The way it has traditionally worked, with community weekly and smaller daily newspapers forming the backbone and running on revenue coming from ads taken out in print publications, is not quite completely dead yet, but it ain't lookin' too good. That's a real loss: of the alternate ways to fund local journalism both proposed and in effect around here (a rich person pays for everything or a number of less rich people pitch in to pay for everything), a diverse base of advertisers with pecuniary interest in an outlet's success - the better it does the more people see the ads - is the best guarantee of journalistic independence. Sure, a story may have to be done that upsets one advertiser or another and they threaten to or actually pull their ads in an attempt to kill that story, but the other funding methods described above make the outlet far more beholden to their underwriters. Further, the temptation for the outlet to skew their coverage in the direction of where they think their funding base would like it to go could be irresistible.
No, Mr. President, we all can't say that.
More than ever before, in the post-virus future, money will be chased and the risk of local journalism angling itself toward the elite of Ulster and away from basic coverage of the concerns of less affluent people and unglamorous local government will only intensify. Perhaps lost in the whirlwind of virus news is the fact that school board elections and budget votes have been put back until June 9 and will be conducted via absentee ballots. (Watch your mailbox.) Uncertain at this time is how badly school districts will suffer from state budget cuts, but governments from states on down are warning of layoffs and drastic program cuts, unless the federal government includes them in a future stimulus package.

Anyway, please keep the following in mind. There are plenty of people who’ll tell you what you want to hear. There are also plenty of people who’ll tell you what they want you to hear. But people who will tell you what you don’t want to hear but need to hear anyway, even if it means they'll get a passel of shit for it? Those are the real journalists. We're still out there - "journalism is not a career choice, it's a diagnosis" - but many of us are now faced with a hard choice. Will we do journalism for nothing or close to nothing and try to make a living doing something else? Or will we just do the something else?

Local Hudson Valley Dan will return in: "I'm still pissed at Michael Jordan."



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