Sunday, March 29, 2009

Text Patterns and Culture 11

--I've been reading through the archives of Alan Jacobs' excellent reading/writing/technology blog Text Patterns the last few days, and a couple of entries stand out. In December, Jacobs--responding to an essay from New York Times reporter David Streitfeld--raised questions about blaming online used book sales for the publishing industry's current woes:

"Seriously? Are there that many people buying used books online? I suppose it’s possible, but my own experience wouldn't suggest that that market is huge. But then, a lot of used book sales are done via Amazon, and no one really knows how well Amazon is doing. Maybe Streitfeld is right and used-books-via-Amazon-and-eBay constitute a major threat to the whole publishing industry. But I have my doubts."

Without any sort of reliable data, it's difficult to tell how much the used-book market has really affected publishers as a whole. And that factor, I think, should be enough to currently prevent any scapegoating of people who buy used books (which is what Streitfeld does). It's also a bit oversimplistic to dismiss the recession and general readership declines as probable causes, even though in would be helpful to have hard data for these areas as well.

More recently, Jacobs has provided--and linked to--solid analysis of the Kindle. "a dialogue" (both the post and accompanying comments) reiterate familiar but still quite valid drawbacks to the Kindle's proprietary format. Conversely, John Siracusa's essay on e-books (found in "linkages") is excellent, and presents a pretty compelling case for why e-books will eventually win over consumers, even if the Kindle eventually fizzles.

--Culture 11 was the original host for Text Patterns, but it became defunct in January after exiting less than six months. As Charles Homans wries in his article on the website's rise and fall, its goal was to serve as "a place where social conservatives could talk about culture—a safe zone between the purely political critiques of the conservative media and the secular liberal criticism that dominated the mainstream media..." The concept that Cultural 11 writer Conor Friedersdorf had of providing narrative-based reporting from a conservative angle--with Tom Wolfe as an emulative example--is what I think could have been most appealing. Besides Wolfe, Joan Didion and Garry Wills emerged during the New Journalism period as conservative writers who were remarkably sharp social commentators, and who were willing to commonly deviate from conservative policies. Having recently dipped into Didion and Wills' work as a self-identified liberal, I can see why liberals and conservatives alike have found them compelling. There certainly should be a place today for conservative long-form journalism that doesn't resort to predictable positions and arguments.

Homans suggests that Culture 11's brief lifespan exhibits how conservatives have, since Nixon's "silent majority," continued "to simply wall off the parts of society that they didn’t like or understand, secure in the belief that there were more people on their side of the wall." That's a reasonable explanation, though I think commenters at The American Scene also have a valid point about the website containing a sustainable idea within an unsustainable business model. Regardless, Culture 11 simply wasn't around long enough to fully test its hypothesis that free-thinking, creative journalism could find a home in contemporary conservatism.

Friday, March 27, 2009

From Ohio Citizen Action:

I'm delighted to report on a major development in the battle to end mountaintop removal coal mining. On Tuesday, the Obama Administration announced the first step toward a crackdown on mountaintop removal permits. The Army Corps of Engineers had been poised to approve scores of new mountaintop removal projects, and this announcement put the brakes on. Credit for this goes to thousands of Ohio Citizen Action members and others in Appalachia and elsewhere who have fought doggedly for years, and of course, to President Obama.

Our work is not done though. Coal companies have already leveled over 500 mountains and, under current permits, are detonating dynamite charges every day to level more. They are not going to stop voluntarily. Though Obama's action yesterday was a good first step, it is not the ban on mountaintop removal we need.

For more on this campaign, please visit Ohio Citizen Action.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Live Blogging in the Courtroom

Last week, Campbell County Circuit Court Judge Julie Reinhardt Ward issued an order preventing anybody from bringing electronic devices into the courtroom. While this in itself is not unique, the fact that one of the Judge’s aims in issuing this order was to prevent live blogging from the courtroom is. Due to this order, several news outlets challenged this ruling in the Kentucky Court of Appeals; this may be the first time the issue of live blogging within a Kentucky courtroom has been the subject of such an appeal, and as such this ruling may set a precedent for how other Kentucky courts deal with the issue in the future.

In both Ohio and Kentucky, judges are permitted to set the rules for their courtrooms as to what people can and cannot bring to an active trial. Most judges appear to be concerned about distractions that may be caused by cameras, gum chewing and other items that may take the jury’s attention away from the trial. In federal courtrooms, electronic devices cannot be brought past their security checkpoint at the entrance to the building.

Due to the immediacy of courtroom blogging, some judges are worried that a witness’ testimony could be tainted based on what they read on-line. Judge Ward stated she was also worried about these blogs tainting the jury, even though jury members are prohibited from watching media coverage. In order to prevent such influence, she placed the ban on live blogging in order to allow only portions of the testimony to be shown.

Over a decade ago, courts showed similar resistance to the broadcast of live trials on stations such as Court TV. At first, especially after the O.J. Simpson trial, courts were reluctant to allow television cameras into their courtroom. Outside of a few states, these cameras are very rarely banned today. According to a former senior on-air correspondent, “Ohio and Kentucky courts have been easy to deal with.”

Blogging in the courtroom is a relatively new aspect of reporting. As such, there are no set rules stating what can and cannot be blogged. Because of this lack of guidelines, it is most likely that judges are overprotecting to ensure the jury and witnesses are not improperly influenced. Until such rules are set, it seems to be in the best interest of ensuring justice and avoiding improper influence that judges do this. With this being said, it is more than likely that, just like Court TV cameras in the courtroom, live blogging will become commonplace at future trials. Although the media outlets lost their appeal in this case, it is my belief that once a balance is worked out between interests of justice and the availability of information, live blogging will serve as a valuable tool for those wishing to find trial information easily and efficiently.

For the article from the Cincinnati Enquirer, click here.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Shaman Drum Bookshop and the Realities of Market Changes

Last month, a friend of mine who lives and works in Ann Arbor, Michigan sent along this Chronicle column by Karl Pohrt, owner of the local Shaman Drum Bookshop. His profile of his store's "steep financial decline" is a depressing on a personal level. As a graduate student in popular culture studies at Bowling Green State, I made the seventy-mile trip up to Ann Arbor fairly frequently, and Shaman Drum was always one of my favorite stops. Pohrt's description--"a first-rate browsing store for books in the humanities in the university neighborhood"--is accurate. I consistently came across academic titles in cultural studies and ethnomusicology that would have been extremely difficult to find in most other bookstores. It was always pleasurable and surprising to scan their shelves.

Shaman Drum's concentration on academic humanities titles certainly has its drawbacks, even during better times. After some reflection, I can't say that I'm terribly surprised at the number of local commenters who describe having "never really felt welcomed," "uncomfortable," etc. I don't personally remember ever having unfriendly exchanges with their staff, but the store (if you'll pardon the pun) does march to a different drumbeat. Its setup is wonderful for browsing, but many shoppers probably aren't going to experience the same "finds" that they might at, say, the flagship Borders (which is just around the corner). In this regard, Shaman Drum benefits from its surrounding environment--a top public university nearby, several high-quality bookstores located in the same district, and the liberal, scholarly climate of Ann Arbor. It has had the luxury to cater to a fairly specific target market.

Of course, it was much easier for Shaman Drum to specialize when textbook sales were robust, and Pohrt's laments about the University of Michigan's new online textbook listing policies is understandable. At the same time, I have to agree with commenter Jim Canty's post on textbook purchasing in person. The traditional system of buying textbooks through stores is, on the whole, an acutely unpleasant experience, and one where students are typically at a financial disadvantage, whether they are buying or selling. And, as Canty alludes, Pohrt's theoretical argument--that brick-and-mortar bookstores offer the "intangible value" or browsing and talking with informed staff--is important, but simply doesn't hold water when it comes to textbook sales. I'd love to talk to a student that treasures the "intangible value" of a textbook store while standing in long lines and often paying to much for used books of questionable quality.

Nevertheless, Pohrt's right in that there aren't really "villians" responsible for changes in the textbook market. It's simply the same shift that's occurring with regard to general book sales, and working out a solution that leaves Shaman Drum anywhere near financial solvency will be extremely difficult. Despite disagreeing with him on the textbook issue, it'll be a sad day if his store closes, so I found his column to be a downer. The column is well worth reading, though, and the commenters offer thoughful opinions on a host of related issues, including Pohrt's current efforts to classify Shaman Drum as a non-profit organization.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Hearing on California's Proposition 8 Today

Today, the California Supreme Court will be hearing arguments on the validity of Proposition 8. Proposition 8, overturning a previous ruling that same sex marriages were legal in the state, was approved by voters in the November, 2008 election. Today, the California Supreme Court will begin consideration of the validity of the measure, which will in the end determine the validity of same sex marriages within the state.

Of primary concern in determining the validity of Proposition 8 is determining whether this measure improperly amended a constitutional amendment. Should the Court determine Proposition 8 constitutes a proper revision to the state constitution, which apparently many experts believe will be the case, the Court will then have to determine the validity of previously performed same sex marriages during the time period when such marriages were legal. Many feel that the Court will uphold Proposition 8, as well as the existing same sex marriages.

Opponents of Proposition 8 contend that this measure improperly amends the state constitution by means other than what is provided in the constitution itself. The Attorney General is contending that Proposition 8 “eliminates an inalienable right without compelling reasons.”

Supporters of Proposition 8 “have threatened a campaign to remove justices who vote to overturn the measure.” If Proposition 8 is upheld, gay right activists will most likely seek to add a measure to the 2010 ballot to reconsider gay marriage.

The original ruling had a slight majority, 4 to 3, determining that same sex marriages were legal in California. Should the supporters of Proposition 8 be able to swing a single justice’s vote, Proposition 8 will be declared valid and same sex marriage will once again be illegal in the state of California.

This topic has been written about quite a bit, including blog postings on this site when the measure was initially passed. As stated here, it is good to see that Americans have started accepting some forms of change, but the continued opposition to same sex marriage makes one question how truly open we as a society are. As the California Attorney General is expected to contend, marriage is one of the inalienable rights granted to the American people; to eliminate this right merely because the people desiring to marry are of the same sex does not seem a valid enough reason to prevent them from doing so. By denying these inalienable rights to certain groups of people, America is showing a tendency to cling on to the past rather than openness to change and the future.

To read the entire article, click here.

The arguments will be streamed here from 9:00 A.M. until noon Pacific on March 5, 2009.