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FOIA Fest for journalists, activists

How much does CPS spend on standardized testing?  How is the CHA spending federal subsidies it’s getting for housing units that it’s failed to occupy?  What’s happened to the clients of mental health clinics that were closed?  Which schools are losing students to urban violence?

With journalistic resources increasingly strapped, there’s “a lot of untapped potential” among community groups and activists to get information using the Freedom of Information Act, according to Steve Franklin, president of the Headline Club (and director of the Ethnic News Project at Community Media Workshop).

Along with journalists, organizations and individuals challenging cutbacks in education, housing and human services, and those working on violence and criminal justice and many other issues, are among the potential audience for the Headline Club’s FOIA Fest, a series of evening programs taking place this Monday through Wednesday, Franklin said.

Monday, March 11, 6 to 8 p.m., Andy Shaw of the Better Government Association will speak at an opening reception at Columbia’s journalism department, 33 E. Congress, second floor.  Along with its own investigations, BGA regularly holds FOIA clinics as well as trainings for “citizen watchdogs” and “education watchdogs.”

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Covering protests

The Chicago Headline Club offers a workshop for journalists covering the NATO protests on how to report safely — and what to do if you’re arrested.  It’s Saturday, May 12, 9 a.m. to non. Loyola Law Center, 25 East Pearson Room 105.  It’s $10 for Headline Club members, $20 for nonmembers.

For a little background, here’s Monroe Anderson’s post on “having the dubious distinction of being one of the first journalists to be beaten by Chicago police in 1968.”

The anti-muckrakers

Ever since the muckrakers of the Progressive Era – since McClure’s Magazine published Ida Turbell’s “History of Standard Oil” and Lincoln Steffen’s “The Shame of Minneapolis” in its January 1903 issue – investigative journalism has exposed the machinations of the powerful.

A few years ago a coterie of young conservatives decided to take up their own version of investigation journalism.  But they employ it to attack groups working to empower regular folks, and their methods feature deception and subterfuge — especially trying to trick staffers at community organizing groups into saying something embarrassing or worse.  It’s slash-and-burn journalism.

It worked with ACORN, where – as we noted in a 2009 post, Framing ACORN – Editor and Publisher found that “a bountiful crop of misinformation” was taken up by the FOX News echo chamber and repeated endlessly “without fact-checking” in the mainstream media (with metropolitan newspapers being a notable exception).  It led to the defunding and collapse of that organization.

Now the New York Times reports on a “sting” at two New York affiliates of the Industrial Areas Foundation, the Chicago-based organizing network founded by Saul Alinsky in 1940.

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On Whittier, the Tribune is duped

The Chicago Tribune wants to hold Whittier parents to account for the costs of delaying a new library at the Pilsen elementary school.

There’s another way of looking at it.  You could also hold CPS leadership to account for commencing the project in a manner that seemed designed to foment a confrontation.

You might even ask about contracts being let before the Board of Education approved the project.

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Steve Franklin on Egypt

Steve Franklin has lots of stories about the courage and spirt of the journalists, bloggers, and labor and human rights activists he’s worked with in Egypt, and he shares some of them in the current issue of American Prospect.

Franklin, a veteran journalist who heads the Ethnic News Media Project at Community Media Workshop, has been doing trainings in Egypt for several years.  He writes of bloggers exposing brutal police violence, striking workers facing government thugs, and journalists expanding the boundaries of free expression — long before the 18 days that brought down Hosni Mubarak last month.

CMW, Reporter in grassroots journalism initiative

Community Media Workshop and the Chicago Reporter will be reaching out to neighborhood bloggers and community groups on the South and West Sides to take up local reporting projects this year, backed by grants from a new Chicago Community Trust initiative.

The Local Reporting Initiative will provide awards of $2,000 and $10,000 for reporting by and for underserved communities in Chicago as part of the Trust’s Community News Matters program.

“We’re looking for the unheralded blogger in Bronzeville or Austin, or for nonprofits and community groups who’d like to engage a local journalist to help them tell their story,” said Thom Clark, president of Community Media Workshop.

“These are the communities that have been hit hardest in this economic crisis,” he said, underscoring the Workshop’s premise that “without voices from the neighborhoods, there can be no effective urban policy in a city like Chicago.”

Nonprofits, for-profit companies and individuals interested in applying are invited to an information session on January 19, 10 a.m. to noon, at Columbia College, 618 S. Michigan, 2nd floor.  Proposals are due February 21.  (Applications and information are available here.)

The Trust hopes “policy groups, community organizations, media outlets of all kinds, and individuals who care about these communities will be inspired by the Initiative to step up” with proposals for reporting projects, said vice president Ngoan Le.

The goal is to “stimulate a wave of new reporting” on issues affecting low-income communities, the Trust said in an announcement.

Community Media Workshop and the Chicago Reporter will share project administration, with the Reporter providing editorial support and the Workshop working to maximize dissemination of reporting, through Newstips and other online platforms and through social media

The initiative reflects the longtime mission of the Workshop to help journalists find community voices and “move beyond official sources,” and to “let the public and policy makers know that there is life in these neighborhoods way beyond the latest shotgun headline,” Clark said.

The geographical focus is a response to recent Community News Matters research which found that “residents of low-income South Side and West Side neighborhoods are especially concerned about the lack of news organizations covering relevant issues in their communities,” said Clark Bell, journalism program director of the McCormick Foundation, which is supporting the initiative.

Other support comes from the Knight Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, the Driehaus Foundation, and the Woods Fund.

Launched two years ago, the Community News Matters program aims at increasing local news coverage and assisting the development of innovative vehicles for news and information.

“High-quality reporting and analysis is the lifeblood of civic life,” said Le.  But local coverage by mainstream outlets has declined following cuts and consolidation, according to the 2009 New News Report produced by the Workshop for Community News Matters.

The new initiative also responds to findings in the Workshop’s 2010 New News Report that many new media outlets have yet to develop sustainable business models.  A feasability study to be completed February 28 will explore the possibility of establishing an advertising network to support local media innovators.

“Finding ways to pay for the news and information citizens need is one of the critical challenges of our age,” Le said.  “Chicago is blessed with a wealth of new media innovators trying to develop new models for the future.  We are happy to enable them to explore whether, by banding together, they might be able to generate additional financial support for their vital work.”

In addition to the Local Reporting Initiative and the feasibility study, the Trust is extending support for Windy Citizen and Gapers Block, as well as for Columbia College for advertising sales development for Austin Talks.

Honduras: “Impunity” in journalist killings

The murder of journalists is going uninvestigated in post-coup Honduras, creating “a climate of lawlessness that is allowing criminals to kill journalists with impunity,” according to a new report from the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Meanwhile local activists who travelled to Honduras to observe protests on the one-year anniversary of the coup on June 28 met with a Honduran journalist who visited Chicago in March, and who has received numerous death threats.

The CPJ report looks at the killing of seven journalists between March 1 and the middle of June this year, most of them “clearly assassinations carried out by hit men.”  It identifies motives related to the journalists’ work in several cases.

A New York Times article on the CPJ report mentions an official truth commission investigating the coup.  You have to read In These Times to learn that human rights groups are sponsoring an alternative truth commission.

The official truth commission is restricted to issues surrounding the coup itself, and is not charged with looking into human rights violations, according to Victoria Cervantes of La Voz de los de Abajo, a local solidarity group.  Only the alternative commission is investigating the killings, abductions, and torture that have followed in the wake of the coup, she said.

There is continuing “death squad-type activity” that is “very targeted, very deliberate, very specific,” Cervantes said.  And “there is no investigation, no action.  There is total, absolute impunity for violence against journalists and against resistance activists.”

Cervantes was part of the La Voz delegation in June, consisting of a dozen human rights activists, mainly from Chicago.  She said that despite violence, the movement resisting the coup continues to organize, forming neighborhood committees and assemblies in Tegucigalpa and other cities.

At least 100,000 Hondurans marched in protest on June 28, the anniversary of the coup, she said.  (See Kari Lydersen’s report from Honduras on the anniversary protest at In These Times.) In addition to demonstrations in smaller cities, protestors in the countryside blocked highways for hours, she said.

The Chicagoans visited Father Ismael Moreno (known as Father Melo), director of Radio Progreso in a small northern city.  The Jesuit priest has received several death threats – including a call on his cell phone telling him his head would be cut off – and no longer travels alone or at night, Cervantes said.

Moreno visited Chicago in March (see previous post).

Reports from the La Voz delegation are at the Honduras Resist blog.

Last month 27 members of Congress, including Representatives Danny Davis, Bobby Rush, and Jan Schakowsky, wrote Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, calling on the State Department to investigate continuing human rights violations in Honduras (pdf).

The letter notes that nine journalists have been killed and others “have been tortured, kidnapped, and suffered death threats.”

Far from pressing for human rights improvements, the U.S. has been pushing for reinstatement of Honduras’s membership in the Organization of American States, which was suspended after the coup.

Cervantes said an OAS vote slated for this week may be postponed because other Latin American countries continue to oppose reinstatement.

Comcast-NBC: How will it play in Chicago?

Chicago is the site of an FCC hearing tomorrow because the impact of a proposed Comcast-NBC merger would be particularly dramatic here.  Critics say the merger would mean a less competitive media market, with significant job loss, cable rate increases, and reduced local news coverage.

As detailed at competitioninmedia.org, Chicago is one of eleven cities where Comcast is the dominant cable and internet provider and NBC owns and operates its own TV stations.  Beyond that, Chicago is one of Comcast’s top three markets — and one of only three cities where NBC has a duopoly, operating both NBC (Channel 5) and Telemundo (Channel 44) stations.

“It would put them in a very anti-competitive position,” said Josh Stearns of the media reform group Free Press.  “They could dominate the market and push other broadcast and cable companies out.”

Merging control over content production with distribution means Comcast could restrict access to NBC content for other cable and video providers — or charge them much more dearly.  Down the line there’s the prospect of restrictions on consumer access to online video content.

Combining two local broadcast channels and numerous cable channels with Comcast’s two million cable subscribers in Chicago — with digital boxes delivering detailed information on their viewing habits — the conglomerate could sell “really attractive advertising packages,” including zoned ads, across its broadcast and cable properties, said Steve Macek, a professor of media studies at North Central College in Naperville and activist with Chicago Media Action

“This is a huge issue,” Macek said. A merged Comcast-NBC “will suck up all the advertising in the market,” hurting revenues for other broadcasters and adding pressure among them for more layoffs, especially in newsrooms.  “We’ll see stations cutting back on news staff and perhaps doing away with news altogether.”

This merger — like virtually every media consolidation to date — will lead to fewer journalism jobs, less coverage of the Latino community, and less diversity of voices, said the National Association of Hispanic Journalists in opposing the proposal. 

“We have seen the devastating impact media consolidation has had on newsrooms,” said Ivan Roman in a statement.  He said the public interest commitments made by Comcast in pushing the merger are “troublingly unclear” — and recalled promises by NBC to invest in local stations when it bought Telemundo in 2002.

Instead, “following the merger, NBC gutted the local news operations of Telemundo stations throughout the country.”  While Channel 44’s local newscast wasn’t cancelled, as in other cities, its newsroom was cut back by over a third, by one account.

Significant job loss is routine in giant media mergers, said Macek. “They try to realize savings by combining operations,” he said.  The  opportunity to reduce workforces is “one of the big motivations for these mergers.”

Simply paying off the $8 billion debt required to finance the merger will require job cuts or cable rate hikes, or both, said Seth Rosen, vice president for District 4 of the Communication Workers of America.

“Comcast has promised there will be no massive layoffs,” said Macek.  “Well, that depends on how you interpret ‘massive.'”  There were big job reductions when AOL merged with Time Warner in 2000 (a merger recently called off), at a time of growing ad revenue, he said.  “Now ad revenue is way down. I think there are going to be severe cuts.”

Along with the loss of good jobs, CWA cites the potential for downward pressure on labor standards for remaining workers if a merger reinforces Comcast’s “really aggressive anti-union stance,” Rosen said.

At union workplaces which Comcast has acquired in previous mergers, there’s been “a systematic campaign to get rid of unions,” including refusal to negotiate contracts and support for decertification campaigns, he said.

Of 3,000 Comcast workers in the Chicago area, about 200 are represented by a union, said IBEW Local 21 business representative Jerry Rankins.  That’s what remains from 600 workers at five union shops the company inherited when it acquired AT&T Broadband in 2002.

In negotiations, the company essentially stonewalled, refusing to offer wages and benefits equal to what nonunion employees got, Rankins said; the union filed unfair labor practice charges over the company’s refusal to bargain in good faith, he said.  The company also features compulsory meetings where employees are subjected to anti-union harangues, he said.

Extending Comcast’s reach could undercut telecommunications workers in Illinois, where workers at companies with union representation (notably AT&T) do significantly better in terms of wages and hours, Rankins said. According to CWA, which has a joint Comcast organizing project with IBEW, wages and benefits at Comcast are about a third less than at unionized companies.

Comcast has also replaced regular employees with independent contractors, who get no benefits, Rankins said.

“I am really concerned about Comcast’s overall attitude toward working class people,” he said.  “It’s a moral issue, for the third largest telecommunications company in the country, where the CEO makes $13,000 an hour — they have an obligation to their workers and to the community to pay fair wages and benefits.”



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  • Telling people’s stories, an ethnic media success September 2, 2015
        By Stephen Franklin Community Media Workshop   A 3-year-old child died on a plane from Chicago to Poland. This, Magdalena Pantelis instantly knew, was a story her readers would care about. But she needed more detail to write about it for the Polish Daily News, the nation’s oldest daily newspaper in Polish, founded Jan. […]
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