The new transparency: Newspapers mine public data, and not everyone’s happy about it

Better get used to it, people. As governments increasingly place public information online, news organizations are going to demand access to it and print it — but not always with appropriate context. That must change.

Among the leaders of the data-mining charge appears to be media conglomerate Gannett Co. Inc., owner of 82 U.S. daily newspapers, including USA Today, and 23 television stations. You’ll recall that Gannett-owned The Journal News published an interactive map of addresses of gun-permit holders in the New York state counties of Westchester, Rockland, and Putnam.

The News has been roundly criticized for that act. But there are reasons for criticism beyond the rabid fear-mongering.

The News has a First Amendment right to print public information (lawyers would argue some limits do apply). But any newspaper printing public information, especially when unpopular, has the responsibility to carefully and intelligently construct context for those data. Simply printing that these households have a gun permit does not do a damn thing to advance a public debate about guns, deaths related to guns, and the Second Amendment.

In Wisconsin, a Gannett Wisconsin Media investigative team has begun a continuing series: “What We Pay: Your Tax Dollars and the Salaries They Support.” The series is published in Gannett’s Wisconsin papers.

In week one, the team examined salary information at Wisconsin’s public universities. The stories identify salary disparities among different disciplines (with business and finance profs earning the top salaries). They also show university football coaches and athletics administrators made million-dollar salaries — with one assistant football coach making more than half a million. Shocking, isn’t it, but hardly surprising.

The stories explain why disciplines differ in what salaries they can demand: market value and social value, providing some context for the raw data. But more context — deeper, more instructive context in stories heavily invested with face-to-face reporting — would serve readers better.

In week two, Gannett published the salaries of public school teachers, employees, and administrators in more than 400 Wisconsin school districts. That’s the salary records of more than 250,000 people.

Begin the obvious criticism: If you earn a paycheck, it’s likely you wish to keep that after-taxes figure to yourself. In America, it’s a cultural faux pax to ask someone, “So how much do you make?”

That criticism cannot offset the fact that tax dollars pay public school salaries. That’s public information. Nowadays, salary data exists in easily mined databases. Don’t want the public to know your salary? Consider a career in which taxpayers don’t pay your wages.

(But even then, your salary is in a database somewhere. As a fellow Scrogue points out, websites like Glassdoor provide ranges of salaries for various occupations and positions. Publicly held companies list salaries of senior positions. Like it or not, your salary is at risk of becoming public knowledge.)

The Gannett series ranks district salaries by report card scores, enrollment, average teacher salary, and district administrator salary. The series notes that “salaries vary widely across Wisconsin’s public school system, even among districts of similar size and location.”

In the weeks to come, Gannett plans to publish other city, county, and state public-employee salaries.

Get used to this. It will happen more often. But expect — in fact, demand — that news organizations provide the essential qualitative reporting to provide context around these quantitative data. This Wisconsin series is insufficient in that regard. Yes, various explanations are offered for discrepancies and patterns found, but they are not rich in nuance and lack well-reported depth of explanation.

Gannett is a national news organization. If it plans to increase its data-mining activities, it should scale them up — how do Wisconsin public teacher salaries compare with those in other states in which Gannett has a presence? What patterns can it discern? What explanations can it uncover?

News organizations should tell the human stories inherent in data. The Journal News did not do that with its gun-permit map. Gannett’s public salary series only scratches at the surface of what readers need to participate in a much wider debate on how society places value on the people it pays to serve it.

Journalism schools should take notice as well. If they’re teaching data-mining techniques, they should be damn sure first-rate data reporting and journalism ethics courses are required as well.

Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation: why you don’t see Pilgrims at the movies

Theatrical Release Poster from Wikimedia

I saw (for the second time) Terence Malick’s The New World Friday night. It’s a strange and engrossing movie, what one critic calls a “tone poem” about the founding of the Jamestown settlement. Part history, part psychological analysis, part dream, it enraptures, engrosses, and enrages alternately. Partly through pacing (one of, I think, its best qualities – The New World doesn’t seek to show us the Jamestown experience at the speed of contemporary life  but instead moves at the pace of life in 1607), partly through interweaving the stream-of-consciousness of its main characters (John Smith and Pocahontas), Malick captures the brutal reality of the historical events that they were part of. The dearth of dialogue that some might find unsettling works well at conveying the need of two cultures unable to communicate verbally trying to find ways to express meaning to each other. (As an aside, Q’orianka Kilcher as Pocahontas steals the film; and for once, Colin Farrell’s thuggishly angsty intensity suits his role – adventurer and angst-ridden thug Captain John Smith.)

I begin with this micro-film review because it relates to my reading list post of a couple of weeks ago. The first book on that list was William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantationwhich I finished early last week, a few days before stumbling upon The New World during one of those free movie channel promos from my satellite TV provider. (And yes, I’m taking pains not to give them free a product mention; when they’re ready to go quid pro quo and offer me free promo for my books I’ll do that – this is how the world we live in works, n’est-ce pas?) I realized (since my 20th/21st century mind raced along despite Malick’s admirable attempt to slow me down to 17th century experiential pace) that, while The New World offers a superb vision of the Jamestown experience, that I could not name a film that does an equally fine job of conveying the experience of that even more famous group of New World colonists, the Pilgrims. And that got me to wondering why.

And, yes, there have been attempts. Continue reading

Dr. Sammy’s Best CDs of 2012, pt 3: the CD(s) of the Year

Best-of-2012I couldn’t make up my mind a couple years ago and the result was a tie for CD of the Year between Eels and Munly. It’s happened again, as 2012 presented us with two artists at the peak of their powers. So what’s your pleasure: apples or oranges?

Best CDs of 2012

The KillersBattle Born
If we take how often I played it as the yardstick, then Battle Born was easily my favorite CD of 2012. I completely lost track of how many times I spun this one driving around, but I couldn’t help myself.

It has grown so unfashionable to be a rock star in the traditional mode (ie, the Golden Age of 1970s Classic Rock swagger – think Zep or The Stones) that bands simply don’t swing for the fences anymore. Instead of striving to make art that is larger than life, the mores of the era dictate intimacy and “keeping it real.” Frankly, this has hurt our musical culture. No, I’m not advocating for a parade of strutting, self-obsessed cockrockers, but there’s something to be said for an artist who aspires to greatness, to produce something timeless and legendary. Show me an artist without an ego and I’ll show you a bad artist, I’ve often said, and while that ego doesn’t necessarily need to manifest itself in a public life of debauchery and excess, I do like to hear an album with ambition, one that strives to be grand.

Battle Born is a CD with a dream. Grounded in a simple enough story – boy meets girl, boy gets girl pregnant, then things go to hell as reality sets in – the disc revolves around a narrative straight out of the Springsteen/Mellencamp School of Heartland Working Class Rock Opera. Take this, from “Runaways”:

We got engaged on a Friday night
I swore on the head of our unborn child that I could take care of the three of us
But I got the tendency to slip when the nights get wild.
It’s in my blood
She says she might just runaway somewhere else, some place good

Now, sift that ethos through the doomed nuclear generation romanticism of the ’80s and you have a fair approximation of the Battle Born gestalt. About the only things missing here are covers of “The River” and “Forever Young.”

It certainly helps that The Killers’ limitless ambition is matched by a remarkable gift for songcraft – no rock band is going any further than their songs take them, and here we have perhaps their strongest collection of tunes to date. These lyrics demand melodies and arrangements that evoke the simplicity and essential beauty of youth.

I remember driving
In my daddy’s car to the airfield
Blanket on the hood, backs against the windshield

The Killers may not be the biggest band in the world right now, but they’re damned sure working on it. They’ve always been obsessed with Born to Run, which is about as big a target as Rock has generated in the last 40 years, and their particular ear for how “Thunder Road” might be cross-pollenated with ’80s radio TechnoPop (Human League, Berlin, Alphaville) and Post-Punk (The Cure, Joy Division, Echo & the Bunnymen) yields a sound that evokes not one significant moment in our musical history, but two or three.

There’s plenty of room in the world for intimate, introspective Indie. It’s refreshing to hear that there’s also a taste out there for bands who long for the spotlights of the grand stage. For too many years that place in the American zeitgeist has been ceded to prefabricated corporate pop of the American Idol ilk, while real artists retreated deeper and deeper into their own navel-gazing.

Not everybody thinks that The Killers’s actual music is as substantively iconic as the pose they strike (, linked above, gives Battle Born four stars, which is about a half star less than it deserves, and Stephen Thomas Erlewine’s review migrates from getting it…

The great open secret about the Killers is that they only make sense when they operate on a grand scale. Everything they do is outsized; their anthems are created for fathomless stadiums, a character quirk they’ve grown into over the years as they’ve gone from scrappy wannabes fighting their way out of Las Vegas to the international superstars they’ve longed to be.

…to a characterization of them as professional technicians:

They’re veterans at this game, a group who has been trading in these stylized, glamorized fusions for a decade, and that slightly weathered attitude is now part of the band’s appeal; they’re veterans that know how to use their tools, so even if the raw materials may not be quite as compelling as their earliest singles, the overall craft on Battle Born is more appealing. And if age has changed the Killers attack, it has done not a thing for Brandon Flowers as a lyricist, who remains committed to gobsmacking poetry and allusions, and cracked observations that somehow sound endearing when encased in the well-lubricated machinery of Battle Born.

In other words, he says, The Killers are craft, not art. Well, if I ever meet Erlewine I’ll buy him a beer and maybe we can talk about this. No, Brandon Flowers isn’t Yeats, and he’s not Cobain, either. But if you recast the songs from Battle Born as Punk or perhaps a grittier, less studio-savvy Indie and put them in the mouths of, say, Jack White, the critics would be flinging five star reviews around like confetti on New Year’s Eve.

I wish more artists would take the cue and aim higher.

Bob MouldSilver Age
Some years back, Bob Mould decided he was going to issue one more sonic guitar blast – The Last Dog and Pony Show – and then he was going to go off and do other things, like Techno. Boy, am I glad he’s back.

Noisy and aggressive, Silver Age harkens back to the early 1990s, when Mould released three records with his Sugar power trio project: Copper Blue and File Under: Easy Listening (1992 and 1994, respectively) were five-star masterpieces, and sandwiched in the middle we got Beaster, a fun little filler EP comprising pissed-off outtakes from Copper Blue. Taken together, this three-year arc serves as a textbook case in how to execute raucous guitar-driven Power Pop (and here I use the term in The Who sense, not The Beatles sense).

It’s perhaps helpful to better understand Mould’s place in the American Alternative/Indie landscape, so try this. Start by going back and spending some time with his first band, Hüsker Dü – maybe Zen Arcade or New Day Rising. Then break out your old Grunge CDs and listen to them again. Got it? Okay, now listen to those three Sugar discs. Check out “If I Can’t Change Your Mind” and “Your Favorite Thing.” Next go listen to some Foo Fighters. Now, connect the dots. Mould rarely gets the credit he deserves for his influence on the last 25 years of music, but I promise you the artists you love know all about him.

So if I say that Silver Age could easily be treated as the fourth Sugar record, arriving after an 18-year hiatus, understand that praise doesn’t come much higher in these parts. And when I tell you that Mould is still angry after all these years, witness his take on the contemporary disposable corporate pop diva, which we get right out of the gate:

You had a chance to go around the world
But you had to be a silly bird
A revelation wouldn’t matter much to you

Silly bird, you bought a lousy dream
You took a number from the star machine
The star machine is spitting numbers out on you

You leave your family and some friends behind
It wasn’t long until you lost your mind
The star machine is doing fine but how are you?

You tell the world you had to fire the band
Your little world has gotten out of hand
The star machine will hand your ass right back to you

Then he has some words about his place in the pantheon. Are you listening, Jann Wenner?

Another live saint gonna take my place
You say a cheap prayer to my pretty face, yeah
You better pray for rain, yeah
Never too old to contain my rage
The silver age, the silver age

This is how I’m gonna spend my days
Gonna fight, gonna fuck, gonna feed
Gonna walk away

Stupid little kid wanna hate my game
I don’t need a spot in your hall of fame, no
What a fucking game, yo
I’m wiping my face of the shit you say
In the silver age I walk away singing
The silver age is calling out a melody

Silver Age devotes a good deal of energy to reflection, to rage and even to moments of raw regret. Oddly, I’m reminded of another angry young man who didn’t lose his edge as he aged. Graham Parker once put it this way:

The words come out
Not twist and shout
‘Cause that’s not what a grown man writes about

This is a mature CD, the work of a brilliant artist who has had plenty of time to ponder his life and legacy, and it’s clear that he’s not yet at peace with the world. The video for “The Descent,” which you can watch below, perhaps affords a clue or two as to what the future holds. In the meantime, Mould has, after a few years experimenting with other genres and stylistic approaches, circled back around to his greatest strengths, batteries recharged and empowered with a brutal honesty about both himself and the world he inhabits.

Incredible stuff.

Part 1: The Gold LPs
Part 2: The Platinum LPs

Evan S. Connell, RIP

Evan S. Connell, one of our best writers, passed away this past week, age 88. Connell was around for a long time, and came to some prominence on the back of the Mr. and Mrs. Bridge novels, some of the first incisive novels about American suburban life. But he had a broad reach and an enthusiastic imagination. His novels ranged from Americana, including the Bridge novels and that magnificent little novel about longing, The Connoisseur, to the long philosophical poems of Notes from a Bottle found at the Beach at Carmel and its sequel, Points for a Compass Rose. Probably his best known book was Son of the Morning Star, a highly regarded book about Custer and the battle of Little Big Horn. He was interested in everything—his biography of Goya was excellent, one of his last novels was Deus Lo Volt, about the crusades, and his novel about alchemy The Alchemyst’s Journal, was one of the most challenging books I’ve ever read, and still remains by favorite by him. And his essays! Again, he wrote about everything, and to wander through A Long Desire or The White Lantern is to be struck by not only the depth of knowledge and understanding and uncanny judgment that Connell possessed, but also the range of subjects that attracted him. On top of everything else, he was a remarkable stylist, and had not just one, but many voices, all of which spoke eloquently of the joys of the life of the mind. Funny—just last week I was staring at his books on the bookshelf, thinking I was ready for another one. And maybe there will be. But if there isn’t, there are all those great books on the shelf, just waiting to be re-read. They will be, too.