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On Reading Again–and a tongue in cheek thank you

I suppose I should thank Donald Trump because in a roundabout way he has caused me to become a reader again. I got so frustrated during the campaign that I stopped watching network television news. I also turned off NPR.
 
This was a major change for me. I was an information junkie. I was always tuned in to some form of electronic information source.
 
I weaned myself from these media for three reasons. The false equivalence of the journalistic method. The imbalance in airtime given to Mrs. Clinton vs. Donald Trump. (Ratings, ratings, ratings.) The unwillingness early on to call out falsehoods.
 
These led me to say, “enough!”
 
I turned to print publications and online news sources I trust.
 
I also returned to reading books. Not books about politics. Books about everything I’m interested in, which is almost everything.
 
I had become concerned about my inability to read long form journalism anyway. I noticed I was having trouble staying with longer pieces. I’d gotten accustomed to 500 word posts online. And I had acclimated to the ridiculous sound bite journalism of electronic media.
 
I committed to giving 15 minutes a day to reading and sticking with it. I turned off the radio, TV, cellphone, and put away all the devices.
 
The joy of reading began to return. Before long I found myself reading beyond my 15-minute limit.
 
Then I discovered I was becoming engrossed in books and articles. I was moving beyond my self-defined short-term attention deficit disorder.
 
Since the election, here’s what I’ve been reading:
 
The Divine Dance by Richard Rohr. Franciscan Father Rohr is attempting to “rebuild Christian teaching from the bottom up.” A formidable task, but well worth the effort. In this book he reframes teaching about the trinity in Christian religion. Rohr is providing hope-filled teaching. In this time of declining interest in a judgmental, punitive, exclusive faith, that’s wonderful.
 
A Christian Justice for the Common Good by Dr. Tex Sample. Dr. Sample provides a theological rationale for a justice for the common good. And he discusses how to apply it in today’s social environment.
 
Deep South by Paul Theroux. The veteran travel writer turns his attention to people of the U.S. South whose stories are rarely told. It’s an insightful reporting of conversations and attitudes about the South. It’s a reminder that as Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
 
Hank: The Short Life and Long Country Road of Hank Williams by Mark Ribowsky. A detailed look into the tragic life of country music’s most iconic star. It’s amazing that Hank accomplished so much in so short a time, and his life was such a tragic mess.
 
The Air Castle of the South: WSM and the making of Music City by Craig Havighurst. This is a well-written history of radio station WSM. The station made a contribution to the city of Nashville, the national culture, and to radio. I saw a small part of that history many years ago. As part of a training event run by Dennis Benson, I got permission to sit in on the all-night show of DJ Ralph Emery. He interviewed country singers after they had played sets in downtown honky tonks. The night I was there he interviewed a young blonde woman named Dolly. We all know the rest of that story.
 
A Lowcountry Heart: Reflections on a Writing Life by Pat Conroy. This is a collection of papers, blog posts, and letters by this wonderful southern writer. He died in 2016. The papers reveal his affecting human qualities.
 
Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline. From 1854 to 1929, the Children’s Aid Society gathered an estimated 250,000 orphaned, abandoned and homeless children from the streets of New York City. They were put on “orphan trains” bound for families in midwestern states. Some found loving homes, but many did not. They became indentured servants, often facing cruel abuse and hardship beyond words. This novel captures their grim existence. It also tells of their strength of spirit, and the occasional goodwill of adults around them. Baker Kline uses a storytelling device that’s compelling in its own right. I won’t give it away.
 
The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan. I grew up hearing about the Dust Bowl from my grandparents in Oklahoma. They lived east of the land affected by the great blows. But they experienced the Great Depression. Like many in the western part of the state, they also experienced displacement. Both of my grandfathers had to abandon farming and move their families to town. It was heart-wrenching. Egan captures the pathos of this hardship using the stories of survivors.
 
Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt. I decided to re-read McCourt’s memoir about his childhood in New York and Ireland. I wanted to refresh my understanding of memoir. This story is as powerfully moving as it gets.
 
Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs by Lisa Randall. Oh, if I only had a mind for understanding physics, cosmology, and quantum mechanics. I don’t. But that doesn’t make reading Randall less interesting. Her explanations are helping me to grasp an elementary understanding of these things. What is dark matter and what does it do? What’s the difference between asteroids, meteoroids, and comets? What does this have to do with the dinosaurs?
 
As you can see, it’s an eclectic mix, offering disparate views of the world. Always an intriguing world. I’d recommend each of them without reserve.
 
Oh, and I’m still getting news. I’m reading the NY Times, Washington Post, the Guardian, and VOX, online or in hard copy. I also turn to the BBC, Reuters and other sources for both video and narrative reporting.
 
Life is more interesting when I manage media more purposefully. I probably wouldn’t have done it without Donald. So, thanks, I guess.
 
But, to be clear. Still, I resist.

A Trump Anti-Inauguration Plan

How does a person of faith and a concerned citizen respond to the inauguration of Donald Trump which is only days away?

The question is especially pertinent if you believe Trump is a danger to the country, if not the world, and articulates opinions and policies that are clearly in conflict with the teachings of Jesus.

Much damage has been done to the impression of Christians by white evangelicals and other Christians who voted for Trump despite his obvious moral failings, racism, misogyny, authoritarianism, ignorance of policy and global affairs.

I think it’s important to reclaim the faith from the fear and warped theology that political operatives on the right have used to infect Christian teaching.

And I’m not alone in this. A plethora of email appeals to resist, repudiate, and protest Trump’s leadership and policies come daily. What to do?

Moral Response

A moral response based on faith is not only possible, it can be a witness to the teachings of Jesus from a different perspective.

A recent column by Charles M. Blow, while not written with religion in mind, provided helpful guidance. Blow writes that it’s not enough to be negative. Negative actions must be balanced with constructive response that reinforces principles and values. 

This resonates with me. Christian faith is embodied in constructive action. Faith is a way of living. In fact, in its earliest days, it was called “the way.”

Blow proposes a personal plan for making your opposition known. He says we must also deny that Trump and his behavior are normal. Blow calls it an “anti-inauguration plan.”

Like many others, I’ve been developing my own response to the election of Trump and I find Blow’s plan a helpful tool. 

So, with appreciation to Mr. Blow for his template, here’s my plan:

Pray

Prayer is lifting to consciousness our deepest concerns, hopes, fears, and joys, and baring them before God. Prayer is not limited to petitioning God for personal favors, or blessing others.

Prayer is also about perceiving and responding to the sacred in our lives. It is active engagement.

Since I left the workplace, I have been concentrating on nature and wildlife photography, not merely as a hobby but as a form of prayer.

The meditation time this provides, the awareness of the sacred it brings to consciousness, and the sharing it allows has become more meaningful than I anticipated when I began.

I believe when we bring our creativity to expression in concrete ways, we are are engaging in a sacred conversation. 

My photography not only expresses my creative impulses, it also is a reminder to me of the sacredness of the natural world. And it’s a way to call attention to the need to preserve and protect the whole of God’s good creation.

Protest

Protests are being organized around the country. I will join those in my city who proclaim that the policies proposed by Trump and some of his cabinet selections do not represent values and policies that I endorse. Some are antithetical to civil liberties, immigrants, women, and the environment. I intend to protest these harmful policies. 

Donate

Since the election, my spouse and I have donated to four organizations that are working to conserve wildlife and natural sites, one that is assisting people to utilize sustainable technology to improve their lives, a couple that work in public policy advocacy, and one that is speaking publicly from religious values to call the Trump administration to accountability.

Subscribe

We believe that a free press, flawed as electronic journalism is, remains an important line of defense in these troubling days. While I have stopped watching television news and public affairs programming and eliminated NPR from my information-gathering habits, I have subscribed to three newspapers and a magazine rooted in Christian teachings that focuses on justice and reducing poverty .

Remember that subscriptions also open the channel to online reading of content.

Read

It’s clear that an informed public is essential to the common good. I spend less time with TV and more time reading since we now have a president who seems averse to reading much of anything of substance.

In particular, I am re-reading Jared Diamond’s Pulitzer prize winning “Collapse”, and Dr. Tex Sample’s “A Christian Theology for the Common Good.”

Write

I have made my views known to my national and state legislators in the past but since the Trump election I have been much more frequent in writing to elected representatives to advocate for public policy that I believe is more humane, just, and consistent with the Constitution and the moral imperatives that Jesus taught.

Hearing from me more often, I assume also identifies me to them and reminds them of values that I advocate.

Letters to the editor, op-ed opinion pieces, radio call-in shows, feedback to news media about stories, and outreach through social media are means to voice support for fundamental moral issues of justice.

Connect

I have sought to re-connect with family and friends because we live in a society that is isolating and destructive of community. This disintegration of community is what fed the discontent and fears of Trump voters, and he was successful in exploiting discontent and fear.

People of faith also have local communities called congregations in which they can worship and find spiritual strength, develop friendships, and study the teachings of Jesus that are the basis for a life lived with meaning and purpose.

But to be frank about it, some of these communities have not been places where honest discussion of justice and faithfulness to the common good have been addressed forthrightly. It’s time to reclaim this lost territory for religious values that are humanizing and biblically sound, to call ourselves and our religious leaders to accountability before God.

We live in a society that has broken the bonds of community. The mantra of individualism has damaged community. It is based on a doctrine that the interests of the individual are, or ought to be, ethically paramount. Taken to excess, this doctrine today fosters hyper-individualism. 

Our housing developments are not created to encourage community. Houses are made to isolate us. Our social media intercede to substitute for direct person-to-person communication. 

Hyper-individualism is in direct conflict with the call of Jesus to be self-emptying in service to others. In this way, Christian faith is counter-cultural because it calls us to be concerned for one another, especially those who live in poverty conditions and those who are vulnerable.

We are discovering that no amount of things makes up for the loss of friends and communal interaction. We must rebuild our connection with others and re-discover the call to servanthood contained in the gospel of Matthew in chapter 25.

Volunteer

There are myriad ways to volunteer to assist people in local communities, and church people are usually at the head of the line. From groups that serve disadvantaged children, abused women, immigrants, the homeless, environmental protection, to missional efforts through local churches, there are ways to engage to make for a better world and repudiate divisiveness and fear of the ‘the other.”

These are some of the ways that I see myself participating in society today and making a difference. I am motivated by my understanding of the demands of faith, and by my concern that citizenship carries the responsibility to participate in a way that supports and protects the vulnerable.

I’d be interested in hearing about yours.

_________________

 

Here is useful resource: Indivisible: A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda.

Hope in a Post-truth World

In a helpful analysis of the uses of social media by the water protectors at Standing Rock, Ginny Underwood points out how social media were used to tell the story of the people protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline.

The analysis was published by United Methodist News Service, the news arm of The United Methodist Church.

Ginny points out how the water protectors used social media strategically to overcome lack of coverage by mainstream media. In doing this, she notes the people were enabled to tell their own story, something that’s been more difficult in the past because of lack of access to media controlled by others.

Key to Success

A key to the success of the resistance was the strategic use of social media to tell a story that for many weeks was not told by mainstream media. The water protectors built a movement through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media from a remote hillside in the middle of the country far from the communication hubs of the established media.

They told a story that was easy to understand and with which anyone could identify. When dogs and rubber bullets were used by local authorities and water cannons turned on the protestors, it was on Facebook within minutes. 

Creating a Movement

Out of this communication a movement was built. A movement can defeat the establishment almost every time if it holds together and if it communicates effectively.

There are other components of this story that bear attention.

UMNS published this analysis before any other media outlet recognized the importance of the communication strategy. This is an important and appropriate role for the church’s communication arm to fulfill.

UMNS (for which I once had executive responsibility) should be an authoritative information source for the stories of those without voice, on the margins, and otherwise at a disadvantage in a media environment dominated by big money and big corporations.

It’s not a public relations function that serves on behalf of the church.

Truth-telling Rooted in the Gospel

It is the truth-teller rooted in the church’s claim of the Gospel of Jesus that the truth will set us free.

In the post-truth world of Trump, and the fact-free disinformation of fake news, the mainline religious traditions should be standing in the breach doing truth-telling and fact-finding, and enabling those who lack the capacity to tell their own stories without an assist to do so.

Mainstream electronic media, subject to the greed of corporate executives and the demand for ratings, failed us at truth telling in the past election. Don’t look for this to change.

Mainstream Fail

Mainstream religious institutions have failed and continue to fail to engage the public conversation about just treatment of people, fair wages, economic justice, humane ways to resolve conflict, and the global environmental crisis.

The mainline denominations have decimated their news services. In doing so they have removed their capacity to fulfill one of their most sacred responsibilities, to speak truth to power, and to do what Jesus asked us to do, to identify with the poor and oppressed and to raise our voice on their behalf for justice and equity.

When religious institutions fail to protect us from the principalities and powers, other means must be found. In the DAPL issue, the water protectors are playing that important role.

And it’s important that communicators like Ginny Underwood and services like United Methodist News Service fulfill their responsibilities to tell the stories of the people.

Sacred Stories, Spirit Movement

That’s because these are sacred stories. They will be overlooked by those who serve corporate masters and moneyed interests.

At this moment in global history, there may be no more important role for religious communicators than to be the story-tellers who inform us of the movement of the Spirit to protect, heal and save us from our own hubris, greed and false worship of power.

_______________________

Postscript: Faith in Public Life (FPL) is providing religious leaders with the means to speak to moral issues by providing a platform for exposure. The Rev. William Barber, for example, is an effective public voice for justice and FPL has assisted him and others with media access. I am a board member of FPL.

The Failure of TV News, Or Why I Have Given Up on TV Journalism

screen-shot-2016-12-02-at-7-57-10-pmI have watched one news program on television since the election, BBC America.

I’ve kept up wth the news through online reading and Reuters video among others.

When I started writing this post my intent was to explain why I was turning away from watching TV news. After the way television news programs handled the Trump campaign I resolved to personally boycott TV news. Given a plethora of options for information today, that’s not a radical step, I admit.

But it’s a big change me.  For most of my life I’ve been an information junkie. I’ve worked in and around TV news for most of my adult life.

I devoured newspapers and TV news programs. But, that has come to an end.

Rather than a total boycott, I’ve become a cautious skeptic, watching only to get information about those stories that I know are current and unfolding. (The fires in the Smoky Mountains are the most recent example.)

And I rely on other media for substance and perspective.

Election coverage turned me off TV news. Here’s why.

1.The willingness of TV executives to allow Trump to dominate airtime.

Trump manipulated the media and many TV journalists and program executives were willing accomplices in his manipulation. CBS President Les Moonves made a boast that was irresponsible, greedy, and lacking in civic principles when he said of Donald Trump, “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”

NBC decided to put Matt Lauer, an entertainment show host, in a primetime role as host of a “candidate forum” which had the effect of mixing politics and entertainment, and subsequently blew up in Lauer’s face when he failed to fact-check Trump and shorted Sec. Clinton.

According to one study, Trump received $3 billion in free air time. This started even before he had begun to raise funds for his campaign and was invisible in the Republican primaries.

He dominated the airwaves not because he had better ideas but because his outlandish comments, media savvy, and constant availability drew an audience and made the TV networks money.

Journalism is about more than money and entertainment. It’s about providing accurate information so people can be well-informed and make considered decisions.

What we got with coverage of Trump was politics as entertainment laced with lies and extremism.

2. Unfiltered airing of Trump speeches including outrageous claims made with virtually no fact-checking until after the claims had circled the world.

Media exposure has a legitimizing effect. It’s invisible, subtle, and often denied. But I learned early in my career as a journalist that when I told the stories of people in poverty in the U.S. and the developing world, it was validating and legitimizing.

Journalism isn’t only about reporting what’s happening. 

It’s about exposure. Under certain circumstances exposure can mean a platform for presenting your ideas. It cannot be otherwise. How this is managed is crucial, and for too long in the primaries and for the early months of the election, this crucial management was treated too lightly by TV news.

By providing a platform for Trump to tell his stories unchecked to millions of people, media exposure served to legitimize extremism and bring it into the mainstream.

3. Applying euphemisms to Trump’s remarks and treating Trump as if he were a political candidate like traditional candidates of the past—as if he had a platform and vision.

The traditional journalistic practice is to present at least two opposing claims with quotes from both sides, giving each equal attention. But Trump is a liar and a demagogue. To give his conspiracy claims status equal to the policy proposals of his primary opponents, and later to Sec. Clinton, was to elevate a charlatan to respectability, and to diminish serious policy discussion.

The traditional journalism model and its business plan undermined responsible decision-making in this election. Where it will lead us is still open to question.

4. Covering the campaign as a horse race without pressing the candidates for substance.

By emphasizing polls and ignoring policy discussions, this campaign lacked vital substance. Polls over policy.

We face a global environmental crisis. We’re hearing about potential mass extinction of wildlife. But the environmental crisis, along with many other critical issues affecting us, was completely invisible during this campaign. Not one question was posed in any debate about our common environmental global future. This was irresponsibility to the maximum.

Journalists covered the election as if it were a horse race. They have done this before. In this election, however, it put us at peril.

5. The hunt for scandal.

Subjecting Sec. Clinton to a higher level of scrutiny over email practices, as if this were scandalous, not to mention a major indicator of integrity (when it was not), diverted attention from a body of historical reporting about Trump that told us exactly who he is.

Past Secretaries of State had followed the same practices as Clinton and Snopes clarified that roughly 22 million White House e-mails exchanged via private servers during the G.W. Bush administration were deleted instead of being archived in accordance with the Presidential Records Act.

The electronic media emphasis on an email scandal that wasn’t created a straw man that continued as a diversion throughout the campaign.

6. Repeating the politically generated claim that Clinton could not be trusted.

This became a self-fulfilling loop.

Jill Abramson, former executive editor of the New York Times, who has extensive experience covering the Clintons, wrote in The Guardian, that “Hillary Clinton is fundamentally honest and trustworthy.”

Such reporting, however, was not the norm. The norm was to repeat the polls that showed voters believed the trumped up claim that she was dishonest. Couple this with the on-going crudeness of Donald Trump’s “lying Hillary” mantra and the media provided a platform to undermine the integrity of Sec. Clinton.

And so, we now have President-elect Donald Trump. An idea once laughable is now a reality.

Are the media the sole reason for Trump’s election? No. But they are a significant player through the misapplication of traditional journalistic practices applied uncritically to an untraditional, dangerous, and manipulative candidate. Trump played the media, especially the television journalists.

TV executives who let greed lead them over principled civic responsibility played along. They now bear a burden that they must face as Trump threatens a free press.

There was too much stenography and too little truth-telling, too much greed and too little concern for the common good. Too much entertainment value and too little concern for policies that will shape our lives and the well-being of the world.

This is not good for America nor CBS.

There were journalists, print and electronic, who did not fall victim to the manipulation. David Fahrenthold of the Washington Post provided a lesson in investigative reporting on the Trump Foundation, for example.

But in this election, the media lost and foremost among the losers was TV news.

Pursuing Beauty

We are made immortal by the contemplation of beauty–Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

 

Over the last few weeks I’ve been asked how I achieved a particular look for photos I post on Facebook.

It’s interesting that in the digital age this question comes up often. “How did you do that?”

In my reckoning, it was not so in the age of film, despite the fact that prints from film were heavily processed. Back then the photo seemed to speak for itself. We’ve become so technologized today that we just assume a photo has been manipulated in some way.

I’ll answer the questions in the next few posts by writing about my workflow which results in the look I’m trying to capture. But there are a couple of prior steps and I don’t want to ignore them.

Photography as Prayer

For me photography is more than the sum of techniques and technical skills. It’s an experience. It’s the act of creating art.

Sometimes it’s a spiritual act.

I once produced a video on at-risk teenage Native Americans. In a class on crafts, a wise grandmother told the kids, “When you do something that’s creative and constructive, it’s a prayer. You pray with more than words. You pray when you dance, when you sing, when you work with your hands.”

Photography can be a prayer.

She also told them that they should never do creative work when they are in a bad mood because that spirit will enter into the outcome. “Even if you’re making soup for someone who is feeling bad,” she said, “you should not make that soup if you’re not in a good mood. Your bad feelings will enter into the soup and it won’t be healthy for them.”

My photography is my soup-making. It’s both an experience and the act of creating.

Creation is Beautiful

I don’t try to achieve an effect so much as to capture the beauty that I see before me, and to share it online with friends who have the same appreciation for the natural world as I have.

Often I’m awed at the simplest of things that I see; the flight of a common bird, the shape of a leaf on a tree, the shimmer of light on water. I know some think this is naive, and others mere sentimentalism.

But it’s how I feel and what I see.

Sometimes nature, especially landscapes, lead me into a meditative state. How wonder-filled is the earth that we call our Mother?

Sometimes nature is, by human judgment, cruel. We’ve seen examples. Birds of prey are graceful but merciless. They are killing machines. Large cats, muscles straining, attack the young, weak or old in a herd. It seems an unfair match.

These are pieces of the whole reality, and they challenge the perception of an idealized natural world. It’s not all beautiful sunrises and sunsets.

Never the less, it always comes back to beauty. The Creation is a beautiful thing. It nurtures us and feeds our souls.

It calls us to protect and preserve it. We need reminders of this call, and we need to visualize it.

The Hunger for Beauty

In her excellent newsletter Brainpickings, Maria Popova quotes the poet John O’Donahue on beauty. “We can slip into the Beautiful with the same ease as we slip into the seamless embrace of water; something ancient within us already trusts that this embrace will hold us,” he writes.

“The human soul is hungry for beauty,” says O’Donahue. “When we experience the Beautiful, there is a sense of homecoming.”

He goes on to say we feel most alive in the presence of the Beautiful because it meets the needs of our soul. It brings a sense of completeness and sureness, says O’Donahue.

Nature photography—birds, animals, landscapes—isn’t simply about the photos. It’s about the pursuit of beauty, about our wholeness, about coming home.

It’s a prayer.

Oprah on Belief

Screen Shot 2015-10-12 at 9.11.54 PMIn a conference call on Monday night, Oprah Winfrey told the 800 people who connected that her calling is to share ideas through storytelling to connect people.

The call was designed to promote the series Belief that she produced and will air beginning Oct. 18 -24 on the OWN channel.

The series was three years in the making and tells stories of faith from around the world. She said “the way to connect people to their own life story is to allow them to see their story in another’s story.”

“Stories help us to understand what makes us unique but also show us the beautiful things that we have in common,” she said.

The series is built on the belief that the thread of love is the same across all the world’s major religions. When we hear stories of love, we understand each other differently and find out we have more in common that we knew before, Oprah said.

This isn’t a new concept but it comes at a time when religion is being used to divide us and spread hateful rhetoric that does harm.

Jim Winkler, President and chief executive of the National Council of Churches told the group the individual stories illustrate the power of faith for good in the world. He cited the Civil Rights movement as an example of a movement built on moral and spiritual values.

He said the interfaith stories on Belief had inspired him to consider extending interfaith dialogue through the NCCUSA to include conversations with Buddhists and Hindus.

The thought that stories of belief can connect us is a helpful corrective to the pervasive cultural narrative of individualism and isolation in Western societies that has been documented by Robert Putnam and Shirley Turkle.

It’s particularly notable that faith is being presented as unifying. The isolation fostered by technology in common spaces increases our sense of loss of community and connection. For example, sit in an airport public lounge and see how common space has become more atomized as we turn to handheld devices to avoid the invasive ads, noise, and television monitors that distract and annoy us today.

Religious belief offers us many helpful tools, but one of the most distinctive and constructive may be that it provides us with a sense of connection with others and, at its best, a unifying spirit in a world of diversity.

The Belief team is calling on people to organize watch parties and conversation groups and to promote the series on social media.

By using her resources and celebrity to encourage a more unifying spirit and reinforce the thought that belief can have value if it teaches compassion and offers healing, Oprah is giving the world a valuable and timely gift.

How Would You Like Your News, Mam, On Paper or on Screen?

Screen Shot 2014-12-21 at 9.16.38 AMWe get two newspapers by home delivery and both have announced a price increase. This comes as no surprise. Costs are increasing. Readership is down. Revenue is in free fall. Readers are growing older and are not being replaced.

The formula is clear. Some day it will be too expensive to distribute news this way. Publishers will no longer be able to print and distribute news on paper, and I’ll no longer be able to afford it.

Millennials get their news in other ways, mostly from the web through social media and websites that package information specifically for them. If they want news in any form, it’s on a screen.

Losing Millennials

Allen Mutter, in his blog “Reflections of a Newsosaur,” concludes that “editors and publishers have only themselves to blame” for losing this generation. They are coveted not only for their current buying power, but because they are the future. Mutter says publishers talked to one another and did not engage millennials to discover their interests, attitudes, and media uses. That’s how they lost them.

To underscore his point, he compares demographic statistics from traditional media audiences to visits to websites that cater to millennials. He used: BuzzFeed, Circa, Mic, Upworthy, Vice, Vocative, Vox and the McClatchy chain. The handwriting is on the wall, or more aptly, on the screen.

The Era of the Screen

We’re in the era of the screen, and screens on various devices result in a sea change. The changes we’re going through are so widespread and disruptive they affect traditional business models, the way we go about our daily affairs, language and culture.

Predicting this would have required an ability to foretell the future with a skill few of us have. Who knew that in 2014 millennials would use four or more digital devices a day, or check their mobile phones 45 times a day? Who foretold that the primary way they would learn about new information is through social media? Or that sharing would come to mean more than letting someone else play with your toy?

The shift from broadcast to hypertargeted media is upending how we communicate. We no longer buy radios because we listen to news, podcasts, and music online, or download them to handheld devices. We watch videos on mobile screens. We select content based on our interests and needs. We’re overloaded with options and we’ve learned to filter out that which doesn’t appeal to our specific interests.

Institutional Change

Institutional authority is changing. It’s too soon to know how this will shake out, but it’s clear that what we’ve known as traditional institutional models must change. And businesses that traffic in information and entertainment such as movies, radio, television, music and news are challenged to change their business models.

Population by Generation

Researchers say millennials want socially responsible information relevant to them. They want entertaining information, often packaged in graphics or video. They rely on friends and sharing to help them filter content options. They are less interested in dispassionate, objective journalism than in writing with a point of view.

Demographics Don’t Define Us

But ad executive David Bohan makes the point that millennials, like the rest of us, are not a lump of demographic similarities. They’re people with distinct interests and lives. Millennials have different interests at different stages of life. They are loyal to brands they trust but also discriminating and savvy.

If there is a message to be gleaned from this complexity it is that we cannot reduce people to their demographic and psychographic profiles. Life is more nuanced than this. We have distinct interests, desires and expectations. Some of us are native to this new communication environment. Others are digital immigrants, subject to the changes that media bring to our lives, uprooting us from the security that institutions provided in the past.

The New Challenge

And if there is a constant in this mix it is that one-way communication has given way to conversation. Multiple conversations, in fact. Communication is about relationships. The new challenge is to venture from the familiar and find a place in the new landscape. It calls for listening and learning. We can talk to ourselves but risk that the rest of the world will pass us by.

The challenge that virtually every institution based on mass membership, mass circulation or mass audience faces today is to find a place in the new landscape and converse with those who inhabit it, and find ways to communicate relevance, authenticity and responsibility. And to do it in an appealing way.

The Music of My Youth as a Commercial Shill

Union Bus Station, Oklahoma City

Union Bus Station, Oklahoma City

I wrote my master’s thesis on the interaction of media, culture and theology. My point was that culture and theology intersect. We can learn much about the human condition by listening to cultural expressions such as contemporary music, and reflecting on them theologically.

The idea wasn’t well-received by my review committee. They asked me to re-write it. I argued and won small concessions. But they rejected the basic proposition that popular culture and theology intersect.

They did not buy my argument that Paul Simon’s song “America” held theological content. I said it is about the search for meaning. It informs our understanding of alienation, loneliness and the search for community. We seek relationship with each other and with God.

The song describes this search, not for God, but for relationships; about how tentative and faltering they can be. It draws a plaintive word picture of youth searching for America. Young adults trying to find their place in the world.

I like to think my struggle with the committee just indicates I was ahead of the times. But whatever the case, I defended Paul Simon and his songs. They meant something more than jukebox background music, or so I thought.

When I heard this song used in a commercial for a credit card company recently, my heart sank. Paul Simon shilling for corporate America. Is this where the search ends? Is this what the young man was looking for–a lucrative licensing fee?

This is America?

I’m wondering. Is this what I fought for, or was the committee correct after all?

Why the FCC should turn on FM radio chips in mobile phones

Having radio chips activated in their mobile phones would enable users to listen to over-the-air radio in the event of an emergency. Photo illustration by Kathleen Barry,  photo by Mike DuBose, United Methodist Communications

Having radio chips activated in their mobile phones would enable users to listen to over-the-air radio in the event of an emergency. Photo illustration by Kathleen Barry, typhoon aftermath photo by Mike DuBose, United Methodist Communications

When Typhoon Yolanda caused extensive damage in the Tacloban region of the Philippines a year ago, it wiped out major parts of the communications infrastructure. Mobile phone and Wi-Fi towers were so damaged these communications systems were inoperable.

The result was that people across the region were unable to communicate, and those who came to provide emergency aid were unable to locate people in great distress. The situation led the Philippines government to issue a request for assistance to rebuild the communications infrastructure.

April Mercado, United Methodist Communications staff in the Philippines, told the Game Changers Summit last month that in the earliest days of the emergency the most reliable means of communication was radio.

In most emerging nations, radio is the most effective and efficient way to reach broad numbers of people, and it becomes even more important during emergencies. For example, The United Methodist radio station, “Voice of Hope,” in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, remained on the air during an armed conflict in the country a few years ago, one of the few stations to continue broadcasting during that crisis.

In the United States, floods, ice storms, tornadoes and other disasters often require emergency communications, so emerging nations aren’t alone in using radio for good ends.

I reflected on this recently when I learned that mobile phones in the U.S. come with a chip that will receive FM radio signals over the air, but many service providers disable them. The chips allow mobile phones to act like a transistor radio, without data charges.

As we move to all-in-one handheld devices such as tablets, cellphones and “phablets,” this function becomes more important, it seems to me. As a resident in an area where Internet service is frequently down, and satellite television can be interrupted by thunderstorms, over-the-air radio is a useful way to get important information.

As a result of this concern, I wrote to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler to request that the Federal Communications Commission consider requiring these chips to be activated on smartphones sold in the U.S., so that we all can benefit from this important function. It’s a feature that we should have not only for convenience, but for our well-being when emergency circumstances demand it.

Here is the letter:

Dear Chairman Wheeler,

I write to request favorable action by the FCC to require mobile telephone manufacturers and operators to provide access to FM radio through mobile devices including smartphones, tablets and “phablets.”

This is a matter of public safety in addition to convenience for individual users of these devices. A report from the International Telecommunication Union states the need succinctly:

“For many decades, radio and television broadcasters have been the primary source of critical information to the public in the event of disasters such as tornadoes, hurricanes, tropical storms, floods, snowstorms, earthquakes, tsunamis, solar storms, terrorist violence, mass transportation accidents, and industrial or technological catastrophes. This important role can be both before an impending event and also after an event. On these occasions, radio and television broadcasting provides reliable point-to-everywhere delivery of essential information and safety advice to the public, to first responders and others via widely available consumer receivers, both mobile and fixed. In many cases the major broadcasting facilities have their own independent power supply facilities to maintain communications even if utility supplies are lost.”

Examples abound of the need for this service on mobile devices from ice storms in Kentucky to tornadoes in the Midwest to hurricanes on the Gulf Coast. When residential power is out, often cell service and Internet are also out.  The only battery device may be a smart phone, but it is useless without cell service.  With an activated radio chip, however, it will function similar to a transistor radio providing people with information essential for survival.

This includes where food, water and shelter are available; where FEMA and other humanitarian assistance is located; when there are curfew hours and road closings; when there are school closings and the status of hospital physical plants.

Portable radios as we have known them are important, but society is depending more and more on smart devices as a primary tool to receive information. Today, societies the world over are transitioning to mobile handset devices for their information. FM receivers in smart devices should be activated as a matter of public safety just as air bags and seatbelts in automobiles were required years ago. While information increasingly flows through mobile devices, broadcast services remain the most effective and efficient means of reaching the widest audience.

In an emergency, the role of broadcasters is even more important because they serve local communities with essential, fact-checked, reliable information, and they distribute it to all within the broadcast signal.

When cell signals are not in service, over-the-air FM radio is the most reliable means of delivering information in critical events. It is our experience at United Methodist Communications, which is the global communications agency for The United Methodist Church with audiences in the Philippines, Eastern and Central Europe, Africa, and the United States, that radio is a key tool to deliver life-saving information. Our experience in Typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines and in the current Ebola crisis in West Africa reinforces the value of radio as a means of informing persons about circumstances essential to their well-being in emergency situations such as those the ITU report identifies.

For these important reasons, I request the FCC mandate that over-the-air radio chips be activated in mobile phones in the United States so that FM radio is available to all who desire and who would benefit from this important service.

Sincerely,

Larry Hollon

General Secretary

United Methodist Communications

 

 

No one should live outside the web of connectivity

The national health systems of Sierra Leone and Liberia are barely functioning, and increasing pressure on them risks a complete meltdown, according to reports in popular media. Coordination of services to contain the Ebola outbreak remains fragmented and under resourced.

A woman uses a smartphone in contact tracing, a method used to trace people who have had contact with Ebola patients. Video screen shot, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

A woman uses a smartphone in contact tracing, a method used to identify new Ebola cases quickly and isolate patients as soon as they show symptoms.  Video screen shot, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In an article as tragic as it is frightening, Adam Nossiter of the New York Times details how people are dying from Ebola in Makeni, Sierra Leone. The article reads like the script from a horror movie with no happy ending in sight.

The story sent shivers down my spine, and it coincided with my return from a meeting near London of IT and communications professionals with major international agencies gearing up to meet this crisis at scale. The fact is, the response is far behind the spreading virus, and while this is belatedly being addressed, it will take long-term, sustained attention to bring the contagion under control. Time is an enemy, and the complications of scaling up are many.

International agencies are dealing with major crises from Syria to Gaza to the Central African Republic. The World Health Organization currently lists eight Grade 3 emergencies, which are situations that require substantial international response. They are: Central African Republic, Guinea, Iraq, Liberia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, South Sudan and The Syrian Arab Republic.

This means the various agencies designed to deal with such emergencies were already being stretched before Ebola struck. Equally frustrating is the fact that this crisis graphically demonstrates how the lack of reliable communication today is a matter of life and death, but communication infrastructure lags behind human need.

The tipping point

Nearly every input imaginable is needed for this crisis from skilled personnel, to vehicles to transport the ill and the deceased, to a supply chain for materials, to communications for internal operations and external messaging, to technical personnel to support the technology, to facilities for isolating ill persons and myriad other physical and personnel needs.

What is called for now is urgent placement of skilled staff in the affected regions, facilities to support isolation and treatment, and material resources such as gloves, disinfectants, medications, body bags, protective suits and equipment.

But too many leaders, including global leaders and church leaders, have underestimated the significance of communication and the infrastructure necessary for it to work. We have reached a tipping point in our understanding of humanitarian aid. It is no longer limited to food, shelter, clothing, water and medicines. Lack of communications capacity has exacerbated this crisis.

The ability to communicate and the quality of the information delivered are matters of life and death. Pure and simple, communication is aid.

And humanitarian aid, like so many other necessary daily functions, is becoming digitized. This means that globally, communication infrastructure, messaging and personal communication devices will become essential for daily affairs, much as they already are in the global North.

Text messages, such as this one from United Methodist Communications, represent the new form of digital aid being used in the international response to the Ebola virus outbreak. Photo by Kathleen Barry, United Methodist Communications.

Text messages, such as this one from United Methodist Communications, represent the new form of digital aid being used in the international response to the Ebola crisis. Photo by Kathleen Barry, United Methodist Communications.

A paradigm shift

In the short-term future, we will see a paradigm shift toward digital humanitarian aid through the use of smart cards and mobile services. And this is changing older methods of providing aid because the new model is faster, more efficient and more economical, and it will reach more people. It also makes aid customizable and personal. And this means it is measurable, and the delivery system can be made more accountable.

This may seem like a pipe dream, but we are, in fact, already seeing how digital tools are being used in refugee settlements in the Middle East, and this will only grow as the systems become perfected.

The Ebola crisis is demonstrating that in this new age of pervasive technology, no one on the planet is so isolated that they can exist outside the global web of connectivity that delivers life-enhancing, and life-saving, information. And it is demonstrating that those concerned with humanitarian assistance to people in crisis situations must be at the forefront of this new era of technology for good because to do otherwise is to allow events to spiral out of control, with tragic results.

______

The Foundation for United Methodist Communications has established an emergency communications fund. With your help, we can provide communications support in the event of a crisis or disaster. Donate here.

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