“For I Was a Stranger, and You Took Me In”

Dell copyFor more than 20 years my church, St. George’s Episcopal in Maplewood, has been a part of the Interfaith Hospitality Network, which provides temporary shelter for homeless families.

Last week I had a chance to meet and talk with some of our IHN guests, including Dell Akinkunle and her children, David and Anointing.  The resulting article has been posted on Maplewood Patch.

I Love the Look, Newsweek — But About Those Horizontal Photos…

dick-takes-manhattanThe latest Newsweek just arrived by snail mail, and I have to say I’m lovin’ the new design.  Bigger, bolder photographs… a more elegant (and yet readable!) typeface… informative fun with graphics in the “Back Story,” which Editor Jon Meacham describes as “a visual dissection or explanation of an important issue or phenomenon that will satisfy one’s curiosity or pique interest.”

The redesign is part of a broader effort to find a business model for print journalism that works.  The existing model is in deep trouble, especially with regard to newspapers.  The mighty New York Times saw fit to pay $1.1 billion in 1993 for the Boston Globe. getting-to-know-obamaBut now the entire company — which in addition to those two major dailies includes more than a dozen other U.S. dailies, the International Herald Tribune and a bunch of other stuff  like Fenway Park and the Red Sox — the whole company is worth less than $1 billion, and in recent weeks resorted to threatening to shut down the Globe to win union concessions.

Meacham essentially says that Newsweek is getting out of the business of trying to break news. They’re going to take advantage of the relatively contemplative pace of their weekly publication to pursue “the reported narrative” and “the argued essay.”

What is displaced by these categories? The chief casualty is the straightforward news piece and news written with a few (hard-won, to be sure) new details that does not move us significantly past what we already know. Will we cover breaking news? Yes, we will, but with a rigorous standard in mind: Are we truly adding to the conversation? When violence erupts in the Middle East, are we saying something original about it? Are our photographs and design values exceptional? If the answers are yes, then we are in business.

Print publications that survive will be the ones that find a way to exploit the benefits of the printed medium.  Now and forever, timeliness is going to favor the Internet.  But the web just can’t provide the kind of visual feast that a well-designed magazine can.  The inaugural episode of the aforementioned “Back Story” feature, for example, graphically shows 15 purchases that could all be made with the Obama Administration’s $3.5 trillion 2010 federal budget, starting with “everything produced in Italy in 2008” and ending with an overpriced $8.50 burrito in Manhattan.

back-story-smallIt’s fun, it’s evocative, it makes a powerful point about federal spending.  But you’re going to have to buy the current Newsweek or squint at the little scanned image at left — I can’t link to Back Story because it’s not online.  An intricate, full-page graphic just can’t work online in the same quick-read kind of way as it works in print.

The print version also makes use of photography in a way that is more difficult online.  Full-page and two-page photos come to life on paper, but photos that large online would load slowly and expose the inherent visual limitations of the web.

For reasons not clear to me, they passed up an opportunity to repurpose at least some of their photos for the web.  The two graphics at the top of the column both click through to the web versions of the respective columns… but on the web, you won’t see the extremely horizontal photographs captured in the screen grabs above.  That kind of extreme horizontal actually does work well on the web.

st_g_homepageAnd here is where I finally get to the REAL point of this post.  J’accuse, NewsweekI know the source of the inspiration for the extreme horizontals.  The lovely Web Goddess posted the updated St. George’s Episcopal Church website more than a week ago — don’t tell me that’s not where you got the idea!

That’s right, this homage to Newsweek is actually an excuse to wander back into the Maplewood BlogolopolisTM and show off my wife’s handiwork.

st_g_social_justice1The Web Goddess created St. George’s website with a handful of pages in March 2001, and has continuously enlarged and improved it ever since. It’s by far the largest church website in the Diocese of Newark, all created by one volunteer who taught herself HTML, CSS and Javascript.

In the process, the Web Goddess amassed a trove of literally thousands of photographs of St. George’s events. Some were taken by other parishioners, but many of them (including the three you see here) she took herself, with the cameras her loving husband bought her.

st_g_ponyIn recent months she felt the existing design was starting to look tired, and she wanted to expand her web skills.  So she recoded the entire site from the ground up to improve performance and make use of all those wonderful pictures. Each of the three screen grabs here links to a different section of the website, and on any page of the site you can scroll through photos with the arrows at the top of the header. All of this she accomplished outside of working hours while working full-time. (Did I mention I’m proud of her?)

So, nice job, Newsweek — but the Web Goddess was out with her redesign first.

(Regarding the horizontal photos, in the interests of full disclosure, the Web Goddess tips her hat to the website of St. Olaf College.)

Step Aside, NY Times — Patch Is Bringing Google Zillions to Hyperlocal Maplewood

I got interested in the hyperlocal Maplewood BlogolopolisTM because the mighty New York Times was wading into the fray (and I happen to know the local Times reporter). But it turns out the Times is only the SECOND-best capitalized hyperlocal effort in Maplewood. The newcomer to watch is something called Patch.com.

I barely noticed Maplewood Patch when it launched in … well, whenever it was. Recently. Their logo clearly says “Beta”, and besides I’m not nearly as well tuned in to the local scene as a lot of my Maplewood neighbors are, so I just wasn’t that interested. I visit the (extremely active) Maplewood Online (MOL) bulletin boards sometimes if I’m looking for a referral for a handyman or whatever, but I never got into the social gestalt of those boards, and I don’t follow local politics. Every time I peeked in, however, I was impressed by how vibrant the community was. And MOL honcho Jamie Ross has always been good about publicizing our events at St. George’s Episcopal Church, where the Web Goddess and I are both very active.

Well, I’m interested now.

Yesterday I wrote mainly about the launch of the NY Times “The Local” site for Maplewood and environs. I noted that Patch.com and the NYT both chose the same three towns for their respective pilots — Maplewood, Millburn and South Orange — and I said something snarky about it being hard to reach somebody who could speak on behalf of Patch.

Today I got a call from Brian Farnham, Editor-in-Chief of … well, I guess of Patch.com, although their About Us page is fuzzy on the name of the entity, referring to “the people behind Patch.” Brian confirmed what I was starting to realize yesterday — that although it looks on the surface as if the New York Times and Patch.com have exactly the same business model for Maplewood, they are in fact closer to being exact opposites.

Brian, who had read my snarky comment, was very gracious and started by apologizing for not getting back to me more promptly. I parried that with an apology for not reaching out sooner.

Brian acknowledged what is obvious once you see the list of more than 20 employees at Patch’s NYC headquarters — Patch has national ambitions. He confirmed that all or virtually all of those 20-plus people are devoted full-time to the Patch.com effort. And yet, the only Patch.com sites currently in existence are the ones for Maplewood, South Orange and Millburn. (Each of the three towns also has a local Patch editor, supported by college students and freelancers.)

Brian wouldn’t let himself be pinned down about a timeframe for expansion, and he wouldn’t give me an estimate for the company’s monthly “burn rate” (a dot-com-bubble term that seems so last-century now). But the company is backed by a Google zillionaire, and they’re making a serious upfront investment.

About half those 20 people are fairly junior, but at the VP and Director level, everybody has serious online and/or media credentials. Brian, for example, is a former Editor-in-Chief of Time Out New York, and his fellow poobahs include seasoned Harvard MBAs and executives from non-trivial media ventures (Gannett, CBS, etc.) None of the senior people are working for just stock options and food.

The New York Times, OTOH, is taking its first tentative steps into the hyperlocal “space.” They’ve assigned one full-time reporter each in New Jersey and Brooklyn — and the paper says even that level of commitment is economically unsustainable in the long run. Maplewood resident Tina Kelley and her Brooklyn colleague at the Times were interviewed today on WNYC Radio, and they both freely acknowledged that the business model may look very different down the road.

Brian considers his company to be in competition with the awkwardly named NY Times “The Local” in this market, but he doesn’t think he’s really in competition with MOL, although obviously there’s some overlap. “I have enormous respect for Jamie Ross and what he’s built” at MOL, Brian said. “I hope people will get to feel less threatened by us — we’re not trying to put anybody out of business. We’re trying to be a news and information hub.”

This rings true to me. Think about Patch’s business model — if they don’t start expanding soon and build a broad base for advertising, even the most patient angel investor will get antsy. Salaries alone have to be costing them six figures every month, and their current revenue from the three initial Patches is either zero or something that rounds to zero. While the current faceoff looks like Googliath vs. Jamie Ross, by the end of 2009 I expect Maplewood Patch will be just one of dozens or even hundreds of local Patches.

MOL has an extremely loyal user base, as I (re)discovered when I posted what one loyalist described (accurately enough) as “your own self-serving advertisement to your blog” on MOL’s “Mostly Maplewood” board, which is only one of more than 20 active MOL boards. 80-plus comments ensued on the thread I had started, and to his credit Jamie not only left the thread posted, he personally took part in the discussion: “BTW, we got over 6,000 visits yesterday!” (Roughly 200 of those visitors clicked the link to my post, a nice boost for my humble blog.)

Patch.com’s business model will either work or it won’t — and if it works, Maplewood will be a tiny part of its traffic. The financially cratering New York Times will either find a business model that works or it will sell the extremely valuable brand to someone else — and either way, the Times‘s Maplewood blog will be a footnote (sorry, Tina, but I suspect you agree).

In any event, I don’t think MOL needs to worry. In fact, once the economy improves, I could envision a very nice payday for Jamie Ross, if he has any interest in having a partner with deep pockets.

Live, From Maplewood:Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

OK, enough with the financial crisis, the porkulus bill, the new president, Iraq… we’re going local here.

Next weekend, Feb. 20-22, a talented troupe from my church, St. George’s Episcopal in Maplewood, NJ, will stage Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, complete with live music.

My wife, the lovely and talented Web Goddess, and I are not in the production, but we’ve been involved in helping to publicize it. By “we” I mean mostly her. Here’s the scale of our respective contributions — she conceptualized, designed and executed the colorful banner you see here, combining a stock image rainbow swirl with a coat outline she drew herself, and tweaking the words endlessly to get them to fit.

Me? I looked over her shoulder when she asked me to, talked through some ideas and made encouraging sounds. At one point near the end, I said “maybe you could put a narrow white border around the coat,” and then left her alone to figure out how to actually do it. If you look closely you can see the little white border, which really helps the coat pop out more from the rainbow background. That was my idea. I also sent a rehearsal photo, caption, and an ad to our local weekly. (The Web Goddess took the picture and designed the ad.)

Not that I’m proud of her or anything, but I actually think the poster my wife made is nicer than the official image from the London revival. It’s certainly easier to read. And the white line is a nice touch.

Oh yeah, the production itself… it’s gonna be great. There is some amazing musical talent in our parish, and a couple of the performers have done the show professionally. They’ve been preparing and rehearsing since October — our church puts on a musical show every two or three years, and it’s always fabulous. I strongly urge all of you to attend — even the 13% of you who live outside the U.S. Details on tickets and show times are here, and you can see a two-minute rehearsal teaser on YouTube.

That’s it from Maplewood — regularly scheduled political grumpiness will resume soon.

Photo of the Web Goddess by Kirk Petersen (I borrowed her other camera).

McCain Gets More Gay Votes Than Bush

I meant to follow up in a more timely way on an earlier post about the conservative gay vote. From that earlier post:

Along the same lines, I also want to note estimates that nearly one out of every four gay voters pulled the lever for Bush in 2004 (as did I), despite Bush’s odious support for the proposed constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. (As for this year’s GOP nominee: “In the Senate, McCain has been an ardent opponent of a federal constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, arguing his case on federalist grounds.”)

Today I belatedly found a GayPatriot post from last week, quoting the Log Cabin Republicans as saying that McCain got about 27% of the LGBT vote. This is clearly up from what Bush got in 2004, but the Log Cabin Republicans estimated Bush’s tally in 2004 as 19%. Where I say “nearly one out of every four” up above, the actual tally was 23%, so there’s a discrepancy.

Turns out that if you stick consistently with CNN exit poll data, the numbers are:

This progression makes sense to me — Bush got higher support overall in 2004 than in 2000, but his support for a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage cost him some votes among gays. McCain’s opposition to the amendment helped him hold on to a few more gay conservatives. The striking thing is that the one-out-of-four ratio, in rounded terms, has been quite steady.

So where did that 19% number the Log Cabin Republicans cited come from? Annoyingly, they kind of made it up, averaging the 23% CNN number with a 17% result from an LATimes exit poll, and deciding that was “about 20%,” which somehow became 19% in their earlier missive. Hmm.

What’s the point of all this? Well, it’s about me being defensive, I suppose. The Web Goddess and I have been involved for years in our church’s efforts in support of full marriage equality for same-sex couples. (The Web Goddess designed the shirt above — click it to order a copy from Cafe Press, at no profit to us.) Some gay friends have taken issue, politely, with my support for McCain. I’m just trying to show that a vote for a Republican shouldn’t be considered beyond the pale by people who support gay equality. Even in our deep-blue town of Maplewood, I know at least one gay couple who are “out” Republicans.

I suppose there’s also a message here for those who would caricature all gay people as being driven primarily by their sexuality. In each election cited above, of course, any gay voter who voted primarily on the basis of issues important to gay people would have voted for the Democrat. But one out of four gay voters felt strongly enough about other issues — presumably national security or taxes — to vote for the less gay-friendly candidate.

Closer to Home…

I know you must be just aching for yet another post boasting about my recent flurry of traffic from all over the world (where the heck is Malta?), but it’s time to go hyper-local for a moment.

Susan Mangasarian, much-beloved 84-year-old matriarch of St. George’s Episcopal Church in Maplewood, NJ, led the local CROP Hunger Walk for the third year in a row Sunday on a beautiful fall afternoon. The walkers, representing several local churches, raised $2,500 for international and local hunger relief.

Previous walks have been covered in the local weekly, but this year — big-time PR guy that I am — it finally dawned on me that we might even be able to get some coverage in the Star-Ledger. After an advance call to a former co-worker from my ink-stained days in the 1980s, photographer Tim Farrell was dispatched with a long lens and a willingness to extend himself to get just the right perspective.

Susan later told a Star-Ledger reporter that fighting hunger has been a key issue for her since childhood. She was born in this country, but her parents were Armenian, and her mother often told her about how hungry the family was when they were surviving the Armenian Massacre in 1915. But the Ledger ended up running just a photo and caption, above. (No link, as the photo ran only in the print edition of the paper.)

That’s me, the paunchy guy in the middle — I’m saying, “you get what you need, Tim?” (That’s how big-time PR guys chat up the press.) The photos of Farrell are by my wife, the lovely Web Goddess, who also documented Susan’s two previous excursions. The Web Goddess also captured 56 seconds of live-action footage of this year’s walk.