Saturday , April 20 2024
First in a monthly series highlighting the best newspaper articles I've come across.

Great Journalism About Memorial Day, Dixie Chicks, and Clogged Email Accounts

To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the death of print are quite premature. Long live print! While blogs and other online publications, including this one, have dramatically changed the media world, there are still many good articles being printed in newspapers and magazines. With this column I am launching a monthly feature where I will highlight some of the best articles in newspapers and magazines that I have come across during the prior month.

This is not to suggest that newspapers and magazines are all good, just as it is equally unfair when some bloggers suggest that all newspapers are bad. The reality is in the gray area in between with some newspapers making major mistakes – paging Judith Miller! – but some also do amazing journalism unequalled in the blog world.

Today I am going to focus on newspaper articles worthy of reading and pondering. If you want to discuss any of the articles further, that'd be great too.

I am trying to select articles from a range of sources on a variety of topics. If you come across an article you think I should include with my next column, feel free to email me at sbutki at

Admittedly the focus will be on newspapers to which I have easy access to read in print form: The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Baltimore Sun. I am also planning a similar column on recent excellent magazine articles.

My first entry is a heart-breaking, eye-opening, inspiring story about a 13-year-old girl who lost her hand in Sierra Leone that begins this way: 

WASHINGTON – On Monday morning, the two girls anchoring Francis Hammond Middle School's daily televised news show chirpily announced an upcoming roller skating party, a talent show and a book club event. Then one anchor, a bright-eyed Sierra Leonian immigrant named Damba Koroma, showed her fellow students, watching from classrooms throughout the suburban school, a video of herself that explained why she doesn't have a left hand.

"In August of 1998, war came to my village and ended my peaceful and normal life,” said Damba, 13. In the video, she wore a top that bared her arms. She explained that rebels torched homes and attacked the villagers, killing those they accused of collaborating with the government, and raping women and girls…

After the video, Damba's fellow anchor, Tamika Jones, 14, asked schoolmates to rise for the Pledge of Allegiance. Tamika was supposed to smile while announcing it. But she just couldn't.

Behind the cameras, in the darkened broadcasting room, students sniffled.

My second selection is "It's Dixie Chicks vs Country Fans, but Who's Dissing Whom?"

This article from the May 25 edition of The New York Times first stopped me cold because the Times was using the word "dissing" in a headline. Fine, so they are about ten years behind the times in terms of hip language, but it's a start. How much do you want to bet there was a lengthy debate about whether the headline was too "street" or "urban" for its readers when the reality is – who even says dissing anymore? I bet the editors thought they were “fly” and it was a “swell” decision.

I have been following, with interest, the Dixie Chicks since they criticized George Bush and his war. Many bloggers, including Al Barger here at Blogcritics, have criticized the band for its politics and new material. This article took the debate a step further by describing how other country musicians have reacted to the brouhaha. The article begins this way:

At the Academy of Country Music awards on Tuesday night, the host, Reba McEntire, made an unfunny joke. "If the Dixie Chicks can sing with their foot in their mouths, surely I can host this sucker," she said. The setup was pretty awkward. And when you stopped to think about it, the punch line really wasn't one. But none of that mattered. The line earned one of the night's most enthusiastic ovations.

It has been more than three years since Natalie Maines, the Dixie Chicks' lead singer, told a London audience, "Just so you know, we're ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas." The comment, delivered less than two weeks before the invasion of Iraq, sparked a feud with Toby Keith and, it seemed, the entire country-music establishment.

Mr. Keith has since moved on, but country fans clearly haven't. As the Dixie Chicks promote their new album, "Taking the Long Way" (Open Wide/Columbia), they are clearly country-music pariahs. Country radio is snubbing the album. And you know you've got an image problem when even Ms. McEntire is piling it on.

It's not hard to sympathize with Ms. Maines and her two band mates, Martie Maguire and Emily Robison. They say they have had to contend with violent threats, and former fans call them bimbos and worse. (For female stars being outspoken carries particular risks.) Against this backdrop the three are presenting themselves as free-speech heroes, pilloried for expressing their political beliefs.

But this isn't really a fight about President Bush or freedom of speech. This is a fight about the identity of country music. There's a contract that binds country singers to their fans, and the Dixie Chicks have broken it.

Emails with photo attachments clogging in-boxes is a problem we have all had but this is the first good article I have read about it. While it is easy to dismiss the Wall Street Journal as solely about business, it also does some excellent features and this article is one of them:

Lately, Raphael Bartolome's email inbox has been getting more and more crowded. In addition to the urgent requests for new mortgages and home-equity loans, the Seattle mortgage broker now regularly receives messages loaded with even more emotional content: baby photos.

t's not just his friends sending regular photo updates of their toddlers. Now clients looking for larger homes are forwarding him pictures of their newborns, perhaps hoping to underscore the need for a new nursery. Recently, one young couple seeking a mortgage sent along a picture of the pregnant wife's ultrasound.

"I can't believe these people are sending me these photos, and I just met them two weeks ago," says Mr. Bartolome, who tries to send back brief replies, such as "Nice photo" or "Wow."

As a reader and former reporter I can tell you it is hard to find fresh angles for Memorial Day stories. One article that intrigued me was about online memorials. Headlined "Online Memorials Bring Strangers and Friends Together in Community of Grief," it began this way:

Days after his wife's death from inflammatory breast cancer in 2004, Michael Bloomer set up a Web page memorial. An old co-worker from Florida signed Kim Bloomer's online guest book. So did a high school classmate in Michigan.
For Bloomer, a retired government worker who lives in Dumfries, the memorial page became a soothing place where he could read stories, receive condolences and even reach out to his wife by posting his own messages: "Hi Honey… It's only been about a month since you left, but it seems like ages since we laughed and loved when the days were normal and you were without pain. I miss you so much it hurts inside."

Bloomer says he frequented the online memorial in the first year to read new postings or to reread old ones. "It was kind of like a lasting tribute so that anybody could go on there at any time." As the country observes the memory of those who died in its wars, online memorials have altered acts of bereavement and become palliative retreats for some who grieve. Web sites dedicated to the deceased now number in the millions in the United States, and for those left behind, posting stories, photos and videos is a way of keeping a permanent record of the person's life. Material added to mark important days such as birthdays, Mother's Day and Memorial Day, or even notes left by well-wishing strangers help the page evolve, so the memorial itself can take on a kind of second life.

Another good piece from the Post was about Maryland House, one of the many rest stops people visited during the holiday weekend. Headlined "Keeping a Rest Stop in Motion; For Some, Memorial Day Weekend Means Working Hard So Others Can Refuel, Relax and Reminisce," it began this way:

One of the few things Vern Bingham is not sure of concerning Memorial Day weekend is what people actually do on Memorial Day weekend. But he has some suspicions: The beach is popular; so are roller coasters and backyard barbecues.

Of this he is sure: Many travelers hit the road around 9 a.m. on Friday. By noon, they have lined up for toilets, particularly if they are rolling with kids in the backseat. Then they eat. How much? In the case of Cinnabons, roughly 30 percent more are consumed than the weekend before. Roy Rogers' daily chicken sales swell 50 percent, to 1,000 pounds.

Bingham, 56, is the general manager of the Maryland House, the five-decades-old rest stop in Aberdeen, along Interstate 95, at mile marker 82, on the way to summer. While everyone heads somewhere else, Bingham has spent the past 12 Memorial Day weekends inside this rest stop, honing his knack for predicting the ebb and flow of cinnamon-slathered dough — a vital calculation to the lore and bottom line of summer vacations. On Friday alone, his operation had met his predictions dead on, selling 3,000 slices of pizza, 3,000 pieces of chicken, and 1,300 cups of Starbucks. But he was still girding for today's onslaught of travelers racing home.

"If we're wrong," he said, "we're in big trouble with a lot of people."

The Washington Post also has an excellent story about a couple with a major problem: The wife is a peace activist and the husband is in the Iraq war.

This story, along with most of the others I list here, are the types of stories where "traditional" media still kicks butt – long, deep stories with photos. Some might argue television does these types of stories better since you get to see and hear the subject. But I think that makes one focus too much on appearance and sound rather than the story. The story about the couple begins this way:

One minute Stacy Bannerman is stuffing envelopes to promote an upcoming peace workshop. The next her husband, Lorin, unexpectedly appears in her office.

"I got the call," he says.

"What call?" she replies.

Does she have to ask? Don't they both know their life is poised to turn completely strange at any moment? Possibly even tragic?

"I'm going to Iraq."
As his mouth says the words, his eyes watch her closely.

"No. No. No."
She dodges his attempt to hug. She doesn't want him to touch her yet, as if touching will make this news real.

Yes, yes, yes: Lorin's National Guard unit just got called up. And in a deep part of him that he doesn't reveal to her this instant, he's kind of looking forward to it. Stacy, on the other hand, is a professional peace and justice activist. Her emotions are much closer to the surface, and she's freaking out.

This article in The New York Times really got my attention, for personal reasons, but it has an interesting take on the blogging about work issue. Namely, it may get you fired but, if so, you might get rich if you luck out.

On the first day of his internship last year, Andrew McDonald created a Web site for himself. It never occurred to him that his bosses might not like his naming it after the company and writing in it about what went on in their office.

For Mr. McDonald, the Web log he created, "I'm a Comedy Central Intern," was merely a way to keep his friends apprised of his activities and to practice his humor writing. For Comedy Central, it was a corporate no-no — especially after it was mentioned on, the gossip Web site, attracting thousands of new readers.

There is a theory that humor comes from pain. If so, this piece in The Washington Post really takes that idea and twists it. Headlined, "Humor, Rhymes With Tumor," it begins this way:

Cartoonist Miriam Engelberg is hardly the first to recognize cancer's comic potential. Columnist Erma Bombeck and comedian Gilda Radner mined that territory before her.

But by taking such humor into the realm of cartoons, the author and illustrator of "Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person: A Memoir in Comics" (Harper) makes it edgier. Engelberg drew the first in the collection of about 50 cartoons in 2001, while waiting for the biopsy results that confirmed her cancer; later entries deal with the cancer's spread to her brain. (She didn't need the recent uproar over depictions of Muslims to prove cartoons' capacity to shock and disturb.)

Any joke about cancer is by definition dark humor. But Engelberg's irreverent alternative to the "Chicken Soup for the Soul" approach is insightful, unflinching and painfully, painfully funny. No topic is so delicate as to be off limits — from loss of libido to loss of hair. While some of Engelberg's cartoons take on big topics (coming to terms with death's inevitability, wondering whether there's an afterlife), others play with life's smaller issues: "Is it okay to play the cancer card with telemarketers?" the "Miriam" cartoon character asks. To which you might reply: Are the snickers that this produces healthy?

There have been many stories about parents trying to track and monitor the activities of their children but none as good as this one in The Washington Post. With very engaging writing the author explains how the parents go about watching what the kids see and what the kids to thwart the parents.
It begins this way:

Maribeth Luftglass is a gumshoe mom.

The parent of three preteens periodically reads the text messages on their cellphones, monitors whom and when they're instant messaging and searches the Internet to make sure they haven't started blogging or set up profiles on social networking sites.

Her kids, in turn, sometimes attempt a little techno-judo to deflect her surveillance efforts: They change the text and background on the monitor to blue and black, making it harder for her to read the screen from across the room. They set their instant-messaging status to "invisible," so she can't tell they're online.

"I monitor all their online activities," and the kids are well aware that their technology-access privileges come with that cost, said Luftglass, who is the Fairfax County public school system's assistant superintendent of information technology.

The game of parental espionage and counterespionage gets ever more complex with technology.

Remember recess? Well, recess is gradually becoming another subject altogether: History. A story in The Washington Post explains a trend I've seen up close and dislike: The gradual removal of recess at schools.

The story begins this way:

Ask any group of kids what they like best about school and one answer will come up over and over: recess. Who doesn't remember that wonderful moment when you finally got to run out to the playground, carefree, for a pickup game of four square or dodge ball?

But for many kids today, the recess bell comes too late, for too little time, or even not at all. Pressure to raise test scores and adhere to state-mandated academic requirements is squeezing recess out of the school day. In many schools, it's just 10 or 15 minutes, if at all. In some cases, recess has become structured with organized games — yes, recess is being taught…

Academics and psychologists who study childhood development are growing concerned about overly structured, less playful school days, arguing that free play is extremely valuable to kids and their development.

Note: Registration and subscriptions may be required to access some of the articles. Email me or leave a comment if you need help.

About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been working in mental health for the last ten years. He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.

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