Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Stuck in a MediaStorm

While perusing some of MediaStorm's multimedia workshop projects a while ago, I heard an insightful quote from MediaStorm founder Brian Storm that stuck with me: "In journalism, we may not get rich, but we live a rich life," Storm said.

So true.

Journalism has been my life for as long as I can remember. I've always been working to represent my community in some form or another. Most recently, I've found a great passion in multimedia and visual storytelling. I think words are incredibly powerful, but when I traveled to the Navajo Reservation last October, and produced three audio slideshows as a result, I learned firsthand how compelling audio and visual aids can be. (The three audio slideshows: Living with uranium; No longer a home; and The Forgotten People.)

And while I've found an incredible outlet in multimedia storytelling and production, I'm always itching to improve and to study other journalists' work I find inspiring. And the place that never disappoints is MediaStorm.

If you haven't seen their work before, I highly recommend taking an afternoon and browsing through their slideshows. In fact, just recently they posted the work of their latest workshop in New York City. Really cool stuff.

Their team of producers and journalists is so talented, from the proficiency on the production end, to the tight, compelling story lines crafted by curiosity and poignant reporting. I hope to one day produce work as inspiring as theirs. Until then, I'll no doubt remain an avid viewer.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Fortunately, I know my First Amendment rights

Most people would agree that police officers know right from wrong. I mean, after all, their jobs are to enforce the laws, so they must know them, too, right? Well, yesterday I learned that's not necessarily the case. At least not for some members of the N.Y.P.D.

The background

Yesterday I attended a protest at the corner of Second Avenue and East 46th Street. Members of the Armenian-American and Greek-American communities, along with representatives from the Cyprus Action Network of America, Armenian International Committee and Federation of Hellenic Societies, were picketing outside of Ali Baba Terrace, a Turkish restaurant.

Essentially, the protesters were speaking out against Rep. Michael McMahon (D-N.Y.), who represents the 13th Congressional District. McMahon recently voted against a House resolution that would recognize the Armenian Genocide nationwide. (It is already officially recognized by 42 other states, including New York, and 20 other nations.)

On Saturday, McMahon was attending a fundraiser — allegedly to receive honors and campaign contributions — which was organized by some members of the Turkish community. In Turkey, it is a crime to even discuss the Armenian Genocide, and many Turks deny it ever happened.

Because of this, the Armenian-Americans and Greek-Americans felt McMahon was accepting "blood money." They chose to stand outside the restaurant and surrounding area to spread the word to passersby and to ensure the congressman and the fundraiser attendees heard their point of view.

The issue

So I show up just after 11 a.m. Armed with my camera, I'm prepared to take some photos and get the back story for my photojournalism class. At first, there's no issue. I'm speaking with the protesters, reading their flyers and snapping some basic shots.

Then things start to heat up a bit. Outside of the restaurant are a couple of police officers and a security guard standing around. The protesters nearest the restaurant begin to shout their views, and the police and security confront them. I'm standing several feet away, taking photos of their exchanges, when a police officer approaches me and asks whether I'm a member of the press.

As the only other photographer present (there was another reporter, but she was across the street and never came to the corner by the restaurant), I thought this was strange. I said yes, and he asked to see my press pass. Because I wasn't representing any particular publication during this assignment, I show him my business card. He tells me that isn't a press pass and that I can't be standing there, but that I can relocate to across the street (a.k.a. where I won't hear what they're saying).

At first, I'm stunned. I almost concede and walk across the street until I realize he is completely out of line. The protesters are standing on a public sidewalk, where hundreds of people are walking by. The last time I checked, public spaces are just that — public. I know my rights as a journalist and as a citizen, and I know it's perfectly legal for me to be photographing and standing exactly where I am.

I manage to maintain my cool and ask the officers to justify their reasoning. They tell me I can't be there because there is an event going on inside of the restaurant, and that's why they're there in the first place. I see right through this excuse, and so I tell the officers that I won't be relocating because I'm standing on a public sidewalk and not trying to gain access to the private fundraiser inside.

After a little more back and forth, and the police officers trying to intimidate and confuse me, I stand my ground and continue taking photos. Eventually, they back off — though they did continue to shoot me dirty looks.

I only wish I had a copy of an internal N.Y.P.D. memo that reminded New York City officers they aren't allowed to harass or prevent anyone from photographing in public places. Since this incident, I have printed out a copy and put it in my camera bag. Next time, I'll have an easier time defending my First Amendment rights, which I can't believe I had to do in the first place.

To learn more about the story behind the protest, visit

The dirty looks

When I got home and began editing my photos, I saw I inadvertently captured some of these "dirty" and "intimidating" looks. So I cropped the faces and thought it'd be fun to post them here.

But, be warned: They're not the greatest quality because they weren't intentional shots. Simply really awesome afterthoughts. 


Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Proposed budget cuts will hurt homeless


Gov. David Paterson’s (D-N.Y.) proposed state budget recently revealed a plan to cut $65 million in annual funding for adult homeless services. And many elected officials and advocates aren’t taking that lightly.

On Monday, the Department of Homeless Services and the Coalition for the Homeless, along with Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, councilwoman Annabel Palma and a group of advocates held a press conference to voice their fierce opposition to the proposed cuts.

“We have record homelessness in New York City right now. The governor’s cuts would absolutely decimate the adult municipal shelter system,” said Mary Brosnahan, executive director of Coalition for the Homeless. “This is exactly the wrong cuts at the wrong time. We need more help from the state, not less.”

More than 39,000 people in New York City seek shelter, according to the Department of Homeless Services daily census. Officials and advocates claim Paterson’s proposed cuts would drastically reduce aid to adult shelters, homeless-prevention services and safe havens.

“New Yorkers have seen the progress we’ve made in outreach program, drop-in centers, prevention,” said Christy Parque, executive director of Homeless Services United, a coalition of homeless service agencies in New York City. “We’ve made significant milestones in reducing the number of people of the street and reducing the length of stay (at shelters), and we want to continue doing that.”

The officials and advocates who held the press conference at Bowery Residents’ Committee, 317 Bowery, made it clear they were very different from one another. Each was involved in some part of the homeless-services community but admitted they have been known to butt heads often.

“This is a diverse group. Many times, we have gone against each other in terms of policy and what to do,” said Palma, a councilwoman who was homeless only 18 years ago. “But today we are standing here together to send a strong message to the governor and to Albany that these cuts can simply not happen.”

New York City operates under a “right to shelter” mandate, which ensures shelter for homeless men, women, children and families. Because of this, the city would still be required to serve the same number of individuals but with significant less funding.

Some speakers at the press conference held back opinions of what they thought might happen to the homeless-services system if these proposed cuts were passed.

“I’ve really hesitated when I’ve been asked … what would happen as a result of these cuts … because it’s unconscionable. It would set the city back, in the area of homeless services, 20 or 30 years,” said Robert Hess, commissioner of the Department of Homeless Services.

Other advocates felt it was important to look to the past to predict what the system might turn into — a grim forecast.

“Twenty or 30 years ago, we never had a capacity crisis in the shelter system because (shelters) were just so horrible. People only went when they had to,” said Muzzy Rosenblatt, executive director of Bowery Residents’ Committee. “They weren’t safe; they weren’t supportive; they weren’t caring; and they didn’t get results. And so when you make a two-thirds cut, you go back to that.”

Adding to this already-complicated issue is the fact that more and more people are becoming homeless as a result of the economic downturn.

“We need to step up and provide the services for the new people coming into the system,” Parque said. “Cutting the safety net for the people who are already hanging by a string is tantamount to condemning them to remain homeless and eliminating any opportunity for them to better their lives and return to a stable housing situation.”

Markus Spokane, a 46-year-old homeless man, has been in and out of shelters for more than four years. Spokane said he wasn’t aware of the proposed cuts but isn’t surprised.

“So many shelters are at capacity as it is. That’s why I’m here, sleeping on the sidewalk,” Spokane said. “The cuts are just going to hinder that even more. I don’t even want to think about how many others like me will be back on the streets — probably for good.”

While the cuts would certainly have a negative impact on the homeless community, advocates say the rest of the city will feel the change, too.

“These cuts aren’t just going to hurt our homeless neighbors; they’re going to hurt all of us because it’s going to decimate the quality of life here in New York City,” Brosnahan said.

These leaders and homeless-services advocates are calling on Paterson and the state Legislature to reverse the proposed cuts and restore funding to what they say is an integral community need.

“Is there going to be a broad abrogation of responsibility, and sort of running away from the problems in our state, or is there going to be some kind of lines in the sand drawn, where there is an understanding … the quality of life in this city could be fundamentally different if Albany fails to act?” de Blasio asked.

On Tuesday, de Blasio and Commissioner Hess will be in Albany, fighting to restore funding for the homeless population.

“We need everyone to call members of the Legislature, and to put all the pressure on possible to call on the governor to do the right thing,” Hess said. “We call upon them today with a coalition that doesn’t often stand together but believes, sincerely, that we cannot set this city back 30 years.”

Friday, March 12, 2010

Surveillance cameras prove immensely helpful

In an earlier post, I talked about privacy and cameras, specifically pointing to surveys and studies counting the number of cameras on New York City streets. I was shocked to learn that, as of 2005, my particular neighborhood had an estimated 2,227 cameras — up from 142 only seven years earlier.

My first reaction was to consider the privacy violations this could imply. From there, I admitted it's almost ridiculous to assume we have any privacy, other than in our own homes. But what I didn't really explore is how these cameras could be helpful — even pertinent, in some cases.

Today, I read about a prime example of such a case.

Yesterday, I read a Tweet from @DNAinfo about a woman who was brutally beaten in a Midtown bar after refusing a man's advances. I followed the link, read the story and hoped the police would catch her attacker.

Then today, I read more Tweets: This time, they said the man was caught — only because of footage from nearby surveillance cameras.

The New York Daily News reports: "He was seen on a NYPD video as he left the bar, shaking his hand as if in pain. He was later caught on another camera, walking into a bodega, where he grabbed a beer and left without paying. Nearly 600 cameras have been installed throughout the city as part of the NYPD's Operation Argus."

So while there might be some iffy feelings about the NYPD's invasive surveillance, it goes to show there are times when this can really be crucial. DNAinfo, a Manhattan news site, claims the woman, a 29-year-old pediatric nurse, "was beaten so badly her eye socket and nose were broken, requiring surgery at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center."

Monday, March 8, 2010

Q&A with entrepreneur Lena West

For my third Q&A with an entrepreneur, I spoke with Lena West, founder and CEO of xynoMedia. XynoMedia is a company that deals with social media consulting, both the business and technology sides. Essentially, xynoMedia shows companies how to use social media — blogs, podcasts, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn — and the Internet to their advantage.

Lena is a very savvy, forward-thinking businesswoman, and her ideas about entrepreneurship are different from most others I've heard — a refreshing and welcome change. Here's our Q&A exchange:

Rachel Wise: Why specifically do you think you are considered an entrepreneur?

Lena West: I guess because I have a business and I started a business. I fit the definition. My definition of an entrepreneur is someone who has founded not just one business, but multiple businesses.

RW: Please briefly describe xynoMedia.

LW: We are a social media consulting and strategy firm. We work with business and help them to use social media to increase visibility, connect with their target markets and indirectly increase sales.

RW: Is xynoMedia your first start-up/business?

LW: It's not my first business, but it was my first start-up. (I've started other businesses since.) I was co-owner of a restaurant before I started xynoMedia (in 1997).

RW: How did you come up with the idea for it?

LW: I started as a consultant. I was a full-time, on-site corporate consultant, and I realized rather quickly I would be more profitable if I had more than one client. I decided to take the services I was offering for just that on-site consulting and offer them to multiple clients.

RW: How did you turn your idea for xynoMedia into a business plan? How long did it take?

LW: I don't know that I ever turned it into a business plan, at least not initially. I just thought companies need these services, they need to understand IT, they need someone who understands their business. There are a lot of IT people who understand IT but don't understand how business operates. I'm someone who happens to understand both. So I thought, 'Wow, there's a need for this.'

I have a gift for seeing a business need and being able to figure it out because I'm a strategist — that's how my mind works.

RW: How long did it take to become profitable after officially launching xynoMedia?

LW: About a year or two. For me it was faster because we don't have traditional overhead expenses. I built this company a bit differently, in that I didn't want people to have to choose between whether they would stay home and take care of their children if they were sick, or take care of sick family members, and coming to a job. So we're totally a virtual company. There's a main office, but nobody reports in to work. We just all get our work done, we're all responsible adults, and I don't micromanage anyone.

RW: How did you initially fund your idea? What eventually became your revenue model?

LW: Initially it was funded by my pockets and consulting. I took about $50,000 that I had in savings, and I put that into building the company. We never have received a dime of outside funding, not even like a loan from a relative. We've always been a boot-strap company — what we earn, we reinvest in the company.

As far as a revenue model, we've always been a service-based business, and this year we are taking that to a different level. We're going to be offering some information products people can purchases — some books and audio CDs and stuff like that.

RW: How did you get the word out about xynoMedia?

LW: We never did any advertising. I think I took one ad way, way, way back when. I just realized that if you do good work, and you're really passionate about what you do, and you have happy customers, they'll tell other people. The reality is, unfortunately, in IT, a lot of times people don't show up and they don't deliver as promised. And I knew, if nothing else, I'd be able to do those things. I would be able to deliver on budget, on time, and I'd be able to provide top-notch service to our clients and help them look at IT from a business-case scenario.

Initially, it was word-of-mouth, but now I do a lot of speaking and writing.

RW: How many people went into creating and maintaining xynoMedia? Do you now have a consistent staff?

LW: I went into creating and maintaining xynoMedia — for years it was just me. I had some consultants and stuff like that. But now we have a consistent staff, and we've hired a couple of people. We have developers, assistants, an operation person, business-developing person.

RW: Who was your competition, and how did you manage to stay ahead?

LW: I don't even know. I never think in terms of competition. I think it comes from a scarcity mindset. To think that someone is in competition with you mean that there isn't enough business to be had, and I believe there is enough business for everyone. I never paid attention to the competition — I was my own competition. I stayed in my lane and I just focused on how can we be a better company? How can we be better?

Certainly there's something to be said about knowing what's going on in your industry and who the players are. But, in terms of identifying them and trying to beat them at their own game, I just really believe in playing your own game and playing that game really, really, really well. And that's easy to do when you're passionate about your topic.

RW: Is xynoMedia continuing to grow? If so, by how much?

LW: We're definitely continuing to grow. It's absolutely safe to say we're growing by 20% every single year.

RW: Where is xynoMedia today? Do you still maintain it?

LW: I'm the CEO, I'm still involved. I'm doing other things, and certainly there are other poeple in the company who have more responsibilty. I'm not afraid to delegate once I find the right people. But we're a growing company. We're about to change our brand, change our company name, launch a new Web site, so we have some really exciting things coming down the pike. We're about to launch some information products, so we'll have some products in the mix with our services.

RW: What are you most proud of?

LW: The fact that we've been in business for 13 years and never had a dime of outside financing. And we have a company culture that just underscores that. We don't feel indebted to shareholders or people. We don't feel we have to be anything other than who we are and how we show up.

RW: How much of your success would you attribute to your education, and how much would you attribute to trial and error and hands-on experience?

LW: Well, as far as education, I've only had one year of college. Everything I know is self-taught. If we're talking about formal education, I'd say none. But if we're talking about life education, everything. I've learned constantly from dealing with clients and being out there and understanding business. And there's still stuff I don't get and don't understand. But I'm a big believer in hiring people to help me with stuff like that.

RW: What advice would you give to emerging entrepreneurs?

LW: Pick one thing, do it well, know who you’re serving and serve them really, really, really well. Like, just pick one thing that you can be the best at, and just rock out in that category, and don't worry what everyone else is doing. Know what's going on, of course, but run your own race.

RW: Is there anything else you think would be helpful to know?

LW: Sign your own checks. I don't care if you're a multibillion-dollar business, sign your own checks.

(Photo courtesy of

Friday, March 5, 2010

One in 8 million really is

One of the most rewarding things about being a journalist, at least in my view, is being able to meet and interact with some truly incredible people. And as a reader and viewer, the same thing is true.

One of my favorite multimedia packages is the New York Times' One in 8 Million series. During 2009, photographer Todd Heisler photographed dozens of individuals and recorded audio that multimedia producers turned into extraordinary vignettes. These slideshows, though short and simple, are remarkable in both production and content.

Todd Heisler was scheduled to come speak to my Photojournalism class a few weeks ago, but had to reschedule. I'm really looking forward to meeting him, though. This work is inspirational and a true delight to watch.

What do you think of the series? Are there any other pieces that you find inspiring?

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Pioneering new media: the Web documentary

In class this week, my professor, Yvonne Latty, showed us a completely interactive web documentary called "Journey to the End of Coal."

It was produced by Honky Tonk Films, a French production company that focuses on Web documentaries. Their explanation of why they use the Internet as the platform to spread their docs? "We think the internet is a place to develop new narrative formats, where interactivity can help build great stories and involve our audience like never before."

(Screenshot of the documentary. The options it gives: Enter the slum,
or get back on the road.

I completely agree. And "Journey to the End of Coal" is a perfect example of how true this is. The premise of the documentary is that the viewer is a freelance journalist who has traveled to China to investigate some of the "most dangerous coal mines in the world." Each step of the way, the viewer is given options: where to go, who to speak to, what to ask.

It plays out almost like a video game, but the truth is everything is real and based on what two freelance journalists actually experienced. (Though, they do indicate names have been changed.)

All I can say is you have to see it yourself. It's something really different, really innovative and really cool.