Innovation-fest SXSW generates ideas for stunty print-tabloid covers, too

Today's tabloids, March 13, 2012. ()
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Each day, the New York tabloids vie to sell readers at the newsstands on outrageous headlines, dramatic photography, and, occasionally, great reporting. Who is today's winner?

New York Post: Outside of a small cadre of nerds and insiders in various industries, the SXSW Interactive festival in Austin, Tex. this year is officially now the crazy laboratory that brought us the idea of the Homeless Human Hotspot.

Yes, it's actually in Austin, not New York City, that homeless people are being offered the opportunity to get wired with 4G hotspot hubs, and then to sell bandwidth to passersby in public places. But it's the New York office of a big British ad agency that came up with the idea, not a nonprofit that actually serves the homeless. (The test-run in Austin is being done in conjunction with a local homeless-services organization, according to the agency's website.)

Blundering not only into the economy of helping the homeless but also the future of media, the advertising agency makes the preposterous claim that human hotspots are a digital renovation of the idea of the "street newspaper." Asking whether they think The New York Times should stop selling newspapers and start selling wireless plans is probably beside the point. The whole thing is absurd, not least of all the look of it: Guys in white T-shirts calling themselves "4G hotspots" and asking for two dollars for 15 minutes just seems like a bad variety-show gag. The fact that a homeless person is hardly in a position to afford the monthly bills for a 4G hotspot to sell bandwidth from is obviously not a part of the present thinking on the program. Just the same, nobody can quite articulate why they think it's in bad taste; nor, I think, can the perpetrators of the scheme explain in any coherent (or, looking at their website, grammatical) way what they hope to achieve. It's the kind of brainstorming that probably ought to remain at the agency's conference table. But then, that's just what SXSW is all about, isn't it? The half-baked and the inane and the outrageous, all combined into a package that is somehow banal?

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Anyway it's not the New York Post's job to call the idea ridiculous or not; just to put the spectacle on its front page, which is what it does today. They make a photomontage out of a bearded, hooded, camo-clad street-squatter looking up at the camera warily, and holding a sign that reads "I'M RUDOLPH, A 4G HOTSPOT." The paper manages to avoid the silly-looking publicity shots from SXSW and make us imagine what it might look like if the plan were executed in New York (prediction: never). And we get the headline "HOT BUMS!" "NY ad agency rigs homeless as mobile Wi-Fi zones," reads the dek. And as if to highlight what they were going for with the picture they made, the lede asks, "Would you hang around this guy for internet access?" (Your answer is supposed to be Heck, No! but maybe it isn't?)

A blue bar across the bottom of the page advertises a section that tells you how to fill in the brackets the paper introduced in yesterday's editions. Isn't there a way to do this online?

Daily News: Joanna Molloy does not believe one word of the stuff that accused Soccer-Mom Madam Anna Gristina has been giving the Post, which has been spinning out bits of a jailhouse interview conducted with her at Riker's Island last week in which Gristina gets, essentially, to state her own case (not, I think, to her likely benefit, but that's her lookout). The problem is that Gristina's husband Kelvin Gorr, who all along has said he was blindsided by the charges but also knows that no underage prostitutes or drugs were involved in the operation, "jumped into a chauffeur-driven $30,000 Dodge Charger with burly bodyguards whom a courthouse source recognized as off-duty NYPD" after the court finished its session with his wife yesterday.

"Sources told The News that the 44-year-old took a 40% cut from the hookers she allegedly pimped out at up to $2,000 an hour and $25,000 for a weekend trip overseas — all in cash," Molloy writes. Prosecutors have argued that she has access to money based on surveillance transcripts they have in which Gristina tells associates that all her money is hidden safely away in case of an arrest, facts Gristina now says were just blustering.

"SHOW US THE MONEY" reads the pale-yellow, all-caps hed in a big skybox with Gristina's profile on the left, looking neither as dowdy as she did her first day in court nor as airbrushed and perfect as in the boudoir photos she and her husband posted to Facebook that were on the cover of the Post early in the scandal. "Joanna Molloy pans Madam's poorhouse act" is the dek (and I must say, for a rather unimportant informational dek, it's neatly written and has the ring of a British public-school-educated Fleet Street editor's voice).

But the main attraction is at the bottom of the page, in big black letters that read "SERGEANT PSYCHO." We all know what this will be about, but here's the dek: "Killer G.I. had suffered traumatic brain injury."

It seems that the still unnamed G.I. who executed 16 Afghan civilians in the early morning hours Sunday was a trained sniper who suffered severe injury in a vehicle rollover in Iraq in 2010. How much does this matter? A lot, actually. The Obama administration's Afghanistan policy is, at least temporarily, judged by many to be in jeopardy as a result of the atrocity. Recovery is possible only with assurances to the Afghan people and government (and, likely, Muslims and other governments worldwide) that the problem will be solved. The sergeant potentially faces the death penalty for the crime; but if he was unfit to serve, then a big, mealy process of distributing blame and proving that correction is possible will likely mire down the conversation about military strategy in Afghanistan and throughout the Middle East for a long time to come. The sergeant performed four tours of duty over the last 10 years, three in Iraq; it was just three months ago that he was judged fit to serve in Afghanistan, which was obviously the wrong decision. It's an important, huge story.

Observations: But is it an important, huge story that the News needs to deliver its readers? That's what's not clear to me. The Anna Gristina blow-by-blow is: It's local, and has a cast of characters that Joanna Molloy will understand better than Shepard Smith or most bloggers, in all likelihood. The News is not a place for policy or political analysis, so the meaning of this revelation about the sergeant's 2010 accident is left uninterpreted, and the importance of the facts undigested. This might be the only reason to put it on the front page, and it's left undone. But finally, today is all about the paper that was willing to put "HOT BUMS" on its front. Sometimes it is a race to the bottom. Get it?

Winner: New York Post.