Monthly Archives: July 2009

Readings: Massing, nichepapers, “Free” bashing

On Fridays I like to serve up some long-form material on digital media, suitable for weekend reading. As always, journalism on the Web is a hot topic, and particularly Chris Anderson’s snippy interview this week that has even a few online evangelists a bit incredulous.

Good news about news on the Web: At The New York Review of Books, longtime political journalist Michael Massing offers a prodigious assessment of the evolution of news into a print/Web hybrid. He points out the Internet’s shortcomings — including it being “a hothouse for rumors, distortions, and fabrications.” But after examining the work of Andrew Sullivan and Talking Points Memo, among other pioneering political bloggers and news sites, Massing likes much of what he sees happening online:

“The practice of journalism, far from being leeched by the Web, is being reinvented there, with a variety of fascinating experiments in the gathering, presentation, and delivery of news. And unless the editors and executives at our top papers begin to take note, they will hasten their own demise.”

Massing admits all this is unsettling, and remains concerned about how good journalism will be funded. But his lucid, empirical argument is a refreshing alternative to the either/or shouting into caverns of the digital divide.

Niches as news institutions: Web media entrepreneur Umair Haique, writing on the Harvard Business School blog, goes beyond railing against old media tendencies to charge for online news. “The Nichepaper Manifesto” argues in favor of news structured into distinct, dynamic and inviting ways for readers to interact and respond — via a curating method he calls “commentage.” And he claims that the “superior economics” of this idealized model will be the foundation for the future of news:

“Nichepapers do meaningful stuff that matters the most. The great failing of 20th century news is that monopoly power became a substitute for meaningful value creation. At root, that’s the lesson that newspapers are learning the hard way.”

However, Haique doesn’t address the economics of how this news is to be created and which is at the root of the raging debate over “Free.”

Hate to interrupt your triumphalism: Blogging superstar Cory Doctorow’s takedown of “Free” is more devastating than Malcolm Gladwell’s. Doctorow’s not a defensive print journalist but an author who has posted his new science fiction novel online for free. Ultimately he can’t embrace Anderson’s thesis because of what he leaves out:

“Also missing in Free is the frank admission that for many of the practitioners threatened by digital technology, the future is bleak.

“For while it is true that Madonna and many other established artists have found a future that embraces copying, there will also be many writers, musicians, actors, directors, game designers and others for whom the internet will probably spell doom. And for every creator who loses her livelihood because she is unsuited to the digital future, there will be many more intermediaries – editors, executives, salespeople, clerks, engineers, teamsters and printers – who will also be rendered jobless by technology.

“It is possible to be compassionate about those peoples’ fortunes – just as it is possible to mourn the passing of mom-and-pop bookstores, the collapse of poetry as a viable commercial concern, the worldwide decline of radio serials, the waning of the knife-sharpening trade, and a million other bygone human activities – while still not apologising for the future.”

Come on, just say the “J” word: In a contentious interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel, an annoyed Anderson insisted he doesn’t use the words “journalism” and “media” any more. The same for “news.” In fact, he proclaims that “the words of the last century don’t have meaning.” Because there’s no need to rely on time-honored sources or methods to find out what’s happening in the world:

“It comes to me, which is really quite common these days. More and more people are choosing social filters for their news rather than professional filters. We’re tuning out television news, we’re tuning out newspapers. And we still hear about the important stuff, it’s just that it’s not like this drumbeat of bad news. It’s news that matters. I figure by the time something gets to me it’s been vetted by those I trust. So the stupid stuff that doesn’t matter is not going to get to me.”

His “journalism as hobby” line naturally has some old print tribes up in arms. But general readers ripped into Anderson when he chirped about how much he gets his news from Twitter, and sounding like someone who thinks milk comes from the supermarket instead of the farm.

“Oh dear, Chris, get back on the planet:” Roy Greenslade, media writer of The Guardian, admonishes Anderson for his semantic stubbornness:

“I count myself as a passionate advocate for new ways of practising journalism. But I do believe there is something called journalism. I do believe we there is still something called news.”

After rave reviews of “The Long Tail” (which I read and liked), the response to “Free” has been mixed from the start. I think he’s largely correct in assessing how individuals are consuming and sharing news, and that journalism increasingly may be left to hobbyists. But I was surprised by his smugness and agitation when challenged to back up his claims. Then again, new media gurus aren’t used to having their views challenged.

I haven’t read Anderson’s new book (it’s not “Free,” but a hefty $26.99), so I’ll reserve a more complete critique for later. For now, he smacks of an old media pontificator who doesn’t like being upbraided, even in the slightest.

And Anderson’s embrace of a postmodernish verbal relativism — which goes beyond mere vocabulary — leaves me stone cold. Words do have meaning, and how they’re used matters even more.

What I’m reading: Buyout shock, hobby journalism, Madonna writes and DIY editing

It’s been exactly a year ago today that my whole world changed. I turned in my buyout paperwork to the human resources department at my former newspaper, went to lunch with my sidekick, and for the first time in a very long while was at peace with myself and what was ahead of me.

The thoughts of recent buyout-takers at the Syracuse Post-Standard are hauntingly familiar and kick off a roundup of links about media topics I’ve been reading in recent days:

Don’t mourn for long: Longtime Post-Standard illustrator Darren Sanefski is dealing with fresh, raw emotions that won’t subside in short order:

“I’m still going through this grieving process. Working at the newspaper is what identified me as a person for the last 22 years.”

This is an unbearably hard notion to shake, but it must be licked. Sanefski’s bottom-line perspective virtually mirrors the thought that sealed the deal for me to move on:

“When you conquer your greatest fear, you make the greatest strides. And that’s why I left the newspaper.”

(via Fading to Black)

A young journalist, undaunted: Paralyzed since the age of eight, Sonia Sharp has stormed her way through Columbia Journalism School because, frankly, she’s never wanted to do anything else:

“I grew up with doom and gloom. So you can doom-and-gloom until you’re blue in the face, and I’ll yawn. I still want to be a journalist because I’m stubborn, and dropping in on total strangers and having them open their lives to you is addictive, and I’m not a ‘just say no’ person.

“Journalism marries the two things in the world I’m actually good at—being nosy and writing for money.”

Writing . . . for money? How quaint. (via Romenesko)

But it’s a hobby, isn’t it? Caroline Miller could teach Sharp quite a bit more about the real world of journalism than Columbia. There’s lots of piling onto the anti-Chris Anderson bandwagon (more on that tomorrow) but hers is one of the kvetchiest ripostes yet to the author of “Free:”

“I’ve never met anyone who was insulted to get paid to write something—that seems delusional—but otherwise he gets right to the anxiety deep down in the heart of journalists (and journalism lovers) everywhere. It’s really not about whether newspapers will survive (no, they won’t, not in their current form), or whether they’ll morph into story syndicates or journalistic cooperatives (yeah, they will, or some other form that monetizes content more broadly), but whether people will get paid to report and write at all.”

Blame it all on Robert Redford: I got the journalism bug because of Watergate, and that was due in some part to the glorification of Woodstein in “All The President’s Men” that hit the cinemas during my high school days. For years I figured Hal Holbrook might as well be Deep Throat.

Russ Smith believes this celebrity treatment of journalists has ruined reporting, making us a preening pack of camera hounds and pundits working out of soulless, smokeless, odorless newsrooms (now rapidly thinning out, of course). He loses his point several times in a rambling, but entertaining post that includes this zinger of a caveat:

“That’s not to say all, or even most, daily journalists in the fat decades were pricks who whooped it up with herbal tea and treated cigarette smokers like pariahs even before local governments stuck their noses into that onetime controversial issue.”

Well, I do believe Smith is saying that. He might not have worked in places like that, but I did. While the goo-goo legions in newsrooms are, well, legion — Sign up for Weight Watchers! Join the Walking Club! — this “antiseptic” mindset ranges far beyond the journalistic imagination of Hollywood.

Think what it might be like to have this guy for an editor.

Writing like a virgin . . . for the very first time: Yes, this celebrity journalism thing really is getting out of hand, now that Madonna’s made herself a newspaper correspondent. Yes, the Madonna. Her full debut “story” won’t be published until tomorrow. In it, the Material Girl:

“Describes her religious awakening almost 14 years ago, saying she realized fame and fortune were not the end but only the beginning.”

Today, Israeli’s largest daily. Tomorrow, per chance, the Huffington Post? Perhaps Arianna already has something worked out with Her Girl Friday.

Do your your own damn rewrite: Not sure who’s looking over Miz Ciccone’s copy in that Tel Aviv newsroom, but reporters are having to be their own copy editors with the latter the most endangered species of all journalists. The American Copy Editors Society is revving up its blog to address that topic and others related to the art, practice and discipline of good writing and editing.

Ex-Baltimore Sun desk chief John McIntyre, one of the aces of ACES, takes no pleasure in seeing print errors mount and worries that present Web standards won’t be raised:

“I suspect that one of the things that is on the minds of publishers of online enterprises is a sense that readers on the Internet don’t expect things to be accurate or very well done and, therefore, they are used to tolerating a much higher level of shoddy work, a much greater volume of errors and, therefore, you can sacrifice the quality on the Web and it doesn’t mean that much.”

It’s truly a DIY universe we inhabit. So get your online stylebooks here: Associated Press and Reuters.

Arianna’s ‘who’s your daddy?’ journalists

Just when I was about to praise Arianna Huffington for going out and hiring provocative, experienced journalists (and paying them, too!) for her burgeoning media empire, a blogger bee from Nick Denton’s media empire reveals that she is building a roster of young correspondents who were conceived by the right people.

Now part of the Huffington Post are the sons and daughters of: A top Obama adviser, a disgraced former governor of New York and a wildly popular Hollywood actor. Oh yes, and Arianna’s godson too:

“But aren’t there, like, some laid off journalists out there, with actual experience?”

I can hear Arianna now: “Ha! I tried, but they wouldn’t blog for free!”

Forget the Obama “birther” fanatics! There’s apparently no provision like being to the manor born of Arianna’s circle of friends, schmoozers and fellow travelers to land a job with one of the visionary journalistic enterprises going.

I can understand why one such fortunate young man who has a former journalist for a father would want to follow in those footsteps. At least until he needs to make a real living.

But for the Queen of the Future of Journalism to follow the nepotistic habits of old media is a bit rich, n’est-ce pas?

New-look NPR.org a welcome sight for sore eyes

Some recurring eye troubles that in recent weeks have had my optometrist prescribing one medication after another to alleviate inflammation also have prompted me to step away from the computer for longer spells.

Perhaps that’s why I’ve been muttering to myself about the decline of newspapers. So much easier to read! Nothing to turn on and boot up. Etc., etc.

Yet what’s in them, generally speaking, is more watered-down and less interesting than ever, especially as the possibilities of how the news can be organized on the Web continue to amaze. They’ve remained only possibilities in many instances, however, because of the tendency of news sites to clutter up their main pages.

So when I first started tooling around the redesigned NPR.org site, my eyes feasted on the simple, horizontal and clean look, the well-organized visuals. How easy it was to roam around and find something without having to strain, or type in a search phrase that may not yield what’s being sought. Prominent subject tabs across the top and down the left sidebar have helped solve this issue tremendously. As opposed to the former vertical arrangement of the NPR home page, this new point of entry is a vast improvement. Picture 1

I like the philosophy behind the redesign and how NPR really means to make itself as a multi-platform organization. It’s doing more than talking about it in some abstract future.

I haven’t yet dug down deep to try out the bells and whistles and many other features on the NPR site, and I’m not sure how other mainstream news organizations — especially newspapers — can, or will want to, learn anything from this.

But I do hope that as the digital realm becomes the increasingly dominant distribution system for news consumers of all ages, media organizations will appreciate that some of us aren’t always going to find mobile devices, as they are available now, an ideal way to get the news, and to share it with others.

This isn’t to retrench into my old print foxhole. I’m not alone in finding it occasionally difficult to read what’s on cell phones, PDAs, Kindles, etc. for the simple reason being that the viewing screens are just too darned small.

While Spokane multimedia journalist Colin Mulvany admits to loving his iPhone, he longs to have a larger “touch tablet” at his disposal, a prospect I find immensely appealing:

“My 47-year-old eyes struggled to read the text. If only my iPhone was 2 or 3 times the size. I would be able the browse with out squinting. A touch enabled tablet, with an unlimited data plan would allow me to view text, multimedia and video in ways the smart phone struggles with today. This is a market segment that is only getting started.  It has the strong potential to disrupt not only newspapers, but magazines as well.”

The implications that such a tablet would have on the future of print publishing, already in a precarious state, would be even more pronounced. More importantly, Mulvany imagines how coming mobile advances, and the devices created around them, might further transform the journalism profession:

“New high-speed 4G cell phone networks are now being rolled out. Soon the pipes for all this future multimedia content will open wide. It will change how journalists tell their stories. For many of today’s journalists, this new paradigm will be the deal breaker. For others, these new opportunities will present unique challenges that will drive the future of digital journalism to new and exciting heights.”

Just get me one of those touch tablets, and I’m on board with this.

Bootstrapping by journalists is an old tale

Karthika Muthukumaraswamy is understandably concerned what the decline of major reporting projects by mainstream news organizations portends for the future, and how this could further discourage young journalists like herself from pursuing them:

“While this ‘journalist as entrepreneur’ model is fueling important stories that might not otherwise get covered, it is also dangerously shifting the costs of reporting on to the shoulders of young, enthusiastic reporters.”

I’m not trying to engage in any generational warfare here, but this scenario isn’t limited to journalists of a certain age group.

She needs to look no further than the hundreds of mid-career journalists all around her who are starting their own sites or participating in new-fangled news ventures in truly spartan fashion, using limited funds from buyout money, unemployment benefits and savings with no guarantee of anything working out. They’re having to pay for expenses that their employers used to handle. If ever there was an ideal time for journalists to demonstrate their resourcefulness, this is the time.

My scattershot past in this profession — I’ve taken part-time jobs and freelancing gigs to pay the bills — has given me a point of reference. More than once, I’ve subsidized my desire to stay in journalism with other sources of income. My story is not unique.

But forging ahead with the newspaper industry in such a perilous state is quite unnerving. There aren’t many other familiar places to land any more. Creating a new course is exciting but extremely daunting, and many from the print world are undergoing a major learning curve about what it means to be a Web journalist.

I wish there was something more encouraging I could say to Karthika and those of her generation except not to give up on the kind of work they truly believe in doing.

If they do, they’ll find a way through the bleak times. If this sounds like a matter of faith, it is.

Right now, that’s all some of us have to go on.

Readings: Kindle debacle, eBooks, ‘peep culture’

I don’t own an Amazon Kindle or any other electronic reader, because I prefer to read books and other long-form news and magazine articles offline. So I was really struck by the Big Brother issues raised over disappearing offerings from the Kindle due to a long-anticipated battle over copyright complaints. Now a full torrent of Orwellian scenarios has been unleashed, decrying the apparent onset of virtual book banning, a loss of privacy and other concerns.

I don’t know what to make of these arguments given my generally upbeat take on the possibilities — and inevitability — of more widespread digital reading options. (By the way, Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” was among the books deleted.)

What may be a copyright dispute today could be an attempt at government overreach tomorrow. The implications of cloud computing — especially pertaining to banking, medical records and business documents — also need to be considered. So does the burgeoning debate over copyright and Google’s ambitious book digitizing project. These are very sobering prospects that can’t be easily dismissed by digital enthusiasts, even though I consider myself one of them.

A few weekend reading links on a topic that’s sure to accelerate:

Is digital book-banning in our future? Slate’s Jack Shafer thinks so, and he fears Amazon’s technical powers to delete books for any reason has been given the go-ahead. But it’s governmental as much as corporate authoritarianism that looms even larger:

“The difference between today’s Kindle deletions and yesteryear’s banning is that the earlier prohibitions weren’t perfectly enforceable. . . . Amazon deleted books that were already available in print, but in our paperless future—when all books exist as files on servers—courts would have the power to make works vanish completely.”

Is Jeff Bezos’ apology enough? Peter Kafka at AllThingsD is suspicious of the Amazon chief’s many mea culpa responses because there’s not much that can stop the Kindle masters from doing it again:

“Now all we need is for Amazon to promise that it won’t go into your Kindle and take away something you bought, ever again. But the e-commerce giant won’t say that. Instead, it’s left open a big, worrisome loophole that it refuses to close. Amazon says it won’t forcibly remove your content from your Kindle ‘in these circumstances.’ But it won’t say what circumstances would prompt it to take back product it’s sold. That’s dumb. And doubly so coming from Amazon, a company that succeeds in large part because of its well-deserved reputation for kick-ass customer service.”

Can Barnes & Noble top the Kindle? The book retailer on Monday unveiled an “ebookstore” of 700,000 available titles that can be read on multiple devices, including the iPhone. But it has its own limitations:

“The least attractive aspect of the Barnes and Noble e-book effort is its use of ‘digital rights management’ restrictions on most paid e-books. Although its DRM controls lack the strictness of the Kindle’s — you can theoretically loan or resell e-books, if you’re willing to give your credit card number to recipients — they still limit your reading to the software and devices that Barnes and Noble permits, not the ones you might like. . . .

“In its insistence on DRM — not to mention its spotty selection, questionable pricing and glitchy software — Barnes and Noble’s e-book venture resembles nothing so much as the early, awkward attempts of record labels and the current, awkward attempts of movie studios to set up digital storefronts. . . .

“Those parallels don’t bode well for the future of the electronic book. If we’re going to have to watch publishers and stores repeat all the mistakes of the music and movie industries, it’s going to be a long few years in the e-book business.”

Why we can’t stop watching: Salon’s Amanda Fortini interviews author Hal Niedzviecki, who while doing research for his book “Peep Culture” tried a novel social media experiment that failed abysmally. Of the hundreds of his Facebook “friends” invited to a party at his home, only one bothered to show up. (Note to Hal: This sort of thing happens with “real” friends too.)

But Niedzviecki’s particularly galled by what he sees as a fiercely amoral and fleeting strain of voyeurism, the byproduct of an Internet age with its roots in television culture:

“You feel the right to watch this: ‘Look at this terrible thing.’ This is a deep question of our society now. We just saw an example of it with the whole situation in Iran, where for a couple of days everyone was watching this video of this poor young woman being shot, and there was this horrible close-up of her eyes rolling in the back of her head, blood everywhere, and then she passes. We have to ask ourselves, what is the value of this footage? Just as we ask ourselves, what is the value of surveillance camera footage that captures a horrific accident or a terrible crime? To what extent are we watching this from a place of moral indignation and to what extent are we watching this from a place of ‘Did you see that sick stuff?!’ prurient excitement. And you can do both at the same time, but at the end of the day I think we’re seeing much more pseudo-morality than we are seeing real concern. As soon as Michael Jackson died everyone seemed to forget about the poor Iranian girl.”

Are we united in our digital isolation? The headline, inverted a bit here, is meant to provoke, but Emily Popek of Pop Matters is adamant that the on-demand nature of the Web is creating a hyper-niche life that’s not entirely healthy. Not a new argument, of course, but an interesting twist on it:

“We can only hope that we can learn to balance this push and pull on our attention span, and somehow remain open to the occasional happy accident, should it occur. If we do not — if we continue to carve out increasingly smaller and more-specialized and predictable cultural niches for ourselves — we may find that we lose more than we gain.”

Like Niedzviecki, Popek’s got some worthwhile things to say. But as with the digital evangelists, there’s too much of a tendency to paint these issues in a good/bad framework. The positive, beneficial uses of the Web that I’ve enjoyed for the last 15 years have become even more plentiful as the Internet has matured. The Web is whatever you want to make of it; it requires you to do a little bit of work, unlike passive television, which I grew up with.

It also implies that you use your own discretion and decide when enough time on and obsession with the Web is enough. Like now, for instance. I’ve got to unplug for a little while on the weekend.

Would you want to hire this journalist?

What begins as a “note” about his doomed tenure at Entrepreneur magazine evolves into a scorched-earth missive from writer Dennis Romero, who recently was canned in a thinning out of the staff:

“The real reason behind my termination was editor-in-chief Amy Cosper’s growing distaste for the presence of a knowing soul. It seemed like every time she saw my face she was looking in a mirror that reflects her own deceit. You see, to call Cosper a journalist would be a stretch.”

Whoa! And he’s just getting warmed up:

And herein lies the bottom line. Entrepreneur’s owners don’t like journalism. The publication’s record of having a revolving door, of hiring malleable, inexperienced newcomers (except when its editor-in-chief obviously doesn’t know who she’s hiring), of making the place hostile for the diverse and outspoken, and of continually putting out a mediocre product, shows that it’s not at all about journalism.

That certainly harkens to the litany of complaints familiar to newspaper journalists, and it’s hard to read this and not appreciate Romero’s frustration.

But in spilling the internal beans about a place in such visceral and excoriating detail — and pretentiously proclaiming himself a “knowing soul” — Romero reveals quite a bit about himself that is equally distasteful.

A friendly piece of advice? Get over yourself.