Category Archives: media

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.

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Kvetch of the Week: All hail the grim reapers

Naming this week’s winner was especially tough, given the plethora of candidates on either side of the old media vs. new media tug-of-war that competes for the emotions of journalists in transition or those who are soon to be in new career mode.

The pro-print cranks are back with a vengeance, clinging even more desperately to their ink-stained view of the world. Or proclaiming that the fate of democracy hangs in the balance.

So are those who think the print cranks are sentimental saps who have no one to blame but the people who’ve led their industry off the cliff. And who haven’t done democracy any great favors lately.

While I’m firmly in the new media corner, some of the poobahs of the movement have sounded even more utopian as the labored breathing of the printed press grows worse. Some lofty and worthy ideas are occasionally undermined by hyperbole and self-importance.

A friend’s first impressions of reading “What Would Google Do?” nails this perfectly, and she’s not from the world of journalism or new media: “The author is wonderfully impressed with himself.”

Fortunately, we have a nice little (and rare) piece of satire on this subject from Paul Dailing of the Huffington Post, who has decided to be a “Death of Newspapers” blogger. Unlike Dan Kennedy, I don’t think this treatment is unfair at all. If good journalists are supposed to question grand pronouncements from politicians and other public figures, then they also ought to scrutinize the visionaries who have positioned themselves as the gurus of a rapidly transforming profession.

Like any good satire, Dailing’s little ditty contains some serious shots that haven’t resulted in much blowback from the intended targets. If that’s not the case please correct me, but for now enjoy the new Kvetch of the Week, albeit one that’s a bit tongue-in-cheek:

“I’ll join the ranks of Jeff Jarvis, Paul Gillin, Jay Rosen and Clay Shirky in competing to see who can use the most jargon to describe something everyone knows is happening.

“Apparently, it’s very simple. The more you self-reference, pick feuds and talk about the failure of TimesSelect, the better you’re doing. If you make it sound like you’re the one who figured out newspapers are dying, you win.

“I mean, the point’s not to fix anything. It’s to describe the problem more dramatically than the next guy.”

Their methodology is finally exposed:

“Basically, imagine a group of people watching a building burn down and bickering amongst themselves about whether it’s a conflagration or an inferno. It’s like that, but with consulting fees.

“Talk about how everything online is wonderful, everything paper is crap and then use the online to pimp your upcoming (paper) book. Bonus points for talking about how much you love the New York Times at least twice per blog post. It’ll help your credibility. You love the Times, but . . . ”

And Dailing “quotes” one of the sages, an ex-newspaper hand, who explains how he got all geeky and then lays out a euphoric future for the news that is all sunshine and daffodils — except for those doing the news:

” ‘This computer thing,’ my editor said to me one time in 1983, ‘I don’t get it.’ And I think about that conversation a lot. It’s a perfect example of how newspapers have botched everything connected to everything new ever. Granted it was one conversation with a 72-year-old man back in the era of Flock of Seagulls, but that didn’t stop me from making it the title of my upcoming book, ‘This Computer Thing, I Don’t Get It,’ coming out in October from Obsequious Press.

“In TCTIDGI, I talk about how people will still create professional-level journalism will still exist in an environment where there’s no incentive to create professional-level journalism. It’ll all be done online, for free and will be better . . . somehow. The best and brightest journalists will pull out all the stops for no pay, I swear.

“Really, reporters don’t even LIKE having health insurance.”

Here’s the link again, and the comments section is interesting too.

Journalism’s age of experimentation ramps up

When I first saw that only 20 of the estimated 170 journalists at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer would carry on in the news organization’s all-online format, I was aghast.

Surely they need more newsroom people than that to keep a vibrant site updated 24/7 with fresh reporting, photography, video and other multimedia components. How are they going to be a general-interest news site in a major American city this way?

That’s still some of my old newspaper thinking getting in the way, and in moments like this it’s hard to let go of that.

But the P-I’s print demise has been long foretold. And while it’s terrible that most staffers are out of jobs with today’s last print edition, the way the P-I will be doing the news will change radically, in profound ways that likely could not have taken place had a newspaper continued to exist.

Media critic and Rupert Murdoch biographer Michael Wolff offers this cold, unsympathetic assessment of the P-I as an entity, and asserts that smaller may be better:

“In general, eight times more people at an American newspaper produce stuff that is at least eight times longer and eight times more boring than it has to be. For many years now, in any American newsroom the sound you hear—there being no typewriters or printing presses anymore—is the strangled hum of anxiety mixed with deep paralysis. Pure existential nothingness. Everybody is there filling the column inches of this odd receptacle, or ungainly format, or daily void that most people in the country have no use for—indeed, no idea how to use anymore. Or why they should want to use it.”

Quite a few journalists naturally and understandably are mourning the loss of print-oriented journalism that will disappear. Instead of lengthy investigative pieces (here are some ideas that might make it work online), the P-I will emphasize more aggregated content and citizen bloggers, for example.

And what will these 20 journalists be doing? Executive producer Michelle Nicolosi says the better question is what won’t they be doing?:

“We don’t have reporters, editors or producers—everyone will do and be everything. Everyone will write, edit, take photos and shoot video, produce multimedia and curate the home page. That’ll be a training challenge for everyone, but we’re all up for the challenge and totally ready to pick up all these skills.”

Journalists who possess those skills, or show a willingness to learn them and upgrade them for Web work, will be the ones who can move forward most confidently in this profession. While that’s no guarantee in the current newsroom environment — it wasn’t for me — for those of us on the outside it’s even more imperative to get them, use them and blend them into the journalistic practices we have long followed.

What’s happening in Seattle is one of many online news experiments that displaced journalists can learn from. This is the age of journalistic experimentation, and what the P-I is facing, as Nicolosi describes, needs to be in the mindset of every laid-off, bought-out journalist interested in staying in the profession:

“Our strategy moving forward is to experiment a lot and fail fast—that’s how we’ve been operating the Web site for years, and it’s been a very effective formula for growth.

“We will resist the urge to be sentimental about the things we’ve always done. We have to reinvent how things are done on many fronts. Everybody on the staff is excited to see what we can do with this new mission.”

Slate media critic Jack Shafer pans Nicolosi’s vision, calling it “an advertisement for embalming fluid.” But he really doesn’t elaborate.

Some former staffers at the Rocky Mountain News are planning their own news site with paid subscriptions as a model. I don’t know whether it’s feasible or not; nobody does. But Rocky alumni have quickly sprung into action on their own to see what’s possible.

Longtime Rocky baseball writer Tracy Ringolsby and colleagues set up a Colorado Rockies-oriented Web site the week after the demise of their paper. And Ringolsy’s rather matter-of-fact about it all:

I never felt the Internet was a threat. I felt in the long run it was going to be a positive for our business. I was just hoping we’d figure it out before we went through a major recession in the business. We didn’t. You know, we didn’t, so you move on.

Chris Seper and Mary Vanac, former reporters at the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, another highly endangered publication, took buyouts and began their own health care-oriented site. Says Seper:

“It’s a time in our lives when you should put all the cards on the table and examine all possibilities. If you look for a life preserver you’re settling.”

As Seper recounts further in the piece, his workdays are longer and the emotional swings are wilder. None of this is easy, as I am finding out in my own post-newsroom adventures.

But amid the ashes of the printed newspaper these are just a few glimmers of hope that individual journalists are taking the responsibility for helping their profession move forward, especially since their news organizations have done little in that regard. It’s essential that we all do.

Kvetch of the Week: ‘F**k new media’

So says the head of the Columbia Journalism School’s “Reporting and Writing 1” curriculum that covers the essentials of . . . well, what do you think?

Professor Ari Goldman was reacting heatedly to plans to include more digital components in his course. New York Magazine takes it from there:

“F**k new media,” Goldman said to his RW1 students on their first day of class, according to one student. Goldman, a former Times reporter and sixteen-year veteran RW1 professor, described new-media training as ‘playing with toys,’ according to another student, and characterized the digital movement as ‘an experimentation in gadgetry.’ “

“Goldman’s official take on the situation is considerably more measured, and he insists he is not against new media. ‘They need to know the ethics and history and practice of journalism before they become consumed with the mold they put it in, because the mold will change — the basics won’t,’ he says, explaining his outburst.”

I don’t disagree at all with Goldman’s conception of the fundamentals. I’ve often wondered how current and recent journalism school students have found the time to ground themselves that way while learning the tools of the trade, which consist of a lot more than the notepad and audio recorder I used most of my newspaper career. His kvetch resonates, to a point.

But to say that mastering multimedia and other skills is nothing more than “playing with toys” suggests that Goldman is more hostile to the world of “gadgetry” than he lets on. It’s not the tools, but what you do with them. This shouldn’t be hard to understand.

Columbia academic affairs Dean William Grueskin says of the revised curriculum, “Where the thinking needs go is from a skill set to a mindset.” This is certainly a big issue for mid-career journalists trying to add Web skills to their print repertoire. And the divisions that pervade the professional ranks are taking place on campus as well:

“We have, clearly, two camps: the new school and the old school,” says Duy Linh Tu, the coordinator of the new-media program and Grueskin’s right-hand man.

Either we figure out a way to blend in the new realities with the best traditions of journalism or we can forget about upgrading the profession for the future. That’s a rather important task that isn’t getting done anywhere fast enough — in the newsroom, on campus or among freelancers and journo-bloggers in their jammies.

What’s keeping me fired up this week

In between a number of freelance and blogging deadlines, I’ve rounded up this midweek potpourri of links for journalists (and others) seeking work, entrepreneurial ideas, business tips, new media skills and maybe even a little motivation:

• The pros and cons of full-time vs. part-time freelancing on the Web. I go back and forth in my mind on this subject frequently.

• Can you get yourself financially organized in 30 days to tackle the self-employed life? That’s one hell of a challenge, but this guide covers just about everything.

• Smile! Whatever you do on the Web, you’re certain to be discovered on the present-day Candid Camera that is Google. Expect hiring managers and potential clients, if they’re good ones, to check you out.

• So when you do get frustrated, don’t let it show up on the Web. Here are some good ways to vent to your advantage. I’ve found all six of them to be of great help, some more than others.

• Losing a newsroom job is no excuse to stop mining a beat. Jeff Jarvis profiles a laid-off newspaper reporter who’s taken his old Hollywood-oriented gig to a blog. Further your expertise on a niche platform that rewards those who dig far deeper than they ever could in print:

“Note well, other formerly employed journalists, that you don’t need friends in high places in the internet to build your own blog. You can go to WordPress or Typepad or Blogger and start writing and Google or GoDaddy to take your domain. My only advice is to specialize: take on a beat that isn’t being overcovered, do a lot of linking, rise up in Googlejuice, and make the turf your own.”

• Former journalist John Zhu unearthed this link to 100 free Web courses on journalism, blogging and new media. Many of them are offered by MIT and the Poynter Institute’s News University. I’m especially interested in courses on multimedia reporting, sparking creativity and online media law.

• A former colleague has gotten the Twitter bug spreading throughout the journalistic profession. Here’s another skeptic-turned-convert:

“It’s good journalism and here’s why: Our readers have an appetite for this. They have an appetite for quick up to date news. They have an appetite for community . . . and they have an appetite for personalities. Twitter gives you all of those things — even more so than the blog does. The community builds themselves naturally.”

• But at least one fake journalist is grappling to understand what the Twitter fuss is all about:

It’s not the tools, but how you use them

When I first made the switch from print reporter to Web producer, I never thought I’d acquire the initial technical skills that seemed so daunting.

That first month on the Web felt like purgatory, indeed the ninth circle. I was convinced I was not put on this earth to do HTML coding or understand the bizarre quirks of a non-user-friendly content management system (aren’t they all?). Was I just another “printie” sent to the Web side to die?

When I finally licked the essentials of posting stories, blogs, photos and other content, Webworld had another surprise in store. My steep learning curve had only just begun.

Nikki Usher of the Online Journalism Review writes that the most valuable skill set goes far beyond mastering the toolbox:

“It’s not the skills that you get that will save your job, or repurpose you for the future, it’s whether you can learn how to think like a journalist in the Web 2.0, or what some are even calling the Web 3.0 world.”

Not every journalist is going to be great at all the multimedia bells and whistles they may learn. I can vouch for that. She mentions the “Standing Up for Journalism” pilot I attended at the Poynter Institute in November where I learned audio and video skills that I found especially valuable. I haven’t managed to place my pinkie in the lens of a video camera yet, but give me some time!

But I know what my Web strengths are. After my initial freshman hazing period, I got to be very good at understanding what journalism works best on the Web and how the tools and the Web itself have altered the nature of that journalism. Most importantly, I was able to use my new expertise to help translate these concepts to other print-oriented journalists grappling with a formidable new way of thinking about their work.

Not only did this breakthrough re-energize me, but it prepared me for the substantive work of being an online journalist. Usher again:

“Multimedia training doesn’t need to incorporate new skills if journalists can find ways to think about including in their work opportunities for conversation through citizen journalism, crowd-sourcing, interactivity, wikis, blogging, and social network, as Beckett points out, “not as ad-ons, but as an essential part of news production and distribution.”

“Journalists don’t have to learn how to take photos, though maybe they should, but they need to think about new ways to connect to an audience that is increasingly connected to them.

“The truth is that most skills boot camps don’t turn the majority of the journalists who attend them into professional quality video editors or graphic designers; in fact, many of the projects they turn out in training sessions would not be fit for the Web.

“But the value of these training sessions is that they do help journalists learn to see the potential of what these new tools can bring to the work they do – so instead of making multimedia experts, journalists can learn how to think like them. But we ought to reconsider the goals of these training sessions and align them to change thinking to change practice, rather than use them to change practice and hope it will change thinking.”

You must get skills you don’t have. University of Florida professor Mindy McAdams has begun a series on multimedia proficiency for reporters that I think is ideal for any journalist new to the subject. Here’s her introductory post.  There are plenty of easy how-to tips on audio and video as well as starting a blog that she details in 101 format.

Here’s a helpful introduction to Web services by Shawn Smith at New Media Bytes that reporters would be wise to get acquainted with. I would add all journalists can benefit.

And if you’re as intimidated by all this Web stuff as I once was, the folks over at the Old Media, New Tricks blog are very good at explaining it in language you can understand.

Gina Chen of the Save the Media blog writes passionately about the need for journalists to embrace new media. It starts with the tools, of course, but there’s so much more to learn from there.

I learn from these sites, and many others, every day. I’ve listed some in my blogroll under “Online-J Tips.” The sooner you start playing around with the tools, the sooner you will gain the understanding and insight needed to do good journalism on the Web.

Appreciating the value of a Twitter community

Two more very fine reasons (among the dozens of them) that I find Twitter my primary go-to source for keeping up with my industry and career options. I discovered two terrific links during some relaxed coffee sipping over the weekend, within a few minutes of one another, that I couldn’t have found by checking e-mails or even my RSS feed.

The first comes from Gary Comerford, a British business consultant who passed along via Twitter a blog link from the Harvard Business School site about an unconventional method to job-searching. It’s actually about not searching at all, at least in the familiar ways that most of us have known. The message: Spend your unemployed time on activities that spark your interest, and do it with others as much as possible:

“If you’re passionate about what you’re doing, and you’re doing it with other people who are passionate about what they’re doing, then chances are the work you eventually find will be more in line with the stuff you love to do. . . You’re using this crisis as an opportunity to do work you love, at which you excel, with people you enjoy. You can’t help but succeed. . . .

“Don’t waste this time. The job search. The client search. Do it. But do it in a way that excites you. That teaches you new things. That introduces you to new people who see you at your natural, most excited, most powerful best. Use and develop your strengths. The things at which you excel. The things you love.”

I have yet to find out if the results promised here will be borne out for me, but this is exactly the approach I have been taking since I left my newspaper. I saw this as a time to do some things I’ve been eager to try and it’s reassuring to know that I’ve tapped into some of those interests and made connections with a new set of people who are getting exposed to my work.  twitterlogo

This post above all bolstered the belief I’ve pointed out on this blog that career reinvention ought to be something that stirs your passion, or it’s not worth doing.

And since that career reinvention has centered on finding new ways to do journalism, this link sent by Susan Mernit, a Web consultant I also follow on Twitter, also resonates perfectly during this post-newsroom part of my career: It’s going to be up to journalists to reinvigorate the profession. It was written by another Web pro who survived the dot.com bust a decade ago:

“Do not mistake this message as a prediction that the news industry’s current misery is mere stage-setting for a glorious resurgence. It isn’t. . .

“On the decks of a career Titanic, you don’t have much choice but to sit back and let others ensure your safety and set your course. . . You’ll discover what thousands upon thousands of tech workers discovered: you can do great work outside of an institutional, big-company context, and you can make a living doing so. High tech companies didn’t own innovation; the innovators did. News organizations don’t own journalism: journalists do.”

Well, these two posts certainly made my weekend, but more importantly, they underscored the high value that comes from a community of people you bring together in a social media network. I’ve never met either individual cited here; Comerford began following me and I reciprocated. Mernit is an influential new media figure with an emphasis on online journalism. Of the more than 200 people I follow or Twitter (and most of them follow me) I’ve met only a handful, and know them mainly as acquaintances.

For media, marketing, business and Web professionals, the near-instant messaging speed of Twitter (and the days of “Fail Whales” signifying an outage are not as frequent as in recent months) make this an increasingly convenient work-related social network of choice.

picture-2And that’s why quite a number of people who have blogs or other Web presences don’t always update there as they do on Twitter. Its 140-character limit provides a much faster and easier way of sharing ideas and links or just saying hello.

There are plenty of resources for journalists to get started with Twitter — this is a very good 101 guide — and how to use it in their work. For now think about how your Twitter network can help you, and vice versa. Like most social media, it’s free but requires registration. You can start by following me to get an idea how you can build your own Twitterhood.

And like other social Web communities, you’ve got to be an active part of it. For every link or other item from a fellow “Tweeter” that you take for your own use, it’s important to give back. Provide links and other information you know your community will value. That’s something I’m also earnestly trying to improve as I mark my first anniversary on Twitter. It’s a great resource but it’s growing tremendously. Give yourself time to get comfortable with Twitter, but please get started with it now.