Category Archives: web

Hoping for better Web civility in 2015

In looking through some collected links from the last year, I found that this one, dating back from February and posted on the Harvard Kennedy public policy journal website, sums up so much of what I’ve been thinking lately about the digital world.

Australian graduate psychology student Claire Lehmann bemoans the culture of easy outrage on the Web, and how this supposedly ideal collaborative realm has become a forum to deepen already sharp ideological differences:

“In an era in which social media provides the fuel for partisanship, online platforms are monetizing the flames. But they are also burning the bridges between us. We seem to have fewer shared goals. Our most pressing moral challenges are ones which require creative, long-term solutions of cooperation and commitment. Globally and locally, we face environmental calamities, rising economic inequality, and ageing populations. The need for bipartisan solutions has never been stronger.

“Reinforcing bitterness between groups of people by invoking indignant outrage may be a good business strategy for online news outlets, but it is terrible for encouraging the social cohesion required to address problems facing our society . To foster cross-pollination of ideas, we need both to be aware and to listen. We should endeavor to avoid joining online digital mobs where we might throw verbal stones at anyone who may disagree with us. Ideally, we would consume a balance of information that both comforts us by adhering to our world-view and challenges us by expanding it.”

This is not a new concern, but I haven’t read a better expression of what for many, myself included, have found to be a frustrating, dispiriting development.

After nearly seven years of actively using social media, I dropped off significantly in my participation in the past year. The ability to quickly connect, converse and share information with people I find interesting and engaging was diminished by others seeking to demonize those with differing points of view, or who link to the “wrong” thing.

Perhaps I need to alter whom I follow — there are far too many people I follow who post frequently, and at times nastily, about politics. That’s not why I follow them, even if I may agree with them. It’s cable news come to my timeline, and it’s an unwanted intrusion.

Depending on the issue — and especially if it involves race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion and political philosophy — one is essentially drummed into silence if the social media mobs declare a certain view to be incorrect. The cultural topics that help define who we are as humans have become bristling ideological and political vehicles, instead of entry points for understanding through respectful argument.

One of the pleasures of adopting to digital media has been the ease of hashing out points on which we may not agree. I’ve been a guest on the sports-and-culture podcast of writer Michael Tillery, whose program is housed on the RAPStation website. I don’t care for rap at all and Michael and I disagree on some of the things we talk about, and Tweet at one another. But I appreciate the chance to think out loud and not be flogged out of reflex.

There’s nothing like a vigorous, but civil debate. While social media, especially Twitter, isn’t perfect for this, some enlightening discussion has been possible. I’ve enjoyed it, in spite of its limitations.

But if mobsters want to disrupt that dialogue — and it’s troubling how many of them call themselves journalists, writers, artists, academics and intellectuals — it’s far easier to do that, and rudely troll someone they don’t follow, or who doesn’t follow them.

So whenever big news came down — a Supreme Court ruling, the Ferguson demonstrations, a mass shooting or allegations of a gang rape — I logged out. I suspect I wasn’t alone.

It’s just not worth it to engage in any kind of meaningful discussion of hot-button issues, at least openly on social media. I’m not afraid of having my own views challenged; if anything I want to learn what I don’t know, or what my blind spots are.

But it’s best doing so in other venues, including blogs and podcasts and offline conversation. Despite its many positives, social media is no match for old-fashioned face-to-face talk, or a phone call, or a thorough vetting through the written word.

Besides, I’m not any good at responding to the mobs. I don’t have the jugular for it. I admire those who do, such as blogger extraordinaire Andrew Sullivan. He recently pegged a fierce defense of his tenure as editor of The New Republic, and its contrarianism that offends many liberals, following an attack from leading black writer Ta-Nehisi Coates.

While Coates seems eager to banish even discourse about views he doesn’t like, Sullivan loves the free-range, interactive exchange of ideas that the Web makes possible. On his blog, The Dish, he exemplifies it like few others

“The role of journalism is not to police the culture but to engage in it.”

Sullivan’s Enlightenment-oriented desire to let all views be aired, and then see where the debate goes, is being eclipsed by an authoritarian sensibility that’s getting stronger in the digital world, and on social media in particular.

This growing force of the culture police wants nothing to do with engagement. They are on the left and the right, and this leaves the rest of us feeling as we do about politics — left out of the conversation, browbeaten into withholding our views. Especially if they are more nuanced and complicated than the mob can handle.

Like Lehmann, I fret that the mainstream media will continue to traffick in such divisive fare, and that the onslaught will be far more overwhelming than anything we saw in 2014. That’s saying something.

Thoughts on redefining journalism, Part 2

A recent commenter on a post I wrote here some time ago clarified some thoughts I was trying to make on “redefining journalism” by reminding me it wasn’t necessary to go that far:

“In my opinion it isn’t a matter of ‘redefining’ journalism. The definition hasn’t changed.

“It is, as has been somewhat indicated, a matter of changing how we pursue and execute the craft.”

Last week Salon co-founder and “Say Everything” author Scott Rosenberg laid out one of the most succinct definitions of who’s a journalist, and what it means to be doing journalism today. It might make traditionalists squirm, but it’s not a redefinition at all. Rather, it’s an understanding that what journalists have always done isn’t limited just to those of us who’ve done it for a living.

It’s one of several compelling media and journalism pieces I’ve been reading in recent days and excerpt below:

No more bouncers at the journalism club door:

“The law should stop trying to protect journalists, and instead protect acts of journalism. Any time someone is pursuing an accurate and timely account of some event to present to some public, he or she should be protected by the law in whatever ways we now protect professional journalists.”

How to Save the News:

“A decade ago, Jon Stewart was not known for political commentary. The news business has continually been reinvented by people in their 20s and early 30s—Henry Luce when he and Briton Hadden founded Timemagazine soon after they left college, John Hersey when he wrote Hiroshima at age 32. Bloggers and videographers are their counterparts now. If the prospect is continued transition rather than mass extinction of news organizations, that is better than many had assumed. It requires an openness to the constant experimentation that Google preaches and that is journalism’s real heritage.”

The Atlantic’s James Fallows demystifies — without coming across as too much of a fanboy — Google’s experiments to bolster journalism online. Fallows goes beyond interviewing the usual Holy Trinity of Google executives — Eric Schmidt, Larry Page and Sergey Brin — and talks to the engineers, former journalists and others in the Google trenches. A very long piece, but worth taking some time to read and absorb.

Do journalists need to learn to be programmers? Yes and no:

“I think the ability to mark-up some HTML and understand why <span>, <div>, classes and IDs are important for CSS and Javascript is essential for anyone publishing on the web.

“But my answer is that no, journalists don’t all need to be able to write programs, but the ability to think like a programmer is an invaluable skill.

London-based information architect Martin Belam, who’s been a developer for The Guardian’s lauded website, offers a relieving thought to former print hacks like me who are overwhelmed merely by dabbling in this stuff. Still, there’s a big jump in conceptual thinking involved here that goes far beyond mastering basic HTML and CSS.

What Web Media Can Learn From Print:

“When you hear someone say they like ‘holding” a paper in their hands what they really mean is that reading online sucks. It doesn’t have to be that way. The most popular news sites on the Web look horrible and do little to promote actual reading. It amazes me that when pundits talk about the fact that people skim instead of read online that they assume that that can’t change.”

Web designer Bud Parr says Web publishers who can create a better online reading experience will thrive. But we’re not there yet. Not by a long shot.

Journalism/Media/Web links for April 27

8 Ways for Entrepreneurial Journalists to Think Like Business People:

“Many, many businesses have failed where the income statement showed things were great, but they didn’t have cash. Cash flow is ‘the lifeblood of your business.’ ”

Bias Or Balance: Media Wrestle With Faltering Trust:

“Five or 10 years ago, the conversation about trust and the media would have triggered different results. But people no longer volunteer so many complaints about reporters making up stories, as they did in the wake of the scandals involving Jayson Blair at The New York Times and Jack Kelley at USA Today. And concern over how stories are slanted no longer comes just from conservatives. It comes from all quarters.”

72 Marietta — I Still Love You:

The Journal and Constitution hated each other then — a deep, healthy hatred that was a beautiful thing. The first time in history when the Constitution out-circulated the Journal was on Aug. 17, 1977, when the morning rag reported Elvis Presley’s death. I never forgave Elvis for dying on Constitution time.”

Terry Gross: What I Read:

“I really don’t keep up with bloggers. I suppose I should feel guilty about that but my goal in life is to get away from the computer. Time spent reading blogs takes away from the time I should be spending preparing for guests. It’s hard when you’re doing a show like Fresh Air and you’re talking to musicians, theater people, actors and experts on every subject. You have to make peace with the fact that you can’t keep up with everything. It’s more information than you can possibly absorb.”

Think Again: The Internet:

“Today’s Internet is a world where homophobic activists in Serbia are turning to Facebook to organize against gay rights, and where social conservatives in Saudi Arabia are setting up online equivalents of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. So much for the ‘freedom to connect’ lauded by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in her much-ballyhooed speech on the Internet and human rights. Sadly enough, a networked world is not inherently a more just world.”

Facebook Further Reduces Your Control Over Personal Information:

“The new connections features benefit Facebook and its business partners, with little benefit to you. But what are you going to do about it? Facebook has consistently ignored demands from its users to create an easy ‘exit plan’ for migrating their personal data to another social networking website, even as it has continued — one small privacy policy update after another — to reduce its users’ control over their information.”

A little media blogging on the fly . . .

I do want to return to blogging a bit more substantively about many of the topics I’m linking to below. But I’m trying to launch a site and grapple with some serious server meltdown issues that are preventing this from happening. The life of a Web entrepreneur is a glamorous one, I tell you. What I offer here I do so without comment or elaboration — for now:

Newspapers Not Evolving Enough for Digital Demand:

“I have wanted to work for a forward-leaning digital company for a long time. Part of this is recognition that newspapers have limited resources, they are saddled with legitimate legacy businesses that they have to focus on first. I am a digital guy and the digital world is evolving rapidly. I don’t want to have to wait for the traditional news industry to catch up.”

We Need ‘Philosophy of Journalism:”

“Every journalism student should be required to take a course in ‘Philosophy of Journalism,’ to develop the intellectual instincts and reflexes that will make the approach to truth of both practices a permanent part of his or her intellectual makeup. Imagine a world in which every column about the Obama administration’s battle with Fox News came with profound context about the large issues involved. A sweet, rather than tweet, thought.”

Does Political Journalism Focus on the Trivial?

“In the 60s journalism was a craft, not a profession, and more identified with ordinary people. Now, we’ve lost some of our idealism. The media and politicians are going down together in terms of cynicism.”

‘The Daily Show’ crew serious about media criticism:

“Too often, King said, journalists’ political coverage — and that of media critics — ends up being sanitized and nothing but a perfunctory he said/she said exchange. ‘If you were going to talk about whether the earth is flat, and 99 percent of scientists are saying it’s round, and 1 percent are saying it’s flat, you wouldn’t bring on the 1 percent guy. That viewpoint is factually inaccurate and they shouldn’t bring him on just to give the illusion of balance.’ “

Fertile Ground for Startups:

“Startups are playing an increasingly important role in American business, and they may play a central role in any recovery. As of the end of 2008, companies infused with venture capital were responsible for generating 12 million jobs and 20% of U.S. gross domestic product, according to a recent survey published by the National Venture Capital Assn.”

The War for the Web:

“It could be that everyone will figure out how to play nicely with each other, and we’ll see a continuation of the interoperable web model we’ve enjoyed for the past two decades. But I’m betting that things are going to get ugly. We’re heading into a war for control of the web. And in the end, it’s more than that, it’s a war against the web as an interoperable platform. Instead, we’re facing the prospect of Facebook as the platform, Apple as the platform, Google as the platform, Amazon as the platform, where big companies slug it out until one is king of the hill.”

Some evolving redefinitions of journalism

Rounding up some items that have caught my attention recently on journalism, media and the Web. Here are a good half-dozen links, with a few addressing the fluid role of a journalist, and what it means to be doing the news, during this time of great change:

Why the mainstream media is dying:

“What really cracks me up is how often I still hear people say that bloggers are mere ‘aggregators’ and the ‘real journalism’ gets done at places like the Times. Because time after time, blogs are simply beating the shit out of the newspapers. They’re the ones who still dare to go for the throat, while their counterparts at big newspapers just keep reaching for the shrimp cocktail.”

Top 50 Journalism Blogs:

“If you are a seasoned journalist, you may have become disillusioned in how this field has changed over the past decade. With the changes wrought by online venues and phones that can report instant messages and photographs, many amateur and professional journalists alike are asking, ‘What is a journalist, and where is this field headed?’ ”

A Shield for Bloggers: Just who is a journalist today?:

“I think at the end of the day if you’re an online journalist working for a company or on your own and you on a regular basis report and distribute the news, you’ll be covered. I don’t know what the language will look like, but that’s the objective. There are modern-day pamphleteers here that you should be able to get covered.”

Don’t Save Journalism — Save Honest Communication:

“Journalism as a word is loaded because of the ministry it invokes. The profession that, since Watergate, has laid claim to it. That ministry is now a diaspora. Much like after the Gutenberg revolution the ministry lost its authority in interpreting the bible. Martin Luther showed us how. In reaction many journalists cling even tighter to that word. But the word needs to be redefined.

A Blog is a Better Social Media Hub Than Twitter:

“The most influential people on Twitter are either already celebrities, create their own content, or both. Who do you see most often retweeted? Major news outlets like CNN, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. Mashable. Guy Kawasaki. Robert Scoble. Of course there are many reasons these people are influential, but a very basic reason is that they are creating original content somewhere other than Twitter. They are most often using Twitter as a super-news-feed, and as a way to drive people back to their blog, web site, etc.”

The Internet and Well-being: Flogging a Dead Horse:

“For anywhere from 2-12 of the population, the Internet can produce compulsive behavior, ranging from constant online gaming to online shopping addiction. But for most, the paradox is that there really isn’t a paradox.  The Internet destroys time and space and allows us to remain connected with those we already share an offline relationship as well as to meet others who can present us with different life outlooks and perspectives.”

Ruminations on losing a grip on the future

A few links I’ve been reading about the Web, journalism, entrepreneurship and work, with my commentary on each. It’s good to step away occasionally from the gauntlet of deadlines I’ve got over the next few weeks.

If I seem overly blue today, I’m just dismayed by some of the activities coming out of Washington that will have a very profound impact on so many aspects of our lives. At a pivotal time — with recession, wars and technological and generational change transforming American society — elected officials are determined that the interests of those who finance their political careers, and not the public interest, will be served above all. Or they’re pandering to full-throated populist cries to reclaim the country for self-professed “real Americans” resolutely moored to a mythical past.

The bright future that so many envision with the advent of the Web and a new class of entrepreneurship is at stake, and it’s on the verge of being squandered.

And it’s been raining unremittingly for the last week in Atlanta, with very little end in sight. I have forgotten what the sunshine looks like.

FCC Chairman Proposes ‘Net Neutrality’ Rules:

“This is not about government regulation of the Internet. We will do as much as we need to do, and no more, to ensure that the Internet remains an unfettered platform for competition, creativity, and entrepreneurial activity.”

While I am very pleased to see this happening, my quick reading is that the Obama Administration is making only modest changes. Will they really be effective against the likes of AT & T, Comcast and Time Warner? Or will corporatist claims of “big government” cause a similar pushback that’s taking place on the health care reform front? As a budding Web entrepreneur looking at some unappealing health insurance options, my belief in the “change” agenda is not all that strong right now.

As someone quietly hopeful of more enlightened government policy on a topic that’s so important to the future of commerce and free expression, I’m getting tired of settling for whatever can be negotiated. The roaring partisans who don’t even wield power have the upper hand because they shout the loudest.

The Story Behind the Story:

“In this post-journalistic world, the model for all national debate becomes the trial, where adversaries face off, representing opposing points of view. We accept the harshness of this process because the consequences in a courtroom are so stark; trials are about assigning guilt or responsibility for harm. There is very little wiggle room in such a confrontation, very little room for compromise—only innocence or degrees of guilt or responsibility. But isn’t this model unduly harsh for political debate? Isn’t there, in fact, middle ground in most public disputes? Isn’t the art of politics finding that middle ground, weighing the public good against factional priorities? Without journalism, the public good is viewed only through a partisan lens, and politics becomes blood sport.”

Mark Bowden’s treatise in The Atlantic certainly reflects the weariness many feel about the highly polarized nature of politics in Washington, and the media beast that ravenously feasts on such unrelenting acrimony. No neutrality here. Web mavens have been shouting at old print hacks like me to ditch bland objectivity, and they are right to make this complaint — to a degree.

But I’m afraid that hard-edged, partisan, highly opinionated media will grow wildly, because that “middle ground” is vanishing faster than we imagine. If a viable conservative alternative to the Huffington Post ever emerges, then Bowden’s doomsday scenario will gain even more traction.

MSNBC is veering closer to being the same shrill, unyielding “news” outlet for liberals that Fox News is for conservatives (as entertaining as both are, in terms of sheer preposterous bombast). This is is not good news, of course, for the fate of the news. “Blood sport” is alive and well. It will comprise the future of media, and a healthy portion of we now call journalism.

Gary Vaynerchuk’s Startup Advice:

“People are chasing cash, not happiness. When you chase money, you’re going to lose. You’re just going to. Even if you get the money, you’re not going to be happy.”

This is the very chatty Internet wine entrepreneur who’s made a mint doing what he loves, and he’s a prime testament to the “follow your passions” school. For all of his insights and energy, however, I find the message stale. Not every “passion” or niche is potentially as lucrative as what he does. And there are a lot of bandwagon-jumpers, such as all those professing to be social media experts, who tend to reach for the shiny new viral career thing.

Still, I do follow his advice because I am one of those “passion” people. I am simply not happy if I cannot delve deep down into that niche that I love the most, as small as it is. I just wish Vaynerchuk and others would admit that one’s chances of enjoying his success are limited if his wisdom is heeded to the letter. What is missing from these peppy pronouncements is the admission that folks have to pay the bills, regardless of their passions.

The Happiest Occupations:

“The findings, psychologists say, reflect the importance of being free to choose the work you do and how you do it, the way you manage your time, and the way you respond to adversity. Regardless of occupational field, the survey suggests that seeking out enjoyable work and finding a way to do it on your own terms, with some control over both the process and the outcome, is likely for most people to fuel satisfaction and contentment.”

A riff on the same theme as above. I do find myself encouraged by these findings, but with so many people unemployed and scrambling to provide for their families, working “on your own terms” isn’t a very practical consideration right now.

Working Class Zero:

“Where was the Tea Party movement when the tax burden was shifted from the high end to the middle? Where were the patriots when Wall Street, backed in Congress by Senator Phil Gramm of Texas, rewrote securities laws so that the wonder boys of Lehman and A.I.G. could reduce home mortgages to poker chips at a trillion-dollar table?”

I’m not making any partisan claims here — neither major party offers much for anyone claiming to be an independent — but I’m fed up with all the ranting and raving about government spending and “socialism” that’s been dominating the political debate. This did not begin on Jan. 20, 2009. Or on Jan. 20, 2001, for that matter.

After reading James Stewart’s harrowing account of last September’s bailout crisis — we came closer to the brink of financial catastrophe than I ever realized — I cannot believe we have a political class, and a citizenry, still dug into the same entrenched positions, still making the same tired arguments.

Republicans decry big government when they did little to stop it as a Congressional majority, and with a president of their own party in office. They play to a Tea Party crowd that likes to draw Hitler mustaches on Obama faces when not Photoshopping him as a witch doctor, insisting he was born in Kenya and claiming he’s a Muslim.

Democrats refuse to make serious spending cuts to repair the financial system and economy and back up their costly health reform promises. They play to a union constituency that represents only a small percentage of American workers while paying lip service to entrepreneurs and small business owners who don’t appear to be any better off under health care mandates that could very well punish them more than help.

At least the majority is trying to govern, as opposed to those who obstinately want to block anything from taking place.

But this is no way to take a big step toward grabbing hold of the future. It is a guarantee of fumbling it away.

Readings: News entrepreneurs, the security of freelancing and taming digital distractions

What follows are some links rattling around in my brain, and between the sofa cushions, as I battle to meet a major project deadline and get a better handle on this scattershot life on the Web I’ve been leading. It’s been a romp this week, and by no means is Friday the end of my work week. But hey, I’m not complaining. The joy of deep immersion in the work I love has me getting the same adrenaline rush of breaking news hitting my old newsroom.

If you’ve got some time this weekend, these pieces are well worth your perusal. The first link is the second installment in Michael Massing’s gargantuan examination of the vastly changing news industry for The New York Review of Books (here’s Part I). The following delves into online news ventures and startups trying to replace the journalism that’s disappearing from newspapers:

A New Horizon for the News: “What we do have is a tremendous increase in enthusiasm and initiative that, in the age of the Internet, counts for more than transmitters and printing presses. The retreat of the giant corporations and conglomerates is creating the opportunity for fresh structures to emerge. It remains to be seen whether foundations, wealthy donors, and news consumers will step forward to support them. . . .The opening won’t last forever. Lurking in the wings is a potential new class of media giants. Google, Yahoo, MSNBC, and AOL, all have vast resources that could finance a new oligopolistic push on the Web.”

How journalists can become successful news entrepreneurs: “Great reporters are resourceful. They don’t take no for an answer. If one official won’t answer a question, they’ll go find a document or dig a little more until the official feels compelled to answer. What ever it takes to get the story. No wall is too high or too thick once a good reporter sets his or her mind to reporting a particular story. That drive is the first pre-requisite to being an entrepreneur.”

Can Anybody Pull Off Long Form on the Web? “Salon also thinks that its content—mostly long-form, originally reported stories about politics, entertainment, technology and other topics—is just too costly given the level of interest from advertisers. It believes that advertisers will be more excited by shorter, more real-time pieces.”

Steering Clear of Writers Mills: “For those who feel the need to write something, anything, start a blog. Create a newsletter. Put together a fanzine. Just do something that belongs to you, so that should something come of it, you’re the one benefiting. Let the big time investors do their own work for a change.”

10 Reasons Why Freelancing is the Best Job Security: “Freelancers get exposed to a diverse assortment of ideas, business models, workflow processes, and technologies. This helps you to stay fresh and on the cutting-edge of the best practices in your field.”

50 things that are being killed by the internet: “When was the last time you spent an hour mulling the world out a window, or rereading a favourite book? The internet’s draw on our attention is relentless and increasingly difficult to resist.” (the ones that hit home for me are nos. 9, 12, 14, 21, 27, 29 and 50)

The Hierarchy of Digital Distractions: “Emailing, writing, tweeting, designing, browsing, taking calls, Skyping, Facebooking, RSS Feeding – all blurred into a single technological trance. I seem to switch randomly from one to the other. But actually is there a subtle hierarchy in this cloud? Do I prefer some distractions over others? I think so.” (via Bert DuMars)