Monthly Archives: April 2008

A solution for journalism, in one sentence

From Matthew Yglesias:

Why not get political news from a political news outlet, movie reviews from a place that specializes in movies, and local news from an organization that’s really passionate about covering its community rather than viewing it as a JV form of journalism to be endured before moving on to something bigger?

The problem with journalism, in one sentence

Amy Gahran has a good column at Poynter Online (via Craig Stoltz) about how closed-mindedness is keeping newsrooms from plunging headlong into the future — and leaching all the fun out of journalism, to boot.

Gahran identifies a number of attitudes that “directly cut off options [for change] from consideration” and can lead to a “toxic” newsroom culture. She also articulates what, to my mind, is turning out to be the central problem with objectivity-era mainstream journalism:

Journalists (more so than most other professions) are supposed to be fundamentally curious and profoundly interested in what’s happening around them.

An apparent lack of curiosity shows up in today’s newspapers in the form of ignorant political journalism, stories written straight from press releases and PR pitches, stories that treat technology and consumer electronics as alien subjects. It shows up inside newsrooms in the form of old-timers who still aren’t comfortable with computers, new-timers who’ve heard of RSS but haven’t tried it out, higher-ups who rarely read journalism/new media blogs.

Institutional strictures are probably the main culprit here. Why bother being well-versed in policy if objectivity conventions forbid you from betraying your expertise in print? Why bother learning how to use new technology if the paper is (until recently) making boatloads of cash doing things the way they’ve always been done? Why explore things like RSS if nobody in the newsroom has articulated why you should do so?

Still, just as newspapers as institutions will have to change, individual journalists will have to ask themselves if they’re curious and interested enough to pro-actively face the coming shakeout. Because in three to five years, it’s likely that the only people to still have journalism jobs will be those who view journalism as more than just that job they’ve always had.

The Marty McFly Paradox

My friend Eric has written an awesome post about the massive holes in the Back to the Future trilogy’s time-travel logic. It’s too long to summarize, but here’s one choice riff:

But here’s the weird thing– when he returns to 1985, he goes back to the parking lot to find the scene from the beginning of the movie play out exactly as it did the first time (except of course that (MASSIVE SPOILER ALERT) the Doc is now wearing a bullet proof vest). Except the Marty who he watches go back in time had a COMPLETELY DIFFERENT SET OF LIFE EXPERIENCES. I’ll accept that to protect the space time continuum, Doc Brown made sure that he still became friends with Marty and he still sent him back to the past at the exact same moment as before (he had seen the video footage of same). But here’s what I’m wondering– and this would have been an interesting additional sequel. What exactly did the alternate, better-1985 version of Marty do when he went back in time.

While I haven’t read what are probably numerous hardcore, follow-the-premise-to-its-logical-conclusion sci-fi stories, my sense is there are two possible conclusions to a logically sound time travel story: infinite recursion on the one hand; the instant un-existing of the time traveling character (and anything else introduced in that character’s original moment in time) on the other.

I think Back to the Future is playing with the infinite recursion scenario when Marty returns to 1985 and sees himself drive off into the past. That is, Marty isn’t watching “the alternate, better-1985 version of Marty” (or “Marty 2,” as Eric calls him). It’s meant to be Marty literally watching himself re-enact the movie we just saw. Of course this makes no sense, since the revamped McFly clan was all changed thanks to Marty’s actions on his first trip back to 1955; Marty should be changed too, transformed into Eric’s Marty 2. But here the movie breaks from its already strained logic in order to toss out the cool, mind-bending idea of a single Marty McFly doomed to infinitely re-enact his time-traveling life.

This bad logic shows up again in Part II, when

Marty goes back to the past from the future (in order to get the sports almanac back from Biff). And he sees the exact version of himself that I was just talking about and, as he sees, that Marty does the EXACT SAME THING HE DOES IN THE FIRST MOVIE!! That’s weird!

Eric’s right that this should be Marty 1 watching Marty 2, but the movie instead walks away from its premise; it’s simply Marty 1 again watching himself. Which, again, makes no sense.

Anyway, if the first two BTTF movies blew your mind back in the 80s, go read Eric’s post and prepare to experience your own mental-infinite recursion. (Like contemplating infinity, ever-expanding space, and death, thinking about Back to the Future for too long makes my head hurt.)

Ignorant political journalism in full effect

In light of this post, it seems appropriate to mention that Wednesday’s Democratic debate turned out to be the apotheosis of mindless, ignorant political journalism. I only caught the last 45 minutes, so I didn’t see the really egregious stuff at the beginning. But even some of the policy questions were bad — i.e. Charlie Gibson channeling Grover Norquist and trying to get the candidates to agree to a no-tax pledge — and from all accounts the rest was a joke as well. (Update: Crooks and Liars has video of the more inane questions.)

There’s been a ton of response to the debate around the blogosphere. Andrew Sullivan has roundups here and here, and a good post of his own. James Fallows weighs in from China with an important post that includes an excerpt from his 1996 article, “Why Americans Hate the Media”:

When ordinary citizens have a chance to pose questions to political leaders, they rarely ask about the game of politics. They want to know how the reality of politics will affect them—through taxes, programs, scholarship funds, wars. Journalists justify their intrusiveness and excesses by claiming that they are the public’s representatives, asking the questions their fellow citizens would ask if they had the privilege of meeting with Presidents and senators. In fact they ask questions that only their fellow political professionals care about.

In the same vein, anyone interested in this topic should read Matthew Yglesias’ December Washington Monthly piece on how NBC’s Tim Russert is the driving force behind this kind of political coverage.

The one good thing about the debate is that it was such a monumental debacle — even Tom Shales, the Washington Post’s TV critic, called it “shoddy” and “despicable,” — that the backlash might finally be strong enough to keep this conversation going and (one can dream) eventually spark some changes.

The problem with tech reviews

I’m a pretty compulsive comparison-shopper (that is, a compulsive comparer — I don’t actually buy very much, as seen by my 4-year-old Creative Zen). I’m also a wannabe tech geek. So I read a fair number of reviews of TVs, digital cameras, MP3 players, printers, etc. And I’d say a good three-quarters of them are infuriating — because they barely discuss the one or two key aspects of a product that normal consumers care about.

Take two recent reviews from PC Magazine and PC World. PC Mag gave four stars (out of five) and an Editor’s Choice award to the Westinghouse TX-52F480S 52-inch LCD. I still have an old 32-inch CRT set, so I’m always on the lookout for good flat-panel tellies to file away for when we’re ready to upgrade. But despite the rating, this review was absolutely no help in my mental TV search.

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Ridiculous newspaper prudishness, cont’d

Via Hitsville, I see that the New York Times continues to assure readers it is dowdy, out-of-touch, and scared of printing language spoken by actual 2008 adults. The latest is an article about vulgarity in NBC’s Thursday-night shows, helpfully annotated by Bill Wyman at Hitsville:

“In the case of ’30 Rock,’ the reference came in the form of an acronym — part of the title of a make-believe ‘Survivor’-like show — referring to a teenager’s crude designation of someone’s sexy mother.* In ‘The Office,’ besides the bleeping, the character’s lips were even pixilated to prevent lip reading. But it was not difficult for many viewers instantly to realize what was said**.”

* The show-within-the-show in “30 Rock” is called “MILF Island”; MILF stands for “mother I’d like to fuck.”
** In “The Office,” Jan and Michael, hosting the dinner party from hell, engage in a “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”-style face-off, culminating in an argument about having children in which it’s revealed that Michael has had a vasectomy, had it reversed, and then had another one because of Jan’s indecision. “Fine, let’s have a fucking kid,” she says sarcastically. “Do you mean it? Do you want to have a kid?” Michael asks, ready to have his second vasectomy reversal.

See, the real problem with the Times’ (and, by extension, 97 percent of daily newspapers’) prudishness is not only that it drains all the humor and realism out of the topics at hand. It’s just plain confusing, people!

Readers might think 30 Rock’s show-in-a-show was called “YMAH: Your Mom’s a Ho” or “YMSMASPFROMS: Your Mom Sent Me a Spam-Porn Friend Request on MySpace.” The Times may think it’s sheltering readers from put-cotton-in-your-ears language — but it’s really just giving them license to mentally run through all the dirty words referring to a teenager’s sexy mother. Shame on you, gutter-dwelling Times readers!!!

Political journalism’s policy ignorance

I’ve been meaning for a while to write a post about the pointlessness of the “Is the media finally getting tough on Barack Obama” meme. The gist would have been that the media’s “getting tough” on Obama — just like the media’s alleged “Obama bias” — had zero to do with policy and everything to do with personality, image, and media meta-narratives. Likewise the media’s alleged bias against Hillary Clinton has nothing to do with her policy proposals.

Furthermore, the near-total focus on these sorts of things to the exclusion of policy shows the general shallowness of newspaper political journalism, especially campaign journalism. There are many reasons for this, starting with objectivity conventions, which give reporters little reason to read white papers, policy proposals, scholarly books, etc. Whereas writers for New Republic, Atlantic, Slate et. al. are a) not bound by “objectivity” strictures and b) well-versed in policy.

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Journalism reality check II: The death and rebirth of criticism

Over at American Scene, Peter Suderman offers a good response to Patrick Goldstein’s LA Times lament about the loss of entertainment critics in print media. Suderman writes:

For the vast majority of people, a Friday night at the movies is just that — and nothing more. Most people really don’t care about and have no use for lengthy dissertations about the ways in which Steven Soderbergh borrows from Godard. They just want to know whether to see Ocean’s 12! Playing blame the audience doesn’t work for music studios trying to combat piracy, and it doesn’t work for cranky critics who remain convinced they deserve $2 a word for 1) their insights into obscure movies few people want to see or 2) their complaints about Big Dumb Movies that everyone’s going to see anyway.

I would add that a majority of criticism doesn’t even rise to this level of sophistication/pretension. When I led a session on criticism at the Poynter Institute’s High School Writers Workshop, I presented the difference between good and bad criticism as the difference between a term paper (an original thesis supported by examples from the text) and a book report (basic plot summary with maybe a cursory judgment). Many print reviews still tend toward the book report end of the criticism spectrum. (Plus more papers are experimenting with things like American Idol live-blogs and other “insta-criticism” that runs more toward summary/quick response but is totally appropriate for the subjects and form.)

Suderman makes an even more important point about the lack of perspective from those in the newspaper industry who mourn the loss of print critics. He writes:

Trenchant criticism hasn’t died; it’s just shifted venues. …

Meanwhile, I simply refuse to buy the argument that the loss of book pages and film-review jobs is a bad thing. Yes, it’s a bad thing for professional critics. Yes, it’s tougher for those lucky few thousand folks to make a living reading books and watching movies! On the other hand, the internet has actually created vastly more opportunity for aspiring critics to get their work read. The barriers to entry in top-end publications are still high, but those outlets are no longer the only options for critics on the make. So we’ll see fewer professional critics, sure, but we’ll also see far, far more criticism.

And yes, some of it will be bad. But on the whole, I’d guess that it will create a net gain in serious, thought-provoking criticism of just about every medium. Meanwhile, most of those truly elite outlets — the New Yorkers and the Washington Posts — are not going away.

Terrific points all. Jody Rosen is the best music critic in the country; he writes for Slate, not a newspaper. Newspapers that have a Jody Rosen should build an online brand and community around that critic and hope the critic doesn’t leave. If they don’t have a Jody Rosen, if their critics file one book-report review after another — and if newspapers increasingly need to think about what they can offer readers that no one else can — then they should treat every kind of critic as a luxury except for (maybe) local-music and (definitely) restaurant critics.

But there’s one crucial piece missing from Suderman’s analysis. Yes, there’s plenty of great criticism online. Yes, there’s going to be a net increase in great criticism thanks to that online crit-boom. But like so much of the online news-commentary-criticism boom, it is invisible to newspaper readers.

Suderman assumes that getting rid of critics won’t matter because newspaper readers will find the good stuff online. That would be true if you assume everyone has an RSS feed and reads Slate, Pitchfork, and House Next Door. Needless to say, not everyone does. If they did, that would further erode newspapers’ declining readership.

So if newspapers do get rid of in-house critics, they need to simultaneously start giving readers some of the material Suderman talks about. That goes for more than just criticism. Newspapers can no longer treat the online universe as invisible. They have to find a way to bring that great content to their readers, both via the Web and in print.

Journalism reality check

Layoffs are never nice; financial pressure is hard for any company in any field. But I think Pat Thornton’s sense of scale is just a little skewed when he writes:

Let’s get one thing straight right off the bat: Journalism is under fire right now, much more so than just about any other industry in America. More than a thousand jobs have already been cut this year from mainstream media organizations and thousands more will be in the coming months. It’s a very dark hour for journalism.

Tell that to the auto, mortgage/housing/banking, and manufacturing industries. As I pointed out in this post,

Ford lost $2.7 billion in 2007 and $12.6 billion the year before — and those aren’t just losses in market capitalization (that was probably a heck of a lot more), but $15 billion in actual money down the drain. Think they wouldn’t kill for that 21 percent margin [Gannett's 2007 margin]? (Their 2007 margin: minus-6.8 percent.)

The mortgage industry lost 14,000 jobs in the first three months of the year. Subprime mortgage losses have cost insurers $38 billion so far. Banks, brokers, and insurers could end up writing down $285 billion in subprime losses (writedowns have already reached $150 billion).

Dell just closed a Texas plant, costing 900 people their jobs (of the at least 8,800 people the company plans to fire, some will surely be in the United States). Motorola has laid off 10,000 people in the past year (though again, not sure how much of the total is American workers). In the U.S. manufacturing sector overall, 67,000 people were laid off in February.

Yes, these industries are all much bigger than the news media. But let’s keep a sense of perspective here. As Chris Anderson notes, the newspaper industry is “a $45 billion business, which is twice as big as Google and Yahoo combined.” Times are tough, but the apocalypse is still a ways off. Operating with a clear-eyed view of the situation, rather than panicking and overstating newspapers’ very real problems, is the best chance we have at keeping the end times at bay.

(All that being said, I actually agree with much of Thornton’s advice for would-be journalists.)

Some thoughts on Twitter

I’ve been Twittering for almost two weeks now, and I’m really enjoying it. As a personal tool and blog-extender, Twitter is great. I don’t do much link-blogging here on Korr Values, and my blog posts tend to be longish and not-so-frequent. Twitter lets me link-blog and write short, frequent thoughts that I wouldn’t necessarily post here (though maybe I should).

But I have two big issues with Twitter so far, or more like one and a half maybe. One is a general criticism, and one is specific to journalism. The latter issue suggests that while the kind of information-delivery that Twitter represents will be increasingly important to newspapers and journalism, Twitter itself might not be the best way for newspapers to harness this new info-delivery mindset.

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Just don’t look! (at Julia Allison)

There are any number of celebrities, pseudo-celebrities, and other assorted lebrities these days who are so harmlessly annoying that they’re beyond mockery. Beyond caring about, even in an ironic way. Every time I come across the exploits of this group, I want to sing Paul Anka’s song from a long-ago Treehouse of Horror:

Lisa: Hey, Springfield! Are you suffering from the heartbreak of … Monster-itis? Then take a tip from Mr. Paul Anka!

Paul Anka: To stop those monsters, one-two-three, Here’s a fresh new way that’s trouble-free. It’s got Paul Anka’s guarantee…

Lisa: [singing] Guarantee void in Tennessee.

Together: [singing] Just don’t look. Just don’t look.

[people turn away; the monsters turn to look]

Just don’t look. Just don’t look.

[more people turn away]

Just don’t look. Just don’t look.

[the monsters try to destroy things faster, but start collapsing]

Julia Allison is one of those people. If you don’t know who Julia Allison is, well done, and don’t start reading Gawker. (I myself now skip all Gawker posts about Allison and Atoosa Rubenstein.)

The more I see that being a part of the New York media world apparently means having to care (or pretend not to care) about stuff like this mediabistro profile of Allison (via The Plank), kal v’chomer am I glad I’m moving to D.C. instead.

I realize this post isn’t doing anything to ignore Ms. Allison. But consider it the first in a series about the modern media-celeb equivalents of the Lard Lad Donut and Duff Beer Cowboy monsters. Maybe if we can get enough people singing the “Just Don’t Look!” song when these folks pop up, then eventually Gawker et. al. will be blogging to an empty room.

Maybe news sites CAN take on Craigslist

Last month I wrote a post wondering why newspapers don’t try to take on Craigslist by making their classifieds free (and making money from targeted advertising on a robust, user-friendly, feature-rich site). Now there’s evidence that this is possible: According to Lost Remote, KSL.com — the Web site for an NBC affiliate in Salt Lake City — gets 130 million page views a month, 75 percent of which are to its free classifieds site.

It’s hard to know if KSL’s model is replicable at this point. “I believe most of our success come from getting into the game early,” the site’s director of online content tells Lost Remote. But it would be worth a shot for at least a few other newspapers or TV stations to try.