Category Archives: media

The most postmodern-philosophical passage from the May 16 New Yorker

The overriding impression I carried away from my … visit was that, although it all comes back to taste at PepsiCo, the physical sensation of tasting has been so thoroughly mediated by advertising and packaging that no one knows anymore where the physiologoical experience ends and the aspirational experience begins. It’s hard to guarantee the “same great taste” in a scientifically advantaged product when no one is sure just what that taste is.

– John Seabrook, on PepsiCo’s attempts to reduce salt and sugar levels in its snacks without changing the taste. (The article is available online for subscribers only.)

Data journalism needs to be more than external data sets

Paul Bradshaw has a good column at Poynter about how the increasing availability of data will force journalists and news organizations to change:

Data journalism takes in a huge range of disciplines, from Computer Assisted Reporting (CAR) and programming, to visualisation and statistics. If you are a journalist with a strength in one of those areas, you are currently exceptional. This cannot last for long: The industry will have to skill up, or it will have nothing left to sell. …

So on a commercial level, if nothing else, publishing will need to establish where the value lies in this new environment, and where new efficiencies can make journalism viable. Data journalism is one of those areas.

Journalists should read and heed everything Bradshaw writes. But it’s important to make sure the discussion of data doesn’t get too narrowly confined to external data, without considering how journalism itself fits holistically into the data-centric future.

The big challenge for news organizations isn’t just how to better ingest, analyze, and present extant external (if sometimes hard-to-access) data sets. Inculcating a new skill set industrywide may be non-trivial as a matter of scale and institutional-cultural inertia, but at least that skill set is pretty well defined.

Rather, the trickier and less-addressed challenge for news organizations is how to turn the raw materials and finished products of non-database journalism into data.

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Objectivity isn’t truthful — it’s pathological

I’ve been a card-carrying member of the “Objectivity is dead, maaan” club since 2002*, when Jonathan Chait’s TNR essay about Bernard Goldberg’s Bias and “liberal bias” blew my young mind. Since then, I’ve read many more arguments for why objectivity is outdated, including a spate of 2009 posts. (Obligatory caveat: Good intentions and common sense underpin the objectivity enterprise. The problem is rigid adherence to a specific, previously unquestioned strain of objectivity.)

But I’ve never read a rethink-objectivity argument quite like Steve Buttry’s recent post on the subject. The language he uses is unexpected — and gets at the heart of why objectivity-at-all-costs is ultimately misguided.

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Why Sony’s iTunes competitor will fail – and how they could (but won’t) make it work

Back when the Playstation 3 was in the works, I wrote a lot about Sony’s misguided strategy for the console. My doomsday scenarios haven’t come true, but the company is definitely struggling — losses are projected at $674 million this year after $2.6 billion in losses last year, according to BusinessWeek. (“The two worst-performing products: TVs and video games.”)

So it’s great to see Sony has more dynamite ideas up its corporate sleeve. Like building an iTunes-like service. Because everyone knows consumers are looking for yet another site where they can pay to download movies/shows, music, and books!

Surely Sony has some secret sauce that’ll make this service stand out from the zillions of other similar services, both living and dead. Take it away, BusinessWeek:

Sony will try to differentiate its service from iTunes. One example: Users will be able to upload videos shot on camcorders, save photos taken with digital cameras, and post other digital content to their personal online accounts. … At some point down the road, Sony would consider letting independent software developers create applications for the service, much the way Apple does for its iPhone.

[Slaps forehead as crickets chirp.]

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A Web history: Street Fighter II cheats and unheeded warnings

The Internet is such a ubiquitous and necessary (for us addicts, at least) part of life in the late 2000-aughts that it’s strange and time-warpy to think of how recent that ubiquity really is. Vanity Fair has compiled a fun oral history of the Net that serves as one of those occasional reminders of the absurd pace of change over the past 15 years. (The oral history covers the Internet’s 50-year history, but the best parts are about the World Wide Web era.)

I first became aware of the post-CompuServe Internet when my brother was in college, circa 1992. I was so excited that he somehow had access to all the important information I couldn’t find anywhere else: namely, the special moves for Street Fighter II. I think Mortal Kombat and NBA Jam secrets were also big on my list of Net-procured info, but Street Fighter was the main treasure.

I remember my brother mentioning Archie and Veronica — two early search engines — and I had no idea what he was talking about, though I must have used one or both to find the video game tricks. Oddly enough, I don’t remember the first time I used a Web browser. In my memory, browsers just exist after a point.

Anyway, here are some interesting bits from the Vanity Fair piece…

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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.

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.

Why don’t newspapers make Craigslist obsolete?

TechCrunch had a recent post about eBay’s free classified site, Kajiji, angling to take down Craigslist (even though eBay owns 25 percent of Craigslist). Kajiji thinks that Craigslist’s dated look and interface don’t cut it anymore, and that a classifieds site with better options and security — one that can afford to expand and improve by selling ads — can draw people away. Seems plausible to me; I use Craigslist, but would definitely jump ship if something prettier and more useful came along.

But here’s something I often wonder: If Craigslist is vulnerable to a challenge, why are newspapers letting eBay get in on the action? Why don’t newspapers actually try to challenge Craigslist instead of just whining about how the site killed their revenue?

What if a newspaper offered a robust, intuitive, user-friendly free online classifieds site supported by advertising? I’m talking about targeted ads relevant to the searches, products, or services at hand.

Now, for example, the classified page for furniture at the St. Petersburg Times Web site has two ads on the page: a banner ad at the top for Verizon Wireless and a side ad for Weight Watchers Online. (Disclosure: I work at the Times.) The merchandise classified page at the Dallas Morning News has a banner ad for real estate and side ads for a Hannah Montana ticket giveway, a coupon book, and DMN’s news site. The merchandise classified page for the Rocky Mountain News/Denver Post has a banner ad for Capitol One credit cards and a side ad for U.S. Army recruitment. (On subsequent visits, these ads have changed; but they’re all still banner ads that appear to be site-wide and not specific to the classifieds page.)

These and other papers seem to have learned nothing from Google. Web ads work best when they’re unobtrusive and, most important, relevant to what the user is already searching for. If I’m looking to buy a TV, I’m not going to click on an Army or Weight Watchers ad — but I might click on an ad for a local electronics store that’s having a sale. Google’s ads are also perfect for smaller businesses that can’t afford giant banners or print advertising — an area that newspapers are notorious for overlooking online. Creating a robust free classified site would be a great way to experiment with targeted, relatively inexpensive online local advertising.

I’d love to hear from people who have a better understanding of the business side of things, the economics of online advertising, how much papers still actually make on classifieds, etc. But it seems to me that making all online classifieds free — and probably print classifieds too — and creating a targeted-ad-supported, user-friendly classified site could begin to drive people away from Craigslist and back to newspapers.

How to fix newspapers IV: Go beyond the wires, join the Web party

(Also see Prelude and Parts I, II, and III)

Scott Karp has written a post defining his vision for a new kind of Web journalism: one in which linking to the vast sea of information beyond a newspaper’s walls becomes a key part of bringing news to readers. He writes:

“Do what you do best, and link to the rest” is Jeff Jarvis’ motto for newsrooms — the imperative is to reorient newsrooms from a resource-rich, monopoly distribution approach to reporting, where a newsroom could reasonably aim to do it all themselves, to a resource-constrained, networked media reality, where newsrooms must focus on original reporting that matters most — SUPPLEMENTED by links to other original reporting done by other newsrooms — and by individuals.

The idea is that journalists, editors, and newsrooms need to LEVERAGE the web, leverage the network to help them do more — in so many cases now, with less.

But I would take Jeff’s web-savvy advice a step further: “Make linking to the rest an essential part of what you do best.”

It’s a compelling vision, and the examples of forward-thinking papers already using Scott’s Publish2 network show it can be done. [After-the-fact disclosure: I now work for Scott at Publish2.] But as I’ve discussed with Scott, while this may be a great idea for newspaper Web sites, there are no hyperlinks in print. How can we marry this vision of newspaper-as-linker to the print product?

Return for a moment to the question of why newspapers are boring. I’ve suggested two answers: that the kinds of stories papers typically run aren’t interesting or relevant to average readers, and that non-local stories send the strongest signal that papers are boring. I described some institutional reasons papers run those kinds of stories, but I left out a main one: Those stories are a majority of what the wires provide.

Most newspapers rely for their non-local news and opinion on some combination of the AP and the Washington Post/LA Times, New York Times, and McClatchy-Tribune wires. These wire services are important and necessary for putting out a paper. But they deprive readers of so much more. “Horrible as it may sound, on many days the newsprint front page tastes of already chewed gum,” Jack Shafer writes in Slate. He’s right — because newspapers’ narrow pool of sources has been outpaced by the Internet.

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How to fix newspapers I: What is news?

(Also see Prelude and Parts II, III, and IV.)

“Must the news be boring?”

That’s the question that opens Michael Hirschorn’s terrific “The Pleasure Principle,” an Atlantic article in which he dares to consider a “radical notion” that might help save newspapers: “Stop being important and start being interesting.”

The question shouldn’t be radical, but answering honestly means reconsidering decades of traditions and habits — and if there’s any group that relies on tradition for guidance more than baseball coaches do, it’s journalists. But like Tevye said, “Traditiooooon, schmradition!” What journalism really needs is a bunch of Moneyballs.

It’s telling that Hirschorn didn’t start his piece by asking, “Are newspapers boring.” Everyone knows they are. Modern newspapers can’t help it — it’s a direct reflection of their guiding principles: to be historiographical (i.e. the first draft of history: the paper of record), informative, and traditional (cautious about change, a safeguard of culture and discourse, etc.). But what if, as Hirschorn asks, newspapers instead made it their primary goal to be interesting, relevant, and surprising? How would that change what newspapers cover and how they cover it?

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How to fix newspapers: Prelude

(Also see Parts I, II, III, and IV.)

In the discussions about what has happened to the newspaper business, several usual suspects always seem to pop up. (No, not Fenster.) Readers don’t have enough time. There’s too much competition from other media. Young people don’t care about the news or don’t read newspapers. People only care about Britney Spears nowadays.

All of those may be true to some degree. But something always seems to be missing from the discussion: the role of newspapers and the news within. In other words, maybe we need to stop blaming readers for ignoring newspapers and start thinking about our responsibility: what it is we put in papers that doesn’t attract or actually repels readers. Or, as Howard Owens puts it in the title of this conversation-starting blog post, “Maybe it’s journalism itself that is the problem.”

Owens writes:

The issue is, the current way important news is gathered, reported and written isn’t working. It hasn’t been working for several decades. It’s only now becoming a crisis, thanks to the likes of Craig Newmark, Realtor.com, AutoTrader.com and Monster.com. …

Discovering a journalism that does what journalism should do — match the needs of society rather than dictate to society what people should want from journalism — will be real hard work, and it will challenge assumptions and afflict comfortable mind sets.

Over the course of the next few posts, I’d like to offer up some of the ideas I’ve developed over the past couple of years while working for a forward-thinking publication. Because Owens is right on both counts: the news isn’t working, and it’s going to be hard figuring out first how to fix it and then how to change the mindset of an entire industry.

Some background: For the past two years I have been a news editor at tbt*-Tampa Bay Times, a free daily tabloid published by the St. Petersburg Times that’s aimed at “younger” readers. tbt* began in fall 2004 as a free weekly tabloid, mostly covering local entertainment, lifestyle stories, and other weekend guide-type material. Like other free tabs, the stories were shorter than a broadsheet’s, the headlines were edgier, and there was a heavy use of “alt-form” design.

A daily version launched in March 2006, applying much of the tone and look of the weekly section to the full range of news covered by a daily. (tbt* has no Web site to speak of, but you can view an “e-edition” of the paper here.) There’s one gossip page per day; some lifestyle columns about pets, relationships, and the like; a couple non-gossip entertainment pages (for stories like this one); four to six sports pages; and the rest is news: five to eight local pages, three to five national/world pages, a consumer page or two, and several pages for the “News Talk” pages, which essentially function as a combination opinion page and print aggregator of good stuff from the Web. There’s also a 1.5- to 2-page color photo spread with often-witty headlines and cutlines that covers news photos, wacky photos, and just plain beautiful photos that you don’t normally see in a newspaper; this is the paper’s most popular feature.

The paper doesn’t just take the same old stories and cut them down to 5 inches. tbt* has turned out to be a unique experiment in rethinking traditional approaches to news judgment, story selection, and the very notion of the newspaper reader, in an attempt to be smart and engaging as well as a quick read. The approach has worked: the five-day-a-week tbt* has gone from a total weekly circulation of 150,000 to north of 350,000 in less than two years — this in a two-city metro market with two longtime daily papers and no mass transit system. The price tag is undoubtedly a big factor, but I think there’s more to it than that.

The following posts reflect some of the lessons I’ve learned at tbt*, and may provide a partial answer to Howard Owens’ challenge. (Disclaimer: All these posts are my views alone and are in no way endorsed by, spit on by, or otherwise related to anyone else at tbt* or the St. Petersburg Times.)

(UPDATE: I changed the title of the post from “How to fix journalism,” both to be slightly less presumptuous and also because Owens’ focus really seems to be on newspapers. Or at least I want to focus on the newspaper aspect of his challenge.)

David Broder’s meaningless centrism

Washington Post columnist David Broder is at this point basically a joke among serious political writers and bloggers. To them, he represents the pointlessness and shallowness of a certain kind of mainstream newspaper political coverage: A mindset that fetishizes objectivity and even-handedness to the point of prizing, above all else, “bipartisanship” for the sake of bipartisanship regardless of the policies involved.

According to this mindset, the havoc wreaked by tax cuts, cronyism, and Republicans’ turning K Street into another arm of government were not the result of deliberate policies and practices by one party, but rather occurred because of “partisan gridlock,” because “Washington is broken.” Thus bipartisan action is always good, regardless of whether the legislation produced by such action is sound. (The New Republic’s Jonathan Chait is one of the best critics of this view, and his book The Big Con is a must-read for anyone interested in this sort of thing.)

Broder’s column Thursday about the recently enacted economic stimulus package is an almost comically perfect example of this shallow strain of argument. Continue reading

Why does the Baltimore Sun only have 5 reporters?

Once again, Slate’s TV Club does a nice job of cataloging the absurdities in this week’s Wire episode: McNutty’s ridiculous kidnap-the-homeless-man scheme; Omar surviving a five-story fall with only broken legs, which he can soon walk on; the editors’ successfully checking out a homeless Marine vet’s story in a couple of hours; etc.

But one thing they didn’t mention that annoyed me is how the show’s fictional Baltimore Sun apparently has the smallest reporting staff of any major metro paper in the country.

Remind me if I’ve missed any, but in six episodes we’ve been introduced to: the oily Stephen Glass wannabe; the hungry idealist (who we’re supposed to feel sorry for, for example, when she’s rebuffed yelling a question to police officers while they’re working a murder scene); the young black reporter who seems generally normal; the state courts reporter upset that there’s no federal courts reporter; and the bearded, well-meaning but average City Council/education reporter. (Also the smarter-than-Batman cops reporter-turned-editor who was fired or took a buyout.) At first I attributed this narrow focus to the limits of narrative television; they can focus on only so many characters before the story gets unwieldy.

But in this week’s episode, when the evil editor — who you can tell is horrible because, like Stalin, he wears hoity-toity suspenders — declares that all their resources will henceforth be devoted to The Homeless Problem, the saintly city editor is upset because he has to reassign … the oily dude, the idealist, the courts guy, and the ed reporter (the black reporter seemingly can continue covering other things, because he brings in a tip from another story that’ll probably end up trapping the fabulist). That is all.

First of all, no editor — even one who has as much sanctimony as he lacks a clue — would reassign his entire staff to one subject short of a 9/11 type catastrophe. But beyond that, a few episodes ago we learned that the Sun is closing down its foreign bureaus. Are we supposed to believe that a big metro paper that recently had its own foreign staff now has fewer reporters than the 20,000-circulation paper in New Hampshire where I had my first job? Is there really no one left to cover education or anything else after these four or five reporters have been reassigned?

Also, David Simon has complained about how newspapers don’t do a good job of covering society’s systemic problems, or simply can’t cover issues with such scope. Intent and method of coverage aside, is it so bad that the evil editor wants to cover the homeless more? Isn’t a major American city’s chronic homelessness a systemic social problem worth examining? Obviously throwing resources at a made-up story about a made-up serial killer isn’t the right way to do that, but the topic itself is presented as frivolous (e.g. Mayor Carcetti latching on because it’ll help him become governor). Seems like something worth covering along with, if not as much as, the problems in the school system.

Reading a book vs. Reading the Web

Over at Publishing2.0, Scott Karp wrote an interesting post exploring why he now prefers reading online to reading books. He has discovered that he prefers reading and thinking across the network rather than in a linear fashion:

When I read online, I constantly follow links from one item to the next, often forgetting where I started. Sometimes I backtrack to one content “node” and jump off in different directions. …So doesn’t this make for an incoherent reading experience? Yes, if you’re thinking in a linear fashion. But I find reading on the web is most rewarding when I’m not following a set path but rather trying to “connect the dots,” thinking about ideas and trends and what it all might mean.

His post reminds me a little of the discussion about video games vs. “linear” media. Some video game evangelists argue that games are superior to movies, books, etc. because only games allow players to choose their path and create the narrative and experience themselves. According to this argument, just as Karp finds “reading on the web is most rewarding when I’m not following a set path but rather trying to ‘connect the dots,’” gamers find video games more rewarding than other media because players don’t follow a set path but connect the dots however they want (within the confines of a game’s rules and boundaries).

My general response to that argument is that giving players control isn’t inherently better; it just means players may be looking for something different than movie-goers. Continue reading