Journalism

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gaudifaceIn an email today I was asked by a PR person if I wanted to talk with somebody at a major newspaper about its foray into “native” advertising — a euphemism for ads made to look like editorial matter. Among other things they asked if native advertising would “signify the death of credible journalism.” Here was my response:

I think tricking up advertising to look like journalism crosses a line I wish (name of paper) would keep up as a thick wall.

In publishing, editorial is church and advertising is state. The difference should be clear, and the latter should not be confused with the former. For nearly all its history, this was the case with (name of paper), and all serious publications.

While native ads don’t signify the death of credible journalism, they do signify a sell-out by publishers using them.

If (person at the paper) wants to try convincing me otherwise, I’m game. But be warned that the likelihood that I’ll give native ads a positive spin — for any pub — is close to nil.

Bonus link — Andrew Sullivan on Native Ads: Journalism has surrendered. Great interview.

While doing research on another topic, I ran across this post by Amy Gahran (@agahran) in Poynter, riffing off a March 2007 post on my old blog titled Giant Zero Journalism.

Reading it, I feel like I just opened a time capsule — especially when I also just finished reading Robinson Meyer‘s Atlantic piece, And Just Like That, Facebook Became the Most Important Entity in Web Journalism — In one chart! (from Peter Kafka) and A Eulogy for Twitter The beloved social publishing platform enters its twilight, which Robinson co-wrote with Adrienne LaFrance.

Twitter and Facebook were still their old (young) selves way back then, and not the social media giants they’ve become since then. (Oh, and Google still mattered too. Remember them? Just half-kidding.)

Some of what I wrote holds up, however, as does what Amy adds about credibility — which always meant everything, or damn close.

Here’s the post:

We’ll start with Corporations Co-opt Citizen Journalism, by Frank Beacham, who concludes,
I predict that in a world overflowing with dreadful citizen-made images, talented photographers and videographers will survive. Perhaps they will not be on the payroll of the traditional news organizations. Yet, they will always be in demand by a group of discriminating consumers who will pay for their services.
News dominated by citizen journalists will be just like the neighbor who makes you sit through a viewing of his 300 vacation snapshots or baby pictures from Costco. Your eyes will begin to glaze over, followed by an urge to scream.
Beware of news organizations that think they can replace professionals with citizen-made free content. It will stink. Always has, always will.
I found that through The Fatal Attraction of Free, by Dan Kennedy, who says,
There is, however, a significant flaw in the corporate-defined citizen-journalism model. Good journalism may be hard, but technology is easy. And rather than giving it away to Yahoo, Reuters et al., most citizen journalists are doing it themselves.
Dan also points to Citizen Media: Fad or the Future of News? — The rise and prospects of hyperlocal journalism, from the Knight Citizen News Network. It’s a big report. A press release about the report begins,
COLLEGE PARK, Md. — Local news web sites offering content generated by users are securing a valuable place in the media landscape and are likely to continue as important sources of community news, according to a report released today by J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism.
“Citizen sites are developing as new forms of bridge media, linking traditional news with forms of civic participation,” said J-Lab director, Jan Schaffer, author of the report, which was funded by a grant from the Ford Foundation.
These sites, which take many forms, have rapidly emerged since 2004. But rather than delivering comprehensive news and “finished stories,” most sites are “forming as fusions of news and schmooze” that pay particular attention to key issues in their communities, Schaffer said…
Most citizen media ventures are shoestring labors of love, funded out of the founders’ own pockets, and staffed by volunteer content contributors. While they¹d like more readers and revenues, site founders nevertheless professed a solid resolve to continue: 51% said they didn’t need to make money to keep going; 82% said they planned to continue “indefinitely.” Nearly all would welcome reinforcements and the ability to make even token payments to writers.
Kudos to KCNN: the whole report is in .html rather than .pdf. (Kevin Marks:HTML is now the default document format. Exactly.) My only complaint: they apparently didn’t talk to Edhat.
Dan’s bottom lines:
I think it’s likely — or at least I hope — that the very real problem identified by Beacham will turn out to be self-correcting. Corporate media executives who genuinely want to use citizen-media tools to build community and experiment with new business models will be rewarded for their efforts.
But those who think they can profit by suckering amateurs into giving away their content will soon discover that what they’ve created a host of new competitors.
A commenter under Dan’s piece pionts to NY Times publisher: Our goal is to manage the transition from print to internet, by By Eytan Avriel in Haaretz. An irony-packed excerpt:
Will it be free?
No, Sulzberger says. If you want to read the New York Times online, you will have to pay.
In the age of bloggers, what is the future of online newspapers and the profession in general? There are millions of bloggers out there, and if the Times forgets who and what they are, it will lose the war, and rightly so, according to Sulzberger. “We are curators, curators of news. People don’t click onto the New York Times to read blogs. They want reliable news that they can trust,” he says.
“We aren’t ignoring what’s happening. We understand that the newspaper is not the focal point of city life as it was 10 years ago.
“Once upon a time, people had to read the paper to find out what was going on in theater. Today there are hundreds of forums and sites with that information,” he says. “But the paper can integrate material from bloggers and external writers. We need to be part of that community and to have dialogue with the online world.”
Then there’s Mark Glaser’s report on We Media, at PBS’s MediaShift. Sez Mark,
My personal definition of “we media” is the movement toward an empowered audience, who can customize their media experience and create their own media, leaving behind the old model of the mainstream media control.
Later he points out,
The conference was marketed as being a conversation among various players in the media industry. As the conference site put it: “The program includes a series of roundtable discussions and a variety of participatory activities involving communities, individuals and organizations to help participants understand and address the challenges of a changing multi-media world.”
But some individuals, who wrote complaints on the We Media website, were put off by the $1,000+ walk-up registration fee...
It’s true that there are other low-cost unconferences such as BloggerCon, where there are no fees and no sponsors, and the space is donated. But this is not what We Media is aiming for. I chatted with the conference organizers, Dale Peskin and Andrew Nachison (a.k.a. the new media Blues Brothers), this morning before the confab started, and they explained the high cost of We Media...
Nachison said that registration fees only pay for 20% of the costs to put on the conference, with sponsor money making up the rest of the income. Their group, iFocos, is non-profit, but they obviously aren¹t looking for charity here. This is about business, and how the media business is changing, and it¹s not just the army of citizen media people.
I got to Dan and all the other stuff above through We are the Web, at howardowens.com. Howard, looking at all the above, offers this summary:
There’s a book end of attitudes about big media companies and distributed media. On one end is the suggestion that MSM’s only interest in UGC is as free content, and on the other end, the meme that MSM is just big, dumb media that somehow stands apart from social media instead of a part of we media.
He concludes,
If people didn’t get something out of their contributions, they wouldn’t write, shoot and submit. Not all compensation is monetary. MSM companies that make available a distribution channel for UGC assume the financial risk associated with the effort (a risk not shared by contributors), and provide a valuable service to contributors looking to reach a wider audience than might be available to a solo act. Yes, MSM getting into UGC are hoping that the effort will generate audience, and hence revenue, but it¹s a complete misunderstanding of the economics of the matter to say the whole process is just a rip off. You¹ve got to start some place, and maybe some day UGC will generate sufficient revenue to justify monetary compensation for contributors, but for most newspapers still incubating UGC, that just isn¹t possible right now.
Of course, I’m one of those corporate MSM guys who believes in UGC, so you might think I have a conflict of interest here.
Here¹s the thing though: As I watched the Web 2.0 video, I revisited a thought: “We are the media.” And by We, I don¹t just mean the so-called citizens of citizen journalism. We also includes the MSM. Like it or not, every MSM outlet is part of the conversation. Some are reluctant or even resistant contributors to the conversation, but every report in MSM is ripe for citizens to expand on, comment on or react to.
Those of us who work on the MSM side of the conversation also believe that in building the means of participation we aren¹t just looking for free content — we believe in the conversation. That should mean something.
I found Howard through I, Reporter, which I found through a search for Gannett+citizen+journalists, because I was wondering what happened with Gannett’s CJ (or crowdsourcing) efforts since I last wrote about it.* I was doing that as part of an offline dialog with Sheila Lennon, who has been working for some time at the juncture of newspapering and blogging.
All this was also on the front of my mind, since several people had spoken or written to me about a Frontline piece — I’m guessing it’s either the whole Newswar series, or Part III: What’s Happening To News. One of my correspondents, Dave Winer, makes a point he says Frontline misses: we are the sources, going direct.
Exactly. That brings me to a related point, which is about the Net as an environment.
This is what I told the public media conference in my closing remarks there:The Net is a giant zero. It puts everybody zero distance from everybody and everything else. And it supports publishing and broadcasting at costs that round to zero as well.
It is essential for the mainstream media to understand that the larger information ecosystem is one that grows wild on the Net and supports everybody who wants to inform anybody else. It no longer grows inside the mainstream media’s walled gardens. Those gardens will continue to thrive only to the degree that they do two things: 1) open up; and 2) live symbiotically with individuals outside who want to work together for common purposes.
Framing is a huge issue here. We have readers and viewers, not just “audiences” and “consumers”. We write articles and essays and posts, not just “generate content”. “User-generated content”, or UGC, is an ugly, insulting and misleading label.
“Content” is inert. It isn’t alive. It doesn’t grow, or catch fire, or go viral. Ideas and insights do that. Interesting facts do that. “Audiences” are passive. They sit still, clap and leave. That might be what happened with newspapers and radio and TV in the old MSM-controlled world, but it’s not what happens on The Giant Zero. It’s not what happens with blogging, or with citizen journalism. Here it’s all about contribution, participation. It involves conversation, but it goes beyond that into relationship — with readers, with viewers, with the larger ecosystem by which we all inform each other.
As I’ve said before (and I said it again at the conference), we don’t just “deliver information” like it’s a Fedex package. We inform each other. That is, we literally form what other people know. If you tell me something I didn’t know before, I’m changed by that. I am not merely in receipt of a box of facts. I am enlarged by knowing more than I did before. Enlarging each other is the deepest calling of journalism, whether it’s done by bloggers, anchors or editors.
We are all authors of each other. What we call authority is the right we give others to author us, to make us who we are. That right is one we no longer give only to our newspapers, our magazines, our TV and radio stations. We give it to anybody who helps us learn and understand What’s Going On in the world. In that world the number of amateur informants goes up while the number of editors on newspaper staffs goes down. Between these two facts are many opportunities for symbiosis.
“Curation” and “curative” are words tradition-bound journalists like to use when they defend their institutions. But these are museum words. They suggest collections of artifacts behind locked doors in basement collections. The New York Times may have a financial success with Times Select, its online paper. But Time Select is a walled garden with a locked gate. You can’t look up anything there in Google, because its “conent” is trapped behind a paywall. Only subscribers can see it, and there’s a limit on how much archival material they can see without paying more.
The majority of papers today still lock up their archives. It’s time to stop that, for the simple reason that it insults the nature of the Giant Zero environment on which they now reside. They can make as much or more money by exposing those archives to Google’s and Yahoo’s indexing spiders, by placing advertising on them, by linking to them and bringing interest and visitors to them, by making them useful to other journalists (many of whom will be bloggers) seeking to write authoritatively about their communities and their communities’ histories.
Established media institutions have enormous advantages. But they can’t use them if they continue to live in denial of the nature of their new world — and of the interests, talents and natural independence of the other inhabitants there.
[Later...] *Greg writes,
Re: Gannett’s “crowd sourcing,” here in Poughkeepsie, the Journal keeps bugging readers to blog for its site on its terms, but doesn’t seem interested in acknowledging local bloggers who are already covering these area/issues on their own. Community opinion matters only to the extent that it’s expressed under the Gannett roof.
Our own Daily Nexus at UCSB (where I am a research fellow) just published a piece today that covered placeblogging, with narry a link and hardly a mention of Edhat, which has been doing an awesome job for years as both supplement and alternative to the daily paper here in Santa Barbara. Credit where due: The piece does give props to the excellent work being done by the Independent, our local weekly.

 

Bonus link: Remembering Peter Sklar, placeblogging pioneer. Peter was the founder, publisher and main writer for Edhat. In character with Peter’s lack of self-aggrandizement, he remains an unsung hero. But placeblogging, by whatever name we use, would not be the same without him. He was a true original and in that sense alone (plus many others) he was an exemplary journalist.

…all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end…

— Alfred, Lord Tennyson: Ulysses

Here’s how dull that pause — that end we call the front page — has become:

front-page-trendAnd yet every newspaper needs one. So it’s not going away. But to stay current — literally — papers need something else as well — something Net-native that bridges the static page and the live flow of actual news.

Twitter isn’t it.

Yes, these days it’s pro forma for news media to post notifications of stories and other editorial on Twitter, but Twitter is a closed and silo’d corporation, not an institutional convention on the order of the front page, the editorial page, the section, the insert. Most of all, Twitter is somebody else’s system. It’s not any paper’s own.

But Twitter does normalize a model that Dave Winer called a river, long before Twitter existed. You might think of a river as a paper’s own Twitter. And also the reader’s.

In the early days Twitter was called a “microblogging” platform. What made it micro was its 140-character limit on posts. What made it blogging was its format: latest stuff on top and a “permalink” to every post. (Alas, Twitter posts tend to be snow on the water, flowing to near-oblivion and lacking syndication through RSS —though there are hacks.)

Dave created RSS — Really Simple Syndication — as we know it today, and got The New York Times and other publications (including many papers and nearly all Web publishers) to adopt it as well. Today a search for “RSS” on Google brings up over two billion results.

Now Dave has convened a hackathon for creating a new river-based home page for newspapers, starting once again with The New York Times. On his blog he explains how a river of news aggregator works. And in a post at Nieman Journalism Lab he explains Why every news organization should have a river. There he unpacks a series of observations and recommendations:

  1. News organizations are shrinking, but readers’ demand for news is exploding.
  2. The tools of news are available to more people all the time.
  3. News organizations have to redefine themselves.
  4. Users have a special kind of insight that most news orgs don’t tap.
  5. Therefore, the challenge for news organizations has been, for the last couple of decades, to learn how to incorporate the experience of these users and their new publishing tools, into their product — the news.
  6. Like anything else related to technology, this will happen slowly and iteratively.
  7. The first thing you can do is show the readers what you’re reading.
  8. Having the river will also focus your mind.
  9. Then, once your river is up and running for a while, have a meeting with all your bloggers.

— and then offers real help for getting set up.

I want to expand the reach of this work to broadcasting: a business that has always been live, has always had flow, and has been just as challenged as print in adapting to the live-networked world.

I want to focus first on the BBC, not just because they’re an institution with the same great heft as the Times, but because they’ve invited me to visit with them and talk about this kind of stuff. I’ll be doing that in a couple of weeks. By coincidence Neil Midgley in Forbes yesterday reported that the BBC News Division would be cutting five hundred jobs over the next two years. I’m hoping this might open minds at the Beeb toward opportunity around news rivers.

In the traditional model, reporting works something like hunting and gathering. A reporter hunts on his or her beat, gathers details for stories, and then serves up meals that whet and fill the appetites of readers, viewers and listeners. This model won’t go away. In some ways it’s being improved. Here in the U.S. ProPublica and the Center for Public Integrity are good examples of that. But it will become part of a larger flow, drawing from a wider conceptual and operational net.

A river for media as major as the Times and the BBC flows in the center of a vast watershed, with sources flowing inward through tributaries. Each of those sources can be lakes, streams and rivers as well. At their best, all of them sustain life, culture and commerce along their banks and in the areas surrounding them.

For institutions such as the Times and the BBC, what matters is maintaining their attraction to sources, destinations, and lives sustained in the process. That attraction is flow itself. That’s why rivers are essential as both metaphor and method.

To help with this, let’s look at a watershed in the physical world that works on roughly the scale that the Times and the BBC do in the journalistic regions they serve:

CD06_Amazon_River_NetworkThat’s the Amazon River basin. Every stream and river in that basin flows down a slope toward the Amazon River. While much of the rain that falls on the basin sinks into the earth and sustains life right there, an excess flows downstream. Some of the water and the material it carries is used and re-used along the way. Much of the activity within each body operates in its own local or regional ecosystem. But much of it flows to the main river before spilling into the sea. The entire system is shaped by its boundaries, the ridges and plateaus farthest upstream. Its influence extends outside those boundaries, of course, but what makes the whole watershed unitary is inward flow toward the central river.

In his Nieman piece, Dave identifies bloggers as essential sources. (Remember that blogs have a river format of their own: they flow, from the tops to the bottoms of their own pages.) Email is another source. So are comments on a news organization’s own stories. So are other publications. So are news agencies such as the Associated Press. So are think tanks, industry experts and investigative organizations such as the Center for Public Integrity.

Missing from that list are ordinary people. All of those people are in position to be sources for stories, and many already contribute to news flow through the likes of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Every one of those intermediary systems cries out for improvement or replacement, both of which will be happen naturally if they feel the by the gravitational pull of rivers at central journalistic institutions such as the Times and the BBC.

But the most important challenge is leveraging what Dan Gillmor famously said many years ago, when he was still at the San Jose Mercury News: “My readers know more than I do.”

As a visiting scholar in Journalism at NYU for the last two years, I have participated in many classes led by Jay Rosen and Clay Shirky. (Most of those were in the Studio 20 program, which Jay describes as “a consultancy paid in problems.”) One subject that often came up in these classes was the institutionalized power asymmetry between news media on one hand and people they serve on the other — even as the preponderance of power to provide news material clearly resides on the side of the people, rather than the media.  You can see this asymmetry in the way comments tend to work. Think about the weakness one feels when writing a letter to the editor, or to comment under a story on a news site — and how lame both often tend to be.

This last semester I worked for awhile with a small group of students in one of Clay’s classes, consulting The Guardian — one of the world’s most innovative news organizations. What the students contemplated for awhile was finding ways for readers with subject expertise or useful knowledge to bypass the comment process and get straight to reporters. I would like to see future classes look toward rivers as one way (or context within which) this can be done.

The Guardian is far more clueful than the average paper, but it would still benefit hugely from looking at itself as a river rather than … well, I’m not sure what. It used to be that http://guardian.co.uk went to the paper itself, but now it detects my location and redirects me to http://www.theguardian.com/us. And when I click on the “About us” link, it goes to this front-page-ish thing. In other words, packed with lots of stuff, as front pages of newspaper websites tend to be these days. Which is fine. They have to do something, and this is what they’re doing now. Live and learn, always. But one thing they’re learning that I don’t like — as a reader and possible contributor — is made clear by several items that appear on the page. One is the little progress thingie at the bottom, which shows stuff behind the page that is still trying to load (no kidding) long after I went to the page ten minutes ago:Screen Shot 2014-06-04 at 10.05.48 AMScreen Shot 2014-06-04 at 10.05.55 AMScreen Shot 2014-06-04 at 10.10.38 AMAnother is this item at the bottom of the page:Screen Shot 2014-06-04 at 10.13.23 AMAnd another is this piece — one among (let’s see…) 24 items with a headline and text under it:

Screen Shot 2014-06-04 at 10.14.29 AMThe operative word here is content.

John Perry Barlow once said, “I didn’t start hearing about ‘content’ until the container business felt threatened.” But fear isn’t the problem here. It’s the implication that stories, posts and other editorial matter are all just cargo. Stuff.

The mind-shift going on here is that’s a huge value-subtract for both paper and reader alike. (Yes, I know there is no substitute for content, other than the abandoned “editorial,” and that’s a problem too.)

Speaking as a reader of the Guardian — and one who reads it in the UK, the US and many other countries on  the World Wide Freaking Web — I hate being blindered by national borders, and regarded as just an “audience” member valued mostly as an “influential” instrument to be “engaged” by “branded content,” even it’s laundered through a “Lab.”

This kind of jive is the sound an industry makes when it’s talking to itself. Or worse, of editorial and publishing factota dancing on the rubble of the Chinese wall that long stood between them, supporting independence and integrity on both sides.

If the Guardian saw itself as a river, and not as a cargo delivery system, it might not have made the moves in the U.S. that it has so far. To fully grok how big a problem these moves have been (again, so far), read The Guardian at the Gate, by Michael Wolff in GQ.

Newspapers and broadcast networks tend to be regional things: geographically, culturally, and politically. The Guardian’s position — what Reis and Trout (in Positioning: the Battle for Your Mind) call a creneau — has been its preëminence as the leading newspaper for culture and leftish politics in the UK. Creating something new and separate in the U.S. was, and remains, weird. It would be even more weird if the BBC tried the same thing. (Instead, wisely, it’s just another program source for U.S. public radio. And its voice is clearly a UK one.)

Another term from the marketing world that’s making its way over to the production side of media (including news) is “personalization.” At the literal level this isn’t a bad thing. One might like to personalize, or have personalized, some of the stuff one reads, hears or watches. But the way marketers think about it, personalization is something done by algorithms that direct content toward individuals, guided by the crunchings of surveillance-gathered Big Data.

Some of that stuff isn’t bad. Some might actually be good. But the better thing would be to start with the role of the paper, or the broadcast system, as a river that flows through the heart of an ecosystem that it also defines. That role is not just to barge content downstream, but to collect and grow shared knowledge.

We’re at the beginning of the process of discovering all the things a river can be. This is why Dave’s hackathon is so important.

RSS gave newspapers a new lease on life at a time when the old one was running out. Rivers will do the same if newspapers, broadcasters and other essential media leverage them with the same gusto.

It helps that, at the heart of both RSS and rivers, there are old and well-understood concepts. For RSS it’s syndication. For rivers it’s publishing. Both RSS and rivers use these old concepts in new ways that work for everybody, and not just for the media themselves.

Curation is another one. It comes up nearly every time I talk to a news organization about what only it can do, or what it can do better than any other institution. Some curation should be done by the media themselves. But it should be done in the context of the new world defined by the Net and the Web. That’s why I suggest flowing  rivers into the free and open Web. Don’t lock them behind paywalls. My one-liner for this is Sell the news and give away the olds. It’s off-topic for rivers, syndication and the Live Web, but it’s a topic worth pursuing, because old news can always have new value, if it’s free.

And that’s what the Net and the Web were born to be — for everybody and everything: free. Just like the sea into which all rivers flow.

Back to Tennyson:

Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.

nytimesriverDave says “The New York Times home page needs a re-think.” But he doesn’t stop there, because thinking isn’t enough and complaining is worse than useless. (As I’ve often found. For example, here.)

We need to hack up something new, different, better and — most of all — simpler and easier to implement than anything the Times can do on its own.

(The Times is kinda busy now anyway. And it’s not inclined to simplicity, especially on the Web. That’s not a knock. We’re talking DNA here. But the Times can listen and act, as it did back when Martin Nisenholtz and his team followed Dave’s lead and adopted RSS, reforming and reinvigorating the whole publishing business in the process. We want the same kind of adoption and effects again this time.)

The simplest thing you can do as a programmer is leverage something Dave came up with years ago called river of news. As a reader you can blog, tweet and otherwise submit to the world your suggestions.

Hashtag: #timesriver.

Tagline: All the news that’s fit to flow.

Here’s Dave’s own current set of rivers.

That’s a handy model, but neither Dave nor I want that to restrict your thinking or your coding. We want new thinking, new hacking, new (and renewed) heads on the case and fingers on keyboards.

For that Dave has convened a hackathon. Here’s how he got it rolling:

Here’s an OPML file with all the NYT feeds I could find, in Oct 2012.#

Your task: Build a website using the flow of these feeds. A new way to sample the flow of news from the NYT.#

Here’s what I’m using now, designed years ago. Surely you can do better!#

Share a pointer to your work with this hashtag: #nytfeedfun.#

There’s a lot of data flowing through there. #

A picture of a slice of cheese cake.

PS: Deadline? We’re having an RSS meetup in NYC in mid-June.#

Guidance from my (non-programming) corner:::

Think about turning the Times from a static thing to a live one* — literally, from a paper to a river.

Think about how a river forms. Its sources are tributaries: branches that flow in, not out. The biggest rivers sustain life in their waters and alongside their banks. They are at the very core of culture and civilization. And they pour out through a delta to the ocean. The ocean is the Web. The delta is whatever we make it.

I’ll be writing more about this topic in the coming days and weeks, both in service to journalism’s cause (whatever it is — and I mean that seriously) and to wrap my tour of duty as a visiting scholar at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter,Journalism Institute. (In that I’m following the large footsteps of Dave, who served in the same post under our friend and mentor Jay Rosen.)

So hack away. I’m very eager to see the results — but not as eager as I hope the Times itself will be — for everybody’s sake. (I’m serious about that too. The Times is the anchor institution for civilization as well as journalism. Helping it adapt may be the highest calling we have.)

* Some background on the static/live distinction, written almost a decade ago, and now more relevant than ever.

black holeMost of what we call news is filler. The practice of filling space and time — stuffing “content” into a “news hole” — is a relic of an era when printing and broadcast space and time were limited, privately held, and paid for mostly by advertising, which requires ears and eyeballs showing up predictably and in fixed places.

The Internet obsoleted all of it, including the frame of news as filler.

There is no hole.

The river is a good metaphor for what news is, and should be. Sometimes it’s a trickle, sometimes a flood. But it always flows.

With news rivers, destinations are personal. So are many sources. Individual people are the first and best discoverers and producers of it. And also its only consumers.

They can also be customers. But no news publisher has come up with an optimal way to charge for news that works across all of them. The best they’ve come up with is their own private silos, each with paywalls and counters on them. And those all suck.

There is no centralized service that has done news right yet, and I don’t expect there to be. News is naturally distributed in both supply and demand. Some routes between the two are better than others. But they are all limited by the hole-filling frame in which they still operate.

Of all the publishing concepts we have, including publishing itself (around since Gutenberg), the one with the best leverage for the Internet is syndication. This is why RSS works so well.

Let’s build from there.

(Note: The first draft of this post appears as a comment under Dave Winer‘s Middle-of-the-night’s thoughts on news, with which I agree. Dave invented syndication and rivers as we know both today. His fingerprints are also on blogging, outlining and much else.)

More: Dave’s hackathon idea.

Bonus link, from Jay Rosen. Another from Jeff Jarvis.

Back in the early ’90s I was waiting for an elevator one night at a high rise hotel when I was joined by a group of Miami heat basketball players and Jack Ramsay, who was then most famously the former coach of the Portland Trailblazers, a team he led to an NBA championship in 1977. But he had coached a number of other teams, including the Buffalo Braves (now the Los Angeles Clippers) during my former schoolmate Bob Kauffman‘s time there. So I thought, “Oh. Jack Ramsay is coaching the Heat now.” Back in those days Miami was not a great team, and even as a fan I was paying no attention to them. But the team was paying attention to Dr. Ramsay. That much was clear.

We got on the elevator together. The tallest players, 7-foot Matt Geiger among them, had to cock their heads toward one shoulder to avoid bumping the ceiling. I was crowded into a corner like a piece of luggage. The team had just lost a game. For the whole trip up to the Nth floor, Jack talked to the guys about what you can learn by losing that you can’t by winning — in useful detail. It was obvious that the old guy was still a great coach, and that the players had great respect for him. By that I mean, they weren’t just being nice. They were listening, carefully.

It was only later that I learned that Jack was not the coach, officially. His job was color commentary on Heat broadcasts.

All basketball fans by now have learned something from Doctor Jack, who went on to share his wisdom and experience over ESPN and other outlets. The man always had something interesting to add to the time-filling blather that comprises most of sports commentary.

So I just learned that the good doctor passed this morning, at age 89. I also learned that he enlisted for service in the U.S. Navy at age 19 during World War II, and shortly thereafter became the platoon leader of an underwater demolitions team — the forerunner of today’s Navy Seals. I suppose he was younger during his service than most or all of the players he taught in that elevator. Tougher too, I’m sure.

Ghandi said we should learn as if we’ll live forever and live as if we’ll die tomorrow. Jack Ramsey was clearly one of those guys who did both, for all his life.

Here is my short list:

  1. Larry Josephson
  2. Howard Stern
  3. Bob Grant
  4. Bob & Ray
  5. Barry Gray
  6. Bob Fass
  7. Steve Post
  8. Rush Limbaugh
  9. Alex Bennett
  10. Allan Handelman

And here are my qualifications: a) the performer has to do (or have done) a show that runs daily (or close),  b) the listener has to sense that they are missing something if they’re not listening, and c) I need to have been a listener.

I bring this up because in January I heard Howard Stern speak regretfully — and movingly — about how Bob Grant was something like “the greatest broadcaster who ever lived,” and how he (Howard) blew the chance to say that to Bob directly while the old guy was still alive. Bob died on New Years Eve at age 84. (Later Howard was not only reminded that he did say kind things to Bob, but somebody produced recorded evidence. Apparently Howard is correct that his memory sucks.)

I first heard Bob in the early ’70s, when he came to WMCA in New York from KLAC in Los Angeles. (Staying at the same spot on the dial, since both were on 570am.) WMCA had dropped its Top 40 format (conceding that ground to WABC and the FM band) and became the first full-time talk station in New York. I agreed with very little that Bob espoused, but found the show highly entertaining, especially when some dumb caller made no sense and Bob yelled “Get off the phone!”

But Howard is by far the best radio performer, ever. There’s nobody close. He’s funny as hell and his celebrity interviews are masterful to an extreme nobody will ever exceed. All his shows are longer than Gone With The Wind, filled with original comedy bits and supported by a veteran and gifted staff of interesting characters who are themselves sources of entertaining studio encounters. On days Howard’s not on, the re-runs — both from the past few days and from archives that stretch back a quarter century — are also brilliant. The show is blue, but I enjoy that. Life fucks itself all the time, or none of us would be here.

I put Larry Josephson ahead of Howard because I’ve never loved a morning host more than I loved Larry. Back when he was on WBAI in the ’60s and early ’70s, my daily life was anchored in Larry’s show. Larry spoke frankly about his personal life, and flouted just about every morning-host formalism you can list. (As Howard still does. But Larry was first.) He’d show up late, eat on the air, and take calls during which you heard nothing of the person at the other end. He was funny (among other things, like me, he was a sucker for puns), wickedly smart, hugely informed, and deeply interested in big issues of many kinds. Years later he leveraged all that into the public radio shows Modern Times and Bridges. I still have many recordings of both on cassettes in my garage. After leaving the air Larry made a living selling recordings of Bob & Ray (next on my list), who were two of the funniest guys in radio, from the fifties into the seventies. Find those and other goodies (including What is Judaism and Only In Amercia) from Larry at RadioArt.org. Meanwhile, also dig what Larry is doing today at An Inconvenient Jew: My Life in Radio. A better biography than this one or Wikipedia’s is here.

Bob & Ray are next on my list because they were the funniest radio comics of their time. Both had warm baritone voices, which hardly changed whether they were playing characters young or old, male or female. Their humor was droll and dry and played for irony at many levels. Buy some samples from Larry.

I’ve got Barry Gray next because he was — at least for me — the father of all the radio talk shows that followed. His slot from 11pm to 1am on WMCA seemed highly anomalous, given WMCA’s role as one of New York’s Top 40 music landmarks. But for me as a kid growing up in the 50s and early 60s, it was a window on the intellectual and cultural world, giving me lots of stuff to talk and think about the next day. I liked Barry Farber too (they were both pioneers, and Farber is still at it today) but to me, growing up, the better Barry was Gray.

I put Bob Fass and Steve Post next because they were Larry Josephson’s teammates on WBAI during the station’s heyday, and I loved all three of them (and some others I hate not mentioning, but I’m trying to keep this from getting too long). Bob Fass’s Radio Unnameable was required late night radio listening in The Sixties, and had enormous influence on the spirit of that time, including too many events and personalities to mention. I recall Steve as WBAI’s smart and witty utility infielder and team captain. He was more than that, both for WBAI and later for WNYC, where he was active while I was elsewhere. Mostly I enjoyed listening to him whenever he was on.

I put Rush Limbaugh next because he is just so damn good at what he does. For many years I enjoyed listening to him, even though I mostly disagreed with his politics. He was tuned in to a sensibility that I knew well, and in many ways he understood the political left better than it understood itself. Maybe he still does. I’m just so tired of right wing talkers at this point that I don’t listen to any of them. But I want to give credit where due, and Rush deserves plenty.

I first heard Alex Bennett on WMCA in the late ’60s, and followed him to WPLJ while I was still living in New Jersey. Later I picked him up again in the Bay Area when he was on a variety of stations there. Alex was at his best (for me at least), when he brought comedians into the studio to hang out. I’m sure Alex played a key role in the surge in comedy clubs that happened in the 1980s. (Wow, I just learned that Ronni Bennett is Alex’s ex. Guess I missed that.)

Allan Handelman is the only guy on this list (and I regret that they are all guys) who has had me as a guest on the air. It was in the early ’80s on WPTF in Raleigh, to talk about radio, like I am now. I first heard Allan when he was on a little FM station in Farmville, North Carolina. I was 100+ miles away, in Chapel Hill, but had a big antenna on my roof that I would aim east to get Allan’s signal, amazed at the guests he would get to come on. Most notable among those was Frank Zappa. Allan’s discussions with Frank are among my treasured radio memories.

So that’s it for now. I started to write this in January and decided to finally throw a few more sentences in, and liberate it from the Drafts folder. If you care, tweet or comment on your own faves. One I would volunteer for a slightly different category (such as “uncategorizable”): Phil Hendrie.

Kiglapait Mountains

Yesterday I posted some shots of the crater-shaped Kiglapait Mountains on the frozen coast of Labrador, including the one above. Here’s how views of those shots, and many others, looked in Flickr’s stats:

Flickr stats

It got 90 views. Not a lot. But a lot of other shots got a bunch of views too, and they add up to, on average, a little over 5,000 per day, and over 5 million all time. For a blog that’s not bad — and I’m beginning to think that, in a way, a blog is what Flickr is for me. I’m not crazy about how Flickr works. (It’s gotten more slick and complicated over time.) But it’s where I’ve been posting photos since 2006, it does have a lot of upsides, and I’m reasonably confident (though I’ve had my doubts) that it will stay in business.

I don’t post my photos to sell, or to show off. If I were doing either, you’d only see the ones that look best. What I’m doing instead is a form of photojournalism: providing source photos of subjects to journalists, a class of people that now includes everybody. Journalism at its best is a form of documentation, and I provide fodder for that.

Including the three other Flickr sites I contribute to (Linux Journal, Berkman Center and Infrastructure), I’ve put about 50,000 photos up so far. All of them carry permissive Creative Commons licenses. As a result, 425 of my shots have showed up on Wikimedia Commons, which is Wikipedia’s source image library. I put none of them there. Other people went looking for photos of topics that came with Creative Commons licenses that are friendly to low-friction re-use, found some of mine, and brought them over. Some haven’t been used anywhere (that I know of), and others have seen lots of use. For example, this shot of the roofline at Denver International Airport is in 27 different Wikipedia articles. This one of San Gorgonio Mountain is in three. The one at that last link is a different shot of mine.

Hardly a week goes by that a shot of mine doesn’t find its way from Flickr or Wikimedia Commons into a newspaper, a magazine or a blog post somewhere. Here’s one that ran in the NYTimes Bits blog on the 19th. Sometimes they even turn up on TV. For example, NBC’s wallpaper for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver came from some shots of ice crystals on poorly insulated windows I took at my apartment in Massachusetts a few months earlier. (No, NBC didn’t pay for them, and I was glad to give them away. NBC would have been glad to give me tickets, it turned out, but I didn’t even ask until it was too late, which was dumb on my part. And they did give me credit.)

To me the world is a fascinating place, whether I’m down in a subway or gliding through the stratosphere. Often I don’t know what I’m looking at, but discover and dig into it later. Examples:

In every case, however, I see these shots, and what I add to them, as accessories to others’ fascinations, which in sum will range far more deeply and widely than mine. And for longer as well, I hope. So: enjoy.

 

Turkey shut down Twitter today. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced, “We now have a court order. We’ll eradicate Twitter. I don’t care what the international community says. Everyone will witness the power of the Turkish Republic.” (Hurriyet Daily News) He also said Turkey will “rip out the roots” of Twitter. (Washington Post)

Those roots are in the Internet. This is a good thing. Even if Turkey rips the roots out of the phone and cable systems that provide access to the Net, they can’t rip out the Net itself, because the Net is not centralized. It is distributed: a heterarchy rather than a hierarchy. At the most basic level, the Net’s existence relies on protocols rather than on how any .com, .org, .edu or .gov puts those protocols to use.

The Net’s protocols are not servers, clouds, wires, routers or code bases. They are agreements about how data flows to and from any one end point and any other. This makes the Internet a world of ends rather than a world of governments, companies and .whatevers. It cannot be reduced to any of those things, any more than time can be reduced to a clock. The Net is as oblivious to usage as are language and mathematics — and just as supportive of every use to which it is put. And, because of this oblivity, The Net supports all without favor to any.

Paul Baran contrasted centralized systems (such as governments), decentralized ones (such as Twitter+Facebook+Google, etc.) and distributed ones, using this drawing in 1964:

Design C became the Internet.

It appealed to military folks because it was the best design for surviving attack. Even in a decentralized system there are central points of vulnerability where a government can spy on traffic or knock out a whole service. The “attack surfaces” of a distributed system are no larger than a single node or a single connection, so it’s much harder to bring the whole thing down. This is why John Gillmore says “The Internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” No doubt this is happening right now in Turkey, just as it is in China and other countries  that block sites and services on the Net. It might not be easy, but it is do-able by design. That design is not about hard fixed administrated lines, but voluntary connections, or what Bob Frankston calls ‘DIY connectivity’.

Twitter’s centralized nature makes it a dot in the star-shaped designs of A and B. That dot becomes a black hole when powerful actors like the Turkish and Chinese governments “eradicate” it. We need to bear this in mind when we design and use centralized systems — and even decentralized ones.

It helps to recognize that some things — such as being social with each other — do not require centralized systems, or even decentralized ones. They can be truly distributed, heterarchical and voluntary. Just as we have freedom of speech and association in any free society, we should have the same on the Net. And, at the base level, we do.

But this isn’t easy to see, for five reasons:

  1. We do need centralized systems for doing what only they can do
  2. Existing building methods and materials make it easy
  3. The internet is also a “network of networks” which at the backbone and “provider” level (the one you access it through) is more like a combination of B and C — and, because you pay providers for access,  it’s easy to ignore C as the virtuous base of the whole thing
  4. After eighteen years of building centralized systems (such as Twitter) on the Net, it’s hard for most people — even geeks familiar with the Net’s base design — to think outside the box called client-server (and some of us call calf-cow)

A great way to avoid the black hole of centralization is to start from the fully distributed nodes that each of us are, designing and building first person technologies. And I have a specific one to recommend, from Customer Commons:

This is Omie:

She’s the brainlet of Customer Commons: She is, literally, a clean slate. And she is your clean slate. Not Apple’s. Not Google’s. Not some phone company’s.

She can be what you want her to be, do what you want her to do, run whatever apps you want her to run, and use data you alone collect and control.

Being a clean slate makes Omie very different.

On your iPhone and iPad you can run only what Apple lets you run, and you can get only from Apple’s own store. On an Android phone you have to run Google’s pre-loaded apps, which means somebody is already not only telling you what you must do, but is following you as well.

Omie uses Android, but bows to Google only in respect of its intention to create an open Linux-based OS for mobile devices.

So Omie is yours, alone. Fully private, by design, from the start.

Omie needs crowdfunding. More specifically, she needs somebody who is good at doing crowdfunding videos, to help us out. We have the script.  If you’re up for helping out, contact me. I can be DM’d via @dsearls, or emailed via my first  name @ my last name dot com. Thanks!

 

 

We decided this year to zero-base all our subscriptions to print publications. The reasoning: since most pubs give the best deals to new or slow-to-return readers, wait to see how far down they push the price, and in the meantime see if we actually miss them. So far we’ve re-subscribed to Consumer Reports. That’s it.  We’ll see how the rest go.

Meanwhile, the subject of newspaper business models has come up in a lot of conversations lately. (Hat tips in particular go to Dave WinerJeff JarvisMarc Andreessen, Jim Griffin, Dan GillmorJay Rosen and Clay Shirky.) Since most of the ideas being batted around don’t address the complicated pricing schemes the papers have today, I thought now might be a good time to re-suggest what I’ve recommended for many years: make online pricing the same kind as the print one. In other words, charge for the news and give away the olds.

Most papers already have paywalls, and most of those are annoying, confusing or worse. Just move them around so they align with the well-understood print world.

For example, I’d have the NYTimes pitch it like this:

We now charge for the same way for our digital and print editions. You can pay for today’s digital edition like you would at a newsstand, or you can subscribe. Everything older than a day is free. That includes unlimited access to all our archives. And, because it’s cheaper for us to produce our digital edition, it’s cheaper for you too: Our cover price for today’s paper is $1.50. Our subscription price is $4 per week for delivery to your phone, tablet or computer.

On phones and tablets, the paper’s app would require a one-time easy-pay setup enabling both á la carte and subscription purchases. For those who choose not to subscribe, the welcome page would have just two buttons: Buy today’s paper, and Subscribe. That’s it. If they subscribe, no welcome page. Once on the app (or on the paper’s page in a browser), non-subscribers will see a headline and maybe a little more. That’s it. But spare people the complicated pop-overs with the wordy pitches (like the Boston Globe‘s here — that “99¢  for four weeks” line demands a “wtf is the real price after that?” response from intelligent readers).

Of course, the circulation people at the paper will hate it, since they’ve been making subscribing complicated for the duration, and they love to rationalize gaming customers. (Same goes for all papers, by the way.) But it’s a matter of time before the rest of the world gets to the place where my wife and I are today: being much more selective about which pub’s confusing subscription games we’re willing to play, and saying no to the rest of the mess in the meantime.

A word to papers about the archives: they are fish-wrap with huge positive externalities, including accessibility to search engines and visiting scholars doing research. Quit charging for access to them. You’re making peanuts on them anyway.

A hat tip here also goes to Matter, a new startup accelerator in San Francisco. I went to a presentation of work by Matter-based media startups in New York a couple days ago and got excited about their approach, which is exactly in line with what I’m suggesting with this post: fail forward.

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