Archive for ‘Technology’

Tweeting in Tehran

By , 16 June, 2009, No Comment

The fascinating thing about the media wars is that all sides see reality as supporting their cause. Take the election/protest story coming out of Iran this week. New media activists are overjoyed to see Twitter playing such a key role in mobilizing people and getting words and images from the protests out to the rest of the world. But, as a BBC reporter pointed out to me this week, the protesters are most concerned with making sure their efforts get on big outfits like the Beeb.


Here’s an obvious question no one is asking: how many new media startups actually HAVE staff reporters out there covering this? As far as I can tell, zero. Yet instead of admitting that they don’t have the institutional strength required to operate in places like Tehran, the bloggers are harping on the MSM for THEIR lack of coverage. It’s been thin, admittedly, but so far the outfits doing seriously awesome work on this–the NYTimes and the Atlantic–are seriously mainstream, despite Andrew Sullivan’s attempts to cast himself as an upstart. Sullivan, to his credit, has backed down from his rage.

Unfortunately, as Megan McArdle admits, the further we go into the media apocalypse, the harder it will get for even big institutions to support foreign bureaus. Increasingly, “there are too few journalists in too few places to cover a big story like this.” If we can’t be on the ground to cover stories like this, haven’t we failed at our most essential mission?

GM Gets Burned on YouTube, Again

By , 13 June, 2009, No Comment

As you’ve perhaps seen, if you watch any television, GM is running some ads to acquaint us with the friendly face of its bankruptcy filing. You can watch the whole slew of ads on the campaign’s website. Bloggers have been snarking about this website, but I think it’s pretty sleek and is designed to signal, among other things, that GM understands the new media world and the new media/young consumer. That’s why the campaign is called “Re:Invention” and each page has a title that begins with “Re:” like an email.

A few years ago, GM was internet-incompetent. It knew the web was out there, and important, but it didn’t know how to harness the web’s power for its brand. Like many companies, it tried to access user-generated content by hosting a contest to have users design its next Chevy ad. The ads that came back were spoofs and assaults on the company for its gas-guzzling contributions to global warming. Oops.

There are some similar spoof ads emerging on YouTube! to mock the “Re:Invention” campaign. But as I’ve been researching all year for my Columbia thesis, GM has actually come a long way technologically since 2006: internally, company engineers, designers etc. have learned to use the web to chat to bloggers and car enthusiasts about their work and follow the tech sector’s lead in taking user suggestions about products. They are incorporating viral media, but WAY before the product launch/advertising stage, so most of us don’t know it’s happening. I can’t share details–unless I find a way to turn my thesis into a real life magazine article–so you’ll have to take my word for it.

That doesn’t mean I’m any more optimistic about the bankruptcy itself, or what kind of GM will emerge at summer’s end, but I wanted to correct the record. And also to ask, what do you think of the “Re:Invention” site?

Round in Circles

By , 12 June, 2009, 2 Comments

My first story as a Fortune reporter is up, and predictably, it’s about social networks. In particular it’s about Facebook’s new offer to give users custom urls/usernames the way other networks do. I wrote a little about social media during my time at Forbes, but not nearly as much as I did at BusinessWeek or as an undergraduate newspaper columnist, so this is a bit of a homecoming. Plus ca change…

Apocalypse 25: It’s Nicer to Be Right Twice

By , 20 May, 2009, 1 Comment

On Monday, we saw more evidence that the content model of the future will involve vertically integrated news organizations that will allow their audiences to engage at multiple levels for multiple prices. Today, we got a taste of what the ad model to support that might look like–the NYT’s Bill Keller told the NY Observer that the Times would seek some sort of ad share deal with Google rather than going after them aggressively as a monopoly the way others seem bent on:

The solution? He said that the Times is looking at a “carrot approach,” in which, along with the collaboration with Google, The Times would embed ads in its copy, and those ads would stay with the copy wherever it is reproduced.

Despite my own antitrust misgivings re: Google, this is exactly what I recommended for the news industry a while ago. And, I’ve also pointed out, the NYT is already a vertically integrated news org that has grown multiple layers of expertise in-house. It is nice to be right two days running. It’s even nicer to think that the future model of journalism is coming to focus.

Pop Quiz: How is Postmodernism like the Web?

By , 13 May, 2009, 2 Comments

They’re both subjects I blog about.


No, but seriously. My previous complaints about postmodernism have centered on the impact that the ideology has over the social and civic use-value of the humanities. Basically, postmodernist scholars say they should teach young people to question the whole notion of usefulness. The idea probably has some internal coherence that is above my pay grade, but to an average eighteen year old in English 101 at an average school, it’s an education in apathy.


When making this critique, I have been accused of being eerily nostalgic for the distant past when humanities teaching was about using the great books to impart immutable moral mantras to a leadership class of white young men. But what seems to rile my critics most is the idea that education should be socially or civic-ly useful at all. In other words, what’s with my institutionalism?


In my posts about media, I frequently express skepticism about the contemporary shift away from professionalism,  factual rigor, and respect for intellectual property. I do so because I believe professional reporting (which must be financed on the basis of intellectual property) is better for the functioning of the political and social system than the citizen-driven alternatives.


The counter-argument from new media evangelists is deeply postmodernist: just like the postmodernists discourage attempts to decipher meaning because the words on the page CAN mean any number of things to any number of people, the web evangelists discourage a focus on objectivity because links CAN be made to show any connections we’d like. Just like the postmodernists discourage attempts to link authors to their work, the web evangelists discourage respect for intellectual property. When a critic of their views expresses a desire to make academia and journalism socially and civically useful, the web evangelists join the postmodernists in asking “what’s with that institutionalism?”


It gets worse. As Susan Blum shows in her new book, young web evangelists are now using postmodern arguments–authorship is socially constructed and should be ignored, the words belong to whomever is interpreting them at that moment–to justify plagiarizing from the web as “pastiche.” If I had any lingering doubts about the educational use-value of postmodernism, they are gone now.

Apocalypse 23: One door closes…

By , 8 May, 2009, No Comment

Seems about time I step in with some thoughts on the demise of Portfolio. Truthfully, I have precious little in original thoughts to offer. While other print publications were clinging to their life vests by cutting costs and trying to transition to the web, CondeNast decided to invest in a product that would be even more print-y–longer form, glossier, costlier pages–than the incumbents in the business media market. Even though they had many smart writers, Portfolio was set up to fail.

At the other extreme, perhaps, are the media evangelists who seem a bit too excited by Portfolio’s collapse. It will all be fine, they tell us, because the citizen-activists are here to save the day. I will believe it when I see it.

But there is another reason to be sanguine about Portfolio. The collapse of the old media models, accelerated by this crisis, is beginning to spur some real innovation INSIDE old media on ways to merge with and absorb the best ideas from the newbies. Indeed, Sarah Lacy at TechCrunch says that’s the way to save Portfolio’s erstwhile competitors in the biz space: she proposes turning those organizations into full-time professional blogs, with the magazine as a weekly or monthly digest of the blog’s choice items, expanded out to article length, accompanied by the occasional long investigation or narrative. Is it just me, or is this the vertical structure I’ve been touting all along?

One of the benefits of such a structure would be the ability to use technology to add value to stories, instead of just for kicks or clicks. In other words, a professional blogger-journalist would ask themselves, “How does this story work best? As a blog post? As a slide show? As a video? As a long form piece? As a Flash animation? As a podcast?” and then be able to draw on all those technologies to deliver the best content possible. We’d have no more slideshows accompanying stories just to bump page-views, and no more long articles to convey quick info that fits best in a blog post. We’d also be able to nullify a major argument made by citizen-media activists–that they have a role to play because the old folks are incapable of, or unwilling to experiment with, harnessing new technology.

For a great example of how it might work, check out this slideshow from the BBC’s Robert Peston, noting that the Beeb is an old media institution with an integrated structure that now includes TV, Radio, online narrative/articles and blogs.

How to Deal with Google

By , 17 April, 2009, 5 Comments

When I posted my concerns about the market power of Google a few weeks ago, I got the following arguments in response:

–what Google offers the ordinary computer user is the opposite of a monopolized experience: free innovate products. Let’s call this argument “Google is not evil.”
–what Google offers the buyers of ad space and data is also the opposite of a monopolized experience: innovative services that cost less than their competitors. Let’s call this argument “Google is not greedy.”
–Google has achieved its dominance of search-based advertising and data-aggregation on the merits of its algorithms. Let’s call this argument “Google is not cheating”
–Google plays in many fields but doesn’t own any of them, since there’s still all that TV, radio and yes, print advertising still out there that Google hasn’t yet taken over. Let’s call this argument “Google is not that big.”

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Google is not God

By , 25 March, 2009, 3 Comments

I have been vocal on this blog about my Google-agnosticism. I don’t think Googleization is the solution to all business models though I do think the Internet represents more opportunity than cost to many industries. And though I do worry about digital privacy, I don’t think the firm’s digitization of our lives has to be fascist in its outcomes.

I’m usually sanguine about the new digital order, because I believe in the basic legal structures of a functioning market economy: the checks placed on any one company by the requirement to compete with others and the checks placed on all companies by government should, in theory, protect us from total Googleization and the violation of our privacy rights.
Here’s the problem: Google has become a monopoly and the entity entrusted to crack down on monopolies–the State–is dependent on various forms of digital data mining, at which Google excels. Now government has colluded with trusts and cartels before, but usually there is a body of journalists and consumers who pressure them to right the wrong. The real problem with the Google is how much civil society has cheerled monopolization:

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Apocalypse 19: The Bright Side

By , 19 March, 2009, No Comment

Not a week goes by these days without some casualty of the journalism apocalypse. Unlike so-called media pundits who simply make money celebrating the demise of media, I am generally saddened to see good papers die. Not because I have any attachment to dead trees, but because I believe the future of news media–digital and collaborative as it will no doubt be–has to involve the expertise of the people in those newsrooms.

Startups should lead old-timers in the right direction (more opinion, more interactivity, more transparency) but not disparage them. A scalable replacement for the social function of print will come from an organization with some scale that merges with some smaller newbies or a newbie that acquires scale by harnessing the expertise and resources released by the old organizations. The assets and talent underneath the managerial fat at many of these papers cannot be allowed to go gently into the night, and laughing at newspaper folk does not exactly build a base for future collaboration.

Some new media evangelists are better than others at being modest. Clay Shirky’s poignant, stunningly written indictment of poor managers and how they got us to this point gets my approval because he stops short of the self-congratulation that seems to accompany others’ writings on this topic. He admits he doesn’t have a better solution, yet.

Some print outfits are better than others at making the transition. The FT’s decision to launch its own content aggregator for businesspeople is a good experiment, though it’s not entirely original–BusinessWeek did the same months ago. The policy journals–the Atlantic, Foreign Policy–are doing a great job turning their websites into a collection of blogs to which the print ‘zine can be a collector’s bonus. A handful of daily papers–the Boston Globe, the SF Chronicle, the Portland Oregonian–are building websites that can become standalone hyperlocal offerings, if only they could take the leap and make these sites the primary offering. Unfortunately, the papers that are actually forced by their finances to make the leap to killing their print product don’t have such developed web products to fall back on, and they often just close up shop.

That makes the demise of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and its replacement by the all-online SeattlePI.com, especially notable. Seattle’s Congressman, Jim McDermott, was here on Cappuccino some weeks back brainstorming funding models to keep papers like his afloat in print, because, at the time, he seemed quite convinced that the Internet just couldn’t fill the same role. Now, he’s a blogger who says the changing times have all the progressive potential of the 1960s. Whoa. Commenters are beating up on him for taking a job writing for the PI site, since the old paper was fairly sympathetic to him and it seems like backscratching but I’ll come to his defense: give credit to a Boomer who can get his head around change this quickly. And give credit the new SeattlePI.com for being exactly the kind of expert-audience collaboration we want to see online.

Of course, making a website like this pay for itself is still a challenge. The Pew Project’s most recent “State of the News Media” report says we’re spending too much time on models that won’t work (micropayments) and not enough exploring options that might. The Pew folks suggest: giving news organizations a cut of the fees we pay ISPs, like we do with TV broadcasters; turn mass news websites into portals for commercial activity (example: an Amazon widget on the Book Review page that lets you buy the book right there); the Newsweek model I’ve discussed before, of subscriber offerings for elite niche audiences.  All three suggestions have potential, though I wonder if the first isn’t just a proxy for state supported media, since we’re eventually headed towards free public broadband access in most markets.

Also, the Pew crowd say there was more news content produced about politics with increasing frequency in 2008 than in previous elections but that it was more reactive, passive and less investigatory than in year’s past. That’s quite a rebuttal to those who see citizen-media as somehow replacing the Fourth Estate. Some of these citizen/professional partnerships, however, might just do it; here’s to hoping the recession brings on some more of those.

Note to Readers: Experimentation Ahead

By , 4 March, 2009, No Comment

If you’re here on the blog page, you’ll notice right away some tweaks in the layout. I am experimenting with my Google Reader again. I’ve been reading all my blogs through Google for a little over a year now, but I haven’t really taken advantage of the sharing feature until now. There are some good reasons for this:

1. As a blogger with a Google-hosted blog, I can see the same updates from my blogger homepage, the site I log-in to when I want to write posts, read comments or monitor traffic.

Reading my feeds here is not only more efficient than going through reader directly, I find the Blogger Dashboard more user-friendly and aesthetically pleasing as an interface.
2. I actually don’t want to send all the stories I enjoy to all my friends–I tend to send occasional group emails to categories of people or individuals. I email a funny story about New York to friends I know in the city. I send a geeky economics item to fellow bizjournos. I send a mention of Brown to friends from college. I send an essay about moms to my mom. Etc. So the premise of Google Reader–reading as exhibitionism–doesn’t really match my habits of reading as relationship-deepening.
3. Many of the items I want to share with these friends aren’t in my RSS feeds because there are some publications I prefer to read in print than online. I read the NYTimes in print, or at least the front section, but with the exception of a few blogs I subscribe to directly (Krugman, Bruni), I don’t want every minute’s update from the site. Same for BusinessWeek, Fortune, the WSJ, the New Yorker, and the Atlantic Monthly. Google Reader doesn’t allow me to add individual URLs, from things I’ve already read in print and searched for online afterwards, to my shared items if the source isn’t in my feed subscription.
BUT since I occasionally do blog posts that are just digests of things I’ve read, and since I want to do more original reporting and informed opinion, I have opted for Google Reader just to outsource the aggregation component of blogging. Note to any friends who are checking my Reader-shared stories on a regular basis: the stories I’m sharing aren’t ALL my favorites from the web, but JUST the ones I want to feed to the digest box because I think they have some links to the “Revolution in Culture” I’m blogging about. The personalized emails will not stop.
This still doesn’t solve problem 3–wanting to add stuff to the digest that isn’t in my RSS feed. For now, I’ll have to include those in actual posts: today, I encourage you to read David Brooks on Hamiltonianism (I TOLD you so) and Tom Friedman on the bank bailouts.
If I find a new way to update that solves this issue, and is more pleasing to use than the Reader, I may tweak the site again, so any suggestions as to what you like are welcome.