By , 15 September, 2008, No Comment

I’ve been negligent lately about posting here. In part, that’s because I took a little vacation these past few days to Providence and Boston and left my laptop behind. In part, that’s because I’ve been swamped by my Columbia workload. But most of all, it’s because when I do find time to get online, I’m too busy enjoying several other sites to worry about this one.

So, let me pass on some gems to keep you all occupied and distracted:

1. The Big Money, a brand new business site that launched today, comes to us from the team that brought you Slate. Similar layout and a few common features (Today’s Papers–>Today’s Business Papers). I think the layout could be cleaner and less banner-ad ridden, but overall, I’m impressed with the content and excited to see something in the web journalism world that has a business focus and isn’t just a compendium of stock-tips or gossip. It’s a sign that this technology is really becoming a new establishment, not just some goofball accessory or insurgent hippie subculture.
2. The Conversation, an NYTimes feature where two of my favorite columnists–Gail Collins and David Brooks–do a joint podcast of them just bantering about current political news. Political opinions journalism, most of it on television appeals to its audience of die-hards (the people who read poll numbers all day for fun) as much because of the character eccentricities of the pundits as because of the content: think of everyone you know who has a crush on Anderson Cooper or remembers fondly the time Judy Woodruff cried on camera. Print pundits have a harder time getting that personality through unless you’ve been reading them consistently for years and years–this feature helps.

3. MSNBC Video. I don’t think any of the other major news networks has this good an archive of video spots from their top shows. Since I don’t believe in waking up before 2 pm on weekends, I miss out on all the juicy interviews on the morning talk shows. But I’ve been savoring the video clips from Meet the Press this week. In particular, I’m loving Joe Biden commenting on religion. Every Democrat makes this argument (I’m personally anti-abortion but politically pro-choice) and quickly gets pigeonholed as an out-of-touch impious elitist. Biden seems somehow more believable when he separates his Catholicism from his politics here than, say, Kerry did in 2004. Not sure why, but it makes me hopeful about his prospects in a debate against Sarah Palin, whose major credential includes her appeal for religious conservatives.

TV for your wallet

By , 10 September, 2008, No Comment

Had a fascinating “aha” moment the other day about my new favorite TV show, AMC’s Mad Men. It’s all about sleezy ad guys in the early ’60s, at the moment when the old black-and-white print ads are about to be turned inside out by edgier copy and the rise of TV. The characters on the show work for an old agency and as they struggle to say afloat in a changing media world, they resort to the dirty and the deceitful.

Wonder why I find it so relevant today…

Compare the show to the last generation of workplace dramas and you’ll notice one key difference. In the 1990s, on shows like ER or West Wing (both of which I loved), there was a ton of misbehavior, BUT the top dog (Drs Carter and Ross at different times, President Bartlet) were good guys we could look up to. Everyone clawed their way to get up there, but the ones who really make it in America, the shows suggested, deserve it.

On Mad Men, the most notable feature is that the guys on top are often the worst of the batch. The head creative, and the protagonist, Don Draper, is guilty of identity theft, cheats on his wife and sexually assaults his mistress, Bobbie. If Mad Men had been made in 1998 instead of 2008, I’m convinced Draper would have been a nicer guy. The key is the state of the American economy:

In the 1990s, when the economy was doing well, workplace shows made the boss look good because people wanted to absolve any guilt about their greed or their success. Go back to the late ‘70s/1980s, however, when the economy was in a crunch, and shows like Dallas were all about sleezy power players, because people in economic distress want to feel justified in resenting those at the top.

Media like television are entertainment and big business, but they are also about tapping into a broader emotional zeitgeist, about turning what we believe into something aspirational, allowing us to reaffirm the values we already have. Advertisers do the same thing, which means Mad Men’s content and storyline function as an interesting commentary on the role played by the show itself. That kind of meta-narrative, the rich opportunities for analysis and debate, are my favorite part of the show. For a taste, check out the opening episode of Season 2, here.

The Times, it is a-changing

By , 7 September, 2008, 2 Comments

Today’s NYTimes announces that as of next month, the paper will eliminate some sections to cut production costs. The Times presses print four sections at a time, so the new model will fold New York regional news into the front National/International section and (from Tuesday to Friday), sports news into the Business section.

Such cost-cutting is hardly a strategy to revive a business, and the Times–like all newspapers in the digital age–is a struggling entity. Cutting costs creates short term advantages, sure, but it doesn’t protect those advantages: imagine if tomorrow, the Wall Street Journal found a way to go down from four to three sections? (Hint: split the Personal Finance content between the Investing and Marketplace departments).

Still the Times’ decision is a smart way to reduce costs. After all, the New York Times is a global paper of record, and the favorite of elites: its core expertise and brand power are in international and national coverage, and high-cultural commentary, not in folksy local news or sports coverage (which is most enjoyable when it’s written for a local audience anyway). With three regular sections (the front political/breaking news, Business and Arts) and some daily specials (like Science on Tuesdays and Dining on Wednesdays), the new New York Times feels about right.

As a reader who often chucks everything except the front, Business and Arts sections, I want the Times to take this policy a bit further. Other cuts I recommend:

Read More →

The Reader Column

By , 2 September, 2008, 1 Comment

Today was my first day of school in a nifty new(ish) program at Columbia, a Journalism MA that is as much about training journalists in a particular field (business, politics, arts or science coverage) as it is about training them to think about journalism as an entity.

In our first class discussion, we tried to map out the journalistic method–dividing up the tricks of the trade into two columns, “research” and “presentation.” Then we shared stories about times where we have compromised that method to make a flashier story: by taking an atypical example and building it up to signify a broader trend or subsuming factual accuracy to the flow of a narrative. One professor, Nick Lemann, added as an aside that this model won’t fully apply in the future, since the Internet has a journalistic model all its own.

I disagree. One of the problems the news media faces in making the transition to the Internet age is this sense that somehow all the core principles of the field no longer apply, that the blogosphere and the e-zine are some wilderness where only tribal natives can survive. Instead, we need to start treating the web as a way to solve the ethical dilemmas of old media journalism, and seek other scapegoats besides technology for the dilemmas that remain.

First, amend the model by adding a third column: the readers. To most old media hands, that means a group of tech savvy consumers apathetic about serious news and a voracious appetite for junk. The recent squabbles between sportswriter Buzz Bissinger and sportsblogger Will Leitch are a good example: Leitch says he deals in sports gossip because it’s what readers want.

And in digital reporting, it’s even more tempting to write the story that sells. In an old newspaper, reporters wrote and only the guys in the subscription office knew how their words sold. Today, every reporter sees the number of comments or diggs a story gets.

But, it’s silly to blame the technology. It is not that Google is making us stupid, but rather that we are choosing to use Google in stupid ways. Technological advances and a vapid news media, are symptoms, as another professor (Evan Cornog) reminded me, of a much broader social unraveling, the collapse of our sense of civic duty and communal ties. Fix our social fabric, and I assure you, media will return to its role as a component of what Cornog calls “responsible citizenship.”

Moreover, the Internet, when used correctly, can be a boon for the journalistic method on the ethics front. Web journalism, as Jeff Jarvis reminds us daily, is a conversation where readers have a say in shaping content. That means readers wind up checking reporters when we stretch an example or overdo the storytelling. And because we can upload our sources along with our analysis, even an overblown story can be brought into context.

Finally, and this is what heartens me most, making readers part of our model of journalistic practice can encourage reporters to be more, not less, responsible. In the best case scenario, that focus on readers reminds us that we write for society, that we are businesspeople and creative minds, but public servants, the ‘fourth estate,’ too. Once we’re done marveling at the flashy gadgets of today’s newsroom, I hope we’ll see that our mission is unchanged.

You Can’t Beat the System

By , 1 September, 2008, No Comment

My dad collects coffee mugs. Everywhere we go on a vacation, while the rest of us hunt eagerly for T-shirts and keychains, he shops the international Crate and Barrels for dishes. From London, we have a mug with the Underground map and the tagline “You Can’t Beat the System.” I like to drink from it while I read the financial section of the New York Times…

Thought about the “system” today when I read this story about a McCain aide who thought to juice up Sarah Palin’s Wiki entry before she was unveiled as a Veep choice on Friday. The article takes up the question of whether tampering with Wikipedia is immoral or just smart politics.

That reminds me of the controversy that errupted last year, when viral marketer Dan Greenberg unveiled some of the tactics he uses, or recommends others use, to sell brands online in a tell-all post on TechCrunch. Some of the conversation was about the ethics of individual tactics (paying bloggers to write favorable posts, for example), but much of the dialogue was about the ethics of using the Web to sell things at all.

There’s a lot of hippie culture among techheads, so much so that some of them talk as if making money from online activities is itself sacriligious. As someone who sees free culture as akin to free markets (not free lunch), I’m inclined to respond, “You can’t beat the system.” And you can’t blame Ackerman or the McCain campaign for working it.

Old Dude 1, Techheads 0

By , 29 August, 2008, 1 Comment

Last week, I was all amused to watch CNN steal Barack’s thunder by breaking his veep choice before his so-so-cool text message went out. I took it as a sign that old media might be more agile and relevant in this high tech age than some bloggers like to argue.

This week, I’m all amused to learn that McCain has picked Sarah Palin as his veep. Of the choices he had, I think he made the best one. His other finalists–social conservative Romney, ‘Sam’s Club’ conservative Pawlenty and hawk Lieberman–were all fatally flawed: reviled as a person, an unknown and gasp! a Democrat.

But the benefits of picking Palin–proven maverick, social conservative–are undercut by the baseness of assuming that Hillary voters will swing to her just because she’s a woman:

1. most Hillary voters weren’t for her JUST because of her gender
2. the ones that were, the ones for whom “women’s issues” are the only issues that matter are not the kind of people who would vote for a pro-lifer.

Plus, as a man with serious health/age concerns, McCain is picking a VP with a decent shot of being No. 1 one day. Palin’s foreign policy resume just isn’t big enough for that. That said, on domestic policy, I think Palin fits right where McCain wants to position himself, so overall, I think it’s the right choice.

Given that neither McCain or Obama totally bungled their choices, then, I think the veep choices come out even, meaning the race is still neck and neck and still focused on the same few states as before.

What McCain does win, however, is the media battle. Mr. Old Dude, supposedly out of touch and mocked by Paris Hilton for his mashup video of Obama managed to keep his choice a total secret in the age of 24-hour news and bloggers dying to scoop him. Meanwhile, Mr. 21st century, Obama, got scooped. Score one for being old, I guess.

Call me old-fashioned

By , 27 August, 2008, No Comment

I know we’re in the age of Web 2.0 now, where the pursuit of information gives way to the pursuit of links, ways to connect and think about information.

Call me old-fashioned, hungover from Web 1.0, but I still get a kick out of raw information troves like this project to digitize the Dead Sea Scrolls. One may wonder why, 10 years into the Internet Age, we still haven’t scanned and uploaded all the pre-web written material. Well, obviously, there’s a lot of it. But more importantly, most old documents can’t handle radiation and bright light. Which is why this project is so exciting. If this Israeli venture works out, and we apply the same technology to other ancient tomes of wisdom, we might finally get that universal library, the digital Alexandria, webheads have been heralding since 1995.

Apocalypse 7: Stealing Barack’s Thunder

By , 24 August, 2008, 1 Comment

Unless you lived under a rock last week, you probably heard some chatter about the Obama campaign’s plan to announce a runningmate (it’s Biden, by the way) via text message The young faithful Obama-ites would be in the know before the media pundits; the news would be all over the blogs before it hit the evening broadcast.

It didn’t work out that way. Late on Friday night, CNN had enough material to break the Biden news on air, followed within minutes by the other networks and the websites of all the major newspapers. Panicked, the campaign sent out their text to supporters at about 3 am (AFTER the news was out for the general public) instead of the 8 am time they had planned. Oops.

Now my anecdotal reporting suggests a certain correlation between the Obamamaniacs and the free culture radicals who are waiting for blogs and citizen journalists–camera phones in hand–to obliterate the CNN’s of the world. Both groups are young, urban lefties, after all.

So fittingly, when the Obama cell phone campaign got scooped, the free culture argument lost out too: the threat of new technologies didn’t kill the old media hounds, it just made them work harder to get the story first.

By raising the bar, might the Internet actually be good for the news industry?

“OMG, he asked for my number!”

By , 21 August, 2008, 2 Comments

No, not the guy who shares my cubicle at work (alas), but Barack Obama. If I give him my digits, I can be among the first to know (by text) his choice of runningmate. How hot is that.

Like everything Obama does these days, the media pundits–old and new–immediately labeled this a genius move. Now the Obama campaign can incorporate cell phones–and their young users–into their phone bank lists and begin hounding us all to vote for their man in November.

Here’s the glitch. The folks who need to know Obama’s veep the second he makes up his mind are either Obama kool-aid drinkers or political junkies, or both. Those aren’t the ones you need to call, Barack, cause they already have their minds made up one way or the other. Unless you’re just going through the motions of this campaign to enjoy the celebrity adulation.

The folks you oughta be calling–those 11% undecideds–are still wavering not because they love you and McCain so much, or because they hate you both so passionately, but because frankly, they’re just not that into either one of you. So the idea that those people are sitting on the edge of their seats waiting for a veep choice–and gonna cough up their privacy to be in the know–is pretty ludicrous.

Comcast in Portland: A Cautionary Tale

By , 18 August, 2008, No Comment

My friend Steve just moved to Portland, OR. Being a 22-year old man with clear priorities, he immediately set about acquiring food, a TV and a couch. In that order. Food is easy to come by in Portland, apparently: there are free ice-cream cone giveaways on the streets, and $1 hot dogs at minor league baseball games. Setting up cable, however, proved a challenge.

In a city that hosts chipmaker Intel, it’s only fitting that Steve would turn to the web to set up his new Comcast account. But instead of filling out an online form to request a visit from the cable guy (which is fairly standard across the country), Steve found himself handing over credit card information via an instant message.

The process was a lot faster than calling one of those corporate 800 numbers and dealing with an automated menu (“press 1 to pay us, press 2 to pay us more”), but Steve wasn’t pleased. This is “f***ing retarded,” he said. “Horrendous.”

First off, there’s the uncertainty of putting your credit card info into an IM that you have no confirmation page for. Halfway through the transaction, the IM client crashed when Steve tried to open a new tab on his browser.

Secondly, there’s the increased chance of fraud: the credit card Steve used actually belonged to his girlfriend Dana.

Thirdly, an IM conversation is an ideal place to make typos and grammatical gaffes. The Comcast rep asked to “ruin a credit card,” and after setting up a time for an installation told Steve, “Please make sure that there should be someone 18 years old and above, who is English speaking must be present for the duration of the appointment. Please be inform that the technician will call you 15 minutes before the installation.”

I don’t buy the whole Google-makes-you-stupid theory about internet users, and I don’t think the Comcast rep speaks this way in real life. Rather, I believe the same individuals can be less articulate over fast-paced communication technologies like IM or SMS than they are in print or even over e-mail, where there’s time to spell-check and proofread. And while error-prone IM is fine for personal conversations, Steve says that’s not okay when $100 a month is at stake. I agree.

And Steve is a tech-savvy guy. Like most 20-somethings, he uses the web to listen to music or surf YouTube!; plus, he has a subscription to a service that allows him to watch live coverage of professional sports that don’t make prime time on ESPN. That he still expects a certain formality and decorum from commercial relationships is a telling sign: just because the internet allows us to abandon all the old playbooks, doesn’t mean the Google generation wants that. That’s an important lesson for any companies trying to navigate the digital age.