Category Archives: Media

Things I learned from Ferguson

These are reflection I had after a week or so of absorbing the Ferguson coverage onslaught, which is right in my backyard yet so far, far away. Continue reading Things I learned from Ferguson


Fewer pictures, more talking head things

Why isn't it moving?
Why isn’t it moving?

A never-ending death by a thousand cuts, this industry:

The Chicago Sun-Times has laid off its entire photography staff, and plans to use freelance photographers and reporters to shoot photos and video going forward, the newspaper said.

A total of 28 full-time staffers received the news Thursday morning at a meeting held at the Sun-Times offices in Chicago, according to sources familiar with the situation. The layoffs are effective immediately.

“The Sun-Times business is changing rapidly and our audiences are consistently seeking more video content with their news. We have made great progress in meeting this demand and are focused on bolstering our reporting capabilities with video and other multimedia elements. The Chicago Sun-Times continues to evolve with our digitally savvy customers, and as a result, we have had to restructure the way we manage multimedia, including photography, across the network.”

It’s a shame: Our appetite for information and news (or, heh, “news”) only grows with more and more access, but our attention span decreases as does the quality — and resources behind — the drivel that information providers publish to try to fetch our clicks.

I don’t blame them for whoring with dumb click bait like “Top 10” lists and “what you don’t know but could kill you” headlines that deliver nothing. It’s just sad. That used to be more associated with local TV news and tabloids. Now it’s ubiquitous.

There’s no easy or obvious solution; we have a whole generation accustomed to free, instant access. That’s not so good for digging up nor paying for relevant news. Now it’s not so good for accomplished photographers. (“Just Instagram that shit, man.”)

Of course the Tribune is all too ready to report on its rival’s slaughter of its photography staff.

The weirdest thing for me, and it gets back to the local TV news tripe, is that even granting the Sun-Times’ spin on their firings, there really is an appetite for video. Studies and traffic stats reflect it.

You can say less, clarify less and correct less in short quick videos than you can in written articles, yet as a whole we are somehow enamored and entranced by moving pictures, however vacuous they may be.

I have a written word bias. Good photos complement the written word. But poor video? Does little for me and, I think, consumes too much time. But that’s an increasingly minority view in this changing world…

Corporate Elect: Wall Street and NBC Master the Hubris Act

(Note: Yes, I’m alarmed that my two measly posts in almost three months both have to do with banking houses. I’m not on a banking crusade exactly, but … well I do tend to want to bookmark moments in our gilded age.)

Tyrant of me and mine
Dominion over our lives
Condemned to Solomon’s mines
We all got fooled again

–Corporate Elect, Killing Joke

I confess I never would have connected these two in quite this way, but I love it: American Public Media’s Marketplace compares Wall Street’s arrogant destruction of, well, our way of life, with NBC’s arrogant response to those who dare question its (usually tape-delayed) Olympic coverage:

If there’s one thing Wall Street knows how to do, it’s take an issue of minor irritation and turn it into an uncontrollable, national disaster through the alchemy of arrogance, hubris, and too much money.

That’s how your annoying bank fees blossomed into Occupy Wall Street,  how the London Whale grew from a misguided trade at JP Morgan into a $7 billion loss, and how the securitization of a few mortgages turned into a global subprime crisis. When challenged by opposing forces, Wall Street just won’t listen. The Street has favored the Mad Men model of largely swilling martinis and hoping for the good old days to return.

It’s blind, yes. But it’s not unusual. If it only it were just Wall Street that was being so blind.

The events of this weekend show that Wall Street doesn’t have the monopoly on the first rule of holes (that is, “when you find yourself in one, stop digging.”)

It’s instructive to look at NBC’s response to criticism of its Olympics coverage to see why not just Wall Street, but much of Corporate America, has a serious problem of corporate culture.

Corporate culture problem? You don’t say. Sadly, as the article states “hubris can kill your reputation fast,” the hit to your reputation doesn’t last long when you’re, ahem, “too big to fail.”

Read more here

On Data Journalism: Everything is changing, changing all the time

One of the lingering dilemmas, since Craigslist shattered the classifieds and the Internet splintered the advertising feed: We need journalism, but what are we willing to pay for it?

And how will they figure out how best to do it in a way that both feeds us key info and gets us to pay for it?

One opportunity could be journalists who are good at collecting and distilling and interpreting the mind-boggling amount of data that’s out there about everything, every day, all the time (even this post in itself is createing still more data).

The whole skill about identifying what is news and why is not new — but how to master it in this era is different. From an interview about data journalism:

The real disruption was the ability of anybody anywhere to upload multimedia content and share it with anybody else who was on a connected device. That was the thing that really hit hard, when you look at 2004 onwards.

What journalism has to do is reinvent its processes, its business models and its skillsets to function in a world where human capital does not scale well, in terms of sifting, presenting and explaining all of this information. That’s really the key to it.

The skills that journalists need to do that — including identifying a story, knowing why something is important and putting it in context — are incredibly important. But how you do that, which particular elements you now use to tell that story are changing.

Those now include the skills of understanding the platform that you’re operating on and the technologies which are shaping your audiences’ behaviors and the world of data.

By data, I don’t just mean large caches of numbers you might be given or might be released by institutions: I mean that the data thrown off by all of our activity, all the time, is simply transforming the speed and the scope of what can be explained and reported on and identified as stories at a really astonishing speed. If you don’t have the fundamental tools to understand why that change is important and you don’t have the tools to help you interpret and get those stories out to a wide public, then you’re going to struggle to be a sustainable journalist.

One of the things that has changed: In the past, you went to an “expert” for quotes and to frame the story, or you pored through reams and reams of public documents to collect your own data to fuel the story (e.g. “Through a Freedom Of Information Act request, Times reporters reviewed 3,205 public documents to determine…” etc.).

Now there is an almost overwhelming amount of data to review if you know where to look and what to look for.

This is not just about an amazing graphic that the New York Times does with census data over the past 150 years. This is about almost every story. Almost every story has some component of reusability or a component where you can collect the data in a way that helps your reporting in the future. To do that requires a level of knowledge about the tools that you’re using, like coding, Google Refine or Fusion Tables. There are lots of freely available tools out there that are making this easier. But, if you don’t have the mindset that approaches, understands and knows why this is going to help you and make you a better reporter, then it’s sometimes hard to motivate journalists to see why they might want to grab on.

It’s not just capturing that data once, for one story. It’s capturing it in a way that you can add to it for story after story as conditions change — or, to put it another way, as new data is added.

I see this with sports coverage, ironically. Whereas the narrative used to be carried by the flowery columnist who could turn a phrase and talk to a coach or two over a beer about a player, now there is tons of on-field or on-ice data that helps sift away biases and expose what a player really does or doesn’t do on the field or on the ice.

For many sports fans, this has changed how the game is perceived — and, in some cases, removes some of the mystery and subjectivity. (Think of the book or movie “Moneyball” and the stat analysis that it chronicled. Except now, instead of one team having that new insight, everyone does — teams, fans, even players if they pay attention.)

As a result, the model for understanding sports even on a rec level has almost flipped on its head. For almost every sports story, inquisitive fans will demand data to back up conclusions — and fans who prefer the old way, the old “innocent” times when a guy who hit the game-winning hit really was “clutch” in our eyes and the guy who was a “good guy who sacrifices himself for the team” really was good and essential in our eyes, instead of talent-limited but doing every last thing to try to retain a job and be somewhat useful to the team.

Tellingly, the old-school sports journalists who really rant about bloggers the most — “some kid with a computer in his mama’s basement” — are often reacting against this trend: They are actually compensated reporters using data and methods of analysis that the “old school” columnists do not understand and often do not want to understand. So they dismiss the analysis and paint all “bloggers” with the same brush, as if they’re all anonymous message board rumor-mongers, when in fact more and more of them have attained positions writing for outlets all over the world specifically because they have mastered these new skills.

Yahoo!: Where every death is a Search Engine Optimization opportunity

Actual lead in Yahoo!’s report of the death of actor Martin Short’s wife:

Martin Short’s wife, Nancy Dolman, has died at the age of 58. The pair had been married for 30 years.

News of Dolman’s passing sent Web searches soaring for her biography, photos, and cause of death. Dolman had been battling cancer for three years…

Sent Web searches soaring. For her [insert tangential links to just about any Yahoo! content under the sun, including the Yahoo! kitchen sink].

Yahoo! is a — how would you call them? — sort of a “content” company these days, so most of their services like free email and photo hosting or whatever are geared around moving you to their content so that you are bombarded with ads and temptations to click and all that.

So they are already notorious for contriving stories, or at least reworking stories, in ways that encourage you to care about them first, the topic second. Kind of how local newspaper sites manufacture story topics that aren’t really stories, but rather links to public databases via their Web pages. Still, that line in the beginning of the obituary was something else.

May you live in interesting times, and may your death send Web searches soaring.

I weep for thee papers

Tonight at 11: The government is actually paying your child's teacher a SALARY. Our I-Team reporters find out WHY.

The image above, from the local paper’s website, pisses me off. But seeing the following list of “headlines” in the “Lifestyle” section of the same site made me cry. And laugh:

  • Dog left in back of truck at Mass. mall dies
  • Anchorage police: Please don’t tase the bears
  • Military dog comes home from Iraq traumatized
  • Shot-at Ohio dog bites caregivers
  • Puppy tossed from moving van rescued in Ohio

Really? Four of your top five “lifestyle” news stories involve dogs? Incredibly bad things happening to dogs? That’s where we’re at now?

Continue reading I weep for thee papers

The cost of living

Hip hip, hooray! The New York Times has ended TimesSelect, the program in which it charged non-print subscribers to access its columnists and other “select” material online. Now I can comfortably link to those columns without the sinking feeling that anyone who doesn’t subscribe won’t be able access it, anyway.

Which I guess was their point in ending it. The NYT columnists are influential, opinion-makers, yada yada, but much less so if the wider “blogosphere” can’t reliably access them. I know it pissed off those columnists that their opinions were now behind a subscription wall.

Still, I don’t blame the Times for trying. The decline of the print newspaper (as an industry and cultural morning-coffee routine) is in many ways a sad thing, with a lot of the pain, job loss, and tough strategic decisions and gambles that come with any revolutionary technology shift. I know I get a whole, whole lot of information online without paying for it, nor supporting the advertisers who do. What’s an employer to do?

But Internet info is so widespread (albeit often shoddy), and even a premium brand like the Times can’t make pay-for-content work, so the advertising model is surely the only way to go. There is a sucker born every minute. And eventually the ad-to-niche-audience models will get so good that even pretend  anti-consumers like will get ads worth clicking on. (For what … limited release beer? … classic NHL games on DVD?)

…Then There’s Life
But about those columnists. My on-going experience navigating the vast abyss of health care provider and insurer bureaucracy from my father’s three — count ’em, threemeasly medical visits last May has me thinking of my favorite Times columnist, Paul Krugman. An economist — wait, I love reading an economist? — Krugman has for the last few years been presciently describing the now-arrived housing bubble pop and mortgage crisis. He also predicted and  then tracked the folly of Bush’s war-time mammoth tax cuts for the upper-upper-upper income percentile of society — and now chimes in to call out Alan Greenspan on his convenient U-turn criticizing them now, when Greenspan was cheerleading the tax cuts back in 2001-02.

Most interestingly, though, Krugman has tracked the insanity of our health care system. He has poked holes in one of the wing-nut criticisms of Medicare — that it’s another inefficient, overspending bureaucracy — by noting that Medicare and other nations’ universal health systems actually have lower administrative costs than the “competitive” cartel of private providers and insurers that we Superpower Citizens use. To say nothing of how much of our premiums those insurers put toward lobbying Congress to keep their racket intact.

That is why I love thee, Paul Krugman. I am glad you are once again free. I can’t put a figure on the number of man-hours and lost “productivity” I have spent trying to get my father’s coverage and payment from those three simple visits sorted out — most of it spent on hold or being passed, telco/cable company-style, from one uninterested, unempowered, rude representative to the other, with a touch of voice-mail for good measure. It continues unresolved to this day. An attribute of our Greatest Health System Ever status, it is not.

Incidentally, this is why I’ve yet to see “Sicko.” Much like “An Inconvenient Truth,” the issue(s) is already too much at the front of my mind — and I see so  pathetically few films these days anyway — so I just haven’t put those two hours on the schedule yet.

Captive torture at the airport gate

Good God, I was stuck at an airport gate for two hours today and realized just how intense the pain inflicted by 24-hour cable news can get. I was escorting my niece as an “unaccompanied minor” for her trip back home, which means you are to follow strict instructions for checking her in, getting past security, and staying with said minor until her plane has literally left the gate.

I quickly realized that I have a firm routine for normal incarceration at the airport: sit at the gate, tune out the surrounding noise, play the iPod (nee Walkman, may you rest in tape-whizzing peace), and pull out a book, while occasionally gazing at interesting folk in the people-watching free-for-all.

But today, I felt compelled to “entertain” my niece and engage her in conversation, which meant subjecting ourselves to two hours of CNBC — or was it CNN? — blasting audio over our heads and stale visuals into our eyes. I’ve seen hilarious (read: sad, sad statements about us) montages on Jon Stewart showing just how ridiculous, sheep-following-sheep, trash-following-trash the 24-hour cable news networks are — especially during the day, when they’re waiting around for someone to shoot someone, die from something, have sex with someone, or be kidnapped/murdered — but seeing it for myself really drove the point home.

In today’s episode of Geraldo Springer as News, we suffered through an eternal loop of “updates” about a workplace shooting in Troy, Michigan. Now, I’m sure this is pertinent news to Michiganites, but I really have no business knowing nor caring about a shooting there and the fact that the “SWAT Team Still Inside.” But that’s what they narrated to us every five minutes, with the same pointless live aerial shot of the office building where the shooting took place. The secondary story, which occasionally broke up the monotony of the “LIVE!” “WORKPLACE SHOOTING”? Oh, something about Iran bragging about enriching uranium. Not like that’s significant or anything, when you’ve got a shooter on the loose — with video! — somewhere in America. Meanwhile, I’m feeling bad for exposing my niece to this crap, yet there’s no place in the gate area to escape it: Yup, sorry kiddo, this is how adults behave, it really doesn’t ever start to make more sense.

On second thought, the last time I was subject to extensive cable TV news was in a hotel lobby in Toronto a few years ago, when the endless loop was about a pretty blonde American girl who had been killed or abducted or reported missing in Aruba or the Virgin Islands or some place small-yet-exotic and teeming with pretty Western (read: whites only) tourists. I vaguely recall that story also living for several weeks, making the covers of the newsweeklies, and generally causing me to pray to John Paul II at night for her safe return. But was I really supposed to care? I mean, more than I care about any of the other thousands murdered in this hemisphere each day?

Apparently the ratings for these 24-hour cable news outlets have grown in the last decade while the traditional (read: for old people) network newscasts have lost audience and audience share. This cannot reflect well of our electorate. Who is sitting around watching these programs in the middle of the day, anyway? Just people in airports and hotels? Or people who have already seen the Springer, Geraldo, or Current Affair rerun that’s running on the local UHF station? Are they the same people who vote regularly but in spite of their economic interests? Yikes.

“Children wake up, hold your mistake up
Before they turn the summer into dust.
If the children don’t grow up,
Our bodies get bigger but our hearts get torn up
We’re just a million little gods causin’ rainstorms
Turnin’ every good thing to ruuuuust. I guess we’ll just have to adjust…”
–“Wake Up,” Arcade Fire

Faux baseball coverage

As I’ve mentioned before, baseball can be as interesting, strategically and humanely speaking, as chess. And every bit as slow. If the game happens to mean anything — take Game 7 of the NLCS, for example — it proceeds like water torture. You don’t care, but you do care, just from the sustained period of heightened tension-without-action that it entails.

If hockey were baseball, a playoff game would go like this:

“Gretzky has a chance at a breakaway here…

(10 seconds elapse)

Gretzky takes a shot on goal, but it goes wide. He will go back down the ice and think about trying again.

(5 seconds)

Meanwhile, his opponents are wondering if they might factor in the play, or if their goalie will handle this. There’s guy in the stands who’s dressed crazy. I tell ya’, they have crazy fans here.

(10 seconds)

Here’s Gretzky’s second breakaway attempt. It’s coming up right here. Just a moment. He skates in. He takes a shot. It’s saved and the goalie covers it. Don’t worry, Gretzky will get another chance later. But first Jari Kurri will get a chance…after they pull the goalie and this commercial break.

Obviously, baseball has somewhat apparent strategy, plus tension, going for it. But sure as hell not pace. Frankly, it’s nice, but it’s a sport for retired people. Maybe all the boomers who start to retire will give it a boost.

Let’s See What the Drunks Have to Say!
Still, if watching baseball is water torture (yet with some sadistic pleasure-reward), watching local TV post-game coverage is a sustained form of castration. It is painful from the beginning, when they cut to some local bar, where a reporter is staring blankly into the camera, and a crowd of drunk revelers are waiting patiently — and quietly — behind the reporter. Until they hear the reporter start speaking and realize they are “live” and — most importantly — ON TV!!!

Woo-hoo! We’re on TV!! Suddenly everybody starts shouting, giving very belated credibility (but this is local news, after all) to the reporter’s feeble contention that “They are *still* going crazy here at [____’s Bar of Tools] after the Cardinals’ thrilling win tonight. I tell you, Bob, these people are pumped [as of 10 seconds ago when we cut to the live shot]. It’s quite a scene.”

If that bit of useless coverage isn’t enough, they inevitably interview the most excitable aspiring TV personality in the bar, who is either a drunk frat guy or a drunk secretary, and they babble on about how “Yadi Molina is so cute/such a stud, and the Cardinals are going all the way, baby. The Cardinals are going all the way. Woooo! They’re going all the way!”

It’s painful. Yet I sit through it because what I’d really rather see is locker room celebration — not dumb locker room interviews for sound bites, mind you (“Yadi, buddy,  I’m interrupting your special moment with your teammates, now talk to me about the game.”).

Rather, I’d be content with just live, un-narrated shots of the locker room celebration. I like watching people celebrate a job well done (versus a game well watched). That, is good TV, to me. Surely I’m not alone.