Sips from the Firehose
A blog that seeks to filter the internet into a refreshing, easily-gulped beverage


Oct 23

“Genre” Movies, the #MeToo Movement and Megan Fox

Posted: under Blogs, Digital Migration, new media, Video.
Tags: , , , ,

Horror and sci-fi have always been ways for society to talk things that society can’t talk about

From Invasion of the Body Snatchers in the 50s (fears of lurking commies next door) to the first televised interracial kiss (Capt, Kirk and Uhura on Star Trek) to Gen-X feeling suffocated by Reagan-era complacency (Nightmare on Elm Street, They Live) to the current re-imagining of Halloween about the effects of inter generational trauma — pop culture throws allegories at us that tell us what we’re thinking about in that place we don’t want to acknowledge exists.

I was struck today by a re-assessment of the decade-old horror movie Jennifer’s Body, and how the entire story around the film resonates in a different way, given recent events.

The marketing department did what marketing departments do, and melded sex with danger.

The movie is being re-examined by reviewers all over the web right now, possibly because it’s in heavy rotation on HBO right now. Why?

Well, the “origin story” of the movie – that is, how the monster becomes a monster read some wood differently in light of current events. Here is a nut graph from the VICE review

The attack on Jennifer is one of the film’s most powerful and uncomfortable scenes. There’s no sexual assault, but the imagery is clear. Even if it wasn’t, Jennifer meekly asks the members of Low Shoulder if they’re rapists once she notices something isn’t right in their tour van. What follows is the sacrifice of Jennifer by a group of men who are casual and practiced, cracking jokes and singing songs as Jennifer cries and begs for mercy. It’s chilling and should stand out to anyone watching what has otherwise been a darkly funny movie so far. If Ebert’s reading is the norm, no wonder Jennifer’s Body barely registered.

The story is a twist on monster movies, in that the pretty, vulnerable cheerleader becomes the dark, unstoppable force.

… teen girls everywhere in America were told earlier this month by their president and elected senators that whatever their male peers do to them in their youth doesn’t really matter.

For once, the pretty girl is covered with someone else’s gore. Which really made the guys in their letter jackets out on dates squirm uncomfortably in their seats.

It takes something really shocking and in-your-face to knock current American cultural dialogue out of its comfortable ideological trenches – the debates over hot-button issues like abortion, immigration, violent video games, rust-belt jobs disappearing, etc. etc. – have all descended into “hot takes” that mostly serve to confirm the tribal identification of the people yelling past each other in comment threads on Facebook. 

This is the function of good art. 

Here’s Vox’ take: 

 

Watching that moment in 2018 brings up unavoidable echoes of Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony about Brett Kavanaugh’s alleged assault on her when she was a teenager, of the phrase “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter.” Jennifer’s pain is funny to these men. For them, it’s a lark. But for her, it’s a moment of trauma that is going to change her forever.

What Jennifer’s Body offers up in response to the trauma and tragedy of what happened to Jennifer in the van is the cathartic fantasy of what happens next, of Jennifer turning her trauma against her attackers, of her using her victimized, violated body to wreak bloody vengeance on the patriarchy.

And lo, suddenly Jennifer’s Body is not a sex fantasy — it’s a revenge fantasy.

The past two years have seen the uncorking of decades of rage from women across the age spectrum, from older “First Wave Feminists” who carry signs saying “I can’t believe I have to come out to protest this shit again…” 

Source: WikiCommons

… to Gen-Z women suddenly realizing that a lot of things that they really didn’t ever question are now suddenly on the table, and realizing that they have been trained since first logging onto the internet (what a phrase that is these days) that they have been trained to connect, organize, and craft compelling memes that reference pop-culture touchstones. 

Source: WikiCommons

And here’s where I get to the point of this essay: in looking at the photos of the protest marches, the speeches, the demonstrations, something jumped out at me. It wasn’t just the blend of all age groups – although if you look at the faces of the women in just the two photos above, you can see that there are multiple generations at work here. 

No, what’s new to me is the memetic media loop that is being adopted and slyly subverted. Much as Jennifer’s Body subverts the expectations of straight male horror movies, the signs and chants of the women in these marches has a different tone to it these days. Check this out: 

Source: WikiCommons

These are not the flowers and peace signs of the Summer of Love hippie chicks, nor are they the “Riot Grrl” movement that so focused on establishing identity that it fragmented into warring factions, and is mostly remembered these days as a musical style aimed at liberating white middle class punk girls from mean guys in the mosh pit. 

To me, the inclusion of familiar pop culture references, like the Game of Thrones shout-out in the “Winter is Coming” sign, to the Jay-Z song and the self-identification as a “b!tch”, tells me that this younger generation “gets” media attention and provocation at a level that is only possible for people utterly marinated in media every waking second. 

It’s long been remarked that there are very few things that knit our fractious society together any more (which is why advertisers still pay insane premiums for Super Bowl spots). Those few things that do – hit TV shows, songs that everyone can sing along with, movies that become cultural touchstones – are now part of our political protest movements. 

They are part of how we have conversations with ourselves at a time in which the mere mention of a political subject sends everyone scurrying, or eye-rolling, or shouting in hair-trigger reaction. This kind of cultural appropriate is going to have to carry a lot of weight in the years to come, as we work our way out of our national nervous breakdown. 

It’s asking a lot of the scriptwriters, video-game engineers, music producers and graphic artists to supply us all with the ammunition to fight our way out of this dead-end; to give us the powerful images and sounds we’re going to need to agree that Mean Something. 

Parables by their nature aren’t about the thing that they’re about. If we’re forced to only have indirect discussions about the friction points in our cultures, it’s going to be a while before we can circle our way around to having a more direct discussion of what’s really at stake. 

Of course, by that point, Gen-AA (what else comes after Gen-Z? Do we call them the “Battery Generation”?) will probably have come up with a really kicky virtual reality meme to mock us all. 

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Sep 22

Social Media and Freedom: A Promise Betrayed

Posted: under Digital Migration.
Tags: , , , ,

Facebook and Twitter are now fueling hatred, conflict, repression, and in some cases – genocide. Where do we go from here? 

“Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true/Or is it something worse?”

Bruce Springsteen, “The River”

Back in 2011, I traveled to Ethiopia for the first time, as part of a US State Department mission to work with journalists, pro-democracy groups, human rights organizations, and other do-gooders. As an international digital media consultant (trust me, it’s a lot less glamorous than that title makes it sound), I was fired up with visions of the free & glorious future that awaited us because we were throwing open the doors of mass media to, well, the masses. 

In the wake of the popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya (dubbed the “Arab Spring”), it seemed to us giddy internet old-timers that the promise of the web had finally arrived. People were using social media to connect, find common ground (they hated the corrupt regimes they were suffering under), organize protests, and topple repressive dictatorships. 

It felt like a Arab world-centric movement akin to the fall of the Berlin wall — a moment when an entire region woke up and said “We’ve had about enough of this” … and then followed through. In Tunisia and Egypt, soldiers refused to massacre their countrymen, and the regimes toppled. 

And then came Libya. 

Khaddafi had always been an irritating dictator; not noxious enough to justify a full-fledged invasion the way a Saddam Hussein did, but certainly enough to merit airstrikes, economic sanctions and covert action. He did not back down to the popular uprisings, and instead chose to stick around and duke it out. A reaction that was shared by Bashar Al-Assad in Syria. 

In Khaddafi’s case, this led to a painful & ignominious end in a ditch, where the victorious troops shot, tortured and mutilated him to death.  At best, we can say that there were decades of pent-up anger that came out.

But what came next was not in line with the script of “Happy people join together in glorious democracy.”  Far from it. Rather, all the angry factions all started lashing out against each other, and it turned out that one of the things that had kept Khaddafi in power for so many years, was his skill at playing “Divide Et Impera” in Libya. And now, with the central character in that drama gone, all the other players started acting on their generational grievances, and the whole country descended into a war of All Against All. 

Source: Wikicommons

Worse yet, the social media platforms that people used to name their kids after, the hopes for bringing people together, have now been weaponized. 

Some “keyboard warriors,” as Facebook partisans are known in Libya, posted fake news or hateful comments. Others offered battlefield guidance. On one discussion page on Thursday, a user posted maps and coordinates to help target her side’s bombs at a rival’s air base.

“From the traffic light at Wadi al Rabi, it is exactly 18 kilometers to the runway, which means it can be targeted by a 130 mm artillery,” the user, who went by the handle Narjis Ly, wrote on Facebook. “The coordinates are attached in the photo below.

Source: Wikicommons

the Special Deterrence Force, a militia led by a conservative religious commander, Abdulrauf Kara, patrols Facebook with a moralizing zeal reminiscent of Saudi Arabia’s once-feared religious police.

Last year his militia detained 20 participants in a Libyan version of Comic-Con, the comic book conference. The militants said they were outraged by photos on Facebook showing young Libyans dressed as characters like Spider-Man and the Joker. Some detainees said they were beaten in custody.

Facebook in Myanmar 

Since I left Myanmar last fall, after my Fulbright Specialist stint in Yangon, the Rohiggya people on the northwest border have been subjected to a brutal ethnic cleansing campaign. I won’t repeat all the crimes and horrors here, because quite frankly they upset me so much I can’t continue typing and have to go on long walks to try to clear my head. 

No, my focus here is on social media – specifically, Facebook. I had heard about the problems with hate speech on Facebook before I arrived in Yangon, and my conversations with students and staff only reinforced what I had been told:

The streets of Yangon are filled with desperately poor people, scrounging out an existence in the margins of opulence. The store in the back left corner sells smartphones. There are dozens of such stores on every major street in Yangon. Such stores were illegal and unknown less than ten years ago. 
  • For the vast majority of users, Facebook WAS the internet, because their smartphones were pre-loaded with Facebook and it was free to use
  • Wild-eyed religious fanatics were ranting on Facebook about how the Rohinggya were subhuman animals bent on killing everyone
  • Thus, all patriotic Burmese had a duty to rise up and “get them before they get us” 

Belatedly, Facebook has realized its role in this conflict, and has moved to try to put in controls and mechanisms to tamp down the online hate. Unfortunately, as of this past August: 

Facebook has acknowledged that it needs to do more to curb misinformation and hate speech spreading in countries like Myanmar, and CEO Mark Zuckerberg told U.S. Senators in a hearing last April that the company is ramping up its efforts.

However, Reuters found the network is still being used to spread comments, videos and images attacking Rohingya and other Muslims in Myanmar. Some of the material, collected by Reuters and the Human Rights Center at UC Berkeley School of Law, has been online for at least six years.

The posts, most of which are in Burmese, use dehumanizing language, comparing Rohingya to dogs and maggots, and call for the Muslim minority to be eradicated.

Designed to Fail

There have been some well-documented failures in Facebook’s system. The “Report” button to alert moderators to hate speech on Facebook was not used because during Myanmar’s 50-years of suffering under the military dictatorship, to “report to the authorities” was basically to mark someone for summary field execution, and draw attention to yourself as an informer. 

The Burmese language also is a barrier. The auto-translation software is laughably bad. Spellings can be somewhat arbitrary, since Burmese is rendered phonetically (which is why Google still struggles with search in this market). 

It cited an anti-Rohingya post that said in Burmese, “Kill all the kalars that you see in Myanmar; none of them should be left alive.” Kalar is a pejorative for the Rohingya. Facebook had translated the post into English as “I shouldn’t have a rainbow in Myanmar.”

https://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-facebook-myanmar-hate-speech/facebook-removes-burmese-translation-feature-after-reuters-report-idUKKCN1LM208

But more than this, the entire underlying business model of Facebook is the problem. The drive of all these social media platforms has been towards growth. More users. More time spent. More attention paid. More clicks, swipes, likes, comments, shares. 

Growth. Scale. Velocity. Hockey-stick-like lines on innumerable PowerPoint slides. 

It turns out that the vision the techno-hippies in the Bay Area had when laying the foundations of the internet was deeply flawed. Bringing all of humanity together under one roof, and removing all institutional control does not lead to Utopia. 

There is going to have to be a fundamental shift in the way that major media companies and publishers act — and yes, Facebook, Twitter, Google, Amazon, et al., are being forced to wake up and confront the fact that they are now publishers. They can no longer pretend that they are just the “Town Square” where they have no responsibility for what goes on there. 

More than that, the fundamental business model needs to change. 

Advertisers have long rewarded publishers for the sheer size & scale of the audience delivered. This incentive has led to a “Damn the torpedoes – get their attention by whatever means necessary!” attitude, because, well, whoever pops a number in the TV overnights gets to keep their job. The poor slobs who get bad numbers are fired. Rinse. Repeat. 

Journalism is engaged in a deep discussion on how to restore trust in the media. One of the biggest factors is going to have to be removing this relentless push for Scale Above All. 

What Comes Next? 

If we can’t charge advertisers based upon the sheer number of eyeballs looking at their message, what do we charge them for? 

How do we take the “mass” out of mass media? 

Is it even possible to make a shift this big in advertising/monetization models after more than 100 years of market evolution? 

Once again, internet consultants are throwing around buzzphrases like “user trust” and “confidence halo” and “transferrable positive authority.” 

Maybe one of these will arise with a methodology that empowers us all to consume the information that we need to live our daily lives without the hate, ugliness, screeching, shockbait, attention scams and everything else that is the hallmark of late-stage information overload. 

But I worry that these new business models for monetizing content and user attention also carry flaws within them that will be exploited to even worse effect. 

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Jun 09

Anthony Bourdain

Posted: under Amusing Nonsense, Digital Migration, Foodstuffs, Gulp With Enthusiasm, Sip With Assurance.

Like many journalists turned multimedia world travelers, I envied Anthony Bourdain.

It seemed like he had the greatest job in the world. Travel to amazing places, hang out with the smartest, most interesting people around, eat delicious, innovative food, and get paid basically to have adventure after adventure.

anthony bourdain on a train

Before I took off to Myanmar last summer, I made a point of watching the very first episode of parts unknown, just to see what Tony had done and said about that amazing country.

It was because of him that I was so daring all the time, wandering the streets in search of some new restaurant, food, flavor, or experience. It was because of him that I boarded the rickety ramshackle trains and set off into a country side of rice patties, monsoon rains, and amazing people.

dave lafontaine on a train in myanmar

I even connected with what Tony was talking about, because I spent my college years working in restaurant kitchens, learning how to cook, and seeing the other side of life. He had this amazing ability to connect to people, via the shared experience of preparing food, and then sitting down, Eating it, talking about what you’re eating, and thereby broadening the conversation to everything else that was going on around you.

street vendors in yangon

Little food stands like this one in Yangon had strange & crazy mixes of cuisine from all over the world. Super-spicy Vietnamese noodles and Indian samosas.

 

yangon food supermarket

I find that it really helps my understanding of a culture to not just eat their food – but to shop in their markets, to see the raw building blocks that the locals work with. For some reason, apples were really, really popular, despite (or perhaps because?) being impossible to grow in the steamy Myanmar climate.

Indian food at the Sony restaurant next to the American embassy in Yangon

Food and conversation are a natural pair.

Chocolate samosas in the Rangoon Tea House, paired with a Viennese espresso, and a spicy Burmese salad.

There’s something universal about sitting at a table and putting food into your mouth, talking and gesturing with a bite, gulping a beer to cool off the spicy burn …

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Jan 15

CSS 4: the Web Design Standard that Doesn’t Exist. Only It Does. Confused Yet?

Posted: under Design, Digital Migration, UX/UI.
Tags: , , , , ,

Yesterday, upon the stair/

I saw a web design standard that was not there/

It was not there again today/

Gee, I wish it’d go away…

css is awesome but try to make the text fit into these little damn boxes

“I sense a great disturbance in the Force…”

Read More

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Jul 06

Mobile Phone Wizards

Posted: under Digital Migration.


I bought a new Sim card from one of the hundreds of tiny shops that line Insein Road here in Rangoon. The guy on the right here wasn’t absolute magician with my phone. His fingers move so fast I could barely see them as he was setting up my phone to work on the Telenor network. 

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Jun 28

Just What Is a Digital Native Anyway?

Posted: under advertising, Digital Migration.
Tags: , , , , , ,

Not to get all existential on your or anything, but it’s the difference between “Being” and “Doing”

Digital natives are not like other media - cat hiding among meerkats

It’s the difference between a cat … and a meerkat. Between an organization that pays lip service to the idea of engaging with an audience on digital platforms (while secretly wishing everything would go back to The Way Things Were) … and one that lives and breathes comfortably on a variety of platforms, while still maintaining its core ethos.

Recently, while putting the finishing touches on a Great Big Important Research Project For A Huge Client, I got into a discussion with Janine Warner, my partner in all things analog and digital, over nomenclature. What do we call these guys? Are they all digital entrepreneurs? News startups? New media players? Journalists-turned-geeks? Fact-based info-ventures? Digital natives?

It’s not exactly an earth-shattering insight, but what we call things deeply influences how we think about them. “Death tax” instead of “inheritance tax.” “Right-sizing employee headcount” instead of “firing workers to boost profits.” “Undocumented feature” instead of “bug.”  Read More

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May 01

Internet Security for Creative Professionals – The Basics

Posted: under Conspiracy Theories, Digital Migration, Sip With Caution.
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Hackers want in. Don’t make it easy for them.

With all the controversies swirling around hacked emails and cyber-threats, I was asked to come in to USC-Annenberg, and speak to the students about what they need to know about security. Basically, I had to come in do a digital “Scared Straight” to try to get them to recognize how they will be targeted, and the steps they need to take to avoid having their emails, texts, private photos and snarky internal comments leaked out for maximum damage.

norse attack map shows cyber attacks in real time

I start out with the “attack map” from Norsecorp. And if you’ve never seen it, it’s a real show-stopper. It looks like the climactic scenes from Wargames – only it’s taking place right now. Every second of every day, cyber-attacks zoom back and forth, testing the intrusion counter-measures on Google, Facebook, Microsoft, the US government, NORAD, the international banking infrastructure, etc. etc. Check it out – it’s hypnotic. And then very chilling.

Particularly when you realize that a lot of the attacks are aimed at getting into America’s command-and-control infrastructure, to either lock us out from controlling our nuclear arsenal … or maybe to launch the damn things. Who knows the motives of a bunch of nihilistic haxx0rz?

Read More

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Dec 01

Solutions to Fake News 1: Deny Lie Merchants Access to Premium Ad Revenue

Posted: under adsense clickfraud, advertising, Digital Migration, journalism, new media, Politics & New Media.
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Is a market-based solution the best way to solve the fake news problem?

There’s been a sudden realization outside the cozy confines of digital business model nerds, that the open nature of the web has allowed an entire class of scammers to establish themselves, grow, and flourish.

journalist taking notes rather than creating fake news stories

Actual journalists take notes and try to verify information before publishing. Fake News sites just make stuff up.

The end result of this has been that a substantial percentage of the U.S. public can no longer distinguish fact from fantasy. And they then vote accordingly. This is generally seen as a Bad Thing. Not just because one particular political party lost the recent election – if anything, the GOP is as up in arms over this as the Democrats, because they see their voting base as unruly and detached from reality, due to their reliance on fake news stories. The end game of an entire voting population lost to fantasy is that the country, already borderline ungovernable, becomes so splintered that it starts making really idiotic decisions (“Let’s invade Guatemala! They’re sending us Snake People disguised as immigrants!”).

A lot of journalism pundits have started to pile on, as the stories about scammers (and let’s just coin this phrase right here and now: LIE MERCHANTS) surface, and their behavior becomes more and more brazen. The last few weeks have seen:

  1. Lie Merchants using “typo-squatting” to impersonate the USA Today or ABC news, in order to promulgate fantasies, such as protesters getting paid $3,500 apiece by George Soros to protest Trump’s election.
  2. Two nitwit brothers in Long Beach who gleefully seize on actual news events, and create elaborate, hateful conspiracy theories around them, which they then promote on Facebook, all to drive traffic to their LibertyWritersNews site, making up to $12,000 a week on ads.
  3. Unemployed Macedonian musicians exploiting the anti-Clinton hatred whipped up by Fox News and talk radio, fabricating “exposes” about child sex rings and devil worship so they can pay for amps and guitars.

A history of fake news reporting here on Sips

I’ve written about these kinds of scams here on Sips.

I even wrote an entire book about the tabloid industry back in the 90s, because I saw the entire news industry going off the rails, and pursuing lurid stories in their desperate efforts to satisfy the corporate profit imperatives.

Lately, I’ve been writing about the vast Clickfraud industry that steals an estimated 33% of online ad revenues from honest content producers.

All these trend lines have converged this year, and resulted in a toxic mess. We now have the worst of both worlds: the Lie Merchants are making coin hand over fist, because they spend nothing on reporting, research, fact-checking, interviews, verification, travel to personally witness events, or any of the other costs of an actual, functioning news organization.

Meanwhile, actual journalists are being fired in droves, because the public has become so addicted to these fantasies, that they now reject any hint that the disgusting lies they are fed via rabid AM-radio hosts, email chains, Facebook, Breitbart comment threads, etc. etc. — are not based in objective reality. From the BuzzFeed investigation:

Pages like Freedom Daily play to the biases of their audiences — and to those of Facebook’s News Feed algorithm — by sharing videos, photos, and links that demonize opposing points of view. They write explosive headlines and passages that urge people to click and share in order to show their support, or to express outrage. And in this tense and polarizing presidential election season, they continue to grow and gain influence.

There are a lot of solutions being bandied about, but today I will focus on one that to me, shows a lot of promise: cutting these Lie Merchants off from the advertising revenue that sustains their operations. This will necessitate some kind of human intervention; we are going to need to come up with a human-intermediated way of validating people who produce actual, factual, news.

The opening shot in this burgeoning war was fired by online ad-tech outfit DoubleVerify, with their DV Digital Impression Quality product, which purports to be able to block advertiser’s money flowing to fake news sites by blocking their ads from being displayed on Lie Merchant sites via the (broken, but that’s a different subject) ad exchanges.

Can a market-based solution to Lie Merchants work? Well, one of the biggest obstacles is going to be the public’s appetite for such ugly, idiotic brain fodder. But if we choke off the reason these fake news sites exist in the first place – that they are wildly profitable – then we are going to take an important step towards cleaning up the online news space.

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Oct 18

Venezuelan currency – are any of these bills still used?

Posted: under Digital Migration.

While rummaging around the various souvenirs and mementoes from all our travels, I ran across these: 


With the inflation rate running in the near-four-figure range (the way it did in ’88 when I was an overwhelmed editor there), I wonder if there is even a use for a 2 bolivare bill these days? 

Anecdotally, it takes a stack of hundreds just to buy coffee. 

Somewhere, I have an old solid-steel 5 bolivar coin from ’88. They were common until deflation meant that it was worth more to melt them down and sell them as scrap metal than their face value. 

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Feb 20

Should Local News Be Marketed as “Infrastructure”?

Posted: under Digital Migration, newspaper crisis, Newspaper Deathwatch, Newspapers.
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Ken Doctor at Neiman’s “Newsonomics” points out that the “self-asphyxiation” cycle is nearing endgame

I cross-posted a response to this on Facebook, so if you’ve already seen it there from me, my apologies.

pile of newspapers on fire

Fahrenheit 451 should not have been a documentary of what the future was going to be like.

But I’ve been watching the gradual descent of local news for most of the past 20 years, and the latest round-up by Doctor basically sums up everything that I’ve been fearing. A sampling:

While national/global news companies have cut their newsrooms, they have still maintained sufficient capacity to make their news brands valuable in the digital age. It’s not just the numbers of journalists: It’s a good mix of veteran experienced journalists who know their beats deeply and younger journalists, still early in their careers but natively more digitally inclined.

At the local press, it’s a different picture. As newsrooms have halved, older, experienced journalists have been disproportionately made to feel redundant, and then made sent off. The main reason: money. Older journalists earn more of it, and their cutting makes short-term financial sense.

The result: a disaster whose death spiral seems to be accelerating. When I’ve given talks, I’ve gotten a lot of nods from people in the industry when I show one single slide: A two-liter bottle of Coke selling for $1 next to a one-liter bottle priced at $2. That’s essentially what local publishers have done in product and pricing of print over the last five years, doubled the price and halved the product, a halving that, of course, carries through to their digital offerings.

Any company that disrespects its own products, and those who produce them, probably deserves its eventual fate.

(snip)

Yes, money matters, but it’s that beating heart of the business — creating news that local citizens need to run their governments and better their lives — that still has to be an antidote to the single-minded financial view of local news. (If “the market” won’t support local news, many have said to me, than maybe it isn’t needed. I ask them: If the same were true of education, the arts, or even roads, where would our struggling democracy be?) [Ed. note: emphasis mine.]

Where is the moral center of the local news industry — a moral center that long rested, if sometimes uncomfortably, alongside the demands of running a successful business?

While I agree with all the points Ken makes, there is one bit that jumped out: his equating of the news with schools, roads, bridges, etc. Yes, we all agree that we need a group societal effort to build & maintain these things, and that as a result, we all benefit from their existence. Thing is: the average citizen can SEE the roads/schools decaying, and is motivated to action. Lack of local news coverage only becomes a crisis when suddenly we wake up to lead in our water. The news industry, if it is going to transition from ad-supported to a more direct “charge the readers” model, is going to have to get on the stick and market itself better; make a case to the readers that they NEED local news coverage as a form of insurance policy.

Because meanwhile, over at the Shorenstein Center, we’ve got Walter V. Robinson talking about the “Spotlight” movie about the Catholic Church’s coverup of sex predator priests, and how the erosion of business models has particularly devastated investigative reporting. And yes, full disclosure, I started my career as an investigative journalist before going over to the digital zoo, so I have perhaps a skewed view of how important enterprise/watchdog/investigative journalism is to the health of a democracy. Still:

Unfortunately, investigative reporting is threatened in many cities, said Robinson. Although the Globe has partnered with Participant Media and other funders to offer a new investigative reporting fellowship, many local newspapers will no longer invest the time and resources required for stories that can take months of reporting, said Robinson.

“The prevailing view among editors is ‘investigative reporting is a luxury we can no longer afford’…The fact is, investigative reporting is a necessity that we cannot afford to do without.” Robinson said that in the face of declining revenue in the past decade, cutting investigative reporting was a “fundamental mistake.” Readers “almost always” rank investigative reporting highly in surveys, said Robinson.

“The amount of investigative reporting being done now in most cities is a small fraction of what it was in the year 2000,” he said. “In many communities even city hall doesn’t get covered. So the whistleblower who knows about official corruption in city hall has no one to go to…that’s a really serious problem for our democracy right now.”

So here’s my thought: what would be the best way for journalists and news organizations to start making a case for themselves? We’ve seen how well fear-mongering via news outlets works for moving the public to devote spectacular amounts of time, money and energy into heading off perceived threats. The Iraq war, Ebola, the wall at the border with Mexico, the gold standard, handgun seizures … all “crises” driven by media coverage that spurred Americans to either demand the government spend billions (trillion?) to kieep them safe, or got them to reach into their pockets, pull out their wallets, and spend a sizable percentage of their disposable income on something that would Keep Them Safe.

I don’t think we should get as crude and manipulative as many of these campaigns have been. But could there – should there – be a reminder in the middle of each news broadcast/article/infographic, making it explicit that this coverage just saved ordinary Americans from “X” and that to continue to do so, we need you the viewers/listeners/readers to support us in this manner.

And then lay out what might happen if the audience does not. Make it explicit, in the way that a collapsed bridge, or gradeschool on fire, or highway full of potholes does for the average, distracted American, who only has time to respond to direct threats to his/her existence.

Our audience is starved for time, and thousands (millions?) of new digital experiences are screaming for their attention (and money). News is too often marketed as “cod-liver oil” – it tastes like shit, but it’s good for you. I think we need to revisit that paradigm, and start figuring out better ways to make people appreciate what the news, and aggressive, honest local news coverage, does for them.

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