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


Mar 19

Best of Journalism, Worst of Journalism

Posted: under Denial of Reality, Digital Migration.
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Matty Yglesias says on Salon that online journalism means things have never been better! 

OK, there is some validity to his POV that access to unlimited sources of information has made the sophisticated news consumer (at least potentially) better-informed than ever before. Here’s Yggy on why things are so peachy-keen:

American news media has never been in better shape. That’s just common sense. Almost anything you’d want to know about any subject is available at your fingertips. You don’t need to take my analysis of the Cyprus bank bailout crisis as the last word on the matter: You can quickly and easily find coverage from the New York TimesWall Street JournalFinancial Times, and the Economist. Or if you don’t want to see your Cyprus news filtered through an America/British lens, you can check out the take of distinguished Greek economist Yanis Varoufakis on his blog. Reuters created an interactive feature that lets you try out different formulae for making the Cypriot haircut work. A pseudonymous London-based fund manager using the name Pawel Morski has offered vital, deeply informed coverage on Twitter and hisWordPress site. You can watch a Bloomberg TV interview on the situation with native Cypriot and former Federal Reserve adviser Athanasios Orphanides at your leisure.

Best of all, today’s media ecology lets you add depth and context to the news. Several sources on Twitter recommended to me a 2008 Perry Anderson article in the New York Review of Books about the broader sweep of post-independence Cypriot history.

Well. Yeah, that’s all true. If you’re looking for information on what is happening in Cyprus, and why this might melt down the Eurozone and start the dominos toppling the way they did back in the fall of ’08 again, there are certainly all manner of viewpoints, neat multimedia presentations, and interactive tools that will help you understand this big, glamorous, international story.

economist cyprus banking meltdown coverage

…as is the Economist.

Business week coverage of cyprus banking meltdown

Bloomberg and Business Week are all over this…

But where I start to have problems with his premise is down here on the local level. Now, trust me, I am very far from a newsroom curmudgeon. I don’t want things to go back to 1989. Hell, I make my living creating and refining digital content that is delivered across a wide variety of platforms (broadcast TV, desktop web, mobile web, native apps, online video, etc. etc.). And I am all to painfully aware of the problems inherent in making professionally produced content pay on digital platforms (see, well, pretty much the entire output of this blog for the past six years).

Here’s the deal: big international stories get lots of clicklove. The Cyprus meltdown could potentially affect billions of people. So that’s a huge potential audience right there. Many of those people are bankers, international businessmen, politicians, the investor class, etc. (READ: people who advertisers will pay to get their messages in front of.)

So the business model & incentives are there to produce all manner of content running this story to ground and microscoping all the possible permutations.

Again, this is not the problem.

The problem is this (from 2009 – and since then, it’s only gotten worse):

Only a handful of states have budgets bigger than Los Angeles County’s. NASA spends 25% less in a year. The county’s welfare and foster care departments serve the neediest, whose ranks will only grow as the economy staggers.

And the county’s purse strings are controlled by just five politicians, the Board of Supervisors, whose powerful incumbency means they almost never face serious reelection challenges.

But now just four reporters tend this turf anywhere close to full time: two for The Times, one for eight dailies controlled by newspaper baron William Dean Singleton, and one for City News Service, although that young reporter frequently gets pulled off for other duty.

Back in my day, as many as a dozen full-time reporters walked this beat, filling the row of cramped, glass-walled cubicles on the dimly lit fourth floor just above the supervisors meeting room. (The Times had at least half a dozen other reporters at its downtown mother ship, digging deep into city and county government.)

Yep, that’s right. Down here on the local level, those incentives that make it possible to provide such in-depth coverage for international stories are not (yet?) in existence. So we get things like the 2013 budget for LA County going through with barely a hiccup.

la county budget chart 2013

This is where $25 billion goes this year. I heard nothing about this – and I’m plugged-in!

That’s a lot of loot. But what really blows my mind is this other pie chart. It shows that this year, Los Angeles County gets almost half its budget – $10 BILLION – in assistance from the State and Feds.

Seriously, WTF? This county is home to an absolute massive amount of economic activity. We have the 2nd biggest port in the hemisphere. Hollywood, high tech, manufacturing, etc. And we still have to get about half our money as basically political welfare from the state and feds?

If those lifelines ever go away, this county will frickin’ implode.

What is the story with this? I’ve not seen it. It’s probably out there – but I have heard reams and reams about the fiscal cliff, the sequester, and yes, Cyprus. Not a whisper here in the LA market about a budget that has a far greater likelihood of actually devastating me and the community I live in.

LA county budget 2013 sources of revenue chart

I know the ’08 real estate meltdown devastated property taxes, but come on! This is unsustainable.

I know there are many, many proposed solutions to this problem. But I also know that none of them have gotten traction – yet.

I am working every week with my class of journalists at USC, to try to prepare them for gigs in the real world. It is my hope that they will not have to work at news outlets (and you know who you are) where they will have to use the skills I’m teaching them, to put together linkbait slideshows on celebrity sideboob. Or produce yet another think-piece on whither the Euro.

So yeah. In some situations, with some stories, things are really, really great. But down at the granular level, journalism is not in the greatest shape. Dismissing these problems as the fantasies of ill-tempered Luddites is not a path to a solution, Matty.

xxx

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Mar 07

How to Tell a Story – from Pixar, via BoingBoing

Posted: under Blogging, Digital Migration, new media.

OK, this is really derivative, but I’m so impressed with the insight in this list that I’m shamelessly repeating it here. Go to BoingBoing. Click on the ads. Give them some money. They are good. I like BoingBoing.

(Please, no DMCA notice for this…)

To my journalism students – when you’re trying to construct a compelling narrative, for a story that goes beyond “On Tuesday, the Board met for two hours to consider blah-de-blah…” you could do a helluva lot worse than use these rules to challenge yourself to come up with something that grabs the reader and makes them keep clicking the “Next” button at the bottom of your page.

Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling – Boing Boing

From Aerogramme Writers’ Studio, via Adafruit. My favorite is #13: “Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.”

These rules were originally tweeted by Emma Coates, Pixar’s Story Artist. Number 9 on the list – When you’re stuck, make a list of what wouldn’t happen next – is a great one and can apply to writers in all genres.

  1. You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
  2. You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be very different.
  3. Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.
  4. Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
  5. Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.
  6. What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
  7. Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.
  8. Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.
  9. When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.
  10. Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.
  11. Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.
  12. Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.
  13. Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.
  14. Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.
  15. If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
  16. What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.
  17. No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later.
  18. You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.
  19. Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.
  20. Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?
  21. You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?
  22. What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

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Jan 08

Inventing the Future at BlogWorld

Posted: under Blogging, Blogs, Digital Migration, Social Media monetization.
Tags:

Somehow, I expected more of a mad scientist’s lab, with chortling henchmen. Or hench-Americans, as I hear they prefer to be addressed….

20130108-164940.jpg

It is always dangerous to give a group of bloggers (should that be “a flamewar of bloggers”?) a stage and a microphone, and dare them to get pretentious about predicting The Next Big Thing.

UPDATE: the always irascible bloggers have deemed the event a FAIL because of the lack of interactivity. Also: keyboard pants?

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Dec 26

The Ongoing Digital Migration: Spin Magazine

Posted: under advertising, Digital Migration, New Media Strategery.
Tags: , , , , ,

Spin magazine is killing its print edition-tell me how paywalls would help this situation?

I keep hearing over and over again that the demise of Murdoch’s The Daily means that digital magazines don’t work, the real solution to the revenue problems is to “fix the original sin” and put all content behind a paywall.

The thinking seems to be that since the New York Times has said that circulation revenues are equal to ad revenues, that must mean that paywalls are the long-awaited saviour for the news business.
20121226-103845.jpg

20121226-104154.jpg
Comes now the case of Spin magazine, the venerable Rolling Stone also-ran. Can’t spin these numbers as anything other than a full blown collapse of the underlying ad market:

Over the course of the last decade, ad pages gradually declined from 661 in 2003 to 378 in 2011, a 43% drop, according to the Publishers Information Bureau. More recently, ad pages plunged another 40% from 287 in the first nine months of 2011 to 171 in the first nine months of 2012.

On the circulation front, in the six months ending December 2011 (the most recent period for which data is available) Spin had a total circulation of nearly 460,000 down 15% from 540,901 in the same period of 2005, according to the Alliance of Audited Media, formerly the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

(H/t Mediapost)

OK, so take a second and mull over those numbers. When your ad revenues diminish by 75% while your circulation is only down 15%, what does that really mean? Does it mean that the audience has abandoned your product?

Or does it mean that advertisers have abandoned your product?

Of course, it means the latter. The young, hip audience that buys music (and all the related lifestyle accoutrements you see in music mags, such as t-shirts, DeVry University classes on how to be a music producer, black light posters & urine-cleansing supplements), is now getting their music online, not from the no-longer-existent music stores.

Why buy an ad in a print product that doesn’t offer a quick and easy way for the now-engaged audience to seamlessly buy what you’re selling? It’s more effective than print, and (due to continuing wrongheaded ad sales policies) cheaper too.

The challenge here, once you make the shift to all-digital, is going to be offering some kind of as product or experience that differentiates your music mag from all the music blogs out there that have much lower cost overheads.

I’ve always said that the places to watch for innovation are music and video games. Keep an eye on this space. If there are going to be innovations, they are likely to show up here first.

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Nov 23

Training Ukraining Professors and Journalists in Kiev

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

Technological advances, more sophisticated and accomplished reporters – but troubling long-term trends

This year, I took the lovely and learned Janine Warner along to the University of Mohyla’s institute for the Digital Future of Journalism (and yes, I am contractually obligated to describe my partner in all things analog and digital in the most glowing terms possible. Fortunately, it is not difficult. And yes, she did insist that I add that last sentence). It was the first time we had team-taught since we traveled all over Colombia five years ago, to work with 16 different newspapers and press organizations.

This photo was taken as part of my class’ project: “Kiev – City of Contrasts”.

Over the years, our role has changed significantly: it used to be that we were the digital equivalent of Paul Revere … basically, we were in newsrooms full of skeptical reporters, at very successful traditional media outlets, yelling “The Internet is coming! The Internet is coming!”

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Oct 11

Feeling like this today…

Posted: under Digital Migration.

Wow. Tried uploading this to Facebook: No go.

Then tried uploading to Tumblr. No go. Got this:

tumblr kicks back error messages for animated gifs

Tried to upload an animated GIF five times. Got this. Time to move on.

Someone please tell me again how it is that Animated GIFs are supposedly “taking over the interwebs” when it’s impossible to get the damn things to upload?

Meanwhile, I feel EVEN MORE like this than I did before…

hamster in the wheel

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Sep 24

Apple’s iOS EULA: All Your Content R Belong to Us!!

Posted: under Digital Migration, New Media Strategery, Wrongheaded solutions.
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Every time I read through one of these EULAs, it just keeps getting worse and worse.

I upgraded the iPad to iOS6, because I wanted to test it out, and I’m not ready yet to turn the Maps feature on my iPhone into a hot, steaming mess. But part of the whole upgrading regimen is, as is depressingly familiar to Apple users, having to agree to a new, dense and even more piracious End User Licensing Agreement (aka those damn “I Agree” screens that 99.9% of the population never actually reads, but just clicks on to make them go away).

apple's abusive privacy agreement for iCloud

I can’t believe the language in these things. The privacy policy has obviously been re-worked to try to put it in words that an actual human being would use – which kinda makes things even more insidious. They make an outrageous statement about how Apple is going to spy on you, and then they offer up a carefully worded explanation that makes you kinda go, “Hm. Well, I guess I can see that … that’s not so bad…”

So here, as a service to any of you who might be interested in just what rights you irrevocably, permanently, idiotically, signed away without ever actually bothering to check, are some choice bits from the EULA that is now part of your iPhone/iPad/iPod:

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Jun 06

This is my class of professional journalists at Bahir Dar University

Posted: under Digital Migration.

This is a photo of my class of working journalists. I am demonstrating for them how easy it is to do a blog post in real time.

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May 28

State of Media in East Africa: “Mover and Shakers” Interview for AfroFM

Posted: under Catching a Falling Knife, Digital Migration, journalism, Multimedia, new media, New Media Strategery, Travel, Video, Web Tech.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

UPDATE: The first video below was erroneously a duplicate of video #3. I blame the shoddy connection I had – I am thrilled that the videos made it up to YouTube at all, frankly, and it took me an hour and several tried to get this post to publish, so I had some version-control issues. Anyway, I’ve fixed it so that vid #1 is now the proper first part, in which we talk about the persistent power of radio.

The more I learn about how the media operates in East Africa, the more I think this is going to be a fascinating area to watch over the next few years. The conditions here are ripe for some really interesting changes – we are going to see in this microcosm what the effects are of empowering a population that is still stuck with only one-way information flow (largely via radio – please see video #1, below) to suddenly leapfrog into the ubiquitous mobile web-fueled connectivity that we see in places like Japan, Korea and (to an extent) China.

BACKGROUND: A couple of weeks ago, I had a meeting with the CEO of Fana Broadcasting. At that time, I was told that the plan was to install 4G mobile connectivity throughout the country. I have since learned that the contract looks like it is going to be awarded to a giant Chinese telecom company. This is not necessarily good news. The suspicion among the journalists is that the infrastructure contract has been given to the Chinese because they have pledged to include many of the down-and-dirty spyware and censorship features that are common to the internet behind the Great Firewall of China. Also: it is rumored that the Chinese outbid US and European companies for this huge contract, because the government of China is (illegally?) subsidizing the work, secretly funneling money under the table to the ostensibly private-sector telecom company, to allow it to do billions of dollars of work for 1/20th the price. Conspiracy theories abound here; in the absence of any hard facts or verification, people always assume the worst.

At any rate: the plan is to wire up all the major cities and towns with 4G wireless internet service. One of the big reasons expressed for that is that the Powers that Be have noticed that on just about every roof, you can see a satellite dish. Those dishes are bringing news, information and TV programs into households from TV providers outside of Ethiopia. They want to jump-start their own domestic news and entertainment industry, to start to produce high-quality content, to lure audience away from these international sources. Part of this is to foster a sense of national unity: to expose Ethiopians to news, movies and TV series that star Ethiopians, speaking Amharic, and referring to matters that are of concern to Ethiopians (and eventually, to citizens of the surrounding countries, none of which really has their own video/web content production infrastructure). Part of it is to start building up the kind of media-production capabilities that might allow Ethiopia to start exporting its culture to the international marketplace; from what I have seen here, there is certainly an opportunity for the kind of smart, dedicated artists here to start changing the international perception of this place, which is still stuck in the famine years.

Anyway, in the first part of the interviews I did with Samson Tesfaye, for his show “Movers and Shakers” on AfroFM, we talk about what things are like in the present day – where the vast majority of the rural populations in Ethiopia still rely on what they hear over the radio as their main (perhaps only) source of news and information.

The next part of the interview, we focus on the impact of social media in East Africa. At this time, Sami says that social media is not having the kind of disruptive effects we see in North Africa, where the Arab Spring is still very much alive and kicking, or to the south in Kenya, where the technology scene is vibrant and lively.

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May 14

Satellite TV dishes are common on the rooftops of Addis Ababa

Posted: under Digital Migration, Platform obsession, television.
Tags: , , , , ,

I met with the CEO of the Fana Broadcasting network this past week. We talked about the phenomenal growth occurring here in Ethiopia, and what that is going to mean for the traditional media here.

Right now, as in so many other developing countries, the media landscape is still ruled by King Radio; the largely rural population may not have reliable access to electricity, and newsprint distribution is neither economically feasible nor attractive to a population that still lags in literacy rates. But TV?

Ah, there’s the rub.

satellite dishes on the rooftops of humble abodes

Even the most humble abode seems to sport a sophisticated satellite dish, capable of pulling in international TV signals.

“Even here, once people get TV sets, what they want and expect is the same high-quality, clear as a bell HD programs that they see from CNN, the BBC and on the movie channels. The problem we have is that we are simply not set up to deliver that kind of content right now. We don’t have the people with the expertise. So everybody just gets a satellite dish and puts it up on the roof of their house, no matter how humble.”

Well, that’s where I come in.

The push here is to try to develop a homegrown video content-production industry; not just as a point of national pride, but as a way of extending Ethiopia’s cultural (and thus, political) influence in the Horn of Africa. And looking ahead, the major media companies are already seeing the way that mobile media consumption is ramping up, and trying to figure out ways to incorporate web-based content sharing and discovery mechanisms (i.e. the social media aspects) into their planning.

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