Sips from the Firehose

Oct 30

Hurricane Sandy Coverage on Storify: An Inflection Point?

Posted: under Uncategorized.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Major news outlets use Storify to aggregate & make sense of social media flow about Hurricane Sandy

In the last two days, as we’ve all been inundated (pardon the lame water-related pun) with near-constant TV, radio, web & social media updates on the progress of Hurricane Sandy, one thing that stands out this time around (as opposed to previous disasters) is that, having had time to prepare, the major media outlets turned to Storify to pull together live coverage of the storm, via the thousands (millions?) of ad-hoc citizen reporters who were posting so many TwitPics and Facebook updates.

storify front page showing stories about hurricane sandy

The front page design of Storify has gotten much better over the past year, and shows the clear stamp of the current trend towards “Pinteresting” everything. Still, when you look at the content mix that has made it to the front page, you can see just how widespread the Storification of Sandy has been…

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Jan 24

A Social Media Milestone: A Crowdsourced State of the Union Address?

Posted: under Amusing Nonsense, Conspiracy Theories, Politics & New Media.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Teleprompter is Us

Tonight’s State of the Union address is being billed as “the most interactive political act ever.”

Well, other than the crowdsourcing that brought people to the guillotine during the French Revolution. Although, if you read through the comments sections on some of the danker political blogs, there’s certainly reason to look back on The Terror as a relatively sane & genteel epoch.

Anyway – it appears that Obama’s web team has spent the past year (or more) preparing to swing into full campaign mode.

From ReadWriteWeb:

In December 2011, I wrote in the ReadWriteWeb Predictions for 2012 that the presidential candidate with the best social media campaign would be the one to win the White House in November 2012. I also said that President Obama would likely be reelected. While social media is not the be all, end all factor in determining the results of elections, pundits will argue that it has greater weight now than it ever has. Candidates pay attention to what their Twitter followers are saying.


To a certain extent, tonight’s State Of The Union will be the biggest campaign stump speech that Obama will give all year, except for maybe the Democratic National Convention. Around the State of the Union speech, the President has built a robust social media campaign to give citizens a voice. This is how government should be run. Open. Transparent. Interactive. Go to where the people are as opposed to making them come to you.



Let’s see how that interactive thingy worked, shall we? ue

The YouTube questions were pretty much what you’d expect – a mix of the rude, the longwinded, the unanswerable and the insane.

Tell EMINEM to Put another Album out..(Name is E=Mc2)
Are you going to liglize weed?
What are your plans for a Zombie Apocalypse? Because you know, if you planned for zombies, you planned for everything.
Dear Obama, is the republican primaries as hilarious for you as it is for me?

im scared of this year. Do u think that think year that the world might end (by the simi-end of Dec. 2012) or it’s completely a myth?

mjh186, Santa Monica, CA
What are you going to do with all the police who think they are all that, just because they can do almost anything they want without getting caught doesn’t make them better. Also my friend told me a police was setting a role model of cussing a 5 grdr
Will you tell us why you passed the SOPA? Do you have anything againsy gay people? Can YOU stop making Cigars? What do people have to have in order to become the president? Is the world gonna end in 2012? PLEASE ANSWER ALL THESE IMPORTANT QUESTIONS!!
mr.president wat do u think about the immagrashin are you think about giving paper 2 those in need
123deadmau5, sunvally cal
I would love to know why marijuana not legal. It is really good for you they said on cnn News it don’t do anything to your lungs compared to people who smoke cigarettes. Also it kills Brain cancer cells and blocks heart blockages.
panterafan6969, Richmond, Virginia
Mr. President, Church’s Chicken or KFC?
train2failure, Long Beach
Why you are spending more money to grab genitles at airports, sell children, traffic weapons, drugs, eugincs depopulation…rather than allowing non corrupt technicians associated with The Venus Project to solve every human need including yours?
Mr. President, if you want my vote again this November, please answer this: WHERE IS THE CHANGE!?Minimum wage still doesn’t cover our basic necessities.A human being cannot survive on these wages with children. How are your children doing? Quite well
I’ll keep my guns, money and freedom You can keep the change you communist bastard!
Can you speak to the American people about the Fema camps ? Maybe quell some of the fear that’s spreading thru the country ?
I can has moonbase?
commanderq, Australia

The Quora questions were a helluva lot better.

Some are pretty interesting: What are the estimated costs to taxpayers of the new agencies proposed by President Obama, such as the Trade Enforcement Unit?

Others are clearly partisan: Why did Obama just rag on George W/Republicans? Was it merely because it’s an election year?

Some are just goofy: Did Jon Favreau write the 2012 State of the Union?


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Jul 01

Sweet Mother of FSM, Google+ Is Smart!

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

In less than five minutes, I responded to an invitation (that is probably still in pretty high demand) and signed up for Google+.

Being able to add people to the circles is an absolutely frickin’ brilliant move! The little animations are absolutely killer. I have been wanting this and talking about this and boring the living shit out of my tech-dw33b friends about how the one big problem STILL with social media is that it’s damn near and all-or-nothing game.

No longer. Someone at Google “got it,” and this is a killer feature that Facebook DOES NOT HAVE.

Also: Google+ aggregates my information from all manner of sources, so I don’t have to go through that goddam tiresome “OK, let’s fill in all the blanks on this profile page yet again … wait, what? … it timed out? (long cursing session)”

Check out the screen cap below – this is after only a few minutes of cursory work:

dave lafontaine profile on google plus
All this got added to my profile automatically. It borders on the creepy … except for the fact that I wrote and posted all this info about myself in the first place, and I approve of it and can tell instantly where it came from. Also note on the right-hand side: all the various places where I have established a social profile, all aggregated in the same place.

I kinda disagree with this post on AllFacebook, where they focus in on how Google has made it “compulsory” to be part of Google+, and that the key to all this is “time on site.”

While tech pundits are widely praising Google’s new Plus product, I’ve found the one feature that could take away from Facebook where it’s most dominant: Time on the site.

Facebook users are known for staying on the site for over half an hour a day, something no other site could compete with… until now.

To be honest, my gut reaction after using Google Plus was initially, “Why on earth would anybody switch to this from Facebook?”

However, when I loaded up Google Finance as I do every morning, I suddenly realized that I was asking the wrong question. The reality is that users won’t have the option of not using Google Plus.

However, later on, they kinda stumble into something interesting, that’s also come up recently in the kerfuffle over the “Open Letters to RIM” — that is, that tech companies are starting to realize that what will really make them successful, is making it easy for developers & propellorhead-types like, well, us … to come and play in their sandbox.

Add to that this very insightful dissection of what was at the core of MySpace imploding – the same thing at work, i.e. pissing on indie developers — and you start to see something fascinating emerging in corporate thinking … for those intelligent enough to read the tea leaves (or Cheeto crumbs, if you will).


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Apr 19

Children of Chernobyl: Persistent Effects of Long-Term Radiation Exposure

Posted: under Online Video, Politics & New Media, Ukraine.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

200,000 deaths. Could Fukushima get this bad?

This video was produced by my students at the University of Mohyla‘s Institute for the Digital Future of Journalism in Kiev, Ukraine. It’s in Ukrainian, so my English-speaking audience won’t be able to understand the narration or interviews.

Which is kinda beside the point, after you look at these kids.

Child victim of radiation poisoning from Chernobyl

Children are particularly vulnerable to the radioactivity spewed out in a meltdown. Their bodies are growing, and as part of the growth process, the body is constantly looking for calcium to add to their bone structure.

In light of the recent disaster at the Fukushima Reactor Complex in Japan, it is more than a little chilling to look at these pictures of deathly ill children that are still – STILL – turning up in “cancer blooms” in Ukraine, long past the time when the rest of the world considered the whole matter done & dealt with. That’s the thing about true nuclear meltdowns: they don’t just go away when the news cycle gets bored of them (they way it so clearly has with the Fukushima situation).

children dying slow death from Chernobyl radiation poisoning

The problem is that Strontium-90 looks to the body like calcium. So the children's bodies grab it and add it to the calcium being deposited in the bones. And once it's there it quietly goes about poisoning the bone marrow, causing strange and unpredictable cancers. Mutations. Leukemia is about as benign as it gets.

So look at these images.  Remember that back in ’86, the governments — in the USSR and elsewhere – were also saying that there was nothing to worry about. That the levels of radiation that were released were so low that they posed no real danger. Nothing to worry about. Move along.

It came as quite a surprise to me to learn that there is a widely known (but officially denied) statistic: 200,000 people have died as a result of the radiation leak at Chernobyl. Apparently, even the average Ukrainian on the street (Dmitri Six-Pack?) knows that the government has drastically underplayed the casualties. The problem is that it is devilishly hard to pin down what it is that has caused a death 5, 10, 20 or more years after an event. Was it the radiation? Or heavy metals in the groundwater? Second-hand smoke? Or just genetic bad luck?

doctors try to figure out the root causes of the cancer crisis
Valiant Ukrainian doctors refused to shut up about the root causes of the cancer crisis. Some of them paid a heavy price for not going along with the program. Not shutting up.

When I was teaching at Mohyla, coincidentally, across the hall from my classroom, there was a doctor’s conference being held. The doctors were quietly furious. They felt that they had been screaming their lungs out about this problem, but that they were being ignored, hushed up.

Even arrested and carted away for daring to contradict the official line.

They had come to a journalism school to meet directly with people who they hoped would help them sound the alarm. To tell the story that things weren’t what the Men In Charge were saying.

“At least 500,000 people — perhaps more — have already died out of the two million people who were officially classed as victims of Chernobyl in Ukraine,” said Nikolai Omelyanets, deputy head of the National Commission for Radiation Protection in Ukraine. “[Studies show] that 34,499 people who took part in the clean-up of Chernobyl have died in the years since the catastrophe. The deaths of these people from cancers were nearly three times as high as in the rest of the population.

“We have found that infant mortality increased 20 percent to 30 percent because of chronic exposure to radiation after the accident. All this information has been ignored by the IAEA and WHO. We sent it to them in March last year and again in June. They’ve not said why they haven’t accepted it.”

Evgenia Stepanova, of the Ukrainian government’s Scientific Center for Radiation Medicine, said: “We’re overwhelmed by thyroid cancers, leukemias and genetic mutations that are not recorded in the WHO data and which were practically unknown 20 years ago.”

It’s impossible to look at these pictures and not feel a small sliver of dread in the pit of your stomach.

tiny child pulling adult-size IV around
So many children have gotten awful, incurable cancers that they have had come up with all kinds of special equipment to treat their frail, tiny bodies.

This is going to happen in Japan. The invisible killer has already been unleashed there. The radioactive poisons released into the ocean are, by definition, heavy metals. They aren’t going to go very far. At least, not at first.

So decades from now, the fish that eat the crustaceans that eat the plants that grow in the muck … those fish will have Strontium-90 in them. Cesium-137. Ruthenium-106. Phosphorus-32. Plutonium. Uranium. God knows what else.

I haven’t seen a TV news show yet that has come clean about what is being released into the environment. The closest we got was on the Bill Maher show last Friday night, where scientist Michio Kaku said it plainly: “This is a giant science experiment. And we are all the guinea pigs.”

child cancer patient - staring eyes
The parents of these children do what they can to cheer them up. Note the little stars and decorations on the surgical mask. I’m not sure if this makes it better, or even more heartbreaking.


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Feb 25

Mural Art in “South of the Miracle” Neighborhood

Posted: under Uncategorized.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

It may not be Banksy, but it’s still pretty cool to see local merchants reaching out to the community to pre-emptively cover their walls with something that connects with the local community.

I was out for a walk, and stumbled across this guy at the corner of Venice & Thurman, with a cardboard box next to him full of battered spray cans all missing their nozzles.


Turns out the storeowner (who took over the space from a rather creepy pseudo-psychic), saw that other shops in the area were constantly fighting the battle against taggers, and wanted to try to stave off the constant whack-a-mole struggle against idiotic and barely readable slogans. The illustration here is the artist’s interpretation of the store’s contents – it’s a medical supply outlet, and one of their big products for the aging population in this area are the comfy mechanical beds for all the former manual laborers nursing their aching backs.

Thus the whole “Stairway to Heaven” motif here. The rather creepy-eyed girl in the center of this part of the installation is working the controls for the beds/chairs/scooters this place sells. Next to her is the stairway, and then floating off into the clouds are the people who’ve bought the goods in this store, and are now in lower-back heaven. Which is kinda cool & inventive, actually.

Stairway to Heaven Mural

Just poking above the grass (weeds? I’ve never liked these damn things, but I guess they beat crabgrass/ragweed) on the right-hand side, you can see the head of his son Mario, who was, like, totally bored with his dad’s job. Sheesh. His dad’s a guerilla artist who just got a great commission and is out doing trippy work, and the kid is bagging on him nonstop. Pretty high bar to clear – what would be impressive? Watching dad play with numbers in an actuarial spreadsheet?

I guess whatever it is that you do, after a while, those closest to you grow accustomed to it & it becomes old hat.

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Feb 19

Martin Bosworth is gone, and the world is a little less fun & bright

Posted: under Uncategorized.
Tags: ,

I’ve posted on the Facebook tribute page for Martin, Twittered about his passing, and appealed to others to not let Martin’s sudden death go unnoticed. This really blindsided me, because only Monday I was having a typically great conversation about Martin – it was the subject of the last blog post here.

Martin sent this to me as part of a discussion we were having about health care & the stalled reform bill. We'd talked about his health problems last summer, and he seemed to be getting better. His final message here is now almost painful to read.

Which is why I decided that to really do the man justice, it is necessary to use the format that Martin loved best, and that he was a master of: the blog post.

I met Martin for the first time about a year ago, at a session for the Los Angeles chapter of the Online News Association that I had helped organize.  I was moderating a panel of speakers talking about online video, explaining how indie web journalists could kick their page views (and careers) up a notch by adding some video to their sites.  I had just got done explaining how I had recently researched the End-User Licensing Agreements (EULAs) on all the video-sharing sites, to see which ones were OK, and which were abusive, and would claim ownership over the copyrights to video you produced, whether or not you ever decided you wanted to take it down.

“I mean, has anyone here ever really read the EULA on these sites before clicking, the “I Agree” button?” I asked.

Towards the back of the room, a hand shot up in the air. “I have,” Martin said loud & proud. And then, a little softer, “But then, I’m kind of a freak about such things. I read all the licensing fine print before I agree to anything.”

That, right there, was Martin in a nutshell.

He wasn’t afraid to speak up in groups, to add to the conversation. But he was also careful to be self-deprecating – he was never obnoxious, overbearing or insulting, the way so many in the blogosphere are, in their attempts to vie for attention.

But most of all the man put in the work. However you want to say it, Martin sweated the details, because he knew that it was in those details that all the Devils of Corporate America lurked.  And Martin had a bone-deep indignation at seeing the little guy get fucked over, and he devoted his life to working to balance things out a little.

He came up to me after the meeting was over, a balding, roly-poly guy who frowned and concentrated fiercely on whatever conversation he was having, and then burst into laughter unexpectedly. I got my first taste of Martin’s boundless energy, deep knowledge of online culture, and enthusiasm for all things nerdly.  He was a bit shy at first to talk to me – he later admitted that he was a little intimidated, saying with his characteristic self-deprecation and honesty, “Man, you looked like everything that I aspired to be. You were tall, good-looking, married to a beautiful woman, and you traveled the world doing important work for freedom-loving journalists in distress.”

Coming from someone else, that would have raised alarm bells in me – in L.A., especially, I’ve come to see any form of compliment as flattery preparatory to some kind of manipulation. But coming from Martin, the words were heartfelt, sweet, and totally at odds with how I felt at the time, because, like so many of us working in the New Media content game, I had a deep  suspicion that I was making a complete ass out of myself in public. It was that kindness and honesty from him that I found very endearing.

Martin was also tormented by self-doubt, but he didn’t let that stop him from writing about the things that he cared deeply about; the world of comic books, heavy-metal music and cheesy sci-fi movies that are the Nerdcore Holy Trinity frequently appeared on his blog, and to read his reviews was to feel as though you were hanging out on a friend’s couch, relaxed and free to express your deeply held beliefs that Liam Neeson used the same fighting moves in “Taken” that he learned all those years ago on “Krull.”

But he also had a real empathetic sense, and last summer when I was writing about the untimely death of my cat, Martin sent me several emails telling me how what I had written had brought tears to his eyes and choked him up, and sent dozens of people to my site to read what I had written and offer me words of encouragement.  I’ve struggled with that while writing this post, because I don’t want to for even a microsecond equate my cat Duce dying with Martin’s death; I know the difference between human and feline, thankyewverymuch. I just wanted to illustrate that the guy had a real big heart in him, and that when I was feeling down, he would go out of his way to try to offer some kind of comfort. And then maybe a few laughs and a link to something new & interesting that he wanted to tear apart & put back together.

I will miss these discussions. I will miss reading his wit, and honesty and willingness to bare his soul.

I will miss Martin.

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Nov 05

Kazakhstan: Old Stalinist Repression in a New CyberWar Wrapper

Posted: under Blogging, Conspiracy Theories, Online Video, Politics & New Media.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Under the guise of “protecting citizens from terrorists and porn,” the government in Kazakhstan is eliminating freedom of speech and of the press via a particularly toxic cocktail of Old Stalinist School beatings, jailings and intimidation – and cutting-edge CyberWar attacks.

I conducted a series of interviews with journalists, bloggers, opposition political leaders and human rights workers in the cities of Astana and Almaty, Kazakhstan. I was there because in mid-October of 2009, the US State Department invited me to travel to Kazakhstan to do a series of training sessions on New Media and how journalists there could learn from the mistakes that First-World TV & newspapers have made, to prepare themselves for the future.

While I was able to show them some of the new technologies and techniques in online video, mobile, social media and web monetization that I’ve developed an expertise in, I found that their crisis is far more serious than that of US publishers and journalists, whose problems revolve around absurd levels of debt entered into by multi-billion dollar corporations, and the lack of a coherent business strategy.

Kazakh journalists are quite literally fighting for their lives – and losing.

I found this out myself, when I wound up in the hospital with a severe case of food poisoning, the night before I was scheduled to conduct a class for the pro-democracy rights workers, independent journalists and dissenting bloggers. I feel almost ashamed to bring this up, because compared to what the Kazakh journalists go through, barfing for 8 hours seems like a resort vacation. Still, the embassy doctor told me I was on the point of cascading organ failure from radical dehydration. Next stop: a pine box in the cargo hold on the way back to Los Angeles.Medical supplies

A couple days and 4 liters of IV fluid and antibiotics later, my vision cleared and I was finally able to reschedule with the Kazakhstan’s most independent journalists and bloggers. (I had to cancel a trip to Shymkent, where even more dissidents hoped to get my help.) They wanted to interview me, because they were suspicious about my absence. “You don’t honestly think that what happened to you was an accident?” they asked. I admitted that in my most paranoid moments, I wondered…

“There are no coincidences here,” they told me. They went on to state that repeatedly, journalists, human rights workers or others who have come from the U.S. or Europe to meet with them, mysteriously get sick – just the way I did – are hospitalized, and wind up going home a couple of days later without ever actually meeting or doing any work.  They all wanted to shake my hand and congratulate me for joining the club of journalists who have gone to the hospital because of their political beliefs.

I will never know if it was just a bad piece of chicken, or if I barfed out some heinous admixture of polonium and whatever PCBs/Dioxins they fed to the former president of Ukraine that turned his face into a puffy, pockmarked lunar landscape. But I will admit that seeing a couple of goons waiting in an SUV every morning to tail us around contributed to my motivation to publish this piece.

First – a bit of scene-setting: Kazakhstan is an enormous country, spread out over vast empty sub-Siberian steppes (as you can see in my pictures here), with a relatively tiny population of 16 million. It’s floating on an ocean of oil and gas, and may soon be the world’s leading exporter of uranium – check out the Wikipedia entry, if you want more facts & figures.

Put simply, Kazakhstan is a popcorn shell jammed in the teeth of international war & petro-diplomacy. It’s stuck between China to the east, Russia to the north, and Afghanistan & Pakistan to the south. They export a billion barrels of oil a year to Russian refineries, and their natural gas keeps the lights on throughout Western Europe. The U.S. uses their airspace and bases for the war in Afghanistan, and rocket launches from the old Soyuz complex near Baikonur keep the International Space Station functioning.

Nursultan Nazarbayev has been president of Kazakhstan since it split off from the former Soviet Union in 1989.  Just this year, the constitution was changed to basically allow him to be president for life, and it’s a tossup as to whether or not there will ever again be open elections.

While I was there, I visited the cities of Almaty and Astana, which represent the past and the future of Kazakhstan. In 1997, Nazarbayev decreed that the capitol would be moved from the ancient city of Almaty, which is in a green valley just north of the Himalayas, on the old Silk Road, to Astana, which lies in the midst of 1,000 miles of Siberian steppes, surrounded by nothing.

A brief aside on Astana: the best way I can describe this city is to ask you to imagine what would happen if you downloaded the brains of Albert Speer and Walt Disney into a 14-year-old ADHD sci-fi fan & meth freak, and then gave him a trillion dollars and asked him to design the capitol city of Mars.  Dubai in the tundra? Shanghai without the workers or industrial base? Calgary with a creeping sense of menace?

The oil billions have funded the construction of massive towers and buildings; of wide boulevards, lined with struggling fresh-planted saplings; of monuments to the ego of Nazarbayev, where wide-eyed rural citizens line up, and hold up their babies so they can put their tiny hands into the impression of the Glorious Leader’s hand, memorialized forever in a 20-pound block of solid gold.

“It’s all one giant money-laundering scheme,” a journalist confided to me. “The government says that it’s putting up these buildlings, making this city out of nothing for the future of the people of Kazakhstan. They keep comparing this place to Washington, D.C.

“But what it’s really about is that they budget $200 million, maybe for a new library or art gallery. ‘For the people, for the culture of our country,’ they say. Then they build it for $50 million, maybe $20 million.  The rest all disappears.”

There is no real reason for this city, built for giants, and inhabited only by people who work for the kleptocracy, to exist, other than what you can read in “Ozymandias.”

““My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Yeah. It’s like that. Particularly the parts about the “sneer of cold command.”  If you squint a little bit, from atop the big observation towers, you can see the tangled rusted girders sticking up out of the blasted, brown tundra.

As you’ll see in the following videos, the main problem they need help with is the Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks that are unleashed on them when they dare to step over the line and criticize the government, write about the massive corruption in the banking system, or report the latest bombshell from the president’s ex-son in law. (He fled the country, and now lives in Austria, from whence he periodically releases embarrassing information – such as audiotapes of government officials conspiring to murder & steal.)

In the interviews that are included here, the Kazakh journalists talk about these kinds of problems – of the beatings, intimidation, jailings, fines, cyber-attacks and other methods by which freedom is being systematically strangled to death.  I will write more about this issue in other postings, but for now, I think the greatest impact is for you to hear their raw voices.

I apologize in advance for this video.  I had to blur the face and distort the voice of this journalist, to protect him from the brutal reprisals that are becoming almost commonplace in Kazakhstan. I wish that I could show you the blood clot in this man’s eye, or the fading bruises at the corners of his mouth.

I wish that you could see the way he hunches his shoulders when talking about the beating, stomping and kicking orgy of violence that landed him in the hospital recently, or the anger that replaces that fear when he talks of the beatings that have been inflicted on his colleagues.

I hope that you can still hear in his voice the raw sadness and sense of loss that is evident when he talks about the feeble FlashMob protests that are the only act of defiance left to them, and how even that is being systematically taken away.

But I cannot. I cannot bring this story to you in this open and honest way; maybe it is paranoia, but if it is, then it is well-founded paranoia. The pervasive fear that has been pounded into journalists in Kazakhstan is communicable, and if I have succumbed to it as well, so be it.  I would rather err on the side of caution with these interviews than expose some of the people in them to further harm. This is also why I have beeped out the names of some of the other recent victims, as well as other information that would make it easy to identify this person.

I do recognize that this journalist’s voice and accent make what he is saying a little hard to understand, and so I am adding subtitles.

These journalists told me that the hardest part for them is the feeling of being utterly alone; that the daily outrages against them have been covered up, denied, made to disappear as they themselves are being made to vanish, one by one.

I decided to share these improvised videos (recorded before and after training sessions I led) because the journalists and bloggers I met pleaded with me to share their stories in the hopes that someone in the outside world would pay attention.  To them, the internet represents the last, best hope of writers and photographers and editors who dare to speak truth to power. They have been pushed to the brink, and the DDoS attacks now threaten even that.

I was authorized to show the face and voice of journalist Yevgeniya Plakhina of, and so she appears here undisguised, although there were some subjects that we discussed that she later requested be edited out. I will post some of the other videos in a later post, since this is getting a bit long.

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Sep 24

Digital Family Meet-up at Wokcano

Posted: under Digital Migration, New Marketing, new media, Online Video.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

It was a cinematic night, as event organizer Brad Nye looked like he was making an entrance in a James Bond film, and Jason Calacanis did a Q&A (thanks for taking my question first, BTW), and looked a little like Citizen Kane.

It’s late and I’ve got a lot more post-processing to do on the photos, so here’s just a couple of the images that I shot.  The video of the discussions can be found at This Week in Startups.

Before the lights were adjusted, standing on the platform over the audience made the speakers look like they were either making a dramatic entrance - or having their identities concealed in some "60 Minutes" tell-all segment.

Before the lights were adjusted, standing on the platform over the audience made the speakers look like they were either making a dramatic entrance - or having their identities concealed in some "60 Minutes" tell-all segment.

The energy of the old VIC was certainly present – a little too much, as techies on the make back at the bar made it a little hard to hear the speakers at the time. This, despite the overt threat by organizers to find the yapping networkers and toss them out.

Anyway, here’s Calacanis discussing what the future of social media sites is going to look like, and what smart companies should do in the next couple of years to try to adapt to the increasing pace of innovation.

As I said in an email to Nye, Jason would probably be secretly pleased at the whole Citizen Kane-esque imagery here. And then, of course, he'd feel conflicted about it and make a self-deprecating joke.

As I said in an email to Nye, Jason would probably be secretly pleased at the whole Citizen Kane-esque imagery here. And then, of course, he'd feel conflicted about it and make a self-deprecating joke.

One of the more interesting areas of discussion – particularly since I just got back from Costa Rica – centered around virtual currency as being “the next big thing.”  Certainly seems that way in places like Costa Rica, where you’re getting an increasingly large, tech-savvy and connected labor force.  A lot of people either work in the internet gambling industry there – or have relatives/friends that do.  The speed of internet connections in San Jose – and even out in the jungles on the Pacific side – stunned me. I’ve had much worse connections in the small town U.S.A.

One of the things that has stuck in my head the last week or so has been the stories coming out about how spammers are getting around the Captchas by simply hiring dirt-cheap human labor to fill in the blanks on the pages to stuff spam onto our hard-constructed sites.  I’m not sure what the next step in trying to get rid of the spam is going to be – Calacanis lamented how from the very first days of blogs, spam started becoming a problem, and it has kept pace with our attempts to try to get rid of it.  Now it’s starting to get into the social networking world (viz today’s Phishing attacks on Twitter), where the level of trust that we have for our social circle is going to make the impact of a malicious click that much heavier.

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Mar 20

Rules for Running a Paywall/Subscription-based Online News Site

Posted: under Digital Migration, journalism, New Marketing, new media, Newspapers.
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InDenver Launches – Rocky Mountain News Staffers DIY News Project

If the future of news is that it will live as a web-only play, then the InDenver and Seattle PI sites, which are (to use the horticultural metaphor) scions of the original papers are perhaps visions of what the future could look like.

Good luck and Godspeed. Selling information on the web is a business fraught with all kinds of unanticipated complexities.

Good luck and Godspeed. Selling information on the web is a business fraught with all kinds of unanticipated complexities.

The InDenver site has gotten some good & enthusiastic replies from readers eager to get good quality local news information, and who are seemingly frustrated with their other local options. Unfortunately, InDenver appears to be struggling with its e-commerce functionality – multiple readers are writing in to report that their sessions are bombing out, that they’re frustrated, that the interface is broken, or unwieldy.

Welcome to my world, folks.

We (i.e. and – don’t bother trying to find them – they both folded) tried to do this back in 1999, back in Web 1.0, and there were a lot of lessons that we learned that seem to have been lost in the mists of time.

If you are going to try to be in the business of selling information (or the way we couched it, “a fulfilling multimedia entertainment experience”) online, the thing to remember is that things happen way, way faster than they do in the offline/print world.

E-Commerce for Former Print Reporters

A user subscribing to a print edition of a newspaper will fill out a 3×5 card subscription form, or mail off a check in an envelope, and patiently wait a week or so for the paper to start showing up at the front door.

A web subscriber will get halfway through filling out the form – and then a question (how old are you? male or female? what’s your zip code?) will piss them off because it seems too intrusive, and they will click away.

Or it will come time to enter their credit card information, and the process will be onerous enough so that they start to have second thoughts about it, and they will be gone.

Back in the day, we lost 80% of our customers during the payment process.  You absolutely HAVE to make this as smooth and quick and painless as possible, or they will start to think twice about it – and then they are GONE, BABY GONE.

Lingering in the ether, the Seattle P-I keeps trying.

Lingering in the ether, the Seattle P-I keeps trying.

Customer Service is More than Responding to Complaints

This isn’t just fixing broken links on the site, or making sure that your pages display the same across a wide range of browsers – although that is absolutely crucial as well.

No, you have to be really, really, REALLY responsive when your readers reach out to you.  You have to pay attention to what they’re telling you through their clicks, through the time spent per page, through the amount of clickthru you’re seeing on your targeted ads.  You have to pay attention to what they’re saying in the comment spaces, to the kinds of photos and videos they upload (just pray that they care enough to send you their material), to the way they forward your stories to their friends and family.

That is what customer service is on the web.

If you are going to try to make people pay for a service that you provide – if you are going to sell them something – then that thing damn well better be what they want. Or they will cease to buy it.  And they will do this far, far faster than they would with a print product.

The good news is that if you do manage to forge a connection to your audience, that if you do manage to get them committed to reading and acting on the information that you give  them – they will then fight like tigers to make sure that you survive.

Market Yourself Like Crazed Insurgents

You can’t just rely on the goodwill and lingering fondness of your former readership to sustain you.  That may work in the short term (if it works at all), but you have to make an organized, concerted effort to reach out to your market and GIVE THEM A GOOD REASON TO BUY YOU.

Take a look at the viral/guerilla marketing campaigns that were used by Bakotopia; your strategy may need to be a bit different, since you seem to be reaching out to a slightly older, more affluent demographic, but the underlying thinking is the same.

1. Go to the physical locations where your (would-be) readers are. Concerts, county fairs, farmer’s markets, coffee shops, playgrounds, whatever.

2. Have a persistent object that you can give away that will remind your readers that you exist. It can be a cheap 1-sheet flyer stapled to a lamppost, like a punk band playing an underground club. A t-shirt, hat, keychain, whatever with your logo and URL on it.

3. Reach out to your readers on regular intervals with updates as to what your new content is via email, instant messaging, SMS, whatever.

4. Enlist your readers in the effort to recruit more subscribers. Give them some kind of prize – free subscription, or exclusive merch.

Yeah, I know. This sounds like the way that rock bands run their fan clubs.  It is.  It also works.

You gotta be shameless. It feels like you’re a carnival barker, and that is not entirely inaccurate.  But if you are going to sell this thing you’ve created, you have to prepare yourself to get your hands dirty.

Christ, I hope you guys succeed.

Meanwhile, here’s the video of the final days of the Rocky Mountain News.

Final Edition from Matthew Roberts on Vimeo.

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Feb 24

Doom or Negotiating Strategy: The San Francisco Chronicle Gets Its Two-Minute Warning

Posted: under Digital Migration, Newspaper Deathwatch, Newspapers.
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The last couple of months have seen the weaker papers in two-newspaper towns file for bankruptcy, fire their staffs & announce impending doom.  A lot of this can be written off as the natural consequences of a contracting ad market and an epically bad economy; the announcement today by Hearst that the San Francisco Chronicle is facing yet another massive & painful round of layoffs came as both a surprise and not. The gut-clencher came a little bit down in the story:

The Hearst Corp. today announced an effort to reverse the deepening
operating losses of its San Francisco Chronicle by seeking near-term
cost savings that would include “significant” cuts to both union and
non-union staff.

In a posted statement, Hearst said if the savings cannot be
accomplished “quickly” the company will seek a buyer, and if none comes
forward, it will close the Chronicle. The Chronicle lost more than $50
million in 2008 and is on a pace to lose more than that this year,
Hearst said.

Downer cow dragged off to slaughter

This has led to a flurry of stories assuming that the End is Nigh for the Chronicle. The Wall Street Journal weighed in:

Observers have been waiting to see which major U.S. city will be the
first to go without a major daily newspaper, and San Francisco is a
front-runner for the role.

Over at Content Bridges, Ken Doctor muses about the other struggling Bay Area newspapers, and wonders why a viable web-based alternative hasn’t sprung up yet, in an area that’s within a hurled semiconductor of Silicon Valley (hell, I can’t figure that one out either). However, he gets close to what I think is the underlying story here:

Could the Chronicle indeed go away? Well, don’t expect anyone to buy it. The newspaper market is, to use the kind word, illiquid. Frozen solid by two minor problems: 1) the credit meltdown, which will someday ease; 2) no one knows how to hell to value a newspaper company because no one has “visibility” in future revenue, which is a nice way to say no one likes what they see ahead.

Maybe, Hearst and MediaNews, once close, but now more distant partners, can figure out some new cost-sharing plans that will pass government review.  If not, we can now imagine the Chronicle indeed closing, if it doesn’t get the “significant” cost reductions it wants. My guess given our times, is that it will get reductions, and then reduce itself in product and people to some sense of immediate sustainability. It may keep publishing, though it may scrap days like Detroit or whole sections like many of its brethren. 

My read on the threat of folding the paper is that they have run up against a wall of union contracts, and want to get around them without having to resort to Chapter 11.  The “concessions” that Hearst wants are going to be ugly – over at Newsosaur, Mutter spitballs them at nearly 50%.

At that point, mere eliminations of staff positions will not hit that target.  To eliminate half of the staff would mean that the paper quite simply would not get out. There wouldn’t be enough people to run the presses, drive the trucks, or lay out the display ads from wackjob religious sects. Not to mention, report & edit news.  That means the survivors of the cuts would have to take massive pay cuts.  Maybe the newsroom staff would meekly submit to the replacement of a paycheck with a moldy roast-beef sandwich and a family pass to Hearst Castle, but those Teamsters, well, that’s another story.

The other unsettling prospect is that Hearst would either sell the Chronicle to MediaNews, the Dean Singleton empire that has been similarly troubled, or perhaps even demand back all the money that Singleton owes the Hearsts (which I’m guessing he does not have), which would mean that Hearst would wind up taking MediaNews titles like the Merc-News or Contra Costa as a barter-type payoff.  Both moves have significant anti-trust problems, not to mention less than rosy implications for journalism in the Bay Area.

Some interesting thinking from Daniel Singer at Huffington Post on this one – on why the solution to a revenue crisis at big newspapers IS NOT to get bigger.

The big record labels’ entire business was built around moving little plastic discs around the world, similar to how a newspaper’s business was built around moving paper through a printing plant and on to you. That’s about 60-70% of the cost of producing a newspaper: getting the ink on it and moving the damn thing around. Moving things from place to place–be it plastic discs or bundles of paper–is very difficult and expensive. It’s the kind of business that rewards economies of scale and, as a result, allows for huge concentrations of power and money. It’s the kind of business that creates five major record labels and a dozen or so major news companies (that’s a generous number, actually, once you get past the first five or six you’re down to small town paper chains). It’s the kind of business that comes crashing down the quickest once its central complication–moving things from here to there–disappears. With the efficiencies of digital distribution, the established order is not simply threatened, it is broken.

So if size is a disadvantage in the New Media world, the teetering newspaper empires’ reflex to merge and merge again is perhaps the exact wrong move at this time.  If the key to web success is that overused buzzword “community,” then an amorphous conglomeration that exists mainly to cater to efficiencies in distributing an ad sales platform that grows daily less relevant, is not a move in the right direction.

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