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 [...] [...more]
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:
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.
…as is the Economist.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In the past, we'd have to rely on the efforts of teams of photojournalists to comb over the wreckage, to find the enduring images, and then find a functioning film-development shop to soup the rolls of Tri-X or Kodak 400, and then try to get them to a still-functioning newspaper office to either get the shots on the AP wire, or get them onto the printing presses. I know - I covered the 1989 San Francisco earthquake under just such a set of circumstances. [...more]
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.
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…
My students wanted to make sure to capture the conversation around the roundtable discussion we had on the subject of press freedom, so they set up the bagttered (but still serviceable) cameras outside the journalism department offices, and brought in all the accountrements of the formal coffee ceremony … the glowing coals in the brazier, [...] [...more]
My students wanted to make sure to capture the conversation around the roundtable discussion we had on the subject of press freedom, so they set up the bagttered (but still serviceable) cameras outside the journalism department offices, and brought in all the accountrements of the formal coffee ceremony … the glowing coals in the brazier, the clouds of thick incense, and platters of roasted barley and chewy bread.
So far, everyone is still in a good mood....
It’s always difficult to figure out what the settings should be on a prosumer video camera, particularly when the opaque menus are written in a foreign language.
The clash of ancient and modern is never more stark than in these developing nations I’ve been in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, for the last week, training the local journalists and government information officers (aka PR flacks) on how best to take advantage of the way that “New Media” is creating new ways of connecting with [...] [...more]
The clash of ancient and modern is never more stark than in these developing nations
I’ve been in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, for the last week, training the local journalists and government information officers (aka PR flacks) on how best to take advantage of the way that “New Media” is creating new ways of connecting with each other, and the world at large. I’m here as part of the same US Embassy program that has sent me to places like Chile, Kazakhstan, Georgia, Costa Rica, etc., to try to bring people the benefits of experience (aka the way newspapers & TV news has imploded in the U.S.), so they can start planning for the Great Digital Migration.
This is my class of TV journalists at Addis Ababa University (AAU). I tried to cram as much about online video and sharing into my short sessions as I could. Here, I'm showing how to use both professional tools like Adobe Premiere Pro CS5, as well as free alternatives like Windows Movie Maker.
The one thing that everyone here agrees on is that Ethiopia desperately wants to change its international image – c’mon, admit it. When you think of Ethiopia, what images come to mind? Deserts, starving people, vultures, Live Aid, right?
Well, it’s not like that any more. In fact, if you look around at the Addis Ababa skyline, you’ll mostly see cranes and highrise towers under construction. The real-estate bubble that burst and devastated the rest of the world never took hold here.
There are still many reminders that the ancient ways of living are still very much in existence here in Addis, but please also note all the other markers of modernity in this shot.
However, they are facing many of the same challenges as the rest of the world, at least when it comes to the emergence of the internet, and the struggles of newspapers, radio and TV stations to come to grips with social media, and the ability of anyone to become a publisher/broadcaster/internet troll.
The very first place I visited was Sheger FM, the one independent radio station in Ethiopia. This is the courageous owner, who is really struggling to walk the razor's edge here in Addis.
I’ve found many of the same behaviors and attitudes I’ve encountered in the other places that I’ve done web/online video/social media training sessions – stubborn insistence that things will never change, toxic skepticism, and even outright hostility.
After a bit of a rocky start, these guys really came around and appreciated the hands-on lessons I gave them on how to do live video stand-up reports and how to compress video into the best codec to upload to YouTube. The Nelson Mandela building is a challenge, though; between the thin air at this 8000-foot altitude, and having to haul my big carcass up 5 (five) steep flights of stairs, the first few minutes of every class were mostly spent huffing and puffing, and hoping that someone in the class had a particularly insightful comment.
Dave LaFontaine and his tv production class in front of the Nelson Mandela building at Addis Ababa university in Ethiopia.
I conducted a series of interviews with journalists, bloggers, opposition political leaders and human rights workers in the cities of Astana and Almaty, Kazakhstan. They are begging for help to combat increased government attacks, censorship, harassment and intimidation. [...more]
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.
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 Respublika.kz, 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.