Sips from the Firehose


May 14

Teaching video techniques at Addis Ababa University


Posted: under journalism, television, Video.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

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.

Dave LaFontaine standing with students at AAU

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.

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Jul 01

Ethiopia New Media Training


Posted: under Digital Migration, journalism, new media, newspaper crisis, Online Video, Video.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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.

dave lafontaine teaches video editing to tv journalists in ethiopia

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.

cows in the streets of addis ababa

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.

dave lafontaine and the owner of sheger fm

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 

Dave LaFontaine and his tv production class in front of the Nelson Mandela building at Addis Ababa university in Ethiopia.

 

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Jul 06

Tbilisi Journalist Training: Graduation Day


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

Tbilisi Journalist Graduation, originally uploaded by Wordyeti.

These are the journalists from the smaller cities & towns outside of Tbilisi, Georgia. They’re all grinning happily, because they’ve managed to survive my intense one-week course, where I set them all up with their own blogs, and then sent them into the field to shoot, edit and post online news videos.

A crucial part of every learning process is making mistakes. They learned not to try to take on too ambitious a project when using makeshift multimedia tools. I learned not to use Adobe’s Premiere Elements 8. That has got to be the buggiest video editing system ever inflicted on an unsuspecting public. I use Premiere Pro all the time and love the rest of Adobe’s various iterations of the Creative Suites … but Elements is Satan on a CD. My students were throwing their headsets across the room in frustration as it crashed … lost work … necessitated a hard reboot of the system … crashed again … corrupted the footage … (rinse, repeat).

I finally installed Sony’s Vegas Video on their systems; not as user-friendly for beginners as the “Grandma-ware” that Elements is known as … but it at least would make a J-cut or an L-cut without locking up the system. Unfortunately, Vegas Video wouldn’t import the footage from the Flip cameras with the audio attached. So we had to export the audio tracks from Premiere, and then import them into Vegas and sync the audio with the visuals.

I was told that this was actually a quite valuable experience, because real-world conditions for indie journalists in Georgia are pretty much like this. Working on cobbled-together secondhand equipment in sweltering offices, where the electrical power is subject to sporadic outages. And when the wind shifts to blow in over the nearby market … well, you want to close the windows, no matter how hot & humid it is.

I just noticed – my arms look inordinately long in this photo.

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Mar 27

Saviors Rejected: How GM Refused to Change, and What Newspapers Can Learn From Their Example


Posted: under Digital Migration, journalism, Newspaper Deathwatch.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

GM’s NUMMI plant in Fremont was the solution to their crisis.      So why did they ignore its lessons?


I strongly urge you to listen to this great piece from This American Life about the NUMMI auto plant in Fremont.

They don't make 'em like this any more. Even so, the rear bumper had to be reattached.

It’s about how the U.S. auto industry could have saved itself by actually paying attention to the way its business was eroding, and listening to the people who came back from Japan and transformed the Fremont plant from a place that was “like a prison … with sex, drugs and alcohol freely indulged in during the working day … where the workers maliciously sabotaged cars, and the managers didn’t care, as long as they got their bonuses for churning out pure numbers…”

…into a place where the workers actually looked forward to coming to work each day, and where the quality of the cars they turned out was so high, that even now, 22 years later, many of those cars are still on the road. NUMMI stands for “New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc.” and there is an excellent Wikipedia entry about it, if you want to get a little more background.

The situation bears a strong resemblance to the newspaper industry, and the reason papers are in the same place as the auto industry. Let’s take a look at the places where the news industry and the auto industry screwed the pooch:

1. Starting in the 80s and going through the 90s, sales declined, as customers were turned off by the shoddy quality of the product


In the auto industry:
anyone who drove a U.S.-made car in the 80s knows what I’m talking about. Everything about the cars sucked. The seats were uncomfortable to sit in, the controls made no sense and were hard to deal with.  I drove a lot of rental cars in that era, and I can’t tell you how many times the A/C control knob came off in my hand. Or the windshield wiper knob was installed upside-down. In one case, the bolt holding the steering column up on a Chevy Cavalier came loose and the steering wheel dropped into my lap. Which is minor, compared to the engines seizing and misfiring, the electrical system shorting out, the windows not rolling up (or down), the doors sagging on their hinges…

In the newspaper industry: the buyouts and mergers started by the relaxation of the cross-ownership rule, caused many papers to skeletonize their staffs, and run big colorful graphics in the papers. And lots more wire copy. I worked at the Arizona Republic during this era, and I saw what they were doing on “Zone Editions.”  We had the same cruddy stories for Mesa, as we did Tempe, as we did Scottsdale. They were feature stories about things like a guy with a trained parrot that would whistle and dance. We’d run it one week in the Mesa zone, and then the next week, I’d see it in the queue again for Scottsdale. Mostly, the Zone Editions were there to snarf up the advertisers in those areas, and make sure that no competition sprang up to challenge the big paper. “It doesn’t pay NOT to advertise,” was the slogan, and it was true, because of the package deals the Republic was able to offer, sucking the oxygen out of the local markets.  Most papers had a monopoly position in their markets, and could pretty much be assured of making a profit, no matter what they did. Meanwhile, the readers were starting to notice that their newspapers were lacking … how shall we say this … news.

2. The workers felt ignored and belittled, so they began to act out, and a “give a shit” attitude took over

In the auto industry: the line workers had no power to offer suggestions, and indeed, were punished for speaking up. All that mattered was churning out enough cars to meet the quotas, no matter how shitty the quality. Resentfulness led to workers intentionally sabotaging cars, which led to even greater expense down the line, when the shitty cars had to be fixed by workers who really didn’t understand what was wrong with them, and just used the “bigger hammer” method to make cross-threaded bolts hold, or quarterpanels stick onto the chassis.

In the news industry: a kind of rebellious fatalism took hold in newsrooms, both in print and TV. The reporters knew the bosses really didn’t give a shit about the news, they just wanted something that would get good ratings and not get them sued. Every TV producer I have ever met would, with little encouragement, go off about the corporate “suits” that were putting the vise on the newsrooms to “pop a number.” Reporters that dared to try to make suggestions about long-term changes (like less coverage of O.J. Simpson, and more of things like the erosion of middle-class opportunities) were ignored. Newsrooms have always been “simmering cesspools of cynicism,” but this morphed into outright nihilism and rage.

3. A temporary bubble allowed the industry to rack up easy profits and postpone change

In the auto industry: The Bush-Cheney “let’s consume as much oil as we can” faction pushed through a tax break in the early ’00s that meant that people who leased a “light truck over 6,000 pounds” could write off the cost of the car.  Free SUVs for Everyone! What this did was support the Big Three, despite their declining market share, because they were making so damn much money off producing big fat gas-guzzling SUVs and selling them for massive mark-ups.  The SUV was actually pretty cheap to make – but Detroit was able to charge about $10-$20,000 more for them. And, of course, when the tax break ran out — and gas prices skyrocketed — the end of the free cars on the taxpayer’s dime era left GM without a viable product to sell, as consumers looked for more efficient cars.

In the newspaper industry: the subprime mortgage/real-estate boom created a huge advertising windfall for newspapers. The Homes section of the LA Times was often larger than the rest of the newspaper combined.  Thousands of pages of expensive classified ads, paid for by realtors who were so awash in free money that they didn’t care what the cost was. Of course, the rest of the classified business was absolutely cratering at this time.  When the real-estate market imploded, and advertisers abandoned newspapers, looking for more efficient ways to sell their products, newspapers were also left without a viable product to sell. 

4. The industry blamed the people who were honestly pointing out the flaws

In the auto industry: the Detroit execs blamed Consumer Reports for pointing out that the cars they were inflicting on the American people were utterly without redeeming community value. They claimed that the Dirty F’n Hippies at Consumer Reports were biased towards the Japanese, were anti-American traitors, and were unfairly criticizing patriotic Americans. The U.S. cars were better, if only people would realize that.  The industry was in complete denial about how the auto-buying public had turned against it, after years of enduring an abusive and exploitative relationship, and how even Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers who fondly remembered their high school days when they got their first muscle cars, were fed up with cars that broke down or rolled over, killing their families.

In the newspaper industry:
the newsrooms blamed the internet. They still blame the internet. They see the competition on the internet as being anti-American, that the public was deluded by web-based hucksters, and that imposing paywalls would make people realize how much they really needed to pay for news. No matter that the readers and advertisers have made their preferences clear – they must be MADE to come back and obey.

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Feb 09

Newspapers to TV, Movies: “We arrived in separate ships, but we’re in the same boat now”


Posted: under journalism, new media, newspaper crisis, Newspapers.
Tags: , , , , , ,

Signs were there that DVD sales were about to implode; industry ignored all warnings

To anyone in the newspaper industry, the parallels are eerie. The disruptive technology is introduced, and people with the ability to look beyond this quarter’s P&L statement say, “Oh-oh. Something’s in the wind. We gotta take a look at this, maybe start shifting some resources into R&D, or we could blow up in a couple years.”

To which the guys at the top of the company, whose fat year-end bonuses are tied to keeping costs to a bare minimum, while sucking off as much spare cash as possible, say, “You’re out of your mind. Things are going great. You wanna break them? Siddown and shut up – we know what we’re doing – look at all the money we’re making. Instead, we’re going to double down on our bets, and buy up & consolidate our monopolistic position.”

And then the day arrives. The P&L shows a massive die-off in the one area that the whole house of cards depends on as a crucial revenue stream.

The guys at the top immediately point fingers at the internet & start screaming.

That day arrived last week at Sony Pictures, and The Media Wonk has a great write-up, running down all the relevant stats and the various time-wastes along the way.  He points fingers at Blu-Ray as a massive time, money & effort Black Hole that hasn’t stepped up to replace the revenues that are being lost via plain old DVD sales going bye-bye. Viz:

The need for a viable post-DVD digital strategy has been blindingly obvious for most of the past decade. But instead of focusing on that existential challenge, the industry wasted four years on Blu-ray, an absurd format that addressed no identifiable consumer demand that could not have been met years earlier, more cheaply and with less consumer confusion with readily available alternatives, like HD DVD or even red-laser DVDs.

The industry is still wasting time and resources trying to invent uses for Blu-ray to justify the time and cost sunk into it.

Hitting the snooze button when the alarm goes off doesn’t mean that what happens in the meantime is beyond your control. It means you’re asleep.

If I can extrapolate from the behavior I’ve witnessed in my friends, some of whom are the greatest TV & movie aficionados I’ve ever met; the type of people who can go one for an hour about how David Duchovny’s characterization of Fox Mulder owed more to John Wayne in The Searchers than, as is commonly (and erroneously) thought, the seminal Darren McGavin in Kolchak: The Night Stalker.

When DVDs came out, they were such an improvement over the jittery, fragile VHS tapes that we loaded up on them. All the extras – the audio tracks, the Easter Eggs – oh, they were sah-weet. We’d have parties where we’d go through our favorite movies and break it all down – because now, when we freeze-framed, it was a perfect picture, not that damned bent image with static bars at the top & bottom, the way VHS shafted us.

And then something happened. We had a whole shelf – maybe a coupla shelves. Maybe even a whole room – full of DVDs.  Alphabetized, categorized.

And we didn’t watch them anymore.

Why should be drag out a DVD, fire up the player, switch the Video1 to Video2 – just to sit through something we’ve already seen … when the TiVo has something fresh & new?  There has to be a real dearth of new material that’s any good before we’ll go to the archives for some nostalgia.

The success of the studios & networks in setting up all these TV channels & alternative means of distribution of content has also been its undoing.  If I don’t have to shell out $24 for a movie – when I can just stream it over Netflix, or better yet, see something new on my DVR – then why would I spend my increasingly scarce hard-earneds?

Technology alone didn’t change consumer behavior. It wasn’t the internet’s fault. It’s just that when alternatives opened up – when true competition arrived on the market – all of a sudden, the old Walled Gardens, with their high price to enter and their restrictive DRM – those places became not so fun to hang out it. So we all left. Gradually, but in increasing numbers.

The crisis that newspapers have faced for the last 5-10 years — the TV and movie industry is about to fall into that same Black Hole, for the same reasons, and apparently is determined to attempt the same half-measures to turn the clock back to where it used to be.  Look for a lot of appeals to Congress for restrictive legislation, blaming “piracy” and “content thieves,” and then resorting to a death spiral of cutting costs and putting out shoddier products.

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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 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.

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Jun 29

Duce: The Cat Who Would Not Be Caged


Posted: under journalism.
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

On Friday, I lost my cat Duce to a terrible and swift-striking illness. I am going to devote this post to remembering him, because he was such a large & special part of my life for the last 8 years.  This is the last notice my friend will receive on this earth, and I want to do this right, to honor what he meant to me and to the other people he charmed and brightened the lives of.

If this strikes you as over the top, please click over to the regularly scheduled media criticism & analysis; but let me have a moment here, please, because this has struck me at a deep & unexpected level.

Our Honeymoon Never Ended

Our Honeymoon Never Ended

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Apr 24

Friday Noon Videos – Best of the Web Week of April 24, 2009


Posted: under Amusing Nonsense, journalism, Online Video, Video.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Last week at the International Symposium of Online Journalists in Austin, I presented a series of viral videos to make the point that the national discourse is no longer “owned” by what we think of as professional media.  It may seem like a trivial point, when compared to the other nuclear meltdown-level emergencies of declining advertising, lack of a sustainable business model for the future, declining audience share, sky-high debt loads, etc. – but I believe that adapting ourselves to this new environment is the first step towards resolving these other problems.

I asked the audience how many of them "got" the central image here, and could put it into its viral meme context.

I asked the audience how many of them "got" the central image here, and could put it into its viral meme context.

Over at the Online Journalism Review, Robert Niles makes a compelling and far more comprehensive argument about why the whole concept of ownership of the news & the national conversation has been toxic to the mainstream media’s efforts at retaining its audience share.

Another point that I tried to make was that it is OK to use humor in your reportage, now and again. The relentless barrage of bad news these days is making us all a little crazy (see this excellent Newsweek article on this topic).  There’s a reason that John Stewart & Stephen Colbert are so popular – they report on the news, they give it the kind of context that is so often missing on these stories, and they do it in a way that makes us crack a smile.  It’s the voice that I remember from my early b.s. sessions at seedy bars with grizzled news veterans.  It’s a human voice. The voice that says, “Well, y’know, I hadda write the story about [local businessman X] getting the Nice Guy award for the paper. But the funny thing is that everyone knows that he’s a screaming tyrant whose wife tried to run away…”

It’s the kind of voice that can re-establish the trust that our audience has lost in us.  The one that doesn’t feel the need to kneel and genuflect at the altar of he-said she-said “objectivity.” The one that can make us feel informed, energized, and in control a bit – because things that we can laugh at are no longer quite so scary.

[And yeah, I know, my much-promised blog post about the effects of fear in the media on all of us is still in the works. Forgive me.]

So for all of you trapped in office cubicles, or just in need of a bit of diversion at the end of the week, here are the top viral videos:

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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.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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. Singleparentcity.com and Filmson.com – 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 09

Ukrainian Sarah Palin Berated by Exasperated Director


Posted: under journalism, new media, Online Video, Politics & New Media.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Hire this director and have him start whipping Christian Bale into shape.

This video had my class rolling with laughter – it’s slightly NSFW (mainly with the cussing in the subtitles, although if your office has Russian speakers, they might object).

This is the mayor of Kharkov, and he was trying to record a TV campaign commercial, but couldn’t manage to string enough coherent words together to spit out a sentence. Apparently, he’s notoriously stupid – “The Sarah Palin of Ukraine” – and is the subject of much mockery & head-shaking.

I was particularly impressed by the torrent of expletive-laced abuse hurled at this guy by the director (who we see in some of the early shots). I think this must have come at the end of an exhausting filming session, because the director is just going off on him in a way that would put Joe Pytka to shame.

Gems include: “Try to have an expression. Come on, at least try. Let’s go, let’s go.” “Misha, stop this crap.  Really, stop it.”

D: “Why the fuck did you take your hand away?
M:”I finished?”

D: “So fucking what. You finished! Sit one second, motherfucker. OK, we have to do this all over again. From the top…”

D: “Your face is boring. Nobody is going to give you any money.”

Please, can anyone out there who has access to the footage of Palin campaign commercial filming post the outtakes to the web? Because I think the wolf-shootin’ turky-genocidin’ Caribou Barbie must’ve had sessions like this.  Then again, maybe she had the offending directors fed to polar bears.

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