Monthly Archives: March 2009

Media bailout insanity

Having watched as shovelfuls of public money has been heaped on bankers and, lately in the US, should-be bankrupt car makers, a production editor friend and I joked that it would be nice to see the government bail out the ailing publishing industry. 

Unbelievably, it seems that this is actually being talked about in La-La land [now clearly the whole US, not just LA]. 

From The Nation via Reason magazine:

Just as there came a moment when policy-makers recognized the necessity of investing tax dollars to create a public education system to teach our children, so a moment has arrived at which we must recognize the need to invest tax dollars to create and maintain news gathering, reporting and writing with the purpose of informing all our citizens.

Frankly, this is insane. If print publishing is on the ropes because not enough people now want to pay money for it, then clearly its time is up. Prop it up with subsidies and, worse, exclude new competition like the web by, say, requiring blogs to be licensed, and you stifle free expression [ie people writing stuff about stuff], and also stunt technological advancement. 

A cautionary tale is how AT&T resisted the technological advances that would become the web a few decades ago.

From the 1950s through the 1970s, AT&T—while creating the greatest network on earth—also killed long-distance competition, bottled up new technologies like the cell phone and home answering machine, and resisted the innovations that were later known as “the Internet.”  

Vested interests don’t like change. And that generally isn’t in the interests of people. Even if they claim it is. 

The car bailout is barking enough. No one wants to buy GM cars. Put it through Chapter 11, restructure it, get rid of the crappy management, which could be done without Executive Order, and make better things cheaper. Or go bust. Whatever replaces it will offer jobs making better stuff that more people want to buy. That’s basically how it works. 

But a publishing bailout? This is the height of insanity.

[HT: Coyote]

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How the internet destroys history

I’ve just finished reading Travels In Nihilon, a satirical 1971 novel by Alan (Angry Young Man) Sillitoe, who also wrote Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Loneliness of The Long-Distance Runner.

He’s not that popular now, and, of the three, probably no one will have heard of the first (though I’m sure Loneliness was a set book at school back in the 1970s). 

It’s a quirky read (five writers visit the anarchistic country of Nihilon to write a guidebook and end up precipitating a war and a coup), but given its age, it can be difficult to see exactly what the target of the satire is – even for an old crock like me who was around at the time. There is a quick reference to Nihilon being Britain, but is it a satire on the national character? The government of the time? The end of flower power? I have no idea.

No problem, I thought, I’ll just pop along to the internet and find a Sillitoe web site or a blog about it. After all – the internet has everything.

Not so, gentle reader! For the internet actually has a very limited range of everything on it. 

About the only comment specifically about the novel was an enthusiastic if undeveloped review on Amazon. And while there were some bio pages on Alan Sillitoe on the web, they clearly don’t reckon much to Travels In Nihilon, as it barely features.

Pick a novel, or film, or play from the past decade and things change completely of course. There’s sure to be material about them online because:

  • Their creator will probably be web-savvy and will have some kind of internet presence or, failing that, their publisher or producer will. 
  • Whatever media notice their work has garnered will also be on the web, as sometime in the mid-to-late 1990s is when the mainstream began to go online. [NB Update: I’ve since discovered that newspapers staked their claim on the web earlier than I had thought – but this timeframe is roughly accurate for mainstream UK media I think].

Go back 20 years or more and all that goes. There will be a wealth of reviews and commentary from the early 1970s about Travels In Nihilon, but they’ll be buried in Colindale Newspaper Library (which is well worth a visit by the way, for those who can get there). Or there will be academic criticism on Sillitoe, which will involve actually, you know, finding and reading a real book.

It’s not that there is no history on the web – but what is covered will depend on how significant it is (there’ll be lots on the Second World War and Shakespeare, for instance), or how recent it is (loads on everything that’s happened, no matter how trivial, from the past decade).

Look for more obscure or local history – or literature – from before 1995 and you’re scuppered.

As an example, a friend of mine asked me to research an air crash in London in the early 1950s, in which the pilot, who had been engaged to her mother, was killed. It turns out the crash happened in Mill Hill, where I grew up, and was, understandably, a big news story locally in October 1950.

The headline from the Hendon and Finchley Times was: 

28 die in Mill Hill garden

Local residents’ narrow escapes in borough’s biggest air disaster

Wow. Today, that would have made national broadcast and print media news – and been everywhere on the web. Back then – well, it had a splash in the local paper and I think the enquiry was reported in the Times.

Of course, they’d just been though the War, so they had probably had enough of disaster news. But the event has almost entirely disappeared from the national consciousness. If you want proof, look on the web and try to find it. I bet you can’t (except here, now, of course). 

One response is that the information has not disappeared – it’s just available in a different, paper, form. But actually, as far as today’s media is concerned, that’s as good as saying it has been destroyed. Because we in the media simply don’t do that kind of real, paper-based research anymore. 

Not all publishing companies bothered having a physical library of its output and of other publications, but those that did have been busily making them redundant over the past few years. Haymarket is one I know of. It’s understandable as a business decision – a library takes up space and costs salaries to maintain. It’s a no-brainer to move your content online and let people access the great sluice of the internet for that and the rest of the world’s knowledge. 

But it has its downside. Not least of which is how easy it is to lose your online content (as I have noted before). Not to mention the lack of old-but-not-quite-ancient content from the web. 

It means that suddenly journalists have developed a completely truncated view of history. No one has the time or inclination to research pieces beyond a quick Google search, which means that our collective knowledge has become drastically impoverished. 

I’m guilty too. Last week I was researching some content for a Dorling Kindersley business book (1,000 CEOs! Reserve your copy for Christmas!). I was writing a short profile on BBC director-general Mark Thompson and wanted to find the text of the speech he gave in 1997 that was regarded as his big break in TV management. 

There were references to it, sure. From the Independent online in 2002 comes:  

His crucial lucky moment came at the 1997 Royal Television Society convention in Cambridge, when he stepped in at the last minute to make a speech. He spoke passionately about what the BBC meant to him, of how its programmes were crafted with pride “like home-made, carefully prepared food”. Greg Dyke, then chief executive of Pearson Television, was there and met Thompson for the first time that day. The two hit it off and once he became director-general of the BBC, Dyke promoted him to head of television.

But could I find an actual transcript from the event? No chance. And the reason is in that date: 1997. Just before media content started going online as a matter of course.

It’s not that I want to go back to the dark ages before the Wikipedia. God, no. My life has been made immeasurably easier by the web, and allowed me to do work from the comfort of my sofa that would have been unthinkable a decade ago. 

But I do find it disturbing that there is a whole chunk of history that is not only inaccessible to the modern media and has been forgotten, but that it is as if it has never existed. 

Big Brother? George Orwell would have been so proud…

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The opposite of greenwash

Everyone in journalism knows about greenwash – where companies or governments talk big about their environmental credentials, but actually fail to deliver. Weirdly, I’ve just been experiencing the exact opposite (what’s that even called?).

In my real freelance life – where I write stuff for people that I’ll actually get paid for, unlike here – I’ve been asked to write a piece on recycling for the excellent Packaging News (oh, the glamour!). Pretty straightforward stuff – tracking the progress of the stuff in a green bin to its final destination and describing what happens to it.

So – I’m dealing with companies whose whole purpose is to recycle stuff (which is two thumbs up in the collective estimation right now) and whose web sites spend a lot of time extolling the benefits of recycling (well, it’s their livelihood I suppose, so you’d expect that). But do they return my calls? Not so much. 

So far, I’ve had one total cold shoulder (thanks Jayplas)  and two that have been like pulling teeth. (And given that one of these was Tetra Pak, with its very own professional PR agency in tow, that shouldn’t have been the way it went down.)

 Don’t get me wrong – no one has to talk to irritating journalists like me, and I don’t believe we in the media have a god-given right to expect answers from anyone (though we do have the right to ask the questions). But seriously – you’re in recycling and someone asks you to pimp the work you do for a recycling feature? And you don’t pick up the phone? That seems pretty dumb.

So, for what it’s worth, they get a nice snarky plug here, and I vent a little. Oh the delights of the freelance life…

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Young people aren’t quite the web experts you think they are

Just finished my first teaching session at Solent University – giving first year journalism students an introduction to web audio.

It all went fine – certainly I had no trouble from the IT, unlike other teaching experiences I’ve had [*cough* UCA], and the students were, in the way of all the journalism students I’ve taught so far, very pleasant young people.

It’s interesting though, that the preconceptions of most old folks [read: over 35] about youth being super web-literate don’t quite match up to reality.

There is an exception, of course, which we’ll get to in a bit. But ask most young students about the web, everything from podcasts to blogging, and they just don’t seem that interested.

My lot today were about 60:40 uninvolved with web audio. A few of them had listened to mainstream podcasts – Ricky Gervais, for example, or Jon Richardson on 6Music, or the Radio 1 podcast. But many hadn’t been exposed to audio content at all – and certainly not from the more eccentric fringes of the web, such as special interest sci-fi fan-podcasts, freewheeling political commentry or techno-geekery. 

In a similar way, my first year UCA blogging students don’t really seem that interested in blogs as a communications tool – the vast majority don’t spend time posting to their blog, seeing it as more a chore they have to do in class than the chance to self-publish and build a portfolio, while learning about building an audience on the way.

It’s a puzzle. Especially given the exception I noted above. The exception is – obviously – Facebook. 

Students spend lots of time on Facebook: building their profile, networking, taking an interest in their peer group. And, yes communicating in a way that doesn’t seem to come so naturally in their actual journalism studies.

Why should this be?

I’m beginning to wonder if the web as it is understood by even the most internet-savvy old-school media professionals is the real future of internet communications.

Old-style publishing hacks like me and my peers think we’re really ahead of the curve by blogging, understanding web analytics and talking about podcasts. But in reality perhaps what we are doing is just mapping old ways about thinking about media on to the new form. Maybe podcasts are nothing more than ham radio updated for the 21st century. And as for blogging – well, as Wired said a few months ago: Twitter, Flickr, Facebook Make Blogs Look So 2004.

Newspapers already have their own Facebook groups, and, yes, the New York Times has all of 362,457 fans.  (The Plymouth Herald went one better and launched a social networking site of its own, though the move seems a little pointless [HT: Martin Stabe/Andy Dickinson]). But I think they are only scratching the surface. 

The big challenge – for journalism generally and people like me trying to teach it – is to understand what journalism will be in the future. It’s not just old media spruced up for interactivity, even on Facebook. It’s a radically new way of communication. Maybe it’s not just the business model of journalism that is broken. Maybe our cultural ideas of journalism are completely outdated too. 

And maybe that’s the reason that my first years seem so disconnected with what we oldies think of as cutting edge media.

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Mark Kermode plays folk

Legendary (or mouthy, depending on your stance) film critic Mark (”The Exorcist is the best film ever made”) Kermode had another life in the late 1980s in which he made this demo of anti-war folk song The Recruiting Sergeant. I was on bass, which is why I can post this with impunity.

Of course, the real reason to post this is because I am trying to figure out how to post audio into WordPress.com. As this isn’t yet self-hosted, it’s quite tricky to make the coding work. However – as this seems to have been successful, here’s the beginner’s guide (there’s lots of white space around the audio player, so you’ll need to scroll down about half a mile to see it). [UPDATE: finally figured out how to solve this].

Vodpod videos no longer available.

  1. Register with VodPod. This is a site that allows you to collect and share your favourite videos from around the web. It also lets you publish them to WordPress.com blog posts. Videos? Yes – but aha! It also treats audio files the same way, so you can post your podcasts and MP3s too.
  2. Record your audio. This was done in a dank basement studio in High Barnet in about 1988 for some reason, as I recall. So technically I did this as step 1. I was going to post our version of And The Band Played Walzing Matilda, which is actually quite good, but then I realised it was still in copyright. This is traditional I think, so it should be OK.
  3. Upload it to your third-party host. I chose Podbean – for no other reason than it was the first one in the Google search results that seemed to work, was free and had a reasonably friendly interface.
  4. Copy the embed code. Podbean has this easily to hand at the bottom of the audio post. Well done Podbean.
  5. Add your video to VodPod. Once you log into VodPod, there’s a link to do this on the top menu bar. Click through and go to the “paste embed code” tab. Paste the code and click on “Preview”. Then click on the “Save to  VodPod” tab.
  6. Publish to WordPress. Once the audio/video is in VodPod, click through to it. Underneath the content is a “Share” button. One of the options is WordPress. Choose that and it asks you for the WordPress blog URL and your WordPress password. Live dangerously and reveal it. Then give your post a name and send to the editor.
  7. Edit in WordPress. Switch to your WordPress dashboard and you can edit the post for publishing.

It’s a bit round the houses, but incredibly it seems to work OK. Of course, if you are using the proper WordPress software on your own host, all this is redundant. I’ll be making that leap quite soon I think.

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Dilbert and deadlines

Curses: I’ve just discovered the 7,000-plus Dilbert strip archive on Scott Adams’ web site. This is a productivity disaster, of course, especially as I’m going to press. But I thought this strip about the recent spate of government bailouts was pretty much on the money.

Now – if I can just navigate away before my deadlines nail me to the wall… 

Dilbert.com

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Journalists still don’t understand that everything is changing

As the news hits that the Seattle Post-Intelligencer goes web-only, one of its columnists blames bad management rather than, say, revolutionary social and technological change for the looming death of the American newspaper.

Instead of using the Internet as a complement to its print product, the industry went chasing after the Web and offering its most valuable property — the news it so carefully and expensively gathered — for free, while chasing the chimera that online advertising would support the whole thing.

Well. Yes. 

Actually, the P-I’s Bill Virgin does acknowledge the changes going on in the world (“external factors”), such as the web, no one under the age of 30 paying for anything digital, and a savage publishing recession. But he thinks bad management is more important.

I really don’t. 

Yes, I think publishing can be badly managed. But I think the seismic shift of costly analogue to free digital – with the free extending not just to the product but also to the means of publishing (look, I’m doing it too) – will just wipe away the old way of newspaper publishing, irrespective of that.

No, I’m not saying that is an unalloyed good. But the main loss will be to media owners, publishers, journalists – not to society or the public at large. 

I’m risking just parroting Clay Shirky’s essay on the web publishing revolution. So I won’t – just follow the link. 

But I think it’s worth noting that Bill Virgin at the Seattle P-I just doesn’t get it even as his world crumbles around him. That’s how powerful our preconceptions about how publishing and journalism should look are. [UPDATE: I’ve just stumbled across (though not stumbledupon) Recovering Journalist’s definition of this. Bill Virgin is a printie apparently]

[HT: Media UK Press]

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