Saturday, February 2, 2008

[Media] Rogue Columnist on the Newspaper Industry

This is really, really good, one of the best "this is what's wrong with the newspaper industry" pieces I've ever seen:

Mary McCarthy said famously of Lillian Hellman: “Every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the’.”

It’s tempting to say the same about the many diagnoses of what ails the newspaper world. We hear endlessly that the troubles are a result of the Internet, new technology, “people don’t read anymore,” and, my favorite, “people don’t have as much time as they used to.” As if there was once a 36-hour day, or people who once worked 12-hour shifts while raising large families had this abundance of time.

These forces are real. And yes, a big swath of the public is distracted by celebrity gossip and gets its “news” from blogs, television and talk radio. What’s less noted is how newspapers themselves contributed to the dumbing down of America. What’s most frustrating is that the discussion fails to focus on the more significant reasons behind the decline in newspaper journalism. They are:

Go read for the reasons.

[Web] Instapaper

Just found this via Notes from a Teacher:

Go there, follow the instructions, and it acts much like the Read it Later add-on for Firefox. You add a "Read Later" button to your bookmark toolbar, then click it every time you want to save something. When you want to go read something you've marked, go to, log in, and read away.

The Add-On might be more useful, but I like the interface of instapaper.

[Journalism] The Nichification of the Media

OK, this turned out to be much longer than I thought it would be. I'm going to preface it by saying I'm not going to address the question of reporting in this post. Maybe in another one. I'll also say that thus far, this is a bit disjointed. Please flame away. That said....

I think this post is pretty accurate.... probably:

Media are mutating from mass to niche. OK. We get that.


That recess is a subtraction from the wall and that subtractive quality is what struck me this morning when I read a blurb in Paid Content announcing that a former Boston Globe political columnist will become managing editor of, a soon-to-be network of state-specific political news websites that appear poised to sprout from the New York Observer, the political weekly based in Manhattan.

1. The move from mass to niche is, indeed, correct, and is in no small part web/technology-driven. The ease with which information is moved around means that "newspapers" are less and less useful (or viable) as a way to organize information. Newspapers are tied to specific locations, to geography. The web is not. Which one will win in the long run among people who have grown up on the web?

2. Please note that #1 does not mean that newspapers will die out completely. The newspaper as a singular focal point of news, as an object around which content is structured, will undergo (and is already undergoing) significant changes, potentially losing most of its status.

This is also pretty astute:

Rather this announcement is a case is exemplary of the subtraction that has started and will continue to hit the journalism side of media just as it has already rocked the business side of media. We’re all familiar with this latter concept. Craig’s List started to subtract classified ad revenues; et all started to poach on the job-wanted ads; Yahoo and its cohort have siphoned off display advertising, and so on.

Think of the Associated Press as the predecessor to this movement on the content side. Now add a heavy dose of topical breakdown to that, and you're getting somewhere.


[T]he inexorable power of nichification is driven by the impulse toward efficiency. Thats what economics is all about. The drive for efficiency. And in so many walks of life specialization is efficient. Boring, maybe, but efficient.

This is interesting. I think it's correct, but I also deplore it. Newspapers, for some reason (a relatively privileged position in society, perhaps) are pretty far behind most other social institutions when it comes to fragmentation and specialization as part of a quest for greater efficiency (after all, Taylorism was so 1920s... or at least 1970s).

I posted once, I think (though I can't find it at the moment) about the nature of modern capitalism: It likes specialization. It likes to break things into tinier and tinier pieces, each more specialized and specific than the tier before.

You can see this is modern production techniques, the creation of ever-smaller niche markets for products, and even in the further specialization of job roles.

The belief, of course, is that same efficiency that underlies MiniMedia's point. And that same efficiency is, I think, anathema to good journalism - and to the creation of a good newspaper. (It's also anathema to human nature, to being a grounded human being, but that's another post.)

MiniMedia's conclusion:

How well does that analogy transfer to content and how does all this play out? How the hell would I know. But I am certain that every force in the world of media is prying loose the mortar in that wall I depicted above, and popping out stones at an accelerating pace. What I lay awake some nights wondering is: how many stones have to pop out before the godamn wall breaks?

I vacillate on my answer to these sorts of question, but, as of today, I think the wall breaking will come in the form of a radical shift in the business side of journalism, in how people are paid and what kind of name is on the check (or direct deposit slip, ha-ha). It will be less noticeable when it comes to the act of reporting (and here I differ from a lot of folks who are talking about this on the web). Certainly there is, and will continue to be, an upswing in the use of multimedia (electronic paper, anyone?).... but I still think the fundamental idea behind most media - reporting the events of the world - will not change.

Part of me expects a rapid and radical proliferation of content-specific niche organizations, like the one mentioned in MiniMedia's blog post. Those orgs would then sell, AP-style, to other organizations that simply collated content to produce a geographically grounded product. It would mean the outsourcing of almost all news production from the newspaper company in question. (Here I'm thinking of places like Politico or perhaps The Hill.)

This has already happened in radio, to some extent, and with disastrous consequences. Many radio shows are produced in advance and in a different state in which they are played, which removes radio as a social medium, as participatory, as well as removing the possibility for local, updated content.

Newspapers, on the other hand, are becoming more participatory in a sense, with the proliferation of comment-enabled websites and acceptance of the occasional bit of user-generated content. So that difference exists, and is important.

But what about the hyperlocal? I think it will still be produced locally, though certainly there is a question of resources - small newspapers can rarely afford to fund quality investigative journalism, or even comprehensive coverage (and certainly both the Lebanon Express and OSU's Daily Barometer are examples of this, albeit very different ones). There's also the question of user-generated content and what role that will play on the hyperlocal level.

I think users will have to take over more of a role. It's Indymedia meets the SPJ, and there's already one hell of a collision going on (see, for example, the reporting being done at leading political blogs like TPM or Firedoglake). But both sides are going to have to play nice sooner rather than later if anyone is interested in quality journalism surviving.

So what's my verdict? Change is a-comin', and as Mark over at Notes From a Teacher says on a near-daily basis, we (as a society) need to start changing the way we train and teach people to participate in the world of journalism - if that, is we are interested in seeing journalism survive in a useful form. I, for one, am definitely interested in that.

[LCSD] A Question

If Rick Alexander is as smart and caring as his supporters maintain, why does he come across during district meetings as someone who doesn't care to work with others or follow the rules?

I realize the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but as a general observation, being smart and caring about the future of the district and its students would, I think, lead one to be interested in working with other district staff/school board members/etc as well as actually reading the relevant materials (board policies and procedures, the Sand Ridge Report, etc).

So what's the deal? How can we explain the apparent disjunct between the claims made by Rick's supporters and what myself and plenty of other folks have seen with our own eyes at board meetings?

To wit: If Rick is really such a good guy to have on the school board, then why does he keep sandbagging half the board as well as the district staff?

Any thoughts?

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

[Journalism] What Do You Want in an Industry?

Found at Notes From a Teacher, this...

I don’t want to work for an industry that is content with the status quo.

I don’t want to work for an industry that is afraid of innovation.

I don’t want to work for an industry that blames its readers when things go bad.

I don’t want to work for an industry that is scared of risk — and success.

I don’t want to work for an industry that is scared of change.

I don’t want to work for an industry that is afraid to have a conversation with its users.

I don’t want to work for an industry that is content to die.

I want to work for an industry that believes in its audience.

I want to work for an industry that can admit it was wrong.

I want to work for an industry that has the audacity to innovate.

I want to work for an industry that always wants to improve, even when it’s on top.

I want to work for an industry that always strives to be the best.

I want to work for an industry that believes there is no such thing as good enough.

I want to work for an industry that puts innovation first.

If this is the last stand for the American Newspaper, I don’t want to go out without a fight. I want to shatter paradigms, destroy cherished icons and push the envelop of innovation. And if all those efforts fail, I want try again.

I don’t want to admit defeat without at least trying. If I lose, I want it to be because I had nothing left to give. I don’t want to lose because I decided it was too hard to win.

I want the audacity of ambition — and innovation.

What do you want?

As Mark at Notes says, this is a great basis for an exercise.

Also, I like destroying cherished icons. What can I say? I'm a bad person like that.

[Old Media] Since When is Open Sexism Acceptable in the Pages of the Democrat-Herald?

A letter to the editor in the DH:

Flying in style

I have a suggestion on how we could save the taxpayers of this great country money on jet fuel costs for Air Force One.

Vote for Hillary; she could travel on her broom.

Donald A. Parker, Albany

Let's be clear: The fact that this is a letter in no way excuses the fact that sexist content appeared in the pages of the DH. The DH would have been perfectly within reason not to run this letter.

I know Hering's old and cranky, but this should be unacceptable to his (significantly younger) staff, at least - and enough so to raise a ruckus.

What gives?

I guess we can expect jokes about Barack Obama eating fried chicken and/or being lazy next.

I mean, what the hell, it's all just white people in the valley anyway, right?


Sunday, January 27, 2008

[LCSD] Interesting Letter to the Editor

From Sunday's DH:

I am writing in response to all of the articles that are currently in the paper regarding PIE and the Lebanon School District.

As an employee of Sand Ridge Charter School (which is operated by PIE) in the Lebanon School District (I hold a valid Oregon teaching license and have a master’s degree in education from Willamette University), I find all of this wrangling confusing. Somewhere we got lost in the stuff and forgot that really what schools are about is educating our children.

Why isn’t anyone asking how Sand Ridge is doing on this front? Are we getting the job done? Are we doing an adequate job, or are we doing an exceptional job?


The point I hope to make here is there are problems that are being fought out in the media amongst the higher powers, but down here in the trenches there are some very qualified teachers doing an exceptional job of educating tomorrow’s leaders. Isn’t that what schools are supposed to be about?

Naomi Villmann


But it also misses the point: If the contract PIE is operating under is being violated, if PIE is mixing funds it shouldn't, if PIE is failing to complete the administrative tasks it needs to, then PIE is putting all that good work being done at Sand Ridge at risk.

I don't think anyone (especially Robinson, frankly) is losing sight of the classroom here, and while Ms. Villman's letter seems sincere, when I see the "what about the children?" claim thrown out as an argument for ignoring what PIE (not to be confused with Sand Ridge) is doing, I have to wonder: Does the person advancing the argument really think that no one is thinking about the classroom, or is the person advancing the argument in order to draw attention away from the problems created by Jay Jackson or Rick Alexander?

[Hegemony] The U.S.'s Slow-Motion Swan Dive

From the New York Times, some good Sunday reading:

Turn on the TV today, and you could be forgiven for thinking it’s 1999. Democrats and Republicans are bickering about where and how to intervene, whether to do it alone or with allies and what kind of world America should lead. Democrats believe they can hit a reset button, and Republicans believe muscular moralism is the way to go. It’s as if the first decade of the 21st century didn’t happen — and almost as if history itself doesn’t happen. But the distribution of power in the world has fundamentally altered over the two presidential terms of George W. Bush, both because of his policies and, more significant, despite them. Maybe the best way to understand how quickly history happens is to look just a bit ahead.

It is 2016, and the Hillary Clinton or John McCain or Barack Obama administration is nearing the end of its second term. America has pulled out of Iraq but has about 20,000 troops in the independent state of Kurdistan, as well as warships anchored at Bahrain and an Air Force presence in Qatar. Afghanistan is stable; Iran is nuclear. China has absorbed Taiwan and is steadily increasing its naval presence around the Pacific Rim and, from the Pakistani port of Gwadar, on the Arabian Sea. The European Union has expanded to well over 30 members and has secure oil and gas flows from North Africa, Russia and the Caspian Sea, as well as substantial nuclear energy. America’s standing in the world remains in steady decline.

Why? Weren’t we supposed to reconnect with the United Nations and reaffirm to the world that America can, and should, lead it to collective security and prosperity? Indeed, improvements to America’s image may or may not occur, but either way, they mean little. Condoleezza Rice has said America has no “permanent enemies,” but it has no permanent friends either. Many saw the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq as the symbols of a global American imperialism; in fact, they were signs of imperial overstretch. Every expenditure has weakened America’s armed forces, and each assertion of power has awakened resistance in the form of terrorist networks, insurgent groups and “asymmetric” weapons like suicide bombers. America’s unipolar moment has inspired diplomatic and financial countermovements to block American bullying and construct an alternate world order. That new global order has arrived, and there is precious little Clinton or McCain or Obama could do to resist its growth.

I've been predicting a long, slow decline in US power along these lines for some time. Parag Khanna, the author, doesn't get at resource scarcity (which makes US military interventions more likely, which could change the equation), but I think Khanna is essentially correct: The US is a lumbering behemoth in the slow, painful process of crashing to the ground due to its own ignorance. (The epistemology of the Master-Slave dialectic seems ripe for application here.)

The only thing that prevents me from saying "it's about time" is the prospect that the US won't go quietly, and instead we're going to see lots more Iraq-style resource appropriation adventures/attempts at maintaining control in the near- to medium-future. You know, the kind that cause hundreds of thousands or millions of civilians to be killed or displaced. Blech.

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