Archive for the ‘journalism’ category

For Good Times In Cambridge: Fallows/Kummer and Merry White Distant Early Warning

December 2, 2013

Good stuff coming up this Thursday, Dec. 5.

First off:  I’ll be introducing The Atlantic’s James Fallows and Corby Kummer at the last MIT Communications Forum event of the year.  It’ll run from 5-7 in MIT building 66, room 110. (Map at the link.)

Fallows you all know, I think.  He’s been national correspondent at The Atlantic since forever, with a stint at Jimmy Carter’s head speechwriter thrown in.  He’s covered an enormous range of stories from a great range of places — Washington, Shanghai, Beijing,  and any civil aviation landing strip he can find.  Politics, flight, international relations, China-watching, beer and much more.  He’s a National Magazine Award and American Book Award winner.  Kummer is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he has shepherded many of its signature pieces from wisp in a writer’s eye to publication.  (He’s also one of America’s leading food writers, winner of 5 James Beard Journalism awards including one my previous post would suggest I find most impressive, the M. F. K. Fisher Distinguished Writing Award.

Here’s what the two of them will talk about: “Long Form Journalism: Inside The Atlantic.”

Mary_Cassatt_Woman_Reading_in_a_Garden

The session will focus on two questions: what goes into the making of a major piece of journalism.  First: what’s required to conceive, report, develop, refine, fix, verify, and then, finally, produce a long piece of writing that can both demonstrate the proposition and persuade its readers of its truth and importance.  Second: why such journalism matters (and, perhaps, some commentary on the curious fact that despite the internet’s supposed slaughter of attention, long form non-fiction seems it be entering something of a golden age.)

This will be videotaped, and I’ll post the clip and/or links to same when it goes live (and I  know that I’ve still got to get the promised Coates-Hertzberg video ready to roll…)  But if you’re in town on Thursday, this should be a good one.  We’ll probably be focusing on a single, maybe a couple of signature Fallows articles that went under Kummer’s watchful eye, and as I find out the texts, I’ll post those links in my next reminder.

The other event that Greater-Cambridge folks might want to check out is a truly happy book event for one of my oldest and dearest friends, Merry “Corky” White, (my college tutor, as it happens), whose classic Cooking for Crowds (illustrated by Koren!) is being re-iussed in a 40th anniversary edition.

Jan_Steen_-_Feast_of_the_Chamber_of_Rhetoricians_near_a_Town-Gate_-_WGA21727

She’ll be talking the book at Harvard Bookstore at 7 p.m. on Thursday — and I’ll be dashing as fast as I can from 02139 to 02138 to cheer her on.  If you can, you should too.  (No media for this one, alas.)

BTW: here’s the Amazon link to Corky’s book — but in the spirit of time, place and season, get it at Harvard Books if that’s near you, or from and the independent bookstore you normally use if you’re one of the lucky ones to still possess such a community treasure.

Images: Mary Cassat, Woman Reading in a Gardenbefore 1926

Jan Steen, Feast of the Rhetoricians Near a Town Gate, before 1679

Work the Referee

November 15, 2013

1932.262~02

Following DPM’s post below on Michael Shear’s ACA website woes = Katrina piece, let me urge y’all to let Mr. Shear know directly of the problems you find in the piece.

Click on the link just below his bio to email him.  Again, please do so firmly, but politely.  The goal is to get better work out of Mr. Shear in the future, not to leave him in a “f**k the hippies” state of rage.

What I told him, more or less, is that most of his piece ain’t bad — he does note, albeit not strongly enough for my taste, that a crappy website aint’t a physical disaster, and that Republicans have set obstacles in the way of fixing Obamacare, a level of obstruction that Bush never had to deal with. The biggest problem lies, I said, with his lede, his framing of the story as one in which Obama’s troubles are the same as Bush’s accepts the premise of the Republican opposition. Instead, I said, he should have begun by asking if that attempted framing were true…and then the rest of the story would have followed a much more sensible (and useful) path

In other words: the goal is to get Shear from building stories on crap foundations — and if you can let him know you noticed this time in a way that suggests he can do better — that can  help.

Work the refs people. It’s part of politics these days, and if we want out side to come out on top, we gotta do so.

Image: Thomas Eakins, Taking the Count1898.

For a Good Time In Cambridge — Hendrik Hertzberg/Ta-Nehisi Coates Edition (reminder)

October 29, 2013

Hey, all you Greater-Boston folk, a reminder:

Tonight at 7 at MIT, Ta-Nehisi Coates will talk to Hendrik Hertzberg about the state of opinion journalism…

Lesser_Ury_Im_Cafe_Bauer_1898

and the related matter of the debased (my word) state of American politics.

Location:  32-123, which translated out of MIT-speak, denotes the big first floor lecture hall in the Gehry-designed building known as the Stata Ctr., located at the corner of campus where Vassar St. hits Main. See this interactive map for details.

Ta-Nehisi, as most here know, is a blogger and senior editor at the Atlantic Monthly, writing about race, culture, politics, history, hip-hop, e-gaming, French language studies and anything else that comes to his notice.  Winner of the National Magazine Award for his essay “Fear of a Black President” he is also, to my great pleasure, my colleague in MIT’s Comparative Media Studies/Writing Program.  Hertzberg, senior editor and staff writer at The New Yorker led the New Republic won three NMAs, while taking home the hardware (is there any?) for his solo commentary at the home of the monocle and the top hat.  As I noted the first time I plugged this event, “he is one of those writers on whose work other writers take notes.  He takes writing very, very seriously — talking to one of Ta-Nehisi’s classes yesterday he let them know that the craft isn’t just hard for beginners, that he still sweats and agonizes over getting right with every single piece he publishes.

In other words — whether you want to know about the craft or the content of major-league political analysis, this should be a fun evening.

For those of you who cannot make your way to 02139 tonight, we will be recording the event, and though it may take a little bit, we’ll get the video up in reasonably short order.  I’ll let y’all know when and as that happens.

Image:  Lesser Ury, In the Cafe Bauer,  1898

The Best of Times (Good Reads Redux)

August 8, 2013

Fair warning:  What follows is ~3000 words on what a good time it is to find science fascinating.  Avoid if you’re not interested.

Given my day job teaching young writers about covering science, and given that we’re a month shy of the first day of classes for our next cohort of science-writing graduate students, I’ve been doing an informal survey of what’s out there as venues in which those folks will perform over the next few years.  And, as I suggested in this post, I came away with the somewhat unexpected sense that we are living in a genuinely great age for writing and the public engagement with science.

Science writers are fond of weeping in their cups* about the dire state of the traditional science media.  And they/we should.  MSM science writing is often said to have peaked in the so called “golden age” of the 80s.  That was when a whole new crop of science-technology-gee-whiz glossies appeared.  I think I listed a fair number of the new rags last time — Time Inc.’s Discover (my first real employer), Science 8X, Penthouse publication’s Omni** (founded 1978, actually) and others I’m blanking on, joining old stalwarts enjoying new interest – Scientific American, Popular Science, Science News,and others.  The end of the decade saw the birth of one of my all-time favorites, the short-lived, much missed Mondo 2000, and in the early 90s, you got Wired.

The NYT’s Science Times first appeared as a separate section on November 14, 1978.  It still exists, and is reasonably healthy — but diminished from its heydey.  Following the Grey Lady (no longer of) 43rd St., other newspapers built up their own dedicated science, technology and health desks.  There were lots of jobs to be had, a seemingly endless tally of stories to be written.

Juan_Gris_004

Part of the reason you saw such an expansion of science journalism was that the late 70s and onwards have been simply a fabulous time to be covering the beat.

Consider:

ITEM: You had the beginnings of the digital revolution ramping up into full scale insurrection over those years.  I didn’t grasp fully what it meant that I could haul my Kaypro C/PM driven, dual-disk drive machine down to the subway below the Time-Life Bldg., and then muscle it up to my fourth floor walk-up in Little Italy to pound away through the night — but I knew that this was a wholly different experience from the typewriter-and-carbons system I’d used just a year or two before to file from Manila and London.  I got the significance a little more when I first played with  the 300 baud modem I got with my TRS 100 (NEC clone, actually) notebook computer a couple of years later.***  But even if I was a little blase about this sudden appearance of computation in the nooks and crannies of my daily life, still, it was clear something big was in progress.

ITEM: Same for the molecular biology story.  As of 1980, it was still a huge deal to sequence a single gene, which meant that there was a lot of what looks from here to be dicey scientific claims and dicier stories about the “gene for (x)” — where x could be alcoholism or what have you.  But again, even if in those days both researchers and reporters leapt to conclusions actual biology would erode over time,**** it was clear that we were in the midst of transformative shift in the precision and levels of explanation — the understanding of causation — that biology could approach when it tackled life at the molecular level.  If we’ve learned that all the problems that seemed just one more DNA sequence short of solution are considerably more complicated than we might wish, still it’s not often you live through the kind of conceptual earthquake that occurred from the 70s to the 90s.  That it now seems obviously the necessary approach is just a measure of how powerful a wave it was then.

ITEM:  I could go on all day (and some might say I have).  The original Keck telescope saw first light with its complete 10 meter mirror on April 14, 1992 — an event that ended Mt. Palomar’s Hale telescope’s 45 year run as the world’s largest (high performance) optical telescope.*****  In the two decades since the Keck went live  — though I need to check this number — I believe more telescope observing area has been installed around the world than was used in the entire prior history of professional observing dating back to 1609.

Galileos_Moon

Throw in the Hubble, the other NASA “Great Observatories” — and the record of NASA’s other unmanned space-science missions – and you have a revolution in our knowledge of both the earth (remotely sensed from space) and our cosmic surroundings through incomprehensible ranges of space and time.  And then there’s…

…hell, you get the idea.  Oh Brave New World that has such knowledge in’t.

Science is still roaring along, of course, and  fundamental inquiry lands in technology with astonishing, daily-life-reworking speed.  I remember in 1983 taking a trip to the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, where a virtuoso microscopist showed me a video image of a segment of a neuron, saying “some think that’s where memory resides.”  This year I spent time at MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Science, and talked to someone who was tracing in high resolution images of living brains thinking the development of specialized systems of thinking about other people.  We live in amazing times; flat-out gorgeous, exciting times.

Only, not so much for science writers trained up as I was, in an ecosystem dominated by a robust print advertising model.  The newspaper science sections are gone, mostly, hundreds of them between 2000 and now.  Magazines have folded, or eroded into shadows of their former selves.   There’s a fragmentation of the business; there are these things that every graduate student seems to write — I think they’re called blogs and….

… you know this drill too.

But here’s a funny thing.  I do not believe there has been a better time to be a science reader. Ever.

Again, in that earlier post, I focused on a couple of fine articles turning up in one of the new venues for long-form science writing, London-based Aeon Magazine.******  Aeon is in some ways simply a digital expression of a conventional media type.  It publishes essays and features, nicely illustrated with a bit of flat art, just like a magazine on dead trees. But even with that utterly familiar genre focus, there is still this crucial difference:  that Aeon  is an all-digital production means that it has no constraint either as to the overall length of  the pieces it publishes, or to a need to cram its pieces into set frames, one page in the magazine for a short, say, and five for a full length feature.  The news hole is what it wants to be for each and every article it chooses to put out into the world.    This sounds like a small thing, or maybe just an obvious one — but it sets up a radically different writing framework than the one that I and my friends and colleagues encountered (and still do, sometimes) when working to the constraints of cold type.   Stories get to be what they need to be, and not what the issue-budget that month dictates.

(One corollary:  this puts a premium on the one true constraint in this new golden age:  excellent editing.  Long doesn’t mean good, unless it’s actually good, and the only way to be sure of that is if someone with a brain, an ear and a sharp red pencil is available to go to work on one’s deathless prose.)

Merely digitizing words, thus, opens up venues and forms to writers who could never have hoped to try that sort of thing when only The New Yorker and a handful of other rags would let their chosen few rabbit on until they were done.  We hear more voices, younger voices, more from across the gender line and so on, and that’s a big change.  Thus the importance not just of Aeon,  but of  MatterByliner (not just a science-themed site, but  with a lot in that area), Nautilus, which is trying to enact a concept-album approach to popular science publication, and many more.  I sent out a query to some science writing buddies to survey the venues people in the business are pitching to, and the names came pouring out:  Quanta, Pacific Standard (formerly Miller McCune Magazine, and also not exlusively aimed at science)The Vergeand others that my colleagues are already writing for, despite the fact that they have yet to launch.  Older venues are shifting some resources this direction too — I’ve written once for The New Yorker’s new Elements strand, a daily feed of some commentary and some original science and technology reporting under that august brand.  Old warhorses like Popular Mechanics, Scientific Americanor Popular Science are putting good material out there, and so are places like the Nature New Service…and the list goes on.

The science blog world is enormously valuable as well, the more so (IMHO), as it professionalizes.  There’s the Scientific American blog network; National Geographic’s new Phenomena  salon, Wired.com’s stable and many others.  The New York Times may be dropping blogs – but in the science writing world, there’s no shortage, and increasingly, the old signal-noise problem of that blogosphere is resolving itself through a rather traditional gate-keeping/quality control editorial approach, updated for new media.

And then there is the penetration of science into culture and vice versa as documented at strands like Io9, or parts of the ArsTechnica site, BoingBoing, and dozens more that I know exist but one one-person/one-day-per-day life doesn’t permit me to read.  A torrent of words, of ideas, of engagement with science, its applications in technology and the useful arts, and its intellectual penetration into the realms of story, narrative, expression, art, all the good stuff.  Just digging through this first layer of links to write this essay has made me happy:  so much interesting, unexpected, important stuff out there, daily, for my private, personal edification.

And wait!  There’s more.  I and a lot of the folks I talk to about the future of science communication talk often about Atavist.  The Atavist acts as both a publisher and a platform, and the secret sauce there is their system to produce multimedia reads:  texts augmented by computation to permit the use of a rich range of materials, moving images, sound, interactive graphics and so on.  You can turn on or off such add-ons, (and you can buy Atavist published work as plain e-books  for a bit less than the fully gadgetized texts if you choose).  But theirs is one of the most elegant solutions yet to the challenge and opportunity posed by what the digitization of words permits in the way of marrying text to all the rest of the ways to communicate with each other — both the ones we’ve had for a while and those now being created.  Other publishers are working on similar stuff, “books” that are actually apps.  In such work, you have something inconceivable when I started out in the business:  an account of something about science that can, at the reader’s command, reach through the first layer of words into (conceivably) anything that bears on the matter at hand that exists anywhere on the web.

All of which is to belabor the obvious:  this is a Gutenberg moment, a handful of years — decades at most — when the range of ideas about science and its connections to human experience can reach audiences that have never had such a wealth of information and interpretation so immediately available to them.  As someone for whom this stuff is the Greatest Story Ever Told — as a reader — I couldn’t be happier.

Rembrandt_-_A_Scholar_Seated_at_a_Desk

But as a writer and a teacher of those who would deliver this stuff into the great, gaping maw of the web?

There are problems, no doubt.  All those good staff jobs of a generation ago are gone, and there is no reason to expect them back anytime soon.  Take the current run on resume-writing software in a newsroom in DC as a material reminder of that reality.*******

The reality is that science writing of the sort that I’ve been discussing here — longer pieces, essays, attempts to dive beneath the surface of any single paper or finding — is largely a free-lance game.  Freelancing in the context of a mostly online publishing ecosystem is tricky; the dust is very far from settling in the transition from a centralized on-paper publishing model to the much more variegated evolutionary tree we’re seeing now.  I  get emails regularly from well-intentioned people who want me or my students to write for free “for exposure,” — and who are surprised when they are told that exposure don’t pay the rent.

Some of the new web-publications get this and are paying rates that are at least plausible, even if they don’t approach the five figure paydays one could aspire to with a major feature in a top glossy.  Some places — notably Atavist,  but others as well — are trying some new payment models that can reward writers very well indeed. Some are still stuck in the old couple-of-bucks-for-a-blog-post mindset, even as they seek the much more involved and deeply reported-and-thought pieces you now often see at the best blog venues. The writers I admire are making it (that’s a bit of circular logic, I guess; they wouldn’t be there to admire if they weren’t) but there’s no question that it is an uncertain, unpredictable game for newer writers trying to build a self-sustaining career.

But acknowledging that reality, this wealth of new venues implies an audience responding to these attempts to bring serious, sophisticated, complex, variegated stories of science to the public.  That, to me, is the most hopeful sign for a healthy, economically viable culture of science communication.  The argument made by the simple existence of a venue like Aeon or a platform like The Atavist is in direct contradiction to the daily-evident failure of those media institutions that have tried to chase a presumed ever shorter attention span and/or a hunger for one flavor or another of raw meat.  CNN isn’t imploding for lack of resources; it is, at least as I see it, dying of contempt for its audience.  So it is with many others…and so it isn’t with the best of what’s happening in the science writing-and-reading world.

Here endeth the lesson.

*Fond of their cups full stop, I might add.  Standard wisdom at the relevant conferences:  Don’t drink with the ocean folks.  Hangover city.¹  Trust me on this.)

1: Actually, puke till it leaks past your eyeballs city, but never mind.

**As I was working on this post, news has come that Omni is getting a reboot. Great news.  It really was a gonzo magazine, a great one when it played to the top of its game.  One of its strengths — killer fiction to go along with all the rest, works by folks like William Gibson, Bruce Sterling (who’ll be appearing in the reincarnation, it seems) and many others.  As I say through the rest of this post, this is a fine time to be a reader of smart stuff infused with ideas, science, technological imagination and all the rest.

***That Radio Shack box was truly revolutionary — the first really functional traveling computer, one that in some ways was never really replaced.  It weighed three pounds, ran on AA batteries (I repeat: it ran on double A’s!) and could do just a couple of things with its 8 lines by 40 character screen. But what it could do was great:  you could write, and using its on-board modem (an add on for my NEC) you could file over any phone line in the country.  Netbooks and earlier versions of ultralight computers could serve the same function, but what the Trash 100 (as it was affectionately known) had going for it was (a) extreme simplicity, (b) a go-anywhere capability made possible by the use of standard batteries, and (c) after a while, a pretty reasonable price.  I don’t know if this is just my impression, having been in a world — journalism — that really glommed onto the little beasts, but that one bit of kit seems in retrospect to be a true cultural harbinger.  YMMV.

****(not that we’ve altogether shed that particular error)

*****A Soviet era telescope with a mirror 6 meters in diameter went into operation in the north Caucasus mountains in 1977.  In the context of the Cold War, the instrument took direct aim at the 5 meter Hale for the title of the largest optical telescope in the world.  A series of issues with the mirror and the siting and design of the observatory itself significantly limited its effectiveness, and it never out-resolved the Hale.  Hence, most western histories of optical astronomy ignore it, perhaps, unfairly.

******As of this writing (August 7, 2013) the top-of-the-feed post is another good one, an essay on privacy in the context of Snowden and Facebook.  I take some issue with its dependence on that most studied of all human groups, 18-22 year old, at least relatively well-to-do American college students, but I found provocative the notion that while we retain a desire and/or need for privacy, the fact that, as writer Ian Leslie puts it, “we don’t really believe in the internet,” puts us in a position where there is a mismatch between the technology of communication and our expectations of it.  There’s a bit of a “get off of my lawn, kids” feel to that argument, but I don’t think it’s all wrong.  And here I’m making my point:  the piece is making me argue with it and myself, which is a marker of useful writing.

*******Not intended to be a factual statement.

Images:  Juan Gris, Still Life with a Guitar, a Book, and a Newspaper, c.1919.

Galileo’s sketch of the moon from Sidereus Nuncius, 1610, with a photograph of the same view.

Rembrandt van Rijn, A Scholar Seated at a Desk1634.

For Good Times In Cambridge, Redux

April 16, 2013

A reminder, for Boston-area folks in need of something other than our public miseries to ponder.

Tomorrow, Wednesday April 17, at 7 p.m., we got this:

Seth Mnookin and Ta-Nehisi Coates talking with David Carr, the New York Times’ media critic, on Wed., April 17, 7 p.m. in MIT’s building 6, room 120 (6-120, as folks in the Shire reckon addresses — click on the link for an interactive map).  The event is running under the title “The Future of Print in the Digital Age” and is sponsored as part of the Writer’s Series within MIT’s Program in Comparative Media Studies/Writing, its Graduate Program in Science Writing, and the MIT Program in Science Technology and Society.  To repeat myself  from last week’s notice:  This should be a very smart evening; Carr’s one of the really good ones.

Note:  6-120 is a reasonably large room — about 120 seats, I think — but this is one that should get a lot of interest, so if you want to be there, allow a little extra time.

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Next, the day after, Thursday, April 18, my former student Emily Anthes is coming back to MIT to speak about her new book Frankenstein’s Cat. You might recall that Emily and I had a conversation about the book last month (podcast here).  Emily has taken a serious and very well researched look at the intersection of biotechnology and the animals closest to their human partners/owners/users.  The result of that work is a gracefully written book that wears the author’s knowledge lightly, and argues its point — the technological manipulation of animals is both inevitable and at least potentially a benefit to both parties to the deal — with grace and rigor.  She’s got a lot to say, and she says it well.  If this is the sort of thing you like to engage, this will be a fine evening too.  Her talk is the day is also at 7 p.m. in yet another of MIT’s utterly impenetrably named venues, 56-114 — building 56, room 114.

Fun for the whole family, with decent pizza nearby for afters.  What could be bad?

(Note:  I’ll be at the event tomorrow, but will have to miss Emily’s reading, as I must be off to visit a very ill relative in the mud-season be-mucked north.  If you make it tomorrow, say hi.)

Image: Unknown artist, The Final Hour!” c. 1920

The Beast In Me*

May 28, 2011

I’m still enjoying that special lassitude that comes from trying to persuade my bone marrow to pump out enough red blood cells to deal with the oxygen pressure at 2,600 meters — Hello Bogota!….

…but I’ve been watching this blog go ape over the last few days (in a good way) and feel the need to see if I can’t contribute something to the show.

So here’s a bit of meta-media snark I worked on a bit ago, only to see it vanish into the end-of term swamp:

I know that the party-strewn resume of Tina Brown is of little moment (very little) compared with all the examples of GOP folly and malice chronicled there, everywhere, and here, today and everyday.   Even so I just can’t quite get past the astonishingly inadvertant MSM self-revelation in the Times Sunday Magazine profile of Brown — that once and present editor, now running both her upper-middle-brow web project, The Daily Beast, and that moss-covered perpetual second sister, Newsweek.

This paragraph was the first to set me off:

The Beast, as Brown calls it, is a long way from profitability, it’s an impressive achievement whose relatively few visitors (just under four million uniques per month) belie its cultural influence.

Its cultural influence?  I mean, I know I’m out of it, but except for some mild fun at Meghan McCain’s expense, and a kind of genteel averting of eyes at some of the more vacuously embarrassing conventional wisdom retreads that showed up there early on, I can’t recall any real engagement with yon wee beastie.

__

Rather, what it actually seems to be, as the Times can’t quite avoid saying, is an expensive but mediocre performer by the metric that matters in the infotainment business:  people ain’t coming and the dollars aren’t following its diminuitive audience.  Losses last year, according to the article, reached a cool ten million.

Now I know that both Brown and her Boswell are trying to suggest that the place is still somehow influential, a shaper of minds and ideas.  But again, unless I’ve just completely missed it, no.

Hell, just to do due diligence I’ve been and come back to this post in the last five minutes to see what’s up there. [This visit took place more than a week ago.  Too lazy to repeat.]  Retreads of info about Bin Laden that is everywhere else on the web, including much more straight-news branded sites, a review of advice from Mika Brzezinski about how to ask for a raise, (Mika Brzinski!), complete with a description of the book party at which Morning Joe folks told the author how wonderful Mika is (scoop!…up to a point, Lady Evans) , a piece I refused to click on Osama Bin Laden and Michael Douglas as Viagra brothers…and you get the idea.

What a huge, holy hillock of who cares.

And then there is the searing instinct for the new, the zeitgeist of modern media and those who can bend it into new forms of making meaning.  As old friend Hendrick Hertzberg says, “Tina’s a revolutionary leader,” Hertzberg says.  Or not:

Brown’s early issues have been strewn with standbys from her Rolodex: Hillary Clinton, Harvey Weinstein, Judith Regan, James Carville, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Yup, when I think of media revolutionaries, Ahhhnold and Regan (she of the O. J. Simpson “confession“) are names that pop right to top of mind.

And then there are her plans to remake Newsweek. I can’t say I have had any interest in the magazine for decades, which is a symptom of the problem Brown was hired to address, of course.  But I’m not sure this is going to help:

A new section called Omnivore: Want has featured $2,100 Chanel shoes, a $6,500 Audi bicycle and a $10,000 Burberry “Python” trench, items that would not be within reach of your average newsmagazine reader but that would feel right at home in, say, Vanity Fair.

So the salvation of the newsweekly business is to turn them into smaller, more cheaply produced versions of the aspirational titles? Apparently yes:

“There’s a great kind of high-low, newsy, sexy thing that the European newsmagazines have,” Brown said. “They have this great sort of slightly freewheeling pagination, where they go from a great sexy picture of an expensive watch to Libya or something. So I’d like to have more of that feeling in Newsweek. I think that’s a great thing for a magazine, because that’s where we all sort of are now, we’re all multiplatformed, everything’s messed up with everything else.”

Ahh, the smell of word salad in the morning.  It’s not just that I have no desire to go from pictures of a fancy watch, say, or even of the good Bruni — Carla, of course — to the sight of wrecked lives…it’s that there are already folks who do this better, and Brown seems to be putting Newsweek into a familiar second banana kind of place:  chasing somebody else’s editorial vision and formula.


The multiplatform blather at the end of the quote is a subject for another day; here I’ll just say that the fact that this sounds exactly like traditional media spouting of about a decade ago, when the great idea was to dump print onto a web page and call it multimedia.

OK — that’s enough sideswipes at Tina Brown.  There’s a bigger (to me) point here: All of this appeared in the Times Magazine.

The real howlers here are not Brown’s — for all of the crass money-as-pheramone, Sully-chasing inanity attending this merger, she’s pursuing a recognizable strategy to pull a lazarus on Newsweek.  I’m not sure Dr. House himself could save that patient, but full marks for trying.

No, what really got me about this piece was what it confirms (again) about how the Village sees itself.  What does it say that a writer could write and an editor could pass with straight faces all that heavy breathing about the cultural significance of a place that provides a soft-landing for Judy Regan?

It tells me that it’s same-old, same-old over there.  There is an information cartel at the center of our national media, struggling to maintain its hold on the bytestream.  And, just to connect all this to the themes of this blog over the last few days, I’d say that the fact that the Times could produce such hagiography over the fact that Tina Brown is ruling a new roost for conventional, right-leaning hacktitutde tells us all a lot about why the mainstream media has found it so hard to cover even the basics about things that might actually interest the broad middle class audience the newsweeklies used to own.

*Couldn’t resist the title, not least because this title lets me post this:

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Images:  Poster for the Adam Forepaugh & Sells Brothers Great Shows Combined c. 1897.

Eduoard Manet, Running at Longchamp, 1864

Once More Into Comcast’s Breach:* KO’s KO Foreshadows Cable on the Canvas?

January 22, 2011

Cross posted at Balloon Juice

Amidst the gnashing of teeth over the suspicious coincidence of Comcast’s take over of NBC and Keith Olberman’s disappearance from the air, my first reaction was, who cares?  Or rather, who really will notice?

That’s because I’ve been feeling, without much evidence, that cable blather is reaching a diminishing returns point, at least as far as political mobilization is concerned.  Certainly, their impact exceeds their actual reach. As of November, the top rated cable news-like show was Bill O’Reilly’s, with a total viewership of about 3.5 million.  In Neilson terms, that’s a rating of maybe 3.4 or so.  Not bad — but not exactly dominant either.  Next up was Fox’s Bret Baier, someone I confess I’ve literally never heard of.  His number for the month? 2.4 million — or about 2 and change in the ratings.  Olberman came in at number 12 with 1.1 million and a bit, or a barely more than one Neilson point.

It is indeed horrifying that the top 11 programs in cable news are all Fox shows — but the point is that however successful Fox has been with its business model,** these are not impressive numbers within the mass media and in an electorate the size of ours.   Fox has had influence disproportionate to its actual reach — but it helps to remember its man-behind-the-curtain quality.

By comparison, Balloon Juice scored around 25 million total page views last year.  Obviously the two media are enormously different, and there is a profoundly distinct impact when a message is delivered in spoken word and picture over and over again.  A few hundred words on the screen, however successfully they start your rhetorical engines, can’t hope to set the same emotional hooks in its audience.***

But that’s not actually my point. Rather, it is that the experience of just this one blog demonstrates that there exists a means of distribution and engagement that reaches audiences that are within an order of magnitude of those of great big gazillion dollar media machines.

I’m not usually a technological optimist — as is appropriate for someone who can’t even be bothered to maintain a functioning author’s website or Facebook page.  But I’ve just been buying video gear for a course I’ll start teaching in a couple of weeks about making documentaries, and I’m struck again how little cash up front it takes to buy the tools of fully professional production.  The machines don’t supply the talent, of course, nor a programming strategy, nor PR or any of all that.  But as with blogging and print media eight or nine years ago, the bits and pieces of infrastructure needed to create a whole new architecture of web-distributed video are coming together fast.***

Most important, the medium has finally approached normalcy.  My kid’s Wii has a browser in it, not to mention a Netflix app.  In a month or so, after I recover from my next visit to the mechanic, I’ll finally buy a web-enabled TV to replace my 16 year old CRT — and I’ll get a wirelessly networked Blu-Ray player with it.  The rap on internet video has been that only geeks want to sit at their computers and watch TV in little boxes on some small screen.  No more.  More or less transparently, you can Hulu and Netflix and browse your way to video in the same living room in which I almost never actually watch scheduled programs any more.

That’s the missing piece.  Once it’s easy to find web TV on televisions, then the fortifications protecting  traditional content originators and distributors totter.

Which is why I think the bits and pieces of rumor I’ve heard about Olberman thinking about headlining a web network — even if they are wholly fantasy — is exactly the thought that ought to terrify Big Cable the most.

All of which is a long winded way to respond to DougJ’s prediction about liberal hosts on MSNBC in five years time.  My guess is that he’s right.  But I don’t see that I care.

The caveats:  Obviously, the mere physical capacity to create and distribute programming is no substitute for actual talent, smart program choices, tolerable production values and all the rest. It is the easiest thing in the world to make crappy, undiscoverable, utterly irrelevant web-video.  There’s already a surplus of such out there.

If a Left answer to the Right’s domination of traditional cable is to have traction, it will have to both concentrate creative talent and build a conceptual infrastrucure — some model to absorb and remake the notion of channels and shows and a programming schedule.  And of course the largest cost of anything remotely like a studio program or even a curated and organized repository of audience-sourced material lies with the people who drive the cameras, cut the footage and so on.  Cheap isn’t free — but when startup costs thousands (tens of, maybe) instead of millions, you’re in with a chance.

Most important, as we’ve seen with the print world, once the barriers to entry drop, the numbers of those who can do really interesting things grows.  That’s been true in radio for a long time — just check out stuff like the Third Coast festival or a lot of what NPR has catalyzed over the last decades. (And look at the new book Reality Radio if you want to learn about how folks like Jay Allison or Ira Glass,  the Scissor Sisters, the legendary Scott Carrier or the impossibly young Jad Abumrad — and many others all found their voices telling true stories in sound.)*****

Now the underlying elements are there for video too, in an almost zero (in television terms) cost of the acquisition and post production of video and a nearly costless network on which to “broadcast” the finished product — and in the existence (finally) of an audience equipped with the tech that makes it relatively easy to engage with what could be made with such tools.

I hope the left blogosphere takes advantage.  I’m now officially thinking about what I could do to help.  And you?  More the merrier, folks.

*Breach guys, not breeches. Geez. This is a family blog.*******

**And make no mistakes: Fox is all about the cash.  If dittohead hippies became a larger and more exploitable demographic than tea-tardists, you’d see changes.  Murdoch is vile boil on the body politic, but it’s C.R.E.A.M for him too.

***Mixed metaphor alert. It’s OK, kids.  I’m a professional.  Don’t try this at home.

****Not to gear-head up the main body of the piece, you can now shoot decent HD video on cameras that run $2,000 or less.  (You can do pretty well with a camera that runs $6-800, but if you go that route you (a) have to spend a fair amount of money on add-ons that the consumer gear does not possess and (b) have to be a really clever video person.  Smarts can substitute for money, up to a point, but the price paid is in all the work-arounds you need to deal with.)  Sound gear will run you a few hundreds more for a basic kit.  Lights — you can do a lot with “practicals” — the stuff you already have lying around — and a tolerable basic 4 head light kit is another twelve or fourteen hundred at retail.

I’m thinking like a documentary person here, not a studio guy — but the same deflators apply there.  A three camera set up with grip, lighting, and sound enough to mike two or three people could be put together on a shoestring of less than $20,000, perhaps even less than $10K if you really scrounged and dumpster-dived.  That’s a lot of scratch for any individual — but in the media landscape, in a context of blogs that reach tens or hundreds of thousands per day?  It’s not much of a reach.

As for editing — it’s become almost cost free as far as the tools go.  You need a reasonably recent laptop, some hard drives (many backups folks!  Be paranoid!), and if you are just doing studio stuff, the latest iMovie will do what  you need — at a program cost of something like $80 bucks.  Even the pro editing bundles are cheap now.

In sum:  while it is certainly possible to spend an unlimited amount on anything to do with motion pictures, the point is that  you don’t have to if all you want to do is get folks in a set talking to each other or scribbling on a black board — that’s the easy stuff, and it’s unbelievable for someone like me, who started out in the ’80s, just how many barriers to entry for creative types have dropped away.  Berlin Wall c. 1989, baby.

*****Which thought makes this perhaps the right place to let y’all know that I’ll on Virtually Speaking, hosted by Jay Ackroyd — commenter here from time to time, and an FP poster at Atrios’s place, Eschaton.  My slot arrives this coming Thursday, 27 January, at 9 p.m. EST.  I believe this all happens in Second Life — which is why, I kid you not, I’m having an avatar make-over tomorrow.  Come on down!  And now, back to your regularly scheduled blog post.

******If you missed Rocky and Bullwinkle, you missed civilization.

Images:  Trophîme Bigot, Crying Man, 1625

Johann Heinrich Roos, Gypsies in an Ancient Ruin, 1675


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