Category Archives: ecosystemics

Follow the audience into the 21st Century

(An edited version of an essay that appeared in April) 

Doug Millison mashes up a 1979 B&W graphic by Josh Gosfield

In this final essay in a series let me explain why I accuse mass media of dereliction of duty for helping mislead the nation into war, for uncritically swallowing the sensational and for too often ignoring complex problems until they erupt into crisis.

 Idealistically I am just a very sad American who feels that our nation has strayed from Lincoln’s mission to be “the last best hope of Earth” and that much of responsibility for this lies with the failure of the working press, of which I am part — although I am now on vacation and speak only for myself.

 But I am a pragmatist who does not put much stock in hand-wringing. And while Mario Savio’s impassioned remarks (see graphic above or watch video ) resonate with me, I would not take his suggestion literally because only two types of persons throw anything, especially themselves, into machinery — saboteurs and candidates for the meat grinder. I am neither.

Nor have I merely been critical, for more authoritative critiques abound, including “Breaking the News,” “Rich Media, Poor Democracy,” “The Vanishing Newspaper,” “Fighting for Air,” and “The New Media Monopoly“.

So I have suggested how to improve the credibility of mass media by giving rank-and-file media workers blogs, hosted on company websites, so as to drill thousands of connections down into communities, and from these to pull up ideas and stories that would make better journalism and better business than the all-too-common practice of rewriting the empty press releases issued by the officialdom.

It’s good business because it is people who subscribe to newspapers, tune in to broadcasts or click on web sites. And they like to see and hear themselves. Two Stanford business school professors wrote a great article in which they asked Hoover Adams, founding publisher of the Dunn, North Carolina, Daily Record how his paper had achieved a market penetration above 100 percent. This is what the publisher told the eggheads:

It’s because of three things: Names, names, and names . . . . A local newspaper can never get enough local names. I’d happily hire two more typesetters and add two more pages in every edition if we had the names to fill them up.”

Liberating these suppressed voices is a business opportunity because interactive media is not like mass media. Interactive media is about making connections. People to people. People to information. People to products. Whatever. The old media business model based on distribution is dead. Stick a fork in it. Web-heads like David Weinberger have been trying to tell us for a very long time the Internet is a two-way street. But we still have this mindset of the one-way trip to the driveway. And cannot get to these new land of connections with Soviet-style central planning. We must allow newsrooms to follow their audiences into the 21st Century.

In many years of covering Silicon Valley I’ve noticed how those guys promulgate “laws” to lend authority to their educated guesses. I’d call this a cheap trick but make lots of money doing this so let me tell you about Metcalfe’s law which says the more people who use a network the more valuable it becomes. More connections means greater value plus better journalism. It’s a win-win.

(Question: Is community the new media business model?)

‘Golden age of media’ a golden shower

Kudos to the Progress and Freedom Foundation for assembling a thought-provoking book of Media Metrics (pdf) that argues “we have more media choice, more media competition, and more media diversity than ever before . . .  (if) . . . there was ever a ‘golden age’ of media in America, we are living in it today.” In a blog summary, authors Adam Thierer and Grant Eskelsen hope that, guided by this impressive compilation of tables and charts, “future debates on this subject will be be guided by facts instead of fanaticism and by evidence instead of emotion . . . hyperbolic rhetoric (and) shameless fear-mongering.”

Which fortunately leaves me free to heap derision and disdain on this bean-counting analysis that reeks of moral relativism like a chain-smoking French deconstructionist whose underarms have never been dishonored by deodorant.

Let me explain this seemingly bipolar view. I truly appreciate that this libertarian think-tank used its financial support from nouveau corporate media to pull together facts on everything from Internet advertising trends to magazine expansion (see niche breakdowns page 77) to the revelation, at least to me, that more than 3,000 free-circulation local papers have a “combined circulation . . . larger than all the daily newspapers in America.”

That seems impressive until you realize those are “shoppers” as we used to call such advertising-only weeklies when I was a small town businessman in Eureka, California, where the Tri-City Weekly was a fine example of that genre. So when the authors of Media Metrics call this a golden age of media, what they really mean is that this is a golden age of advertising. There has never been a better time for national and international brands to advertise goods and services. And that is not a bad thing until you consider that banks are failing, household debt is high, and “the U.S. is experiencing the worst food inflation in 17 years,” as MSNBC reported in April.

So one might fairly ask whether this more-is-better analysis makes sense when getting more media offer more temptation to buy more things with money we don’t have.

I especially enjoyed chapter six on “the natural decline in media localism” in which the authors make two contradictory arguments. First, they say, the “decline of ‘localism’ is much-lamented but quite natural phenomenon as citizens gain access to news and entertainment sources of broader scale and scope.” Translation – people are more interested in Paris Hilton’s life than in their own.

In the event, however, that our logic rejects this rather specious supposition, the authors offer a contradictory fall back — a 2007 University of Missouri report, “The Community Newspaper Study,” which offers statistics about satisfaction with local news coverage. The 2007 report is compares to a 2005 report to assure us that if we do decide to act locally instead of leer globally that we already have satisfactory local news outlets.

But from what little I know of statistics the Missouri report seems to lies somewhere between extraordinary anecdote-gathering and piss-poor statistical sampling.

For instance the report summary says: “In the 2007 survey, 505 interviews were completed with adults who lived in areas whose total population was 25,000 or less in the United States . . . in 2005, 503 interviews were completed with adults who lived in newspaper markets of less than 100,000 people.”

Even assuming that sub-25,000-person communities are the same as the sub-100,000 variety, how do we know that the communities surveyed in each of the two years are equivalent for statistical purposes, so that we can lump all 500 or so interviews together? And what is the margin of confidence on a sample that small?

We aren’t told, but come to think of it who cares! Paris Hilton’s videos are more engaging than the city council meetings I can watch on my local cable provider’s public access channel.  So thank you, Progress and Freedom Foundation, for giving me evidence instead of emotion, and for helping me realize that this is a golden age of media — in fact it is a golden shower raining down on civic-minded Americans from sea to shining sea.  

Producer coops for pork, why not for prose?

How did tiny Denmark become one of the world’s leading exporters of pork products? And why raise that question in a media blog?

To answer to the first question, about 120 years ago Danish farmers created producer cooperatives that combined the best attributes of big and small enterprises. The cooperatively-owned slaughterhouse processed the hogs and sold the product, taking advantage of the economies of scale. The small farm holdings raised hogs that were better bred and tended, and thus presumably of higher quality.

To answer to my second question, the emerging citizen media strike me as being akin to small farms. They may produce well-tended content, unique to some constituency or geographic neighborhood. But they have no hope of penetrating any meaningful markets as standalone operations. I think that a cooperatively-owned central processing plant, to host content, negotiate resale and/or licensing agreements, provide group health insurance, do research and product development and perform other back-office functions, would help the nascent new media coalesce into a meaningful force.

Of course, Americans are not Danes and our individualistic culture, with its inherent fractiousness, no longer lends itself to group effort. I consider this a cultural handicap of modern Americans that compares unfavorably to our barn-raising ancestors. I don’t quite understand the why of it but we must play with the cards we are dealt, to some extent, mini-media in America can attain some part of what the Danish-style coops provide through outfits like Lulu.com or CafePress.com — which coordinate things like book- or cd-on-demand publishing, and enable the creation of online storefronts to sell wares.

I have written till my fingers hurt about the need for media producer cooperatives. I will link to three postings along those lines. But as I  write this morning it occurs to me that I will never be able to cram Americans into the same can as a Danish ham. And maybe the practical way to pursue these dreams would be to look for ways to blend certain aspects of these coop ideas into the Lulu or CafePress type of operations. What would be the business rationale? Thinking out loud I’d say that if a vendor like Lulu or CafePress offered group health care to its serious customers, that would lock them in and create a barrier to entry to competitors.

Here are the prior coop postings should they contain nuggets of interest:

 

 

 

Are blogs the new gatekeepers for ideas?

Once upon an elitist time the now-deceased journalist Walter Lippmann argued that Joe and Jane Average needed the guidance of their betters to run the world. They needed gatekeepers in professional media to filter the news, expose the public to some issues but shielding them from stuff that went over their heads. As Wikipedia reports:

Lippmann said the herd of citizens must be governed by “a specialized class whose interests reach beyond the locality.” This class is composed of experts, specialists and bureaucrats.

Lippmann was wrong. Although Americans as a whole do many stupid things anyone who works for a corporation, academic institution or any large bureaucracy knows that incredible stupidities are perpetrated daily by the people whose titles suggest they should know better. Their foibles are grist for our gossip and the raw material for Dilbert and Doonesbury. king fun at the big shots. Lippmann was counting on the wise to lead. OK. Look at the melting icebergs and soaring gas prices. Our betters could hardly have done worse at running the world.

But I am optimistic because I do believe that regular people can understand complex issues — provided journalists play the role they should which is to translate the official jargon into plain English and to create the metaphors or find the examples that reveal the often simple ides at the heart of the most complex events. For instance I covered the biotech industry for years but one of the best briefings I ever got was from a garbage man from Brooklyn who explained the science behind the cloning of Dolly the sheep. He had heard a good summary on TV and he passed it on to me.

Imagine, he said, holding his palm in front of him, an egg with the yellow yolk showing. That yolk is the nucleus of the cell they used to clone Dolly. The cloners “scooped out dat yolk and dey trew it away,” he said the way Brooklynites talk. But he understood the process — thanks to a metaphor that hints at the delicacy and difficulty of the procedure.

So if you believe that the journalist’s job is to discover and reveal the simple truths behind the seemingly complex it is encouraging to see a new gatekeeper landscape arising in which the mass media looks to blogs for story ideas. Not the silly blogs where people merely comment on headlines but the small but vital fraction of expert blogs that are sprouting. Because the experts are blogging about their passions and their interests and some of them are good writers. The sharper journalists are reading those expert blogs for story ideas. Not long ago Wired Magazine editor Nancy Miller did a guest lecture before a class of feature writing students at an adult education class I was teaching. She told us that her editor, Chris Anderson, regularly read blogs for ideas. He did not wait to read them in other mass media.

An article in the web zine eMarketer found a similar process underway when it summarized a study of how journalists use blogs:

In a survey of US journalists by PR Week, PR Newswire and Millward Brown, 57.7% of respondents said they used blogs to measure sentiment, and 51% used them to gauge how their competitors were covering stories. Fewer journalists—less than 30% of respondents—used blogs as a mechanism to dig up sources.

I wish the last statistic were higher than the other two but it is a start. Blogs are a good way to look for early occurrences of trends or to find individuals who are not only expert in some field but have some desire and ability to write about it. Journalists have to get smarter at finding these thought-leaders and giving their ideas a larger audience.

Fringe realists seek to remake media

It’s back to the newsroom today after spending the last four days immersed in a gathering of about 150 journalists, technologists, educators and entrepreneurs at the Journalism that Matters (JTM) conference held in Silicon Valley. Chris Peck, a newspaper editor from Tennessee and one of the conveners of the meeting, opened the gathering Wednesday evening by talking about how, before the invention of matches, people would carry around embers in a box and use this spark for fire-starting. What embers will I carry away?

Let’s start with the sense of community that comes from reconnecting with old professional friends like J-school teacher Charlotte-Anne Lucas and web publisher Tom Murphy, not to mention the many new friends and kindred spirits with whom I hope to hatch future schemes and dreams. But if I had to pick three take-aways they would be:

  • looking for ways to support journalism in the free-for-all environment of the web;
  • the recognition among media reformers of the need to cooperate; and
  • - the unlikelihood and difficulty of achieving this owing to wildly differing notions of what journalism is, should be or can do.The focus on finances was evident throughout the four days of the JTM conference that shared its Saturday finale with a meeting of the Bay Area chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. “We’re blowing up the wall, we have to,” said Cynthia Gorney, who moderated a lively SPJ panel discussion on a search for business models — a phrase journalists once disdained. In truth the main business model that has thus far emerged for journalism, other than advertising, is the tin cup. “We’ve heard a lot about the public radio funding model,” said Bill Densmore, another organizer of the JTM conference. Forder newspaper editor David Talbot, who led the founding team at Salon.com, talked about trying to raise $40 a year from 100,000 people to get half the funding for a plan-on-the-drawing-board to create a new, publicly-financed newsroom in San Francisco. “If you build it they will come,” Talbot predicted.Attendees at these overlapping events were convinced that the public is hungry for serious conversation on the issues that rule their lives. San Francsisco journalist Rose Aguilar told the SPJ gathering of interviewing people from small towns in her post 2004-election trip through the so-called Red States, and finding them eager to talk about health care, the economy and Iraq. Aguilar, who attended church and conducted interviews outside WalMart parking lots, said “People are sick” of simplistic and divisive mass media coverage. And what will reformers offer in place of today’s fare? A bewlidering array of niche interests, in keeping with the times, and a challenging array of definitions of what constiutes journalism. Among the JTM conferees, for instance, were two Muslim women hoping to launch a web site devoted to exploring the unknown dimensons of Islam. Another attendee was a J-school prof hoping to build a network of 100 journalists to go into underserved communities to become their news-gatherers. A few attendees were what I would consider to be political actitivists, to whom words and images were tools or weapons to stimulate specific actions. Such a drift made me extremely uncomfortable. Less provocative at least to my way of thinking were the unapologetic idealists who simply argued that media should focus on positive stories of people changing the world instead of the present if-t-bleeds-it-leads sensibility.I came away from the event convinced that if this reform movement is going anywhere but to its next gathering that the people on the outside of the system will have to agree on something more than that they don’t like what’s going on inside the system. I say this of course as an ill-tempered reporter from a middling metropolitan daily who feels as if the only thing holding together the reform community is antipathy to mass media. There needs to be more common ground because I did indeed hear in many different discussions the same yearning bordering on a recognition of necessity that cooperation and affiliation would be essential to helping this smoldering reform effort catch fire. For those not in attendance this was an unconference (thanks Kaliya Hamlin it was fun!). That means each morning people created topic for workshops they wanted to conduct and Michael Melillo, a New Jersey software executive, convened one topic for people interested in forming a federation of independent media. I joined that circle and worked with a handful of others, including Persephone Miel of Harvard’s Berkman Center, on an off throughout the rest of Friday. I wouldn’t say anything was decided except that the combinatory impulse was strong and therefore effort was worth more work but at a Friday evening gathering called by Tom Stites, an important voice was added to the chorus for combination: citizen journalism pioneer Dan Gillmor talked about forming cooperatives, like food coops, in this emerging reform movement.

    This was the first time I had attended a media reform conference, and I paid my own way (unlike the eight editorial staffers sent by the competing Media News including Suzanne Bohan and Chris O’Brien) so I had a pretty high threshhold for satisfaction. I found enough encouragement, especially in the federation topic, to warrant my attendance in the next in the series of these sessions, something called NewPamphleteers.org in June. By the way, this would be a good time to note that inconsistent branding is inconsistent with doing business and the tendency of these media reform things to pop up under different names like a game of literary whack-a-mole makes it all the more difficult to get any momementum behind any idea.

    Which brings me to my closing thought — this reform movement desperately needs some baseline definition of journalism other than it-aint-the-mass-media-variety. Former newspaper editor Geneva Overholser, whose “Manifesto for Change” launched this particular sect of media reformer, took an off-the-cuff stab at such a definition in her appearance at Saturday’s SPJ event. Journalism, she said, has to be about “verification, transparency, accountability.” That a good concise mantra with which to start what I think is the necessary stage of branding how the new journalism is going to distinguish and define itself.

Learning to think like a molecule

In 16 years as a daily newspaper reporter I’ve covered some mind-expanding stories including the race to map the human genome which revealed nothing so much as our stunning ignorance of the baffling complexity of the smallest, dumbest purposeful thing in the universe, the organic macromolecule.

Molecules, you will recall, are strings of atoms. Macromolecules are more complex strings. I’m not certain whether only organic molecules can form macromolecules; polymers are non-organic and may be macromolecules. But I do know that organic macromolecules, such as most famously DNA, do engage in purposeful action. And non-organic molecules do not. The most prolific macromolecules are more colloquially known as proteins. Our science has no idea how many proteins exist in life’s repertoire. But what we do know is that proteins are tiny little machines that run every function in every living organism. These macromolecules — think of proteins as long strands of rough pearls — literally fold and unfold, just as you might open and close your hand. Proteins are the smallest functioning unit of cells. They are the gears and levers of life. Proteins direct my fingers to press the appropriate keys on my keyboard. Proteins focus your eyes on the words and conduct them to the brain where they are reformulated as thought. To borrow a phrase that might succinctly explain the magic of life: It’s the macromolecules, stupid!

I felt obliged to offer that background before I tried explain what molecules have to do with media because it was a retired Marine Corps lieutenant general, speaking at a biotechnology conference in 2003, who first drew the connection between the ability of stupid proteins to perform miraculous feats and the possibility that the machinations of macromolecules hinted at a revolution in the coordination of human affairs.

The conference in question turned out to be my last junket as a biotech reporter and it was held in a swell California venue, the seaside city of Monterey. The event commemorated the 50th anniversary of the characterization of the shape of the DNA molecule which opened up a new way of thinking about the inner workings of cells as collections of gazillions of complex organic machines.

My published clip for that event made no mention of the Marine general’s remarks* which were so amazingly incongruous so as to stick in my head. So imagine this ramrod-straight Marine Corps general telling a few dozen slouching scientists and their hangers on like me that he found leadership inspiration in molecular biology. More often than not, the general explained, the Corps anticipated that future “battles” might involve two or three Marines from a platoon engaged in guerrilla conflict, none above the rank of private –  and God forbid they should get cut off and out-of-radio contact, and be unable to think for themselves.

Now despite the fact that enlisted Marines are commonly known as “jarheads” I do not mean to suggest that the general compared them to dumb-as-brick proteins. But as a former enlisted man in the U.S. Navy, I still recall quite vividly the night when a bourbon-and-cigarette-breathed drill instructor stood nose-to-nose with me to shout, “DO I LOOK LIKE YOUR MOMMA, BOY?” — which absurd question I did not take personally but rather as proof that insofar as the Navy was concerned I was indeed a dumbfuck as was the swinging dick to my left and right to use the Boot Camp parlance.

Thus it struck me rather forcefully to hear this retired jarhead general talk about a form of organization that fell rather lightly on the rank and file because on the day that two riflemen get stuck in the boonies, back to back, with nothing between them and being overrun but their training and wits, they will be truly fucked if they have been conditioned to act purposefully only when orders are delivered in a shout at nose distance.

That was in 2003, but since I was then 49 and did not anticipate going into combat I had no immediate use for the thought. So I parked it until three years later when a brief meeting outside yet another conference in Monterey — Technology, Entertainment and Design or TED — caused me to dredge it up from memory.

Again my story about that TED conference made no mention of my chat with Rod Beckstrom, a co-author of “The Starfish and the Spider,” a book subtitled: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations.” But you can see the obvious connection and understand my receptivity to the notion of leaderless yet purposeful groups. However, as I had no venue to write about that in the newspaper I once again put that fanciful notion to bed.

Recently, however, I revived this idea of a leaderless media in a posting of my own titled, The Pyramid and the Cloud. That posting looked backwards at corporate media and was part of a series of blog entries in which I argue that hierarchy of journalism is at war with its truth-seeking mission. That is quite a conundrum given that the only journalists who draw regular paychecks work for corporate hierarchies. Those essays which start with a posting titled, Take Me To Your Leader, suggest reforms for corporate media to loosen their control mechanisms through blogging and thus delegate more independent truth-seeking power to the rank-and-file.

So I obviously hope for some movement in that direction on the part of Organized Journalism by which reference I do not mean to liken Corporate Media to the La Cosa Nostra. But after 16 years inside the system, I fear that newspaper leaders may not be as progressive as Marines in recognizing the need for new forms of organization to meet the operational challenges of competition for attention in a networked world (here let me mention “Small Pieces Loosely Joined” the book/philosophy by Web guru David Weinberger).

Meanwhile, let me redirect my molecular thinking toward creating a metaphor that would help unorganized journalists aggregate in purposeful ways with minimal overhead. That is the lesson I extract from nature. Systems of extraordinary complexity can function smoothly with no one shouting orders! Tomorrow I will suggest how some of the mechanisms to coordinate purposeful combinations of scattered content creators may already exist — and how we can use molecular biology as a template to help us understand what other software tools, social norms and perhaps loose organization might be needed to derive greater purpose and profit from Disorganized Journalism which is not a knock on citizen journalism but a statement of fact.

* Though I did not write about Lt. General Paul Van Riper’s remarks on molecular biology I learned that he had played an Iranian leader in a 2002 wargame in which his tactics inflicted, on a U.S. fleet in the Persian Gulf, the worst (simulated) defeat in naval history. I wrote a story about that in 2003. Earlier this year a New York Times article about U.S.-Iranian tensions in the Gulf repeated Van Riper’s lesson about how a loosely coordinated attack by inferior forces had so completely bamboozled America’s overconfident military brass.

A news media not in thrall to advertising?

One of my daily newspaper colleagues wrote a story Sunday whose headline should serve as a wake up call to the beleaguered media industry: “Dollar’s fall forces new standard of frugality.” It’s a good piece that notes what may seem obvious — the probable recession, the mortgage bust, the persistent trade deficit and the sudden distaste of foreign investors for American debt will restrain the credit-driven consumption binge that can no longer be sustained.

Now let’s think about that in the context of a mass media industry in which display advertising money is being shifted to search-driven queries and sponsorship advertising at far lower cost per thousand than newspapers of television. The TNS Media Intelligence snapshot in 2007 repeated the trend we already know — newspaper and television post declines, Internet posts double digit growth.

Now the nation has slipped into what appears to be a housing-driven recession of uncertain depth and duration. What happens when advertising spending, pegged to economic growth, shrinks? The data suggest that advertisers are looking for new and supposedly more cost effective ways to spend money. When Advertising Age surveyed the media job scene earlier this year marketing grew off the charts. Spenders are using blogs and social networks to burrow inside peer groups (the AdAge article is behind a firewall; a past blog entry has excerpts).

Mass media advertising that rains down on the general populace is so 20th Century. Mass media are already being clobbered by Google et al on display ads. Craigslist and its fellow travelers are cashing in on classifieds. Now comes a spending contraction coupled with a shift in advertising fashion.

When does the news start to get good? Well not now because I truly believe that we are entering a period on which the word “frugality” is likely to make a lot more headlines. We may be coming to the end of 80 to 100 years of a consumption economy and a mass media that coexisted quite nicely inside a cocoon of ever-increasing spending on creature comforts encouraged by advertising messages that encouraged that consumption.

And my point? Advertising is not going to completely evaporate but it will never come back the way it used to be for the times they are a changing. The audience is changing. And that means that as we look for a new business model we have to take our cue from the times. We live in a knowledge economy. We are told knowledge is power. Does it not therefore follow that knowledge is also valuable and can therefore command money?

Tomorrow I will outline how journalism can stop being the “Extra, extra, read all about it!” loss leader for advertising — and start to bring home the bacon by selling information, connections and community.