Category Archives: It’s Just Journalism

Ye Olde New Media

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Were the Nickelodeons YouTube 1.0?

Before World War I when newspapers were reaching new readers as rising literacy and the rapid offset press created a mass audience for news, Joseph Medill Patterson co-edited the Chicago Tribune with his cousin, Robert R. McCormick. Patterson, who left Chicago and went “over there” to serve on the front during “the war to end all wars,” returned to the United States to found the New York Daily News which he modeled on London’s tabloid Daily Mirror. Oh for the days when newspapers sparked with sass in contrast to these feeble times when dysfuntional journalism, brain-dead ownership and technological change have transformed print into a toothless lion feared mainly as a potential vector for diseased fleas.

In any event back when newspaper journalism was young, back even before Patterson became an industry muckety-muck, he wrote an article that the Saturday Evening Post published in 1906. Titled “The Nickelodeons” it described the phenomenon then sweeping the nation –  cheap theaters that showed silent films whose sound track was generally supplied by some sort of player piano. Patterson, then 28, was curious about the allure of these literally dumb and often pointless pictures — early nickelodeon “films” might be no more than a fire engine racing to scene. This is  priceless journalism that arcs across a century to let us see how this savvy and business-minded man viewed the challenge that moving-pictures posed to print’s hegemony on consciousness. Patterson writes:

“Civilization, all through the history of mankind, has been chiefly the property of the upper classes, but during the past century civilization has been permeating steadily downward.”

Patterson’s prose is a bit florid for modern tastes and the politcally correct will have to get over their bad selves to appreciate his genius. Here is a founder of the “yellow press” – doubtlessly despised by haute culture — as he regards a medium that delivered information without the requirement of literacy. At a time when the U.S. population was roughly 92 million, Patterson wrote:

“Incredible as it may seem, over two million people on average attend the nickelodeons every day of the year, and a third of these are children . . . In cosmopolitan city districts the foreigners attend in larger proportion than the English-speakers. This is doubtless because the foreigners, shut out as they are by their alien tongues from much of the life around them, can yet perfectly understand the pantomime of the moving pictures.”

 The piece offers insights into what we would call the business model of the nickelodeons — for instance they had just 199 seats because theaters of 200 or more had to pay prohibitively-high fees. But I am in a time-crunch today, my internet is down at home and I am at the local coffee shop hurriedly banging out a linkless version of this posting in order to leave you the following thoughts that Patterson pounded into a typewriter 106 years ago:

” Those who are ‘interested in the poor’ are wondering whether the five-cent theatre is a good influence, and asking themselves gravely whether it should be encouraged or checked (with the help of the police).”

But Patterson, whose rambunctious News mocked its pompous New York competitor, the Times, obviously dissents as he concludes the article:

“Whether for weal or woe, humanity has ceasely striven . . . to know more and feel more of both good and evil, to attain a greater degree of self-consciousness . . . In this eternal struggle . . . the moving picture machine, uncouth instrument that it may be, has enlisted itself on especial behalf of the least enlightened, those who are below the reach even of the yellow journals . . . The nickelodeons are merely an extension course in civilization, teaching both its ‘badness’ and its ‘goodness.’  They have come in obedience to the laws of supply and demand.”

(Tomorrow: so what has that got to do with anything?)

FOIAgeddaboudit! Presumed openness still gone

The U.S. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) has been on the books since 1966 to establish the public’s right to get government documents. In that time its powers have repeatedly waxed and waned. On New Year’s Eve, President Bush signed a law that amended FOIA.  An unbylined Associated Press article that ran in USA Today said:

“The new law toughens the Freedom of Information Act . . . It amounts to a congressional pushback against the Bush administration’s movement to greater secrecy since the terrorist attacks of 2001. . . . The legislation is aimed at reversing an order by former Attorney General John Ashcroft after the 9/11 attacks in which he instructed agencies to lean against releasing information when there was uncertainty about how doing so would affect national security.” (emphasis added)

Writing in Secrecy News, a blog published by the Federation of American Scientists, Steven Aftergood said the part about reversing the Ashcroft order is wrong. The original House version of the bill would have repealed the Ashcroft policy and established a “presumption of openness” but that provision was removed prior to passage. To proves his case Aftergood quotes from the Congressional Record: 

“Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) noted with regret . . .  that the final legislation ‘does not include a provision which I thought was a key one establishing a presumption that government records should be released to the public unless there is a good reason to keep them secret. . . . (while) from an opposing perspective, Rep. Tom Davis (R-VA) expressed his approval that ‘the provision repealing the so-called Ashcroft memorandum was eliminated.” (Both quotes are from the same Congressional Record entry; use “find” to locate them.)

On January 4 the Associated Press issued a clarification that said in part:

“The story should have specified that the bill does not explicitly reverse Ashcroft’s order in the wake of 9/11. However, sponsors say the legislation’s intent is to require agencies to provide stronger justification when withholding information under the Freedom of Information Act . . . Under the new law, agencies now must specify national security, law enforcement or privacy exemptions in denying information, but they don’t have to provide a finding that those interests would be harmed by disclosure.”

The original AP story on the signing of the bill said that “Dozens of media outlets, including The Associated Press, supported the legislation.”

Did these supporters read the legislation? I ask because media organizations have also supported the so-called reporter’s shield law and I wonder why. It does not contain the word shield. How can there be a shield bill without a shield? See for yourself. Use the Library of Congress to search for the following title: “The Free Flow of Information Act of 2007.” I not only read the text, I copied it into a word processor and searched for “shield.” It’s not there.

The FOIA clarification and the unshield law both touch on professional concerns of journalists. If we can’t get it right about issues that directly affect our own profession, what does that say to the public about the overall quality of our work?

It’s the interactivity, stupid!

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“The internet is a copy machine,” Kevin Kelly says in “Better than Free“ an essay in which he paints the net as a “super-distribution system.” It churns out copies so “super abundant they become worthless.” Kelly advises creative people to invent new ways to make money because it is no longer possible to charge for content.

But Kelly is only half right. Sure the net is a copier. But he overlooks the more revolutionary trait that will work to our advantage as communicators – the net is interactive. It restores the feedback between audience and author that we used to enjoy back when stories were told around the camp fire.

That feedback loop went missing about six hundred years ago. Blame Gutenberg. He mass produced thought and packaged it in books. They diffused knowledge more efficiently than dispatching story tellers hither and yon.

But something was lost in the leap from oral to print. The oral story was interactive. If the audience seemed puzzled the story teller rephrased the tale. Print was practically set in stone. It never paused to look for comprehension. Print told only one version of the story and it always flowed one way. About a century ago broadcast untethered stories from literacy. Knowledge radiated even more widelybut it still flowed just one-way.

And that’s the way it was.

Looking at today’s internet you’d never guess interactivity had staged a comeback. Today’s internet has bolted-on some interactive features – viewers can comment on stories or vote in informal polls. These tactics seem reminicent of early television when announcers cupped one hand behind their ear for better acoustics – realizing how silly they looked.

What would an interactive publication look like? OhMyNews, the South Korea citizen journalism phenomenon, may be the best example. About 20 percent of its content is produced by professionals. The rest is citizen-generated. It was founded in 2000 and is thought to have swayed the 2006 South Korean presidential race. 

Yes, the Internet is a copying and distribution engine. It is destroying jobs and rewiring industries. But the more pregnant change has yet to be realized. For more than 600 years the author and the audience have been sundered. Now the audience is coming back into view. We can see them just beyond the circle of flames. How do we catch their eyes and entice them to stay? That the question will preoccupy the 21st Century publisher.

‘Influence peddling’ a future news revenue stream?

If you’re in the news business online guru Kevin Kelly has news for you. Forget how you used to make your living delivering scoops. Make yourself valuable in new and more personal ways or else perish he suggests in Better than Free.

With that in mind Paid Content reports that the Financial Times has created a $3,300-a-year Executives Forum ”where members can “maintain contact with peers and luminaries …  and to stay in touch with the key issues facing fellow members.”

The 140-year-old FT is the Wall Street Journal of the United Kingdom.

And now this journalistic icon has set up a VIP lounge. Critics might call this influence peddling but not me. The rich and powerful have always had influence, undue influence if you prefer. I see no reason not to monetize that fact.

Moreover the grassroots influence on the news is growing. It’s the interactivity, stupid! Online readers can comment on stories, contribute citizen-generated content and spark trends. Technology is making media into better mirrors.

 In time new webs site will become portals for the people. Comments and citizen journalism will create a bubbling up effect. Journalists will actually build the public forum that has so far existed only in their imaginations.

But first journalism must survive. So let’s wish the FT luck. If they can nick corporate Peter to subsidize populist Paul so can we.

‘Predatory pricing’ verdict looms for SF Bay Guardian

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Editor & Publisher columnist Mark Fitzgerald writes that:

Bay Area mainstream media are studiously ignoring the courtroom action in the San Francisco Bay Guardian’s “predatory pricing” lawsuit against Village Voice Media (VVM) . . .  the Bay Guardian is suing SF Weekly and VVM under a California law adopted in a more populist era that makes it illegal to price product below cost in order to harm a competitor . . . the case could go to the jury as early as Wednesday.”

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(Postscript: This story ran after I posted the E&P column.)


AdAge job report: marketing rules, news drools

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News media are losing jobs; but Ad Age says marketing broke an employment record in November

If you’re in the news business maybe you ought to slide over into marketing.

An analysis of federal jobs statistics by Advertising Age magazine says media jobs — newspapers, broadcast and cable TV, radio, magazines and internet media companies –”fell to a 15-year low (886,900), slammed by the slumping newspaper industry. But employment in advertising/marketing-services — agencies and other firms that provide marketing and communications services to marketers — broke a record in November (769,000).”

Here are a couple of excerpts from the February 18 article by Bradley Johnson.

Marketing thrives:

“Among all the ad-related job sectors, the hot spot is marketing consulting. Employment in that field in December reached a record 148,500, accounting for the lion’s share of job gains over the past year in advertising and marketing services.”

News writhes:

“Since media employment peaked in dot-com-infused 2000, media companies have eliminated one in six jobs (167,600) . . . The only media sectors to add jobs: magazines (up a meager 400 jobs) and internet media companies (up 9,200) . . . The big problem is newspapers, which account for half (82,800) of media jobs lost since 2000. One in four newspaper jobs have disappeared since newspaper employment peaked in 1990 . . . Newspapers, saddled with heavy costs of printing and distribution, last year accounted for 38% of U.S. media jobs, down from 50% in 1990.”

To drill down further into the current numbers, Johnson and AdAge presented a separate page of charts showing 2006 to 2007 job movements for each of the job categories inside of communications – jobs in all news media plus advertising and marketing.

 

Personal blog precipitates firing of CNN producer

tn_chez.jpg Chez Pazienza

The New York Times reports that CNN fired senior producer Chez Pazienza after he was told that he had violated a company policy by failing to get permission to do outside writing. Pazienza maintains a personal blog, DeusExMalcontent, and has apparently also contributed to the Huffington Post. CNN told the Times: ““CNN has a policy that says employees must first get permission to write for a non-CNN outlet.”

Panzienza, 38, is married. He and his wife are expecting a child in August. He told the Times he was not going to seek his job back and had not decided whether to hire a lawyer or what to do about the dismissal.

In a Feb. 18 post titled “Requium for a news career” Panzienza tells about how, at age 19, he used a live radio show at the University of Miami to read aloud the minutes of a meeting where his then-supervisors were trying to deal with ”The Chez Situation.” He goes on to write:

“When I got into television, I did my best to bury my inner-revolutionary . . . Over the past several years though, something has changed. Drastically. And I’m not sure whether it’s me, or television news, or both . . .  the profession I once loved and felt honored to be a part of has lost its way.”

He goes on to describe how his whole attitude changed after he underwent an operation to remove a brain tumor and had time to start the blog and explore his own suppressed feelings. The Requium posting goes on to talk in detail about the firing conversation so do read it if you want those details but I was more interested in the ending, where Panzienza writes:

“All it takes is one person to stand up and say ‘fuck this.’ I truly hope so, because I’m finally doing just that. And I should’ve done it a long time ago.”

I hope he and his young family are ready to reinvent themselves. Meanwhile the Times included this parenthetical comment at the end of its article about his firing:

“(For those who wonder, The New York Times’s policy on ethics in journalism does have a section on blogs. While it states that blogs “present imaginative opportunities for personal expression and exciting new journalism,” it adds that blogs “also require cautions, magnified by the Web’s unlimited reach.” It elaborates that personal blog content should be “purely that: personal,” and that staff members should avoid blogging about topics they cover as journalists and avoid taking stands on divisive public issues, among other guidelines.)”