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Archive for May, 2011

I love Bill Moyers.  He’s one of my personal heroes, and I regularly watch his show on PBS.  To me he ranks up there with Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.  However, I disagreed with his optimistic comments at Whittier College’s graduation.  At one point he says “I’m not sure anyone from my generation has anything to say to your generation except, `We’re sorry.'”

He discusses a variety of problems that he blames on his generation.  Well, Mr. Moyers, from what I’ve seen of my generation we seem to be on course to be the most reckless consumers that the world has ever seen.  People who are not young often give platitudes like this to people who are young.  To me this is passing the ultimate form of passing the buck because when this generation stops being young they’ll look around at the same problems you identify, and they’ll look to the people who are young then to fix it.  This pattern will probably continue as long as human kind exists.

I admire the sentiment of things like these, but my feeling is that we, as a culture, need to stop procrastinating and get a move on our problems today.  But making the changes we need to make is not easy, so I’m going to put money on my generation not getting its act together.  Maybe the next generation will fix all the problems we created.

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In class and online, I’ve heard a lot about mobile media devices and how they can “save” printed media.  While I am as excited as anyone to see the development of the mobile media and it’s potential for profit generation, I am ultimately unconvinced that current business models for selling aps and content will lead anywhere.  Remember that time when the music industry was struggling with declining sales and piracy and that all ended when the iPod and iTunes came out and made it easy to and convenient to download music legally?  In reality, neat new forms for delivering content are not saving the music industry as sales of music in all forms (including digital) have been in a nosedive since 2005.

In my opinion, any content producer who expects for people to pay for content must make selling their product better, easier and, more importantly cheaper, than their alternatives.  In many cases this means that you need to give your product away for almost nothing.  The only company that I can see that is doing this right is Netflix.  People who want to can still download, or even stream, movies and TV shows illegally, but in almost all cases, consuming media legally is easier than stealing it.  Before Netflix, many more people were willing to work around DRM and other protections because the cost of buying and renting DVD’s was so high that going to the hassle of pirating movies was worth it.  Netflix’s offer of unlimited streaming content on a variety of devices in the home and on mobile devices for just $8 a month changed the equation.  At that price, many more consumers became willing to pay for content because the hassle of pirating was a bigger cost to them than a measly eight bucks a month.

Now, all of you content providers out there are starting to salivate.  Wipe the drool of your chin because here’s the hitch: your content (all  of it) is worth no where near $8 a month.  Netflix can charge $8 a month because they have hundreds of thousands of hours of entertainment for people.  If publishers today want to do the volume of business that has allowed Netflix to become profitable, then they need to drastically lower their expectations about what they can charge for their products.  I think the New York Times could probably make a profit by selling digital subscriptions at about $2 a month.  If iTunes dropped the price of an MP3 to 10 cents then the equation for consumers would change, just as it has in the movie industry.  Profits on each sale are significantly lower but they can make it up with volume.

People today consume a phenomenal amount of content online, but no one has yet figured out how to make much money at it.  The cause, in my opinion, is that publishers are too stuck in the pricing structure that made them a lot of money in the print era.  This is not fully unjustified, papers and magazines have managed to survive with their dwindling subscribers and they don’t want to cannibalize their traditional  profit areas.  If a major newspaper like the New York Times would charge just a penny for an article view, then their are probably a lot of people who wouldn’t mind paying.  The numbers would add up over time, without people even realizing what they were paying.  Those pennies would add up pretty fast.

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On Friday, the University of Oregon’s journalism school hosted an event in it’s 2011 Hulteng Conversations series on campus in Eugene.  The panelists were eloquent and passionate as they spoke about ethics in journalism and the changes that new media will bring about.  Stephen Colbert’s term “truthiness” served as a frame for the demise of “objective” journalism.  Overall, I agreed with the panelists’ well reasoned support for a move away from journalism’s failed attempt to be objective.

However, in my opinion, the panelists fell short of really hitting the essence of why people like Stephen Colbert and John Stewart have captured the attention of my generation.  I’m part of a generation that doesn’t really remember a time before Fox News.  For us, journalism has never looked objective.   We’ve watched “journalists” kill the truth and defecate on its corpse.  Colbert and Stewart are heroes to people my age because they fight back, and don’t make pretenses at objectivity.  Waging an ideological battle against the likes of Fox isn’t easy, and a lot of times it feels like journalists hide behind objectivity as an excuse to never take a stand that parts of their audience might disagree with.  Objectivity often seems like it’s a ideological backing to be so milquetoast that news outlets can appeal to the maximum number of listeners, and in reality, trying to please everyone has led to news outlets pleasing no one.

Colbert and Stewart didn’t get to their level of status by having panel discussions about changing ethical frameworks.  The objective model has seen it’s day and Colbert and Stewart recognized that, but they are using the voices they have to mix it up, instead of fighting fire with bland.  I’m as big a fan of academia as anyone,  and I enjoyed the speakers, but I feel like academia’s reasoned analyses often lag way behind reality.  A rational discussion of changes to media ethics is all well and good, but I think a lot of the younger people in the room had already accepted that times had changed, and wanted to hear more about how we can move forward from here.

But maybe that’s just my own biased and non-objective opinion.

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Last week, an anonymous  source contacted privacy-researcher Chris Soghoian offering to help him write a piece about a company the source claimed was violating people’s privacy: Google.  The source promised to be able to spill the beans about how Google was amalgamating web data in a way that could rob people of their privacy.  When Soghoian asked the source to reveal who he was affiliated with the source declined.

The story got weirder when it was revealed that the “source” worked for a PR firm that Facebook had hired to draw attention to Google’s new “Social Search” functions.  As the story unfolded, it became apparent that Facebook is upset that the new Google tool is gathering information – from Facebook.  Facebook makes a lot of it’s user’s data publicly available, and Google is using that data in it’s new search algorithms.

This story represents the latest round in a war about who will store your data online.  Google and Facebook both want to be the first place people go with their information – mostly because that data is incredibly valuable to advertisers.  As much as I enjoy the services of both companies, it’s not apparent to me that either of these companies have the best interest of their users in mind.  Whether it is Google or Facebook, both are corporations and they are mostly interested in making money.

I wish I could end this post with words of wisdom.  Even words of protest or indignation would be good.  Both of these would be insincere though.  I’m not going to stop using either service.  I worry about my privacy, but Facebook and Google are too much a part of  my life for me to protest, or even get really indignant about it.  I really can’t imagine my life without them.

I’m gonna go look at Google’s news feed, and then check my Facebook wall.

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The night of Osama bin Laden’s death I tried to get my hands on every piece of information I could, and I even turned to Twitter.  I’m not big on Twitter, but the day of bin Laden’s death seemed like a good time to hear what people were saying.  I saw several people tweeting the following quote, which was attributed to Martin Luther King, Jr:

“I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy.”

I enjoyed the quote because it represented a feeling that I really identified with.  I accepted it without question and moved on, and repeated it at least once to another person.  However, several days later I saw an interesting story, that argued with real evidence, that King had never said any such thing.  Further, the article points out that the quote wouldn’t make sense coming from MLK.  Who would the thousands of lives be?  Who would the enemy be?  It makes sense in the time after bin Laden’s death, but it has no contextual place in MLK’s life.

Through examining tweets using the timeline in Google’s Realtime search, the site’s authors were able to track down the original source of the quote to uncover that it a was a statement by a blogger that was accidentally attributed to MLK through Twitter retweets.

To me, what is interesting is how easily I accepted the statement as having come from MLK.  It’s easy, with hindsight, to think that people who believe false things should be able to see through to the truth, and not be take in false information so easily.  In fact, the realization that I had so easily been fooled into believing that the quote was from MLK had a humbling affect on me.  I normally see myself as a rational skeptic who is immune to being fooled by false information.  Apparently, I needed to realize that I’m just as easy to fool as anyone else.

There is no error checking on the internet, and things can move amazingly fast.  Within 24 hours of being tweeted, the fake MLK quote had been retweeted 10,000 times.  Tweets can transform a small mistake into common knowledge almost instantaneously.  In this case it appears that there were no malicious intentions on anyone’s part, just honest mistakes.  However, in a some ways this situation is scarier.  If there were direct sources who were deliberately misinforming people it would be pretty easy for people to avoid the liars. However, in this media landscape things move so fast that even reliable sources can make mistakes.  This propensity should inspire people everywhere to make the effort to be more critical of information they get.

Oh, and people are still retweeting the quote and attributing it to MLK, so beware that once a false idea has caught hold it doesn’t fade away quickly.

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My reflection on Osama bin Laden’s death has been up for less than 12 hours and it’s already received more hits than any post I’ve made in the last year and a half I’ve had this blog.  The statistics page shows that the bin Laden post is already nearing half of the total views my blog has ever received.  I feel kind of gratified about the post’s success.  It was timely (I posted it 2 minutes after Obama’s speech), I used good tagging to increase my hits, and I shamelessly plugged it on Twitter and Facebook, basically employing all the tricks a couple of years of journalism school can drill into you.  More than that, I feel the post was successful because I wrote from a place of emotional honesty, and this is a topic that I have no doubt that everyone feels a lot of emotion over.

I’ve decided to follow the post up with one that is equally as timely, relevant, and emotional: that’s right, I’ll be doing a write-up of a video chat with a guest speaker in one of my journalism classes from nearly a week ago.  My sarcasm over my lackluster follow-up to a piece of my own writing that I felt was successful aside, the video chat with Stephen K. Doig really was interesting.

Doig is a journalist and pioneer in the field of power journalism, which for the many (very many) of you who haven’t seen my past posts on the topic is the use of tools such as database analysis and statistics to augment reporting.  Doig won a Pulitzer prize for his coverage of Hurricane Andrew for the Miami Herald.  His most successful pieces involved the use of statistical tools to prove that the worst damage had occurred in newer homes because of weakened building codes and lack of inspections and enforcement of building codes.

Doig’s discussion was interesting to me for two reasons primarily: A) because he talked about how people with the proper skills can still find work in the journalism field, and B) because he talked about how much power journalism has changed in the nearly 20 years since this story broke.

I was interested in the first for purely self-centered reasons, so I’ll just skip right on past that for the benefit of people who may be reading this to, you know, learn things.  According to Doig, the biggest change to power journalism in the past 20 years is how much easier it is now.  This should not be surprising, computers have come a long way since then, so it would be a big deal if computer-assisted reporting hadn’t also progressed.  Doig says that it doesn’t take specialists to do this kind of reporting anymore and any journalist should be able to do it.  The reason why the increased ease of power journalism is so interesting to me is because it seems like news today is often too shallow to use investigative tools like power journalism.  If power journalism has become this easy it makes it all the more disappointing that our media have decided that it’s more important for me to know what type of pudding was served at Prince William’s wedding than how much money various businesses spend lobbying, or finding ways that the state government mismanages its funds.

I suppose though that the situation is more complicated than that.  The computational tools available are better than ever, but they can’t do anything if you don’t have data to work with.  Equally bad is the public’s own disinterest in serious news stories.  The fact that our country is currently involved in two and half wars is also shockingly under-reported, but I guess that is because people eventually become numb to the tragedy of it.

I set out to write what I thought would be a fairly simple summary of Doig’s discussion, but I somehow found my way back to the conflicts in the middle east.  I guess that shows you where my mind still is.

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I was fourteen when the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center took place on September 11th, 2001.  I very clearly remember the entire day, and it was one of the defining moments of my transition from childhood to adulthood.  In the days that followed the attacks I learned who Osama bin Laden was for the first time.  I’m not a hateful person, but I learned to hate bin Laden in that time.  I read the email forwards of jokes about his death, and silently agreed with my dad whenever he would menacingly wish for the opportunity to have “five minutes alone with bin Laden.”

Now the breaking story of the night is that bin Laden is dead.  America’s boogeyman for the last ten years is gone.  I haven’t thought about bin Laden much in the last few years, but I’m really surprised by my reaction, given how much I, like many others, learned to hate him after 9/11.  I feel hollow.  I think I was much like the rest of America in the first weeks and months after the attacks.  We wanted to get him. When we started the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan there seemed to be an undercurrent that we would go in, kill the bad guys like bin Laden, and leave, victorious.

The subsequent years have gone somewhat differently.  We’ve watched thousands of American soldiers die.  We’ve dumped hundreds of billions of dollars into the wars while we’ve seen unprecedented cuts in spending on health care and education.  As a country we’ve committed torture and abandoned the rights that we declared inalienable at our founding more than 200 years ago.  We’ve watched American influence wane and the foundations of our economy falter.  We are now facing what is very likely the end of the American era.

Think of what it has cost us.  Billions of dollars are just the start of it.  Even the abandonment of our fundamental values like habeas corpus and the Eight Amendment are only a piece. In the wake of that and the sheer human costs of war, the death of Osama bin Laden does not feel like a win.  It’s empty.  The fighting will keep going on.   Soldiers, insurgents and civilians will keep dying.  The troops aren’t all gonna come home tomorrow, and when they do, what will it have cost them?  What has it cost America?

I’m reminded of the old adage that things are always worth just a little bit less than what you give up to get them.  I’m guessing there will be some general celebration of this news over the next few days.  I won’t look down at anyone who does celebrate.  I’ll probably even return the high fives and join in the celebration.  However, I hope that we all take a moment to ask ourselves if getting our revenge was worth what it cost us.

For more information:

Cost of War

iCasualties

Amnesty International – Guantánamo Bay

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