Posts from July 20, 2004

Backhanded reporting

Backhanded reporting

: Well, the good news is that The New York Times finds something good happening in Iraq and actually credits Americans and even puts it on page one. The bad news is that it’s backhanded in the compliment (my emphases) in this story about Americans helping to dig a well for a town that never had one:

As a convoy of big armored vehicles picked their way, rut by rut, over the village’s zigzagging lanes toward the well, the dubious scene easily evoked the skepticism that has dogged the rebuilding effort all over the country.

But then a villager named Rabaa Saleh, standing among the swarms of children who had run out to meet the vehicles, gave his view of the proceedings.

“It makes people think good things are on the way,” Mr. Saleh said through a translator. “When this well is done, each time somebody takes a drink of water they will say the Americans did something good.”

Still, while local citizens like Mr. Saleh say they appreciate the work and are willing to credit Americans for paying for it, they often do not want to see Western faces at the projects themselves, fearing terrorist attacks and general hostility from ordinary Iraqis.

Want some more good news? Try Spirit of America.

Who’s up to what

Who’s up to what

: Rafat Ali’s digital jobs blog continues to be a good source of business intelligence, as well as good jobs. Lately:

: Coke is hiring an interactive brand manager. More money leaves TV and plops here.

: The NY Daily News is hiring a new media manager.

: MarketWatch is hiring a content manager in New York.

: AOL is hiring a VOIP director. Does this mean they’ll compete with their friends in cable?

: Macromedia is hiring a program manager for mobile. Flash on the go!

Making blogs make money, cont.

Making blogs make money, cont.

: MarketingVox reports that now has an affiliate program for publishers.

The tech jinx

The tech jinx

: The Chicago Tribune nearly didn’t publish yesterday because of a software upgrade that turned into downgrade.

This made me reminisce about Tribune technology disasters I have known.

I was at the paper while we were making the switch from hot type to cold type (and if you don’t know what I mean by that, all I can say is: enjoy your youth). The gigantic boxcar-sized machine that did what your little HP printer does today was fed paper tape of stories and then it spun a black strip with clear letters on it (it could hold only a few fonts at once) and as light shone through it would expose the photographic paper to create the galleys (not pages) of type. One day, it died. Like a journalist precursor to iRobot, it erased its own memory and all the programming. The expert had to be flown in to rescue the paper and let us publish. How did this happen? Turns out that the coincidence of a sequence of characters in a golf story happened to be the command to the machine to erase memory.

And then there was the time we installed our first editorial system. That’s how I got involved in computers and technology way back in 1974, my children: I was working midnight rewrite, waiting for somebody to die a terrible death so I could write about it, and while bored, I played with the computers that scared everyone else in the joint and became the expert. But I found out later that this was installed as a scab system in case of a typographers’ strike. Since we did not yet have a contract allowing us to tie the system directly to that cold-type machine, we edited our stories on the system and then at the end of the process, made a printout and sent that down to the composing room, where it was retyped. The original kluge. Well, if anybody ever forgot to hit one button on this gigantic kerchunketa printer, it would sit idle and nobody would know that stories weren’t printing out. So, more than once, we came to deadline and somebody would call up from composing and ask whether we were ever going to send any copy down. That one button on that printer almost kept us from publishing.

The Tribune replaced that system with a custom-made Caddie that, soon after it was installed at huge expense and effort, didn’t work. It was such a disaster that the paper assigned its own Pulitzer-winning task force of investigative reporters to investigate what had happened. They found that all kinds of stupid compromises had been made during the design and the system ended up with about as much memory as the PC on which you’re reading this tale.

Moral to the story: Media companies often don’t do technology well.

Play Taps… or get transparent

Play Taps… or get transparent

: Randall Rothenberg — Ad Age columnist, former NYT reporter, and mucketymuck at Booz Allen — writes an obit, or at least a dire diagnosis, for the news business. He waxes about Watergate as the golden age of journalism and then laments:

Three decades later, American journalism is at its nadir. Surveys indicate that journalists rank with ambulance-chasing lawyers and self-dealing executives in public disapproval. The most able of our youth are pursuing MBAs. Journalism schools are cranking out blow-dried twinkies for ratings-driven newscasts. Print editors are paid to generate buzz, not insightful scoops.

What happened?

In part, U.S. journalism is returning to its roots. In the century before philosopher Walter Lippmann gave journalists standing alongside other leaders as shapers and transmitters of public opinion, newspapers were hotbeds of unabashed partisanship and ballyhoo. But to assume nothing’s changed is to avoid the heartbreaking fact that newspeople are participating in the diminution of their own esteem.

Tabloid behavior used to be confined to the tabloids. Today, the erosion of boundaries between media forms and the chase for every last eyeball in the rapidly fragmenting audience have put the most traditional of mainstream news organizations on a collision course with credibility.

But he gives a different cause and cure than I would.

Rothenberg says the first problem is “the crawling I,” the spreading virus of first-person reporting and the “branding of newspeople… once-objective reporters are turning themselves into trademarks.” He links this to a strategy of infotainment in which “no sin is more grave than boring people.” He rends his shirt over The New York Times bold-facing names.

The second sin, he says, is that media “the tiresome obsession of the media with the media.”

I’ll certainly agree that both trends can be tiresome, overdone, even obnoxious. But I don’t agree that they are at the root of the problem or the solution. Nor do I agree with his wistful wish that we should return to an era of “objective journalism” (because we were never really there).

First, in some ways, we need to know more about reporters, not less — not because we want to make them stars but because we want to know their perspectives and biases and how that colors their reporting.

Second, media needs to police itself and it needs to do that in public.

Both are really issues of transparency and I spent the weekend (as you’ve already heard with all too much transparency) among media folks who were all beating that drum to one tempo or another. Rothenberg’s right that transparency can become an excuse for displays of ego and exercises in navel-gazing. But without efforts at transparency — revealing bias, agendas, process, and mistakes and turning news into a conversation — then journalist-priests will continue to try to hide inside the cathedral walls while their public is busy posting 95 theses to the door and using this new medium to start new churches.

Transparency: The PowerPoint

Transparency: The PowerPoint

: I finally managed to get the PowerPoint presentation I gave at the Aspen Institute on transparency and the newsroom up as a plain HTML page, so you can see it without technical two-steps. Try this. I’ll work on the other presentation on advertising and citizens’ media later.