News as assets

All the excited buzz about Ezra Klein’s new venture at Vox Media (congratulations to both) misses the real significance, I think: that, as best as I can tell, Klein & Co. will specialize not so much in topics but in forms of journalism, tearing apart the old, omnibus article and specializing in the explainer or backgrounder as a journalistic asset.

The Washington Post’s coverage of losing Klein to a new mistress concentrates on the litany of losses big media have suffered at the hands of younger competitors: Nate Silver from the New York Times, Andrew Sullivan from the Atlantic, Kara Swisher et al from the Wall Street Journal.

In his thumbsucker on the event, David Carr decides that this is the moment when tech companies that produce journalism supersede journalism companies that do tech. I disagree as I think concentrating on technology — that is, content management systems — as the root of value is still an expression of editorial ego: it’s about how *we* do our jobs rather than how the public benefits from the services we perform.

I couldn’t much understand what Klein will be up to from his announcement in Vox’ Verge. I started to understand it here: “Our mission is to create a site that’s as good at explaining the world as it is at reporting on it.” I better understood it, thanks to a Jay Rosen tweet, from the job posting for the venture (my emphasis):

We’ll have regular coverage of everything from tax policy to True Detective, but instead of letting that reporting gather dust in an archive, we’ll use it to build and continuously update a comprehensive set of explainers of the topics we cover. We want to create the single best resources for news consumers anywhere. We’ll need writers who are obsessively knowledgeable about their subjects to do that reporting and write those explainers — as well as ambitious feature pieces. We’ll need D3 hackers and other data viz geniuses who can explain the news in ways words can’t. We’ll need video producers who can make a two-minute cartoon that summarizes the Volcker rule perfectly. We’ll need coders and designers who can build the world’s first hybrid news site/encyclopedia. And we’ll need people who want to join Vox’s great creative team because they believe in making ads so beautiful that our readers actually come back for them too.

Aha. This is a step along a path Rosen began exploring in 2008, looking at the value of the explainer. And that is a step along a path I’ve been exploring in seeing news as a set of assets with different paths through them: what’s new (perhaps from Twitter), backgrounders (from Wikipedia), explainers (from KleinCo?), timelines from somewhere else, dramatis personæ from yet somewhere else, quotes in the story (from Cir.Ca), and so on….

What Klein is apparently doing is specializing in an asset type of news: the explainer. I think there’s a lot of value in that. You can get the latest on a story in so many places now — from Twitter, on TV, from wire services, and, yes, from news organizations. In all that coverage the old background paragraph — a vestige of the limitations of print — ill-served everyone: the novice is underserved (how can you catch up on the saga of Libya in five lines?) and the expert’s time is wasted (how much effort to we expend trying to skip over the old stuff in news articles?).

I’ve also been telling TV folks lately that, freed by the net of the need to fill a clock, they can use their medium to create explainers as assets that have ongoing value.

In the end, I think — I hope — what Klein is doing is staking his ground and following a dictum I started thinking about in 2007: Do what you do best and link to the rest. What he wants to do best is explain the news and the world to the public. That’s a tall order but I like the mission. And he can leave the cute cats to someone else.

Brazil, Snowden & the net at Davos

Here at Davos, I just left a media conversation with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff at which I asked two questions relevant to the internet.

First, I asked under what circumstances she would consider granting asylum to Edward Snowden. She did not answer that question directly but said that the Brazilian government “has not been addressed” regarding an application for asylum, “therefore since I cannot possibly contemplate such a request you are working under a mistaken premise. The request was never formally submitted.” Interpret the subtleties of that as you may.

I also asked about controversial plans to require technology companies to store Brazilians’ data in Brazil, seeking her reaction to criticism that this will lead to a balkanized internet. She responded strictly in the context of criminal prosecution, saying that in an investigation into money laundering her justice department was denied access “precisely because it ran counter to the legislation of the country where the data was stored.”

“We cannot possibly accept that interference about data,” she continued. “It’s about our sovereignty…. We cannot find ourselves subject to the laws that prevail in third-party countries.” And then she added: “A compromise agreement is always possible.”

A few observations:

First, holding citizens’ data in Brazil makes it easier for the authorities to get data on those citizens for reasons good or bad.

Next, I’m surprised that she did not use this as an opportunity to continue her complaints about U.S. surveillance of Brazilian entities.

Instead, she put this as a matter of Brazilian sovereignty. That’s blunt but troubling. I’ve argued before that no nation should be able to claim sovereignty over the net.

If Brazil succeeds in imposing this data requirement, then it represents the further balkanization of the net. Brazil ends up with its own net, Iran does too, and so does China. The good-guy argument doesn’t wash for the architecture and precedent set by any good guy can be used by any bad guy.

Note also this week that Microsoft said it would honor customers’ requests to hold their data outside of the U.S. and the prying eyes of the NSA. At a practical level, it’s not hard to imagine that working for enterprise data; here at Davos, Salesforce.com’s Marc Benioff said his company can show a client the building and the rack where its data is held. But for consumer services, it is hard to imagine how, say, Bing could store, say, your search history outside the U.S. but mine inside.

And apart from those practical considerations, other tech executives said yesterday at Davos that the U.S. FISA court can still require a technology company to hand over data that is under its control, no matter whether that data is held in the U.S. or abroad.

This is a show of shadow puppets but one that could have serious, injurious impact on the net.

Back to Rousseff: The media conversation was to be off the record but after it was over she said that everything she said could be used on the record.

An odd event, it was. Asked one question about the economy of Brazil, she filibustered for half an hour, sounding — in the observation of another journalist — like a Chinese party official outlining the newest five-year plan.

For the diseased

I cannot possibly do better than Zeynep Tufekci in taking two journalists — New York Times columnist and former executive editor Bill Keller and his wife, Guardian writer Emma Keller — to school in a brilliant post that explains how each exploited and offended, misinterpreted and mistreated a mother who they think is doing too much and saying too much about her cancer. Please, please go read that now.

I will address only one matter myself: blogging and tweeting — or as we used to say, talking about — disease.

I will readily tell you about my prostate cancer and consequently malfunctioning penis, about my thyroid cancer, about the atrial fibrillation that came after I sucked in the dust of destruction at the World Trade Center, and while I’m at it, I might as well add a note about my bursitis.

I don’t do this because I am a hypochondriac or want an ounce of sympathy — I deserve none as I have had cancer lite, with no chemo, no radiation, only momentary pain or inconvenience, and most importantly, no mortal threat. I don’t do this to take part in what my elderly parents living in a community of elderly friends call “the organ recital.”

I do this because I gain support and information and because I can give others support and information. I do this because I believe we must talk about about sickness, openly and honestly, to rob it of its stigma, to pool what we know about it, to teach people about it, to influence policy about it.

And why shouldn’t we? It’s just disease. It happens to all of us, except those who come to violent ends. Imagine a world in which there is no stigma about illness, in which ailments are not a matter of privacy or lost insurance or jobs, in which we collectively share and learn as much as we can about what afflicts us so it can afflict fewer. It’s just data.

So I am astounded that two journalists who should support transparency as a virtue come to question the ethics of Lisa Adams for talking about her disease. It is her disease. It is her motives that matter, generously trying to educate people about her treatment. How dare a journalist of all people try to tell someone what she cannot say? How could a journalist seek less information in the world?

When I blogged about my prostate cancer, one and only one guy — who didn’t like me anyway — similarly complained that I was saying too much. He accused me of oversharing. I said the problem is not that. It’s that he was overlistening.

If Emma Keller doesn’t want to read about Lisa Adams’ cancer, then she shouldn’t read it. If Bill Keller thinks Adams should not treat her cancer and her pain, well, he should mind his own business.

But if they do want to act as journalists in this new age, then they must follow Tufekci’s advice and learn that when they read someone’s words, they are not interacting with media, they are interacting with a person. It so happens the person they were writing about is brave and generous. They were not.

And we all should be welcoming the opportunity to hear more voices, learn more perspectives, gain more information. And we should all be wishing Lisa Adams our best for what she is going through and what she is offering us.

The newest New York Times

Screenshot 2014-01-10 at 8.49.59 AMThe Guardian asked me to turn a series of tweets about the new New York Times site design into a review:

A web-site redesign is often an expensive, time-consuming, over-hyped exercise in media navel-gazing: an expression of institutional ego over user need. So I will confess a preemptive shrug at news of the newest New York Times online.

But I retract my shrug. As I explored the new site and tweeted my reaction, I quickly warmed to this new haircut on an old friend. It’s neither revolutionary nor terribly disruptive and leaves me feeling as if the paper online has tried to pay tribute to the paper as paper (why did they feel the need to resurrect the mix of italic and roman headlines that was de rigueur a half-century ago?). Still, The Times does much right.

The redesign kills the irritating news-site habit of cutting stories into multiple parts. In print, we newspaper folk called that “jumping” from, say, the front page to one inside, and every reader survey ever performed told editors that their customers hated that. Newspapers continued to do it online not because scarce space forced us to but instead because we wanted to pump up our pageviews: The more pages you viewed, the more ads you saw, the more money we made — or so went the myth of old mass media carried over to online. That is also the economic genesis of sites’ slideshow disease.

The Times now lets us scroll through a story without clicking. But there could be an economic rationale for that, too. Web analytics company Chartbeat found that readers tend to let their eyes skip right past the banners atop pages — usually sold as the most valuable ads — and end up spending more time exposed to the ads embedded down within longer tomes. Time engaged can build greater value than pages clicked.

In an effort to increase said engagement, The Times has tried to make it as easy as licking your finger and turning the page to move to the next story … and the next. There’s an arrow on the right of every story that moves the reader to the following story displayed in a horizontal menu above. Once I figured the system out — I’ll confess it took me a few clicks to associate the arrow with the preview in the bar — I found it, well, engaging. But I also found this feature, like the ability to read today’s paper — that is, the stories as packaged in the physical artifact — a bit too nostalgic for the idea of editorial presentation and control.

Nonetheless, I salute The Times for putting less effort into its home page (which on The Times attracts more than half of its readers in a day but on many news sites draws as few as 10 percent) than into creating a satisfying experience around the meat of the matter: the article.

I’m also relieved that The Times did not follow the example of its much-ballyhooed — and so-often-aped“snowfall” format, injecting animations and videos and sound and every manner of media into a simple text tale. There’s no digital Rococo in sight.

The new Times uses what geeks call the “hamburger button” (three parallel lines — two sandwiching the third) to get rid of the time-worn left-hand navigation bar. Speaking from experience running news sites, the nav bar became the basis of political turf wars, with editorial and commercial departments battling for more signage. With all that obvious information tucked away, there’s more room for what should be in a news site: news.

Screenshot 2014-01-08 at 9.01.29 AMI’ll quibble that once one does mouse-over the hamburger (oh, what has become of our language?) the resulting menu is three layers wide (e.g., arts to books to best sellers) and can require the manual dexterity of a pianist to play it. But as I confessed, I quibble.

One other important change in this redesign is The Times’ ability to accommodate the next supposed media messiah after the pay wall: native advertising, which is code for fooling readers into thinking that marketing messages are actual content. We used to call these things advertorials — you know, those things you skipped past. Now media mythology has it that every brand should be media and all media need content. But the real question is: Do you find value in reading an opus from Dell about “Reaching Across the Office from Marketing to IT“? I don’t. I go to Dell to buy hardware, not words. As I recently warned a roomful of PR people itching to advertise natively: Content is a shitty business. Stay away! I predict that the fad will soon lose its luster.

Screenshot 2014-01-08 at 8.59.09 AM
But in the meantime, let’s at least give credit to The Times for doing native advertising right — that is, for being scrupulous about labeling it for what it is. “Paid for and posted by Dell,” says the warning atop every piece. “Written by Dell,” it says at the byline. “More paid posts from Dell,” it says to the right. Short of using the A-word — advertising — it can’t get much clearer than that. Now the question is: Will readers click and care? Will a 13-paragraph essay asking, “Can the Government Become Entrepreneurial?” sell more computers than a well-targeted coupon?

As former Times wunderkind Brian Stelter writes at CNN.com, much of the import of The Times redesign occurs behind the scenes in a new content management system that the paper says will make it easier to iterate with new technologies, obsoleting not the present site but instead the concept of the redesign. I argue that CMSes — like redesigns — are another expression of editorial ego. I’ll be egotistical enough to quote what I blogged on the topic:

It’s all about us, about our content, about how we want to make it, how we want to present it to you, how we organize it, how we make money on it, how we protect it. What we should be doing instead is turning our attention outward, from the content we make (surely after 600 years, we know how to do that) to our relationship with the public we serve and the ecosystems in which we operate.

The one thing missing from The Times redesign is me — or to put that less egotistically, you. I wish a news site would move away from its mass-production roots and devote just some proportion of its presentation to personal relevance, reducing noise and increasing engagement not through user interfaces but through delivering value. I’d like The Times to learn that I never read sports and often read about movies and devour media news and live in New Jersey and thus give me more relevance. Netflix knows what I like but my newspaper does not. Google knows where I live and work but my newspaper does not. Shouldn’t it?

This shift won’t require a redesign of pages and pixels or systems. It will require a rethinking of newsroom culture and commercial business models to emphasize service over content, outcomes over presentation, relationships over mass.

Oh, be warned: The Guardian is working on its own new systems and redesign.

Rethinking TV news part II: Experiments with forms and models

Allow me to speculate on new forms and models for TV news after Part I of this post looked at what’s broken and what’s possible.

webcast1TV with many eyes: First, a tale… Roger Ailes’ brilliance at Fox News was economic, not political. He realized that chatting about the news rather than gathering it would get higher ratings at a far lower cost. Just one weakness: The Fox folk need someone to chat with. I know because I used to work a block away and was often called in at a moment’s notice to blather, but when the guest they really wanted arrived, they gave me the bum’s rush. So I was talking with an old friend, former boss, and News Corp. executive many, many years ago, telling her about the wonders of these newfangled things called webcams. Put one of those in Judge Napolitano’s house and office and he can come on the air to yammer about the latest trial at a moment’s notice. She had me talk with some Fox VP about the notion and he dismissed it out of hand because, of course, the quality [lower voice to stentorian TV voice when saying this] was not broadcast quality. (I am relieved I did nothing in the service of Fox News.) But of course, soon thereafter, his own network proved him wrong as Oliver North was jerkily (in as many definitions of the word as you like) broadcasting from the Iraq war over satphone. And I was doing regular segments on MSNBC’s Coast to Coast from my den at home. Suddenly and briefly webcams themselves were hot. Now they are indeed used to bring remote guests on screen.

Brady-Bunch-GridBut webcams still have not been used to their fuller potential. Since those days, I’ve wanted to see a show that could call on a panel of guests — new voices, like old people ready to talk about a change in Social Security or geeks about the latest from the NSA. Imagine Wolf Blitzer’s giant screen as a matrix with a dozen people on it, and below each is a line of text — now a tweet — with his or her thoughts so Wolf can point to any of them to bring them on air. That was my old idea.

I was talking with someone smart about this the other day and he asked why we’d need Wolf. The audience is Wolf. A user, given a proper tool, can select who to hear from and broadcast the result: May the best show win. The audience can also go out and find new streams and add them to the mix. Imagine how useful that would be at a live event with many cams and phones trained on the action from different perspectives. Imagine, too, that the people formerly known as the audience can be a resource to answer questions (that’s what the chat room does in TWiT shows) or ask questions and thus direct coverage.

Now a webcam is far more than a cheap, remote camera without a satellite truck. It is a window onto new worlds of witnesses, experts, commentators, and people affected by the news: new voices, new perspectives. The prototype tool for this pretty much exists in Google+ Hangouts; I’d start experimenting with it to cover events and have topical discussions. Former local anchor Sarah Hill was a pioneer using Hangouts in her show. Huffington Post TV and TWiG have used Hangouts as well. But I think the tool can be pushed much more, having people use their phones not just for video selfies but for reporting from the field. Or when news breaks around an issue that affects one community’s or another’s lives, instead of having the same old “experts” on, why not seek out the voices of those affected by the news and have them on to get new perspectives? Or when you do have an expert, instead of having just one interviewer question her, why not have more experts or more people from an affected community ask their questions? There are a million TV cameras out there now. There are a million possibilities.

The (very) latest: Cable news’ greatest strength — breaking news — is also its greatest weakness, for after someone has read to us what’s known now, they just keep repeating the same facts (or speculations) and looping the same video, trying to fool us into thinking we’re up to date when they might not be. That’s because they have the constantly open maw of a channel to fill and they have competitors.

Online, I can imagine another way to cover breaking news, inspired by Wikipedia. Wikipedia offers a snapshot of what is known now. If nothing new emerges in an hour, no one feels compelled to update the page. Imagine if an online news service offered us the promise of (a) summarizing what is known about a breaking story now, (b) updating only when something new is know, and (c) alerting us when that occurs and giving us the choice whether to watch the latest. So we go watch a video on, say, Yahoo or NBC, to get the latest, whether that takes two or five or 10 minutes to report. Then we can go away and do other things, secure in the knowledge that when more is known, we can be alerted to watch a new video. This benefits the provider because we have elected to follow or subscribe to its updates (a la Cir.ca). If the provider abuses the privilege and sends us constant alerts, we’ll soon ignore that boy crying wolf. If you come into the middle of a story and need background, well, see the next idea.

Explainers and backgrounders: A bit of background before I get to the idea about background: I’ve been thinking a lot lately about deconstructing the time-honored article into assets and paths. When I draw an inverted pyramid in my classroom — the lede or what’s new on top, the nut paragraph that sums up the story next, the background paragraph next, and so on — I tell the students that the background graph ill serves everyone, giving too little to the newcomer and too much to the expert. What should it be online? I ask. A link, they dutifully respond. A link to what? Where to do we get our background these days? Wikipedia. Where do we get what’s new? Often Twitter. Where do we get explainers? Places like the Economist. Thus the article is unbundled into assets that can be made and maintained by various parties with various paths through them. Well, can’t TV — once freed of its linear prison — do the same?

Now imagine if one built and maintained a storehouse of explainers and backgrounders. They would not be ephemeral, gone with the last minute as on old TV. They would be assets that can get viewers and links over time, building value and reputation. They can also be updated. Video, known for dumbing down the news, could smarten itself and us up.

russertWhy video? Because, as I said in Part I, TV is good at explaining and demonstrating things. Explaining need not mean going crazy with computer graphics and interactivity or those now-hackneyed whiteboard animations with the hyperactive, disembodied hand making cute but uninformative pictures. No, I mean somebody who knows what the hell she’s talking about standing in front of a white board and ‘splaining something. That reminds me of the greatest invention in the history of television news graphics: Tim Russert’s whiteboard.

Backgrounders are a close cousin to explainers. Now return to the idea above about breaking news: You are watching updated segments giving you the latest on a developing story. But you don’t want to hear the background over and over again. Or if you come into the story late, you need background. So why not separate that into a distinct asset that can be maintained and updated, a la Wikipedia but with video and photos as appropriate?

silent film dialogueSilent (mobile video) movies: Media of all sorts are looking at mobile as just another content-delivery mechanism. I think it is many other things — a relationship-building tool (more on that soon) and also a time-waster. How do we use our phones most of the time? Not to make phone calls, but to (1) communicate by other means and (2) kill a few minutes while we’re waiting in line at the bank or waiting for a bus — that is when we encounter content. In those moments, most of us are not going to browse through a dozen pages on a news site or get ourselves some of that long-form journalism we hear so much about now and we’re not going to bother to get out earphones so we can watch and listen to TV news. And unless we’re assholes (like the ones on the Acela who don’t just talk on the phone but talk on the speakerphone … but that’s a rant for another day) we’re not going to play the sound on video and disturb the others on line with us. So it occurred to me that news video for mobile should resemble silent movies: big text and muted video where the video is appropriate and not just there to fill time.

Depth (with the good bits): I want to see TV give me depth — rich interviews, as Leo Laporte suggested for Katie Couric in Part I (see Tim Pool’s 18 minutes with Kim Dotcom or any Howard Stern interview hitting an hour and a half), or full video of an event, say — but I also want to get to the good bits. So what I really want is a user interface that lets us deep-link into an annotate and thus share or embed those bits. Of course, that technology exists — you can share a YouTube video from any spot — but I don’t see much video news taking advantage of it because TV producers, like print editors, want to deliver finished products. But I’ll bet that the ironic result of letting people cut to the good stuff is that more people will watch long video and more producers will make it. So let the interview go on and on. Don’t choose the sound bites for us. Let us choose them. Or let us watch the whole thing. TV no longer forces us to watch one same-size-fits-all product; it can give us choice.

What other experiments in the form of TV news can you imagine?

In Part III, I’ll look at business models, at legacy TV, and at some of the comments left on these posts.

Rethinking TV news, Part I: What’s broken, what’s possible

ron burgandy breaking news

Most TV news sucks. But I don’t want to dwell on that.

I’d like to see TV news be reinvented, yet I’m astounded so little innovation is occurring in the medium. That could be because TV news is in better financial shape than print (for now). It could be because in a highly competitive market, no one wants to leave the pack and risk failure trying something new. Still, network TV’s audience is lurching toward the grave; cable news is struggling; and Pew says that for the once-indomitable local TV news, “future demographics do not bode well.” Like newspapers and magazines before them, broadcasters need to change, to take advantage of opportunities to work in new ways, to fend off the digital competitors who are sure to grasp the chance to disrupt, and simply to improve.

TV news is stuck holding onto its orthodoxy of inanity. It wastes resources trying to fool us with stand-ups at sites where news occurred 12 hours before and where there is nothing left to witness or report. It repeats much, saying little. It adores fires that affect few. It goes overboard on weather. It gives us BREAKING NEWS that isn’t breaking at all but is long over, predictable, obvious, or trivial. It gullibly and dutifully flacks for PR events created just for TV. It presents complex issues with false and simplistic balance. It speaks in the voice of plastic people. It stages reality (no that guy in the b-roll isn’t really typing on his laptop). It has little sense of the utility of what it presents. And did I mention its pyromania?

But I don’t want to dwell on that.

I want to dwell on what TV could do well, on its strengths and opportunities. TV can summarize, sometimes too well perhaps, but delivering a quick overview of what’s happening is a useful function of news. It can curate, bringing together divergent reports and viewpoints. It can explain a complex topic and doesn’t have to dumb it down. It can demonstrate. It can convene the public to action. It can collaborate, having witnesses share what they are seeing and what they know. It can discuss and doesn’t have to shout. It can give voice to countless new perspectives now that everyone has a camera on laptop or phone. It can humanize without cynically patronizing or manufacturing a personality.

There are sprouts of innovation in television (folks I know working in video online object to it being called television but I say they should co-opt the word, the medium, and the form). That innovation is generally not coming from other media companies, for newspapers and magazines have made the mistake of aping broadcast TV when they should exploring new directions. And the innovation that is occurring doesn’t take the form of incremental adjustment to the familiar form of TV news. Instead, true innovation is unrecognizable as television. On one end of the spectrum, there’s the six-second self-parody of viral video shallowness that is Vine as news. On the other, there’s the TWiT Network (of which I am a part), where we geeks can yammer on about single topics — Google, security, Android — for devoted if small audiences for two hours.

When Katie Couric announced that she’d be moving to Yahoo and NPR’s Weekend Edition asked me to yammer about it, I took the opportunity to push my own agenda and wish that Couric and Marissa Mayer would reinvent TV news because they’re both smart; Couric knows the form so well she knows what to break; Mayer is a disruptive innovator; and Yahoo needs to be something *new* not merely something changed.

And so then I started asking some folks what they’d suggest. I asked TWiT’s founder, Leo Laporte, and after more than 10 minutes’ discussion on two shows — hey, we have all the time in the world — he said that instead of giving us the news — we already get that — he’d want to see Couric give us rich interviews with newsmakers. I like that. When Katie was on Howard Stern’s show weeks ago, I called in to ask about him having a pure interview show on TV, since he has had a remarkable run of amazing interviews lately. Besides Charlie Rose, who really does that on TV?

I asked Michael Rosenblum about reinventing TV news. He has reinvented his share of newsrooms, converting the old three-person crews to so-called one-man bands, teaching people how to tell stories with video and without the silly conventions of stand-ups, establishing shots, b-roll, and cotton-candy scripts. He told me about returning from the UK, where he taught a few dozen journalists at the Independent and Evening Standard how to gather video news with their iPhones. If they can do it, anybody can.

I asked Shane Smith, founder of Vice, which just announced the start of a new news channel in 2014 (below), and he talked about the net’s ability to bring many new voices into the news.

Vice was smart enough to hire Tim Pool the guy who broadcast Occupy Wall Street live for 21 hours straight. Pool’s not sure what to call himself — a mobile journalist, a social journalist. Take a look at how he covered protests in Turkey, where he was the first journalist so far as he knows to broadcast live using Google Glass — the true eyewitness.

A few weeks ago, Pool came to my class and then sat in my office and so I asked him about the future of TV news. Speculating together — having nothing to do with Vice’s future plans — he didn’t start talking about video. He started talking about people — witnesses and commentators and how to find the best of them and connect them — and about technology and about user interfaces. There I started to hear the beginnings of a new vision for TV and news in which video is just one tool to use.

So how would you reinvent TV news? What advice would you give Katie Couric? What advice would you give the next Tim Pool? At CUNY’s Tow-Knight Center, I’d like to embark on projects to rethink the form of TV news, its relationship with the public, and its business models. What would you like to see us do? Try not to dwell on mocking the form and its weaknesses — Ron Burgundy has done enough of that for a lifetime (plus a sequel). Try instead to imagine you are a young (reincarnated) William Paley with all these tools and all these possibilities at hand. What do you invent? In Part II, I’ll add my own wishes and speculation.

Pat Ryan

Former People editors Dick Stolley, Lanny Jones, Jim Gaines, and Pat Ryan at a reunion; photo by Robin Platzer

Former People editors Dick Stolley, Lanny Jones, Jim Gaines, and Pat Ryan at a reunion; photo by Robin Platzer

I just learned of the death of Pat Ryan, former managing editor (that is, editor-in-chief anywhere other than Time Inc.) of People and Life magazines. Pat was my mentor and protector. I owe her my career.

Pat hired me at People. She made me the first TV critic there. She encouraged me to submit an idea I had for a magazine called Entertainment Weekly. And she saved me from the sins of synergy. A few personal tales of mine in memory of Pat….

They never hired newspaper people at Time Inc., I was told. We weren’t slick enough. But I got a week’s tryout there as a writer. Each morning, I got a file of reporter’s notes — 30 pages or more — and piles of clips with instructions to turn it into 120 pithily packed — it’s there that I learned one could throw in more material between dashes — and almost always alliterative lines of copy. I did that the first morning and asked for the next assignment but was told there wasn’t anything. Same thing happened the next morning and the next: five days, five stories. At the end, Pat hired me. As I left, an old hand at the magazine, Cranston Jones (there were no Bob Joneses at Time Inc., only a Cranston and a Landon at People), took me aside and balled me out: “Don’t you ever do that again.” I had no idea what “that” meant until I arrived and attended my first writers’ meeting under Pat. “People, people,” she said after first instructing the women on staff not to follow her into the ladies room with story pitches, “we have to get better. You all should be trying to write one story a week.” Aha.

I had moved to New York and People from San Francisco and the Examiner (“What,” my editor there, Jim Willse, said upon hearing the news, “got tired of journalism did you?”). I quickly missed California and looked to move back. The L.A. Times talked to me about becoming TV critic but couldn’t get the job approved so they offered me L.A. Olympics arts correspondent. I never would have taken that. I don’t do folk dances. But my good friend and senior editor Peter Travers, unbeknownst to me, went to Pat telling her the way to keep me was to make me TV critic. And so she did.

I remember the day Pat got the latest cover sales report and screamed down the hall at me: “TV’s dead, Jarvis! It’s dead!” You see, her predecessors at People had an easy go of it picking covers: Put a Top 10 show on the cover and it’d sell. But under Pat’s watch and my tenure covering TV, choice exploded with cable boxes and newfangled VCRs, audience fragmented, and not everybody watched Dynasty anymore. That’s when People expanded to covering the events in the stars’ lives: births, deaths (there was a time when I said we should have renamed the magazine Dead People), diseases, affairs — bodily fluids journalism. That’s when flacks realized that they had the power to sell magazines by granting access to their stars and so the balance of power shifted and Pat had to deal with press agents trying to negotiate approval of writers, quotes, and covers (she never budged).

mel gibson coverThat’s also when Pat brilliantly invented new franchises. I’d like to think I was in the cover billing meeting when she stared at a picture of blue-eyed Mel Gibson with no idea about what to say about another vacuous hunk and finally, in wry desperation, she said, “Oh, why don’t we just call him the sexiest man alive.” Eureka.

It took time for HBO to produce some of the best TV in history. When it started inside Time Inc., it was little more than an excuse to rerun movies and show bare breasts and as TV critic, I said so. The then-CEO of HBO would shout up the ladder to muzzle me and Pat would shout back down telling him to fuck off. When I panned one too many Hallmark Hall of Fame treacklefests and Hallmark canceled its advertising (no small amount), she saved me from business-side pressure.

I’ve already told the story of how Pat protected me from the wrath of Editor-in-Chief (there was only one editor-in-chief in all of Time Inc.) Henry Grunwald when I dared give a good review to a show critical of Henry’s mentor, Whitaker Chambers. She risked her job to do the right thing. From her, I learned that all the rule books and industry standards in the world don’t stack up against one brave editor willing to take an ethical stand.

And then there was E.W. That same fragmentation that made picking People covers hell gave me the idea to start a magazine that would concentrate again on products over personalities. Pat encouraged me to submit it and sympathized when Grunwald rejected it. By the time the idea finally showed signs of life, almost six years later, she was editor of Life and the executives at Time Inc. pitted us against each other. Pat wanted to make Life weekly to rejuvenate and save it; I wanted to start E.W., and the 34th floor said only one of us would win. But Pat was always smarter than they were. She quietly sat me down and continued to mentor me. “Jarvis,” she said, “you’re not one of them. You’re an outsider. They’re going to use you to start the magazine because they don’t understand it and then they’ll get rid of you.” She was prescient.

Pat was also not one of them. She was a woman. Time Inc. then was still a patrician — read: sexist — institution that didn’t know how to handle powerful women, especially one who was ambitious enough to rise from Katharine-Gibbs-trained secretary to editor of one rich and one iconic magazine while always remaining gracious, loyal, decent, and clever. They fired Pat in 1989 and wouldn’t even give her the courtesy of a reason.

Pat retired to her beloved Maine with Ray Cave, also the former editor of Sports Illustrated and Time. Apart from taking on a few projects, she left the spotlight that she never much liked. I so regret not visiting to thank her for all she did for me.