Aaron Sorkin and the Technological Arts

jobs
I think I finally have figured out Aaron Sorkin. He had eluded me.

I remember liking The West Wing — so much so that I don’t dare watch it again for fear that, knowing what I know now, I might discover that Sorkin’s masterpiece was really just another soap opera with sermons. I liked Sports Night, at least for its effort. I was willing to forgive Studio 60.

But I despise what Sorkin did to the truth and to Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network and what he does now to Steve Jobs in his latest: demonizing them both. And I could not bear what he did for cable news in The Newsroom: worshiping it.

This week, watching Steve Jobs and listening to Sorkin as he was interviewed by The Verge’s Nilay Patel at a screening, I think I finally got Sorkin.

He’s jealous.

Sorkin admires those who change the world. In The West Wing, he imagined and brought to life the ideal, the impossible President that America could not — and God knows still cannot — produce on its own. He seduced us all to admire and adore Josiah Bartlet: Sorkin as kingmaker. In The Newsroom, Sorkin created people who would have changed the world with their high-minded journalism (if only they had not been such horribly flawed, misogynistic, pompous, wordy, preening, horny shitheads and disgusting sell-outs).

But regarding his subjects from the Other Coast, the Lesser Coast, I believe I can hear Sorkin’s inner dialogue:

You just make toys, boys. Zuck: You get people laid because you couldn’t get laid yourself. Never mind that you had a girlfriend I chose to ignore. I decided you didn’t deserve one. That is my power. I am filmmaker. And as for you Steve: I had your daughter say it, but I believe it: Your iMac looked like a fucking Easy-Bake Oven. Your biggest invention, your only real invention was — as your technology tribe might say — Walkman 2.0. Toys, nothing but toys.

In Steve Jobs, Sorkin gives us a silicon opera, a telco novella, daring us to watch as he imagines and intrudes on horribly uncomfortable moments of his protagonist’s life: being a heartless cad to his daughter, to his every employee, and to his Rainman (Sorkin’s word), Woz. In Sorkin’s eye, Jobs is all but irredeemable. It makes for a most uncomfortable two hours, like being stuck in an elevator with the meanest, nastiest feuding family you know. Or at a board meeting of a bad company.

Again, I hear Sorkin’s voice:

Zuck and Steve, you two don’t even try to be charming. You don’t understand the obligation of celebrity. I know stars. Hell, I make stars. Stars seduce the public. So do my characters. Didn’t you love my President? But you two: You don’t seem to give a damn about earning anyone’s love. Zuck: You are just a weird, flat nerd. Steve: You were a nasty SOB. How the hell can people love you when you don’t try to be loved?

In his conversation with Patel, Sorkin said he was “astonished at the way Steve Jobs was eulogized.” Sorkin said he could not understand how people loved not just the things he made but Jobs himself. He thus could not understand the impact of the technology itself in people’s lives. Sorkin said making the movie is his way of catching up. Or perhaps, better put, it was his way of getting even.

Now, of course, it’s not fair of me to psychoanalyze Sorkin — just as it isn’t fair of him to psychoanalyze Zuckerberg and Jobs. But now I understand why he does it. It’s fun. Bullshit, but fun.

Yet I have to give Sorkin this: Somewhere down in his gut, though he might not want to admit it, he understands that both Zuckerberg and Jobs are artists. For that is the context that wraps around his anger about them. That is where he attacks them. That is what makes him so sputteringly jealous.

What gives you two the right to change people’s lives? Who chose you? Who made you? You are just technicians. I am the artist. Artists change people’s lives. You geeks don’t make art. You make gadgets and gimmickry. Yet people treat you as artists. They give you adulation and fortunes and credit and power. WTF?

Sorkin believes he works on a higher plane. He looks down on both technologists and journalists. When Patel dared challenge Sorkin about his disregard for the facts — pesky, fucking facts — in Steve Jobs, Sorkin the auteur — in his actual and not my imagined voice — responded:

“How do I reconcile that with facts? There is a difference between journalism and what I do…. The difference between journalism and what we do is the difference between a photograph and a painting. What we do is painting. Those facts are not as important….” As important as what Sorkin wants to say.

Sorkin also wants to believe filmmaking is a higher form by far than what Zuckerberg and Jobs do. But his films about them are his admission that he is wrong, whether he could bear to say that or not. Sorkin doesn’t change the world as his subjects do. Sorkin works in a lesser art — which he uses, nonetheless, to tear these boys down to size, to assassinate their characters.

Sorkin is Salieri to their Mozart. They are greater artists than he will ever be. They and their impact will be remembered for generations — and not because of Sorkin’s films about them, which will be soon forgotten. They have changed the world more than Sorkin or his beloved, imaginary President or journalists could ever hope to. Yet Sorkin is doomed to make movies about these damned, fucking geeks.

Pity.

To a faster — and distributed — web

Screenshot 2015-10-07 at 10.52.04 AM

Last May, shortly after Facebook announced its Instant Articles, Google held its first Newsgeist Europe and I walked in, saying obnoxiously (it’s what I do): “Facebook just leapfrogged you by a mile, Google. What you should do now is create an open-source version of Instant Articles.” Richard Gingras, head of Google News, has long been arguing for what he called portable content. I had been arguing since 2011 for embeddable content: If content could travel with its brand, revenue, analytics, and links attached, then it can go to the reader rather than making the reader come to it.

Today, fairy godmother Google delivered our wish — thanks to Gingras, Google engineering VP Dave Besbris, and media partners inside and outside of Google’s European Digital News Initiative. Hallelujah.

Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) — as you can see from Google’s definition on Github, above — a simple way to dramatically speed up the serving of web pages (on mobile and on desktop) through several means, including:
(1) a shared library of web-page functions so that they can be cached and called and not downloaded with every new web page;
(2) the opportunity to cache content nearer the user — with Google or not and inside apps on user’s devices;
(3) the beginnings of advertising standards to get rid of some of the junk that both slows down and jumbles the serving of web pages; and
(4) the sharing of some functions such as gathering data for analytics.

Note that the publisher’s revenue (that is, ads), analytics (that is, user data), brand, and links stay with the content. Google emphasized again and again: It’s just the web, done well. It’s just a web page — but way faster. A link is no longer an invitation to wait. A link is just a next page, instantly and fully visible.

You can get a demo here. So far, it’s just a sample of about 5,000 new pages per day from the launch partners. Open that URL on your phone. Search for something like Obama. Go through the carousel and you should be amazed with the speed.

But I think AMP and Instant Articles are more than that. They are a giant step toward a new, distributed content ecology on the web … and a better, faster web, especially in mobile.

Here are a few ways I see this changing the way content operates on the web:

Imagine an aggregator like Real Clear Politics or an app like Nuzzel. Now, every time you click on a link, you have to load a browser and all the cruft around the content on a page. Now, the page — every page made to the AMP standard — can load *instantly* because the architecture and functionality of the page can be prefetched and cached and the content can be cached closer to the user — and the advertising and analytics will not be allowed to screw up the loading of the page. So the experience of reading an aggregation of content will be like reading a web site: fast, clean, smooth. If I were in the aggregation business, I would build around AMP.

Imagine starting a new media service without a web site but built around content meant to be distributed so it goes directly to readers wherever they are: on Twitter (via users’ links there), on Facebook (in a community there), on Nuzzel (through recommendations there), and elsewhere — via Reddit, Mode aggregation, Tumblr, etc.

Now there are a few key things missing from the AMP architecture that will be critical to business success. But they can be added.

The first is that user interest data needs to flow back to the content creator — with proper privacy transparency and consent built in! — so that the publisher can build a direct relationship of relevance and value with the user, no matter where she is encountered. That is more complicated but vital.

The second — and this is a lesson I learned working with shared content and thus audience in the New Jersey news ecosystem — is that we must value and reward not just the creators of content but also those who build audience for that content.

That’s a small matter of deal making. AMP is built with *no* need to make deals, which is critical to its quick adoption. You make your content AMP-ready and anybody can serve it instantly to their audiences with your business model (advertising, etc.) attached. But there’s no reason two publishers can’t make a separate deal so, for example, the Washington Post could say to the Cincinnati Inquirer: You can take our AMP-ready content with our ads attached but we will give you your own ad avail or we will give you a reward for the traffic you bring us and we can share a special, co-branded page. The Post is already getting ready to distribute all its content in Facebook. It is using its owner Jeff Bezos’ Amazon to distribute itself, too. (Speculation is that these alone will have it leap past The New York Times in audience.) Why not use AMP and make deals to reward other quality news services on the web to be its distributor? That is the new newsstand. That is the new site-less web.

I also see the opportunity to make AMP-ready modules and widgets that can be collected and aggregated *inside* web pages.

This is a big deal. It’s not just about speeding up the web. It’s about unbundling the web and web sites. If we in media are smart in exploiting its opportunities and if AMP and Amazon and others gather together around a single set of standards — which is quite possible — if we add more data smarts to the process, this could be big for us in media or for upstarts in garages. Your choice, media.

AFTERTHOUGHT: How should Facebook respond? I would suggest they have nothing to lose by joining the standard so publishers can publish both ways. I would also suggest that Facebook can now leapfrog Google by helping publishers with interest data and user profiles — that is where the real value will be.

Social Journalism: Apply & hire now!

We are not far from the end of the first year of our new degree in social journalism at CUNY and I couldn’t be prouder of what the students and the faculty are accomplishing. (If you are interested in being part of the second class, now is the time to apply.) My best accomplishment in helping to start this degree was recruiting the amazing Carrie Brown to head the program.

I am learning a great deal from Carrie and our students as we grapple with some fundamental questions about the nature of journalism as a service, about the idea of internally focused vs. externally focused journalism, and about a community’s definition of itself. We have been looking at whom we serve in a community — and whose behavior we thus set out to change. We have been asking what the appropriate measures of success — of impact and value — should be. We, of course, we are learning much about the impact of new social tools on journalism and gaining skills in that realm as a result.

And we are producing a class of high-powered pioneers. At the Online News Association confab in L.A. a week ago Carrie and I found employers dying to get their hands on our soon-to-be graduates. When Sarah Bartlett and I came up with the idea for this degree, we knew we were betting on the come: that news organizations would need the journalists we would educate in this program. A damned good bet.

I asked Carrie for an update for you about what our students are working on in their practicums (practica?) in the communities they have chosen to serve and in some cases in internships in media companies. A sample of their work:

A photo posted by Carrie Brown (@brizzyc) on

* Pedro Burgos has been teaching himself to code beyond what he learned in class and has built a sentiment analyzer using IBM Watson’s API to allow him to examine what kinds of Facebook strategies produce the best comments and dialogue. He has interviewed experts in improving comments from around the country as well. Pedro loves to challenge me in class discussion and I relish that for through that we are exploring new metrics that should guide our work in journalism.

* Luis Miguel Echegaray is interning this semester at Vice. He is also live blogging soccer in Spanish for The Guardian, which has garnered them a lot of traffic. Luis is also working to build his The Faces of Soccer website. He is going to be working with South Bronx United, a nonprofit org that not only offers soccer coaching but school tutoring. Luis intends to become the Anthony Bourdain of soccer. He will succeed.

* Rachel Glickhouse is interning this semester at Medium. She’s also freelancing for a number of outlets, including Al Jazeera America and Quartz. We are impressed by how her work helped one man get his deportation stayed. At Medium, Rachel is assisting with audience engagement and involving journalism schools in an upcoming investigation. She’s also developing her practicum to start a conversation on Medium and social media about the difficulties of becoming a legal resident in the U.S.

* Deron Dalton is interning with the Daily Dot. In addition to other stories, he is using the expertise he has developed serving #BlackLivesMatter there. He is also developing resources for journalists on how to cover the movement.

* Julia Haslanger is working with Chalkbeat to study how the organization can continue to grow its readership and engagement. Her journalism salary survey – results posted on Medium – has gotten a lot of attention and reaction, and she was invited to speak at The Media Consortium as a result. She is also doing research for the Kettering Foundation, interviewing social media and community engagement editors in newsrooms to learn more about how they approach their jobs and the skills they need.

* Nuria Saldanha — who first completed our certificate in Entrepreneurial Journalism — conducted her first media skills training in partnership with the Facebook Innovation and Entrepreneurship Lab in the Heliópolis favela in São Paulo this August. People are learning how to use mobile devices to create text/photos/video. This is of particular benefit to small business that primarily use Facebook to promote their businesses. Facebook can use the Lab as a pilot project and expand it to other favelas and countries in Latin America. In collaboration with people she trains in media skills, she will produce 10 to 20 videos with elderly people from favelas, who are not familiar with the internet. Many of them migrated to the area while fleeing extreme poverty, moving São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro looking for a better life, but most ended up living in favelas and working in very low-skill jobs. She is also volunteering for BrazilFoundation, an organization that raises money to support social projects in Brazil, most of them related to her community.

* Emily Goldblum skipped the interim step of an internship when she was sought out for a job at The Odyssey. Her task there is to crowdsource stories from college students about a variety of topics. Her main goal is to diversify content with a specific focus on LGBTQ communities and has been working to cultivate more writers interested in writing about queer-focused topics.

* Aaron Simon has developed The Greenburg Post, an experimental community-journalism platform that seeks to collaborate with the residents and businesses that call North Brooklyn home. He has been reporting on a toxic Superfund site in the community and crowdsourcing stories and data about how the pollution has affected local residents.

* Sean Devlin is currently in Ireland interviewing Irish students who have participated in the J-1 graduate visa program, which allows them to spend 12 months in the United States interning and traveling. He has been serving the Irish community in New York for the past nine months and now went to the source to ask how social media (Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp) help Irish people in the U.S unite and get information.

* Erica Soto is working on a new kind of crowdfunding site for independent music artists. She writes: “SupportTour is Kickstarter meets Honeyfund for the indie musician on tour. At SupportTour, artists engage with fans by allowing them to participate in their tour experience. Instead of giving money for albums or studio space, fans purchase items directly for the artist. Just as Honeyfund allows users to register for honeymoon needs, artists will be able to register for tour needs such as hotel rooms, meals, additional gear and more. Fans then decide how they’d like to support the artists. They’ll even receive rewards when items are purchased. It could be a signed album, concert tickets, a secret Skype session or even a private dinner with their favorite artist. This is a chance for fans to become more involved with musicians on the road and for musicians to offer new incentive and creative fan experiences.”

* Adriele Parker’s goal is to “gather content to inform and share the stories of [African-Americans] that are suffering (or have suffered) from psychological disorders” and to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health issues. She has developed a “Our Stories in Light” podcast to share stories and it also continuing to develop a website.

* Betsy Laikin is building a media platform for women from the Middle East and North Africa currently residing in New York, in conjunction with her work at Women’s Voices Now. This will include community-produced written stories, audio podcasts, photography, and videos.

* Cristina Carnicelli Furlong organized an impressive roundtable with the American Society of Newspaper Editors and is building resources to educate reporters about how to cover pedestrian safety in New York.

In addition to all that, Carrie has announced a partnership with Storyful to train social journalists. Here’s some of what Carrie has learned so far.

If you are a journalist who wants to challenge the way that journalism services the public, then come apply. If you are an employer who wants these innovative journalists to help you change how you do journalism, let Carrie or me know.

Honoring Neil deGrasse Tyson for his journalism

tyson photo croppedWhen Neil deGrasse Tyson interviewed Edward Snowden (via electronic avatar) for his podcast, the good doctor said a few times that he is not a journalist.

Yet the Knight Foundation and we at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism are giving Tyson the third Knight Innovation Award for journalism on Oct. 14. When I told him this, I anticipated his objection: “I’m a scientist, not a journalist.” That is just the point. In the larger information ecosystem in which news now works, Tyson provides an example to experts in any field for how to inject desperately needed facts and reasoning into a public discussion that too often lacks either. At a time when I argue that explanation itself becomes a journalistic specialty, Tyson again provides a model for how to bring complex subjects down to earth and relevance. As a media innovator, he has learned and exploited every new medium — from Twitter to podcasts — to use his celebrity to enlighten.

In any medium, Tyson uses clear explanation, humor, and blunt delivery of the facts to explain concepts and refute anti-intellectual arguments. On politicians debating global warming, he has said: “Now we have a time where people are cherry-picking science. The science is not political. That’s like repealing gravity because you gained 10 pounds last week.” In a two-minute YouTube video, he can explain the science behind climate change. In any lecture — like this one at ASU — Tyson demonstrates a journalist’s ability to impart knowledge through storytelling and to argue the case for art’s as well as newspapers’ impact on science.

I had the privilege of joining an episode of Tyson’s Star Talk show and podcast to talk about journalism. I know he cares about the future of the field.

So we are honoring Neil deGrasse Tyson at CUNY. At that ceremony, he will receive a $25,000 award from Knight and — here’s the cool part — he will have another $25,000 to give forward to a media innovator of his choice.

But wait, there’s more: We will begin the afternoon at 4 p.m. with a panel on podcasting led by Alex Blumberg, founder of Gimlet Media, and including Heben Nigutu of BuzzFeed’s Another Round podcast, Manoush Zomorodi of WNYC’s Note to Self, and Greg Young of the Bowery Boys podcast.

There will be a limited number of seats open. If you, like me, are a fan of Neil deGrasse Tyson and podcasts and journalism, then this will be a slice of conversational heaven. The details and sign-up are here.

More innovation at CUNY

holaI’m proud of our CUNY Graduate School of Journalism for continuing to innovate.

Last night at the National Association of Hispanic Journalists’ convention in Orlando, our dean, Sarah Bartlett, announced a new initiative to train Spanish-language journalists in the U.S. We are seeking state approval for a new concentration and will look to develop a degree.

We are working in partnership with a stellar group of Hispanic institutions: El País and Prisa; Univision News; Instituto Cervantes; La Nación of Argentina; and ImpreMedia, which owns major Spanish-language news organizations across America.

Personally, I’m so excited about this work that I started studying Spanish. No, I’ll never be ready to edit any of our students — just the opposite. But after visiting El País in Madrid and then with this pending announcement, I finally was just too ashamed of being an American who doesn’t speak the language the 45 million other Americans speak. (Take that, Donald Trump and Sarah Palin.) Simply as a matter of respect and intellectual curiosity, I finally decided it was time. Así que estudio español.

(By the way, I highly recommend the Pimsleur method. I always thought that I hated learning languages, that I was incapable of it. That’s why I abandoned French after elementary school and didn’t pay attention to my German in high school, college, and since. I’ve long said I’m one of those horrible Americans who speaks only 1.1 languages — the .1 being irreparable German. But I am downright enjoying my Pimsleur studies: half-hour a day, 60 days out of 150 so far.)

Add to this another CUNY announcement yesterday: The New York Times Student Journalism Institute is moving to our school next year.

Add to that the start of our new program in professional development education, for which we hired Marie Gilot as director. I’m happy to say that the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism, which I direct, is helping with research on new jobs, roles, and organizational structures for news organizations.

Tow-Knight has also acted as an educational incubator at our school, starting the nation’s first MA in Entrepreneurial Journalism, headed by my colleague Jeremy Caplan, and then the nation’s first MA in Social Journalism, headed by our new colleague, Carrie Brown. (And by the way, applications for both those programs are open now…. so follow the links to apply.) With my Tow-Knight colleague Hal Straus, we are planning major research and events to help our industry find new paths to sustainability.

Our journalism school is about to enter its 10th year. I was the first faculty member hired by our founding dean, Steve Shephard. From the beginning, we prided ourselves on continuing to act as a startup. As all the evidence above attests, we are still a startup. I’m proud to work with Sarah Bartlett on some of these innovations and more to come. Under her leadership, we are kicking ass. Now how do I say that en español?