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?

Capturing the history of our early web: Vogue.com & Style.com

The design studio four32c posted a tribute/obit for Style.com recently and though it was good to see recognition for its pioneering work, for the sake of digital history, it’s also important to get on the record some corrections about the story. It´s also important given the impact the pioneering work at Style and — more to the point — Vogue.com had on digital coverage of fashion that has followed.

My friend and frequent collaborator Joan Feeney — the genius who led so much of the innovation of the early web at Condé Nast — sent the four32c a note with some clarification and edification; they didn’t run it and so I volunteered to. Joan writes:

The obituary of the site that either missed or misrepresented some significant facts and circumstances about the origins and early days of the site. There was no place to comment, so Jeff offered to post this note I wrote to get the record straight, in case anyone cares someday. I likely wouldn’t have written it except that my recollections about the start of Epicurious have been in demand of late, in celebration of that site’s 20th anniversary, and so many of these Condé Net memories and details are front of mind as is the lack of reliable histories and records about those days.

Contrary to what was posted on four32c, we launched Vogue.com the year before we started Style. And Vogue.com, not Style, was the site that shot and posted every single look from every runway show on the day of the show from the major fashion cities — which, as noted, was revolutionary in many ways.

Until then, designers had restricted the number of looks that could be published to fewer than half a dozen, and even that small sample could be published only during a brief window for a specified period after the show (runway shows typically featured about 60 or 70 looks). No one but Vogue, meaning Anna Wintour, could have done that — it was Anna, and her proxy at Vogue.com, Anne Buford, who persuaded the designers to let us in, despite the fashion houses enormous general misgivings and specific fear of piracy.

If Anna hadn’t decided it was right and timely to open up fashion shop on the Internet, I believe it might not have happened to this day, so resistant, reluctant, and occasionally hostile were the designers and their businesses to the idea. But because Anna blessed it, it came to pass. A startup would have had no sway with the designers, let alone enough yank to get almost every one of them to agree to something so alien and that they couldn’t see as offering any benefit to themselves.

(Even with Anna’s tremendous support and Anne’s tremendous efforts, a few French designers blocked us from attending their shows; and even after we got the designers’ permission, the models’ union, which was very strong in France, forbade us to use the models’ images. It was a vastly complicated enterprise, and it all happened on Vogue’s watch and because Anna decreed it. Fiona da Rin, the Paris editor for American Vogue was a huge help with the diplomacy effort. She would take me from fashion house to fashion house with my laptop to demonstrate not only the website and prototypes of the coverage, but often showing them the Internet for the first time, assuming they had a connection, which they often did not; I had a canned presentation to show in that case.)

One of the other extraordinary things Vogue.com did with the show coverage was to tag the photos so that users could search/sort by collection or piece (all Italian skirts from Fall 2000, for example, or all Ralph Lauren sweaters from every season). One of the selling points we made to designers was what a great resource it created for their own use and historical archives, which it did. It was effectively instantaneous coverage — something completely foreign to fashion at that time.

Melissa Weiner was the genius who made all those amazing tools back at the office. We took the Voguemobile RV to the European shows, and transmitted photos back to the US, where Melissa did her magic getting them tagged, labeled, and online within an hour or so, no matter what time of night it was. The first shows we did were in New York, September of 1999, in the tents at Bryant Park, and we briefly went dark when a hurricane flooded the tents.

“Cams” were a big thing back then — it was considered cool to aim a web cam at the office coffee pot so you could check to see if there was fresh coffee, I guess you had to be there — and we had a camera with a live feed posted at the models’ entrance to the tents, which unfortunately ended up trained on the portable toilets. Inevitably this became the Can Cam and was very popular. Those, as we say, were the days.

Part of why we insisted that the runway coverage be the comprehensive and that their be nifty tools to manipulate the data (searching, sorting, saving) was because we were very vigilant in those days not to compete or reproduce what the magazine did. So we always began the development process by figuring out what magazines were unable to do, and making those things as our creative brief. We had infinite space, data bases, and no time delay, and committed to defining our products by the use of these attributes unique to the web. If something could appear in print, we didn’t need to put it on a screen. I believe that zero “repurposed” material appeared on the site.

I was editorial director (or editor in chief, I forget) of Vogue.com and later came up with the notion for Style.com, using the model Rochelle Udell had come up with for a new online brand (Epicurious) to host Gourmet, BA, and other branded and original content. Style.com, of which I was editorial director (or whatever) would be home to Vogue and the Fairchild brands (WWD, W), as well as other CNP and original fashion content, and Vogue.com moved into that tent. (Style.com was also intended to help centralize the many various foreign editions of the magazine brands at one location.)

The original and brilliant designer for both Vogue.com and Style.com was Lesley Marker. I bought the name/url Style.com from the Limited. I don’t recall how or even if they had used it, but once we owned it, it was never a gossip site (as the obituary states). Many of the other tools, approaches, and systems we used for Vogue.com and Style.com also came from the work we were doing on other Condé Net sites, which then included Epicurious, Swoon, Phys, and Concierge. For example, the Neiman-Marcus e-commerce arrangement was based on one we had done for Epicurious with Williams-Sonoma.

In the spring of 2000, Vogue.com did an online event with Chanel, where we hosted the resort collection live and let invited users pre-order looks based on detail shots we took of every item the second it came off the runway. Chanel was interested not just in selling outfits but in finding out what looks/colors/fabrics shoppers were interested in before the company even began the manufacturing process; fifteen years ago, they were aware of how valuable that data was to making their business more efficient and effective. Chanel was always one of our most enthusiastic partners. It was dissonant and thrilling that the Chanel executives brought our team up to Coco Chanel’s preserved apartment to discuss our Internet partnership.

Style.com became the larger home for the runway coverage; I think we still branded it as Vogue, though I am not sure.

There are several other key contributors who deserve credit for inventing fashion coverage online back in the late ‘90s; if anyone is interested, I can send more information. The early photographers did extraordinary work when the equipment and the support were unreliable and unwieldy. While Anna Wintour is given some credit in the Fourc32 telling of the story, it isn’t made clear the kind of coverage we were able to do would never, ever have happened if it hadn’t been for Anna’s decision and commitment to make it happen. I believe no other person or group could have persuaded the fashion industry to participate. Then or now.

I’m glad to have this bit of history not only because I go to watch all this magic as it transpired but because I think it’s important that we not lose the memory of how the web began. It amazes me that Epicurious is 20 years old. I started my first site for the parent company, Advance (a weather site called RainOrShine.com, just to get our feet wet) 20 years ago. The memories fade.

So I recommend reading Eric Gillin’s wonderful oral history of Epicurious. I was delighted that XOXO brought together the founders of Suck.com for their 20th anniversary; I wish I could have watched. I hope that other pioneers have the courage to show their gray hairs and dredge up their memories before they are lost. We were there at the start of it all.

Advertising sucks. Let us listicle the ways.

From my Observer column (read the whole thing here):

Advertising sucks, let us listicle the ways:

1. Advertising is almost always irrelevant.

2. Advertising is oppressively repetitive. That is only worse now that so-called retargeting advertising will note when you look at a pair of pants online so those pants can stalk you across the web for months.

3. Even with all its newfound data and artificial intelligence, advertising is still stupid. It doesn’t know that you already bought those damned pants and keeps selling them to you.

4. Advertising interrupts—first radio, then TV, and now our Facebook streams.

5. Advertising is intrusive of privacy. I will argue that the humble cookie has been unjustly demonized by the Wall Street Journal, for cookies do useful things like reducing the frequency with which ads are served to you (see complaint No. 2). Still it’s true that the advertising, media, and technology industries gather much data without giving their users any control or transparency into the reasons and consequences.

6. Advertising is irritating. It always has been. Go to anyone over the age of 50 and whine, “More Parks Sausages, Mom,” then watch them cringe.

7. Advertising is tacky, a glaring, blaring blight on the visual and auditory landscape. On most sites, there is just too much of it.

8. Advertising in inefficient. The only advance on the net is that marketers now have a better chance of determining which half of their dollars is wasted.

9. Advertising lies.

So how do we fix it? Not with native advertising. That is just another lie, designed to make us think an ad is not an ad. But we’re not as stupid as advertisers—and media companies—take us to be. As online metrics company Chartbeat has learned, users engage with a web page—that is, they scroll through it—71 percent of the time when the page contains real content but only 24 percent of the time when it carries so-called native advertising. And that leads me to one more complaint to fill out this listicle:

10. Advertising is an insult to our intelligence.

The column is devoted to fixing this.

Trump’s press

American news media: You are Donald Trump’s bitch*. You are making him what he is. And that makes you something worse yet: You are lab assistants to our modern media Dr. Frankenstein, the man who invented Trump as politician, the man who more than anyone else has divided this nation, Roger Ailes. You, the press, should be exposing Trump’s idiocies for what they are and his demonization of the others — the aliens, the Mexicans, the Jews** (oops, that was someone else) — for the racism that it is. You should be instructing the public in the definition of demagoguery.*** Instead, you fawn.

As Trump’s Iowa pep rally ended a few days ago, this is what you said to America:

You are helping him to turn American democracy into his reality show. You schmucks.

It gets worse, of course. Yesterday in Iowa, Univision’s Jorge Ramos was the one reporter who tried to question Trump about his ridiculous immigration plan to rip citizenship out of the hands of people born here, to deport millions of people without due process, to build a wall around our nation, to rise in the press and the polls on at tide of hatred. Trump had him ejected:

At that moment, why didn’t every reporter in the room stand up and leave? Why didn’t you all at least ask the same question he was blocked from asking? The rest of you in the room: When Ramos was kicked out, did any of you think, “Oh, good, now it’s my turn for camera time”? If Jake Tapper had been shoved out of the room by Trump’s goon, what would you have done? Did any of you agree with Trump: Why don’t you go back to Mexico … er, I mean, Univision?****

And what happens as soon as Ramos is ejected trying to ask the question of this campaign? Another reporter asks about Trump’s feud with Megyn Kelly. Because the show must go on!

Trump did finally deign to allow Ramos to return to ask his questions. I’ll let you judge whether he answered any of them.

– – – –

*I tried to think of another way to say this but I couldn’t. Lapdog just doesn’t carry the same oomph.

**I agree with Lauren Weinstein that Godwin’s Law does not apply to Donald Trump. To quote:

Let’s get this straight once and for all: Comparisons between Adolf Hitler and Donald Trump do not invoke Godwin’s Law.

Godwin’s Law applies to discussions where Nazi analogies make no sense. Comparing a strict physical education teacher with Hitler, for example, is an obvious invocation of Godwin’s Law.

However, Godwin’s Law explicitly does not apply when actual Nazi parallels are in play.

In the case of Donald Trump, we have a grandiose buffoon spouting outright lies and hate speech, triggering racial violence, demanding the deportation of eleven million plus people including American citizens, retroactive stripping of citizenship, and attracting crowds who shout “white power” and hand out literature lauding that “Trump will do to the dirty Hispanics what Hitler did to the dirty Jews.”

The parallels are obvious and on-point.

Godwin is not in scope.

Nazism and 1930s Germany very much are.

Q.E.D.

***Leave it to CNN to decide that Trump is not a demagogue. I’d rather listen to Jack Shafer on this point.

****Let us also not forget that after first making his offensive remarks about Mexicans, Univision ended its relationship with Trump, who in turn threatened to sue them. To those who said to me in a discussion about this on Facebook that Ramos was just speaking out of turn, I say let’s not be naive; Trump knew exactly what he was doing. He always does.

I leave you with this image from — to use Ramos’ own word — Trumplandia:

LATER: Here’s The New York Times on Hispanic media’s relationship with Trump. Meanwhile, the Washington Post played the story properly, atop the homepage.