CRASHING INTO MEDIA

Notes on the creation of a new media landscape

The Story Is Dead. Long Live the Story.

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Based on an article in the BBC’s recent report The Future of Journalism, Vin Crosbie’s blog recently published another premature obituary for our profession—a piece that is fast developing into its own genre of new-media punditry:

People very much want to know local news and information, such as which restaurants in town serve Chinese food and are open at this hour, what the score is at this moment at the local secondary school’s football game…But they want to know all of it now, not just the few topics about which a local news organization might have available staff that day to report…
The web has … erased the distinction we journalists used to make between ‘news’—what we said it was—and information, stuff, the whole of the rest of the world.

Let’s give him that. The conclusion inferred from this, which Crosbie’s blog quotes approvingly from the BBC report, bears closer examination: “Our old image of gripping them with our ‘stories’ is no more. The story is dead.”

Long-form journalists who haven’t taken the hemlock already need no comfort from me. But new-media pundits—who often sound suspiciously like old-media pundits (except, of course, for yours truly)—can always stand a good rap on the knuckles. Here’s one that I think is especially well-deserved.

The story is not dead, it’s just suffering. The reason is that publishers, journalists and other story tellers have been slow to adapt to a digital world with lots of newfangled pens and pencils, including audio, video, full-motion infographics, Flash animation, various forms of interactivity—and, of course, words, the better the better.

Some of us have confused the availability of new tools with the need for a new theory of knowledge. To be sure, our moment is revolutionary, and the media disruption we are experiencing now will have revolutionary outcomes. But the story in this revolution is like the axe in the transition from stone to bronze: We still used axes. The edge just got a lot sharper.

Forty-five years ago, in Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan described the digital revolution before us now with preternatural precision: “We have extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace, abolishing both space and time as far as our planet is concerned. Rapidly we approach the final phase of the extensions of man—the technological simulation of consciousness, when the creative process of knowing will be collectively and corporately extended to the whole of human society, much as we have already extended our senses and our nerves by the various media.”

In this revolution, we are ill-served by reducing the ambition of even purely local news to “which restaurants in town serve Chinese food” or high-school football scores. If that is digital deliverance, save me from it.

Right now, digital story-telling is a pathless land. I work for one of the places venturing forth into this undiscovered country, and at least so far, it’s very lonely out here. But it won’t be for long.

Knowledge and information can and will be virtually ubiquitous, wikied and individually curated, to our great common benefit, but so too will stories continue to be reported and told. At some point in the not distant future, stories with sharper, digital edges will inform conversation in a transformed version of the public square—a place busier than the old one, no doubt, and substantially messier, but one that serves the ultimate democratic goal of consensus in a way that a clamor of bits and bytes of purely utilitarian information never could.

In his New York Tribune editorial of 1865, Horace Greeley famously advised: “Go West, young man, and grow up with your country.”

If Greeley were around today, I think this is what he would tell publishers, journalists and other story-tellers of all ages:

Go digital, and grow up with your fellow citizens.

Jim Gaines
Editor-in-Chief, FLYPmedia.com
Twitter: @jamesrgaines

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This is a conversation. What do you think—about the future of the story and story-telling? Take a look at FLYP—what do you like, and not? What do you see elsewhere on the Web or in the world that suggests good story-telling? Or do you agree that the future of digital publishing is in purveying pure information?

Written by Jim Gaines

August 31, 2009 at 4:07 pm

Irrational Exuberance 2.0; or, What Price Content?

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“Mark Cuban Is Not a Big Fat Idiot–But News Will Still Be Free.”

So went a recent headline (by Michael Wolff, in his aggregationist Newser) in the increasingly ideological battle between rapacious Goliaths like Rupert Murdoch and the AP and such cool, webby Davids as Chris (Wired/Free) Anderson and Jeff (“BuzzMachine”) Jarvis. (I’d include the protagonists in the headline above, but Cuban is a tiny Goliath, relatively speaking, and Wolff is no kind of David at all.)

I like how the story of David and Goliath came out as much as the next person, but in the interest of the public good, let’s level the playing field a bit. (Disclosure: I used to work for the goliathan Time Inc. I work now for a David wannabe called FLYPmedia.com.)

Start with the assertion in Wolff’s headline: “News Will Still Be Free.” Lots wrong here, including “News,” “Will” “Still”, and “Free.”

For journalists and their publishers, news was not, is not, and never will be free. Aggregation is not free either, just cheap. To consumers, on the other hand, news is free, at least sometimes, and always will be—on the radio and on TV, for example, and now on the Internet.

But people also pay for news, even on radio, TV and the Internet. It’s like water that way. You can dip a cup in a creek, or you can put a dollar in a machine, and in the general run of a lifetime, you will do both.

So what’s all the fuss about?

It boils down to this: People who spend large fortunes to gather news—like the AP—wish to get paid for it as they always have before, even though their business model has collapsed. To compensate, they propose not creative adaptation, not doing more or better stories, not improving the product they propose to sell, but erecting barriers to innovation, protectionist schemes.

Consider, for example, the AP’s new “tracking beacon,” which was explained in an internal memo announcing the new “Protect/Point/Pay” program to members. They are very excited about this new plan, as well as various proposals to modify U.S. copyright law to the AP’s advantage, believing they will ultimately “unlock enormous new revenue potential for the content industry as a whole.”

This form of irrational exuberance among the Goliaths is sort of the flip side of our recently burst financial bubbles—a hope, stubbornly rooted in denial, that the problems of the present and future can be solved by bubble-wrapping the past.

Arnon Mishkin, a sometime consultant to AP (though not on this, at least so far), recently explained the Goliath position in a thoroughly confused essay entitled “The Fallacy of the Link Economy”. In it he accuses the “blogosphere” and unnamed aggregators of “linking and scraping” all the value from the news, of harvesting all the eyeballs that would otherwise belong to the AP and thereby depriving them of precious traffic. The main benefit of this traffic, he says, is “the potential for higher CPMs”. Since CPM stands for “cost per thousand,” this statement is beyond confusing: It is just plain wrong. Maybe consultants should be free.

The AP’s main problem is not that aggregators are “linking and scraping,” it is that their member newspapers are leaking and sinking, dragged down by the weight of paper, ink and distribution costs.

As I’ve pointed out before, this is not the journalists’ fault, and as a recovering old-media type myself, I don’t like to dwell on what is.

Fortunately for all of us with a stake in this ongoing debate, Bill “Hitsville” Wyman recently did dwell on all that, without fear or favor. I have to confess I subscribe to just about everything in his case and his conclusions even though it stings, since I was once a prominent member of the corporate-journalistic world he so stingingly describes.

Wyman’s advice to media old and new is exactly right: “Don’t publish crap. Tell folks stuff they might not want to hear. Grow a pair.”

Arnon Mishkin unwittingly leads us to the moral of this story with some more consulting wisdom that should be free: “As the saying goes,” he writes, “people don’t check the news to read about the fire, they check it to learn that there wasn’t a fire.”

True enough. That’s why they “check” the news. But what will stop them every time, the news they will stay around for and read about, over and over again, is the fire.

Aggregation will always be free. That’s because it’s all about “checking” the news, all about the skimming, surfing, headless eyeball, which adds up to the commodity business of “impressions”. Advertisers who haven’t tired of paying for that soon will. Readers, users and other consumers have never been tempted to pay for that kind of news and never will be.

The heart of the news, however, has no particular desire to be free. The idea that it will be mistakes the real thing for the headlined link to it. This is the Davidic form of irrational exuberance—the idea that the Web, in all its magnificent innovative transformationalness, has erased the value of value.

No. The Internet has transformed story-telling, though, a fact of which publishers and other story-tellers had best do more than simply take note.

People will pay for the news of the day, just as they keep buying Dante, because they will pay for what they want and need, for what they know they should not live without, by which I mean rich, well-told stories about things that matter.

Some of those stories may be told around campfires or in personal blogs, from memory or imagination and out of pure joy or need. Others will be constructed out of words and images by creators who deserve to be paid for the labors of a life’s work.

Both kinds are essential to life. News is like water that way, too.

Jim Gaines
Editor-in-Chief, FLYPmedia.com

Twitter: @jamesrgaines

Written by Jim Gaines

August 17, 2009 at 7:05 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Losing the Me in Multimedia

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There has been a lot of loose talk lately from certain “legacy”—a/k/a old—media outlets about how bloggers and online aggregators are “stealing” their content. Some of it is just eyeball envy, and some seems to be jealousy of a deeper sort—a sense of waning cool, a lack of buzz supply.

Certain virtues just don’t come naturally to people in our line of work, and the greatest of these is charity.

That’s going to have to change. For journalists of all ages, making the transition from old to new media means crossing a theoretically impossible leopard with the improbable old dog, changing spots and learning new tricks. In plain English, we have to learn not just new skills but new virtues as well.

Number one is humility. Without it, as a profession, we will still be shouting from the mountaintop, and there has been quite enough of that. Even more painfully, we have to get over our great big individual selves. I know this from experience: It hurts not being “somebody” anymore.

When I was the editor of Time, I got to interview Castro, Mandela, Rafsanjani—the Dalai Lama! A few weeks ago, the assistant to somebody nobody ever heard of yelled at me for calling back to ask about an interview. She didn’t even bother calling later to say no.

Back in the day, I could order up a story anywhere in the world, just by calling my assistant and saying something like, “Get me Istanbul.” Now, I’m lucky if I have time to call out for a sandwich at lunchtime. There is no assistant, not to mention anyone who would answer to the name “Istanbul”.

When I first got to FLYP the person who started it, Alan Stoga—a very smart guy, but somebody who had never even been a journalist, for god’s sake—told me my sentences were too long. My first thought, of course, was, “Who was HE to be editing ME!” But I looked again, and it was true. Finely wrought doesn’t work online. Plain speaking does. Whoever thought that would be the wave of the future!

As good and resourceful as I think I am, I’ve had to get used to the fact that there is a lot I just don’t know. I don’t know how to shoot video, not to mention how to edit, export or integrate it. I can’t animate an information graphic, or design a simple popup, slider or second-floor.

At FLYP now I’m called the editor-in-chief, but in story meetings, I’m one of a team, which includes an animator-in-chief, a videographer-in-chief, a designer-in-chief, a researcher-in-chief, a programmer/integrator-in-chief and a reporter-in-chief.

The best meeting we have is after we publish, when we all get to play user-in-chief. This purpose of this meeting is to ruthlessly criticize each other (the aforementioned founder-in-chief is especially good at this) for having screwed up the experience of a story for the most important team member of all, the you-in-chief.

And I’ve never enjoyed a job more, nor felt more intimately engaged with the reason I got into journalism in the first place, which was to tell stories.

The second critical virtue is brevity, but I’m out of space. Blogs are supposed to be 500 words max, I’m told, and I’m already over that.

This reminds me of Humility, Subpart A: The thing to be afraid of isn’t failure. It’s regret for failing to try something new.

Jim Gaines
Editor-in-Chief, FLYP

Written by Jim Gaines

August 5, 2009 at 3:04 pm

Eyes Wide Shut

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Picture yourself on a two-lane road in a car that’s headed for an accident. A semi appears out of nowhere, forcing you to swerve into an embankment. As your bumper hits the grade and your car starts to turn over, you reflexively reach for the roof of the car to brace yourself, and time slows almost to a stop.

Here’s a thought experiment: Imagine, at that moment, trying to think of something else.

The YOU in this little vignette is what is derisively known as “old media” or “print.” That semi is the world—the global economy, a new matrix of communications technologies, changing consumer attitudes, and new ways of learning and knowing things.

The embankment is not your fault: It’s just a big pile of lousy facts—the high cost of paper, ink, and distribution.

“You” are actually a perfectly good person, exemplary even: You work hard to tell the truth, to hold public officials accountable, to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” etc. You weren’t doing anything wrong, like driving drunk, or speeding, or texting with both hands.

Still, some people in the crowd that has gathered for this crash like to say it was your fault: You were arrogant, monopolistic, thoughtless, blind!

This is nonsense , like blaming slow horses for the advent of cars.

It’s not arrogance: You are just transfixed by the prospect of death, as anyone in your position would be.

Some of us have one foot in the semi and one in your car, which is, among other things, awkward.

I left Time Inc. after twenty years to write books and consult. Now I’m at an online magazine called FLYP. If you came to our office you’d know me right away: I am the old guy working hard to learn everything, from everyone. I was lucky to leave print when I did, but I take no pleasure in watching the fall of “dead tree” media.

I feel bad for you. You didn’t do anything wrong. You were great. And to watch you stare at death, unable to see your way up and over to storytelling heaven, where paper, ink and distribution are free, is in fact exquisitely painful.

The road there is plainly marked, but you wouldn’t be able to find it with a map and a compass and a tour guide. In the crisis of this moment, you can’t see anything but that terrible fate growing larger in the windshield.

Below are links to a couple more perspectives on this subject. Let me know your thoughts and ideas.

FishbowlNY: Trying to Find a Business Model That Works
Mediaite.com: Free Online Content? Steve Brill’s “Definition of Stupidity”

Twitter: @jamesrgaines

Jim Gaines
Editor-in-Chief, FLYPmedia

Written by Jim Gaines

August 5, 2009 at 12:17 am