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Archive for May, 2010|Monthly archive page

Why Crap Gets Read And Real News Doesn't: The Inherent Dilemma Of Writing For Page Views

In business, Media on May 25, 2010 at 9:38 am
Lady GaGa concert

No, this woman is not newsworthy. Image via Wikipedia

Why producing serious journalism and writing for the Web are contradictory impulses.

An intelligent — and deeply depressing to old-school journos like me — analysis from Silicon Valley Watcher:

Sam Whitmore reports:

It’s now a luxury for a reporter to write a story about an obscure but important topic. That used to be a job requirement. Now it’s a career risk.

Example: let’s say an interesting startup has a new and different idea. Many reporters now won’t touch it because (a) the story won’t generate page views, and (b) few people search on terms germane to that startup. Potential SEO performance is now a key factor in what gets assigned.

Two reporters from two different publications this month both told us the same thing: if you want to write a story on an interesting but obscure topic, you had better feed the beast by writing a second story about the iPad or Facebook or something else that delivers page views and good SEO.

Page view journalism will make our society poorer because less popular but important topics will be crowded out.

The new head of Bloomberg Business Week magazine Josh Tyrangiel, formerly at Time, agrees, telling FishbowlNY:

“Just because you have a witty tweet…that’s not journalism,” he said. “I don’t want to reward people who go out of their way to make a scene…for [Gawker Media chief executive Nick] Denton and some other properties, it may make some sense, but for us it doesn’t.”

I started blogging here in July 2009 and now receive about 12,000 unique visitors a month; this month I might hit a high of 15,000.

But only if I write something really sexy.

Yesterday set a new record for me of more than 1,000 pageviews in a day, when I wrote about the ‘Lost’ finale. I wanted to write on it and I thought the show smart and worth discussing. Cynically, sure, I also knew it was the pop culture topic of the day. It’s like driving with the handbrake on if you ignore the essential reality that popular topics rule this space.

But this means that thoughtful, serious, ambitious writers whose work appears only on-line, and whose only putative value is calculated in pageviews or unique visitors, are toast. Which is how our worth, here, is measured.

If I’m paid $1,500 or $3,000 or $5,000+ for a story that demands multiple interviews, research, reading and revisions, as most newspaper and magazine stories do, and it appears on-line later (as it will, without further compensation — nice), you, the reader have the choice to ignore it or, if you’re willing to dive deep(er) know you’re getting something solid.

It works for both of us. If you’re bored, just turn the page — you’ve already paid for the publication. In print, I get paid enough to make my time worthwhile and can still, occasionally, place a long, thoughtful piece on a tough issue before the eyes of millions of readers.

This volume-vs.-quality metric is applied in lousy newsrooms, where reporters are subjected to managers who count the number of their by-lines in the paper and the number of column inches they have filled with their words. Are the reporters producing smart stuff? Interesting? Breaking important stories?

Who cares? It’s content. It’s being read.

As someone who has become increasingly aware of on-line work and how to grease and speed the machinery, it’s pretty clear that if every piece I posted had a headline or early mention of Lady Gaga or Sarah Palin or the oil spill, I’d be golden.

And if I have nothing new to add on any particular topic, knowing it’s the topic of the day, or am merely shilling for eyeballs (and getting them), does it matter? If I deliberately choose to write about something obscure (educating my readers) or less popular (niche) or investigative (quite possibly depressing and complicated), I’m kissing my bonus goodbye.

Integrity versus bonus. Dark, smart, tough stuff versus lite/happy/cute videos. It’s not a divide I want to straddle, but some of us do. Feeding the beast doesn’t always mean producing my best work, stories and ideas that I — and some of the clients I hope with to work in the future — deeply value.

I find it depressing, but instructive, that my top five best-read (of more than 700 posts) stories here are on pop culture. Sigh. I don’t even care much about pop culture, so it’s a fairly rare event when I care enough and know enough to think I might have something worthwhile to add to that particular chorus.

Professional writers write for money. A very rare, and very fortunate, few freelancers are making serious coin writing only serious material.

Dedicated and amateur bloggers can become financially wildly successful if they persist and draw enormous audiences.

But who, beyond the elite troops of paid on-line journalism veterans like ProPublica, (and the on-line versions of old-school newspapers and newsmagazines) will actually cover anything serious?

Do you care?

Loved The 'Lost' Finale Or Hated It? Clarity Versus Ambiguity

In entertainment on May 24, 2010 at 11:40 am
P religion world

Image via Wikipedia

I’m finding the split between those who loved last night’s ‘Lost’ finale  and those who hated it interesting.

I lay in bed last night pondering all its Biblical and religious symbolism: Jack’s surname (Shephard); his father’s name (Christian) and just…thinking. The Buddha atop the bookcase as Jack entered the church; the stained glass window behind Shephard as he finds an empty coffin (tomb?), a window filled with every religious symbol, not just the easy, obvious out of a cross.

Buddhists believe that after death, the soul enters a “bardo”, a period of time in which it transitions between the life that has just ended and the next. The island, the church, the entire series might not only have been Christian (Limbo, Purgatory) but a bardo.

I’m not someone obsessed with most television and had missed many of the episodes of this show.

But I loved the finale. I didn’t care what really happened to Walt or the submarine. I wanted to be moved by mystery, to feel the larger heartbeat of the eternal. Not to fuss over detail. Plenty of other television shows have tidy plots and resolutions, but could never move me to tears.

I was deeply moved by the finale’s larger point: connections matter. Our connections to one another, wherever and whenever they happen, can have profound and life-altering value.

It may not be sexy or cute or tidily-resolved. Those hungry for Big Picture conversations are today, I think, happy with what we saw. Those who insist upon Tidy Resolution — maybe on-screen and off — are not.

Life isn’t tidy.

Television, with every issue hastily resolved within a 30 or 60-minute timeframe (minus commericals) comforts us otherwise. How annoying when the one place we rely on for that illusion lets us down!

Here’s fellow True/Slant writer Japhy Grant’s take on it:

But eyes are all about what LOST is about, from the first frame to the last, and how we choose to view the world and how that view shapes our lives is a central question of the show.

Come On Everybody! It’s about the people.

To those who view the hippy-dippy faith trip that the final episode winds up being as cheesy or ludicrous, I ask, what show have you been watching for the last six years?

It’s never been the plot conceits or mystery that have made the show; it’s the human connections these strangers find that have brought us back season after season. Why are you judging the show on the mechanics of the metaphysical.

The metaphysical is the true heart of The Island.  It’s mysteries are those of the human condition. How do we forgive? How do we fall in love? What can we do to not feel so damn alone?  In this respect, LOST’s final moments deliver in every way. For it offers up a clear, definitive answer:

We find meaning in our lives by living our lives like they have meaning.

David DiSalvo, another True/Slant writer, is furious with the ending:

What the chosen ending of Lost verifies is what most of the speculators have been saying for a few seasons: there would be no way to adequately wrap up the criss-crossing plot lines, the unending questions, the bottomless allusions. They feared that the show was begging for a big cop-out, catch-all ending.  I feared they were right, but hoped that the most original show to grace network TV since ‘The Twilight Zone’ wouldn’t go out that way. Surely the writers of this unique show would prove them all wrong.

Well, they didn’t.  They couldn’t have proved them more right if they’d had Jesus and Krishna themselves make an appearance on the island and tell Jack that, “everyone will go to a warm, lovely place that they made together to be together to remember that they were together somewhere for some reason, because that’s what people have been wasting their time for six years to find out.”

I’m being harsh, I know, but I’m a little cheesed off right now.  Despite the ending, I have enjoyed the show and appreciate how it has, for the most part, shined with originality amidst a sea of formulaic crime and hospital dramas. But with that pedigree, which has drawn a loyal legion of followers few shows in the history of TV can boast, all the more reason that it should have ended with something other than a predictable “we’re all dead and happy now” cop-out.

What We Lose With The End Of 'Lost'

In entertainment, Media, women on May 23, 2010 at 10:25 am
From left to right: Faraday, Boone, Miles, Mic...

Image via Wikipedia

I admit it. We’re planning our evening around tonight’s final episode of “Lost.” We’ll order in Thai food, the closest we’ll easily get to cooking Hawaiian.

Like many of its fans, I’ve lost interest in it at times, found the final season weird and sometimes mawkish — CJ Cregg as Jacob’s mom? Really? But one of the things I’ve really loved about “Lost” is its insistence that so many unlikely characters — the morbidly obese Hurley, the rigid and domineering husband Jin, the bitter Sawyer, the criminal Kate, the submissive Sun, the do-gooder Jack, the addict Charlie — each had a crucial role to play in this artificial universe.

I really liked that most of the key female characters — Kate (a previously unknown Canadian actress, Evangeline Lilly), Juliet, Sun, Ana-Lucia and Danielle Rousseau — were strong, wiry, no bullshit women, most fully capable of handling a firearm. (The wimpy, whiny Shannon was killed off early.)

It’s rare, outside of a show based on aliens or cops, to find so many female characters who are consistently physically powerful, emotionally resilient, able to handle everything from sewing up a stranger’s back (Kate) to surviving alone in the jungle (Rousseau.) Who will be the next Kate?

I loved seeing Koreans, an Iraqi, a fat guy and an inter-racial couple play integral roles, becoming leaders and well-loved by their community. “Lost” began six years ago, long before anyone else was casting such diversity. It never felt faux-diverse, as so many of these efforts do, just real.

I’ll miss that community. Many of us now live alone, work at home or are looking for work. We hunger for a lively, funny, quirky posse of our own. We don’t want to run from the smoke monster or shoot a polar bear or have to suffer a plane crash to find one, but the hard-won interdependence of the survivors of  Oceanic Flight 815 speaks to a powerful longing.

I’ll raise a glass of something festive — coconut milk? — and toast their farewell.

The More Successful Friend

In behavior, business on May 22, 2010 at 11:28 pm
Money (reais)

Image via Wikipedia

I had lunch last week with a friend whose income makes mine look like pocket change. She has great jewelry, belongs to a country club, lives in a lovely, large house.

It would be so easy to not be friends. It’s hard when someone is doing so much better. We live in a culture where acquisition and showing off the loot — I’ve blogged here about “haul videos” — remains a national pastime.

But I’m grateful she’s my friend because I have a lot to learn from her. I wish I commanded the higher fees she does for similar work, but she has a few in-demand specialties — while I remain a generalist. (My choice, my fault.) She’s also a super negotiator. She may well work many more hours, or work smarter.

It’s too easy to envy another without admitting what we bring, or don’t, to our own level of achievement.

Most important, she’s still a friend.

I’ve seen a larger income, a proxy for “success” and the putative higher value of the higher-earning half, split the best of buds with ruthless efficiency. I lost a dear friend of a decade after she married a high-earning corporate executive and moved to a lakeside mansion. I’d have been happy to remain friends long after she left her single-gal-in-the-Manhattan-studio days behind, the long, boozy nights when we prowled the bars or danced ’til dawn.

But she had clearly traded up. Her husband was one of those guys who likes to talk about how much money he makes. Not my style.

The nature of “success”, certainly in some cultures, is that it’s too often defined as purely financial, because in a capitalist system — capital = $$$$$ — s/he with the most capital wins.

But many of us bring extraordinary riches to the world, in social capital and intellectual prowess and kindness and generosity, creativity or gentleness with animals or small children or those with severe disabilities, humor and forgiveness, a whole basket of good(ness)s that aren’t quantifiable by economists or measurable in the visible status symbols of Birkin bags or Bentleys.

To me, the measure of one’s real success is the generosity to share it. Not simply, as some do, by writing a check to charity, but taking the time, as I’ve done many times over the years for less-experienced writers as well, to share the skills that help you achieve it.

Do you have a more successful friend who helps you? Or vice versa?

Having A Lousy Date? There's A New App For That

In behavior, Crime on May 22, 2010 at 9:52 am
Image representing iPhone 3G as depicted in Cr...

Image via CrunchBase

Here’s a useful app – that turns your Itouch or Iphone into a rape whistle. From the Toronto Star:

On Friday, YWCA Canada announced its YWCA Safety Siren app, available free for download at the iTunes store.

The alarm — with a choice of three ear-splitting wails — goes off with either a press of the pink button or a shake, converting an iPhone or iPod Touch into a 21st-century version of the rape whistle.

Not only does the siren sound, but an email is automatically generated while a phone call gets made (if you have an iPhone) to preset emergency contacts. Both can attach a Google map pinpointing your location…

There are other safety apps already available, including an “I’m being assaulted’’ app that sends emails. There’s also an “Am I safe?’’ app that rates locations as go or no-go zones.

But neither combines all the features of the YWCA app, which is more than a siren. Hit the “Safe Date’’ button and there’s info on how to avoid trouble before you step out. The Health icon describes healthy ways to hook up. Dating 101 is a guide to guys, good and bad. Finally, the Geolocations tab will pop up a map showing the nearest health and rape crisis centres.

Even the most charming — often the most charming — of men can turn predatory. I doubt (m)any women are carrying rape whistles or Mace these days.

The wisest move, as every smart woman knows, is to let a friend know where you’re heading before going on a first date and/or avoiding a stranger’s car or apartment until you have some idea who he is. Having ended up in the clutches of a former felon, a man as handsome, well-dressed and chatty as they come, I know well that appearances mean little.

I think this is a smart idea.

The interesting question is what happens after that blast of noise — will anyone come to your aid? Or is it most useful as a distracting device, a chance to give you a few moments of surprise to flee?

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The Joy Of Failure — Learning To See Is Tougher Than It Looks

In art, behavior, education on May 21, 2010 at 2:32 pm
A stainless steel tea infuser.

Prettier than this one...Image via Wikipedia

I only have one more drawing class before this four-week session ends. This morning the teacher set up a still life so utterly daunting I sat there paralyzed while I tried — like some medieval warrior staring up at a very large castle — to figure out my point of entry.

It doesn’t sound like much: a 1940s floral print linen tablecloth, and on it a pale yellow Fiestaware teapot, a red tea tin, a dark blue mug with a spoon on top and a sterling tea-ball. Perspective! Scale! Color! All those highlights (reflections) on the glossy surfaces of the pot and mug and spoon.

The exercise was to work in primary colors: red, yellow and blue. Easy, right? Not when the yellow ceramic is soft, pale shade — and my pencils are all strong colors. I managed to get the teapot and the mug done in two hours, when the teacher finally came by to take a look.

The great thing with drawing is it’s immediately obvious when it’s lousy. The problem is — how to fix it. The pot was too small, the mug too large. There was no fixing it.

I started again. Do-over!

This time I focused only on the teapot and spent 60 minutes just on it. It was certainly recognizable as a teapot. It was just lopsided.

As the teacher helped me figure out how to do it better next time, she packed away the items, including the tea-strainer that I’d just spent three hours looking at — focused on it only as something I had to capture and portray realistically, as a problem to solve.

I hadn’t even noticed that this tiny elegant object was itself in the form of a teapot, sort of a sterling silver fractal.

“Sometimes you have to step away to see things clearly,” she said. Indeed.

The pleasure of my drawing class is that, for three hours out of my week, I get to make a big fat mess in my sketchbooks as I (re)-learn how to see and how to translate what I see into something that makes visual sense and might even be attractive. I have two stories due to The New York Times today; no “mistakes” welcome there.

Unlike much of the rest of my life, class offers me a safe place to “fail” — to try something new, to do it poorly, to take gentle and helpful instruction, to go away and think hard about why I couldn’t even see clearly that which was before my eyes for so long. My fellow students are planning to show their work soon, but I’m in no rush to join them. I don’t need or want that validation — or that pressure to do it right or well or good enough.

My lousy drawings, my “failures”, are giving me great joy. That’s plenty for now.

Three Days After Graduation, J-Student Scores Interview With Nets' Owner Mikhail Prokhorov

In business, Media on May 21, 2010 at 8:35 am
File photo taken April 24, 2008 shows billiona...

Prokhorov. Image by AFP/Getty Images via @daylife

Here’s a story from the New York Observer, for all you fresh grads — a journalism student, who three days after graduation from Columbia J-school, scored one of the most coveted interviews in New York City. Only two outlets got a private chat with Prokhorov:

He is not exactly a bold-faced name.

Two years years ago, Mr. Rotondaro was working in a pizza kitchen. He began writing more and more, and published a few items for The Huffington Post, worked briefly as a crime reporter for the Brooklyn Eagle and then enrolled in j-school.

By his own admission, he wasn’t an obvious choice for the sit-down. He spent the last few months occasionally filing for a blog run by Columbia called Brooklyn Ink. He had five bylines.

Then, there he was, getting one of the most in-demand exclusives of the week and delivering a 2,300 word Q & A with Mr. Prokhorov.

Mr. Rotondaro said that he received an email about three weeks ago. It was light on details. In the note, he was asked if he would be interested in an exclusive interview with someone really important. It didn’t say who. If he was interested in pursuing this further, he should call this number…

Mr. Rotondaro wisely decided to call.

“I was kind of weirded out,” he said. “But they left a number and you might as well call back, right?”

When he called, a handler said that Mr. Prokhorov wanted a Brooklyn blogger to interview him. The handler had read some of his stuff on The Huffington Post and thought Mr. Rotondaro would be perfect. He said Mr. Prokhorov wanted “to meet up with you. Pick your favorite bar or café in Brooklyn.”

I love that a blogger got the nod.

These sorts of chances are becoming increasingly rare in a world where, in addition to the traditional media outlets of radio, television and print, those seeking PR — and journos seeking an exclusive or a scoop — are playing needle in a haystack. Who to choose and why? Ambitious journalists always need Really Big Stories to beef up their portfolios, especially when they’re just starting out, to prove they’ve really got the skills to snag something great and to handle it well when they do.

People like Prokhorov are surrounded by the razor wire of multiple handlers and minions and flacks. If Vinnie had tried to reach out to him — would he even have dared? — the odds of success would, normally, have been risible.

The visibility of blogs and their writers has changed the game, and this can only be a good thing. The challenge will be for those bloggers, certainly those with no background or training in journalism ethics and practice, to know what to do with the material and avoid manipulation — we work alone and have no backstopping, eyebrow-raised editors saying “Really?”

It’s fun to hit “publish” without interference, but it brings its own specific dangers as well. (Lawsuits, for one.)

The only downside here — HuffPo still doesn’t pay its writers. True/Slant does.

Read This Post! (Please?) The Crucial Difference Between 'Askers' and 'Guessers'

In behavior on May 20, 2010 at 3:53 pm
A question and exclamation mark of jigsaw puzz...

Image by Horia Varlan via Flickr

I found this essay in The Guardian fascinating, as it touches on an issue I see play out almost every day — between people who ask for what they want (and know they might not get it) and those who “guess”, hoping for what they want and resenting the hell out of those with the chutzpah to actually ask:

This terminology comes from a brilliant web posting by Andrea Donderi that’s achieved minor cult status online. We are raised, the theory runs, in one of two cultures. In Ask culture, people grow up believing they can ask for anything – a favour, a pay rise– fully realising the answer may be no. In Guess culture, by contrast, you avoid “putting a request into words unless you’re pretty sure the answer will be yes… A key skill is putting out delicate feelers. If you do this with enough subtlety, you won’t have to make the request directly; you’ll get an offer. Even then, the offer may be genuine or pro forma; it takes yet more skill and delicacy to discern whether you should accept.”

Neither’s “wrong”, but when an Asker meets a Guesser, unpleasantness results. An Asker won’t think it’s rude to request two weeks in your spare room, but a Guess culture person will hear it as presumptuous and resent the agony involved in saying no. Your boss, asking for a project to be finished early, may be an overdemanding boor – or just an Asker, who’s assuming you might decline. If you’re a Guesser, you’ll hear it as an expectation. This is a spectrum, not a dichotomy, and it explains cross-cultural awkwardnesses, too: Brits and Americans get discombobulated doing business in Japan, because it’s a Guess culture, yet experience Russians as rude, because they’re diehard Askers.

I moved in 1989 from a Guess  culture — Canada — to an Ask — the U.S. Even after all these years, I still feel the push-pull of these two opposing views of how life/love/business should go. In smaller nations more attentive to social harmony, in which direct confrontation makes everyone stare at their shoes and really wish you would stoprightnow — like Canada or Ireland — American directness is so brash as to be totally off-putting, declasse, in-your-face.

I had a terrible time — often still do — in American job interviews and other high-pressure situations where it’s do or die. If you don’t say it, and say it now, you’ve blown it.  In the culture in which I was raised and educated, in which some of my dearest friends still live and work, having the temerity to ask marks you as pushy and entitled.

I’ve really seen this in the different way I now behave with doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals within a for-profit system, compared to the deference even my feisty Dad (a former film director, for heaven’s sake, hardly shy in expressing his wishes) pays to his in Canada, where you get what they give you when they feel like giving it to you. I recently saw a surgeon whose scalpel is practically hanging over my arthritic hip like the sword of Damocles. I told him, “Put this in your notes!” and bent his ear about what my life is currently like with this condition. I didn’t meekly agree to skedding surgery. He asked for what he wanted and I asked for what I wanted.

As long as you’re using the same style, you’re OK. Certainly in a place like New York, hanging back and shuffling your toe in the dust ain’t gonna cut it.

But you can see how global diplomacy is a bloody minefield as a result.

Which are you? Does it work?

Wendy's Employee Forgets The Mayo — And Customer Pulls Out Her Taser

In behavior, business, Crime on May 20, 2010 at 1:15 pm
Taser International unveils the new Taser MPH ...

Image by AFP/Getty Images via Daylife

Hold the mayo — and you’ll get Tasered.

No kidding.

Here’s a true story from Florida of a woman — and her pink stun gun — who threatened a Wendy’s employee after they left out the mayo and mustard from her order.

Pink, that’s important.

Girls With Enemies Do Better

In behavior, education on May 19, 2010 at 4:34 pm

Interesting study cited in The New York Times:

In a series of recent experiments, a group of psychologists at the University of California, Los Angeles, recorded mutual dislike among 2,003 middle school students. Unlike previous studies on the same topic, these researchers also compared children who reciprocated a fellow classmate’s dislike with those who did not. Students who were not named at all on anyone’s blacklist were excluded from this analysis.

This comparison found that the girls who returned classmates’ hostility scored significantly higher on peers’ and teachers’ ratings of social competence. They were more popular and widely admired. The boys who did the same scored highly on teachers’ ratings of classroom behavior.

“You have several options, as I see it, when you become aware of someone else’s antipathy,” said Melissa Witkow, now at Willamette University in Oregon, the psychologist who led the study. “You could be extra nice, and that might be good. But it could also be awkward or disappointing, and a waste of time. You could choose to ignore the person. Or you can engage.”

She said the study suggested that “when someone dislikes you, it may be adaptive to dislike them back.”

I’ve blogged here about being bullied and how traumatic that was for me. But being disliked — which happens to all of us — is different from being bullied.

I was sent off to boarding school at eight and summer camp at the same age. An only child, I wasn’t used to being teased or fighting with siblings, so running into haters was a new experience. And, when you share a room for many months with four or six other girls — one or more of whom are nasty — you’ve got nowhere to run or hide. The closet? The bathroom?

I still remember a blonde girl named Stephanie and a dark-haired Kathy who were mean. Mean! But it was sort of fun to throw their energy right back at them. It’s not pleasant to discover not everyone likes you, but if they did, you’d probably be way too accommodating. Whenever Stephanie started sharpening her tongue, I was ready with a retort. I actually bit Kathy’s finger once, hard, when she was stupid enough to stick in my face and dare me to. She didn’t make that mistake twice.

Fighting for yourself — when not against a team of relentlessly toxic bullies — is a useful skill. Girls are too often taught to “be nice” when being tough, smart and ready and willing to defend yourself, verbally or even physically, is a better option. Like knowing how to cook or clean or change a tire, it’s a useful life skill.

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