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Is Howard Dean grossly ill-informed about our nation’s bedrock freedoms, or was he merely pandering to the Democratic Party’s base when he tweeted out an ignorant statement?

Dean, a former governor of Vermont, rocketed from obscurity in 2004, when he ran for the Democratic presidential nomination. He harnessed a populist energy, much like Bernie Sanders did last year, and briefly emerged as the apparent front-runner. Then at a campaign rally he screamed like a Muppet (the infamous “Dean Scream”) and everything kind of fell apart.

He recovered to become head of the Democratic National Committee from 2005 to 2009, and since then has been a favored liberal commentator on television. As such, his comments – both on-camera and off, spoken or written or tweeted – are scrutinized, and he surely realizes this.

On April 20, he chose to comment on Twitter about conservative Ann Coulter, amid controversy generated by the University of California at Berkeley’s decision to postpone a speech by Coulter, who uses intentionally provocative terms to belittle and mock her opponents. Administrators said they needed more time for security preparations because of expected violent protests by liberal activists. Conservatives said the university was buckling to those who think the First Amendment shouldn’t apply to political views they oppose.

Dean seemed to side with not allowing Coulter to speak, tweeting, “Hate speech is not protected by the First Amendment.”

Dean, 68, is beyond old enough to know better.

The Supreme Court has made clear repeatedly, in cases involving both the political far left and the far right, that hateful speech is protected.

That is why Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan can’t be stopped from holding rallies on public streets.

That is why Westboro Baptist Church can’t be prevented from going to the funerals of soldiers and holding up signs saying the soldiers died because of God’s hate.

As Lauren Carroll of PolitiFact wrote, there’s no universal definition of “hate speech,” so you might debate whether Coulter’s history of explosive rhetoric qualifies, but it really doesn’t matter. The courts’ track record on the First Amendment is clear: You can be as hateful as you want, as long as you don’t make a threat of violence. Threats and violence are not protected.

But when talking about the First Amendment, you also have to be clear about what exactly it protects. The First Amendment specifically says, “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech.” Courts have ruled repeatedly that the wording means that the government can’t tell Ann Coulter what she can or can’t say.

It does not mean that Coulter has the right to stand on your front porch and say whatever she wants. It’s your house. You can kick her off the property. But then she can stand on the public right of way and yell at you – unless she’s so loud she violates a noise ordinance. Then she has to lower her voice.

It does not mean that Coulter can invite herself without warning to speak in any government-run auditorium. But she can walk onto a public university campus uninvited, stand on the student commons and talk. Even yell. In fact this is what street preachers, among others, do at colleges all over the country.

In Berkeley’s case, she was invited by the school’s College Republicans, who are able to reserve speaking space. The university runs afoul of the law, then, only if it treats Coulter differently than anyone else invited by a college-affiliated group – which it does not appear to be doing because it provided an alternate speaking date.

But here’s something the First Amendment does NOT do: If Ann Coulter walks onto a college campus, stands in the commons and starts her usual spiel denigrating minorities and immigrants in the most inflammatory, provocative way and generally making people mad, the First Amendment says only that the government can’t stop her. It does not say that some person not employed by the government who is standing nearby and getting angry can’t pelt her with eggs and rotten tomatoes — or punch her.

That would be assault. It’s wrong, and it should result in a criminal penalty, but it’s not a First Amendment violation.

Some Republicans in North Carolina’s General Assembly are so exercised about the First Amendment lately that they want to pass a law requiring the University of North Carolina system to formally institute punishments for students whose protests interfere with others’ free speech rights. Let that sink in. As in George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” apparently some people’s First Amendment rights are more equal than others’.

The legislators’ proposal is government overreach, but I agree with their underlying point: The correct response to speech you oppose, even that you consider hateful, is not silencing the speech or reacting violently to it.

Regarding Coulter – and similar rhetorical bomb-throwers who seem to revel in the anger they generate – I agree with the response suggested in the Washington Post by Alyssa Rosenberg, who described Coulter as a “boring performance artist” rather than someone with ideas that should be taken seriously:

“Coulter is like a distorted Tinker Bell: It’s not applause that saves her from fading out of existence, it’s shock and jeers. These days, her ability to elicit that reaction seems to be the main reason Coulter gets campus bookings in the first place. If it’s not, and if campus conservative groups have mistaken Coulter for any sort of serious or interesting thinker, then the campus right may be in even graver trouble than the campus left. Being willing to say anything deemed outrageous is not the same thing as having significant ideas.”

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If only Martin Luther King Jr. had started knocking heads, imagine how much he would have accomplished.

Or so seems to be much of the most joyous thinking on the left in the wake of a viral video that grew out of the anti-Trump protests on Jan. 20.

If you haven’t seen it, a television reporter was interviewing Richard Spencer — who leads a white supremacist movement and not long ago headlined a conference in Washington, D.C., that ended with those assembled giving a classic Nazi “heil” salute — when suddenly someone lunged at Spencer from his right and sucker-punched him. Spencer staggered away, the attacker leaped back, and that was the end of it.

That brief video has been circulated widely and applauded. That celebration drew quick, but not wide, condemnation by others on both the left and right, which led to a question that also spread in a viral manner on social media:

Is it OK to punch a Nazi?

Those asking the question often answered it themselves in the affirmative, and most others chiming in said essentially that the answer was not only yes but hell yes. Those answers sometimes came attached to images of comic book hero Captain America punching Hitler and movie hero Indiana Jones punching a Nazi.

Those giving a contrary answer included Newsweek, which called ethicists and posed the question to them, prompting one, Randy Cohen, to say, “Do you really not know if it’s ethical to punch someone even though they have odious politics? I mean, should we call your mother?”

Apparently we should call a lot of people’s mothers. One response on Twitter that captured the overall sentiment was this:

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One hopes that if the person who wrote that thought about it a while she would change her position because she could easily find herself targeted by it.

The problem with saying you support punching Nazis is you take a step onto a slippery slope. For one thing, Spencer does not belong to the Nazi party; the label of “Nazi” has been applied to him because of his racist views. If it’s OK to punch someone who isn’t a Nazi but is labeled one, who then who determines what other people get that label applied to them?

Regardless of whether he is a Nazi, Spencer has not engaged in violence or called for it. Who gets to decide that a person’s views go far beyond what the person states and actually encompass “eradication” of other people? Spencer’s views are extreme, but who gets to decide that someone’s views are extreme enough to warrant violence? President Obama was labeled a socialist and extremist with long-term goals described at times in nearly apocolyptic terms. Would it be OK to punch Obama?

If it’s OK to punch someone, what is the goal of the punch? To change his mind? To punish him? If punching him won’t change his mind or change his ways, then what? Should he be killed?

The American Civil Liberties Union is perceived by many on the right as the ultimate liberal special interest group, but many liberals can’t stand that the ACLU will stand up for the free-speech rights of right-wing extremists. On both the left and the right, people want free speech for their own views, but any views that stray too far from theirs make them uneasy. Unfortunately, the First Amendment doesn’t come with an asterisk and a footnote saying that it doesn’t apply to racists, thugs and religious extremists.

The First Amendment right of free speech has repeatedly and frequently been interpreted by the courts as guaranteeing anyone the right to espouse even horrific views — not the right to do horrific things, but to talk about them. In other words, the First Amendment provides everyone a forum to talk about anything they wish.

Of course, the First Amendment says only that the government may not censor your views. It does not say that there will not be non-government repercussions for your views. What you say may, for instance, anger others enough that they want to punch you. That’s where we are now.

The irony is that this all happened less than a week after the day America remembers King, who met hate with love and met violence with peace and in 1964 won the Nobel Peace Prize. Spencer is a milk-fed, baby-faced poser compared to the people King had to deal with, vicious thugs with a badge such as Eugene “Bull” Connor, whose Birmingham police turned high-pressure fire hoses and attack dogs on African Americans. We don’t have to imagine how King would have answered the question “Is it OK to punch a Nazi?” because he answered it over and over. Just a few of those answers:

“The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.”

“Man was born into barbarism when killing his fellow man was a normal condition of existence. He became endowed with a conscience. And he has now reached the day when violence toward another human being must become as abhorrent as eating another’s flesh.”

“Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.”

Is it OK to punch someone hateful? I understand the impulse, but the answer is not just no, but hell no.

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The Facebook tease from Poynter said, “This study suggests some lingering sentiment that millennials feel digital news ought to be available for free.”

But the actual post by Rick Edmonds, Millennials will pay for content, but news not high on their list, did not say that. The headline of the post is accurate. As the post says, millennials are willing to pay for content that they enjoy spending time with. For some, that includes news, but for many it does not.

Why this would surprise anyone is beyond me. News, no matter the form it is delivered in, has had a declining share of the public’s attention as the types of media and availability of various categories of content have expanded over the decades. You used to get a newspaper as a matter of course because after work you read a book, a magazine or a newspaper. There was not much else to do. When radio came along, there was something else to do. When TV came along, there were more things to do. When cable TV came along, there were a lot more things to do. It just keeps going.

News is a niche. We can argue all day that it shouldn’t be, that awareness of what is going on in the world is a basic element necessary for citizens of a democracy, but people have freedom of choice. They can drink Coca-Cola instead of water even if the dentist says it gives them cavities and their doctor says they are verging on diabetes. No one can stop them. If they choose to limit their exposure to stories that they consider to be downers, what can we do? We can “dumb down” or fun-up the news, but why dilute our niche?

Rather than worry about what part of the audience we have lost because they were never really that interested in the news, maybe we should worry about the part that has stuck around, including among the portion of the population that is youngest and most digitally oriented, and has a hunger for news. Give those people something that is worthwhile.

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This is a follow-up to the previous post and was written to run in the News-Topic.

It takes a special kind of jerk to respond to a young person’s exuberance with bitter cynicism and bile.

That would be the kind of person who, seeing a young boy cheerfully walking along with a helium balloon, pulls out something sharp. Best to pop the balloon and make the child cry – after all, life is hard, and you better get used to it.

There is a financial writer named Felix Salmon who is one of those people. He works for a website called Fusion, and last week he wrote an article with the headline To all the young journalists asking for advice …. From the way the article starts, I take it that Salmon regularly receives email from young reporters asking for tips on how to get into the business, or into Fusion itself, and saying how much they would like to talk about it over coffee if they could. That’s the kind of thing that the job-networking website LinkedIn and other places that give job-hunting advice recommend that you try to do – reach out to someone working someplace that you would like to work, ask for advice, try to meet for coffee.

Salmon illustrates two pitfalls of that strategy. One is that the advice is now so widespread that anyone a young job-hunter may contact might just be tired of all the unsolicited attention and requests for advice and coffee. The other is that the person you email out of the clear blue may be a bitter, old fart who’s more likely to insult you than to try to help.

Salmon’s “advice” was discouraging, to say the least. Not only that, it was contradictory.

“In fact, life is not good for journalists. And while a couple of years ago I harbored hopes that things might improve, those hopes have now pretty much evaporated. Things are not only bad; they’re going to get worse,” he wrote, immediately after a paragraph that ended, “I think this is probably the greatest era for journalism that the world has ever seen. I also think that some of today’s fast-growing digital companies are going to become the media behemoths of tomorrow, making their owners extremely rich in the process.”

In other words, despite all the positive things he sees going on, his takeaway on the world of journalism is “Life stinks and then you die.”

Way to be a Debbie Downer, Felix.

Journalism is changing, which is true of a great many occupations – and always has been. Do you see any businesses around here that sell horse-drawn carts? That used to be one way to make a living. When cars came along, carts and buggies went away. But even cars aren’t constant. A couple of years ago I did an interview at a business that used to be a car dealership – for the Hudson Motor Car Co., a brand of car that most people now have never heard of. Remember when furniture companies started moving jobs to Asia? They’re never coming back, everyone said. Now a number of those jobs are coming back. Things change.

A lot of the upheaval affecting journalism and news organizations is related to the Internet. But the Internet is not a monolithic force. Things change there too. Remember Friendster? Probably not. It was Facebook before there was a Facebook. It got replaced by MySpace, which got replaced by Facebook.

How does the Internet come into your house? It used to be that the only way anyone got online was with a modem that dialed a phone number. Companies that made those modems have had to either quickly adapt as technology changes or go out of business.

Dell Computers built a production plant near Winston-Salem 10 or 15 years ago to make desktop computers – and within a few years it was obsolete because people started buying laptops instead.

Things change. What’s important is what you want to do. What do you like? What sort of work makes you feel creative or productive and fulfilled? In the case of those young people writing to Salmon, it is writing and reporting – telling stories. The technology of doing that is changing, so the details of doing the work is changing. The revenue of some parts of the business, such as newspapers, has declined, and maybe will keep declining – or it might stop. The things that make the work appeal to certain people haven’t changed that much. No one ever got into writing for the money.

Better advice was once given by David Carr, a prominent reporter for the New York Times who died Thursday:

“Being a journalist, I never feel bad talking to journalism students because it’s a grand, grand caper. You get to leave, go talk to strangers, ask them anything, come back, type up their stories, edit the tape. That’s not gonna retire your loans as quickly as it should, and it’s not going to turn you into a person who’s worried about what kind of car they should buy, but that’s kind of as it should be. I mean, it beats working.”

That’s the kind of advice young people deserve to hear.

UPDATE: Another good one to read on this topic. Sample: “I was disappointed about how I had been taken in by someone projecting his own feelings of discouragement onto a group of people younger than himself.”

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I haven’t met Dylan Howlett, but I hope I will because his recent blog post, Advice for Felix Salmon: Stop giving advice, is very well written. In case you don’t have time right now to go read it (find the time eventually, please) or the piece it refers to, here’s a summary:

Salmon wrote an article, To all the young journalists asking for advice …, not only discouraging anyone from trying to pursue a career in journalism but insulting them for thinking of it. Howlett responded smartly and hilariously, calling out Salmon’s bitterness and the massive gaps in his argument.

Howlett aptly sums up why I stay in this business. It’s true that after I was laid off in 2012, I looked for an exit ramp to something else. My thoughts at the time were not as dark as Salmon expresses, but they were in that general path.

But my previous job in journalism wasn’t very rewarding, emotionally. The one I have now is. No surprise, I now work directly with reporters and their writing and do a fair amount of writing of my own. And you know what? It’s nice to be in love. It’s true of people and it’s true of whatever you do.

Also, this, from Salmon: “And while a couple of years ago I harbored hopes that things might improve, those hopes have now pretty much evaporated. Things are not only bad; they’re going to get worse.”

That reminds me of this: For more than 20 years, I worked for Media General. When I started, the company’s stock was trading somewhere in the $20- to $30-a-share range. At one point in the early 2000s it got to over $70 a share. But then much of the media world started getting “disrupted,” and the stock dropped. A few years ago it got down to around $1 a share. Along the way, a lot of people decided it was never going to get any better — prodded by some stock analysts who predicted the company was doomed — and they dumped all their stock. Today it’s trading for over $15. Obviously, $70 a share was ridiculous, but so was $1. Yes, Media General is now a TV company with no newspapers, but that’s the point: Who saw that coming? A point that Salmon, oddly enough, makes unintentionally by pointing out developments in journalism that came out of nowhere.

There’s a saying related to stock trading: Past performance is not a guarantee of future results.

Salmon, despite his financial-reporting background, seems to believe otherwise — which is all the more puzzling, given that he admits “I’ve also never really had a career, in the sense of a planned-out sequence of jobs, each one slightly better than the last, working my way up towards some grand ideal position. I arrived where I am randomly, and I could not have replicated it if I tried.”

That pretty much sums up the career of almost everyone I have ever met.

Here’s my advice: If you fall in love, follow your heart.

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Sometimes I just want a big, heavy stick to hit people in the head with. I’d call it my “You didn’t invent this” stick.

I would use it when I heard some (usually younger) person lamenting some condition of humankind that strikes him as a revelation, as though he found the New World, when all he really is doing is describing to you the exact same thing you went through a decade or two earlier – because everyone goes through it.

I felt a need for such a stick when reading what a couple of people who have worked in online media companies recently had to say about how the Internet has really gone downhill since back in the day when it was a simply fabulous way to get information.

“I began my media career about seven years ago as an unabashed internet enthusiast,” David Sessions wrote in an essay in late August on Patrolmag.com that reads like the lament of a late-career curmudgeon (and I won’t even get started on the issue of whether you can describe seven years as a career). “… By then, the internet had already provided me an outlet for various creative pursuits for years, and I saw nothing but the opportunity to escape some of traditional journalism’s worst constraints.”

In an interview in May at a conference called New York Ideas, Choire Sicha – who all of five long years ago co-founded The Awl, a popular current-events and culture blog – was less specific about his “early” Internet use, but the implication of all he said was that once upon a time, the Internet did nothing but bring untold riches of powerful writing to his digital doorstep. There was no end of interesting things to read.

Alas, no more.

“I do not read a lot of things anymore,” Sicha said. “A lot of us don’t, we sort of go where the tide takes us. I feel weird about that.”

Sessions felt no better, but there’s a funny thing about his description of so much that is wrong with the Internet:

“Where once the internet media landscape was populated with publications that all had unique visual styles, traffic models, and editorial voices, each one has mission-creeped its way into a version of the same thing: everybody has to cover everything, regardless of whether (or) not they can add any value to the story, and has to scream at you to stand out in the avalanche of ‘content’ gushing out of your feeds.”

You could take that description and swap most of it out with what people said back in the ‘80s and ’90s about pack journalism and the push for short news stories and splashy graphics in American newspapers, especially those owned by Gannett or any others influenced by USA Today, which itself was influenced by how information was presented on television.

It takes a narrow scope to believe that some Golden Age of Reading began on the Internet, or that the evolution or devolution of reading habits didn’t begin until the past five years instead of, if you could go back and ask your great-great-grandparents, a hundred years ago, or further back yet.

What Sicha and Sessions said was true, but in a larger sense it has always been true, and there is an old saying for it: The world is going to hell in a handbasket.

You didn’t invent this experience, I want to yell at them, though I would also point out that each of them had a hand in inventing the current, digital incarnation of the handbasket. Neither of them appears to recognize this.

Sessions, in fact, seems to need a double-whack with a stick.

“I never read print newspapers or magazines devotedly,” he wrote in the first paragraph of his lament about how unsettled he is by changes in how people use Internet media, “so I never experienced unsettling changes in habits the way many people have as they transitioned primarily to digital reading in the past decade.”

Let’s be clear about this: The media platforms being discussed here may be different, but the unsettled nature of change is eternal and recognizes no boundaries, whether physical or digital. Before the unsettling change of digital news came the unsettling change of the 24-hour news cycle wrought by cable TV news, which came after the unsettling change of the country’s once-dominant afternoon newspapers either switching to morning delivery or going out of business after losing out to morning papers, which coincided with the disappearance of two-newspaper cities, none of which were the first of the unsettling changes.

The problem isn’t that, as Sicha said and Sessions echoed, “something’s wrong” with the Internet. There is something wrong, though: humans. We are the reason we can’t have nice things.

Afternoon papers went away because people’s schedules changed, and morning papers then seemed more convenient. People’s schedules kept changing, and print circulation began declining for decades before the Internet arrived because even morning papers eventually came to be seen by some as not convenient – there was no time to read anymore, and the pile of unread papers was both a bother and a reminder that once upon a time there was a thing called leisure that involved reading. When the Internet came along, and especially when it moved onto phones, that became more convenient still. But what many people have decided they want that mobile Internet for is time-wasting, mindless crap to fill the minutes-long gaps in their day or to relieve their stress, something to distract them, not something to make them think, so that’s the kind of thing that becomes profitable.

“People are coming to news and entertainment content by lazy phone clicking,” Sicha said. “So we’re bored, we’re looking at our phones. We’re lonely, we’re looking at our phones. And so whatever weird portal you’re going through, then you’re clicking through to things from there.”

And this isn’t the first time that happened. In the early days of television, some thought that TV would be the way to bring fine arts to the masses. Go to your TV now and find an opera or Broadway play. I’ll wait.

Think the Internet will get better someday? In 1961, FCC chairman Newton N. Minow called television programming a “vast wasteland” – and that was four years before “My Mother the Car.” Television had yet to sink to the era of the Kardashians and “Fear Factor.”

“Something’s wrong”? Only us. We say we want to eat healthy vegetables, but we’ll go for the candy when no one is looking. Seeing that, the folks who make money off what we like will constantly pivot. If you see something you like, buy it, or tomorrow it may be gone.

“The only thing that is constant is change,” a Greek philosopher named Heraclitus wrote about 2,500 years ago, probably right after someone complained that reading on papyrus just doesn’t deliver the same tactile pleasure as reading from a leather scroll.

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Reading about attracting news audiences and revenue for online news sites has often been depressing. Even for someone who believes in the need for meeting the audience where it is and adapting to the needs of online and mobile news consumers, at times it has felt like the future was heading toward a world dominated by Buzzfeedy listicles and clickbait and Upworthy-worthy headlines, where all advertising revenue is forever lagging and all audiences are zephyrlike transients.

You can simultaneously believe that not just journalism but locally oriented journalism is necessary for society but feel overwhelmed by skepticism about how many people out there have the same belief and will actively seek it in numbers that will support some kind of sustainable revenue model.

But recent weeks have brought some research to stoke your optimism.

The American Press Institute reported this week on a survey by the Media Insight Project, an initiative of the American Press Institute and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, about news-consumption habits:

“When asked to volunteer how they came to the news, people tend think less about the device than the news gathering source and the means of discovery (social media or search). Taken in combination, the findings suggest that people make conscious choices about where they get their news and how they get it, using whatever technology is convenient at the moment.”

The survey also found that people do notice what strengths different news organizations have, for instance turning to local TV sources (TV itself or a TV station’s website) for weather, traffic, crime, and health news, and newspaper sources for news about their local town or city, for news about arts and culture, and for news about schools and education.

And hasn’t that been one of the underlying hopes of traditional journalists, that our existing “brand” is more than our traditional medium or platform, that the public associates our news organization with the news we produce?

That’s what this survey indicates is the case – they seek us out for news, not just, as often is said, wait for any news that really is important to find them:

“Overall, for instance, social media is becoming an important tool for people across all generations to discover news — but hardly the only one, even for the youngest adults.

“… People across all generations are most likely to discover news by going directly to a news organization, rather than letting the news come to them.”

Super.

We can check off that part of how to survive the future.

That still leaves revenue, the front that has been the bleakest, where analog dollars turn to digital dimes, if that.

But Tony Haile, the CEO of data-analytics company Chartbeat, wrote in a column last week for time.com on research by his company that finds that audiences drawn to actual news may hold more value for advertisers than those on other sites because they pay attention to the page and linger longer. Why that matters:

“Someone looking at the page for 20 seconds while an ad is there is 20-30% more likely to recall that ad afterwards.”

And best of all, it may be that news organizations have undervalued their advertising slots that are lower on the digital page, especially below the “fold” where ads and content aren’t seen unless the viewer scrolls:

“Here’s the skinny, 66% of attention on a normal media page is spent below the fold. That leaderboard at the top of the page? People scroll right past that and spend their time where the content, not the cruft, is. Yet most agency media planners will still demand that their ads run in the places where people aren’t and will ignore the places where they are.”

Pair this with the results of a study by the Pew Research Journalism Project that found that “People who visit a news organization’s website directly engage with its content more than those who enter ‘sideways’” through social media and other referrels, as Andrew Beaujon wrote last week at Poynter.org.

The Pew report, “Social, Search and Direct: Pathways to Digital News,” said:

“In this study of U.S. internet traffic to 26 of the most popular news websites, direct visitors — those who type in the news outlet’s specific address (URL) or have the address bookmarked — spend much more time on that news site, view many more pages of content and come back far more often than visitors who arrive from a search engine or a Facebook referral.

“… For news outlets operating under the traditional model of building a loyal, perhaps paying audience, obtaining referrals so that users think of the outlet as the first place to turn is critical.”

This doesn’t suggest to me that all the time newsrooms spend now trying to engage audiences on Facebook, Twitter or other social sites is wasted or even that it should be cut back. It puts your news in front of audiences, including some people who are not regular readers or viewers. That exposure may be critical in building your brand in the minds of that portion of the audience.

That makes it up to you to be sure that what you have lured them to is news they find worthwhile enough that they come back on their own.

And that has always been the name of the game for survival in news.

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