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A few weeks ago, an article in The Atlantic by Daniel D. Snyder examined the clash between being a superhero with a secret identity and the ethics of journalism, namely being open and honest about who you are and how you got the details for your stories and photos.

It reminded me in a tangential way of a short story I wrote a few years ago after seeing “Superman Returns.” In that movie, despite being set in the modern world, the Daily Planet’s newsroom seemed culturally excavated from the 1950s — there were big, flat TVs and everyone had a computer, but it was as though the Internet didn’t exist. Reporters wrote. Photographers shot still photos. No one worried about minute-to-minute deadlines. And the more those thoughts stewed inside of me, I came to the conclusion that no superhero would find it possible nowadays to hold down a job as a journalist, which led to this story …

No Place for Heroes

As I left the news building for the last time, the breeze fluttered through cards in the Rolodex atop the box I carried. The old Rolodex had been with me since I started, filled with contacts made over more than two decades. It used to be every reporter had one, but over time you saw fewer of them around the room. Now it’s almost as much a relic as the lead spike sitting in the bottom of the box with my other things. No one has actually “spiked” a story since the day the last typewriter left the newsroom, but Ed, one of the old copy editors, couldn’t bear to take it off his desk, and when he retired a couple of years ago he handed it to me as a parting gift. Maybe I should have handed it off myself when they told me to clear out my desk, but as I packed the box, it was as though memories were piled deep on that spike, so I picked it up and placed it on the box to carry home.

News has been my life. Well, at least my work as a newsman made me feel a part of humanity in a way that nothing else did. There was electricity to working a story. It made me feel alive, charged. Not as charged as flying out and being in the action itself, actually catching the robbers or putting out the burning skyscraper, but being a reporter on the scene was always the next best thing, and there were plenty of times I could tell the trouble wasn’t so bad and the police or fire department could handle it while I took notes and shot bull with the other reporters.

Now, here I was, laid off, downsized, holding a box with a Rolodex, some personal files, cubicle knickknacks and mementos. A stuffed Cartman doll. A few photographs. A signed cartoon from the editorial cartoonist, who had been laid off a few years ago. A copy of the first A1 story I was part of, about a corrupt senator. A fragment of the rocket that narrowly missed hitting the city, last year’s biggest story. A Mason jar of river water, first captured and sealed up for an environmental story 17 years ago that became both mysteriously browner every year and also somehow now was a little more than half its original volume; a newsroom legend, and now it sat here, in my box, out in the sun for the first time in 17 years.

I just stood there by the car, looking down at the box. I hadn’t been unemployed since that first time I arrived in the city. Once, when unemployment rates were high, a man I interviewed told me how he remembered every detail about the moment he was fired – the ticking second hand of his boss’s clock, which snagged a half-beat near the 9 every time; the smell of cigarettes that clung to his boss’s shirt; the way his boss looked almost afraid of him. I understood him now in a way I didn’t before. Though truly what I think I will remember most is the powerlessness. I had never felt that before. I saw the end coming, as I had countless times before outside that building, but this time, sitting in that chair in human resources, there was absolutely nothing I could do about it.

About two dozen of us were let go today. Some simply left everything behind. Most, like me, gathered their things and walked out holding a box and trying to keep a brave face. A few I had seen leave were angry. Michael, for instance, strode out muttering loudly, punctuating everything with curses as his wiry, brown hair bounced around him. When he reached the sidewalk, he turned and drop-kicked his box at the building, then turned back and kept walking to the parking lot.

Walking toward my car, I passed Betty loading her box into her car. She looked at me and paused just a moment. “Early retirement,” she said, shaking her head. “I guess I’m lucky for once that I’m old.”

“Old” was the common denominator in the layoffs. Not old age. “Old” as in “old ways.”

Betty’s work habits had been the same for 37 years. She was careful, thorough and conscientious. That used to be enough to make her a model around the newsroom. But it wasn’t enough anymore. She refused repeated requests from the editors to participate in the newsroom’s expanding number of webcasts. She insisted on holding on to her stories until the absolute final deadline, polishing the words, and didn’t care about getting the story out early enough for the social media team to link to it before Facebook traffic peaked. She never got the hang or the habit of posting her stories to the website herself. She wouldn’t use a digital audio recorder. She never even included Web links – an editor looked them up instead – and she gently scolded colleagues who used “Google” as a verb.

Like all journalists, I had recognized the business was changing. More and more, reporters kept in constant contact with the newsroom and filed updates throughout the day, just a paragraph or two by email or cellphone or even text message. A reporter on a major breaking story in a city as big as this one often had to take a few minutes for at least a phone interview for use on the Web and TV.

All of this was exactly why I found my possessions in a box. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to change with the times or didn’t know how to do all those things. I just couldn’t. You can rescue a crashing airliner and later write about how it was saved, but you can’t interrupt the rescue to post a live update. Even once it’s on the ground, you can’t just whip out your phone and write a bulletin. The marauding alien bent on destruction won’t simply pause for a couple minutes just because you need to step aside to call the newsroom with the latest on which buildings have been seriously damaged and where traffic is blocked by debris.

Back when I started with the paper, you had a deadline. One. The job was easy. Whether I was in uniform part of the day or always playing the reporter, all I had to do at the end was write everything I knew was true and turn it in before Perry blew his top. I could type so fast I’d break the keyboard. But even if you’re fast enough to dodge a bullet, you can’t be in two places at once.

The company began offering multimedia training a year ago, and I signed up. But something always came up. Once I was headed for a session on recording and editing video for the Web, but a man in Chicago had set a bomb protected by lasers, so I had to skip it. Once I was in a session, but then a meteor was about to wipe out Fiji, so I pretended to be sick and excused myself early. Other times I showed up late.

Perry called me and several other reporters into his office a few months ago to preach to us about the “new media universe.” Afterward, he grabbed me by the elbow while everyone else walked out. “Jesus, Kent,” he said, “the whole world could be yours if you’d just reach out and take it. What are you thinking?”

That rolled around my head a few times as I stood outside my car, looking down into my box. I had heard it before, but not quite like that. I opened the back door of the car and slid the box onto the seat.

Out of the corner of my eye I thought I saw someone coming, then I turned and realized it was my reflection in the window of a van parked beside me. For a moment, the figure I thought I saw looked frail, slumped. I straightened my shoulders.

Looking up at the building again, I saw Perry come out on his way to lunch.

I hope a meteor lands on your house, buddy, I thought. See if I lift a finger to stop it.

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Yesterday I mentioned that I stopped taking the local paper in mid-November, and I said that “if the paper has produced anything important in the past six weeks, it was like a tree falling in the woods with no one nearby to hear it — which is a subject for another post.” This is that post.

I do not watch local TV news. I listen to NPR each morning, and I’m on Twitter and Facebook pretty much daily, which both point me to news from a number of outlets. Earlier this month it occurred to me that aside from one political columnist who is on the public-radio station each Friday and a columnist with whom I’m Facebook friends, not a whiff of the newspaper’s content had managed to reach me. It reminded me that there has long been discussion in the newspaper business that although the industry relies on advertising revenue, newspapers are pretty bad about advertising themselves.

The main ways that many newspapers publicize what’s in the paper each day and what big stories are coming in the days ahead are all within the newspaper itself – house ads, teasers, promos. In other words, the newspaper targets people who already are looking at the newspaper. People who do not see the newspaper, no matter the reason, will never see those efforts. This would be like a TV station running its ads and promos for its news show only during the news show.

An editor told me just last year that no one had yet explained to him what the newspaper gained from being active on Facebook and Twitter. He felt that being active made those social media platforms better and built their customer base but did nothing for the newspaper other than siphon off staff time that perhaps would be better spent improving the paper. I tried to connect these dots at that time, but I don’t think I did it well. This might be clearer: There are many people in your community who do not subscribe, but almost all of them might be interested in some specific thing the newspaper does and would come for it – if only they knew it existed. Because of the growing reach of social media, you stand a chance of reaching those people – if only you are active and engaged, which teaches you how to tailor your posts and what people are likely to share.

It’s true that a tree that falls in the forest creates a thunderous crash, but if no one is anywhere nearby, that tree could rot away before anyone knows it fell. A good news staff creates some pretty good rumbles now and then, but an awful lot of people are out of earshot of the forest. You have to find a way to amplify the noise to reach them.

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Since for most of the past 12 years, a large part of my job has been trying to help journalists – especially in small newsrooms – make sense of the changes and new tools sweeping the industry, I’m going to take a crack at interpreting the imposing study Post-Industrial Journalism: Adapting to the Present, from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism.

So, do you need to read it? If you work in either the content (news) or business end of a journalism organization, you should read it. But realistically, it’s huge, so there’s a chance either you’ll start and won’t get far, then later think of it but won’t go get your computer or tablet to do it, and if you print it out it will go into your stack of magazines and you won’t touch it until spring, when you’ll put it in the recycling bin. So let’s prioritize: Pressed for time, what do you need to read? The whole thing is a tough slog for one sitting, both for its length and its academic style, and there are pretty good summaries out there, notably from Jeff Sonderman at Poynter, Josh Benton at Nieman Journalism Lab and Matthew Ingram at GigaOm.

Start with those summaries and then seek out the parts that in the summaries sound most interesting. My take:

The Introduction: If you are one of the people who think the industry’s whole problem is putting information online without charging for it, you seriously need to read the introduction because you have an incomplete understanding of the business end, its history and what’s happening to it.

Part 1: If you are unsure what exactly is changing about the role of a journalist, this helps fill in the blanks, though to me it seems overly focused on what I would call large newsrooms (Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Denver, Seattle and New Orleans, for instance), not the size of newsrooms that predominate across the country. However, to the extent that these larger newsrooms have resources and an ability to experiment that small newsrooms do not, it is important to be aware of what they should or may be trying to do because changing technology may make it easier for you later.

Part 2: If you have a big-picture job – an executive, an academic, a journalism think-tanker, writer for CJR, AJR, Nieman Lab, etc. – this section gets into some useful philosophical space about institutional change. It’s also helpful if you are trying unsuccessfully to manage up in a company that is resisting change; you’ll understand better why you can’t get the urgency of your message conveyed higher up. It is not as much immediate help to the typical ground-level journalist except for further context about the changing face of the industry.

Part 3: This attempts to use some recent examples to flesh out the larger picture of how the emerging models of journalism may work. It builds on part 1, so if you still aren’t sure what the changes there mean for you, read this part.

Conclusion: This takes up where the introduction left off, going from how things have already changed to trying to extrapolate into the future. If you found the introduction useful, read this.

To me, the essential message for journalists can be summed up with these passages:

Even as the old monopolies vanish, there is an increase in the amount of journalistically useful work to be achieved through collaboration with amateurs, crowds and machines.

… Figuring out the most useful role a journalist can play in the new news ecosystem requires asking two related questions: What can new entrants in the news ecosystem now do better than journalists could do under the old model, and what roles can journalists themselves best play?

… For many newsworthy events, it’s increasingly more likely that the first available description will be produced by a connected citizen than by a professional journalist. For some kinds of events – natural disasters, mass murders – the transition is complete.

In that sense, as with so many of the changes in journalism, the erosion of the old way of doing things is accompanied by an increase in new opportunities and new needs for journalistically important work. The journalist has not been replaced but displaced, moved higher up the editorial chain from the production of initial observations to a role that emphasizes verification and interpretation, bringing sense to the streams of text, audio, photos and video produced by the public.

… The availability of resources like citizen photos doesn’t obviate the need for journalism or journalists, but it does change the job from being the source of the initial capture of an image or observation to being the person who can make relevant requests, and then filter and contextualize the results.

… People follow people, and therefore just by ‘being human’ journalists create a more powerful role for themselves. It is a device personality-driven television has long relied on, but only in a one-way medium. In a networked world, the ability to inform, entertain and respond to feedback intelligently is a journalistic skill.

In September of last year, I saw what I think is a perfect example of what the above describes, and it came from a small newsroom, the News & Messenger and insidenova.com in Prince William County, Va. After severe flooding in the region, people found themselves without a clearinghouse for information and discussion — but they gravitated to the newspaper’s Facebook page and were filling it with just such information. So, seeing that, online editor Kari Pugh created a flood information clearinghouse page on Facebook (it’s still there). In just a few hours it had garnered about 250 “likes,” and the community discussion on it became mostly self-sustaining.

Though the newspaper’s circulation is something around 10,000, on Facebook it has more than 26,000 likes. And its users have remained an active community. Key to the online community’s activity has been the involvement of the journalists. You can see it in the back-and-forth between them and people in the community.

How the news staff reacted to the flooding and the community’s desire to share information is something at least close to, though less sophisticated than, what Jeff Jarvis said this week he wishes he saw in the New York area in the wake of Sandy. It’s not a complex skillset, it just takes a shift in the way you see what the role of journalists is in this world of mobile devices that let every person report on what’s happening right then and there.

The Tow Center report is massive, and the future it paints may feel at times overwhelming. But you don’t have to build that future in one day, just as video games didn’t get from Pong to “World of Warcraft” overnight. (BTW, Happy 40th birthday, Pong.) What’s one step you can take today? Engaging your “readers” is an easy one, and, as it did with the News & Messenger, it may point you to the next step.

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Not a journalist, believe it or not
I’m constantly amazed at the serendipity of the information I run across, two or three or four things in a day or two that seem related to a particular line of thinking I had. Here, thanks to Matthew Ingram of GigaOm, is a natural Part Two to my previous post.

Given my argument there, that advertising in newspapers is continuing a downward slide that paywalls, or anything else tried so far, will not stop, what then should journalists do? We’re in the content business, not the revenue business, so our ability to affect the bottom line is limited. But we can affect how our readers (aka, customers) think of our business, as a post at the confused of calcutta blog instructs. In fact, in a future ever more reliant on subscription revenue, which is dictated by declining advertising revenue, it is not optional. We MUST treat readers more as customers, engage them individually, draw them into conversation. If we see our role purely as SENDING OUT information, we doom ourselves.

From the blog:

“Ask yourself ‘Will the customer get a better product or service as a result of what I’m doing?’ Ask yourself ‘Will the customer return and trade with me again?’ Ask yourself ‘Will the customer recommend me to others?’ And again and again, ask yourself:

“Will this help build trust between the customer and the company?”

Journalists often don’t like thinking in terms of “customers.” It feels shady. Those of us who came to the work because we thought of ourselves first and foremost as writers think of our work as a product of our soul, so thinking of it as business is like we’re selling our bodies. That’s a conceit, and a luxury we can’t afford. If you want to be a starving artist, there is no end to the ways you can avoid helping any business make money.

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A quick note: Chris Dixon of Hunch has posted the full text of a memo sent by BuzzFeed’s CEO, Jonah Peretti, to his staff listing what he sees as the strengths of BuzzFeed. The site has plenty of detractors – not a few of whom added their comments and criticism onto Dixon’s post. It is not overall a site that the typical news organization could or should try to duplicate on a local level. But there is much in the memo that resonated with me as philosophically sound approaches to media, at all levels, in the digital age, and just because a whole thing is not something to try to duplicate doesn’t mean there aren’t parts and practices you could learn from.

How I would summarize the parts of the memo that resonate with me: The goal is building something sustainable in the long term. To do this, you pursue practices that build your credibility with your audience. Driving traffic is nice, but if it undermines what you want your audience to associate with you, it’s not sustainable.

What BuzzFeed wants its audience to associate with it is “the most talked about items” on the Web. You can argue about the choices the site’s staff make in that pursuit, but being in the thick of the buzz of your community has to be one of your main goals. If you aren’t in it, you’re on the periphery of everyone’s attention, and it’s hard to build a sustainable business out there.

Highlights of what stood out to me:

“When you compare web publishing today with what Hearst and Conde Nast built in the last century, it is clear that online publishing has a long long way to go. As sites like Facebook and Twitter mature, the moment is right to build a defining company for a world where content is distributed through sharing and social media instead of transitional print and broadcast channels.”

“We care about the experience of people who read BuzzFeed and we don’t try to trick them for short term gain. This approach is surprisingly rare.

“How does this matter in practice? First of all, we don’t publish slideshows. Instead we publish scrollable lists so readers don’t have to click a million times and can easily scroll through a post. The primary reason to publish slideshows, as far as I can tell, is to juice page views and banner ad impressions. Slideshows are super annoying and lists are awesome so we do lists!

“For the same reason, we don’t show crappy display ads and we make all our revenue from social advertising that users love and share. We never launched one of those ‘frictionless sharing’ apps on Facebook that automatically shares the stories you click because those apps are super annoying. We don’t post deceptive, manipulative headlines that trick people into reading a story. We don’t focus on SEO or gaming search engines or filling our pages with millions of keywords and tags that only a robot will read. We avoid anything that is bad for our readers and can only be justified by short term business interests.

“Instead, we focus on publishing content our readers love so much they think it is worth sharing. It sounds simple but it’s hard to do and it is the metric that aligns our company with our readers. In the long term is good for readers and good for business.”

“[D]oing something hard can actually be an advantage for a business. It means that there are not that many other people trying to do what we do or capable of doing what we do. … There are lots and lots of things that random, unpaid web users suck at doing. In particular, the best reporting and the most entertaining media is usually created by people who do it for a living – that means us!”

“BuzzFeed is unique in that we are equally obsessed with 1) entertaining content, 2) substantive content, and 3) social advertising. The teams that focus on each of these areas are equally important which is a key part of our success. We want our cute animals, humor, and animated gifs to be the best of their kind on the web – they aren’t just a cheap way to generate traffic. We want our reporters to have the best scoops, the smartest analysis, and the most talked about items – they aren’t just a hood ornament to lend the site prestige. And we want our advertising to be innovative, inspiring, and lead the shift to social – and not just be a necessary evil that pays the bills.

“Some companies only care about journalism and as a result the people focusing on lighter editorial fare or advertising are second class citizens. Some companies only care about traffic which creates an environment where good journalists can’t take the time to talk to sources or do substantive work. Some companies only care about ad revenue and actually force editors to create new sections or content just because brands want to sponsor it.”

7/26/12 UPDATE: The Nieman Journalism Lab has a related article on BuzzFeed’s experiments to reinvent the wire story for the social Web. I think the key thing for others, especially local media organizations, to keep an eye on is the principal of looking for the best way to convey the information at hand, not just defaulting to a traditional, paragraph-based story:

“[O]n any given day news on the site doesn’t have to take a predictable shape. It could be a collection of photos, a dominant photo with links, or a collection of quotes.

“ ‘It’s something that does the work of a wire story and informs people about this very important piece of international news in this way that was authentically in the language of the social web,’ Smith said.

“While Smith wants BuzzFeed to tinker with wire stories and try new ideas, that doesn’t mean the site won’t be producing more traditional looking stories. He told me one reason he wants his reporters to think smarter about wire stories is to free them up for original reporting.”

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I hesitate a little to dive into attempting an answer to the question from Steve Buttry and Mandy Jenkins, “How should a news curation team work?” As the comments on many of Steve’s posts the past couple of years make clear, use of terms such as “curation” invites debates that often boil down to semantics and people talking past each other, even agreeing at times on general practices but disagreeing at the edges like alien cultures trying for but not quite achieving mutual understanding. But I’ll wade in anyway.

The idea of news curation has always seemed to me just the continuing evolution of what has long been standard operating procedure. In the 1990s at the Winston-Salem (N.C.) Journal during the summer, when a hurricane approached we usually had staff at the coast, and unless the storm was hitting point-blank where our staff was, the state editor (me) would blend staff reports with elements of several other wire stories, adding attribution where needed. As technology advanced and we all had access via the Internet to more news sources, we could blend in elements from more places. For instance, during the 2004 Democratic and Republican conventions, in addition to editing stories from Media General’s Washington reporters I supplied a one-column at-a-glance collection of highlights, a mix of my own reporting (whatever eye-catching protests were going on around the convention site), a detail or two lifted from advance copies of the night’s big speeches, and elements from wire services and the National Journal.

Technology now, though, opens a vastly wider world, including live conversations. Limiting your news gathering to a few wire services or mainstream news sources may be easier, but it leaves out a huge amount of perspective. All of this information of course is available for people to find on their own, but isn’t it a logical extension of the role of a journalist to help people sort through it? It’s the role of a journalist to say, “I can help you make sense of all this and point you to the best places for more.” Automatic tools can only do so much – Tweetdeck, Twitter search, Google alerts and the like can bring you a river of information, but it can be a torrent, or a swirling jumble. Human intervention to sort it, done right, is valuable.

That said, when I get to the specific questions Steve and Mandy ask – “How should we …?” – I find myself reminded of and answering instead a different question, one I saw recently on Twitter (I thought it was raised by Stijn Debrouwere, but at the moment I can’t find it – if someone out there has curated it already, please point me to it), which essentially was this: Why after years of people talking about all these ideas for remaking news is it taking so long for anyone to do much with them? As much as anything, I think it’s just the daily crush – you run around like crazy trying to keep up with everything that you already have to do, and you want to try these new things people are talking about … but you look up and suddenly you have already been at your desk nine hours or more. “Maybe this weekend,” you think. Of all the newsrooms I have visited over the past 11 years, there were only a few where suggestions for new things to try online met with resistance to the idea itself; usually it was more a matter of “where will the time come from?” There are exceptions – where the boss makes it a priority to try new things, which means being willing to drop some of the old, new things get done.

Most of the time, you learn things that are truly new by doing them, and something else then occurs to you, so you try it, and on and on, not because someone showed or told you what you should do – if there were a great mass of people out there who knew all about doing this thing, it wouldn’t be new, would it? So assuming you are among the vast majority of journalists or soon-to-be-journalists who have no actual experience curating the news on the fly, and you have no concrete answers to the “How” questions, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. I believe that at some point, good curation will be a key ingredient of any successful news organization. So go ahead, answer them.

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Niagara Falls
This morning brought me a good composite illustration of the evolving media landscape, at least a snapshot of it, that is so challenging for traditional news organizations to adapt to.

On Facebook, a journalist friend vented about local sites’ aggregation practices, which several times a day summarize and link to news her staff has reported: “It’s my reporters doing all the hard work! Am I looking at this wrong?” It’s a type of heartburn, but keep it in perspective: It has been going on since the first time a radio talker read the news on the air.

Nieman Journalism Lab reports on how NPR is trying a new strategy for rolling out new shows, aiming to simplify the process and lower the cost while also making use of social media. My first thought was it just shows that NPR, perhaps because it relies on grants and donations rather than advertising, has been somewhat insulated from the economic issues confronting print and commercial broadcast news organizations because it has been several years since I became used to hearing the idea of “fail fast, fail cheap.” But my second thought was that it illustrates one problem for traditional media: We don’t like to do anything just one time. I don’t mean stories, I mean columns, features, shows, sections, segments. We’re used to the idea of stand-alone news and features, but anything that we would do more than once, but not at least weekly and not for the foreseeable future, is a giant barrier. Any traditional news source is tremendously structured and formatted. The idea of predictability is roundly accepted as a plus, that people want to know what they are getting before they even try. Try telling a newspaper editor (not to pick on newspapers; this is just an example) that certain stories should run in larger type. At best, he’ll convene a committee to discuss it for a few weeks, and if they tend to agree they’ll run off test copies on the press and discuss it some more. So in that sense, even though many organizations have been preaching “fail fast, fail cheap,” almost no one really practices it. “Fail fast, fail cheap” means you go ahead and do it, and if it clear quickly that it isn’t working, you stop.

Finally, John Robinson explains what I would call the cognitive dissonance in a Pew study of news habits, which reported that “31 percent of people ages 18-24 get no news on an average day, and 22 percent of 30-34-year-olds get none either.” The nut of John’s argument:

“The 18-24 year-old age group is the ‘if-the-news-is-that-important-it-will-find-me’ generation. Those folks are on Facebook. They get news every time they log on. Their friends tell them the news in their worlds. (And for you not on Facebook, don’t think that they talk about what they had for breakfast.) This generation doesn’t immediately call it news the way we old-timers do, but when they watch, say, the president slow jammin’ the news, it is news. When they see the ‘Trending Articles’ foisted upon them by Facebook, that’s news. (Well, some of them are.)

“But if you ask them where they get news, the answer is Google and Yahoo and Jon Stewart and Huffington Post. It’s rarely actual, traditional, mainstream news organizations. The news may originate there, but they don’t identify those as the sources. And that’s one of the problems with using the generic term ‘news’ in a survey.”

And that right there is the larger issue: Not just young people but almost everyone now picks up news everywhere throughout the day. It used to be far more structured; the morning paper (or, before that, the afternoon paper), the evening TV news and whatever people talked about during the day that was passed on by word of mouth or that was big enough to warrant a news break on TV or radio in the middle of the day. It’s all atomized now, or it’s increasingly so.

A further illustration: Although I started my day with the morning paper, all of the above was stimulated by things I found online — starting with Facebook.

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