Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Beauty is function expressed as form

I think this is simply beautiful. Remember, though, that I'm a guy who has watched a movie about a typeface more than once.

Click image to expand. Thanks, Matt, for the pointer.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Media futures: where's the critical thinking?

I sat down last night to annotate my objections to a rather superficial recent post in which marketing guru Seth Godin detailed his complaints and recommendations for how the New York Times should be operating online.

Not to pick on Godin (well, okay, not just on Godin), I was upset because it’s so common to find similar pieces shot through with inaccuracies, casual reasoning and ignorance. Godin offers up at least a half-dozen major flaws in something like 25 paragraphs – not just things I disagree with (there are way more than a half dozen of those) but facts and assertions that are either wrong or so ill-informed that they just don’t make sense. It pisses me off when people critique and dismiss institutions like the Times on the basis of such flaky reasoning, and it happens all the time.

Before I got warmed up to replay that this morning, I happened across another tours d’horizon about journalism that provides a splendid contrast: Jeff Jarvis’ new post outlining scenarios covering everything from revenues to collaborations. As is often the case, I find things to disagree with in his analysis, too, but there’s a big difference: how well reasoned and well argued Jarvis’ ideas are by comparison. His post is a solid platform that will support the argument it invites, not some off-the-cuff meandering.

I’ll try to give Jeff’s observations the thoughtful reaction they deserve over the next few days. As always, his points range from deep insights that will help define the future of our business – “Do what you do best, and link to the rest,” and “news will find new forms, past the article,” – to other assertions I find faddish and shallow. But it’s all worthy of debate.

Let me get the Godin burr out from under my saddle first. I reacted late yesterday in a series of Tweets that forced me to work within 140 characters; I need to stretch out just a little here.

  • I got mad in the third paragraph, when he described newspapers as “artifacts of a different age, one that today's consumer doesn't care a whit about.” He was talking about the physical presentation of newspapers (I think) but the point he seems to miss is that half of all the adults in the country use a newspaper every day. That’s a little more than a whit, Seth.
  • Later he asserts that “it's possible for a single individual with a Typepad account to reach more people than almost any newspaper in the country can.” Well, it’s possible, I guess. But nobody does. Even hugely popular sites like the Drudge Report or reach far fewer people than the total audience of the New York Times. (In Drudge’s case, of course, his site is entirely comprised of links, almost always to mainstream media sites – hardly a repudiation of the media model).
  • Godin graciously allows that some Times commetary has clout, saying, “Sure, Tom Friedman and a handful of other columnists have a large reach and influence. But why doesn't the Times have 50 columnists? 500?” Well, because 500 columnists would get lost in the mess, Seth. Organizations like the Times filter and verify and authenticate. We pay them to help us sort out the best 25 columnists from the 475 others we’d never have time to read. (Surely Seth knows more than I about brand dilution).
  • He notes disapprovingly that “Oprah is able to sell ten times as many copies of a book than (sic) the New York Times can.” Well, duh. Oprah is actively promoting and advocating for her books; the Times, thankfully, is trying to present honest, independent reviews – hardly the same mission. I want the Times to inform me, not sell me books.
  • He says the Times has advantages because “New York is an efficient place to be a newspaper. Lots of people, lots of advertisers, lots of spending ...” apparently unaware that local advertising (or even readership) is a small part of the paper’s success.
  • And so on. Really, on and on.

As an editor, the skill I look for first in journalists is critical thinking. While you’re writing, do you ask yourself “How do we know that?” or “Does this make sense, really?” Alongside basic honesty and curiosity, that’s a fundamental, baseline requirement for producing value-added journalism.

I’m usually reluctant to wander out into the blogoswamp like this because it’s so easy to get bogged down in what Jarvis characterizes as a “snarkoff.” That’s certainly not my intention. I don’t know Seth Godin but I respect his expertise and, generally, his point of view. I’m not being reflexively defensive (am I?) and certainly none of this is personal. I’m not saying he’s dumb or careless – just that I found this piece poorly constructed.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Curate. Filter. Help people manage information

The future of journalism, we've learned, is hidden somewhere down a dark and winding road illuminated only by the failing light of autumn. For all the declarations and proclamations, I don't believe we've found it yet.

But Matt Thompson is definitely onto something. His blog is a window on his year-long study of the new landscape for news. This week, in the midst of a broader discussion about election coverage, he explores a notion I am sure is very close to the center of the debate: curation and filtering.

After arguing that coverage of the recent presidential contest was the best ever, he wonders why that didn't necessarily translate into better informed citizens:

I’m a politics junkie who’s willing to devote untold hours to the task of tailoring my coverage to suit my information needs. For someone like me, the diversity and breadth of information on the Web is perfect. But what about all those folks who don’t have the time or the inclination to cull through 150+ blogs, numerous news sites, forum postings, status updates, etc.? Who’s editing that infostream for them? Who’s pulling these nuggets together, or pointing out where to look?

As far as I can tell, no one. The task of distilling this ocean of data continues to fall to the individual.2

If this year’s election coverage was truly the best ever, but we are not the best-informed we’ve ever been, that suggests a different avenue of inquiry for those concerned about the function of journalism in a democracy. Most conversations today continue to revolve around how we support journalism as the traditional infrastructure for news crumbles. My hunch is we’re slighting a conversation that might be just as significant — not how we support journalism, but how we make it more effective.

Every effort I've seen employ qualitative aggregation (my favorite is the Alaska Newsreader at ADN) has been a success, especially popular with readers. Increasingly, refining our ability to help people manage information is going to be as important as supplying information to them.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

10 useful observations

Scott Karp of Publish2 has some characteristically insightful observations about web video in a new post at the Publishing 2.0 blog. I recommend the whole thing, and am particularly taken with this point he makes:

Six years after Google perfected search advertising, there has been no innovation in online advertising that even comes close to the same scale.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Iconic images from newspapers

Originally uploaded by krstnb
Yes, the media landscape is changing. But it hasn't all changed yet, as the interest and demand for printed newspapers chronicling this historic election has demonstrated. You all know what the demand was like at your paper; here's a video made from front pages around the nation that also underscores that point.