Media Comment & Crimes

Tsunamis and U.S. media

<![CDATA[One of my most vivid early memories is the time my bed chased me out of my bedroom, crashing into the door frame behind me as I stumbled down the hall toward my parents' room. The floor was shaking and I couldn't keep from lurching into the wall. That was March 27, 1964 and part of the Pacific plate had slipped, causing the earthquake that yesterday’s Sumatra quake is being compared to (“the worst earthquake in 40 years). I was almost 1,500 miles from the epicenter of that quake and it is burned in my memory. Having lived through the Loma Prieta quake in San Francisco, too, these tectonic events are important benchmarks for me that tell a lot about the nature of media and story-telling.
Before all that, though, the tsunamis that devastated the coastlines of six countries are a terrible tragedy. Give generously to the Red Cross and other relief organizations.
What stood out for me as I watched the news after the quake and tsunami yesterday on U.S., British and Canadian television, was the U.S. media’s reliance on a few uninformative images.
For several hours after the waves struck Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Malaysia and Bangladesh, the lead news on U.S. media was a combination of the inevitable end-of-the-year retrospective reports and Reggie White’s sudden death at 43, certainly a tragic story, but by comparison to an event that would lead to the death of tens of thousands of people, pretty small stuff. Meanwhile, Canadian and British television was talking through what was known, sans pictures and relying on a few still images while describing the scope of the devastation in terms that made clear something of massive import had happened. It was serious coverage that commanded attention.
The story broke on U.S. media, taking the lead on most networks only when the first video images of people dying—a group of people being swept into the floodwaters from a walkway or retaining wall that was repeated ceaselessly—and then the story was covered poorly with a few minutes per hour repeated over the same images. The only thing that changed was the death toll, which kept rising.
Throughout the day it became clear how under-covered the Indian Ocean region really is, as the only U.S. news people on the ground seemed to be reporters or producers on vacation there rather than covering a beat. By contrast, the BBC, albeit the news organ of the former colonial power in the region, was all over the story doing a great job.
The U.S. media continues today to focus almost exclusively on images of people being swept away and waves striking the beaches, rather than the growing human crisis—disease and homelessness—that will likely not be covered at all once the initial shock of the event passes. Yet it is the global response to that massive human disaster that will ultimately define this event. We probably won’t see tht story, except in passing.
Americans are blind to much of the world. You can see it in the fact that even today as the morning news shows are relying on videophone connections to one or two newspeople in the region rather than bureaus able to cover the story effectively. Keep in mind that except for a few hundred yards of shoreline in most of the affected region (packed with people, both the poor and tourists) and in low-lying areas much wider areas, the infrastructures were not destroyed and any news organization with a sincere interest in covering it would not be crippled by the tsunamis.
The U.S. networks just aren’t there. They rely on stringers without real support to cover anything but the highlights of a disaster or regional news organizations that do not have the resources a CNN, CBS or ABC does.
Looking back at the Alaska quake, which didn’t kill even a single percentage point of the dead yesterday, but where destruction and death reached Hawaii and the coasts of Oregon and California, you can see how much media has changed. There are a few photographs available of the destruction, but little coverage. Yet, this is an event that happened in the United States.
When San Francisco was struck by a quake as the World Series began, every network went live for days. Living there, it was oppressive to watch the CNN feed from a rooftop downtown describing “fires in the Marina District” that we could see as a glow in the night sky. But the media didn’t blink and there are literally thousands of hours of coverage and tens of thousands of images. I remember being in shock from the coverage as much as the earthquake itself, finally tearing myself and my wife away when her father appeared at our front door three days later.
We are used to 24/7 coverage of spectacular murder trials or the round-the-clock coverage of a death like that of John F. Kennedy Jr. or Ronald Reagan. These events seem to be more important than the death of at least 24,000 people; based on the way the stories are covered Scott Peterson’s trial, which the networks covered non-stop in its final days, is immensely more important. We need to realize that when we program (in the scheduling sense) people’s attention that we are educating them about the world, telling them not to give much weight to a life in Chennai or Phuket (I wonder if this story would be getting the coverage it is if there hadn’t been a lot of western tourists present, mainly because they provide the networks with English-language accounts that are convenient to present on-air).
The morning shows (I watched CNN) drifted from top-of-the-hour coverage of the tsunamis to fluff pieces about the coolest Christmas gift and, again, end-of-the-year wrap-ups. The anchors segued between laughing about something trivial to their solemn faces intended to convey the gravity of the situation in the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal, only to get right back to laughing about the headaches endured by holiday travelers. What’s the point of the news? To make us happy or to inform us? On days like yesterday and today, the shortcomings of the institutional media are clear.
I wonder, though, how a civic journalism can be organized to respond to those shortcomings. We’ll see. Another encouraging development on that front came to my attention yesterday: Global Voices. Endless interviews with seismologists about the source of tsunamis and the apparently blameful question “Why don’t they have a warning system?” certainly isn’t the answer. An organized effort to cover the recovery from this disaster with locals working out of Internet cafes would be a great start toward hearing the stories of the people who will live with the ongoing consequences, as well as a collective blog by tourists who were there but have gone home and struggle with the memories, would be grand workshops that help turn this disaster into a triumph.
Perhaps the purpose of the civic media is precisely that, to transform observation into participation.
MORE: At about 8:15 AM this morning, the quake and tsunami became “Tsunami Disaster” on CNN. No reference to locale, a sort of sanitized subject matter that allows a lot of “can it happen here” coverage. One anchor continues to refer to the tsunami as “the storm.”
The Tsunamihelp blog is an community blogging effort of Dina Mehta and others in the region to address coverage and aide efforts.
BoingBoing has a good summary of blogs by people in the region (natives and visitors)—the self-reported coverage is getting much deeper. People with cameras are contributing thousands of their own pictures of the disaster.]]>

Business & Technology Media Comment & Crimes

Nick Denton's leading role

<![CDATA[It's great that Nick Denton of Gawker Media is featured by the Wall Street Journal as one of the 15 people to watch in 2005, because of his burgeoning blog publishing business.
But, here’s a hint for the Journal: The media evolution did not begin nor will it end in New York.
I also hope that Nick doesn’t suffer the disfigurement of his fellow honoree, Viktor Yushchenko. If Jason invites you out for dinner, Nick, don’t eat the soup….]]>

Business & Technology Media Comment & Crimes

Orb Networks: Sounds like the Apple Newton of 2005

<![CDATA[I know we're all living in a broadband age, but the claims of Orb Networks sound highly improbable to me. Tony Perkins of Always On is raving about this “personal media portal” that just launched a $79.99-a-year service that promises to deliver the media stored on your home PC (Windows only) to any compatible (Windows, Windows CE and Windows SmartPhone) device over any network. It sounds really impressive, but there’s the catch. Seeing is believing in the media market and, well, I’ll get to that.
The secret sauce here is a combination of a server-in-the-sky that mirrors the home PC data and retransmits it to a target device and a neat sounding term for optimizing streams, transcoding. Transcoding is typically defined as conversion of content from one encoding scheme to another; in PC architecture, Transmeta’s Crusoe chips transcode Intel-specific code into a Crusoe’s assembly language and back again to operate a Windows OS on their non-Intel/AMD architecture.
But because the Orb system is so heavily reliant on Windows Media Player and DRM, it is certain that the encoding format is not changing much, rather the stream is probably being optimized to the detected network througput and screen geometry. For example, if I know that I am going to deliver a stream to device with a 2-inch by 2-inch screen over a 56Kbps network connection, I can optimize the image by removing a lot of detail from the background and probably get a pretty clean image over the network.
Can I deliver 30 frames per second, which is what television offers? Doubtful. Now, if I know I have a Wi-Fi connection to a mobile device then I can probably do pretty well. But over a typical GPRS connection, no way. I have a Sprint PCS phone, the Samsung MM-A700, which promises TV quality clips and it is, well, for shit. It takes a long time to buffer and looks like a sea of interference punctuated by dim images of human form.
Orb also claims to allow users to watch live television streamed from their home PC and that is simply an incredible proposition. If it is true, meaning that the picture is consistently clear and better than 24 frames per second, it is miraculous, but I suspect this is a demo that will not live up to the promise when subjected to real-world conditions. (Also, which is the right channel to sell this? Computer retail it ain’t. Wireless providers? Doubtful? Direct and through television? Expensive for a company with around $4 million in capital.)
This transcoding technology is not a unique idea, but it is the first time it is being applied to the personal content delivery problem. It also opens a significant business opportunity with the media industry. Imagine that transcoding features are linked to DRM to prevent files that do not carry a particular permission from being delivered or at the best quality. This would be a compelling solution for media companies.
And if you have a secure connection to people and know what they like in media you can sell them other stuff. So explained the founders of Orb to Tony Perkins:

“For example, your PC may see that you like Beyonce because you play her music all the time, so your PC may automatically request Beyonce related stuff (tickets to concerts, screensavers, etc.) via the Orb Network and serve it up to you,” Dr. Julia says.

This is remarkably similar to the reasoning the compelled Time Warner’s interactive television trial in Orlando, Fla. When I attended the launch in 1995, they were talking about selling lots of stuff in conjunction with programming, like Sienfeld baseball jackets and caps with the logos of favorite bands. I wasn’t convinced this was a rational business then and I am not now. Rather, they need to open the channel to programming that provides deep information about a product or simply give away premium content, like Major League Baseball in order to generate commerce opportunities, like ticket and jersey sales, if that’s where Orb really wants to take this.
Orb’s not far off base on the potential for commerce, but it’s thinking too small. Why does television succeed? Because it provides entertainment, yes, but also a truckload of advertising (I am speaking of financial success, not about aesthetics or social value).
The system must work, though, for any of this to make sense. While network bandwidth has improved dramatically on wired and wireless networks, there are many layers of the connection between a PC running Orb and a mobile device accessing media on that PC. Virtually the whole of this network environment is out of the control of Orb. The company cannot make a quality of service guarantee, yet it will be the primary recipient of any blame for poor performance, even if it is the result of poor network performance.
Orb calls its system distributed computing, but since it relies on its own servers to act as an intermediary, this is not a distributed computing system and more a store-and-forward architecture. For instance, if you take a photo with your camera phone, it is uploaded to Orb’s servers, then downloaded to your computer at home. Not distributed.
Orb is many years too early to offer streaming video from a home server over any connection. It’s facing a launch that could be embarrassingly like that of the Apple Newton, which overpromised and under-delivered because processor and memory technology were not up to the challenge. Wireless networks, and some wired networks, are not able to deliver the throughput necessary to keep Orb’s elaborate promises.
Finally, the price seems problematic to me. how often does it occur to someone that they need a picture, song or video stored at home, one they didn’t carry along on their laptop or a portable digital music player? Orb needs to gain a customer base to turn up a media distribution channel and that requires consumers to fork over $9.99 a month or $79.99 a year, plus $3.99 a month or $29.99 a year for additional users. A family of four using Orb would spend $170 a year simply to access media stored on a single PC in their home.
How much will people really pay if the functionality is widely available from different providers or for free through an ISP? Perkins and Orb claim they are the only players in this market, but there are three or four more I know about that take different but functionally, from the user’s perspective, similar approaches to the problem of connection people and media.
The VPN functionality in Orb needs to be free if it is going to become a channel for content in the medium term; media companies will provide a share of revenue to a content distributor that protects their copyrights—they do it today with cable carriers, CD pressing and DRM companies, to name just a few examples—so there is hope for a non-subscription business model or, at least, a substantially less expensive service. If Orb can manage its server capacity and network costs, it could fly. But not with a starting price of $79.99 a year, because the typical person doesn’t currently want to access media, other than pictures, stored at home. And there are plenty of alternatives for carrying media that don’t cost anything or very little incrementally to device purchases people are already making, like iPods, Windows PDAs, Treos, Archos video jukeboxes and so forth.]]>

Business & Technology Media Comment & Crimes Social & Political

Person of the Year: So 1990

<![CDATA[For some reason people really get worked up over Time Magazine‘s annual person of the year selection. This year, the magazine selected George W. Bush for “sticking to his guns (literally and figuratively)….” Mainly, he was honored because he won the election, which may or may not be a great feat, though I’d argue that is the minimum requirement for political success and Bush hasn’t done much besides winning elections that merits notice. I generally agree with Katrina vanden Heuvel’s take that the choice was “shallow,” though I think the real mistake is to take this decision seriously.
The idea of a Person of the Year selected by a committee at a major media organization is worn out, not just the threadbare rationale for selecting President Bush. In recent years, Time has fallen back on groups, such as the American soldier and “the Whistleblowers,” rather than selecting an individual after the 1990s, the latter part of that decade dominated by technology-related honorees. Then the bubble burst and nerds got less interesting.
The notion of a definitive person of the year is harder and harder on the intellectual stomach, because the monolithic media entities that set the agendas of the 20th century don’t feel representative in an ocean of voices, from the hundreds of television networks, tens of thousands of publications and millions of Web sites and blogs. The real trick, though, was the successful inoculation of the public consciousness with the idea that Time has a sufficiently broad perspective to judge such things; at its root, the Person of the Year was just a way to turn the publication into a news source—it’s PR for the mag, not for the honoree. News organization becomes news story. Neat trick.
So, you get a whole slew of these stories at this time of the year, recognizing all sorts of things, like best gadget and fastest athlete or most doped athlete or hottest supermodel or supergroup…. Every one of these designed to get the publication a little press. I’ve created these things and they work, because it gets the publication covered, it’s easy to create and not very always information, because it’s just opinion.
Opinion does give people something to talk about and that’s the catch. In this cacophonous media environment, there’s no need for a decision by a small group, because the plurality of ideas floating around the mediasphere there’s no reason Time’s perspective should be treated specially. Yes, yes, they have a lot of good journalists, but they have no monopoly on insight. Picking George W. Bush as the person of the year for the second time in four years—both times because he won an election—only illustrates the short horizon at Time.
A scrape of the world’s Web pages would certainly produce more variety in candidates for any category of most significant/of the year and that alone is enough to get people talking. The insight offered by everyone makes a more interesting debate and would likely yield better or more representative choices or, even better, the realization that no choice is as important a statement as the arbitrary ones that we all debate.]]>

Business & Technology Media Comment & Crimes

Why Apple sues. A meditation.

<![CDATA[Why does Apple sue fans of its products when they speculate on what the company will do? The company has this nasty habit of biting the hand that feeds it positive buzz. There’s a pretty simple explanation as to why, but it doesn’t justify attacking the influencers who set the stage for a new product’s success.
Of course, I am an ardent fan of Apple design. Even when it is not perfect or far from perfect, it’s far ahead of the competition. But I know better than to ask an Apple employee to tell me what they are working on, because they would lose their job for telling me. The suit, filed on December 13 and revealed yesterday, is aimed at the “unidentified individual… [who] has recently misappropriated and disseminated confidential information.” A suit lets the company’s lawyers subpoena people to find out who leaked the information.
A lawsuit, too, also exposes which rumors are actual fact. There are always a swarm of rumors about what Apple will announce at an upcoming Macworld, so why actually acknowledge which ones hit the mark? Instead, Steve Jobs should waltz on stage and use the buzz to his advantage. Maybe he ought to point to the rumors as excitement about the product.
Steve’s thing, however, is to be the master showman, which he is very good at being. He wants to reveal magic to the world. It’s his gift and the way Apple protects that gift is a curse on the company, because no one wants to get sued for being excited.
Way back when, when I was at MacWEEK, our staff broke a lot of these stories. During the Sculley and Schindler regimes, leaks were an important part of the marketing process and Apple, when confronted with a legitimate fact about an upcoming product, didn’t sue, it started filling out the picture. When MacWEEKers found out something the company didn’t want the public to know, the company at least responded gracefully.
Jobs has resurrected a company that would have been dead years ago, but he should not abandon the forthrightness with which a company must deal with information in the marketplace. These lawsuits are the external emanation of Jobs’ famous temper, which he still applies liberally within the company to anyone who he thinks has done something stupid. Apple fans do the same thing, for instance over at the Cult of Mac blog hosted by Wired, where they corrected me about what the iTunes Rendezvous playlist publishing feature. However, the feature exists because iPods need to have a playlist feature, not because it is integral to iTunes, so I use shorthand to attribute getting laid to the iPod—if people weren’t carrying iPods around with them as a sort of soundtrack, the playlists would be unrepresentative of the user’s personality. It is the explicit link between daily routine and the iPod, as represented by the playlist, that makes the “just one vector” Tony Fadell and I were talking about as a social phenomenon possible. I also find it humorous to be described as a “Silicon Valley consultant,” since I live about 800 miles away as the crow flies.
See, all the Apple fanatics are perfectionists, even me, because I feel compelled to explain why the Cult of Mac posting is off base. It’s just the way all of us are. We’re all a little like Steve Jobs, über perfectionist.
Jobs wants a perfect show for Macworld when he should let the mystery of the rumors build momentum for his presenting what is true, actually separating fact from fantasy. That’s an act that doesn’t require the revelations about the company’s plans that a lawsuit brings.]]>

Business & Technology Media Comment & Crimes

David Strom and Doc on Marqui

<![CDATA[David Strom has a long and thoughtful piece about the Marqui sponsorship program. Doc adds his five cents on what needs to happen to take the buzz to a relationship level.
Just for the record, if I were being “paid to blog about Marqui” I would not be doing this. There’s a lot of misunderstanding about this program out there—it’s as though few of the critics read the contract (disclosure: I wrote the thing and Marqui’s lawyers added the stuff about the paid leads, which I have problems with and do not pursue with my blog)—but both David and Doc have read it and see the deal isn’t all the bad things alleged by some. That said, I don’t “blog about Marqui,” rather I treat it as a sponsorship and if that doesn’t work for the company, then they can take their business elsewhere and more power to them. That deal, which is the one most folks reacted negatively toward, would have been blatantly unethical; as it is now, the Marqui program stretches things in new directions, may even be unethical if the blogger chooses to treat their writing as an undisclosed marketing message, but it’s progress.
What I’d like to add to David and Doc’s comments, though, is that this is not a final form of what sponsorship deals will or should look like. It’s an experiment, a much needed one. It is an experiment for the bloggers and the company. Doc’s admonition to “purge the old mass market lingo” is correct, but it ignores the fact that this is hard to do for most companies. Marqui took a huge risk—$180,000 is a lot of money for a company at its stage of development—and this is an incremental step in the right direction. If we can preserve the basic principles in the Marqui contract as this process continues, I believe we’ll have accomplished something significant for the small publisher looking at blog technology as a tool for getting their own creative talent into the world with the hope of earning a reasonable return. Those principles are:

1.) Encourage transparency: The blogger is encouraged but not required to disclose that they receive the payment and to set apart Marqui-related messages with some visual tags. It’s pretty clear that someone who shills a product is going to be punished by readers, so disclosure is the best policy. Of course, Marqui also touts its relationships with bloggers on its own site, so the deal is on the record there, too. There’s no hiding in blogspace.

2.) Confidence: To be blunt, I put this language in to make both sides more comfortable. At the time, we were moving from “blogging about Marqui” to a wider definition of the relationship, and we also wanted bloggers to really think about what they were getting into. In reality, this language is probably overstated, because it reflects the same basic decision by a publisher to display advertising that is “good for the community” in their publication. Every publication has limits for what it will advertise and there are a few laws that restrict what may be advertised; Marqui wants feedback to be, at least, constructive, so the idea of confidence in the product was a critical compromise, but it’s a definition that can be handled differently by each blogger.

3.) Freedom to say anything: Marqui wants feedback, but it put no limits on what that feedback might be. This is critical to the ethical integrity of the bloggers or any publisher. The obscenity and defamatory language portions of the contract were inserted by Marqui’s counsel and, I think, unnecessary, since the company should know the general character of the bloggers it sponsors; at the same time, here is another juncture where old forms of publishing and new are running into new legal challenges, so Marqui rightfully wants to insulate itself from legal liability. If it were a blogger’s contract, an indemnity clause would serve the same purpose, offering the advertiser protection from the publication’s liability.

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4.) Periodicity: Like any marketer, Marqui needs to know what frequency their message will appear. The Marqui badge is defined by size, but not content. This is a real break with advertising, which is subject to the advertiser’s approval. So, changes for both sides come on this point. The reason for textual mentions is that many blog readers never actually visit the blog but receive the blogger’s writing through RSS; the weekly mention of the relationship is both a form of disclosure and an assurance of periodic exposure to the blog audience.
These relationships (between bloggers and sponsors, not what Doc was talking about, between marketers and audiences) will continue to evolve. I think we laid a solid foundation for a reasonable and ethical blog/sponsor relationship.]]>

Business & Technology Media Comment & Crimes Social & Political

Now that's a revolution in capitalism

<![CDATA[It's not every day that something that “doesn’t exist” can sell for $26,500. A gamer has purchased an island stronghold in the massive multi-player game (MMPG) Project Entopia for $26,500.
But does it really not exist. The island or, rather, the coordinates of the island in the game space, comes with rights to the “natural resources” in the “ground” and the ability to lease or sell access to the island’s real estate. In every way, this is the idea of controlling the venue to gain control of value that I’ve been talking about here and here.
I spent a lot of time early this year on Linden LabsSecond Life MMPG and the trade in land and objects was rather intense. People were building vehicles and selling them, for example. I had people dropping by my house offering to buy it now and again. My character, however, just gave away everything he had to anyone he met, so somehow I didn’t seem to fit the spirit of the place. But, look, I figure that since I spend most of my day trying to make money why compound the tension. I’d just walk around and find a nice place to sit, see who came by and have a conversation; maybe, I’d give them $100.
Now, of course, I see the err of my ways. I should have hoarded voxels of land and gotten ready to set up my own tax district. See, capitalism and big government are intimately related, after all…. The Project Entopia player, Deathifier, will be earning real money from his game presence. But what happens when he wants to kill some of his tenants in a blood bath? Hmmm, it also seems that a capitalist society is a polite one.
By controlling the venue for human action—whatever it may be—people can earn profits, even in virtual places where only minds (and avatars) meet.]]>

Media Comment & Crimes

Shaplen's Revenge

<![CDATA[My friend and colleague from ON24, Peter Shaplen, was the pool coordinator for the Scott Peterson trial. Using the low-cost and flexible production methods we and mostly he pioneered at ON24, he transformed trial coverage. MediaBistro's TVNewser has a nice piece about how Peter did it.
What comes through is Peter’s humanity, which is what I admire most about him, too.]]>

Business & Technology Media Comment & Crimes

Bylines by the by

<![CDATA[A pleasant surprise this morning. After a year of anonymous posting at Red Herring, the pub is finally giving Alex Pang and I, their two bloggers, bylines. Anyhow, my Herring posting today is about how 2005 will be the year of transformation in media that we will all remember and wonder how we got to participate or why we failed to see the chance to participate.]]>

Business & Technology Influence & Networked Markets Media Comment & Crimes

Google Print heralds the Sampling Society

<![CDATA[My comments on Google Print, the ambitious project to digitize university and public libraries are at Red Herring. Hello to the Sampling Society, we see you even though you have been standing there for years now.]]>