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Archive for the ‘journalism’ Category

What do you make of Michael Vick, Ted Kennedy, Dick Cheney and Michael Jackson?  Villians? Heros? Role-Models? Titans? Flawed? Deserving? Entitled? Charismatic? Faithful? Loyal? Disturbed? All of these things? None of these things?

These people, as all people, are infinitely complex.  However, in the mass media (TV, radio, news, magazines)  they are portrayed in very simple ways.  Snippets of complexity stitched together into caricatures.   As proof of the over simplicity flip on the TV or browse your favorite news, sports, politics, or music site.  There is the rare exception (abcnews Ted Kennedy section) and usually it is buried on a website special section (you decide if that’s mass media).

Mass Media needs to generate and dramatize conflict.  When media fails to do that it usually doesn’t gain mass appeal.   There is a reinforcing loop for mass media producers to generate caricatures that get consumers to disagree and or promote that caricatures and the more consumers do this the more mass media produces.  If a person is presented in all their complexity it grows ever more difficult for a consumer to outwardly respond (e.g. blog, talk around the water cooler, call into radio shows…).  There is also limited time and space (and consumer attention) for mass media.  Broadcasting or publishing detailed profiles of people is physically impossible.

Yes, it is possible for a dedicated consumer to find the rich profiles and details they desire.   I do have a personal fear though – mass media drives so much of the political and social discussion and the world moves so fast that fewer and fewer consumers take the time to uncover the details.  Political marketers know this.  The Health Care discussion is a very good case study in how mass media fails to provide a robust intellectual platform.   There’s no one to blame.  Mass media has to make money for their shareholders and consumers do what they do.  Perhaps just a talking point and something to consider as we go about our lives.

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In the last couple of months we’ve had several high profile events (reporter escape, #iranelection, swine flu)  on the planet that demonstrate the direct influence the media has on events.  As much as journalists and media personnel attempt to be impartial reporters they never are and never can be.  It’s simply impossible to report on an event without impacting it especially in this ever more everything digitally connected to everything else.  This is not necessarily bad or misguided.  What is problematic though is operating media properties without careful navigation of the fine line between influence and observation and consuming media without judging it’s impact.

I’ve recently read the Dave Cullen book, COLUMBINE.  On top of  its literary positives this book does an excellent job of picking apart the media coverage’s direct influence on the events as they unfolded and our analysis (and current thinking!) on the events, the people, the causes.  People died as a result of the fundamental misunderstanding about media’s impact on events.  People’s lives continue to be out of sync with what really happened and why it all happened because of the media’s impact on the events and investigations.

I suspect we’ll look back on the Iran election in a similar light.  Perhaps, in this case, media will be a more positive influence.

The recent NYTimes+Wikipedia strategy is another example of potential grave misunderstanding.  In this case the potential influence of media was recognized before hand but…… now that it is public how we can manipulate media and the Internet population there’s another problem looming.   Are we opening a can of worms by allowing the media to be used strategically in political and military efforts?

I recently had a mini-debate on facebook about whether it was a such a good idea to encourage folks to confuse and hide identies behind false settings and proxy servers on Twitter during the Iran Election.  Though the intentions behind these activities seem worthwhile – helping citizens fight for political freedom – this is a slippery precendent to be setting.  Where do we draw the line on using the shifty nature of online media as a strategy?  How can we legally hold criminals accountable for these same actions?  How can we identify suspicious behaviors when we’ve encourage this use of media by everyone?  Is it OK for journalists to use this tactic when pursuing a story?

Trying to understand the world is difficult enough.  The Internet and new approach media is great for its openness, DIY approach and general “we’ll figure it out as we go” utility.  However, unchecked by the very people creating and consuming it as the situation is now we’re only creating more confusion and muting the considerable utility of this platform.  What I am directly saying is that all of us in media (reporting and tool building) need to spend a little more time reflecting and strategizing and a little less time trying to be the first on the scene, the one with the most pageviews, the one with the exclusive.  This approach won’t come about without some direct actions on our part and lives depend on figuring this out.

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It’s a safe assumption that every newspaper and publisher has access to the basic data created and shared by the world.  Newspapers and publishers can use Freebase or Wikipedia or some other aggregator/syndication service to fill their websites and their papers full of content.  The race for coverage and exclusives is over – every outlet can cover everything simply by mashing it all up.

This availability of all data by all outlets has ruined the differentiation between local papers, category specific publications and most hobbyist content providers.  It used to matter who the editor in chief knew, which city a publisher was in, how fast the vans could get to the scene or whether the product makers liked a publisher’s reviewers.  The ability to get and cover content competitors couldn’t drove audience.  Now, search engine optimizations, clever traffic arbitrage schemes and integration with portals are the drivers of audience for most traditional publishers.  This is a short lived game though – for a variety of reasons.  The main reason is that it’s too hard to compete – everyone is competing for the top spot in Google for the most important searches.  The portals can only feature a small set of links every day. The arbitrage schemes are played out by a great many players, and money talks more than anything else.

The winning strategy involves Synthesis.   “Just the facts, mam” doesn’t cut it.  Interpretation, analysis, synthesis of the causal webs, related ideas, the context, the history.  All of that done via interactive visuals like timelines, charts, trends, projections, simulations.  Every which way to expose fresh takes.

Synthesis still takes unique perspective and skilled people.  Synthesis is what creates shared understanding – i.e. knowledge.  Publishers need to get out of the data business and into the knowledge business.   Knowledge is defensible, data is not.  Knowledge is worth paying for, data is not.  Advertising tangled with knowledge performs, advertising with data distracts.

Are there examples of good synthesis?

It’s rare.

I don’t think cable TV does a great job of synthesis.  Most talking heads are just creating noisy data.  Good synthesis provides insight, demands more questions, finds connections.  Yahoo News doesn’t. Google News doesn’t.

Edge.org does alright.  The Economist usually.  WSJ still does a good job with synthesizing.  CNN, occasionally.  Go to these websites, they aren’t just the data regurgitated. And they are rewarded with traffic.

This isn’t limited to news. Science information, entertainment, business intelligence, weather, and more all need synthesis.   Consider the spread of Compete.com and Quantcast.com versus Alexa.  Alexa didn’t really synthesize the numbers into useful trends, audience slices or any more useful view.

You get the point.  Enough of the “information age”, let’s bring about the synthesis age.  Therein lies the value publishers can bring to consumers.

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