What was he thinking?

Jay Rosen writes regularly about the Bush administration’s successful efforts to disenfranchise the news media. I find the story conversation fascinating and have followed it closely. Reagan may have started the ball rolling by talking “past” the filters and speaking directly to the people, but Bush’s people seem to have raised it to an artform. Call it smart politics or call it manipulation, it doesn’t matter. The President’s handlers have been very successful at controlling the message.

In so doing, they’ve also been very good at generally staying on target with the majority of Americans.

That’s why last night’s press conference was so odd. To pre-empt sweeps programming on the first night of the book was an extraordinary blunder, because it pissed off the very people he was trying to reach. What was he thinking? The discussion in my home was likely duplicated a million times throughout the land. The guy had nothing to say, and what he did have to say belonged on the news networks, not the entertainment networks.

While we’ll doubtless read commentaries about the broadcast networks interrupting programming for this (or dumping out early), the real story is a strategic blunder by the White House. The May book is about as good as it gets for network programs, and the viewers know it. Mess with that, and you’ve messed with them.

Let’s see, what would I rather watch: Bush on Social Security or Stephanie get booted on Survivor? Bush, Stephanie? Bush, Stephanie?

Like I said, what was he thinking?

Orchids and Brickbats

When Walter Winchell ruled the airwaves (even before MY time), he offered a segment called “Orchids and Brickbats,” wherein he gave an imaginary orchid to an observation he felt was worthwhile and an imaginary brickbat for those he criticized. I’m no Walter Winchell, but I like this idea.

Here are this week’s Orchids and Brickbats:

An orchid to Jeff Jarvis for his relentless pursuit of religious extremism in our land.

An orchid to Tim Porter for his continuing efforts to explore the changes in the newspaper industry brought about by disruptive innovations.

A brickbat for NBC and it’s idiotic mini-series “Revelations.” This is so bad that it epitomizes all that’s wrong with television, circa 2005. What’s worse is that much of the dialog is whispering, which makes me ramp up the volume to its maximum level, only to be blown out of the room when the network hits commercial breaks. AUGH!

An orchid to Infinity Broadcasting for its Podcast radio station, KYOU. There’s disagreement about certain aspects of Infinity’s concept, but I think it’s a nice move for a big broadcaster.

A brickbat to the media in general for its obsession with Katie Couric (to say nothing of Michael Jackson). I mean, who cares?

An orchid to Yahoo! for its new online news effort that gives users some great tools to sort and filter news. While I’m at it, another orchid to these folks for the wisdom of supporting what I think is a VERY cool concept, Television Without Pity.

Finally, a major brickbat for the latest twist in spamming, resetting the date of the spamming computer and thereby requiring me to go back a month or a year in my Outlook to delete the damned things! There oughta be a law.

Teaching journalism in the 21st century

New York University professor Adam Penenberg asks provocative questions in an overdue story in Wired, The New Old Journalism. It seems Adam and his friends have been discussing whether Universities should continue teaching the old model of journalism.

Should we raze our curriculum to the ground and start over, perhaps, and look to the web for inspiration? Could it be beneficial to jettison “objectivity” and “balance” in favor of transparent bias, much like bloggers (and online columnists) do? Would it be wise to encourage our students to exchange fact-based narrative for edgy commentary and digital trash talk? And if we were to banish the inverted pyramid to the scrapheap of history, what could we replace it with?

Or do the basics of newspaper writing and reporting offer students the necessary foundation for them to succeed in any medium, whether it be print, online, broadcast, wire service, blogs or any other information-distribution system that may be coming down the pike?

I’ve been admonishing higher education for a number of years that it needs to change, most recently at the Broadcast Education Association annual convention in Las Vegas. If we agree that the journalist of tomorrow will be multimedia trained, where are they going to acquire those skills if not in school? If there’ll be no such thing as a “print” journalist or a “broadcast” journalist downstream, why do we continue teaching those careers as if there will be?

Penenberg concludes that it’s not newspapers that are dying, it’s the print medium. As such, he says, there will always remain the need to teach “how to craft a killer lede, a well-honed nut graf and an airtight structure.“

I assigned blogs to my graduate students this past semester so they could cover a business beat. Other professors have also jumped fingers-first into digital journalism, most notably Jay Rosen, founder of the media blog PressThink.

In our classes, we discuss wikis and Wi-Fi, and invite bloggers and online reporters to share their experiences with us. We debate “citizen journalism” and journalistic ethics. We encourage creativity, but not at the expense of clarity.

I think this is a smart approach, although I’d stretch students even further by requiring they look beyond the issues of objectivity and balance and explore the lost art of political argument in journalism. Much of what tomorrow’s reporters will need lies in the skills of those who wrote the news before Walter Lippmann got ahold of the trade and “professionalized” it in order to sell advertising.

Marketing via RSS

The direct marketing (spam) industry has discovered RSS. Whoopee! An article in Direct Marketing News espouses the value of communicating a message directly to a customer while avoiding nasty things like spam filters, etc.

Frustrated by the incessant e-mail bouncebacks from ISPs and yearning to send giant audio/video pitches over the Web unencumbered, some direct marketers are turning to RSS, or really simple syndication, to get all of their messages — and all of their message — to target markets headache-free.

We’ve been at this awhile, using mediums like TV, radio, e-mail. But I have to say, RSS is one of the best advertising vehicles I’ve seen come along in awhile,” said Terry Weaver, CEO of Truckflix.com, an online jobs broker for trucking companies and drivers.

The article suggests that the industry will move into the technology in earnest in Q4 of this year.

It’s easy to knee-jerk this idea, but it has tremendous value for people who want the messages. (Remember, you must subscribe to a feed in order to receive it, which is an ideal opt-in.) I’ve long recommended that this will be the new sale paper that you used to find in the Sunday paper. I would actually sign up for an RSS feed from Kroger.

Where this won’t work, however, is in trying to mix marketing into a feed that provides a different service. I can handle a simple text ad in, say, a New York Times feed, but that’s about as far as I’ll go. Marketers who salivate over the possibilities of using the technology in old world, mass marketing ways, are fooling themselves completely.

See my extended post on this at the MediaCenter’s Morph Blog.

A closed mouth gathers no feet

Postmodernism is often referenced pejoratively by Modernist thinkers when arguing against something in the cultural change that they don’t like. But this is a slippery animal not easily understood, and once in awhile, a writer or speaker will stick his foot in his mouth while bitch-slapping it. Case in point: Garrison Keillor, of Prairie Home Companion fame.

In an interview with Steve Courtney of the Hartford Courant, Keillor moaned about what he sees as a growing inability to communicate basic concepts. “American language,” he said, “has been so riddled with postmodernism and irony that it is very difficult for people to gracefully express the fundamental loyalties and affections except in poetry.”

Now that may be true, but Postmodernism isn’t a scapegoat; it’s a culture change, and one wherein Mr. Keillor finds more comfort than he realizes. Later in the interview, he speaks of a book he’s read recently.

A recent nonfiction book that springs to his mind is “102 Minutes: The Untold Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers” (Holt, $26) the detailed account by Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn of what happened inside the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

It’s just one of those great books of reporting, and you read it almost at one sitting with your hair on end. It tells you something about 9/11 that you may not have known before, and it does it by marshaling facts. There have been 50 different preachy books and 10,000 op-ed pieces, but this is one that really takes you back to that beautiful morning in New York … When you open the book and there are people heading for the tower at 8:30 in the morning, going up to Windows on the World for their conference, you really choke up.”

Why does he like this book so much and reject the “preachy” and the “op-ed pieces?” Because he is demonstrating one of the cornerstones of our Postmodern culture — that the experiences of our own and others are more to be trusted than those of anybody from a hierarchical position of expertise (the preachy, the op-eds).

We’re all a part of this great change. Some of us cling to our logic and reason more than others, but that doesn’t alter the reality of our current state. And rather than slinging mud at this new era, we ought instead to be understanding it. Because, in so doing, we’ll better understand ourselves.

It’s really about people, not (just) technology

This came up in one of my panel discussions last week in Vegas, so I thought I’d repeat it here.

My ideas and concepts all begin with an understanding that the revolutionary changes in media these days are people-driven, not technology-driven. This assumption takes me outside the realm of much of contemporary thought, but I think it’s wise. Technological advancements are just public masturbation unless there’s human energy demanding them, and not just that of the rich and famous. The best ideas are born out of need, and I see that in every corner of the new media world.

Even Michael Powell’s “application separation” tipping point wasn’t simply the idea of a guy with a PhD in the back room. The concept of separating a communications application from its infrastructure constraints came from increasing demands on pricing in the telecommunications industry. Those demands came from consumers who were tired of getting ripped off by the monopolistic demands of a few companies with phone lines and repair trucks. You can argue that technology opened the door, but the knocking was from people.

This differentiation is important, I believe, because it forces me to approach what’s taking place with respect and an open mind. If people are demanding change, then we ought to be asking ourselves why, instead of fighting or ignoring the technology. This is why I feel so strongly that brand marketing and the belief that our brands will protect us are both dangerously short-sighted and self-destructive. The demand for change implies something wrong with the former, and we need to understand what that is before we go off trying to sell some more of it.

Wherever I go in the television world, I encourage stations to do research with people who don’t get their news from TV anymore. George Will wrote that the “combined viewership of the network evening newscasts is 28.8 million, down from 52.1 million in 1980. The median age of viewers is 60. Hence the sponsorship of news programming by Metamucil and Fixodent.” We’ve given up trying to reach the others. Why?

Before we can design strategies to reach these people, we need to learn a few things from them:

  1. Why did they leave?
  2. What are their information needs?
  3. Where are they finding those needs met?
  4. What can we do to meet those needs?

Invariably, I find that people left traditional media forms because they were (and felt) increasingly captive to ideas and techniques they found repugnant. I’ve written previously about news teases and how people see through what we’re doing. Who wants to be “teased?” And yet we continue down that road.

As I’ve said so many times here before, the problem for local television today isn’t revenue, it’s audience. The time we spend focusing on revenue is time we could and should be spending trying to fix the problem. Everything else will fall into place after that.

The money IS there. Dave Morgan, Founder and CEO of Tacoda, the online contextual advertising company, thinks that contextual ads should be priced well above other media ads, because they deserve it.

Great content, loyal audiences, and a strong media brand should command a premium rate. Publishers shouldn’t be afraid to ask for it. They must point out to media buyers that online audience numbers and online ad views are real, unlike TV ratings or print circulation, which only measure distribution and have little connection to actual ad views. On that basis, online ad CPMs should be valued at least three times more than their offline counterparts.
One of the reasons I so strongly react to the idea that this is all just another fad is that I accept that the energy is coming from people. People know what they want and like and increasingly technology is giving it to them. We would do well to pay attention.