That’s why God made cable news

A dinosaur appeared on my TV last night. There I was watching the 20/20 special report on internet TV (which was quite good, I thought), when they went and executed Saddam Hussein. The bulletin was appropriate; it was big news.

But then ABC preempted the 20/20 special to provide us with 40 minutes of canned historical crap and pre-produced “reaction” that caused me to change the channel.

I wanted to watch the regular program. I did not want to watch the “breaking news” report. This is why God made cable news channels, and if I’d wanted more information, I could’ve switched to one of them or turned to the very entity that the 20/20 report was about in the first place.

I realize it’s heresy to suggest that the news division of a broadcast network NOT interrupt programming for such, but what ABC did last night was to further alienate viewers who are increasingly able to make their own viewing choices. Hello! This is the new world of media, not the broadcasting days of old when networks had to be all things to all people.

ABC should at least make the 20/20 program available online, but that’s not the point. Broadcast network news becomes a net liability when it does things like this, because the entire world is moving in a different direction. 20/20 is produced by the news division, and I guess somebody thought the interruption was more newsworthy. Unfortunately, the process that makes those decisions appears to be living in the distant past.

And the sad thing is that the more this kind of thing happens, the faster it moves everybody to the tar pits.

Gerald Ford played a role in my media history

I was Assignment Editor for WTMJ-TV in Milwaukee when Gerald Ford became president. AEs are a curious lot, and I spent every waking moment on a search for news. It wasn’t something I could turn off; it just was my default setting.

While looking at a very old magazine that I had in a collection, I came across an ad for the “Jerry Ford Wonder Stories” — four books by Fenworth Moore published in 1931.

WRECKED ON CANNIBAL ISLAND or Jerry Ford’s Adventures Among Savages
LOST IN THE CAVES OF GOLD or Jerry Ford Among the Mountains of Mystery
CAST AWAY IN THE LAND OF SNOW or Jerry Ford Among the Polar Bears
PRISONERS ON THE PIRATE SHIP or Jerry Ford and the Yellow Men

I wrote a letter to Reuven Frank at NBC, then Executive Producer of NBC Weekend with Lloyd Dobyns. I loved the show and thought they might be interested in the story. Frank loved the idea, and Dobyns went to the Library of Congress to read the books. Their story was pretty funny, and Frank sent me a check.

I got to know Reuven Frank after that, and he taught me much — including the reality that even in television, there are stories that only warrant a picture with a caption. I sold him other ideas for Weekend, including Pet Sharks and Neon Dance Floors. Disco was dawning (I’m so old), and the first blinking dance floors were made in Milwaukee.

This connection opened other doors for me, but mostly it taught me a lesson on the power of mass media, especially television. An Assignment Editor from Milwaukee could influence the whole world through the simplicity of creative ideas. Scary, but true.

Jerry Ford, RIP.

This is why local media companies should fear Google

Here’s something I noticed while I was in Amman. Google defaults to the region from which you are logging in. For example, while I was at Heathrow airport, my “home” page was google.co.uk. When I got to Amman, it defaulted to google.jo.

In Jordan, the Google home page shows something that ought to strike terror into the hearts of all local media companies — the ability to search only local websites. Take a look at the image below:

Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it easily accessible to everyone. This ought to be the mission of every local media company, for one day we will find a similar button on Google regardless of the zip code from which we are logging in.

What will we do then?

Newsweek’s prophecy requires our attention

While it comes with a question mark, Newsweek has proclaimed 2007 as the Year of the Widget. A widget is a small piece of code that allows a user to draw material from other websites onto his or her own site or application.

User-generated content was a hallmark of 2006. It’s a fair bet 2007 will be all about further customizing your online life.

This is an accurate forecast, and the article (must read, BTW) does a good job of telling the world all about widgets and personalized web pages. Any local media company that isn’t already in the widget business is late to the show.

Already, portals like Google and Yahoo! offer customizable pages. Want to see a calendar, learn a new word-of-the-day and check local windsurfing conditions all from your homepage? No problem, you have thousands of widgets to choose from. And the fact that they’re so intuitive has made the features very popular. “The Google personal homepage is the fastest-growing Google product,” says Marissa Mayer, the company’s vice president of “search products and user experience.” “This market is going to be very large.”

While some large media companies have created customizable start pages, the jury’s still out as to whether this is a smart strategy. There are two inherent problems. One, for all the content major media companies can create, it just can’t compete with the big portals. Two, even if the page allows users to import information from competing media, it still carries the brand of a 1.0 media company.

I still think that branded RSS readers are a strategic option, but widgets make even more sense for content companies.

The article notes, however, that this may not be what media companies are seeking, because they are married to old advertising mechanics. Newsweek wisely turns to Steve Rubel, because Steve has been saying that the end of the page view as the central web advertising metric is at hand, and I tend to agree with that.

If you read a local news story through the Google Reader, for example, the local paper will not register the hit. This could create skittishness among some content providers. “Media companies love to promote how many page views their properties get,” writes Rubel. “They’ve used the data to build equity. They will fight it tooth and nail to protect it, perhaps by not embracing interactive technologies as quickly as they should.”

This is not to say that you can’t measure widget traffic. It just requires attaching different types of marketing.

Purina put its name on a weather widget–to let users know if it’s nice enough outside to take Spot out for walkies–that was downloaded more than 15,000 times in its first two months. This may seem like a paltry audience for two months of advertising. But consider the fact that the Purina logo now sits on every one of those 15,000 desktops, smack in the users’ line of sight. “It’s better than advertising,” says Om Malik. “It’s in front of your eyes constantly; that brand becomes your brand.”

The trick is in getting those with their own websites or mySpace pages, for example, to use the widgets that are provided. Here is where we must be smart enough to think Long Tail instead of mass marketing, and create the widest possible range of widgets for use by people in the community.

We have so much to learn from the real web.

Business Week’s Custom RSS Generator

Simply brilliant.

Of journalism’s checks and balances

Rather than dismissing Joseph Rago’s rant The Blog Mob, “Written by fools to be read by imbeciles”, I think we ought to pay close attention to what he says. Rago is an assistant editorial features editor at The Wall Street Journal and a writer who likes to use big words (a sesquipedalian, eh?). When I first read of his commentary, I was incensed that such a man would resort to name-calling in ranting against bloggers, but I’ve come away with a very different opinion after reading his piece.

This is why we should always follow the links, but that’s another essay.

I don’t doubt there is condescension in his opinion piece, but his reference is mostly to political blogs, and I’m quite in agreement with him that many of these tend to noise.

The blogs are not as significant as their self-endeared curators would like to think. Journalism requires journalists, who are at least fitfully confronting the digital age. The bloggers, for their part, produce minimal reportage. Instead, they ride along with the MSM like remora fish on the bellies of sharks, picking at the scraps.

He’s right in that there exists in the blogosphere no serious criticism of the blogosphere, at least not that I’ve been able to discover. This in and of itself ought to give us pause. I think his broadbrush treatment of bloggers, however, is idiotic and self-serving and evidence of his own pronouncements for political blogs — that because this type of writing is predictable, it is “excruciatingly boring.”

I also don’t care for his belief that “journalism requires journalists,” for it suggests that only the educated élite qualify for such a title.

But there’s more, and this is why I think it’s so important to “hear” what Rago is saying:

Certainly the MSM, such as it is, collapsed itself. It was once utterly dominant yet made itself vulnerable by playing on its reputed accuracy and disinterest to pursue adversarial agendas. Still, as far from perfect as that system was, it was and is not wholly imperfect. The technology of ink on paper is highly advanced, and has over centuries accumulated a major institutional culture that screens editorially for originality, expertise and seriousness.

Of course, once a technosocial force like the blog is loosed on the world, it does not go away because some find it undesirable. So grieving over the lost establishment is pointless, and kind of sad. But democracy does not work well, so to speak, without checks and balances. And in acceding so easily to the imperatives of the Internet, we’ve allowed decay to pass for progress.

I concur that without checks and balances, we are certainly passing a form of decay off as progress, but any serious blogger knows that his or her audience provides a kind of check and balance that institutional journalism doesn’t know. Take a look, for instance, at the comment by Tom Tucker on my entry below about illegally sold DVDs in Amman. This is my editor, if you will, and I can understand why Rago would be concerned about this with political writers, because they may be more inclined to dismiss criticism that I am.

Like any of its modern equivalents, postmodern institutions will have to also find balance between opposing views, but this will be increasingly the role of an informed citizenry and not that of the few who work for the institutional press. By increasingly rejecting the mainstream media (through viewership and reader declines), this check and balance system is already underway.