Voyeurism: Journalism’s 21st Century Crisis

Here is the latest in my ongoing series of essays, TV News in a Postmodern World.

Me at the National Press ClubThis picture was taken last week during a visit to the National Press Club in Washington. I was there to meet some great people and make a presentation, but I got the chance to walk around, look at all the marvelous photographs and try and absorb the history of the place.

The Press Club represents the essence of all that professional journalists hold dear. Bathed in the lives and deaths of those who went before, it is a lasting testimony to an institution that finds itself facing significant internal and external pressures today.

On the way home, I began writing this essay, Voyeurism: Journalism’s 21st Century Crisis. As always, I make no claim to special insight or knowledge. This vision is simply my thoughts about where we’ve been, where we are, and where we might be headed. The way I look at it, it’s all there for anybody to see, but the price of a pair of glasses is a willingness to be honest with ourselves.

The people I was with in Washington agreed with me that this is perhaps the most exciting era in the history of communications, but that traditional media companies must “drive their car and fix it at the same time.” That is a significant challenge, and a how-to manual would certainly help. Unfortunately, we’ve got to make a lot of it up as we go along, and our ties to our assumptions, traditions and history might just be a net liability.

Users & consumers are people too

I’m in D.C. for a presentation in the morning, but I wanted to take a moment to write about my endless distaste for the phrases “user-generated” or “consumer-generated” content.

Who writes this stuff anyway? Could there be anything more disrespectful to the people formerly known as the audience than to reference them this way? Users? Consumers?

Here’s what bugs me. J.D. Lasica’s wonderful term, the Personal Media Revolution, describes a very real revolution in terms of media. His book, Darknet: Hollywood’s War Against the Digital Generation is one of those must-have books, if you want to understand what’s really going on. And what’s going on is that people — those formerly known as the audience — are taking matters into their own hands. The revolution is a real one, and it’s against, in part, the people who come up with terms like “user-generated” or “consumer-generated” content. They’re not users. They’re not consumers. They’re people!

We make these condescending terms, because we still think of us as an “us” and the audience as “them.” In the Media 2.0 world, we’re all the same, and that’s the key to unlocking creativity in building platforms of information service.

I realize that the modernist marketing world needs to create slots for everything, because logic works that way. But collaboration isn’t a one-way street, and not everybody’s dying to get their stuff to us ’cause we’re the mighty media. Nuh-uh. We’re in this new media thing together.

In the words of the immortal Gordon Borrell, “The deer now have guns.” We’re smart if we respect that and stupid if we don’t.

The real battle in the TV vs YouTube war

A front page Wall Street Journal article today examines the history and the conflict between television companies and Google over YouTube and its hosting of copyrighted materials. It’s a pretty fair read with a couple of interesting quotes: (The article is behind the paper’s subscription wall, so I won’t provide a link.)

The problem the media companies have in dealing with Google is that we’re not in a position of strength,” acknowledges a senior executive at one of the companies.”

…the current strife might eventually prove to be no more than hard-nosed negotiating…

Mr. Schmidt (Google’s Eric) said late last month that he was sure Google “will eventually do some very significant deals” with TV companies, but suggested that none were imminent. “I’m not in a great hurry on this issue,” he said. “It’s more important to get it right.”

There is more at stake in this battle than meets the eye, for the very nature of contemporary copyright law is what’s being challenged. It’s a touchpoint between the controlled distribution of modernism and the shared distribution of postmodernism, and I don’t think anybody really knows where it’s all heading.

I do know that the whole concept of copyright needs to be reexamined by lawmakers, because the public interest is not served by current law. Content creators aren’t served by it either, only the copyright holders — the élite and tightly-controlled world of music, film, video, print and artistic publishers — is benefited, and this artificial government only has itself to blame for its current conundrum.

There’s a motive for creativity that’s rarely discussed in the light of copyright, but it’s expressed in many ways through creative works.

Harry Chapin’s “Mr. Tanner:” “Music was his life; it was not his livelihood.”

Bill Monroe, when I interviewed him in 1979: “I never wrote any songs; I just heard them before anybody else.”

From The Agony and the Ecstasy: “We’re artists. We’ll always be a slave to another man’s nickel.”

The movie “Crossroads” about an old blues musician: “Lots of towns, lots of songs, lots of women, good times, bad times. All he ever wanted to hear anybody say was, ‘He was good. He could really play.’”

Jeong-Hyun Lim (funtwo) in response to all the fuss about his “Canon in D” video on YouTube: “Some said my vibrato is quite sloppy, and I agree with that, so these days I’m doing my best to improve my vibrato skill.” The guy uttered not a word about money. It was all about his music.

So as we watch this whole thing unfold, let’s remember that this is really a cultural war underway. I don’t say that one side is right and the other wrong, because I don’t think that’s really the issue. However, the victor will write the rules for the future, and we ought to be prepared for it to go either way.

One less viewer (or not)

In the case of the Long Island man who died a year ago but whose body was discovered this week sitting in front of his television set, one wonders if Nielsen would’ve counted him as a viewer the whole time he was deceased. After all, the set was running.

It gives new meaning to the whole “running in the background viewing” meme.

(To quote George Carlin, “These are the kinds of thoughts that kept me out of the good schools.”)

Here’s a new one for your RSS reader

Rosenblumtv

The writer is Michael Rosenblum, he of Video Journalist fame (or infamy). Michael is vilified by those who think he’s out to destroy television with his small cameras and “one-man-bands” (a pejorative term in television newsrooms). The loudest critics are video news photographers, that unique breed of adventurer that finds the “talent” aspects of the business to be otherworldly.

I’ve known Michael for many years, and I can tell you that he’s not out to destroy anything. His wish is just the opposite; he wants to save people’s jobs by altering the archaic status-quo of the traditional newsgathering process. I think he’s a genius and an innovator, but no one can argue that Michael Rosenblum is a storyteller. That comes out clearly in his blog.

From an entry called “Edward III, Crecy and Local TV Newsrooms,” Rosenblum tells the tale of how the use of new technology altered warfare in the time of Edward III of England. The battle was at Crecy, where the French army — made up of thousands of armored knights — met the king’s bowmen. He likens the strategy to that necessary for stations in the conversion to Video Journalists.

The French, in vastly superior numbers marched north to Crecy filled with over confidence. They looked out on the English forces and laughed. They would cut them to ribbons by lunchtime.

So the French army marched into battle with the English bowmen, on foot. The bowmen let loose their arrows — like rain.. and the French knights began to go down. The English were shooting the horses out from under the knights. This was against the rules! On the muddy ground, immobilized in their suits of armor, the knights were helpless as the English bowman set upon them and killed them on the spot. This was also considered unsporting behaviour. One was supposed, at worst, to ransome the nobleman.

The French army was decimated at Crecy, and later Edward repeated the trick at Poitiers. It was, in a moment, the end of knights, armor, chivalry and medieval warfare. A thousand years of history vanished in an afternoon.

What brought down the French army was first and foremost the technology of the long bow. But more than that, it was the pure foresight and courage of Edward to completely embrace the new technology and understand how to implement it. He could have just added a few bowmen to his army of knights (just as newsrooms could add a few VJs to their conventional reporters and cameramen). Neither does the trick. Edward reinvented warfare from the ground up based on the light, simple and portable technology of the long bow. It was an incredibly brave thing to do.

Michael’s been diligent to keep quality entries coming since he launched his blog last week. I hope he keeps it up. We need his experience and his voice.

Raleigh blogger meet-up

here I am with Stephanie at the swag tableThere are certain similarities about all bloggers, regardless of the community in which I find them. In Raleigh, WNCN-TV hosted its first blogger meetup Monday, and I’m happy to report that these bloggers, like those in San Francisco, Nashville, Greensboro and elsewhere, are fun folks to be around. The Raleigh bunch are bright, extremely media-savvy people who are easy to talk with and eager to be helpful.

This is often a real surprise to some traditional news people, who expect them to be (I guess) a bunch of angry and hostile guys in their pajamas. Their knowledge of the local media scene was remarkable. Who knew?

Raleigh is a part of the Research Triangle, so there are a lot of tech blogs in the area. Andy Beal, for example, calls Raleigh home, as do Wayne Sutton, Marcus Williford and Nathan Gilliatt. Stephanie is launching a blog with an upbeat tone. Rob does career help. Then there are Luther, Zoe, Chuck, Jason and Matt. Some of them showed up with ideas about possibly doing business with the station, but for the most part, it was just curious bloggers being themselves.

bloggers have fun with the weather guys

There were a couple of good takeaways for me. I expected them to want embeddable (is that a word) videos from the station, but I was surprised by the request for trackbacks on station stories. It makes sense, though. A lot of stations are making comments available, but I can’t think of anybody who allows trackbacks.

The station is off to a good start, because they’ve agreed to listen. They’re already planning the next meet-up, a more social-like event that will be held at a time when more bloggers can make it. I hope they’ll invite me again.