2008: Embracing the (Real) Web

Here’s my annual state of things and predictions essay, 2008: Embracing the (Real) Web.

I like to stick with broad themes in forecasting media movement, because nobody really knows, with specificity, where things are going. We’re in the middle of profound change, and if I had all the answers, I’d be rich. I’m not (of course), but my track record has been pretty good, and it goes back a number of years. Here’s one sentence I wrote a year ago: “The most visible and obvious online media story of 2007 will be the shift of the internet’s center away from text and towards video.” Anybody want to argue with that?

My boss, Jerry Gumbert, says “2008 will be all about getting ready for 2009,” and I agree with him. ’09 sends chills down the spines of every media company executive, but I think the fear is healthy, especially if it moves us to action. And that action must be in areas beyond our ad-supported content business models. The (Real) Web makes that possible. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.

May the new year bring you joy and prosperity.

Will Smith, Adolf Hitler and a wolf in sheep’s clothing

The most bizarre story over the holiday weekend was the business of actor Will Smith and statements attributed to him by a Scottish newspaper.

The Anti-Defamation League released a statement saying that they “welcome and accept” Smith’s statement that Hitler was a “vicious killer” and that it’s clear that Smith didn’t intend for his Hitler remarks to be construed as praise. “He took immediate steps to clarify his words and unequivocally condemn Hitler as an evil person.”

Well, thank God THAT’s over.

Or is it?

This began with an interview with the Scottish newspaper the Daily Record, which quoted Smith as saying “Even Hitler didn’t wake up going, ‘Let me do the most evil thing I can do today.’” Some, including the ADL and other Jewish organizations, felt Smith was saying Hilter was basically a good guy — something no self-respecting person is even allowed to think.

So Smith went on the defensive and called it an outrageous lie, adding he was “incensed and infuriated to have to respond to such (a) ludicrous misinterpretation.” Damn straight.

That would’ve been fine, but then he made a terribly frightening statement:

It speaks to the dangerous power of an ignorant person with a pen.”

Let’s get off the emotional frenzy of Nazi evil for a minute and think about that statement. If you don’t like what somebody says, one of the first things people do in their own defense is to attack the person making the statement. Will Smith is making the case that the reporter who wrote the story is ignorant, that such people are dangerous when armed with a pen, and — parenthetically, perhaps — that this is something we shouldn’t tolerate. Scotland doesn’t abide by our First Amendment, but the very foundation of a free press is that the gal with the pen gets to decide what she can publish.

We’re at a critical juncture on the free press road in this country. A handful of extremely influential deans of journalism schools joined together last week to suggest in a New York Times op-ed piece that licensing requirements for broadcast companies ought to include a demonstrable commitment to local reporting. What kind of unintended consequences could that bring with it? The fears expressed by journalists that bloggers and other practitioners of personal media are destroying democracy are getting louder. And this Will Smith business will now join other similar exceptions to the rule — such as the John Seigenthaler case against Wikipedia — in arming those who choose to defend the status quo rather than work to find their role in the new world.

Moreover, Will Smith is an actor. He did the interview in the first place to promote his new film. He’s paid to do that; it’s part of the deal. If you’ve ever seen any of these kinds of interviews, you know that they are staged to the point of being a press release. Honestly, folks, is Will Smith talking about his new movie news? The point is that reporters seize the opportunity to probe for what they consider “real” news, and these efforts don’t always come out kindly for the actors being interviewed. This is why many refuse to do them or set such rigid rules in place that the interviews are what THEY want them to be: unpaid commercials for the film.

So are we really surprised when a reporter picks a piece from an interview and writes an unkind story?

I’ll bet the Daily Record set a record of some sort with this, too.

I’m SUCH a bloody cynic.

Advertisers to bail on Web 2.0? Um, no.

A new study by UK web testing firm SciVisum predicts the end of Web 2.0 in 2008, but the logic misses the mark.

According to Deri Jones, CEO of SciVisum, “Consumers and companies will continue to adopt a nomadic attitude towards web 2.0 websites, flocking to the ‘next big thing’ until the market becomes so saturated that consumers will actually be turned off.”

Or not.

From the SciVisum press release:

SciVisum cites the main drivers for Web 2.0’s decline as the exponential growth in the number of User Generated Content (UGC) websites facing a backlash from cautious advertisers not wanting their brand to appear in front of unsuitable content.

And this is why I completely disagree with the prediction. The view is from a purely Media 1.0 perspective and discounts the reality that advertising is content in the sweeping world of Media 2.0.

Social media (the definition of “Web 2.0″) is what the Web is really all about, so to suggest that it will die because advertisers won’t support it is, well, naïve. On the contrary, I think it’s going to reach a new level with the ability to aggregate profiles and interaction from any number of social sites. I’m on MySpace, Facebook, Linked In and others, and you can count on somebody to put those together for me.

Social networking doesn’t require money. Hell, you can build a social site for free with Ning. It requires passion and people of a like mind on any subject.

So to suggest that its demise will come from advertisers not wanting their brands associated with user-generated content is ridiculous. That suggestion speaks more about the state of advertising than what will or won’t happen with Web 2.0.

(hat tip to Duncan at TechCrunch)

Me and my Christian symbol

Me and my Santa hatI was at a local Starbucks this morning on my Christmas Eve shopping spree. One of the girls was wearing a Santa hat, so I asked the guy who was waiting on me where his was.

I’m not a Christian,” he replied, and that was that.

And so I wonder how he made that association — how so many people make the connection that anything associated with the holiday is automatically Christian. Is this the way it is to be? Forever?

So let’s do a brief review of history.

The early “church” in Europe (the Catholic church) ran into the celebrations of those with roots in the earth and the heavens, people they called pagans. These people celebrated the Winter Solstice (as I do), when the sun begins its return to the north to signify a new beginning. These same people celebrated the Vernal Equinox, when the sun crossed the equator, bringing new life to the earth and its creatures. Feeling these celebrations served as a threat, the response of the church was to co-opt them by tying them to the life of Christ, and so was born the “Christ Mass” for the birth of Jesus and “Easter” to celebrate the resurrection.

In reality, however, the two are separate. Just because a dominant religion says they aren’t doesn’t make it so. Christmas is, therefore, only a religious holiday in the minds of those who observe the faith, but that doesn’t make the mixture real.

Follow the centuries now to modern times, where we have “the reason for the season” crowd. Decking the halls with boughs of holly and jingling our bells along fields of snow bring thoughts of warmth and family not reserved only for Christians. Santa Claus doesn’t discriminate by coming down only the chimneys of those who bear the sign of the cross. Chestnuts roast in fireplaces of all kinds and Jack Frost? Well, he’s not a discriminator of toes upon which to nip.

I am lifted by Handel’s “Messiah” as I am by “O Holy Night” and “Joy to the World.” But those are more about nostalgia, the power of music and how my soul is satisfied with the connection to my roots. But Christmas? That is so very much more.

The giving of gifts and sharing the spirit of joy aren’t reserved for those who go to church on Sunday, and the Christmas Tree is simply NOT a symbol of Christianity, regardless of what you put on its highest branch.

So if we all celebrate Christmas, are we all really de facto celebrating Christ? I don’t think so, and this is the fault I find with the young man who cannot bring himself to wear a Santa hat. This is sad to me, and I don’t think our culture — or the human race — is better with such divisiveness.

My human journey has taken me down many spiritual paths, only to discover that, yes, there is only one God, but all human beings live and breathe in Him and He in them. God is life, and this is what we celebrate at this time of year. This business of who has THE path to God is an archaic notion that has served Western Civilization well but is fading fast in a world that doesn’t need a special priesthood to guide it.

And here’s the real nut of it for me. Am I a Christian? Absolutely. Am I a member of any faith? Absolutely not. Am I a threat to any religion? Only Christianity.

Go figure.

Real reporting?” As opposed to what?

As the rise of personal media continues to offer newbies the wherewithal to take unto themselves the duties and responsibilities of the craft of journalism, cries of “foul” from the High Priesthood of the Big J are getting noisier and more frequent. I don’t write about this much anymore, because I so long ago crossed over that it’s really very hard to “go back” and revisit memes long since put to death in my own mind.

But a phrase that I heard recently in a conversation — and have now found twice in current reading — is forcing a little examination. The phrase is “real reporting,” as differentiated, I suppose, from dishonest, fake, false, feigned, imaginary, imitation, invalid, unreal, or untrue reporting. “Real reporting” is apparently something reserved for the keepers of an imaginary holy flame, one that must be kept burning if democracy is to continue. “Real reporting” is only for the few, and anyone who attempts entry to the holy flame through a side door is, well, an imposter — a purveyor of that which is “unreal.”

Here’s a statement made on a recent discussion board thread about the future of journalism: “If advertising continues to erode, who will do the ‘real reporting?’”

Indeed. Without advertising, all we’ll have is dishonest, fake, false, feigned, imaginary, imitation, invalid, unreal, or untrue reporting. Sounds absurd, but that’s the argument.

My friend Jeff Jarvis (who knows better) even fell into the trap the other day in a great post decrying the ridiculous New York Times op-ed piece by an influential group of J-school deans suggesting a license for local (real?) reporting (just like the church tried to license the printing press back in the day). Jeff did a wonderful job of deconstructing the piece, but he then got on a different kind of high horse in comparing newspaper reporting to TV reporting (my umbrage may be due to my background in TV news). He argued that TV news could be improved if it merged with print (not a bad thought), but…

It could only help broadcast newsrooms to get a sense of real reporting and to get the work of hundreds of print journalists with cameras.

With respect to Jeff, I’ve worked in plenty of TV newsrooms where original reporting was the norm. The stereotype that all TV does is rip off headlines from the “real” press is not a universal truth.

But on the overall issue of “real reporting,” the wonder and beauty of journalism and the First Amendment are that they don’t qualify the press, because the press cannot be controlled or confined by any form of legal definition. For the press to BE the press, it must reflect the nature of those who are drawn to the trade — curious, rebellious, skeptical, resistant-to-authority, tenacious, creative, and resourceful people — not the type prone to any sort of conformist license.

Who is a reporter? We’re all reporters. Who does journalism? We all do journalism. Our audiences and approaches may be different than those who wish to set and maintain the information agenda in any community (or country), but no one has the right to say that your form of journalism is any more “real” than mine.

And so I feel, once again, compelled to state that the institutional, “professional” press in this country is the fruit of Walter Lippmann’s social engineering dreams, that democracy can only work if an educated élite (press included) leads the riffraff that is everybody else.

Real reporting” is threatened, according to all this noise of late. But let’s be “real” here. If that’s to happen, how would we do without “real reporting?”

We” will do just fine, because maybe what the world actually needs is some “real reporting,” as defined not by the status quo, but by the people who are sick to death of the monotonous, self-serving crap of those who wish only to protect themselves.

This is a core disruption brought about by the cultural shift from one that is hierarchical and neatly organized (a.k.a. Modernism) to one that is more participatory and chaotic (a.k.a. Postmodernism). And this is why is so important to be focused on people and not institutions when studying the changes around us.

So if advertising continues to erode, who WILL do the real reporting? I don’t know, but I think we’ll figure it out.

So this is what TV stations have become?

There’s a very revealing and sad statement in a Bloomberg News, Reuters article today about News Corp selling eight Fox affiliate stations. It’s from Richard Dorfman, managing director of the investment firm Richard Alan.

Ad dollars are migrating to the Web, but it’s a government-licensed franchise that can throw off good cash flow and reliably service debt.”

So there you have the bean-counter perspective on the value of a local television station in today’s changing market. It’s a cash cow that services debt.

Nice.