Are you on the vibe?

Michael Kors, Project RunwayFashion guru Michael Kors said something during Thursday night’s finale of Project Runway that has been on my mind ever since (hey, don’t judge me — I like the show). In debating who should win, he noted that Gretchen, the ultimate winner, was “tuned into the vibe” of where fashion is going. The other finalist in the debate was popular and had great clothes, but Kors continued to refer to the idea that “we’re always looking for where fashion is going to take us” and that Gretchen was “on the vibe.”

This may seem completely goofy, psychedelic or even snobbish to you, but it reminds me of Richard Adams’ “Unbroken Web,” that plane of existence hovering above the planet that sensitive people touch in order to retrieve creative ideas. I’m convinced there is a “vibe” and that it is speaking loudly, because we’re in the midst of one of the most creative times in the history of humankind, a kind of right brain renaissance, if you will.

I am influenced daily by people that I believe are on the cultural and media vibe, people like Dave WinerJohn Hagel, Kevin Kelly, Jay Rosen, Clay Shirky, Jeff Jarvis, Doc Searls, Robert Scoble, Michael Rosenblum, David Weinberger, Michael Arrington, Seth Godin and many others. Reading their thoughts is an instant connection to that vibe, and it fills me up in ways I can’t describe. Out of that flows the things that I write, for each of us has different gifts to add to the greater understanding of what Life is telling us in the abstract, the purpose of which is to bring it into the light of practice for all to understand.

The VibeThe problem with media, for me, is that most people in positions to do anything about it aren’t on the vibe, so it’s counterintuitive, confusing and most definitely frightening. Worse than the blank stares are the “we don’t agree with you’s,” because the path to opening such eyes is longer and tougher. At least blank stares can be taught. This is my greatest frustration as one who thinks, writes and attempts to teach others. I’m more than happy to discuss your disagreement, but you’re going to have to leave your contempt at the door and come into the discussion with an open mind. Most are unwilling to do that.

I work for Jerry Gumbert, a very, very smart man. He’s a bit of a quiet giant in the world of television news, and while you may have never heard the name, I promise you’ve been influenced by his work somehow, somewhere. We make a great team, because he’s much more wired into the selling of ideas, whereas I’m more of the “why can’t you see this” kind of guy. He knows my frustration and is constantly advising me to just take it slow and lead people to the light. And so I try, but here’s my real concern.

Being on the vibe stirs passion and ideas, but it also reveals the insanity of clinging to the status quo, not so much because it’s foolish, but because it’s so dangerous. Sometimes I honestly don’t think there’s time to lead people to the light, and that makes me nervous and fearful.

I realize that in writing this I’ve announced my belief that I am “on the vibe,” although I really think that judgment belongs with others. Like I’ve said before, though, I don’t really give a crap what everybody else thinks anyway, and the question that matters has nothing to do with me anyway.

Are you on the vibe?

Write conversationally? GUH!

A lot of clients ask for advice about writing for new media, and we regularly conduct workshops. It’s a tough thing to describe, and I’ve usually gone with the old “be more conversational” concept. I’m changing that, as of today, because I’ve encountered a new word that’s made me think.

GUH, according to the handy-dandy (and who could live without it?) Urban Dictionary, is:

Guh is to be used when a person says something so idiotic, moronic, and just plain stupid that you do not wish to use any brain power to reply and simply respond “guh.”

It’s hug spelled backwards and ugh spelled sideways. Who knew?

This could have been one of those serendipitous Web moments that I just put away in my memory banks for later usage had it not been the context within which I found it. There it was, smack dab in the middle of a story on TBD.com:

Cohen concludes. “I was young and boorish once myself and have turned out to be a veritable saint.” GUH

Huh? (That’s guh with a silent G)

So I did a little investigating and discovered that this word is commonly used — on non-traditional media sites bubbling up around the mainstream, sports sites, blogs, comments to stories and even some places that you might not expect.

The Guardian:

High on the list of Contemporary Fashion’s Most Annoying Whimsies, is its ongoing affection for clothes designed according to the principle of the (guh) “boyfriend cut”

The Washington Post Blog (comments, same post):

Full-blown hockey back on CSN HD! (Unfortunately, it’s Thrashers-Rangers. Guh.)

I was referring to my own attempts to push it further. (Guh. Gonna leave that in, but still …)

ProFootballTalk

During practice Jordan Palmer and Dan LeFevour split the snaps,” Joe Reedy of the Cincinnati Enquirer writes.  Guh.

SBNation

You’re down eight points if you kick the PAT. Score a touchdown and you have to go for two. Guh. I don’t even want to talk about this any more.

What I absolutely love about this is the personality reflected by the use of purely Web terms (that’s what “guh” is, right?) in the prose of these examples. So I’m changing my recommendation to clients now. Writing in conversational style is only part of the secret to writing for the Web. The other part is writing in the language of the medium itself, and that takes a bit of study and a whole lot of understanding.

This is another one of those issues that makes me feel that upstart, Web-only news and information entities have a leg up on traditional media, despite what the numbers might say today. You can’t just toss “guh” into an otherwise stiff, mechanical, AP Stylebook story and think you’re writing for the Web. GUH!

New media ethics: TechCrunch, a case study

The ethics of journalism are being rewritten, as that which is new advances. There are basically two forms of ethical conduct in the press today. One espouses a traditional set of canons and exists with self-restraint as a guide. In this world, objectivity — or attempts at objectivity — are the norm, for balance and fairness are the goals. Here, truth is presented as existing between two or more “sides” to stories. In the second world, however, transparency replaces objectivity in the belief that the audience can determine bias and figure out where the writer is coming from. In this view, objectivity is a farce and truth determination is up to the reader.

Much has been written and said this week about NPR firing “news analyst” Juan Williams for comments he made on Bill O’Reilly’s show on Fox. Williams is only the most recent firing for something like this, and I expect to see many more.

That’s because there is a great struggle between the two ethical perspectives today, with traditional journalism seemingly unable to grasp the other point of view. So today, I want to give you an example of how it works.

Michael ArringtonMichael Arrington is the top guy at TechCrunch, a blog-format publication tracking news in the world of technology. This includes reviewing new products, new companies and basically standing between Silicon Valley’s companies and the people who buy and use its products. Arrington has great sources and breaks many stories, and he often inserts himself in the stories he covers. He’s a very influential guy in the world of tech, and he operates under his own rules of transparency when it comes to ethics. I’ve come to know him as an ethical person, meaning I trust what he writes, although I know where he’s coming from.

This week, Arrington wrote a piece called Damnit Amex, Give Me A Credit Card. The story fit within the scope of tech news, because he used the software of a new company called Credit Karma to reveal that while he had zero debt and paid his bills on time, he wasn’t “qualified” for the American Express card he wanted. Many would argue that such a piece is way outside the boundaries of what journalistic ethics should allow. I mean, here he was tweaking American Express for a credit card. However, this is part and parcel of TechCrunch, for what better way for Arrington to relate to his readers and for his readers to relate to him than by bringing personal experience into the story?

Ironically, Amex is a TechCrunch advertiser, and wouldn’t you know it, an ad for an Amex card appeared right next to Arrington’s story. Oh my, the sales department must have winced at that one.

Amex ad next to TechCrunch story on Amex

A few hours later, Arrington revealed via Twitter that he’d gotten a call from American Express and that they were giving him the credit card. Nice. The power of the press, right? The reason this works for Arrington is that this is exactly who he is, and his readers know it and are completely comfortable with it. He hides nothing and pretends nothing. What you see is what you get. Welcome to the new world of journalism ethics.

Michael Arrington's tweet

Then, today, Arrington revealed in another post that the ad agency representing American Express has sent them an email trying to strong arm him into pulling the original article. The email foolishly threatened TechCrunch:

If you are not able to monitor this more closely, we unfortunately will not be able to run with TechCrunch in the future.”

So Arrington — in all his transparent glory — published this for all to see, and now American Express REALLY looks like a bunch of idiots. Arrington explains:

First of all, the agency in question should understand that the post was a significant net positive for American Express. Sure, I was complaining. But I also put American Express’ brand squarely in the center of things. There were a variety of credit cards that I was unable to get, but the Amex Starwood card was the one I wanted. I wanted it, and I couldn’t get it. Who doesn’t get how great that is for Amex?

Paleolithic marketing morons who can’t think outside of a box, that’s who. The same kind of person that not only gets upset that their client is the center of attention, but then actually threatens to pull business if we don’t get our editorial in line with their agenda. This isn’t the Wall Street Journal, you know. We don’t like being told by others what we can and cannot write.

TechCrunch IS Michael Arrington, beginning just five years ago as his blog. It carries his persona, and the views of its writers are understood by those who make up its audience. Not only does it work, but it produces the kind of compelling, relevant, and involved kind of news that traditional journalism would love to create, but can’t, because it follows the ethics of a bygone age. We’ve entered an era of personal branding and argument-laden prose that helps people figure out life around them through their surrogates, the men and women who bare their lives and views for all to judge.

Those of us in traditional media should not be surprised as this bubbles up beneath us. It certainly would be a minefield, if we suddenly attempted something like this ourselves, but in the end, we must acknowledge that people long ago began judging us and our behavior by turning away. The idea of protecting a media brand — so that a sterile environment could be maintained for the sale of advertising — is becoming less and less practical where audiences aren’t captive, so perhaps the time is ripe. I certainly wouldn’t bet the ranch on it happening soon, however, so we’re going to cede audience (and relevance) some day to those who come up from outside the reach of the mainstream. The drumbeats are clear to those with ears to hear.

There is tremendous pressure today on J-schools in teaching ethical conduct, and those who do not address the culture war are doomed to a slow and painful death as the people formerly known as the audience assume control. I feel qualified to say that, because I teach ethics at UNT, and I promise you that my students all understand what’s going on.

(Originally published in AR&D’s Media 2.0 Intel newsletter)

Journalism’s (artificial) decorum disrupted

an air about usA few years ago, I attended a high level conference on the future of journalism, specifically TV news. The two-day event opened with a video by NBC News anchor Brian Williams, who set forth the threat to professional journalism — and by extension, the whole country — by a ragamuffin band of losers called “bloggers.” To make the most of his argument about such foolishness (imagine, everyday people presuming THEY could be journalists, tsk-tsk), Williams quoted from a blog about — get ready for it — nasal hair. Everybody gasped and laughed, and we all got the point.

Nice way to frame a serious discussion, eh?

Professional journalists are a pissy, pernickety bunch, aren’t we? We have an air about us of privilege and prestige, certainly not a bit beneath even the most élite of those we cover. Over time, our agreement with culture has evolved to this:

We’ll provide “real” journalism without a point-of-view, so that you can feel good about running your advertisements in our midst. We’ll provide the lines of decency for all to follow, so that all will feel safe in our midst, including both news consumer and news maker, especially those of a political nature. Not only will we be fair, but we’ll go out of our way to be kind, so that you will grant us the access that both of us need to do our jobs. You need access to us, because you need us to make your position known. We need access to you, because we need to know what’s going on in order to make judgements about what’s important and what’s not. All the while, we’ll behave as adult colleagues, because together we help manage the difficult issues of the day.

This unwritten understanding exists wherever I’ve worked, even though few would mention or acknowledge it publicly. We’re government watchdogs, we tell everybody, but in practice we’re in a comfy, two-way relationship with those we cover. Even when we do “watch,” it’s often because some friend, associate or needed source has an agenda (think Watergate here). Regardless, this air of “professionalism” that accompanies our work is part and parcel to survival in the mainstream today. The decorum is artificial, to be kind.

Can you see how nose hair is such a threat?

But technology is now making it possible for those newsmakers who used to need us to take their message around us, so the cozy deal isn’t quite as necessary for them as it once was. Those who manipulate us need us, of course, although we don’t think or admit that this is occurring.

We all wonder where journalism is going.

In the past week, I’ve encountered three instances of journalism being practiced that was outside the handshake zone of the professional press, and I’m beginning to wonder if we pros don’t have it entirely wrong.

  • The first is the story of Steve Southwell, the Lewisville, Texas blogger who ran afoul of the school board for having the temerity to ask three school principals why they allowed evangelical Christian youth pastors to hobnob with students during the lunch hour. He was a guest of mine with the ethics class I teach at the University of North Texas. Southwell is an everyday guy practicing journalism by truly watchdogging local government in Lewisville. He’s the real deal when it comes to practicing the work of the Fourth Estate, although the school board voted they didn’t have to talk to him, because he isn’t credentialed. “Credentialed” journalists, you see, play by the rules of decorum. Southwell does not.
  • Next, I was referred to the work of Joey Dauben, the “publisher” of the online Ellis County Observer. Dauben has a unique, vocal and angry history with law enforcement and local governments in rural counties southwest of Dallas, and he once served as news editor of the Ellis County Press. He operates an unknown number of “journalism” sites, which he uses to get his version of truth to anybody paying attention. I don’t vouch for the veracity of Mr. Dauben, but he does represent another fellow keeping an eye on the comings and goings of those in power.
  • Finally, there’s the story out of Anchorage this week about the editor of the Alaska Dispatch website, Tony Hopfinger, being handcuffed and detained by security guards for a Republican Senate candidate he was trying to interview. Anchorage police arrived later and told the guards to release him, and no charges have been filed.

    The Miller campaign released a written one-paragraph statement from Fuller, then followed with a statement titled, “Liberal Blogger ‘Loses It’ at Town Hall Meeting.” In that statement, Miller accused Hopfinger of assaulting someone and of taking advantage of the meeting to “create a publicity stunt.”

    He said his personal security detail had to take action to detain “the irrational blogger.”

    The Nieman Journalism Lab published a feature on the handcuffed editor earlier this week, noting that the site now employs 10 reporters and editors, plus a small ad sales team.”

None of these three examples are what the traditional press would consider “their” peers, yet each, in his own way, is practicing journalism or a form thereof. Their tactics are aggressive, and they’re all watching those in power. What they’re not doing is participating in this sense of “the rules of decorum” that the American press has taken as its own, and I’m not sure that’s a bad thing.

How did we ever get so comfortable in doing what we’re doing anyway?

(Originally posted in AR&D’s Media 2.0 Intel Newsletter)

2011 operating mantra: new value creation

Which road to we choose?It’s budgeting time for media companies, so most of us are thinking about the future. We have choices to make, each of us.

Seth Godin has come along and offered a helpful glimpse at the four road options we have when facing choices in both business and life. The looping road, the indecisive new roads, the wrong road, and, of course, the right road. As a media observer and strategist for new media, the first two — and especially the first one, the looping road — are of most interest to me:

You might be stuck because you pick the wrong fork on a looping road. You keep getting better at the route you cover, but it doesn’t go anywhere, you just keep doing it over and over.

This is where I find most media companies in the new media space today. We’re getting better and better at running brand-extension websites and squeezing value out of them, but we’re not really going anywhere. Energy and resources spent serving this beast, therefore, are more costly than energy and resources spent creating new business models, yet most folks are stuck on the boosting brand road, because that’s all we know. Resources it takes to produce a dollar that’s standing still aren’t worth as much as those that produce a dollar that has exponential growth potential.

Another reason we’re stuck on this road is fear of the second:

You might be impatient or unable to stick to your decision to take this particular road, and thus you’re always starting on a new road. Since the new road is always strange to you, you rarely get any better at getting where you’re going.

Here, we’re presented with a suitable choice for tomorrow, but we’re unable or unwilling to give it the long runway it needs to get to a position of self-sustenance and beyond. We say we’re going to stick with it, but we give it a year and then move on to something else with the same results. Maybe that’s the right call, but one of the problems here is that our definition of “what works” is old school and usually built upon a traditional profit and loss statement. That’s because media is manager-driven, and managers need to see the processes delineated before pronouncing their blessing, and even then, the rug can be pulled out from underneath at any time, if the performance doesn’t live up to the projections. Position that against the tech industry that is eating our lunch, and you’ll find a different formula in place. Sure there’s a P&L, but there’s also a willingness to set it aside at any point when the model turns this way or that. Why is that? Because the vision drives the processes, not the other way around. Investor-supported businesses are, by necessity, run by visionaries who drive toward the goal, whether the processes are there or not. Managers? Perhaps. Leaders? Definitely.

I sense a growing willingness by companies to try new things, much more so than just a few years ago, and I think that’s positive. 2010 has certainly been a better year than 2009, and we hope that businesses will make the tough decisions about spending some of that money to invest in tomorrow instead of simply passing it along to shareholders. Wall Street media analyst James M. Marsh with Piper Jaffray told me last week that “the street” recognizes that media stocks are in an era of restructuring, which will likely continue for several years. 2011 is going to be rough, he thinks, and we would certainly agree. The bright spot, however, is where smaller numbers are headed north, where we need to dedicate resources that are producing new value.

That’s because new value creation is the operating mantra of media in 2011.

(Originally posted in AR&D’s Media 2.0 Intel Newsletter)

Blocking Google and its consequences

Google TVSo the networks have decided to block their programs from the reach of GoogleTV? Interesting, albeit expected response to the awful (for them) disruption that the service represents to the television industry.

Let’s begin.

Television’s early model was network affiliation. After all, you couldn’t serve your programs to viewers unless those programs could go out over the air to waiting antennas atop housetops in the community. For this, the networks paid broadcasters.

Then came cable. Networks bought or created their own channels are marveled at the dual revenue stream of advertising and subscribers. It evolved to a triple-dip, because rather than paying affiliates to carry programs, affiliates receiving compensation from cable companies had to share that compensation with the networks.

Then came the Web, and networks discovered — thanks to Apple — that they could deliver programs directly to viewers, absent advertising, for an even bigger fee. Content was disconnected from its source.

Then came Hulu, and the promise of big fees, direct distribution AND advertising brought everybody on board. Content is back connected to a source, which allows for the shoving of advertising into the equation. This is threatening cable companies, because why do you need cable, if you can get your programs delivered — to your TV set — via the Web?

Now comes Google (and Apple) TV. Google’s application is search-driven, something highly attractive to consumers. Once again, however, content is separated from source. Google is going to make money off of search and the networks want a cut of that. Hulu, which is owned by the networks, was first to block Google TV. Now the networks have done it themselves. You can have your Google TV, they’re saying, but you won’t get our programs.

This is a transparent negotiating ploy, but it does remind one of the RIAA’s battle against separating music cuts from their source. We all know how that ended, and I have to believe this will go down a similar path. The networks, studios and their lawyers are ready, no doubt, but it’s going to get ugly. Meanwhile, there’s a remarkable door opening wide for creative alternatives to network programming, a lot of which is already available via YouTube, which Google owns.

What do broadcasters do? I’m encouraging my clients to attach marketing to their videos and make them available, unbundled, to Google. We don’t want the network’s actions to interfere with what we’re doing.

Meanwhile, MDTV waits in the wings as the next iteration of network viewing. If the nets want their programming distributed this way, they’ll have to, once again, go through someone with a tower that can transmit the signal to waiting portable devices. What goes around, comes around, and it’s going to get very interesting. The only thing that could screw it up is broadcaster greed — a model that requires a subscriber fee to access the “free” signals. Good luck with that, practically and politically.

To quote the old proverb, we live in interesting times. Beware the law of unintended consequences in messing with empowered consumers today.