I Love It When A Plan Comes Together

AteamsmI pity the fool” is my favorite saying from the A-Team, the 80’s NBC drama/comedy featuring a team of actors with terrific chemistry. That line is from Mr. T, but the title line comes from the leader of the A-Team, actor George Peppard. It’s tongue-in-cheek, or sorts, because it was always used after something went terribly wrong, but the group ended up winning after all. I’m referencing it here today, because I want to share a couple of recent illustrations about my own prophecies from years past.

We’re at the dawn of the postmodern era, the age of participation (See my October 2003 essay, Participatory Journalism). While my industry, local TV, found my words fascinating, none of it made sense to them. I kept studying, analyzing and writing, but wherever I went to speak, people I was desperate to reach simply couldn’t grasp the concepts. Today, however, I can see things I predicted coming to pass, which both encourages me and makes me sad. “If only” is a phrase with much sorrow for someone who cares.

I live in Huntsville, Alabama, and while I once was the news director at WAAY-TV, my favorite TV news source is WHNT/News19. We got 8 inches of snow Wednesday and Wednesday night, so Thursday, the entire community was shut down. It was a very special snow day for families across the Tennessee Valley, and WHNT-TV led their evening news with clips and photos sent to them by average people (and some REALLY talented). In truth, the programs were filled with such stuff, so the reality was that everyday people produced the news that was on the TV station. This is what I’ve meant by the “Age of Participation.” Everybody is a media company today. Every. Body. And Jay Rosen’s “Great Horizontal” is pumping out content every hour of every day. What was “the news” yesterday here in Huntsville? Grown-ups and kids playing in the snow. The sun came out. It got up to 42 degrees. Roads cleared quickly. And through it all, everybody (well, nearly everybody) had the day off.

the dress

Then, there’s the story being featured nearly everywhere of “the dress” that’s gone viral. What color is it anyway? Is it blue and black or is it white and gold? It began as a question posed by the everyday owner of the dress on Tumblr and spread like wildfire after a Scottish entertainer passed it along. Even major celebrities got in on the act, people like Taylor Swift and, of course, Kim Kardashian. The mystery was solved by another everyday guy who simply tilted the screen of his laptop back and forth. Science then got in on the act, with Wired calling it an optical illusion.

The point is that “the news” is increasingly created and reported by you and me. Meanwhile, the debate over “real” journalism marches on, something I would suggest is a pretty serious waste of time. I mean, what IS “real journalism” anyway? The professionalization of the press is less than a hundred years old, and it has led to the cultural mess we have today, because “the pros” covet celebrity (I mean, CBS led the friggin’ Evening News with Bob Simon’s death — led the news with it! Really!).

We’ve lost our way, folks, but I trust the people to eventually find a way to keep each other informed about what’s important. The only issue is access, but that, too, has become a part of the Age of Participation.

The people formerly known as “the audience” are a whole lot smarter than we ever thought.

We need to stop underestimating our audience

Gary Vaynerchuk

Gary Vaynerchuk

I laughed out loud the other day while watching one of those wonderful Gary Vaynerchuk videos. You should already know what I mean by that, but if you don’t, here’s where to find Gary Vee, as he’s known: garyvaynerchuk.com.

The customers’ bullshit radar is better than ever before,” was the line that put a smile on my face.

You know why we have an audience problem in the news business? It’s because we behave as though they’re stupid. We act as though we’re so much better than those with whom we’re sharing information, and it shows. This is at the heart of a massive cultural change in our world, because the people just aren’t as stupid as the elites of the Industrial Age, 20th Century think we are. And we’re getting smarter every day, and the smarter we get, the more disruptive we get. I wrote about this in The Evolving User Paradigm many years ago.

Vaynerchuk is absolutely right, because people have access to information that used to be protected by and for elites. This is not going to end well for the status quo, and journalists especially — who think of our trade as a profession — are incredibly vulnerable in separating ourselves so arrogantly from the people we serve.

I’ve written before of Edward Bernays’ (The “father” of public relations) 1947 essay The Engineering of Consent, in which he wrote:

If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, it is now possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing it.”

The point is that the ruling class of the 20th Century is being disrupted by the Internet and its ability to put information in the hands of everyday people. It makes Bernays’ cleverness much more difficult, which prompts observers like Gary Vee to note that “The customers’ bullshit radar is better than ever before.”

In a recent interview with SFGATE, CBS Evening News anchor Scott Pelley tried to explain a recent uptick in ratings for network newscasts.

Because never in human history has so much information been available to so many people, but unfortunately that also means that never in human history has so much bad information been available to so many people.”

We may not get it right all the time, but at least (viewers) know serious journalists and serious editors are trying to get the news right.”

No they don’t, Mr. Pelley, as the Gallup survey of media trust going back to 1973 reveals a serious decline in trust of the press by the American public. Only 1 in 5 believe these kinds of statements. For the others (80% of us) what Mr. Pelley is selling is, well, bullshit.

But it goes far beyond that culturally.

In this simple statement, Mr. Pelley reveals his bias and represents the central argument of colonialism — that people are stupid and need the brilliance and experience of experts in order to survive and thrive. Along the way, these experts make a very fine living as parts of the hierarchical ecosystem that feeds the masses. Every institution of Western Civilization functions on this tenet, which needs to be the functional reality in order for the elites to manage everybody, whether they know it or not. It’s eerily similar to the way things where in 15th Century Europe when Gutenberg challenged the ruling authority of the Roman Church by printing the Bible and subsequently, a common English language version.

TVNewsCheck ran an article recently about WBIR-TV news director Christy Moreno in Knoxville who regularly asks for feedback from viewers on daily decision-making. Notice the response of the Poynter Institute, that bastion of journalistic tradition.

Purists, such as Kelly McBride, Poynter’s expert on journalistic ethics, however, don’t like the idea, saying the average TV watcher doesn’t have the skills it takes to resolve journalistic issues.

Making ethical decisions about journalism is a process,” McBride says. “When you crowd source a decision, you come out with the lowest common denominator. That’s just the math of it.

So easily do these words flow from Ms. McBride’s mouth (and, let’s be honest here, the mouths of “most” professional journalists) that there’s not even the slightest thought that the idea may be insulting to a person with even average intelligence. This delusional gap between journalist and average citizen is at the heart of the people’s mistrust of the press.

I keep running into TV news directors who view their websites as a distribution point for what we call “Finished Product News,” in other words a completed, fully-vetted story filled with every detail and pictures or video that we have (see my 2007 essay “News is a Process, Not a Finished Product”). It’s not; it’s a distribution point for bits and pieces. Our TV newscasts are our “finished products.” This, too, is a failure to recognize a) that people understand the moving, changing, evolving nature of news in the process of development and b) that they don’t need us to assemble everything for them.

Citizen media pioneer Dan Gillmor and author of the seminal “We, The Media,” once wrote “My readers know more than I do.” He was speaking of his readers as a group, and he spoke to them always with respect and humility. We could use a whole lot more of that ourselves as we deal with both the changing nature of news on the Web and the changing cultural roles brought about by the cultural shift to postmodernism.

Future jobs for journalists

In my travels, I encounter smart people who are really thinking about tomorrow, and I love to engage them in discussions. Here, culled from recent encounters, are some thoughts about four jobs that you’ll find in the not-so-distant (perhaps tomorrow) future:

  1. Editor — yes, editor, only not in the hierarchical sense of traditional newsrooms. This person will be responsible for tweaking all web content to make sure it aligns with the stated goals and purposes of the organization. This person will know and understand the intricacies of marketing and promotion and how every word in a web story — from the headline to the smallest detail — is important. In a world where reporters are firing back “content” from the field using whatever technology is best suited, mistakes are going to be made and pictures are going to need to be added. This will be the role of the editor, and it is especially crucial in a continuous news environment.

  2. Advertising producer — in a world where everyone is a media company, including advertisers, those “media companies” need producers, and this is where a lot of former traditional journalists will find work in the years to come. Each automobile on a car dealer’s lot, for example, is “content” for that company’s website. How will they be presented/produced? Who will do this work? Everything is a story and there’s conflict and resolution in everything.

  3. Discussion monitor — today’s participatory world requires monitoring by media companies that wish to exploit the conversation that is news in ways that will enhance their coverage of issues in the community. Today, most media companies see (and use) Twitter and Facebook as ways to get their messages out, but it’s the messages coming back in that are most important. We need somebody to monitor all of that, including the comments on stories or anything else we do, in order to claim to be a part of the conversation. So get as many followers as you can, yes, but also follow anybody you can find locally and monitor their messages.

  4. Live stream hub anchor — this person’s job will be an entire shift of live streaming the news day. Armed with access to reporters, editors, weather and sports anchors, and discussion monitors, this person will deliver a constant stream of live coverage throughout the day, beginning prior to and including the morning meeting. Live reports from the field via phoners or Skype, access to RSS feeds and wire services, chat and regular breaks will make up the stream. Users will come and go throughout the day, but the content stream will be consistent and moving forward.

I also believe that every content creator will have a blog, that news organizations will hire freelance independent journalists rather than paying all as employees, that news websites will organize information in such a way that users can create their own experience, that research will be continual, that the farm system for local news will be local, and that connecting businesses with consumers is the answer to how news gets funded downstream.

I believe lots of other things too, but if I told you them all, you’d have to pay me.

Pew report’s a stunner, but where’s it all headed?

To those of us who’ve been following the disruptive innovation known as the Internet for a long time, the latest “State of the News Media” report from the folks at Pew comes as no surprise. Nothing is shocking anymore, not even the brutally harsh tone of this report, “the bleakest” since Pew began issuing them annually six years ago.

I’ll spare you the numbers and the graphs, because they only look at where we’ve been and where we are. I’m more interested in where we’re going. I encourage you to go read the report for yourself, because it does paint a painfully accurate portrait of where we are in the community of journalism. More on that in a minute, but first, the report’s “six emerging trends:”

  1. The growing public debate over how to finance the news industry may well be focusing on the wrong remedies while other ideas go largely unexplored.
  2. Power is shifting to the individual journalist and away, by degrees, from journalistic institutions.
  3. On the Web, news organizations are focusing somewhat less on bringing audiences in and more on pushing content out.
  4. The concept of partnership, motivated in part by desperation, is becoming a major focus of news investment and it may offer prospects for the financial future of news.
  5. Even if cable news does not keep the audience gains of 2008, its rise is accelerating another change—the elevation of the minute-by-minute judgment in political journalism.
  6. In its campaign coverage, the press was more reactive and passive and less of an enterprising investigator of the candidates than it once was.

The Pew annual reports are excellent and very useful for media companies in the removal of the scales that hide the truth. The graphs will show up in PowerPoint presentations from coast-to-coast, as we all try and figure out what to do next, and that can be problematic when staring only at a “where we’ve been and where we are” perspective. Research is based on what has already happened, and if you follow those trend lines, you’ll end up on-the-street. The report says “reinvent” in a few places, but it can’t give any direction there, other than to report on “emerging trends.” This is not to be critical of the work — it’s outstanding — but rather of the shortcomings of constantly looking backwards.

I have only my crystal ball (Fred doesn’t believe in such), but here’s what it’s showing me:

  1. It’s gone and it’s not coming back. Acceptance of this is the beginning of reinvention.
  2. Future revenue is about enabling commerce, not about serving advertising adjacent to or as an interruption of “content.”
  3. Journalism will survive the death of its institutions (thanks, Lisa).
  4. Most journalists will be independent and work for whoever pays them the most, on a non-exclusive basis.
  5. Journalists will develop and exploit niche specialties.
  6. The News” will be fast, transparent and authentic.
  7. Anchors will become mostly obsolete, like other middlemen that the Web routes around. I simply can read faster than I can have it read to me. Those that remain will be live hubs that filter multiple content inputs.

There will be nothing passive about the news experience of tomorrow, neither from the gathering and presentation end, nor the consumption end, and this means it’s going to be a lot of work. But work will be rewarded, and new institutions and hierarchies will be built.

Of course, I could be wrong.

The personal media revolution in one picture

This amazing picture is worth more than a thousand words I could write about how much things have changed in just a few short years. How many potential citizen journalists here? Everybody. UPDATE: Ryan rightly notes in the comments that this was at the Youth Ball.

Nobody is watching. They are all taking pictures and making videos

Quote of the day

Slate’s Jack Shafer writes “Not Just Another Column About Blogging.”

If newspapers, magazines, and broadcasters don’t produce spectacular news coverage no blogger can match, they have no right to survive.

Amen to that, and I should add that this column is an extremely worthwhile read, an excellent summary of how personal media’s Gutenberg moment has disrupted the status quo of professional media.