Monday, January 1, 2018

Dear Warren Buffett ...


You own a bunch of newspapers -- little, local newspapers, that you bought from Media General just before it disintegrated completely, finally selling its TV holdings to Nexstar. When you made that buy, I wondered: WHY?!

It was ironically the president of Nexstar, Perry Sook, when they bought the TV station I worked for around the same time, who dismissed newspapers as a dying medium as he spoke to us, his new employees. Nexstar, I was to learn, also wasn't so much interested in traditional broadcast TV either. The folks from corporate arrived with their eyes primarily on what our web presence was ... and of course sales and reducing expenses, especially human ones. But that rant is for another day.

It is a truism (and thus nothing particularly novel or wise when Sook said it) that print is dying, eclipsed by free internet content. So why would one of the richest men in America, the Oracle of Omaha, want a dying industry?

Fortune had a theory they posited last February: "In effect, Buffett appears to own newspapers not because he believes they have a future, but because he believes that they can produce cash flow—albeit declining amounts—while they are dying, and that this can be used for other investments. Berkshire Hathaway owns a number of investments of this kind, like Dairy Queen and See’s Candies."

And, when I have asked people, a range of theories have been offered, from classified advertising to selling assets and real estate.

But this is all in contrast to the other big-name newspaper buy: Jeff Bezos' purchase of The Washington Post. That buy seemed obvious to me, and The New York Times quoted him explaining it at a conference in June: "Mr. Bezos said he bought the newspaper because he wanted to make it into a more powerful national — and even global — publication, and that The Post was well situated to be a watchdog over the leaders of the world’s most powerful country. 'If it had been a financially upside-down salty snack food company, I would not have bought it,' he said."

Two thoughts are there, I think, when that quote is translated (from last to first):
1. He bought a media company because he wanted a media company, not because he wanted assets or real estate or whatever.
2. He bought a media company because he wanted media, or rather the product that makes it a media company rather than a salty snack food company. He wants -- he needs content.

(And, by the way, what's with all this hating on snack treats? Dairy Queen is dying? Another of life's little treats evaporating? But that's neither here nor there.)

Bezos has a massive technology operation geared at delivering mostly stuff: books, then CDs, and now just about anything, including digital print, audio, and video. Amazon is producing its own TV shows and  movies, and unashamedly trolling for more. Unlike many other internet-centric information companies, Bezos has started making his own stuff. (And this trend of being a content deliverer without producing content is indeed something that's bothered me for a while.)

 

So Where's It All Going?


As CNN's Brian Stelter reported (in what rates right up there as a lazy, year-end review),  there's been a lot of change just in 2017. And that's just the tail end of this years-long series of changes. Is there a traceable line that we can use to see where it's going?

Apparently, no.  Take, for example, this graphically lively but oh so wrong series of predictions from Nieman Lab. "My prediction is not solely that media leadership will be feminized, but that news itself will take on a new, more feminine, tone," says one. Nice, but irrelevant. How about: "In way too many stories, the idea that tens of millions of people could lose health insurance amounted to a throwaway line. Those are real people, people like my sister, who will literally die if she can’t afford her medicine."  Undoubtedly important, but what exactly does that have to do with the future of journalism? Or the idea that media will go into merchandising, if the haven't already.

Even when they get on subject, they've arrived at the station too late for the train. "Not only is there a lot more investment into video journalism, television’s business models, broadcast or cable, are also dominating: from video ads before or in the middle of a clip, product placement, and monthly subscriptions. This is while digital or analogue ads for text-based media are plummeting," says a predictor. No one's happier than I, a laborer in the field of video, to hear video's the future. But then why are broadcasters seeing audiences shrink while they pay consultants tons of money to find those wandering eyeballs?

So, it's the internet, right? Well, one review after another, time and again, very rationally argues that the current news aggregator models, despite a shift to videos, just aren't working. In the end, as with any business, you have to ask where the money is coming from.
 

So Why Newspapers?


But here's the thing, Mr. Buffett.  Did you really buy newspapers just because they would produce some paltry profits as their orbits slowly decayed and they burned up in the new media star? Is the fact that they are, in their way, creative endeavors produced by people (people, as in real people) making stories and pictures out of ephemeral life and experience not in any way part of the equation? Well, hell, you might as well have bought them for the real estate.

In the internet age, the information economy, I can't believe that this information product has no value. As I said in my old posting: Sooner or later, you have to have a source. You can't just spend your time repackaging other work ... if you don't have that other work.

“Newspapers continue to reign supreme in the delivery of local news,” you said when you bought them, according to Fortune. “If you want to know what’s going on in your town—whether the news is about the mayor or taxes or high school football—there is no substitute for a local newspaper that is doing its job.”

That's the key. Bezos bought the Post and is now actually expanding staff because he was buying the content, not the package. Buying newspapers for the newspaper is like buying Coca-Cola for the two-liter bottle.

Now, the Post is this message writ large. It does have a market, one others -- probably less successfully because they live only in New York and LA -- are trying to tap into. But you, Mr. Buffett, have always had the advantage of the perspective from flyover country. The Post isn't going to tell you about what's going on in Omaha, and you had a sense of that in that quote just above, that thing you said when you first bought the papers. Now you need to take the next step and understand you didn't buy local papers, you bought local news and the reporters and photographers who gather it and turn it into a salable commodity. The newspaper is just what it's wrapped in.





Sunday, August 6, 2017

You're Just Not Listening, Are You


You need to get over yourselves. The pseudo-drama of hiring a sketch artist to cover the White House press briefing is silly ... and old news.


This is a picture I drew 21 years ago, in the briefing room during the Clinton administration, of Mike McCurry briefing press not for camera. As a photographer, I had nothing much to do, so I drew the event in a notebook I carried with me at the time.

This was a mundane, daily briefing, and no one found it at all remarkable that it was not for camera. Most of the briefings back then, as I remember it, were not expected to be on camera. They were times for the writers to get all the messy, boring details from the press secretary, like who was where when, what the schedule was, what the party line was on this bill or that initiative. It was considered just day-to-day detail work.

Which is why I find it so amusing that everyone was so up in arms when the Trump White House made the regular briefing not for camera. It's not that big a deal. The briefings were never considered camera worthy until cable TV news came on the scene, and only then because someone thought to actually turn on the briefing room cameras during one of the regular press secretary briefings. It gained a cult, CSPAN-like following, but it generally wasn't recognized as some pillar of democracy.

Frankly, were I press secretary, I would start the administration with the general, daily briefing being off camera. What's the point? It just encourages little acts of performance art on both sides, and that's now exactly what we get instead of anyone learning anything.









Saturday, June 24, 2017

You're Still Not a Photographer


Nor are you a web designer, or a journalist, or for that matter a media outlet. You ain't The New York Times or ABC or even Vice media.



I saw this Go Daddy ad the other day, and it set me off ... again. And I apologize in advance, but really this is the very problem with the modern culture.

There have always been things people seem to think anyone could do if given the chance, like politics. And there have been things that people often carry around as a dream that they could do, if they only practiced or tried hard enough, like athletics or music. Whole industries have been built around the latter, involving things like Baseball Camp and "American Idol."

But modern technology now makes us think we actually can do a lot of things -- or anything it seems -- just because this gizmo or that service makes it so simple.

I previously ranted about a Nikon ad like this (among other things) which implies, or rather outright says that a fancy camera can make annoying actor Ashton Kutcher just as good as a professional fashion photographer who has spent his entire life reaching his professional position.

The Go Daddy ad is much the same ... including coincidentally an annoying character: a personification of The Internet. Sure, personifying the internet is a cute idea, but it all ends with the implication that you don't really need to actually know what you're doing or learn anything to make great web sites.

Much as I said about the Nikon ad: sure, the concept makes sense. Give us your money and we'll make you an instant genius. So give us your money. But life just doesn't work that way, children. Wishes very, very rarely come true just by wishing.

Remember all those hilariously embarrassing auditions by the deluded on "American Idol?" Or that moment in so many stories when the guy realizes that, even though he wanted more than anything to be a pro baseball player, he just doesn't have the natural talent ... no matter how hard he works? It's time we understood that about a lot of other stuff.

Go ahead, use the Go Daddy software to build your website. It'll look fine. It'll be good enough. 'Cause that what you want, something that's ... okay.

Or maybe not. I saw a video at a public event not long ago. It looked like the person in charge had dumped a bunch of stills into one of those automatic programs and let 'er rip. It was awful. It went too long, it had no structure or flow, it glitched. Even as parents looked at photos of their beloved children, they began to squirm. But the video's creator thought it would work, because that program said it could help you make a video just like the pros.

However, I do have some hope, and oddly I place it in the hands of the cliche of our decade, the Hipsters.

An aspect of the Hipster fascination with the past -- with things like Steampunk, and crypto-Victorian beards, and hand-crafted food, and so on -- is a fascination with authenticity. Old typewriters and locally sourced food are products of hand work to produce the real thing.  The real thing is, well, real. It requires knowledge, talent, and practice. You can't just decide you want to be a real family farmer, sign on to some software program or buy a gizmo and be it. It takes time, effort, learning, and dedication.

Which finally brings me to the point: Real Life requires work. You just have to work at it. 10,000 hours adds up to 416 (and a little more) days. That's if you do something 24/7. Let's say you do it a more reasonable, if incredibly dedicated, 8 hours a day (that's 1,250 days), five days a week (250 weeks). 250 weeks = a little less than 5 years. Again, if you do it for 8 hours a day, every day, like a job. And that's just to become good at something ... as the story, which might be a myth (like the 10% of the brain thing), goes.

But, as I have said before, let's say you really work at something. You build a career of it. You endure failure and enjoy success as you progress through your work, and you reach a level where you are considered a legitimate professional. Not a star, not a champion, not the top of your field, just a professional. Don't you deserve some respect for that? Respect that indicates that not just anyone can show up one day and be what you are after years of work?

So, you are not a web designer just because you used some free software. You are not a chef because you watched a cooking show and made a tasty dinner. And you are not a photographer because you bought a fancy camera or clever smart phone.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Eighth Deadly Sin


For various reasons, I've been trying to categorize something that I think is inadequately defined, at least in English. I mean, there are concepts that other languages have words for that English lacks, and this is one of them, but I don't know of another language's word for what I mean either.

What I have come up with is: Resentfulness. This is different from envy or jealousy, which I think both imply a desire to have something one lacks. Resentfulness doesn't mean you want the thing others have, you just are pissed off that they have it.

It's also different from the overused German schadenfreude. That is about being happy when others fail. Resentfulness is exactly the opposite: to be angry that others succeed.

I think it's just as soul-rotting as all these other things. It makes it easy to sit and steam about other people being happy. All it does is produce negativity. It makes you more unhappy, and does nothing to improve your situation. And the obvious solution -- to make those happy people unhappy -- does nothing but make things worse, not better.

So one must learn to confess, address, and come to terms with the fact that, as every parent has said to every teenager in history, life is not fair.


Saturday, March 4, 2017

The End of the World as We Know It


It is a truism now that news media are in a time of transition. The internet has changed how people get news. Cable TV has created a 24-hour news cycle, which the internet has only accelerated. Access to blogs and podcasts has "democratized" the process. Print -- physical newsprint -- is generally assumed to be dying as a medium, replaced by electronic access to the same content, which would be unrecognizable to the reader of even 50 years ago, with the addition of video, audio, interactive charts, and so on.

But in our focus on the form, the technology of it all, I'm wondering if we haven't missed a bigger, more "meta" aspect of the change, and it's Donald Trump who makes me wonder about it.



We in the journalism business were taught and continue to believe a certain function for our profession. It's something that you've heard a lot about in pushback to the "fake news" accusations of late, but it also has more to it than that ... at least for us.

Right now, you hear a lot about afflicting the comfortable and speaking the truth, but that's not always our function. Actually, if one is honest, it's not our function very often. Most journalistic time is spent on fires and car wrecks, or on heartwarming feature stories about cute kids and adorable pets. And there's nothing wrong with that. It doesn't take much effort to see that those stories bring readers and viewers, and I frankly believe that most people go into public service with the intent to do good.

So what, you're asking, am I suggesting? That journalism is a glorified version of ambulance chasing and cat videos? No, and here's my point: In a broader sense, we have journalists to go places and see things so you won't have to. As humans, we all want to know. We want to know why there's a massive backup on the highway, and whether anyone was hurt in that wreck. We want to know what happened at that fire, or why police were all over at that store up the street. These things may not really affect us in any direct way, but we still want to know.

And that is the social function of journalism. We are delegated to be nosy and curious, to be pushy and ask impolite questions, to stand around and watch, so that crowds gather less and false rumors don't run amok. Is this important? Look at countries with dysfunctional journalism, like the old Soviet Union or Middle Eastern autocracies: the most insane rumors spread, wild conspiracy theories live vibrantly, nothing is trusted, no matter how supported, because no "fact" is considered factual.

But now, we are told, everyone can be a journalist. The internet has eliminated the huge overhead required to reach out to more than a few friends and acquaintances. Anyone in the world, if they so chose, could read these very words if they found the website. I have the reach or any giant media corporation, if not the readership.

There is an essential error, however, to that phrase: "Everyone can be a journalist." And it's an error that cuts both ways in that, now that anyone can act like a journalist, many have begun to believe that they are just as good at this as a traditional journalist, and there we have our problem.

That overhead expense traditional media used to face meant that, before they handed the keys over to somebody, management wanted to make sure they could drive. Putting out fake news, not properly checking the facts, even sloppy writing or inadequate work meant you were forcibly stopped from being a journalist. Without that testing and seasoning, without management that can feel the pain of losing money (or worse yet, with management that can make money with clicks to fake news), there's no control, no authority. When everybody's a journalist, eventually no one is.

While we in the news industry have been focused on technology and ratings (or circulation), the continents beneath us have been shifting. The public no longer see us as their proxies because they don't think they need proxies anymore. We were worrying about where to find our audience and how the public was reading and watching us. Buzzwords like "three screen viewing" and "hyper local" were presented by consultants as the way to stop the hemorrhage of eyeballs. But we were missing the point. It wasn't their eyeballs we were losing, but their belief in us.

Now journalism is in search of itself, literally. Where people go for the news, and even what they consider the news, has left the place where we always found it and taken on a new identity. It is a period of far more profound transformation than whether the New York Times will stop its print edition or TV will become only on-demand streaming. It is a question of the very meaning of the term "Journalism."



Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Time


What is it about time? Or rather, I guess, what is it about my time? As in: I don't have any.

That's why this blog has laid (lied? lain?) fallow for so long. It's not like I don't want to do it. Far from it; I really want to exercise my independent writing skills in a way controlled by me, expressing the thoughts and concepts that friends and family have now tired of hearing. (Imagine living with that guy who suddenly comes up, without preface, to talk about how the White House staff should be restructured, or what the future of journalism might be, or how we could get to Mars without being killed by cosmic rays in the process. I realize it's a bit bizarre, and do try to spare them.)

But I digress. I'm trying, but I just never seem to have the time. There are a handful of potential entries in the bin here, helpfully labeled with a little red "Draft." My favorite, the one I really wish I had some real time to craft, consists only of a half-dozen internet links to various long think pieces, all of which I want to string together to express a concept of my own on where journalism and society and, specifically, photojournalism have gone. I call it "I Blame You." Intrigued?  Me too.

But maybe that title is also part of a solution. I need to carve out time for things. However, despite what physics (which says all of time already exists) or philosophy might say, my pie seems of a finite size, and by the time I do work (incredibly time consuming), the stuff in support of work (also time consuming), family and home demands, other various responsibilities ... well, about the only thing I manage to force is about a cumulative hour of sitting still in an effort to not do anything, because that's necessary too.

So: writing. Where do I find, where do I force, where do I carve out the time for writing? And art? And personal projects?

Afterword

Shortly after posting this, I realized I had left one massive question unanswered: So how did I get the time to write this entry?

Put simply: I worked an hour of overtime yesterday, which corporate hates, so the bosses asked me to start my day late today. Unfortunately, I found out about this only after getting up at my usual 5:30 am, which I probably would have had to do anyhow in order to take care of the many tasks required to get my girl off to school, but now there's an extra hour in the interim. Hence: the time to write.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Mary Tyler Moore


Every generation has its markers. One of the markers in mine was Mary Tyler Moore.

In the early 1960s, she was Laura Petrie. In the old Dick Van Dyke Show, she was the clever, pretty, stay-at-home wife and (later) mother. Then she was Mary Richards, journalist, TV producer, working in a newsroom full of clever people doing fun things.

She was my Mom, and I was little Richie. She was my coworker and friend. It's like she was always at the center of my life.