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Recently, William Saletan published The Conversion, a wonderful story about the evolution of Mitt Romney’s views on abortion rights. It’s exhaustively researched and long: some 13,000 words, including a video summary and detailed infographic. It spells out revealing information about how Romney processes important political decisions, and sheds light on how complicated and large-looming the politics of abortion are in the US, equally obsessed with religion and personal liberty. It’s the sort of story that so many readers still seek out and cherish, as evidenced by sites like Longform.org, which aggregate relatively long pieces of journalism.
But had you come across the story on Slate’s home page, you would have no way from distinguishing it from, say, this article, a 200-word quick-hit entry about the cars the Romney family drives. The abortion article may have been longer featured on Slate’s home page, and it certainly received more attention on the internet, but a browser of the Slate website or RSS feed would have no way differentiating between the relative weights of these two articles without clicking through.
As we transition from print to online media, this is one of the huge challenges that has yet to be overcome. Reading a physical newspaper is a very particular experience, in part because experienced layout people hand-design every page to give prominence to the material that’s deemed most important, but mostly because you can usually see which articles are longest. The full text of the article is right there. And while attempts to bring a print-like layout to the web have mostly failed, the reader’s need to know what lies behind each link as they scan a web page remains. Many websites have done a good job of identifying links that lead to photo slideshows, infographics, and video content, but for ordinary stories there is no way to tell how long the article is, how much effort the reporter has put in, or how long it’ll take to read.
It’s fantastic that, contra some predictions, the internet has not reduced all online reporting to short blog posts. But making long articles impossible to dinstinguish from short ones places a burden on readers, who treat articles of different lengths in different ways. Many of us spend the morning gobbling short items in large volume in an effort to stay up to speed with the day’s events “water-cooler” topics. We often save longer articles to services like Instapaper and Read it Later for more relaxed reading, perhaps an after-dinner session on an iPad.
Fundementally, this problem is not difficult to solve. When I designed The Heat Lightning, I incorporated into the traditional blog format a word count for each “read full article” link. The site Longreads provides not just a word count, but an aproximate reading time for each article it aggregates (based on approximately 265 words per minute). A minimal but elegant solution is on display in Instapaper’s iPhone app. A series of gray dots below the short summary of the article indicates aproximate length, three dots for short articles up to a dozen or so for epic pieces. It’s simple and easily scanable, but doesn’t convey the information in a precise way. Then again, you don’t get an exact wordcount by scanning the layout in a printed newspaper either — just a rough visual sense of its length.
As we transition from print to online media, features like these become essential. It’s possible to flip through an entire edition of a daily paper, scanning headlines, skimming some articles and reading others, over breakfast. The same is not true of digital newspapers, because every story is on its own page, and even on a fast internet connection pages take a couple of seconds to load. A typical newspaper home page has hundreds of links, so the inflection point is the click itself. We’ve got a headline and a few lines of summary text in which to make the decision to take the plunge or not.
What we need here is some way to see just a little more of the story before committing to clicking through. Why not show the first couple of paragraphs of a story when the reader’s mouse pointer is over the headline? (The same effect could be accomplished on a tablet by pinching open.)
Over the last five years, many publications have intelligently revamped their websites, creating useful information hierarchies, usable navigation systems, and easily readable content pages. But as we use Twitter and recommendation tools like Longform more and more to find articles to read, the home pages of many publications’ websites are falling into disuse. Adding tools like these, that take into account how readers consume content, would do a lot to make these pages more useful.
Having little else to attack Barack Obama for, FOX News is beating him up for rising gas prices, going so far to use blatantly misleading charts.
The good news is that FOX themselves made the argument that the president has very little influence over gas prices — during the George W. Bush administration. Check it out:
My complaint is not the usual one that you probably get: biased reporting. No. This is he said, she said reporting, one of the lowest forms of journalism in existence, in which the NPR reporter washes her hands of determining what is true. The new Kansas regulations may be a form of harassment, intended to make life as difficult as possible for abortion providers in that state. Or, alternatively, these rules may be sane, rational, common sense, sound policy: just normal rule-making by responsible public officials.
Is it the responsibility of a reporter to try to figure out “who’s right” in situations like this? How would they even go about doing that? Rosen’s got answers.
For example: Opponents of abortion in Kansas say the regulations are just common sense. NPR could compare the proposed regulations for abortion to other procedures that are performed at clinics in that state: do the regulations for, say, colonoscopies specify that storage areas for “janitorial supplies and equipment” must be at least 50 square feet per procedure room? Or is that kind of requirement unique to the state’s proposed rules for abortion? I don’t know the answer, but NPR could try to find out. And if it’s not NPR’s job to find out, who’s job is it?
There’s more, including an exchange with NPR’s ombudsman, and it’s very much worth a read. Rosen’s here fighting for nothing less than the future of journalism. Here’s a followup.
The Times’ 100 best films of the decade. Great list! But!: I like the Bourne series too, but number2?! Also overrated: Slumdog Millionaire (#6), Borat (#11), and Bad Santa (#54). Underrated: The Royal Tenenbaums (#88), Milk (#53), and the films of Spike Jonze, of which Being John Malkovich is #29, and Adaptation and Synecdoche, New York are missing. Also missing: Rachel Getting Married. (via)
Graph of the circulations of major US newspapers since 1990. Fun!
There is something about film directors — they are at the top of their field, and they need to juggle artistic, technical, and personal challenges at every stage of their work. But maybe because of that and maybe just because of poor sampling, it seems that directors are always fascinating to listen to. We know about Woody Allen and Quentin Tarantino, but perhaps the taker of the cake is Werner Herzog. Even though it’s not an interview, check out this. (But fuck it, let’s have some interviews: how about by Errol Morris, Vice Magazine, Roger Ebert, and The Guardian for starters.)
You know how episodes of This American Life are supposed to be based on a theme? But they’re not, right? The “theme” thing is a conceit, and the episodes are really an excercise in tying together the most disparate possible group of stories. It’s pretty fantastic, but what if a radio program picked a theme and really tried to explore and shed some light on that theme. Well, that radio program would be To The Best of Our Knowledge. But TTBook, as it calls itself, is not dry and didactic. It’s every bit as poetic and inspirational as This American Life. It’s contributors have enough Midwestern NPR sincerity make Steve Inskeep sound like Steven Colbert, and they sometimes veer dangerously close to paralyzing self-consciousness, but it’s always in the line of trying to get to the real heart of the issue.
But the best way to explain how great this all is might be to present a few episodes. Almost all of the episodes on the site are in RealAudio(!), so I figured I’d try to make them a little more user-friendly. I’d suggest subscribing to the podcast for future episodes.
The New Abolitionists: There are more human slaves in the world today then at any other time in history. The first interview in this show is with a woman who was abducted from the street in New York, and spent 5 years as a slave. The second, with a journalist who wrote a book on contemporary slavery, is about going to Haiti to purchase a child. Then follows the story of the successful abolitionist movement in Britain, over two hundred years ago, which succeeded — while innovating many of the techniques still used by political activists — because it got the whole of society to care. Finally, looks at a modern-day family’s attempts to come to grips with its slave-trading legacy and an interview with a Nobel Peace Prize winner about the economics of poverty which drive slavery. In one hour, the program explains how slavery works, argues that it can be stopped, and explains how to stop it. mp3 link
Alone Time: The first two segments are the quintessential TTBOOK juxtaposition: an in-depth discussion of the neurological and evolutionary origins and consequences of the cognitive process of loneliness, followed by an interview with a guy who spent a year living in complete isolation in the near-Antarctic part of Chile. Plus songs of loneliness, and a look at how American society is becoming increasingly isolated. mp3 link
David Foster Wallace: Obviously a labor of love for the crew, this posthumous look at DFW’s life and writing includes interviews with book critics, family, editors, and the writer himself (the program interviewed him three times between 1996 and 2004). There are links at the bottom of the page to the full versions of these interviews (recommended!) as well as an excerpt from the famous commencement speech DFW gave at Kenyon College in 2005. mp3 link
I do not think that I have never particularly cared about a single thing The Awl has written about, but I love reading it all the time anyway, because of the glorious wordsmithery of Choire, Balk, et al. However, it bothers me that there are two reasons why reading The Awl in an RSS reader is better than reading it on the site: (1) you can read as much of each post as you’d like instead of as much as the site’s editors would like without having to keep clicking “READ ON” and then clicking back and waiting for things to load and (2) you can see the name of the person who wrote it under the title of each post (i don’t know why all group blogs don’t assume that at least some readers care who writes what?).
But let us not leave it there. Let us point to this fun, which admittedly I might care about more than the average reader because said issue was the first in my subscription to said magazine and because I have actually enjoyed a couple of Dave Eggers books and other things. So, whatever. I’ll skip the story and see the movie, and I’ll try to hold in my heart a little skepticism directed toward the New Yorker’s fiction editor. And I’d urge anyone who read all (two pages!) of the post to also read enough of the comments to get to this bit by Choire:
But I absolutely do believe this is a pegged event for the promotion of the movie. Between the studio-supplied art–and I speak as someone who’s been doing a weekly silly Q&A feature for a major newspaper for the last three years or so, and for which even that little thing we would NEVER accept studio art–to the timing, to the Brand Naminess Quotient (in which you ask: would the New Yorker publish this submission from my Aunt Susan? No they would not): well, it all smells.
(Um, sorry: don’t try to parse that grammar and punctuation.)
There’s been so so much written about the decline of the newspaper industry over the last five years, and so much of it takes the view that the decline was inevitable in the face of the internet. Occasionally this is delivered with the unconvincing caveat that newspapers could have survived if they’d never put their content online for free. Yet while the newspaper’s inability, unwillingness, and slowness to adapt gets traction in a healthy number of these pieces, rarely does it get comprehensive review. Bill Wyman’s recent essay, Five Key Reasons Why Newspapers Are Failing (via), not only chronicles these failures, but argues — persuasively — that the newspapers’ decline is their own damned fault.
He begins with a long introduction that spills over into reason #1 (the 5-point list structure seems grafted on to make the longish piece internet-friendly), but really gets cooking in #2:
The paradigmatic American newspaper, once its competition had been eliminated, settled down into a comfortable monopoly position in most cities; sometimes there was another paper around, but in most places one newspaper stood dominant and took home most of the ads, not to mention the money.
These monopoly positions created a dynamic by which the only thing a paper could do wrong was to offend or, God forbid, lose a reader.
The newspapers old model was based on producing MOR fluff. Everybody had a newspaper subscription, and if you wanted to advertise to them you had to buy newspaper ads. But Wyman argues that newspapers had at least a decade of warning of the sea change, and rather than using their profits to get ready, they turned them into increased profit margins. They could have been channeling their considerable resources into creating content with bite and immediacy (which is what you need to compete on the internet), and they could have embraced new technologies that emerged. Wyman blames the leadership, and he blames reporters themselves, for not standing up and arguing for these changes.
In #5 comes a pretty comprehensive critique of newspaper websites. I found this particularly delicious because it touches on a couple of points I’ve made over the years.
Newspaper sites, by and large, are designed as if the paper still had a monopoly on news in its area—and that it didn’t have to work hard to make the sites work sensibly for readers. There is often information available, but you have to work to find it, and the sites don’t seem to care whether you find it or not, and don’t present the information you want in an easy or engaging way. The criticism of Google News you hear from publishers makes me laugh. The top 20 daily newspaper companies in the country could have built a similar site with a paltry investment 15 years ago.
These pieces obligatorily end with a list of ways the problems could be fixed, and Wyman obliges with a great one. Prefaced with a hearty “They don’t have the gumption to change, and it’s probably too late anyway, but here’s what I’d try,” it’s actually a really great list. But no cheating — read the whole thing.
Remember Miamity? Of course you don’t. Back in 2005, Miamity was one of the first wave of Miami omniblogs. It was written by University of Miami student Kyle Munzenrieder (this was in the days before every college student had a blog or three), and had a kind of laid-back nonchalant snark that you’d still miss if you’d read it. (And you can!, thanks to the Wayback Machine, where all other links shall point.)
So, everything was going along just great, until sometime around November 15, 2009. Kyle posted a music video, written and produced largely by members of the Hurricanes, the UM football team, smartly titled Don’t Let Your Ho Go to the 7th Floor, which by all accounts is a downright catchy ode to a gangbang. The song was nothing new, but apparently the blog introduced it to a whole new batch of folks, and all hell proceeded to break loose. Highlights included national coverage, Kyle being summoned to the Dean’s office and leaving in handcuffs, Kyle posting a fake suicide notice on his blog, a front-page story in the Miami Herald (reprinted here), and Kyle being kicked out of school and living in some squalid off-campus apartment, unemployed and dejected. I’d highly recommend to investigate further, which you can do at the articles tagged ‘7th-floor-gate’ at Miamity (although you will not find the original post, which is deleted 4evah), and Critical Miami coverage of Miamity.
But my favorite part of the story jumps to the present, where we find our hero as the only blogger from the early Miami blogging scene to have successfully made the jump to bonafide (read: paid) journalism. He wrote a bit for Ignore Magazine. Sometime in 2008 he was hired by the Miami New Times, and he recently had a music feature published in ultra-glossy Miami Magazine.
I exchanged a couple of e-mails with Kyle recently, and asked him about his ongoing transition from blogging to “straight” journalism:
The major conflict I sometimes have, if only in my head, is that the blogging tends to be a lot more opinionated and off the cuff. Which could cause problems with more traditional journalism. Like, just as an example I’d love to sit down and pick someone like Marco Rubio’s brain, but I doubt with everything I’ve written about him online he’d let me.
How the NYTimes.com home page gets made (via). What’s interesting is that it’s — for now — not tailored to tracked user preferences. The ad you see on this blog are determined in part on the interests Google knows you’ve got, so why not the content of the NYT website homepage? If you’re known to search for clothes, why not push the fashion section? And etc., etc., etc.
Amazon must not want people to buy Kindles anymore, because they’ve made it perfectly clear that, among other things, they’ll delete books(!) from your device if they feel the need. So, I guess James Wolcott can relax!
I haven’t read much on TVTropes yet, but apparently lots of people have fun poking around in there. The idea is to take certain re-occurring ideas from our culture and lay them out explicitly, thereby revealing something about ourselves and generally to amuse and enlighten.
Jesus Christ, FINALLY Jay Smooth talks about Michael Jackson. Tying it all back to the relationship between the personal self and the media self, the balance that Jackson never had a chance to get right, that everyone, increasingly, will have to struggle with. Smaaart.
I guess it makes perfect sense that Hulu Desktop has no stop button — it’s “simulating” a TV, you see. But it still seems disconcerting and weird. I’ve also noted that Hulu has not been adding new shows at any particular speed (at least, not anything I’m going to watch). Still, it works — sort of — with the Hauppauge remote that came with my Dell, and figuring out how to use it is obvious, so I’m giving it a shot. Update: Complete clusterfuck. Forces you to download software updates, otherwise refuses to start. Hangs intermittently. Sometimes impossible to exit fullscreen mode. Crashy.
Aside: I think it’s fucking great that the New Times is sharing local music on its blog. But it is fucking LAME that they choose a dodgy format that tells me I need to “download additional plugins” instead of just clicking to play or download like every respectable website on the internet. THIS IS WHY PRINT JOURNALISM IS DYING YOU ASSHOLES. Update: Just to be clear, I’m pissed at Village Voice Media for — apparently — not having a standard way for their bloggers to share mp3’s, not at Arielle for making a poor choice. Here is the file, for anyone interested.
Stephen Colbert calls his studio audience “citizens” and his TV audience “nation.” Ze Frank called his The Show audience “sports racers.” Dan Savage calls his audience “the tech-savvy at-risk youth.” More?
The New York Times, one of the more tech/internet-savvy newspapers we have, finally, in 2009, has a reverse-chronological display of its articles. You know, kind of like blogs have had for over ten years. Certain other details of blog publishing (archives by date, archives by topic (clicking on the categories on that page takes you to the “regular” page for that topic, which is broken)) are still lacking. Maybe in another ten years. (via)
Uh, two things. (1) Newsmap is pretty cool. (2) Are we all going to die of swine flu?
Over at Slate, Farhad Manjoo confesses to using BitTorrent, and explains why there’s no on-demand movie service that offers all the movies you can get at Blockbuster. Film studios are locked into contracts that dictate who gets exclusive rights to films after release — movie theaters, video rental chains, premium channels, broadcast channels. That’s why, for example, “Netflix’s Watch Instantly streaming plan offers a smattering of popular new releases and a slightly wider selection of films from the ’80s and ’90s.” In the end, Manjoo says it’ll take about 10 years before we can stream any movie we want legally.
And I’m just not so sure. Manjoo is apparently not afraid that the film studios are going to sue him RIAA style, otherwise he wouldn’t be so open about using BitTorrent to download films. But neither are the studios oblivious to BitTorrent. They’re monitoring the situation, and they know exactly how much money they’re leaving on the table. The record industry and the newspaper industry are just two they’ve recently seen go down the crapper after not dealing with the internet. If these people have two slivers of brain to rub together, they’re working right now to fix the situation.
And there’s evidence that they’re making progress. Hulu is adding new movies for online streaming, some of them as recent as 2008. Of course they’re not blockbusters — it’s a free service, after all. And if some outdated contracts are all that’s in the way, well, one Steve Jobs demonstrated that where there’s a will, contracts can be re-negotiated. And here again, movie studios have a powerful precedents on their side in the negotiations.
Napster shut down in 2001, and the iTunes store opened two years later, in 2003. In other words, it took two years to get music online legally even after it was obvious that suing filesharing sites was not without hope. Contrast this with the recent verdict against ThePirateBay, after which the site continues to operate with relative impunity. How long until a streaming service that has anything out on DVD opens? I’d say a lot less than 10 years.
Misael and I sometimes debate the relative artistic merits of film vs. television. Lots of different analogies are possible in these discussions (e.g. film as short story, television (think The Wire, etc.) as novel), none perfect. In the end though, I think this exercise is a little like arguing the relative merits of dance and architecture; each is a distinct artform that deserves to be judged on its own merits.
Or maybe it makes more sense to say that each is a family of different artforms. Shows like Murder She Wrote have very little to do with shows like Lost, and few things are as open-ended as a feature film (I note Gummo without further comment). Nonetheless the argument that film is inherently an inferior artform (because (1) a television series is not conceived as a single artistic statement, as every film is, and (2) however deconstructed and contemporary, every episode of every television show must be stand-alone satisfying to a certain degree) has obvious appeal, on its face. And “sometimes you’re in the mood for bubble gum” is sort of like damning TV with faint praise.
But so I’ve been watching 24 lately (I’m on season 3). Structurally, the show is fascinating: each season is 24 episodes, each of which is part of one intense 24 hour period in the life of the California anti-terrorism unit. The show runs in real-time, while juggling numerous interconnected story lines. The politics of the show are sometimes questionable, but the achievement of crafting the stories is staggering.
Yet what’s most impressive about 24 is something else. The Ramones claimed that their idea was to take the peak moment of pop music — the most energetic dizzying crescent — and create music that was about extending that moment for an entire song. Somewhat analogously, 24 takes the most intense moments of spy movies (Bond), and attempts to stretch them into an entire season. The idea is that the tension does not let up — indeed, does not even ease — for the entire 24-hour season (this is best experienced, as much modern TV is, by watching the entire season on DVD over a short period of time (in fact, a season of 24 could arguably be best experienced in an actual 24 hour period, watching time synchronized to the fictional time)). This is odd, since even a Bond movie has peaceful and romantic interludes between sequences of action. Here are 24 hours of unrelenting tension.
I’m not making a case for 24. I’m making the case that despite the illusion that film is a more free-form artform, in reality television has the ability to do certain things that cannot be done in any other way.
world internet is abuzz with talk about this weeks’ Time cover story advocating micropayments for online content. Rex Sorgatz even put together a really smart model of how they might work.
The problem, for those not following along, is that newspapers and some magazines are dying, loosing revenue from their print editions (because they didn’t play nice with the internet early on), and they think this (i.e. not playing nice with the internet now) is going to be their salvation.
It’s not going to work, and Clay Shirky has done a great job of explaining why (via). Essentially, because people pony up on micropayments only when they have no other alternative. The only way for this to succeed is for the New York Times (or whoever) to convince all similar content providers to implement a micropayment system system at the same time.
Announcing Your Plans Is The Best Way To Make Sure They Don’t Happen: This Recording on the great and dearly departed teevee show Deadwood. I watched all three seasons over the course of about two months, and boy was it something.
Paul Farhi argues that it’s not the journalists’ fault [via] that newspapers are dying. But of course this is a bit of a straw man argument. Nobody reasonable is saying that it’s journalists fault alone. Blame goes to the newspaper industry as a whole, and mostly to leadership, for not playing square with the internet.
Classified ads were such a central part of your industry? What did you do to try to update them for the internet? Do you have maps? RSS feeds? Easy search? Easy online ad buying and the ability to post photos easily? Did you have them in 2002 when the writing was on the wall?
Advertising revenue is down? Viewers spending less time on your site then they did with your print edition? Are you ad sales reps pushing online with your advertisers, and making the transition easy? More importantly, are you opening up your archives to readers and search engines? Are you bringing us innovations that build on your expertise in extracting information from bureaucracy?
The answer to these questions is still often “no.”
And the reporters get some of the blame, too. I know a reporter I know travels not just with her notepad, but with two cameras. She reports, she shoots. How prevalent is this? Exceedingly, shockingly rare. Why didn’t reporters pick up digital cameras when they became cheap and practical about five years ago and bring them when they reported? Why didn’t they push their online editors to explore alternative ways to present news and information then “take the information, write a news story”?
Too, why are guys like Ryan Sholin, who are out there with great ideas trying to help you survive and thrive on the internet, struggling just to get your attention?
I guess I’m one of the folks who’s criticized the newspapers along the way. I think a little less self-righteousness and a little more curiosity and willingness to try something new would have served journalists pretty well over the last decade. It may even not be too late.
The NY Times’ best 1,000 movies ever made. Only goes through 2002, and lists alphabetically not chronologically, but still a good reference.
30 Rock S03E01 on Hulu, a full week before the on-air broadcast. I take back whatever smack I may have talked about Hulu in the past. This is the future of TV.
Honestly, dealing with the Bush presidency has been a lot easier then it’d otherwise be by the Daily Show. It’s been especially great for the last few months, when the shows are uploaded nightly to their Hulu page, available for convenient and legal watching the next morning, no cable required. The show has been on the air with Jon Stewart since 1998, picking up Emmys, accolades, and scads of viewers — it’s indispensable.
So why the 4-days-a-week, when-we-feel-like-it schedule? Wouldn’t the show benefit from borrowing a slightly less anchor-centric approach from the real news shows, and go on a 7-days a week rotation? It’d give some of the other folks on the show a chance to host once in awhile, which would be interesting in any case. (“John Oliver, sitting in for Jon Stewart.”) A recent New York Times profile reveals that Stewart, “functions as the show’s managing editor and says he thinks of hosting as almost an afterthought,” which is a clue. But come on, after 10 years, there have got to be other folks on staff that can do this stuff. The Daily Show is Comedy Central’s cash cow, so they sure could afford to bring on more writers, put them on 7-day rotations, and get this going. The result would be maybe a little less consistency, but I actually think that would be a cool thing.
It’s interesting that Stewart has been making occasional comments about their scheduling on the air lately. During the crash, he said something about how the show was scheduled to be off the next week, but they decided (graciously) to come in and do it anyway. When Congress was off for Rosh Hashanah, he again pointed out “We’re here — I guarantee you the Daily Show has more Jews then Congress!” Well, I say that the Daily Show has gotten big enough for them to figure out how to do it every day. They need to abandon their fears of being less then perfect without every member of some imagined indispensable core team, and give some other folks a crack.