saving journalism cluster-frak

Newspapers and magazines are losing money very quickly. News content remains very popular, but most of it is available for free. News aggregator sites serve newspaper content to large audiences for free, and Craigslist has killed the major source of ad revenue that newspapers need, and people are used to getting magazine content for free online. Newsweek is exiting the mass-market, and it appears that many large newspapers will as well. Many people agree that journalism is an important part of a functioning political culture and society, but no alternative to the present course has emerged.

Henry Blodget points out that even if it stopped printing on paper, the New York Times could not pay for it’s news room full of reporters and writers. Walter Issacson proposes a “pay by the slice” model, like iTunes for music. Amazon introduces the Kindle 2 as an analogous device for newspapers. Chris Anderson says “free” is the only business model that works, and it’s okay if that doesn’t support a lot of journalism. Andrew Keen says “mass-amateurization” is destroying our culture and must be fought. Michael Kinsley says that it’s okay if we have a much smaller number of newspapers. Dave Winer says kill all the elitist journalists, we can make a new journalism out of bloggers and participatory media.

The conclusion I come to is that the sea change that has happened is the end of ‘passive’ culture, not journalism. It should be possible to re-invent journalism as a richer, participatory medium, with experts and professionals directly collaborating with (and directly responsible to) the enthusiasm and amazing creations of bloggers, makers, photographers, people of all kinds. The more sharing and creating of things that’s happening online, the more engagement and value there will be there, and it will become something that can pay the bills for those who do it well.

Large media companies and newspapers could protect their futures best stopping the attempt to hold on to existing ad rates and formats, and instead moving their best advertisers quickly into performance-based online properties and formats. No one yet knows what will work, but they can do themselves a huge favor by trying a dozen experiments instead of moaning. And the bloggers & geeks can help invent new things, instead of imagining that this is a revolution where it will be a victory if a valuable part of society goes away.

protest and gaza

The feet of one of three Palestinian siblings from the Al-samoni family, killed by an Israeli tank shell, are seen in the mortuary of Al-Shifa hospital, on January 5, 2009 in Gaza City. Seven members from the Al-samoni family were killed including the mother, three children and a baby, when an Israeli shell struck their house south of Gaza city. (Abid Katib/Getty Images,

Marc Ambinder writes

Many a friend has asked me what I think of the Israeli invasion. I have some private thoughts on the subject, but they’re not particularly interesting. I’ve studied enough, prayed enough, spent enough time in Israel to get the hang of why the conflict appears so tragic and intractable…

and tries to recruit some thoughts from Jeff Goldberg, an Israeli reporter. Jeff writes that

…nothing works for very long in the Middle East. Gaza is where dreams of reconciliation go to die. Gaza is where the dream of Palestinian statehood goes to die; Gaza is where the Zionist dream might yet die. […] My paralysis isn’t an analytical paralysis. It’s the paralysis that comes from thinking that maybe there’s no way out. Not out of Gaza, out of the whole thing.”

Here, journalists on the ground in Gaza talk to a Current Vanguard reporter:

What has happened in Gaza is/was, as far as I can tell, cruel, pointless, and another example of how little we know as human beings about how not to totally fuck everything up. It is nauseating to watch the father lamenting the death of his daughter, alive just two hours before. I feel that I have to respond, but in the face of this overwhelming suffering and with such overwhelming problems, is that the right way to be thinking? The above smart people who have actually been there, etc., sound like they are stating the truth of the situation to me; for my own actions, that is where I would leave it (with thanks that U.S. role in the region will probably be a lot different with Obama). But I have been prompted by other people to do more to protest the obscene amounts of innocent death in Gaza, through small gestures like groups on Facebook or marching in protests with signs. It feels wrong and weirdly beside the point to me, but a lot of people feel strongly about it, so here goes.

As best I can tell, whatever solutions can be found to change, even in small ways, the situation will come not from protests or activism. Everyone who is at all directly connected to the conflict is desperately aware what everyone thinks, and has their own idea of justice worked out. Protests have become background noise, even at a large scale; a hundred million Europeans protesting couldn’t stop Bush from invading Iraq. Politics has changed a great deal, and needs new tactics. (I have some ideas about that, but most people seem to be protesters, cynics, or oblivious, so I have some issues with finding someone who gives a shit.) Protest may be better than doing nothing, but that is about all it is. Like Marc, I am aware of how beside the point my own judgments and needs for action are, yet keep trying to create some activity, find something to do to push away the horror as it unfolds.

at last

what comes after search?

Reading about the epic battle against Google that Microsoft, TimeWarner, and Yahoo continue to lose, I have to wonder if it’s really such a world-beating thing to own search. Right now it is, since the search box is the interface to much of the Internet for people. But isn’t that a sad, pinched state of affairs? There’s a lot more valuable information in Twitter and Facebook than in Google. Won’t something that lets me tap into that be much more valuable, and soon?

the attention economy: huh?

I follow a blog called “The Online Photographer” by Mike Johnston, an experienced photographer and writer who was the editor of Photo Techniques magazine for about ten years. It’s a good blog, and he knows what he’s talking about. I was sort of surprised to read this in his post (he’s referring to a discussion of ‘bokeh’ at another site,

It’s a bit disorienting for me now when I post at other sites; despite the fact that my name was referenced several times in the thread before I commented, no one paid the least bit of attention to anything I said. Not that it was so important…it’s just that, around here, I tend to get listened to. A lovely luxury, and thanks for that.

In this case, he commented on a discussion about a photography term that he invented. Of course it’s nothing new; people loud enough to get the attention of a mob, and especially on the internet, are probably full of shit. Actual knowledge and valuable work comes from the quiet folks, etc. But still good to be reminded of that…!

my camera, the zone system, and twenty years

I’ve been taking pictures for a long time (far too long to have learned as little as I have!). When I was a teenager, I developed and printed black and white film, at the Salt Lake Art Center (now I can admit that I should have been paying for the darkroom time, but I simply walked in and used the equipment and chemicals, for months). In those days, they taught the Zone System. When I managed to get it right, it worked well, but it was tricky. Years later, I have a digital camera that produces decent exposure ranges straight out of the box, no thought by me required. Nonetheless, I thought I would look around for information on how to more directly control exposure.

The Zone System is (and here, people who know more will cringe) a way to plan how a picture’s lights and darks will be captured and printed. Spot meters that older cameras had (like my Minolta SRT-303) just measured the exposure off the part of the image in the middle of the frame, so if there was another part of the picture that was much darker or lighter, that part would be way too light or dark.

For example, if I took a picture of a person in a car in bright sunlight, the spot meter would tell me to expose for the sun reflected off the car, say 1/500 of a second at f/16 (with ISO 400 film). If I did that, everything but the hood of the car, including the person, would be completely black. Following the Zone System, I decide that the highlights on the car would be the brightest thing in the picture, and the person would be in the middle range. So, I increased the exposure 3 stops, to f/5.6, and the person’s face becomes visible (while the highlights on the car become pure white). It took a lot of practice to make these decisions, however.

Now, meters in cameras are using the entire image to decide the exposure, basically building in the Zone System into the camera’s exposure calculation (this is the “evaluative” mode my camera has). If you are interested in more direct exposure control, then, it seems that you are left with:

  • using the camera’s meter in spot mode, manual exposure, and using the traditional zone system
  • using the camera’s meter in evaluative mode, automatic exposure, and let the camera own the exposure

Neither one of these is particularly satisfying to me; the evaluative mode is better than I am at exposure calculation even if I set the exposure manually (since I still use the meter), and I really have no desire to go back to spot metering. I found a third option:

  • Underexpose everything, shoot in RAW mode, and adjust the values of the picture after it’s copied to the computer

This has produced the most satisfying results so far; without any special software or too much worry about exposure, I can still use my Zone System knowledge to peg parts of a picture to particular values of light and dark I choose.

  • I underexpose (I set the EV compensation to minus 2/3 stop) because digital cameras don’t capture as much information about the bright areas of the picture as film does, so I want to be sure I get whatever detail is in the highlights
  • I use RAW mode because it lets me change the exposure of the picture after it’s shot without losing any information
  • I adjust the exposure on the computer because I still want to decide what the most important part of the picture is (and what should get the ‘middle range’ in the photo). Almost all the time, this is as simple as adjusting is the white, grey, and black points (something every single program for handling digital photos can do; Picasa, iPhoto, etc.).

Sometimes I will set two or three other points to use a transfer curve in the RAW conversion, but not so much anymore. The photo above was taken in this way (I show it in black and white because I think it has a great middle dynamic range that illustrates the idea — the pretentiousness of black and white is just a bonus). Next, I am going to have to figure out how to get a handle on the weird white balance problems I have…

“hybrid” economy: socialism, web tools, and the end of bullshit commerce

I loved watching Lawrence Lessig on the Colbert Report, he was so articulate and impatient for things to make sense after so much stupidity. I liked his idea of the hybrid economy — “read/write culture” and commercial culture in a symbiotic relationship, and wanted more. I have yet to receive the book, so I don’t know where he goes with the “hybrid economy” idea. But, I want the tools of this read/write culture to be connected not just to commercial culture, but to the rest of the economy, so they don’t go away in the tsunami that’s sweeping away a great deal of the economy right now (man, I can only pray for the New York Times).

I don’t think it’s overstating the case to say that anything valuable to someone can be better if people have better information and more relationships to the people who make their living from it. If I work for, buy from, live around, or share a town with the workers in any industry, small company, or even just a gas station, that situation is better with more transparency, communication, and relationships between the people than what we have today.

A pharmaceutical company should be giving unmoderated web tools to patients who are dealing with a disease, so they can connect to each other and negotiate the completely dysfunctional health care system we have. A car company should design and build cars with the public, through open beta car designs, candid information about what the strengths and weaknesses of the company are, and total access to decisions executives make. Even the gas station should be posting the information it gets from its contacts about why the price is what it is, and what to expect next week. Government should be making the millions of decisions and policies it produces an ongoing, distributed dialogue with citizens, where the strong local opinions and experiences get rolled-up into the scorecards for massive programs.

Free-flow of information makes the people who have to buy things more powerful, and it makes those who want to sell something make better things. And it makes it much easier to see exploitation, avarice, and abuse. Ultimately, that’s good stuff for everyone who shares a city, or a town, or a street. The wonderful sites that form the bases for these tools (WordPress, Wikipedia, Facebook, Digg, Youtube, etc.) should be right in the middle of these real human needs, not just off to the side for entertainment (also, I don’t know how they’ll survive otherwise).

And the nice thing about all of this is that it’s actually less money than what companies flush down the toilet today, in a process known as marketing. There’s just not that much point in a game of using media to associate good feelings with a product when everyone can find out much more about it directly from real people. “Brand” is just not as valuable either; the products are it. Enough with the promises that a company is part of your family or people “love” a brand. It’s corrosive and wrong to try to hijack our actual, human experiences and feelings to sell products. We don’t have to do that anymore.

We do all have to make a living, pay for food, hopefully do work that’s valuable to someone. There’s nothing inherently sleazy in that, it’s just practicality. These social web tools can make work, products, and business more honest and open. More socialist, in fact, and I am very comfortable with that.

leaving flickr

Photowalking, originally uploaded by George.

George Oates (who I know some and whose work I like tremendously) was laid off in the latest round at Yahoo. Also, many extremely talented people from Brickhouse (Samantha Tripodi, Chis Martin, Jeannie Yang, Ben Ward, Ken Thornhill, Premshree Pillai, and Kevin Thornback, none of whom I knew well, I just saw and was awed by their work). Like Tom Coates (“Still reeling from the last few weeks”), I am still trying to get my head around the entire thing. I still don’t understand how these people got cut. I can’t imagine Flickr without a key part of its DNA. I have respect for Kakul, Heather, and the rest of the crew, but I think this shows that the decision making there has gone off the rails. I started using Flickr in 2005, and have loved it and the culture that has developed around it. But, I am going to move my photos off Flickr and find a new home for them, with many regrets.

In the larger context of Yahoo, it is doing yet more damage to itself. It simply won’t survive as a commodity site or development platform alone. Mail, a front page, and news (all indications are that every other part of the company is flat or declining) are not enough to sustain the company at its current size, and focusing on advertising innovation while the entire structure goes through a recession seems wildly off-base. What they should do is do what other smart people did during the last bust: invent something really good. That’s when people started Flickr, and Google, and Blogger, and on and on. Despite many assets and a lot of value, Yahoo’s management would do better to improve the company’s prospects by laying themselves off.

update: a couple of people have said that they don’t understand the ‘protest’ I’m making; I should have been clearer. It’s not a protest at all, Flickr is still a great thing and the people there are good, etc. I’m quitting it just because I had more of an emotional relationship with it than a practical one, and that’s been changed. It’s a purely personal thing, left over from the time when sites like Flickr were labors of love, built mostly from enthusiasm. That’s rare these days, but that’s why I do what I do, through booms and busts.

serving JSON to jquery: a head-slap

I hope in some way that this post will help those who made the same stupid mistake I did and wasted way too much time figuring out something that in retrospect is obvious. Sigh.
Hypothetically speaking, if you wanted to make a servejson.php page to serve data in JSON format, it might look something like this:

$contact = array("name" => "Ben");
$contact_encoded = json_encode($contact);
header('Content-type: text/html');
echo $contact_encoded;

and your showjson.html page to get and show the data might look like this:

<!DOCTYPE HTML PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.01 Transitional//EN" "">
<script type="text/javascript" src=""></script>
<script type="text/javascript" charset="utf-8">
$(document).ready(function() {
<div id="display"></div>

So far so good, the code follows the examples you’ve looked at to the letter. But it doesn’t work of course. And it won’t. And it will fail silently, giving you no idea what’s going on. You’ll do some searches and read some forums, and will find nothing on it. Eventually, while reading another person’s frustrated blog entry, it will come to you. And then you will feel dumb for having copied and pasted so much example code without thinking about what you’re doing, and the hot shame of obviousness will cause your hand to hit your head before you’re even aware what’s happening. Your consciousness will swim in the ocean of nothingness and flux. And you will be that much closer to the next life, and you will want the time back.
So please, think. There’s a callback key on the querystring in the jquery code up there. Jquery is going to generate a function name, send it, and want to get it back, etc., etc. DUH. So make your php code:

echo $_GET['callback'] . "(" . $contact_encoded . ")";

…and go back to obsessing about much more important things. Bless us all.

obama’s identity

This is a good time to think about the identity of Barack Obama. Right now he’s a blank screen that many different groups are projecting their wishes on to. He’s not from any of their constituencies really, though it’s clear he has his proclivities. When he came to Chicago, he was more “mutt” than anything else, searching for a sense of belonging. He pretty much made a choice to join black culture, to inhabit the identity and the role, just like he chose to go to an elite school and become a community organizer. But he did all that while staying removed from the visceral nature of some of the old crappy American fights (race, class, culture), a remove that let him see those fights more clearly (as his speech on race in Philadelphia attests).
So he’s pretty much free of attachment to the old clashes, though he understands them. He can choose more intellectually what he wants to do. That could be dangerous (Robert McNamara was surely one of the smartest, most methodical people in the U.S. while he dragged the country into Viet Nam), but right now it is such a relief to have a president that doesn’t seem trapped in any one corner.