kottke.org posts about journalism
In this short video, Josh Begley shows all of the front pages of the NY Times in chronological order from 1852 to the present. The Times began publishing in 1851 so not every front page is represented, but that’s still more than 50,000 pages in less than a minute. Since they go by so quickly, here are some highlights:
Dec 11, 1861: The Times publishes their first illustrations on the front page. One is a map of Virginia and the other two are political cartoons lampooning James Gordon Bennett, founder of the New York Herald, one of the Times’ main rivals.
Apr 15, 1865: The front page columns were lined with black as they reported on the assassination of Lincoln.
Dec 1, 1896: The hyphen is dropped from “The New-York Times”.
Feb 10, 1897: The slogan “All the News That’s Fit to Print” appears for the first time on the front page.
May 30, 1910: The first news photograph appears on the front page, a photo of aviator Glenn Curtiss flying from Albany to NYC at the blistering pace of 54 mi/hr.
May 1, 1926: The Times prints the first photo “radioed” to the newspaper from London. Transmission time: 1hr 45m.
Jul 21, 1969: The first use of 96 pt. type on the front page announces the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon and subsequent moonwalk. The large type will also be used to announce Nixon’s resignation, the first day of 2000, 9/11, and the election of Barack Obama.
Sept 7, 1976: The columns on the front page are widened, reducing their number from 8 to 6.
Oct 16, 1997: The first color photo is printed on the front page of the Times. (The Times Machine scan is in B&W for some reason, but the photo was in color.)
Begley also made Best of Luck With the Wall, a video showing the entire extent of the US-Mexico border.
Reuters editor-in-chief Steve Adler wrote a message to staff called “Covering Trump the Reuters Way.” After noting that “Reuters is a global news organization that reports independently and fairly in more than 100 countries, including many in which the media is unwelcome and frequently under attack,” he lays down some do’s and do-not-do’s1:
—Cover what matters in people’s lives and provide them the facts they need to make better decisions.
—Become ever-more resourceful: If one door to information closes, open another one.
—Give up on hand-outs and worry less about official access. They were never all that valuable anyway. Our coverage of Iran has been outstanding, and we have virtually no official access. What we have are sources.
—Get out into the country and learn more about how people live, what they think, what helps and hurts them, and how the government and its actions appear to them, not to us.
—Keep the Thomson Reuters Trust Principles close at hand, remembering that “the integrity, independence and freedom from bias of Reuters shall at all times be fully preserved.”
—Never be intimidated, but:
—Don’t pick unnecessary fights or make the story about us. We may care about the inside baseball but the public generally doesn’t and might not be on our side even if it did.
—Don’t vent publicly about what might be understandable day-to-day frustration. In countless other countries, we keep our own counsel so we can do our reporting without being suspected of personal animus. We need to do that in the U.S., too.
—Don’t take too dark a view of the reporting environment: It’s an opportunity for us to practice the skills we’ve learned in much tougher places around the world and to lead by example - and therefore to provide the freshest, most useful, and most illuminating information and insight of any news organization anywhere.
These are good rules. (That one about giving up on access and hand-outs is downright fire.) They’re particularly good rules for a place like Reuters, that has a specific style, tradition, and role in the news ecosystem.
But they’re not necessarily good rules for everybody. Different news organizations are going to need to fill different roles in the ecosystem, different spaces on the multiple axes of personal, political, intellectual, and business commitments. If Gawker were still here in its full glory, Nick Denton could write up “Covering Trump the Gawker Way” and it would probably be a totally different but equally valuable list of guidelines.
The other thing news organizations (and other companies too) will need to figure out in L’Age D’Trump are their commitments to their staff. Reporters and media organizations need legal protections so they can’t be prosecuted as criminals or sued by proxy billionaires for doing their job; but they also need to be able to talk freely about how to do their job and balance all of those commitments for themselves without being shown the door.
The pressure is going to be coming from a lot of directions, not always the obvious ones. When the stakes are this high, and the conditions this uncertain, it helps to allay as many uncertainties as possible. When the shit goes down, you need to know who’s going to have your back.
The annual list of media errors and corrections by Poynter is always worth a read. Some favorites:
Because of an editing error, an article on Monday about a theological battle being fought by Muslim imams and scholars in the West against the Islamic State misstated the Snapchat handle used by Suhaib Webb, one of Muslim leaders speaking out. It is imamsuhaibwebb, not Pimpin4Paradise786.
No wonder people think the NY Times is untrustworthy. Another from the Times:
An article on March 20 about wave piloting in the Marshall Islands misstated the number of possible paths that could be navigated without instruments among the 34 islands and atolls of the Marshall Islands. It is 561, not a trillion trillion.
This one was only slightly wrong:
CORRECTION: Boris Johnson’s award-winning limerick about the Turkish president referred to Erdogan as a wanker who performed a sex act with a goat. A previous version of this article included the prompt for the poetry contest, which included a different sex act, also with a goat.
When in doubt, blame technology:
Correction at 9:58 a.m. on 3/09/2016: Due to an oversight involving a haphazardly-installed Chrome extension during the editing process, the name Donald Trump was erroneously replaced with the phrase “Someone With Tiny Hands” when this story originally published.
You may have heard about the dumb old lady who was driving with a cup of McDonald’s coffee in her lap, spilled it, and then greedily sued McDonald’s, winning millions of dollars and setting off an epidemic of frivolous personal injury lawsuits that’s still alive and well today. Well, that’s not really what happened. Adam Conover explains what actually went down in this entertaining short video.
P.S. If you’re following along, what we have here is a video by CollegeHumor of a comedian debunking misinformation deliberately spread by a large multinational corporation (with publicly available sources!), packaged as a comedy bit but is every bit as informational as a piece in the Times or on Vox. If you’re being disingenuous, you might call this fake news. (See also Last Week Tonight, The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, etc.) (via subtraction)
Update: Hot Coffee is a feature-length documentary about the McDonald’s coffee case and tort reform in America. (via @aabhowell)
Update: Retro Report has a piece on the suit as well. (via @DavidGrann)
Brexit, climate change, Trump, Syria, white nationalism, Turkey, racism and police violence, the Flint water crisis, natural disasters, terrorist attacks, drowned migrants. I was tempted to just post a photo of a burning dumpster or the this is fine dog and leave it at that. But professional photographers and the agencies & publications that employ them are essential in bearing witness to the atrocities and injustices and triumphs and breakthroughs of the world and helping us understand what’s happening out there. It’s worth seeking out what they saw this year.
Several sites, publications, and agencies have published lists of the best and most newsworthy photos of the year. Among them are In Focus’ Top 25 News Photos of 2016 as well as their three-part 2016: The Year in Photos (part 1, part 2, part 3), National Geographic’s The 52 Best Photographs of 2016, Time’s Top 100 Photos of the Year 2016, AFP’s Pictures of the Year (part 1, part 2, part 3), 2016: The Year in Photos from CNN, Pictures of the Year 2016 from Reuters, the AP’s Top Photos of 2016, some of the top images from the World Press Photo exhibition, which “highlights the best photojournalism of the year”, The Top Photos of 2016 from Maclean’s, and The Best Weird and Wonderful Photos of 2016 from totallycoolpix.com.
I’ve selected five of my favorite photos from these lists and included them above. From top to bottom, the photographers are Jonathan Bachman, Brent Stirton, Kai Pfaffenbach, Anuar Patjane Floriuk, and Mahmoud Raslan. The top photo, by Bachman, pictures the arrest of Ieshia Evans while protesting the death of Alton Sterling by the Baton Rouge police and is just flat-out amazing. In a piece for The Guardian, Evans wrote:
When the armored officers rushed at me, I had no fear. I wasn’t afraid. I was just wondering: “How do these people sleep at night?” Then they put me in a van and drove me away. Only hours later did someone explain that I was arrested for obstructing a highway.
There’s so much fear in that photo — institutional fear, racial fear, societal fear — but none of it is coming from Evans. Total hero.
Update: Buzzfeed shares The 46 Most Powerful Photos of 2016 and the BBC has the 15 finalists in the 2016 Art of Building architectural photography competition.
Update: The NY Times offers up The Year in Pictures 2016.
Update: From Artsy, The Most Powerful Moments of Photojournalism in 2016.
Update: World Press Photo announced the winners of their 2017 Photo Contest (of photos taken in 2016).
David Cain quit following the news many years ago — “I’m mostly talking about following TV and internet newscasts here” — and noticed several benefits.
A common symptom of quitting the news is an improvement in mood. News junkies will say it’s because you’ve stuck your head in the sand.
But that assumes the news is the equivalent of having your head out in the fresh, clear air. They don’t realize that what you can glean about the world from the news isn’t even close to a representative sample of what is happening in the world.
The news isn’t interested in creating an accurate sample. They select for what’s 1) unusual, 2) awful, and 3) probably going to be popular. So the idea that you can get a meaningful sense of the “state of the world” by watching the news is absurd.
Their selections exploit our negativity bias. We’ve evolved to pay more attention to what’s scary and infuriating, but that doesn’t mean every instance of fear or anger is useful. Once you’ve quit watching, it becomes obvious that it is a primary aim of news reports-not an incidental side-effect-to agitate and dismay the viewer.
What appears on the news is not “The conscientious person’s portfolio of concerns”. What appears is whatever sells, and what sells is fear, and contempt for other groups of people.
Curate your own portfolio. You can get better information about the world from deeper sources, who took more than a half-day to put it together.
I watch and read plenty about current events, but the last time I “followed the news” was probably in high school. 95% of it is gossip & soap opera and the 5% that isn’t, you can get elsewhere, better.
In a peek at how the media sausage is made, the NY Times has documented how the newspaper prepared for the death of Fidel Castro. For instance, they’ve had an advance obituary on hand for him since 1959, which has been revised and rewritten dozens of times before it was finally published over the weekend.
Fidel Castro’s obituary cost us more man/woman hours over the years than any piece we’ve ever run.
Every time there was a rumor of death, we’d pull the obit off the shelf, dust it off, send it back to the writer, Tony DePalma, for any necessary updates, maybe add a little more polish here and there and then send it on to be copy-edited and made ready — yet again — for publication.
Even deep into his 70s and 80s, the Cuban dictator outlived the broadsheet size of the paper and digital media formats.
One piece that didn’t make it into this weekend’s digital coverage was a four-part, 20-plus-minute-long audio slide show on Mr. Castro’s life. The audio slide show — a mostly bygone format intended to marry photos and audio in an age when slow dial-up connections couldn’t handle video — was originally produced around 2006 by Geoff McGhee, Lisa Iaboni and Eric Owles and featured narration from Anthony DePalma, who wrote The Times’s obituary.
With over 80 photos and several audio files, the slide show was managed with a custom-made program called “configurator” that lived on a single, aging Macintosh in a windowless room on the ninth floor of the Times building.
That Mac and the program it housed died 7 years before Castro did.
Update: The Miami Herald also wrote up their preparations for Castro’s death, which they called The Cuba Plan.
I have a bulging file filled with various iterations of The Cuba Plan, before we relied on a shared Google Doc.
The plan changed drastically over the decades, driven by both changes in the industry and politics on the island.
Early in our planning, the document was 60 pages long.
Fidel Castro was still healthy and in power, and we planned for a possible political revolution. We played out the most extreme scenario, espoused by many experts, of unrest in the island, and Cubans on both sides of the straits taking to the seas. We thought carefully about the multiple ways we might get reporters into Cuba, knowing that at the time the government would not permit a Miami Herald journalist on the island. One plan might even have involved renting a boat.
Today’s Google Doodle honors the 100th anniversary of the birth of legendary newsman Walter Cronkite.
Today would be the 100th birthday of the man known widely throughout the ’60s and ’70s as “the most trusted man in America.” Walter Cronkite, the legendary broadcast journalist reported, served, and comforted a nation during its most trying times, including World War II, Watergate, the Vietnam War, and the assassination of JFK, to name a few.
Walter perpetuated an objective reporting style rooted in justice and integrity: “Press freedom is essential to our democracy, but the press must not abuse this license. We must be careful with our power. The free press, after all, is the central nervous system of a democratic society.”
Since I missed most of Cronkite’s career as a TV news anchor (I was 7 when he retired), I mostly associate him with the coverage of the Apollo 11 Moon landing and the early web meme Walter Cronkite Spit In My Food.
It was an unbelievable account of a drunken Walter Cronkite raging at a honeymooning couple in a restaurant. It included an obviously faked video clip of Walter Cronkite spitting and a fuzzy photograph of a man who looked vaguely like Cronkite.
Google’s honor is a bit ironic given that Cronkite favored tougher libel and slander laws for “would-be writers and reporters on the Internet”:
I am dumbfounded that there hasn’t been a crackdown with the libel and slander laws on some of these would-be writers and reporters on the Internet. I expect that to develop in the fairly near future.
as well as legislation against anonymous expression online:
I favor legislation that requires people to stand by their words by identifying themselves on the Internet. They should not be permitted to operate anonymously.
He was clear that he was not after censorship:
I hope to make it clear that I did say that I am opposed to any form of censorship. This is identification… forced identification by those who use the Internet. Not censorship. It is simply requiring them to take the same responsibility that people in print and in broadcasting have to take.
Edward Snowden and Bunnie Huang are working on a system to help smartphone users determine whether their phones can be tracked. Their aim is to protect journalists from being detected while they’re in the field.
National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden has been working with prominent hardware hacker Andrew “Bunnie” Huang to solve this problem. The pair are developing a way for potentially imperiled smartphone users to monitor whether their devices are making any potentially compromising radio transmissions. They argue that a smartphone’s user interface can’t be relied to tell you the truth about that state of its radios. Their initial prototyping work uses an iPhone 6.
“We have to ensure that journalists can investigate and find the truth, even in areas where governments prefer they don’t,” Snowden told me in a video interview. “It’s basically to make the phone work for you, how you want it, when you want it, but only when.”
They are calling the device an introspection engine:1
Snowden and Huang are calling this device an “introspection engine” because it will inspect the inner-workings of the phone. The device will be contained inside a battery case, looking similar to a smartphone with an extra bulky battery, except with its own screen to update the user on the status of the radios. Plans are for the device to also be able to sound an audible alarm and possibly to also come equipped with a “kill switch” that can shut off power to the phone if any radio signals are detected. “The core principle is simple,” they wrote in the blog post. “If the reporter expects radios to be off, alert the user when they are turned on.”
Huang also announced today that he’s suing the US government over Section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act:
Section 1201 means that you can be sued or prosecuted for accessing, speaking about, and tinkering with digital media and technologies that you have paid for. This violates our First Amendment rights, and I am asking the court to order the federal government to stop enforcing Section 1201.
On Last Week Tonight last night, John Oliver took the media’s often shoddy coverage of science to task. Like cherry picking the results of single studies that “prove” that chocolate prevents cancer and that sort of thing.
As a somewhat reluctant member of “the media”, I’ve been guilty of this sort of behavior to varying degrees in the past. In the last few years, I’ve been working to improve on this count — by reading studies, declining to post stuff that doesn’t make the grade, reading what other trusted media sources are saying, using softer language like “could” or “may” instead of “does”, distinguishing between correlation and causation — but I still make mistakes.
At a certain point though, you have to rely on the scientific literacy of your readers. I can’t explain the scientific process to everyone every single time. At some point, I need to assume we’re all taking the results of studies with a similarly sized grain of salt.
In the end, I love science and I want you to love it too. That’s why I often write about it, about the history of how we came to know what we know, about the limits of our knowledge, and, especially, about efforts to push beyond the boundaries of the known. There’s always the temptation to gussy science up, to fit the facts to my world view. But deep down, I know that’s unnecessary — science is awesome all by itself! — and harms the goal of increasing scientific literacy and interest. I’m gonna trying reminding myself of that more in the future.
Someone took the audio from a BBC News report on North Korean military parade held in honor of Kim Jong-un’s birthday and played it over footage of the parade held in London in honor of Queen Elizabeth’s 89th birthday.
In their first page one editorial since 1920, the NY Times argues for strict gun control.
But motives do not matter to the dead in California, nor did they in Colorado, Oregon, South Carolina, Virginia, Connecticut and far too many other places. The attention and anger of Americans should also be directed at the elected leaders whose job is to keep us safe but who place a higher premium on the money and political power of an industry dedicated to profiting from the unfettered spread of ever more powerful firearms.
It is a moral outrage and a national disgrace that civilians can legally purchase weapons designed specifically to kill people with brutal speed and efficiency. These are weapons of war, barely modified and deliberately marketed as tools of macho vigilantism and even insurrection. America’s elected leaders offer prayers for gun victims and then, callously and without fear of consequence, reject the most basic restrictions on weapons of mass killing, as they did on Thursday. They distract us with arguments about the word terrorism. Let’s be clear: These spree killings are all, in their own ways, acts of terrorism.
I don’t really want to get into it on a sunny Saturday morning, but 1) this doesn’t go far enough for me…I’m one of those people who does want guns taken away from everyone; and 2) the media also needs to make tough choices about how and how much they cover shootings like this. CNN anchor Brooke Baldwin can’t write an essay about how she’s sick and tired of reporting on gun violence and then her network gives their viewers a guided tour of the apartment where the suspects in the San Bernardino shooting lived (which Baldwin tweeted out to her followers advising them to TURN ON #CNN).
In the midst of this piece by Matt Taibbi on Republican presidential candidates blaming media bias for their outright falsehoods are two paragraphs which perfectly sum up the state of contemporary news media:
It’s our fault. We in the media have spent decades turning the news into a consumer business that’s basically indistinguishable from selling cheeseburgers or video games. You want bigger margins, you just cram the product full of more fat and sugar and violence and wait for your obese, over-stimulated customer to come waddling forth.
The old Edward R. Murrow, eat-your-broccoli version of the news was banished long ago. Once such whiny purists were driven from editorial posts and the ad people over the last four or five decades got invited in, things changed. Then it was nothing but murders, bombs, and panda births, delivered to thickening couch potatoes in ever briefer blasts of forty, thirty, twenty seconds.
If Americans are getting intellectually fat and lazy binging on junk news, perhaps the solution is something akin to “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants,” Michael Pollan’s advice for healthy eating: Follow the news, not too much, mostly facts.
Update: I was reminded that Clay Johnson wrote an entire book called The Information Diet (at Amazon).
The modern human animal spends upwards of 11 hours out of every 24 in a state of constant consumption. Not eating, but gorging on information ceaselessly spewed from the screens and speakers we hold dear. Just as we have grown morbidly obese on sugar, fat, and flour-so, too, have we become gluttons for texts, instant messages, emails, RSS feeds, downloads, videos, status updates, and tweets.
We’re all battling a storm of distractions, buffeted with notifications and tempted by tasty tidbits of information. And just as too much junk food can lead to obesity, too much junk information can lead to cluelessness. The Information Diet shows you how to thrive in this information glut-what to look for, what to avoid, and how to be selective. In the process, author Clay Johnson explains the role information has played throughout history, and why following his prescribed diet is essential for everyone who strives to be smart, productive, and sane.
Johnson spoke at Webstock the same year I did…here’s a video of his talk about Industrialized Ignorance. (via @philipashlock)
Ahhhh! Dan Barry of The NY Times went all olde tymey in his recap of game four of the NLCS between the Cubs and Mets, sorry, Metropolitans.
The Metropolitans — also known as the “Mets” — sent six safely across the plate before the third inning, mostly as a result of the derring-do of their Bunyanesque first-sacker, Lucas Duda. The mighty Californian smote a home run and a double to tally five of those six runs before the Cubs seemed to comprehend that a game concerning their possible erasure from the 2015 field was well underway.
The ignominious rout of the valiant but overmatched hometown squad turned the deafening cheers of the Chicago multitudes into plaintive keens, for now their agonizing wait for another championship — the last in 1908, during the presidency of the rough-riding Theodore Roosevelt — must continue.
I say! Capital stuff, old chap.
In McSweeney’s, Vijith Assar writes about the increasingly pernicious use of the passive voice in the media and how it may have developed, one small step at a time, from:
The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
to “the ultimate in passive voice”:
Speed was involved in a jumping-related accident while a fox was brown.
Josh Marshall argues provocatively and persuasively that news media, law enforcement, and everyone else should name the offenders in these mass shootings, in part because the refusal has become an empty sort of action that people can take to “help”.
It is a grand evasion because we need to make ourselves feel better by finding a way to think we are doing ‘something’ even though we’re unwilling to do anything that actually matters. Except for those immediately affected or those in the tightly defined communities affected we also shouldn’t give ourselves the solace of watching teary-eyed memorials or all the rest. Again, as a society we’ve made our decision. I would go so far as to say that it’s good for us to know Mercer’s name since we are in fact his accomplices. It’s good that we know each other.
Withholding knowledge is not the way forward.
Update: From the NY Times back in August, Zeynep Tufekci writes: The Virginia Shooter Wanted Fame. Let’s Not Give It to Him.
This doesn’t mean censoring the news or not reporting important events of obvious news value. It means not providing the killers with the infamy they seek. It means somber, instead of lurid and graphic, coverage, and a focus on victims. It means not putting the killer’s face on loop. It means minimizing or not using the killers’ names, as I have done here. It means not airing snuff films, or making them easily accessible on popular sites. It means holding back reporting of details such as the type of gun, ammunition, angle of attack and the protective gear the killer might have worn. Such detailed reporting can give the next killer a concrete road map.
Update: Read all the way to the bottom of this Mother Jones article for ways that they have changed how they report on mass shootings.
Report on the perpetrator forensically and with dispassionate language. Avoid terms like “lone wolf” and “school shooter,” which may carry cachet with young men aspiring to attack. Instead use “perpetrator,” “act of lone terrorism,” and “act of mass murder.”
HLN (which used to be CNN Headline News) needed someone to talk about Edward Snowden, US government whistleblower. They meant to invite a gentleman named John Hendren, a journalist for Al Jazeera, onto the show but instead invited funnyman Jon Hendren, who goes by the username of @fart on Twitter. Hendren, Jon used the opportunity to defend both Edward Snowden, briefly, and then sexy-but-misunderstood barber Edward Scissorhands.
Well, you know, to say he couldn’t harm someone, well, absolutely he could. But I think to cast him out, to make him invalid in society, simply because he has scissors for hands, I mean, that’s strange. People didn’t get scared until he started sculpting shrubs into dinosaur shapes and whatnot.
The best part is that anchor Yasmin Vossoughian just keeps on plowing right through her script like they’re not talking suddenly about a man with scissors for hands, deftly demonstrating what a farce these TV news “conversations” are. (via nymag)
The Associated Press and British Movietone are uploading 17,000 hours of archival news footage, some of dating back to the late 19th century. The videos can be found on the AP Archive and British Movietone channels. Some notable videos from the collection follow. Coverage of the Hindenberg disaster:
The celebration of VE Day in London:
Coco Chanel fashion show from 1932:
Martin Luther King Jr. and marchers being arrested in Selma:
See also British Pathe.
Every day, a program written by Julien Deswaef selects a war-related news item from the NY Times, formats it in the style of the infamous Star Wars opening crawl (complete with John Williams’ score), and posts the results to YouTube.
Published yesterday, the crawl for Episode XXVII was taken from a NY Times article about an Obama speech about the Iranian nuclear deal.
Here’s how the project was made and if you’d like to try it yourself, grab the source code. (via prosthetic knowledge)
Crafted is a 25-minute documentary from Morgan Spurlock about artisanship in the contemporary age, profiling knife makers, potters, and restaurateurs who still do things more or less manually. A trailer:
The documentary was created to explore the mindset of today’s artisan and determine how artisanship has evolved along with — or, at times, in spite of — new technologies that allow instantaneous sharing of knowledge and sourcing of ingredients. Brave creators are breaking from the norm and returning to their roots to master age-old art forms that are more relevant than ever in today’s world.
I have often joked about what I do here at kottke.org as being artisanal or handcrafted. (Free range links! Ha!) But watching the trailer the other day, I realized that maybe it’s not so much of a joke. Compared to the industrialized information factories of Buzzfeed, Facebook, and Twitter (or even the NY Times or Gawker), what I do is handcrafted. There’s no assembly line. I read a bunch of stuff and then write about just a few relevant things. It’s inefficient as hell, but most of the time, it results in a good product. (I hope!) In the site’s best moments, it really does feel, to me, like I’m treating people “like they’re in my house” rather than just pumping out content widgets.
The moment in the trailer that particularly resonated with me was the discussion of risk.
A single injury can have far-reaching consequences. If I injure my hands, I can’t feed my family.
I worried we’d be forced to quit from bankruptcy.
“If I injure my hands, I can’t feed my family”; I don’t handcraft knives, but that applies to me as well. If my wrists go, goodbye computer time. And I’ve been thinking a lot about how sustainable my business is in the age of industrialized content…my job seems a lot riskier to me than it did just a couple of years ago. But there’s still room in the world for handcrafted knives and food in a world of Henckels and McDonald’s, so maybe it’s possible for a small handcrafted information service like kottke.org to survive and even thrive in the age of Facebook and Buzzfeed. (via @mathowie)
The completion of the US transcontinental railroad in 1869 in Utah was also the birthplace of the newsflash. The news was delivered via telegraph through a clever scheme: the famous golden spike and a silver hammer were each wired to the telegraph so that when hammer struck nail, the circuit completed and the news raced out along telegraph wires to the rest of the nation.1
Where were you when you heard the news of the completion of the transcontinental railroad?
If you’ve bought a ticket to an event in the past, oh, 15-20 years, chances are you got it from Ticketmaster. Chances are also pretty good that you think Ticketmaster completely sucks, mostly because of the unavoidable and exorbitant convenience fee they charge. And that probably has you wondering: if everyone who uses the service hates Ticketmaster so much, how are they still in business? Because ticket buyers are not Ticketmaster’s customers. Artists and venues are Ticketmaster’s real customers and they provide plenty of value to them.
Ticketmaster sells more tickets than anybody else and they’re the biggest company in the ticket selling game. That gives them certain financial resources that smaller companies don’t have. TM has used this to their advantage by moving the industry toward very aggressive ticketing deals between ticketing companies and their venue clients. This comes in the form of giving more of the service charge per ticket back to the venue (rebates), and in cash to the venue in the form of a signing bonus or advance against future rebates. Venues are businesses too and, thus, they like “free” money in general (signing bonuses), as well as money now (advances) versus the same money later (rebates).
Read that whole Quora answer again…there’s nothing in there about TM being helpful for ticket buyers. It turns out asking “who’s the customer?” is a great way of thinking about when certain companies or industries do things that aren’t aligned with good customer service or user experience.1
Take Apple and Google for instance. Apple sells software and hardware directly to people; that’s where the majority of their revenue comes from. Apple’s customers are the people who use Apple products. Google gets most of their revenue from putting advertising into the products & services they provide. The people who use Google’s products and services are not Google’s customers, the advertisers are Google’s customers. Google does a better job than Ticketmaster at providing a good user experience, but the dissonance that results between who’s paying and who’s using gets the company in trouble sometimes. See also Facebook and Twitter, among many others.
Newspapers, magazines, and television networks have dealt with this same issue for decades now.2 They derive large portions of their revenue from advertisers and, in the case of the TV networks, from the cable companies who pay to carry their channels. That results in all sorts of user hostile behavior, from hiding a magazine’s table of contents in 20 pages of ads to shrieking online advertising to commercials that are louder than the shows to clunky product placement to trimming scenes from syndicated shows to cram in more commercials. From ABC to Vogue to the New York Times, you’re not the customer and it shows.
This might be off-topic (or else the best example of all), but “who’s the customer?” got me thinking about who the customers of large public corporations really are: shareholders and potential shareholders. The accepted wisdom of maximizing shareholder value has become an almost moral imperative for large corporations. The needs of their customers, employees, the environment, and the communities in which they’re located often take a backseat to keeping happy the big investment banks, mutual funds, and hedge funds who buy their stock. When providing good customer service and experience is viewed by companies as opposite to maximizing shareholder value, that’s a big problem for consumers.
Update: I somehow neglected to include the pithy business saying “if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product”, which originated in a slightly different phrasing on MetaFilter.
Update: One example of how maximizing shareholder value can work against good customer service comes from a paper by a trio of economists. In it, they argue that co-ownership of two or more airlines by the same investor results in higher prices.
In a new paper, Azar and co-authors Martin C. Schmalz and Isabel Tecu have uncovered a smoking gun. To test the hypothesis that institutional investors gain market power that results in higher prices, they examine airline routes. Although we think of airlines as independent companies, they are actually mostly owned by a small group of institutional investors. For example, United’s top five shareholders — all institutional investors — own 49.5 percent of the firm. Most of United’s largest shareholders also are the largest shareholders of Southwest, Delta, and other airlines. The authors show that airline prices are 3 percent to 11 percent higher than they would be if common ownership did not exist. That is money that goes from the pockets of consumers to the pockets of investors.
How exactly might this work? It may be that managers of institutional investors put pressure on the managers of the companies that they own, demanding that they don’t try to undercut the prices of their competitors. If a mutual fund owns shares of United and Delta, and United and Delta are the only competitors on certain routes, then the mutual fund benefits if United and Delta refrain from price competition. The managers of United and Delta have no reason to resist such demands, as they, too, as shareholders of their own companies, benefit from the higher profits from price-squeezed passengers. Indeed, it is possible that managers of corporations don’t need to be told explicitly to overcharge passengers because they already know that it’s in their bosses’ interest, and hence their own. Institutional investors can also get the outcomes they want by structuring the compensation of managers in subtle ways. For example, they can reward managers based on the stock price of their own firms — rather than benchmarking pay against how well they perform compared with industry rivals — which discourages managers from competing with the rivals.
Vox has a list of all the 2015 Pulitzer Prize winners. I am especially pleased to see Elizabeth Kolbert win the general nonfiction category for The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History…I’ve been reading her writing on climate change and environmental issues in the New Yorker for years now.
From Charlie Brooker’s Weekly Wipe, here’s how every single news report on the economy plays out:
Dennis and Pamela People are affected by numbers, and since they have a child, you’ll empathize with what they say while I nod in their direction.
“Well, it’s been hard because of the numbers.”
“Yeah, it has been hard, mainly because of the numbers.”
Brooker, you may remember, is the creator of Black Mirror. (via mr)
Calling someone “the Michael Jordan of [whatever they’re good at]” is a familiar journalistic trope. A team at the WSJ decided to search through the newspapers of the world for mentions of the Jordans and LeBrons of their professions.
Calling someone “the Michael Jordan of…” or, more recently, “the LeBron James of…” is a trope that acknowledges excellence in a way that everyone can understand. So with the NBA getting set to host its annual All-Star Game, the Wall Street Journal went on a hunt for all of the Michael Jordans and LeBron Jameses in newspapers around the world. We found thousands, including the Michael Jordan of bagpipers and private detectives, and the LeBron James of yodeling and midwives.
Jimmy McIntosh, the Scotsman who started Carnegie Mellon’s bagpipe program, calls Gillies the Michael Jordan of piping.
We are the Michael Jordan of onion growers, Butch Peri said. “We started off as the smallest onion grower in the state of Nevada, and in 1999, we became the largest producer in the world of fresh market onions, the kind you buy in the grocery store.”
If you were to convert him from his importance in science to the sports world, Charles Darwin would be the Wayne Gretzky or the Michael Jordan of biology, says Dr. Greg Bole, a bioscientist from the University of B.C. “He shaped the field.”
With a medical cause ruled out, I was forced to accept reality… my son is just really good at screening things out. No, let me rephrase that. The boy is the LeBron James of selective hearing, the Michael Phelps of tuning me out. He’s a best-in-class parental ignorer, and actually it would be kind of admirable… if it wasn’t so infuriating.
This is surely the Tiger Woods of fun Friday links. (via @lauratitian)
Update: According to Google, describing people as “the Michael Jordan of ________” in books has been on the decline since 1999. (thx, david)
I love this cutaway view of Washington DC’s Evening Star Building, drawn in 1922. The building is on the National Register as a Historic Landmark and was formerly the office of The Washington Star newspaper.
Best viewed huge. The whole thing is a fascinating view of how information flowed through a newspaper company in the 1920s. Raw materials in the form of electricity, water, telegraph messages, paper, and employees enter the building and finished newspapers leave out the back.
Found this via Craig Mod, who notes the Chris Ware-ness of the whole thing.
In 1998, it was revealed that The New Republic writer Stephen Glass had fabricated many of the stories he had written for the magazine. Sixteen years down the road, Hanna Rosin, a colleague and friend from the New Republic days, writes about confronting and reconnecting with Glass about his lies and betrayal.
Once we knew what he’d done, I tried to call Steve, but he never called back. He just went missing, like the kids on the milk cartons. It was weird. People often ask me if I felt “betrayed,” but really I was deeply unsettled, like I’d woken up in the wrong room. I wondered whether Steve had lied to me about personal things, too. I wondered how, even after he’d been caught, he could bring himself to recruit me to defend him, knowing I’d be risking my job to do so. I wondered how I could spend more time with a person during the week than I spent with my husband and not suspect a thing. (And I didn’t. It came as a total surprise). And I wondered what else I didn’t know about people. Could my brother be a drug addict? Did my best friend actually hate me?
Last week, Emily Dreyfuss wrote a piece at about Why I’m Giving Wikipedia 6 Bucks a Month.
“Give me money, Emily,” Wales begged, “then go back to researching Beyonce lyrics.”
“Excuse me, Jimmy,” I wanted to say, “I don’t appreciate being watched as I read about how her song “Baby Boy” includes a lyrical interpolation of “No Fear” by O.G.C.”
Later, Wikipedia replaced Wales with other employees of the Wikimedia Foundation, which maintains Wikipedia with grants and donations. They moved me about as much as Wales did, which is to say not at all.
Today, while scanning my third Wikipedia article in as many hours, I saw the beggi…. er, note was back. It’s at the bottom now, without the pleading visage of a Wikipedian, and now includes an option to pay monthly.
I was annoyed, again. That’s the first instinct of anyone who spends time on the Internet and is constantly bombarded by pleas for money. But then I realized something: My annoyance was a symptom of my dependence on Wikipedia. I rely on it utterly. I take it completely for granted.
I found her argument persuasive, so much so that I just signed up to give Wikipedia a monthly amount as well. I consider it a subscription fee to an indispensable and irreplaceable resource I use dozens of times weekly while producing kottke.org. It’s a business expense, just like paying for server hosting, internet access, etc. — the decision to pay became a no-brainer for me when I thought of it that way.
Do other media companies subscribe to Wikipedia in the same fashion? How about it Gawker, NY Times, Vox, Wired, ESPN, WSJ, New York Magazine, Vice, Washington Post, The Atlantic, Buzzfeed, Huffington Post? Even $500/month is a drop in the bucket compared to your monthly animated GIF hosting bill and I know your writers use Wikipedia as much as I do. Come on, grab that company credit card and subscribe.
Emergent follows recent stories in the news and confirms their veracity. Some recent examples:
Claim: White House fence-jumper made it inside the main floor (Confirmed true)
Claim: A Florida woman got a third breast (Confirmed false)
Claim: Apple is buying Path (Unverified)