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Jan. 4 2010 — 2:59 pm | 126 views | 0 recommendations | 5 comments

FOLIO: Editorial: The Role of Government in Journalism

The following post appeared as a guest editorial in the January 2010 issue of FOLIO: magazine.

Kicking off Day Two of the Federal Trade Commission’s recent hearings on the dismal economics of journalism last month, Rep. Henry Waxman, chairman of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee, declared that government would have to step in, “one way or the other,” to help the publishing industry survive a “market failure” that threatens independent journalism. He wasn’t specific about the nature of such aid, conceding “Congress can’t impose a solution.” But he left no doubt that he believes it’s the government’s role to spring to journalism’s defense.

This pledge appealed to some participants, like those representing public-media entities including PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. “Congress should adopt legislation that would provide substantial additional resources to public-service journalism,” said Mark MacCarthy, professor of communications at Georgetown University, arguing that government involvement in the arts, sciences and other fields is “traditional, mainstream and all-American.” “This is not some weird, strange aberration and alien intrusion into our life,” MacCarthy said. “This is the way we do things in this country.”

Words of Warning

For any publishers tempted by such a government rescue, I would invoke six words of warning: Robert Mapplethorpe, Ken Tomlinson, Enola Gay.

These names are loaded for a reason. Mapplethorpe was a notable art photographer before he became a cause célèbre, one of several artists whose work caught the attention of conservative groups when exhibitions were funded by the National Endowment of the Arts. In the 1990s, the NEA received between $160 and $180 million to underwrite arts in the U.S., but under pressure its funding was halved in 1996 and has yet to recover. The NEA stopped funding individual artists’ work.

Ken Tomlinson was named chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting by president George W. Bush in 2003 and immediately began hunting for “liberal bias” in public television, funding an investigation of Bill Moyers, and violating both CPB regulations and federal law by raising money to underwrite a program run by the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal.

The Smithsonian’s abortive effort to mount an exhibit around the WWII bomber plane Enola Gay was attacked by the Pentagon, veterans groups and members of Congress. This ended the tenure of the secretary and the curator of the Air and Space Museum, leaving the institution’s credibility in tatters. The new secretary was forced to cancel the exhibit to keep funding intact. It’s unclear what was foregone later to avoid political fallout.

All support comes with strings attached, of course. Corporate ownership of publishing can be chilling, and even philanthropists have friends in high places. By comparison with government support, though, such pressures are benign. Even the effects of advertising on journalism are mild in contrast, since the sources of revenue are multilateral.

Dual Revenue Stream Model Not Broken

Turns out, the dual-revenue stream model for newspapers and magazines is about as ideal as a business model can be, at least for independent journalism.

And that model still works. It has a bright future in the world of digital broadband to which magazines—at long last—are migrating. As the new generation of tablets and their descendents change the Internet from a “lean-forward,” desktop information utility to a “lean-back” immersion experience, all the video and rich media advertising that has been on the sidelines for lack of a proper home will find its way to those places where consumers will pay to be—and the best kind of public support, the kind that independent journalism can really rely on, is circulation revenue.

Will people pay for journalism? Of course they will. It is hard to imagine why this question persists. When have people failed to pay for what they want and need?

Government has a role here, but it’s about the distribution channel, not the content. Broadband penetration brings the digital divide issue into sharp relief. Where government funding is needed—indeed, critical—is to ensure universal high-speed access to the Internet and the broad availability, especially of broadband learning devices in schools. Until government can be trusted to take over the role of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable—and the health-care debate hardly suggests that moment has come—journalism should continue to make its own way.

Dec. 1 2009 — 6:23 pm | 26 views | 1 recommendations | 2 comments

The Mad Dash of Print Media

The following post appeared as a guest column in the December 2009 issue of FOLIO: magazine.

So far, publishers have demonstrated more fervor than conviction in their attempts to embrace digital innovation. With a few important exceptions—notably The Atlantic—general-interest magazine sites have given themselves over to opinion and aggregation, chasing the headless eyeball and revenue from desolate banner ads while leaving behind all trace of the narrative and design richness of the parent publications.

There is a desperate, shotgun quality to print-digital marriages, as well—like Entertainment Weekly’s “video in print” ad for CBS in September, GQ’s iPhone app in October and Esquire’s experiment with “augmented reality” on the December cover. Popular Science got there first in July, by, as they say, holding up the magazine cover to a computer’s webcam so readers can see “a 3-D landscape dotted with wind turbines popping off the page; by blowing into your computer’s microphone, you can even make the turbines spin faster.”

And as the song goes, you would cry too if it happened to you.

Help is On the Way

Happily, help is on the way, though at first glance, it has a decidedly menacing aspect. Like a hologram, it takes a little squinting to see it for what it is.

The much-rumored whatchamacallit from Apple (iTablet, iPad, whatever) will be just the ancestor of a new world of digital devices whose capabilities are going to lift the greatest burden of publishing (the cost of paper, ink and distribution) bringing HD video, animation, eloquent info graphics and the engaging arts of video gaming to the task of journalism and most other purposes of non-fiction story-telling, including education.

Just as transformative, the iWhatever and its descendants will liberate users from the lean-forward nature of the desktop experience by putting the screen in our hands. The Internet will still be the best way to find what you’re looking for fast, but it will be a great deal more than that, as well. Thanks to broadband penetration, print has lost its monopoly on ubiquity.

When I was the editor of People, I used to say magazines were safe until fiber optics made it to the bathroom. That was a long time ago. What I could not imagine then was how much more robust story-telling could be when liberated from paper and ink, or how you could ever feel like curling up with a computer.

Perhaps most importantly, multimedia story-telling will endow “print” journalism with the brand-enhancing asset that has kept advertisers investing in broadcast and cable: the engaging energy of light, sound and motion. Industry analysts have yet to make the leap from Web as a distribution channel to revolutionary medium.

“The strategies that make media companies successful will require new capabilities,” according to one recent study, which enumerated them: “tracking and research to gain deeper insights into audience interests, informatics to manage and direct Web traffic, database management, custom content and applications development, and the ability to manage a network of partnerships.”

Well, yes. But the way to enhance those relationships is not through database management, but by building trust and engagement—by telling great stories in a way that makes people want to read and experience them.

The Next “Magazine”

This will not be easy. ASME will need to get over itself and stop treating advertisers like enemy occupiers. ABC rules and circulation practices will need to change so that print brands can re-imagine themselves without losing credit for the loyal adherents who follow them there. Publishing giants will have to act like startups, inviting story-tellers from the worlds of film and gaming to join writers and designers with a serious claim on resources and the mandate to fail until they succeed in perfecting the crafts and arts of multimedia story-telling.

When that happens, some enlightened American company—publisher, ASME, maybe even an advertiser!—knowing that its brand equity is intimately tied to the values it promotes, will put its name (and money) behind the next great American “magazine.”

That could very well be a broadband multimedia experience whose mission is the same one that has always informed America’s publishing at its best—to share experience, in a spirit of generosity, to bear faithful witness, to bring coherence and light to the gravest problems and greatest purposes of American life.

Or, as Henry Luce once put it: “To see life. To see the world. To eyewitness great events ….”

Now that’s an app.

Nov. 30 2009 — 11:01 am | 5 views | 0 recommendations | 0 comments

NYT Preoccupations Column: Over 60, and Proud to Join the Digerati

I was recently asked by The New York Times to write a guest column for the Sunday Business “Preoccupations” column about my  experience in bridging the worlds of digital and print media. I wrote about how exhilirating (among other things) it is to work with young, creative minds, lessons I have learned from them and surprised expectations about what I actually have to teach.

The feedback has been really wonderful. Below is an excerpt from the 11/29 Times. For the full version, please click HERE.

Over 60, and Proud to Join the Digerati

In the summer of 2008, just before I turned 61, I went to work at FLYP, an online digital publication that combines text with Flash animation, motion graphics and streaming audio and video to tell stories. It’s part of a larger effort to explore new forms of multimedia journalism.

Photo courtesy of The New York Times

FLYP’s founder, Alan Stoga, is several years younger than I am. The other people on the staff are decades younger than either of us. Most of them, I suspect, have body piercings or tattoos of some sort. You can say 60 is the new 40 all you want. Where I work, even 40 is pretty old.

I used to be the top editor of Time, Life and People magazines (back when print was king). On my first day at FLYP, I was introduced to the staff as someone who “has forgotten more about magazines than any of us has ever known.” This comported nicely with my self-image. I thought that by this time in my life, kids coming out of college would be lucky to work with me, pleased to learn from the experience that I’ve worked so hard (and proudly) to achieve.

It hasn’t turned out that way. The young digerati at FLYP are ambitious, smart, thoughtful and hard-working, and in fact, I feel lucky to be working with them.

Click HERE to read the rest of this column.

Oct. 30 2009 — 2:50 pm | 10 views | 0 recommendations | 0 comments

View from the Digital Iceberg

This post originally ran as a guest column at Mediaite.com on Oct. 29, 2009.

To hear Arthur Sulzberger Jr., tell it –in New York Magazine following the Oct. 26 benefit for The News Literacy Project–the “critical flaw” of the RMS Titanic was not iceberg detection, not an inattentive crew, not a shortage of lifeboats, not overestimating the ship’s construction, nor underestimating the staying power of ice. It was this: “Twelve years earlier, two brothers invented the airplane.”

This is the so-called Titanic Fallacy, which is aptly named. Tell it to the 1,517 people who died in the water that night, several hundred miles short of New York.

I really wish he had kept that analogy to himself. With all the digital cheers going up around the deathbed of print, the media world does not need a Pinch of snuff-porn, any more than it needs a Sulzberger Happy Meal.

The truth lies where it so often does, somewhere between hope and despair. But the outlook for media today is a lot better than the future for luxury cruises was in 1912. It’s bracing, to be sure, but in the way a good long run or a complex, stimulating book can be.

Consider, for example, Elizabeth Eisenstein’s magisterial two-volume work, “The Printing Press As An Agent of Change” (Cambridge University Press, 1980). I’m in the middle of reading it now, and it is a long, bracing run indeed—a minute and skillful examination of just how massive the disruption was, a story previously taken for granted by historians but never so exhaustively studied and eloquently told.

All that is commonly remembered now of that fundamental shift is that reading became more common and knowledge more widespread. We do not mourn the monks whose craft and art of illuminating manuscripts was torn from their hands by that revolution.

Neither should we mourn the printers or print publishers of today. Instead, we should applaud the digital shift, which is actually fulfilling the manifest destiny set out for information by Gutenberg’s bright idea in the 15th Century.

Thanks to the digital revolution, there are millions more people consuming news and information than ever before. As Moore’s law works 24/7 to double the capacity of new devices, the much-rumored Apple Tablet, said to be coming out in a few months, will be just the ancestor of a new generation of digital hardware that will bring text, movies, music, motion graphics—all the tools of multimedia—off your desk and into your hands.

As that happens, the world of media will be transformed. In addition to inviting users to “lean forward” to find the information they want and need through search engines and databases, information on the Web—and more generally in the world of digital broadband—will encourage users to “lean back” and experience the new ways data can combine into coherent, narrative forms. Otherwise known as stories.

Maybe Sulzberger was misunderstood. Let’s hope so. Let’s hope he realizes how lucky he is that some of the media inventors with the Wright stuff are in the Times’s own multimedia department, doing the hard work of inventing the crafts and arts of digital story-telling and so our information future.

Any day now he should get them out of the factory and let them fly.

Oct. 29 2009 — 10:55 am | 5 views | 0 recommendations | 1 comment

Digital Story Telling and Civic Discourse: A BlogTalkRadio Interview

A recent chat I had with Debbie Mahler on her BlogTalk Radio show, “Technical Tidbits,” prompted thoughts that went beyond my usual pitch for multimedia story-telling into why it matters–how the disintermediation of the web has contributed to a fractionating and general souring of public discourse.

You can listen to the interview here

It is my hope–and I trust it’s more than a hope–that when digital multimedia narrative becomes a practiced fact, rather than a distant dream, a common well of stories sympathetically told will encourage a new sense of community, of common understandings, that will help to bridge the partisan divide.

Let me know if you agree–or not.

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    About Me

    I'm a refugee from MSM (former editor of Time, Life and People magazines) and founder of StoryRiver Media Inc., where I'm working on the print-to-digital migration--meaning not "repurposing" content for a new distribution channel but the fundamental transformation and reimagination of story-telling and publishing, incorporating video, audio, animation, full-motion infographics, and all the other media, hardware and software platforms, and design techniques that the Internet can support.

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    Contributor Since: September 2009
    Location:Washington, D.C.

    What I'm Up To

    In a word…

    I’m the editor-in-chief and founder of StoryRiver Media, a digital and multimedia publishing company that creates device- and platform-agnostic multimedia content for a variety of public and private companies across all publishing genres. StoryRiver Media develops vibrant and dynamic multimedia content for companies that helps expand their brand and reputation at the leading edge of the crafts and arts of digital story-telling. The company also creates products that achieve new educational and persuasive power through the deployment of all possible media, in whatever combination is best suited to the scope and purpose of the material at hand.

    Prior to founding StoryRiver Media, I was the editor-in-chief at FLYP, an online multimedia publication. This position came after a 30-year career in print, during which I was the managing editor of  TimeLife, and People magazines. At each of them, I established several new online and multimedia ventures, including a television show and books program at People; network specials and custom publishing at Life; and at Time a classroom edition and Time.com, the first newsmagazine online.