Newer posts are loading.
You are at the newest post.
Click here to check if anything new just came in.

May 25 2011

Steve Bell: 'You must discover the character behind the face'

Thirty years ago, political cartoonist Steve Bell drew his first If… strip; ever since, he's been a much-loved Guardian regular. He looks back on his career

In pictures: Steve Bell at the Cartoon Museum; Politicians including John Prescott, Edwina Currie and Nick Clegg on being drawn by Bell

Hitting 60 gives you plenty of food for thought. Having a retrospective exhibition at the same time gives further cause for astonishment. How did I ever manage to draw that small, without glasses or artificial aids? How did I manage without scanning and email? Well, everything went by train. How did I manage with four young children snapping at my heels? I used to work at night, when they were all tucked up. My oldest son, born the year I started working for the Guardian, is now 30 with ankle-biters of his own. He's grown – but have I?

There is no defined career path to becoming a cartoonist. I came to it almost in reverse. I have loved cartoons, drawing and having a laugh, but the notion of doing it for a living didn't take root until very late. I had studied art, but I found the idea of being an artist risible. (Monsieur L'Artiste was one of the first characters I ever drew at university.) So I started out as a teacher, but the stress was unbelievable. I knew things had gone too far when being off to have my wisdom teeth taken out felt like a relief. What I craved was a job where I could shut myself in a room and talk to myself, sometimes very loudly and in a variety of accents.

With my girlfriend Heather's encouragement, I handed in my notice and followed my friend from university, Kipper Williams, into the daunting world of freelance cartooning. I had no portfolio and no contacts, other than those Kipper gave me, and no plan, other than the fantasies engendered by my infinite sense of entitlement. It was the second best decision in my life. The best was to marry Heather, which I did that same year, in 1977.

While I was teaching, I had been drawing strip cartoons and illustrations, unpaid, for Birmingham Broadside, the city's answer to Time Out. I had introduced a character called Maxwell the Mutant: having been exposed to deadly radiation, in the grand old comic book tradition, Maxwell would mutate into someone unexpected every time he drank a pint of mild. Since 1977 was a Jubilee year, he naturally mutated into the Queen. His deadly adversary was Neville Worthyboss, a thinly veiled and rather inadequate caricature of the then Tory leader of Birmingham city council, Neville Bosworth. Despite my ambition and self-belief, I knew I needed to work on my caricatures. I never realised they would become a life's work.

Through dogged persistence (I still cherish my rejection letter from the Beano), I found work writing and drawing children's comics. My first professional effort in print, for IPC's Whoopee comic, was Dick Doobie the Back to Front Man; he sank without trace after a few months in 1978. But I was learning – and I had been paid.

At a leftwing publication called the Leveller, I introduced a strip about a really obnoxious supreme being, Lord God Almighty. But I wanted to draw comics about politics. I tried Time Out repeatedly, which in those days had a leftwing slant, but there was nothing going. Then I went to the magazine's offices for about the fifth time in 1979, immediately after the election of Margaret Thatcher, and saw the news editor, Duncan Campbell. He said they were looking for a comic strip to tackle the new Tory government. Would I like to submit a rough idea? I rushed home, grunted, strained and produced a pencilled rough of an allegorical strip where the animals were the people and the farm management were the government. They wanted one every fortnight; naturally, it became known as Maggie's Farm.

This was a huge break, but my Maggie needed work. I'm not someone who has an easy, natural talent for quick caricature, as Gerald Scarfe and Martin Rowson do. I take my time. It isn't simply a question of getting the likeness: you have to discover the character behind the face. My early Thatchers are no more than press photos rendered into line drawings, but then the woman herself was not yet a fully formed personality. The Iron Lady with Churchill's Trousers was an image that she consciously worked on, along with the darkening of her hair and the lowering and slowing of her voice. For a long time, though, I couldn't identify what it was about her that really got to me. What her government was doing was very, very nasty, but there was something else as well.

I came to realise, while drawing her over the first year of her government, that she was deranged, but in a very controlled way, and this was expressed in her eyeballs. Her utter self-belief, her total conviction of her own rightness, went way beyond arrogance. She was mad. Perhaps I subconsciously empathised with her for this. Even so, I hated her more than any other living being. Within a couple of years, she had managed to triple unemployment, slash services and lay waste to vast tracts of British industry.

When I saw Thatcher for the first time, in October 1980, at the Conservative conference in Brighton, I was horrified and intrigued. The crowd was terrifying; the whole occasion felt like a gathering of the undead. This was where she unveiled the deathless phrases: "You turn. If you want to. The Lady's. Not. For turning." The delivery was leaden. It was like a bad stand-up comedian addressing a particularly slow audience. Tory audiences are well turned-out, shiny and simple-minded, and in all the years I have been studying them, nothing whatever has changed.

The Guardian had informed me, in 1978, that they wouldn't be using my work in the foreseeable future. But in 1981, we had a newborn son and a mortgage in the offing. So in desperation I sent off more stuff. It paid off. In November 1981, the first If… strip appeared. Within six months, the ludicrous Falklands war had broken out, and since all imagery emanating from the Task Force sailing south was so rigidly controlled by the Ministry of Defence, the kind of surreal graphic speculation that only a cartoon strip can provide came into its own.

Nine years later, I was still hard at it when Thatcher fell from grace. It was great fun to draw a visual commentary on the fall as it happened. Her neck had thickened, her shoulders broadened, her quiff solidified. The eyeballs were wilder than ever: one hooded, one roaming free. Thanks to the wonders of fax, I was now able to draw a cartoon for publication the following day without having to go into the office (I had moved to Brighton). I produced my first big comment-page job on the day of Geoffrey Howe's devastating resignation speech, then another on the day Thatcher quit.

It was a horrendous amount of work, but it was addictive. With the arrival of John Major, and the outbreak of the Gulf war, I was sucked into doing two, three, then four large cartoons for the comment page a week, as well as the daily strip. I was so delighted at not to have to draw Thatcher any more that caricaturing Major came quickly and easily, as light relief. The logic was simple. He was one more useless Tory, only he was super-useless. He became Superuselessman, wearing not sleek red briefs over a bright blue body stocking, but Y-fronts over a grey suit. Major's slow death went on for far too long: by 1997, I was overjoyed to be drawing the blazing underpants sinking into the Thames, never to be seen again – except when they reappeared on Edwina Currie's head in 2002.

Tony Blair took longer to capture. It wasn't until stalking him at the Labour conference in Blackpool in 1994 that I noticed he had a little mad eye of his very own: politically and visually, he was channelling Thatcher. What Blair did was the appearance of conviction; what Gordon Brown did was the appearance of substance. Ten years of Blair gave way to the quick-quick-slow death of Brown. It was like drawing a crumbling cliff face, or the north end of a southbound cow.

At David Cameron's first conference as Tory leader, in Bournemouth in 2006, there was a sudden outbreak of pale blue skies, puffy clouds and trees waving in the breeze. The massed simpletons were still there, seething in the blue shadows, but they looked increasingly baffled. Then Cameron himself came on stage and burbled sweet nothings about the NHS. They didn't believe a word of it and Cameron didn't either, but he was channelling Blair. He had all the hand movements, the stiff, deliberate podium body language, and he could do sincerity almost as well as the master. But he's smoother and doesn't appear to possess any hair follicles. It turns out he is made of translucent pink rubber.

Saddest of all is Nick Clegg, a rather poor clone of Cameron, who in turn is a tribute act to Blair, who is himself channelling Thatcher. And who was she channelling? Her father, Alderman Roberts, the grocer of Grantham town? Winston Churchill? Adolf Hitler? Beelzebub? Who can say?

Am I getting cynical in my old age? I don't think so. I have a strong feeling that I was born cynical and that, somewhere within me, a dewy-eyed idealist has always been struggling to get out. I have been lurking under the podium, drawing politicians so closely for so long, that I have almost come to like them. I don't think they are any more venal and corrupt than we are. They talk bollocks because we talk bollocks – and because it's their job. Yet sometimes they say something that pushes a button and lights up the room. It is a rare skill and it doesn't happen often. Mostly, it is a slow slog through cliche and soundbite, followed by a slaughtering at the polls. What is worse is that many of them actually enjoy being done over satirically, since it shows that at least one person is paying them attention.

These men and women are professional idealists and I take my hat off to them. Then I kick them up the arse. Because it's not what they say or what they are, or even what they say they are, that gets my goat: it's the things they actually do to us in our name.

Bell Epoque: 30 Years of Steve Bell is at the Cartoon Museum, 35 Little Russell Street, London WC1, until 24 July


guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


Steve Bell: Bell Époque – in pictures

A selection of Steve Bell's witty cartoons and cutting political commentary marking 30 years drawing for the Guardian



March 24 2011

Four short links: 24 March 2010

  1. Digital Subscription Prices -- the NY Times in context. Aie.
  2. Trinity -- Microsoft Research graph database. (via Hacker News)
  3. Data Science Toolkit -- prepackaged EC2 image of most useful data tools. (via Pete Warden)
  4. Snappy -- Google's open sourced compression library, as used in BigTable and MapReduce. Emphasis is on speed, with resulting lack of quality in filesize (20-100% bigger than zlib).

March 07 2011

Four short links: 7 March 2011

  1. DigitalKoot -- Playing games in Digitalkoot fixes mistakes in our index of old Finnish newspapers. This greatly increases the accuracy of text-based searches of the newspaper archives. (via Springwise and Imran Ali on Twitter)
  2. Some Things That Need To Be Said (Amanda Hocking) -- A.H. is selling a lot of copies of her ebooks, and she cautions against thinking hers is an easily reproduced model. First, I am continuously overwhelmed by the amount of work I have to do that isn't writing a book. Middlemen give you time in exchange for money. Second, By all accounts, he has done the same things I did, even writing in the same genre and pricing the books low. And he's even a better writer than I am. So why am I selling more books than he is? I don't know. I'm reminded of Duncan Watts's work MusicLab which showed that "hits" aren't predictable. It's entirely possible to duplicate Amanda's efforts and not replicate her success.
  3. A Literary Appreciation of the Olson Timezone Database -- timezones are fickle political creations, and this is a wonderful tribute to the one database which ruled them all for 25 years.
  4. TileMill -- a tool for cartographers to quickly and easily design maps for the web using custom data. Open source, built on Mapnik.

January 30 2011

The norms of Norman Rockwell | Peter Preston

The artist Norman Rockwell gave pre-war Americans what they wanted: cheerful escapism. But times have changed

There are two things you notice about the array of Saturday Evening Post front covers by Norman Rockwell laid out in south London's Dulwich Picture Gallery. One is that Rockwell was a wonderfully skilled artist not at all devalued by having to churn away to magazine deadlines. The other thing is that, 323 times over, he was so damned cheerful.

If there's a war, then "Willie Gillis" – aka Robert Buck – became a mythically quizzical hero, clutching food parcels, snoozing on leave or sending the same picture of himself to irate pretty girls. If there's a crucial election – Dewey versus Truman, say – then Ma and Pa argue histrionically while a baby and a dog get on with life as usual. If it's Christmas after the Wall Street crash, then a plump, Pickwickian stagecoach driver is thinking of roast goose and a "merrie" time.

This is a confected world of Capra-esque American stereotypes wearing dungarees and broad grins, and Charles Dickens characters serving up old English history. It is funny and safe and homely in an honestly dishonest way. It has almost nothing to do with the occasional strands of reality that ran on inside pages. But did Rockwell, who knew all about domestic miseries and national threats, want to keep turning out such roseate stuff? Not exactly: his editor demanded it. And that editor – pushing circulation way over 3m, making the Saturday Evening Post the most famous and profitable magazine of the 20s and 30s — knew what he was doing. No gloom please, we're Americans.

What killed off the Post in the 60s? Nothing sinister; just mass-market TV. You couldn't watch television and read short stories by would be F Scott Fitzgeralds at the same time. So millions of ordinary Joes, used to paying very little for their fix – five cents a throw when the second world war began – flaked away, along with the advertising.

Perhaps, you could say, the grim reaper on the newsstand delivered nemesis in the end. But it wasn't that the Post force-fed benignity. On the contrary, the punters in hard times demanded more, more, more.

So how and why did everything change? When did Rockwell, let alone Frank Capra, fall out of fashion – replaced by Fox News, Glenn Beck and a constant diet of dismal headlines? When did we decide that bad news was good and good news barely worth reading?

The mistake is to blame the media, force-feeding despair day after day. The truth, shown after George Horace Lorimer was hired as editor of a feebly struggling Saturday Evening Post in 1899, and for his next 36 years in the chair, was the reverse. Lorimer discovered that Joe Public, a million times over, wanted cosy escapism. He wanted to read about the kind of world he wished he lived in.

Perhaps, on occasion, that's still true. Barack Obama's speech after the Arizona shootings was a pure Last Post for alleged American values. But most of the time the steel-tipped boot is on the other foot. When UK growth in the third quarter of 2010 exceeds expectation, it flies to page 97. When it grinds into reverse, three months later, the glum news bounds up front. When the NHS gets its reforming orders, doctors rail against the pace of change. When our votes mean coalition, we seemingly ache for it to fall apart.

I'm not talking the rights and wrongs of policy: just predilections and state of mind. ("The day Britain lost its soul," in the UK's most ebulliently selling newspaper, the Mail, turns out to be the day we embraced the metric system 40 years ago.) Feel good? No, we want to feel bad. If Lorimer were starting again today, he'd call his magazine the Saturday Evening Dirge and park Norman Rockwell down Misery Street. That's the bleak, but equally confected, way of our world. Buddy, can you spare a smile?


guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


January 10 2011

Tom Lubbock obituary

Collagist, illustrator and chief art critic of the Independent

Until the last months of 2010, Tom Lubbock, who has died aged 53, was mainly known for his work as the chief art critic of the Independent. Two events changed and broadened that public profile. The first was the publication, in the Observer, of When Words Failed Me, his long, painful but at times strangely beautiful memoir of two years' suffering from the brain tumour that was slowly killing him, and which eventually robbed him of the power to write or speak. But it was more than just a fine writer's eloquent lament for the tragic loss of eloquence: it was a prose poem about language and mortality.

Just a few weeks after this, the Victoria Miro Gallery, London, mounted an exhibition of the collages that Tom had made for the Saturday editions of the Independent between 1999 and 2004. It was widely and warmly reviewed, notably by the Turner prizewinner Mark Wallinger, who praised the way in which these "exquisitely crafted" pieces "addressed the world in many different registers – sardonic, caustic, erudite and celebratory, with instinct, intelligence and wit". The exhibition announced to the world something that Tom's friends had long known: Lubbock the art critic was also Lubbock the artist.

When I first met him, more than 30 years ago, he was Lubbock the cartoonist. It seemed as if within days of arrival at Cambridge University – he read philosophy and English at Corpus Christi College – he was adorning the pages of student magazines with ferocious daubs and scatological caricatures.

In those days, before he grew the trademark beard that gave him the air of a 19th-century Russian anarchist, his face was like that of a cherub who had done a sneaky deal with the devil. He tended to dress in odd headgear and old formal suits – part scruff, part dandy – and his fingers were perpetually stained with ink. He was charming, if a bit frightening and had the most infectious laugh I had ever heard: a kind of sustained bronchial explosion. When someone uses the word "glee", I can see the boyish Tom, grinning hugely (he had terrible teeth), blue eyes wide open as he thrilled to some fresh joke or conceit, body convulsed, almost breathless with mirth. He was a superb mimic, too.

Tom was a serious student, busy laying the foundations for what became a formidable erudition, but he threw himself into all manner of other activities, including journalism (he edited an edition of Granta, in its old incarnation), student theatre, and a series of elaborate pranks that are probably best left unrecorded. It was said that whenever the Corpus porters discovered some new Dada-style atrocity, the cry would go up: "Where's Lubbock?"

One college contemporary, who was in the habit of arranging his loose change in neat piles on the mantelpiece, recalls how Tom used to love knocking them over in pure relish of chaos. Another remembers going to Tom's room for the first time and finding a note pinned to the door by a hunting knife: "You will die, Lubbock", it read. He did not seem greatly perturbed.

After graduation, Tom moved to London and began to scrabble around in the world of newspapers and magazines. His family was rather grand – Liberal politician Sir John Lubbock was an ancestor; so was the distinguished literary critic Percy Lubbock – and he had been to Eton. But there was no money to underwrite a life of scholarly ease, so, like most of his college peers, he learned to survive on his wits. He was theatre editor of the exceptionally short-lived magazine Bad News, and a jack of many trades for Richard Branson's Event listings magazine; and he produced lots of illustrations, often in collage form. Gradually, his reputation as a writer of uncommon talent became recognised, and his byline became more frequent.

His career gathered momentum in 1985, when was taken on by the producer Tom Sutcliffe as a regular contributor to BBC Radio 3's arts programme New Premises, for which he wrote both serious essays – his debut piece was a searching appreciation of George Stubbs's equestrian paintings – and spoofs or satires. One of these was a cod-documentary about a Thatcherite agit-prop theatre company, which toured banks and wine bars and gentleman's clubs with such shows as Piss on the Fire, Jack, My Toast's Done. His collage-cartoons began to appear in the Mail on Sunday, and then the Observer, and he designed the opening credits for the Channel 4 television programme A Week in Politics.

Tom also appeared on TV himself, as a contributor to BBC2's The Late Show in its early days. In collaboration with the director Roger Parsons, he also wrote an innovative six-part comedy series for BBC2, The Wolvis Family (1991). As its fans have pointed out, there were elements of this comedy that anticipated both The Royle Family (six characters confined to a single room) and The Office (a deadpan, apparently earnest approach to its characters' absurdities). Wolvis bombed in the ratings, but fared surprisingly well in Australia. Perhaps its best audience was Tom himself, who sat in the studio control room all but exploding with delight, until he had to be thrown out.

Meanwhile, he worked as a radio reviewer for the Independent and then the Observer, and wrote many book reviews. Tom was exceptionally well-informed in several areas – literature, music, philosophy – and as a book reviewer, he could turn his hand to almost anything editors asked of him, but it was becoming increasingly clear that his mind was at its most forceful and innovative when he thinking about the visual arts. He wrote long essays for the journal Modern Painters between 1990 and 2002, and won the Hawthorden prize for art criticism in 1993.

His full-time work as a reviewer and essayist for the Independent began in 1997. Apart from his keen eye and his wide range of reference, Tom's virtues included bracing clarity (he never used art-speak or any other kind of higher waffle), utter honesty (he was never intimidated by reputations), and originality (even if you thought you knew his tastes, he could surprise you). He could also be howlingly funny. His essay about conceptual art, based on various things you might do with a toaster, should be mounted in every modern art gallery as a contribution to public sanity.

When not engaged in journalism or family life – he married the artist Marion Coutts in 2001; their son, Eugene, is three years old – Tom worked at more substantial projects. He wrote major catalogue essays on Goya and Ian Hamilton Finlay, and monographs on Thomas Bewick and Carol Rhodes. A collection of essays from his popular Independent series Great Works will be published this year, and there are three manuscripts of completed books: one on Bad Art, one on the English graphic tradition, and The Donkey's Head, on 17th-century painting. His friends also hope that the full-length version of When Words Failed Me will become a book soon.

The last word should go to Tom: they are the last words of that essay.

The final thing. The illiterate. The dumb.

Speech?

Quiet but still something?

Noises?

Nothing?

My body. My tree.

After that it becomes simply the world.

• Thomas Nevile Lubbock, critic and illustrator, born 28 December 1957; died 9 January 2011


guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


December 23 2010

Good as news

We can see design thinking at work in web phenomena such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, but the predicament of printed news remains an unsolved problem

In the 1850s, a New York publisher announced that newspapers were dead: he had seen a telegraph in action. In fact, the immediacy of the telegraph made people much hungrier for news from hundreds of miles away, and proved a major catalyst in the growth of newspapers.

The telegraph story is told by Arthur Sulzberger Jr, the publisher of the New York Times, in a new book called Designing Media. His interlocutor is Bill Moggridge, the man who designed the first laptop in 1980, went on to found IDEO, the largest design firm in the world, and is currently the director of the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York. Sulzberger is one of 37 people that Moggridge interviews in the book, from editors and TV producers to the founders of Wikipedia, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. It's a veritable Who's Who of the people who have revolutionised media in the last decade.

Reading the interviews (excerpts of which you can also download and watch on video), I had one question at the front of my mind: what, exactly, is the relationship between design and the media revolution we are experiencing? Or, to put it another way, why is this book – which contains many fascinating insights into the way media work, some of them design-related but most of them not – entitled Designing Media? I didn't find the explanation in the book, so I called up Moggridge to ask him. His answer was simple: because media is a form of design. In fact, he argued, everything is a form of design.

To be honest, I suspected he would say that. Most people may still think that "design" refers to manufactured objects – chairs, telephones and cars – but designers have become far more expansive in their worldview. They now design customer experience and services, from internet banking systems to patient flow in a hospital. Businesses are rapidly latching on to the notion of "design thinking" – the idea that the creative problem-solving used by designers can be applied outside of traditional design – as a means of becoming more effective. Moggridge himself is a paragon of the designer dissolving the boundaries of his discipline. He is the godfather of interaction design, which started out as the design of electronic interfaces but now refers to the design of any form of user experience, from navigating a BlackBerry to paying at a checkout.

From there, it takes no great leap of imagination to understand media as design. After all, many of the new media moguls are software designers. Indeed, Chad Hurley, the founder of YouTube, started out as a graphic designer (probably the only graphic designer in history to become a billionaire). I buy the argument that design thought processes can be applied to almost anything – whether that means we call those things "design" is a semantic discussion we'll save for another time. But I find it easier to understand the argument in relation to new media rather than traditional media. It doesn't seem far fetched at all to describe social networking platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, and user-generated content sites such as Wikipedia and YouTube as forms of design.

Wikipedia's Jimmy Wales actually describes what he does as "community design". It sounds like a form of social engineering, but what he means by the phrase is that Wikipedia is not just an anarchic piece of crowd-sourcing: it's a carefully designed eco-system. If people are going to work on an encyclopedia for free, you have to create the conditions in which they're willing to do so, by giving them recognition and not profiting from their labour. It was important to Wales to make Wikipedia an open system, and so it was designed around the principle that most people are honest and well-intentioned, rather than making it a closed shop to exclude the few bad apples who want to write false or slanderous entries – in truth, he tried the closed system first with Nupedia and it failed. Yet, while it's true that anyone can write or edit an entry on Wikipedia, everything there is carefully monitored. It's often described as "democratic", but Wales himself thinks of it more as a monarchy, with the writers overseen by moderators who are in turn overseen by the king – King Jimbo, as he's known. So the design aspect isn't just how the website looks, it's how users create the content.

Immediately you can see how different design rules suggest different ideologies. Like Wales, Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg is also fixated on the idea of openness. He fervently believes that designing a platform for people to share personal information helps make the world a more open place. And he found that making things human – "just seeing someone's face" – works best. It could have all looked like email, with its Spartan text-only interface that betrays its origins in the military. But it doesn't. It's designed to make people feel more present, and engaged with a community rather than an individual. Moggridge is right to suggest that the secret to Zuckerberg's success – you may have seen him on the cover of Time this month – lies in having designed a social network where there is no layer of technology getting in people's way.

However, here's the question. We all know that the media are in a turbulent state of flux, but in what way does reading the situation as "design" help? Is it just semantics, down to the fact that the word "design" is just so malleable? Paola Antonelli, senior design curator at New York's Museum of Modern Art, doesn't think so. She recently predicted in the Economist that in the near future designers would be involved in everything from science to politics. She sees design as the uber-profession, with a skill-set that transcends all boundaries. "For a simple reason: one of design's most fundamental tasks is to help people deal with change," she says.

The design world is in confident mood, but for these predictions to come true the rest of the world needs to buy into the argument. If I was Arthur Sulzberger Jr, I'd be thinking about how designers could get me out of a massive dilemma that was costing my company hundreds of millions of dollars a year. There's only one reason why newspapers haven't yet gone the way of the telegraph and that's because they still make about 20 times more advertising revenue than websites. If you were to grant Sulzberger just one wish, I have no doubt that he would reply: I wish someone would design a way for us to make as much advertising revenue from the website as we used to make from the newspaper. Banner ads? Forget it. The fact that you can't give over most of a webpage to an ad the way you could a printed page is simply because we've all been conditioned by the early days of the web when everything was free. There's a design challenge that everyone's trying to crack.


guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


August 22 2010

Photo-reportage's thwarted potential

Photographs of disasters have become mainstream images in the media, leaving us jaded. So what can seize our minds?

Rarely a week goes by when issues around photography are not in the news. This week, the photographs on Facebook of handcuffed and blindfolded Palestinian detainees posted by an ex-Israeli soldier unleashed shockwaves. A few weeks ago, Time magazine's cover of the Afghan woman stirred up debates that are ongoing. As viewers, we respond and react. We demand action. Yet, day after day, the media also brings us images that should shock our sensibilities – but do not quite manage to do so.

The floods in Pakistan have given rise to a veritable deluge of photographs documenting devastation. On a daily basis, we have been seeing representations of untold suffering, as people struggle to survive, while filth and chaos reign around them. Nevertheless, despite efforts to mobilise relief, a certain degree of apathy often accompanies our responses to such images. Unlike the photograph of the Afghan woman, these are not one-offs.

The problem is so much larger than photography can ever hope to capture that they wash over us. For two facts stand out when it comes to how we gather news of disasters elsewhere: first, photo-documentary plays a key part, and second, there is a predictable sameness to such photographs. Whether it be Hurricane Katrina, the tsunami, Pakistan or Haiti back in January, the photo-reportage that emerges inevitably confirms the uniformity of human suffering, the base commonality of despair, concerns, needs and pain.

Too often, they also confirm that the hardest hit are always the poor, whether they be in Louisiana or Nowshera. Yet, for those of us who are far away and better off – concerned, no doubt, but personally unaffected – comes a sense of deja vu leading to a slightly jaded response. We feel sympathy, but not an urge to ask big questions or to battle seriously for action. So of what use are these images if they cannot move us out of our comfort zone when we, the globally privileged, are precisely those who can make a difference?

The plain fact is that the suffering of others is part of what we expect to see from the media. Photo-reportage of disasters and mass displacements are mainstream images, despite the efforts made by individual photographers to provide original and distinct points of view. They also confirm our relative safety: this suffering is that of others, and not ours. And so the images are solely seen in passing.

Perhaps our pallid responses signal a crisis of conscience. Perhaps we have problems of our own to deal with. Or is there something slightly inuring about photo-reportage? Does this signal the limits of photography's documentary potential?

Could it be, then, that images that actually work in terms of seizing our minds are those that do not try to put facts squarely before us? Instead, the images that shake us most present their audience with conundrums, bringing into our sightline paradoxical juxtapositions. When an Israeli ex-soldier posts photographs on Facebook of herself "at work" (albeit guarding handcuffed and blindfolded Palestinian prisoners), in exactly the same way in which so many of us post images of ourselves in the workplace, we are faced at once with the intensely familiar and the totally extraneous and abhorrent.

For the same images also churn up in our collective memories the photographs of Abu Ghraib that continue to haunt the democratic conscience of the west. And in bringing all of this together, in aligning us all together as co-users of Facebook, we, the "good" people of the world, feel the unexpected discomfort of rubbing shoulders with the troubling shadows and the muffled screams of our troubled times.

Such images are spaces of contradiction. They force us to ask questions, to think again. They plunge us into uncertainty. Who knows – the irony may then be that when it comes to what makes a photograph work, it is precisely the earnest zeal for transparent documentary that undermines photography's potential as a mobilising force.


guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


August 11 2010

Four short links: 11 August 2010

  1. 10 Essential iPad Apps for Publication Designers -- a couple of interesting new suggestions here, including the New Zealand Herald (hated at home for including a bloated intro movie, but with interesting article presentation), and Paris Match (adding interactive features to almost every story). (via Simon St Laurent)
  2. Cooking in Silico: Heat Transfer in the Modern Kitchen (YouTube) -- In this talk at the University of Washington, Nathan Myhrvold and Chris Young of Intellectual Ventures show how computationally intense heat-transfer calculations can reveal the subtle factors that influence the success or failure of a cook's efforts in the kitchen. Explore the virtues of computational cooking, and watch novel techniques and creations made possible when science informs the culinary arts. Mhyrvold has a new cookbook (six volumes!) coming out. (via TechFlash)
  3. Ten Psychological Insights re: Twitter -- summary of ten psychological studies about Twitter users. Many but not all of the most-followed Twitter users are, unsurprisingly, celebrities. This top-heavy usage reflects the fact that being interesting is a talent that not everyone can acquire (without relying on the halo effect of being famous that is). Occasionally, though, some manage the trick of being famous and quite interesting, e.g. Stephen Fry. (via vaughanbell on Twitter)
  4. MIT OpenCourseWare: Unlocking Knowledge, Empowering Minds -- Ten years later, MIT Open-CourseWare (OCW) [...] contains the core academic content used in 2000 classes, presenting substantially all the undergraduate and graduate curriculum from MIT's 33 academic departments. A selection of courses, including introductory physics, math, and engineering, contain full video lectures. Partner organizations have created more than 800 translations of OCW courses in five languages. The OCW team has distributed over 200 copies of the entire Web site on hard drives primarily to sub-Saharan Africa, where Internet access is limited. OCW has grown into a global educational resource. (via Sara Winge)

August 09 2010

Four short links: 9 August 2010

  1. Maslow's Hierarchy of Robot Needs -- born to be a t-shirt. (via waxy)
  2. paper.li -- read Twitter as a daily newspaper. An odd mashup of the hot new tech and the failing old. Will newspapers live on with modern meanings, like "records" and "cab"?
  3. Eureqa -- software tool for detecting equations and hidden mathematical relationships in your data. Appears to be a free-as-in-beer service with open source client libraries. (via Pete Warden)
  4. Samsung Patents Tablet with Front and Rear Touch Input -- The idea is to let users control the device without touching the screen, and perhaps allow them to perform multi-touch inputs from the screen side and the rear side at the same time. (via azaaza on Twitter who says he worked on it at Samsung four years ago)

July 12 2010

Four short links: 12 July 2010

  1. Shogun: A Large Scale Machine Learning Toolbox -- open source (GPL v3), C++ with interfaces to MatLab, R, Octave, and Python. Emphasis for this toolkit is on SVM and "large scale kernel methods".
  2. The Agnostic Cartographer (Washington Monthly) -- land and sea are easy to measure compared to the trouble you get into when you put names on them. The end of the colonial period, hastened by World War II, ushered in a broad crisis in geographical data collection. “The modern era collapsed under its own weight,” says Michael Frank Goodchild, a British American geographer at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “By the 1970s it was apparent that it was no longer going to be sustainable to have a world in which national governments sustained geographic information.”
  3. Niu Personalized Newspaper to Launch -- sign up, select news sources, and every day you get a personalized 24-page print newspaper on your doorstep. They're not attached to print, but print is the delivery mechanism their customers preferred.
  4. Ambient Devices -- amazing lineup of products that ambiently reflect data (mostly weather). I love the umbrella whose handle glows if you should take it today. (via data4all on Twitter)

May 05 2010

Shame on those who defamed the NUM's Peter Heathfield | Peter Lazenby

The death of former miners' leader Peter Heathfield reminds us of a disgraceful episode in the media's history

With the death of the former miners' leader Peter Heathfield the labour and trade union movement has lost one of its most courageous leaders.

For those who knew him, the loss will be a source of both sadness and anger.

The anger will be directed at sections of the media who conducted a reckless, irresponsible, politically motivated, groundless and downright venomous campaign against Heathfield, and against Arthur Scargill, as leaders of the National Union of Mineworkers. They were wrongly accused of misappropriating union funds for their personal use.

The campaign's effects remained with Heathfield for the rest of his life.

He was elected national secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers in 1984, just weeks before the start of the miners' strike against pit closures. He joined Scargill and Mick McGahey, president and vice-president of the NUM, to make up the triumvirate at the head of the union during that bitter dispute.

In 1990 the Daily Mirror launched a campaign of denigration against Scargill and Heathfield. The accusations of dishonesty were ludicrous, yet they were taken up almost unquestioningly by wide sections of the media. The Cook Report sailed into battle with its own "revelations".

The allegations were eventually and inevitably disproved. Years later the editor of the Mirror at that time, Roy Greenslade, apologised, through the columns of the Guardian.

In Heathfield's case the damage was already done. Anyone who knew him could see the hurt he felt, the mental stress. He aged visibly, before his time.

The last time I saw Peter was in March last year at the annual lecture delivered in memory of David Jones and Joe Green, two Yorkshire miners who were killed on the picket line during the 1984-85 strike. David's father was one of the speakers.

Peter was greeted by friends and comrades he had worked with for decades, and though he smiled and shook hands, he seemed to have little memory of them. I felt he was going through the motions. He was frail, feeble, dependent on loved ones to support him.

Peter Heathfield had been a formidable speaker, a disciplined activist, yet someone who always had time for a laugh, a joke and a pint.

I doubt if those behind the campaign against him knew or cared about the effect their actions were having on a man who put enormous value on integrity.

Shame on them.


guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


April 26 2010

March 28 2010

02mydafsoup-01

Le Monde exclusivement payant : fin d'un rêve ou erreur stratégique ?

[...]

En fait depuis l'appel du puissant Rupert Murdoch, qui a signalé l'an dernier à tous les grands journaux qu'il était temps de mettre fin à la gratuité de l'information sur Internet. Le Monde a ainsi annoncé qu'à partir du 29 mars, "et de façon progressive", tous les articles du quotidien ne seront plus accessibles gratuitement sur le site du journal, mais réservés aux seuls abonnés.

[...]

Confrontés à la chute du marché publicitaire, les journaux papiers se replient donc de plus en plus vers leurs stratégies d'antan en réservant la lecture de leurs articles aux seules paires d'yeux dont le propriétaire a payé la dîme. C'est la fin d'une époque commencée au milieu des années 1990, qui a vu les journaux mettre leurs articles en ligne à disposition de tous, avec plus ou moins de liberté. Le Monde, qui avait déjà expérimenté depuis de nombreuses années des formules d'abonnement donnant quelques privilèges (comme la création de blogs, l'accès aux archives ou à des infographies intéractives), devient le premier journal généraliste en France à fermer totalement la porte aux lecteurs occasionnels.

Financièrement, la décision est compréhensible.

[...]

Mais sur le long terme, la stratégie sera-t-elle payante ?

Sans être affirmatifs, nous en doutons. Les jeunes internautes ont pris depuis quinze ans l'habitude de consulter gratuitement sur Internet tous les journaux. [...] Aujourd'hui, les internautes consultent indifféremment Le Monde, Libération, Le Figaro, Presse Océan, Le Temps, Les Echos... pour eux, payer pour accéder à l'information est déjà une chose difficilement concevable. Mais en plus, payer pour ne lire qu'un seul et même journal, est totalement inimaginable. Ne parlons même pas de l'idée de s'abonner à plusieurs journaux, économiquement irréaliste. A cet égard, la proposition mutualiste de Libération était d'ailleurs plus pertinente.

[...]

Ils le seront d'autant plus que l'information n'est plus uniquement la lecture. C'est aussi le partage. Or qui ira partager sur Facebook et Twitter les articles que seuls les abonnés à la formule payante iront lire ? Qui, surtout, ira "retweeter" une information qu'il n'a pas pu lire ?

Beaucoup d'internautes auront, dès qu'ils verront un article du Monde qu'ils ne peuvent pas lire sans payer, le réflexe de chercher un article sur le même thème dans un autre journal gratuit. Google News, entre autres outils, les y aidera.

[....]

Et l'on craint que pour s'en sauver, comme a déjà commencé à le proposer Rupert Murdoch, les journaux ne s'associent dans un lobbyisme d'une ampleur inégalée pour protéger l'exclusivité de leurs scoops. Ils demanderont que le droit d'auteur ne protège plus seulement la matérialisation de l'information, mais l'information elle-même.


---------------------------------

cf. @scheiro - permalink
— l'article complet sur le blog www.numerama.com - 20100325 - Le Monde exclusivement payant : fin d'un rêve ou erreur stratégique ?
02mydafsoup-01

"Le Monde" devient "une marque globale" sur le papier et le numérique


[...]

A partir du 29 mars, et de façon progressive, les articles du quotidien ne seront plus accessibles gratuitement sur le site, mais dans la zone abonnés. La zone en accès libre sera enrichie d'une vingtaine de contributions de la rédaction du Monde, produites spécialement pour Lemonde.fr.

L'application iPhone gratuite du Monde compte déjà 1,4 million de téléchargements. Elle restera en accès libre, mais une autre application payante va voir le jour, proposant le contenu du journal papier, avec un mode de lecture adapté à l'iPhone. Le prix de l'abonnement à cette application sera de 15 euros par mois.

[...]

--------------------------------------------------------------

quelques réactions choisies des lecteurs :

diegolerouge

Ah oui! je viens de voir que l'edition HTML telechargeable vient d'etre retablie. Je me rabonne. C'etait le seul vrai service de cet abonnement. Le reste, du pipo marketing. A mon avis les desabonnements on du exploser. C'est triste de prendre ses clients pour des nouilles. Ils avaient deja fait le coup et pareil, ça n'avait pas dure... l'hemorragie sans doute. Il y a l'Huma et ses archives gratuites et a l'international c'est mieux que le Monde et sa propa kouchnerienne.


FS

J'ai resilie mon abonnement à 6euros car on ne peut plus telecharger l'edition HTML qui faisait 500ko et qu'on pouvait telecharger avec une connextion tres bas debit meme à 2k/s car cela ne demandait que quelque mn dans le pire des cas. Sans papier et sans diffusion c'etait raisonnable. Adieu le Monde, pour le meme prix et un contenu superieur a la nouvelle offre je lirai les Echos. Cette nouvelle formule est l'exemple meme du nouveau management stupide, de la fausse nouveaute.


Tom-

Où est le détail de ces offres et leur comparaison avec l'édition abonnés à 6 € d'aujourd'hui ? J'y suis abonné depuis 2004 ou 2005, j'estime que vous pourriez m'expliquer de quoi il s'agit en détail. POur ce que j'en comprend, moi qui n'ai pas d'iPhone, je dois payer 15€ pour avoir ce que j'ai aujourd'hui pour 6€. Ça me tente, notez-bien...


Alfred B.

Le Monde est une marque, comme Nescafé ou Petit Pimousse ? Et moi qui croyais qu'il s'agissait d'un journal !


Pipette

si je comprends bien le Monde sera surtout intéressant pour ceux qui ont les moyens de sacrifier 30euros par mois pour vous lire, sans compter qu'habtant à l'autre bout du monde, la lecture quotidienne sur papier est proscrite si l'on veut rester au courant de son popre pays!D'accord, je me contenterai de l'bonnement à 6 euros, mais la réputation du journal en souffre!


RAYMOND BODARD

Pour que Le Monde reste indépendant il doit tendre à équilibrer ces comptes, nous sommes d'accord. C'est certainement l'objectif qui justifie cette nouvelle structure. Par contre, l'annonce tonitruante sans explications est plus qu'une erreur de communication, une faute. Les abonnés des différenntes formules sont en droit de se demander à quelle sauce ils seront mangés.Ils auraient dù au préalable recevoir un message annoncant des changements et expliquant les conséquences pour eux.

— lisez l'article complet sur www.lemonde.fr 20100323 | "Le Monde" devient "une marque globale" sur le papier et le numérique

March 18 2010

Four short links: 18 March 2010

  1. Newspaper Club Launches (BBC) -- the uses it has been put to make for good reading: Among the Newspaper Club's first clients were the BBC, Wired UK and Last.fm. Penguin used it to debut a preview of the fifth chapter of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, written by Eoin Colfer.
  2. Machine Learning Algorithm with a Capital A -- It’s claimed to be close to the way the brain learns/recognizes patterns and to be a general model of intelligence and it will work for EVERYTHING. This reminded me of a few other things I’ve come across in the past years that claim to be the new Machine Learning algorithm with Capital A, i.e. the algorithm to end all other ML work, which will work on all problems, and so on. Here is a small collection of the three most interesting ones I remembered.
  3. fityk -- GPL program for nonlinear fitting of analytical functions (especially peak-shaped) to data (usually experimental data). There are also people using it to remove the baseline from data, or to display data only. (via straup on delicious)
  4. Chickenfoot -- Firefox plugin to let you script and manipulate web pages. Useful for automation, like Greasemonkey, but acts on the rendered page and not the HTML source.

February 28 2010

Newspaper Paywalls

Evolutionary history shows us that doubling-down on your defenses is effective against predators but useless against environmental change. Newspapers locking up their content in paywalls and trumpeting loudly against Google might be effective if Google were merely a predator. But this is the Internet, where copies are free, everyone could be a customer, your competitors are just a click away, and customer loyalty isn't merely a consequence of geography. To treat the Internet merely as just another competitor is to miss the point that it's a new medium which favours some business models and hurts others. To move your content behind a News Corp-style paywall is to be a dinosaur that knows the comet is coming but thinks, "I need thicker armor because I've heard that it has a big tail."

February 19 2010

Four short links: 19 February 2010

  1. How to Seasonally Adjust Data -- Most statisticians, economists and government agencies that report data use a method called the X12 procedure to adjust data for seasonal patterns. The X12 procedure and its predecessor X11, which is still widely used, were developed by the U.S. Census Bureau. When applied to a data series, the X12 process first estimates effects that occur in the same month every year with similar magnitude and direction. These estimates are the “seasonal” components of the data series. (via bengebre on Delicious)
  2. Vodafone Chief: Mobile Groups Should Be Able to Bypass Google (Guardian) -- Vodafone and other telcos want to charge both ends, to charge not just the person with a monthly mobile data subscription but also the companies with whom that person communicates. It's double-dipping and offensively short-sighted. Vodafone apparently wants to stripmine all the value their product creates. This is not shearing the sheep, this is a recipe for lamb in mint sauce.
  3. Open Data is Not A Panacea, But It Is A Start -- The reality is that releasing the data is a small step in a long walk that will take many years to see any significant value. Sure there will be quick wins along the way - picking on MP’s expenses is easy. But to build something sustainable, some series of things that serve millions of people directly, will not happen overnight. And the reality, as Tom Loosemore pointed out at the London Data Store launch, it won’t be a sole developer who ultimately brings it to fruition. (via sebchan on Twitter)
  4. Our GeoDjango EC2 Image for News Apps -- Chicago Tribune releasing an Amazon EC2 image of the base toolchain they use. Very good to see participation and contribution from organisations historically seen as pure consumers of technology. All business are becoming technology-driven businesses, realising the old mindset of "leave the tech to those who do it best" isn't compatible with being a leader in your industry.

January 27 2010

When it Comes to News, Why Won't People Eat Their Vegetables?

One of the basic questions in journalism these days is, "What news do consumers actually want?" Chris Lee believes that today's citizenry is getting too much of what they want, and too little of what they need. With the Tools of Change for Publishing conference approaching, it seemed appropriate to talk to Lee, who has spent his professional life in the trenches of broadcast journalism, about where the industry is going and what the future of news looks like.

James Turner: Why don't you give us your background.

Chris Lee: I've been a journalist for most of my career, or at least the first part of my career. Then I gradually got interested in the technology, and have tended to go back and forth between the journalism and news management side, and the production technology side; asking what are the new devices that stations and journalists could use. I haven't been frightened of the technology like most journalists have been along the way. Sometimes you can see things earlier, or you understand how to turn something sideways and turn it into a new newsgathering tool.

James Turner: So, clearly print journalism is on the ropes right now.

Chris Lee: And TV, also. Local TV, in particular, in the United States.

Tools of Change

James Turner: What are the factors playing into that in your mind?

Chris Lee: Well, on the newspaper side, you start with Craigslist. This is all pretty well-documented, but the audience is gone. They can't support the news organizations on the ad revenue, given that there are fewer eyeballs watching the ads on the newspaper side. And frankly, on television, it's the same story. It's caused not by Craigslist, although other internet sites have contributed, but largely through the boom of cable television. Thirty years ago, cable was a way to get a cleaner, clearer picture. Now basic cable channels beat the broadcast networks quite handily in primetime ratings.

James Turner: We have started to see that even in the "news networks," MSNBC, CNN, and FOX, they're shutting down their bureaus. They're consolidating because even they don't seem to have the budget for it.

Chris Lee: I can't speak to what's going on right now in detail at CNN. MSNBC has some GE issues, and now change of ownership issues, so you might need to exclude them. But whatever's happening at the basic cable channel CNN-like level is far kinder than what's happening at the networks or the local stations, meaning broadcast networks. In the end, the broadcast networks are only as healthy as the station business, and the station business is in big trouble.

The whole delivery concept in the United States, where you would have an affiliate that accepts the network programming, adds some of its own things, and then passes it on to local viewers, is a distinctly American approach. These individual local transmitters in most of the rest of the world aren't separate businesses; they're just relay points. So you've got these separate local transmitters that were once very important in our culture. That's the channel I watch Walter Cronkite on, or what have you. Now they're unnecessary technologically.

You've got 2/3 or 3/4, depending on where you live, of the households watching other signal instead of theirs, via cable TV or DBS [direct broadcast satellite]. And it's just that much more competition. These guys, all of a sudden, used to have four other people to fight and now they've got 400.

James Turner: Just to play devil's advocate though, I could say, "You know something? The local news was never really anything to write home about anyway. And maybe we can get by with what remains of print journalism in a city, that does all of the real investigative work, which isn't six things that could give you cancer at 11:00."

Chris Lee: I'm not going to disagree. I think one of the reasons local news is where it is today is because they didn't respect their audience enough in these teases and this sensationalism, "Can bikinis cause cancer? Tune in in February when it's a ratings hook." In the end, that stuff helped erode an audience. But as business, it was quite profitable.

People used to watch local news and read newspapers in great number. Now there are many more ways to get information or choose not to get information, because there's so many other media out there. Or you can get information that's specific to you rather than the news of the day, if you will. I think the really interesting and kind of scary question is so just how much consumption of what we traditionally call news is still a requirement of citizenship (I don't mean in the immigration sense), of being a productive member of a community. It's as if people were in the habit of eating their vegetables, but now there's so many other good things out there that they skip them.

James Turner: The other interesting question is that if you say, "Okay, great. I'm going to have my customized news feed that's going to give me my local news, maybe even based on my geolocation, and it's going to give me whatever the national news is," where is this content going to come from once everything has dried up?

Chris Lee: Good question. You rightly observe that when people go to alternate sources to look for news, they're very frequently looking at news produced by people who get paid by organizations that aren't making any money from that particular viewer choosing to read or consume that article. In the end, you're right. Those people go away, unless they're replaced by something else.

Citizen journalism has its place, it ought to be one of the tools in any professional journalism organization's outfit. That doesn't mean you take something an unknown person does and necessarily publish it immediately, or maybe you put it on a website, but you indicate it's not yet vetted and then you fact-check. If you can really get volunteers out there who know a community and can start the newsgathering machine, I think that's good.

But I think what we've seen by and large is that if you look at what citizen journalists are typically doing, they're opining; they're not reporting. Those who are reporting often have an ax to grind, and that ax is not necessarily out there and for all to see. I find it hard to argue that we don't need real journalists. I think we got into a war because we didn't have enough real journalists, or all of the real journalists were working on a deadline because there wasn't enough money to give somebody more time to think about or ask one more question.

James Turner: What I have observed is that "citizen journalism" is really good for breaking news. You can see that with the Haiti today. A guy with a cell phone takes a picture; he is better than any reporter sitting at a desk at that moment because --

Chris Lee: Oh, absolutely.

James Turner: -- he's got the picture. If he's taking a picture of a bridge that collapsed somewhere, that's great. But he's not going to do the six-month investigative on why there was faulty cement in that bridge.

Chris Lee: Exactly. There are those huge investigative things, but the truth is, with very few exceptions, nobody's doing that today. There are, maybe, the big national news organizations and some of this foundation-funded stuff that's starting. I think the bigger worry is the nuts and bolts. As you know, the meat and potatoes of daily journalism is that you've got to ask six people the same question; you've got to go to a council meeting. People get paid to do it for a reason. But I would agree.

And that's why I say, certainly, if a citizen journalist is at a scene and has a camera and can take some video or you can interview them, by all means, you do it. But that's not to say that some network of citizen journalists is going to tell you why your education system doesn't work.

James Turner: When you were talking about bias earlier, it struck a chord, because this is something that I run into a lot. I hear people say all the time, "Yeah, but every news organization is biased, too."

Chris Lee: I think the bias of almost all news organizations is a bias about the economy in which they operate. A local TV newsroom today has a bias to assign a story that they have a high confidence can be completed in a short number of hours because they can't afford to send people out on stories that fall apart. That's the reason why the TV news doesn't cover complicated things, or doesn't do the investigation on why the bad cement was in the bridge. But I really don't think, with the possible exception of two national news channels I will say that come from a political left and right perspective, there aren't very many news organizations where you can organize a bias and drive it through the organization and have people fall in line. I really don't believe that happens.

James Turner: I wanted to turn to another one of your interests, and how it ties into this. We've heard for a long time about how we're going to have this conjunction between traditional media, set top devices, computers, networking; it's all going to come together. It's all going to be one device. With things like Boxee and Hulu, we're starting to see that occur now. To some extent that means, for example, if you had all of your CNN segments for the last two days on Hulu, you could watch it on demand whenever you wanted. Does that basically turn broadcast or cable news into the same reaggregated content that we're seeing with print news now?

Chris Lee: Well, the first thing I've got to say is what you describe I love. I have built one of those or two of those, and want to be able to one day sit down in front of my television set or my computer screen or whatever and say, "Show me a newscast." That newscast should not require me to lean forward and push a button every time I want a next thing to happen, and the newscast should be some mix of the things I need and the things I want, just like news has always been.

Having worked on some of those schemes, and some other simpler things that would integrate broadcast television and the cable television infrastructure, the problem is there's lower-hanging fruit that is more profitable. There's not much attention to how to deliver customized news via Boxee or anything else, because they've all got their eye on the prize of how to deliver Hollywood movies. People have demonstrated they'll pay for that. And if anything, what's happening right now in consumer behavior makes you wonder whether people will watch news that's free, let alone news that they would have to pay for or that would be sponsored.

James Turner: That brings us around to another thing that's happened recently which is that we've seen Rupert Murdock say, "Well, I'm just going to paywall all of my stuff." In the past, the New York Times tried to paywall their site, failed, and had to end up making it a registration-only site. The only sites I know of that really has a successful paywall is the Wall Street Journal, professional journals and things like that.

Chris Lee: I would bet you most of those journal subscriptions are being put on somebody's expense account.

James Turner: The thing we always heard was that micropayments would be the solution there, and you'd buy the stories you wanted for a couple of cents a piece. The reality is when you look at how much they charge per article today, it's usually a buck or more. So they're charging you more than the cost of buying the newspaper.

Chris Lee: They forgot the micro.

James Turner: Well, part of it was the reality of credit card processing, that a two-cent transaction didn't make any sense. And it's only through things like PayPal, that can aggregate it, that they're starting to see a solution. But do you think that paywalls can work? Advertising doesn't seem to have worked as a model, the click-view model. Not getting paid at all doesn't seem to be a good revenue model. So is paywalling going to be the way that we get some news generated in the future?

Chris Lee: Well, somebody has to figure out a way to pay the journalists. I think there's a lot of hope, probably overly optimistic hopes, on whether tablets, iSlates, what have you, can come to market as a sort of breakfast table friendly news consuming devices. Whether there, like on the iPhone, consumers will accept that it's a different device; it's not a PC, and that some services have subscription fees. If we go the model of all information is free on the web, we're, I think, going to be beholden to foundations for a lot of our journalism. And that does not make it bias-free. Or we can wait for some of these start-ups that are working on hyper-local to try to develop into something that is sort of nominally paying someone's salary and get our news there.

James Turner: Do you think there would be a place for a model where I said, "I know more about Derry, New Hampshire than anybody else who can report about it. So I will just start a subscription site for anybody who wants to know about Derry"? Essentially, launch my own online newspaper by subscription and charge little enough that I'm making it up on volume. Could that work, or is that going to suffer from the same "getting the word out" problem that all the other disintermediation strategies seem to be hitting?

Chris Lee: I don't know. I'd like to see it work. I guess I'm skeptical. I think one of the observations about how consumers are behaving in the past five years that has surprised me the most is, again, this lack of feeling responsible for knowing the news of their country and their local government of that day. I don't think it's just a technology question. I think if you asked people now versus the same age group 20 years ago, I think they'd be stunningly less informed now about boring news, and tremendously more knowledgeable about bits of news that really interest them.

I'm not sure that's entirely bad. But the guy in Darien, Connecticut is going to be churning out a lot of news of the day. And if everybody'd rather dig into their little content niche for what they really care about, Mr. Darien's going to have trouble making money.

James Turner: One of the other strategies we've been hearing a lot about lately is automated news generation. Taking things that are available out there as public information and grinding it into news. So, for example, I saw that there's a project now that'll take the line from a baseball game and turn it into news copy.

Chris Lee: [Laughter]

James Turner: We've also heard about experiments where people tried to outsource the reporting of town council meetings to people in India, or other places, because it was just watching the meeting and then reporting on it.

Chris Lee: Yeah. And there another thing that I think of that's happening in a lot of government agencies, and most prominently I think in professional sports. I'm a San Francisco Giants fan and my son is, too. My son just goes to SFGiants.com to find out what's going on. I go to the people who blog for the newspapers who are beat writers. There are a lot of people who don't grasp that the news you get from, in effect, the officialdom that you're interested in is not without its biases. I think that's a real concern.

James Turner: I can remember a few years ago there was this whole thing with local news outlets running these reports which were essentially given to them by the government.

Chris Lee: Oh, yeah. That was bad. In reality, in probably 80 percent of the cases, they were just ripping off the file tape and talking over the pictures. I can't speak to newspapers so much. But I'm sure the same thing is going on. Actually, television in some respects is worse because the news hole hasn't gotten any smaller. The business gets bad in the newspaper and you print fewer pages.

In broadcast journalism, the problem is you've got a smaller staff. The same amount of time has to be filled. There's more pressure. And it leads to more corner-cutting. It's not just running video news releases, but it's doing these stories that are guaranteed to work, which means they're probably boring; you've seen them 50 times before. There's no chances. There's no risk-taking. It's no wonder people aren't watching local news because these evergreens that we're putting on don't have much to them.

James Turner: I have to say I was very pleased to see that AP actually did a really nice piece of investigative journalism recently about cadmium and toys. Maybe it's because they are still a big enough resource, they really are almost like an aggregator. But they are an aggregator that can make some money off their content. So what's different with AP?

Chris Lee: Well, AP is such a weird business model, you almost have to throw them out in terms of how they make their money. But you're right. There's an advantage of scale. If you've still got a lot of reporters, you can afford to have a couple of them not file a story this week. That's really what it comes down to, how many reporters do you need filing a story today to fill the hole? In a lot of news organizations, I'd say probably almost every local news organization of any media around the country, you pretty much need everybody to file everyday. That means there's not much extra time to do investigations or news that's just harder to dig up.

James Turner: So it sounds like you don't have an answer for where this goes in, say the next five or ten years?

Chris Lee: I think what ends up happening is that the magazine people and the newspapers begin to figure out how to make money. They're not going to let all content be free on the slates, and they begin to make some revenue there. I don't know whether they really make any revenue from paywalls on the web or not. I think the local news organizations in each American market will dwindle. Where there's four or five doing news now, they'll maybe do two.

If the television stations were smart, there would be some real opportunities for A, making content that would be useful and interesting on the web and B, understanding how to build websites and RSS services that would allow people to see those stories. I've tried, but it's hard to make the dinosaurs learn. I don't think they're going to get there.

A real key for making money out of video news is to enable a smart aggregation device that will select the stories, hopefully not just what you want but also some of the stories that you need to know, what's going on in the world, and combine those in a personalized newscast. And the reason that's useful is, I think, twofold. One, I don't think people want to lean forward and click every time to watch a news story, particularly if they're watching it on a big screen. And the other thing is, that provides a context where a commercial or a commercial break seems fair and reasonable and is what they're expecting, based on years of viewing. So it gives you a context where maybe you can make some money.

James Turner: Isn't the danger of that, though, that you can get even more of an echo chamber effect than you get today if people really can personalize?

Chris Lee: Oh, absolutely. I built this little system in 1994. The thing that the journalists all liked the most about it is there were several knobs you could twist to make different sorts of newscasts come out. There was one knob that, on one end of the scale would give them what they want; on the other end of the scale, give them what they need. You can set it anywhere you want and you'll get out a newscast that has a different level of ultra personalized versus important.

In the end, it's not really a technology issue. It comes down to viewer behavior, because there are fewer and fewer people out there in journalism management who are prepared to spin the dial anywhere but where it will make the most revenue. I look everyday for a sign that we as a culture are interested in a little bit of news that we need, not just the news that we want.

Older posts are this way If this message doesn't go away, click anywhere on the page to continue loading posts.
Could not load more posts
Maybe Soup is currently being updated? I'll try again automatically in a few seconds...
Just a second, loading more posts...
You've reached the end.

Don't be the product, buy the product!

Schweinderl