Saturday, October 29, 2011

Class Warfare and Occupy Wall Street - Frank Rich in New York Magazine

Here's a link to a great piece that I came across by Frank Rich published in New York Magazine. The Class War Has Begun is a nice look at how the classless nature of American society -- or at least our concept of social equality -- has affected class struggles since the great depression. There is a lot of food for thought in this. It's sparked a couple of interesting post ideas for me. Check it out.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Guidelines for New Reporters -- and Bloggers?

I did another run through Jay Rosen's PressThink blog the other day and I came across this great bit of content. This is Voice of San Diego’s “new reporter orientation” guidelines. In reflecting on the list, it's not just interesting blogger food for thought, it's an interesting set of guidelines for creative and product professionals.
Voice of San Diego: New Reporter Guidelines.

We only do something if we can do it better than anyone or if no one else is doing it.
* We must add value. We must be unique.

Three things to remember for each story:
* Context
* Authority
* Not just what is happening, but what it means

There is no such thing as objectivity.
* There is such thing as fairness.
* But everyone sees everything through their own filter. Acknowledge that, let it liberate you. Let it regulate you.
* We are not guided by political identification, by ideology or dogma. But every decision we make, from what to cover to how to cover it, is made through our own subjective judgments.
* We are guided by an ability to be transparent and independent, to clearly assess what’s going on in our community and have the courage to plainly state the truth.

Our bent: Reform. Things can always be better.
* We don’t have a dogmatic or ideological bent. But we do believe San Diego can and will do better.
* We can have better infrastructure, a healthier environment, a better education system, a responsive, efficient and transparent government, a better understanding of our neighborhoods’ challenges, a thriving economy and an ever-improving quality of life. If anything, this is our bias.

Be the expert.
* Write with authority. You earn the right to write with authority by reporting and working hard.
* No “he said, she said.”
* The day we write a headline that says: “Proposal has pros, cons” is the day we start dying.
* There is no such thing as 50/50 balance. There is a truth and we work our damndest to get there.
* Sometimes two viewpoints don’t deserve 50/50 treatment.
* Most of the time there aren’t two sides to something, anyways. There are 17. Who’s not being represented? If they’re not speaking up, how can you represent them?
* We don’t just “put things out there.” We’re not “only asking the question.”
* We don’t ask questions with our stories. We answer them.
* We don’t write question headlines, unless they’re so damn good that we can’t resist:
* We don’t do this: “Did City Official Take Bribe?”
* Or, to cite a recent example: “Did Wikileaks Hack Servers?”
* We’d maybe do this: “How Did a City Official Ended Up With Millions in Donations?”
* We’re not someone’s goddamn transcription service.
* They can relay their own news. In a world where leaders are able to communicate directly with their constituents very easily, we have to a.) make sense of what they say and b) find out the things they don’t want to say. It’s the only way to effectively use our limited resources.

Tell the truth.
* This means not being mealy mouthed and not being bias-bullied.
* Stand up to bias bullies. Tell them why you did something. Let them challenge you on it.
* If someone calls you biased, don’t be scared. Don’t dismiss it either. Reflect on it and answer with conviction.
* Don’t go quote-hunting for something you know to be true and can say yourself. Don’t hide your opinion in the last quote of a story.
* Take a stand when you know something to be true or wrong.

Care about your beat more than anyone else.
* It is your way to make San Diego a better place to live.

Focus on big problems
* David Simon, the creator of The Wire, has a quote that can be paraphrased this way: Journalism is good at solving small problems or taking small bites of a big problem. It’s not good at solving big problems.
* It’s easy as a journalist to take a stand against a six-figure salary. It’s easy to take a stand against an expensive meal on an expense report.
* Why do we take stands on those things and why are we afraid to take stands on bigger issues?

If you can’t find a good answer any of these three questions, drop the story:
* Why did I choose this story?
* Why will people care? (Not why should they care, but why will they care.)
* Why will people remember this story?

Avoid ‘churnalism’
* It’s not your job to have everything on your beat. It’s your job to have the best things.
* Don’t worry about getting scooped. Worry about not consistently making an impact.
* Love the title of this Columbia Journalism Review story: “The Hamster Wheel: Why running as fast as we can is getting us nowhere.”
* A quote: “The Hamster Wheel isn’t speed; it’s motion for motion’s sake. The Hamster Wheel is volume without thought. It is news panic, a lack of discipline, an inability to say no.”
* Another: “You say, ‘Why not have it?’ I say, ‘Because it isn’t free.’ The most underused words in the news business today: let’s pass on that.”
* We are a small group with limited resource. Everything we do must [pay off for the users.]
* We can learn a lot from sports journalism. (That’s for a different day.) But here’s one great quote to always keep in mind from “Nobody cares who’s first with the commodity news, but being first with what the news means still has value – in fact, it has more value than it ever has, given today’s torrent of information. Readers will gravitate to such stories, share them and remember them.”

Avoid the news voice whenever possible.
* Sometimes it’s necessary.
* But you should never write a story [the way] you think journalists are supposed to write it. Write like you would if you were trying to get your friends interested in an email. Lighten up. Be creative. Have fun. Be conversational.

Bring us in the implications, not the event.
* So it’s not “Booze Ban Voted Through Council Committee.”
* It’s “Booze Ban Has One Final Hurdle Left.”

Don’t be boring. People don’t spend their free time on boring things.
* That’s it.

Don’t tell me stories about “critics” or “some”
* I don’t have a clue who “critics” or “some” are. But they managed to be the most quoted people on the planet.
* I need to know who they are for that viewpoint to carry any validity.
* And I need to know what, if any, financial stake they have in the issue. Honestly. (Just a sample of headlines in the news in a five-minute search this fall: “Some say Escondido police union’s flier crosses the line…” “Some say new constitution would solve state’s woes…” “Critics say Washing Oily Birds Is Wasteful…” “Observers Say Time Right for Santander IPO…”
* I’ve read stories that use blanket “critics” in different spots to describe people on the opposite ends of the arguments. It was so confusing.

Have fun! Be creative! Push the envelope!
* You don’t do this for the money. So let’s have some fun.
* Try something that’s never been tried before. Or try something that someone else did somewhere else. Don’t do a story just to do it. Or because it’s an interesting exercise.
* Think about what will impact people or policy makers. What will they want to read or what will force them to make a change?
* Be a student of today’s great journalistic innovations.
* Be a leader of today’s great journalistic innovations.
My sense is that there are a lot of publications that could benefit from applying these guidelines.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Pervasive Politics: Right Wing Ideologs and Economic Tensions Invade Non-Political Discussions

The other day, I was reading a post about jobs in the online version of EE Times. The post reflects on the notion that, even in sophisticated manufacturing like the technology that comes to life in wafer fabs, the trend over the past forty years has been an exodus from the US. While technology has been going global, jobs have been going away from the US. The post then talks about an EE Times effort to try to build a list of what the top jobs for the future are with these trends in mind.

What struck me about the post was not the flavor or the content, it was the comments. The usual political rhetoric surrounding who's to blame for the economy quickly bubbled to the surface. It's not the first time -- comments on posts about Solyndra were more focused on themes of political corruption and questions about the validity of climate change.

I was similarly struck by a similar experience surrounding's Dreamforce conference. At Dreamforce, they connect you through a Chatter application that enables you to engage with all of your fellow conference attendees and to follow conference threads. One of the keynote events featured Marc Benioff discussing technology with Eric Schmitt. In addition to his current role at Google and past roles at Sun and Novell, Schmitt has also provided technology guidance to the Obama administration -- technology, jobs, and the potential solutions to the ailing economy was one of the topics that came up. You could almost feel a tense ideological discomfort coming from some of the audience in Moscone South that afternoon, and that tension boiled over into the Chatter stream in days that followed. Again, no comments on Schmitt's reflections on the challenges of a hardware business or a market leader from his days at Sun. Instead, the comments were about how awful it was to bring politics into a business conference.

On the same day when I read the EE Times post, I happened to catch this segment of NPR's Marketplace Money radio program. It's a discussion with commentator, David Frum about his decision to step back from providing commentary on the program. The long and short of his discussion is that, while he still considers himself a conservative, he doesn't feel like he represents "the view of most people who call themselves Republicans and conservatives these days". Why? Here's how he explained:
We have got a sick patient -- the American economy. And we can see that the patient in the next bed -- the European economy -- he's looking even sicker and there's a real risk of contagion. And what I think we have to do at a moment like this: Have a very, very open creation of money and credit. This is not a moment for government to be cutting back. Here's where Milton Friedman and John Maynard Keynes agreed. They didn't necessarily agree about why to do this medicine, but as to what the medicine was, they did broadly agree.
In short, I think this underscores that sense that ideology and rhetoric have overshadowed analysis and reason. The take-away: if you get two experts to agree on what the solution is but the solution doesn't match your beliefs, then you need to find another expert.

The worst aspect of this superheated ideological energy is that it bodes poorly for the prospect of real, corrective action. To understand just how bad it is, consider this great article by Michael Lewis in Vanity Fair about California's struggling economy and a reflection on the Schwarzenegger years. A colleague recently forwarded me this link after we spent some time talking about statistical analytics and Wall Street finance. But if you had any doubts about how bad our economic situation is, consider this quote from the article:
San Jose has the highest per capita income of any city in the United States, after New York. It has the highest credit rating of any city in California with a population over 250,000. It is one of the few cities in America with a triple-A rating from Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s, but only because its bondholders have the power to compel the city to levy a tax on property owners to pay off the bonds. The city itself is not all that far from being bankrupt.
These are real, complex problems. Put in product terms, these are critical issues. We need corrective action. We need solutions. Put in Frum's terms, the doctors tell us that our sick patient needs medicine -- but there is still a vocal segment that insists on faith healing or that sickness is divine will and some sort of grand moral failure. Unfortunately, in many of our business and communication channels, analytical discussions of solutions are often being taken hostage by this ideology and political rhetoric, by the voice of anti-science, anti-reason, and anti-analysis. It leaves you wondering whether as a society, we're going to let be able to prevent these macro forces from running everything into the ground.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Netflix versus the Content Owners

In other amusing business news, we see the return of comic antics of Netflix, having gone through their midlife crisis where they decided to separate from their long-term relationship with DVDs and run away with their hot young streaming business, they've now decided to get back together with their DVDs and work things out. Of course, when I see stuff like this, I'm often reminding of this presentation on Netflix corporate culture which I would loosely summarize as, "as you get bigger, you are faced with greater chaos, but instead of creating processes to manage this chaos, we focus on hiring more smarter people who can overcome these issues." Is this a manifestation of a Wile E. Coyote strategy?

Mark Suster has some interesting thoughts on the whole thing in this post, Netflix Redux: Is It Ever OK to Fire Your Customers? For me, I think that the bigger question is how Netflix, the company that kicked Blockbuster's ass and seemed to be poised for a leading role in the online content distribution world a year ago, has stumbled so severely. Now, they seem to be leading a comic dance into irrelevance, piling misstep onto toe-crushing misstep. Perhaps the most surprising thing is that, for an organization that has invested so much in recommendations and understanding their customers, their recent moves seem disconnected and out of touch with their base.

As bad as these recent moves have been, I don't think it's all Netflix's fault. Unfortunately for the Netflix team, they are sort of like where Apple might be in the content world if the iPod didn't become the market leading digital music player, if there wasn't an iPhone or an iPad -- or at least if there were serious competitors to those devices. Consider:

Netflix beat Blockbuster through their long tail model and efficient customer service. Even when Blockbuster tried to play catch-up with long-tail, no-term rentals, Netflix still overwhelmed them with a ton of momentum from frustrated customers used to the movie rental status quo.

As the world's largest DVD warehouse for rent, Netflix was still able to balance long tail customers with new release customers, providing an adequate balance for both. But then, the movie studios and the content providers decided that they wanted a larger piece of Netflix's action. Forcing the deal to make Netflix and Redbox delay new releases for one month was the first strike in the crippling of Netflix. While Netflix probably expected that it wouldn't impact their business significantly since so much of their rental was long tail, I suspect that the underlying assumption that a new release was not immediately available cut into Netflix's traffic -- imagine if all of the Twitter posts that you could see were from 30 days in the past. I know that, as a user, I quit trying to time my DVD returns in order to ensure a copy of that movie that I missed in the theater and really wanted to see.

Blue Ray turned out to be a problem as well. I signed up for the Blue Ray program, paying an extra couple of dollars a month -- only to struggle with the realization that only one device in the house played Blue Ray DVDs. Wanna watch that movie on your laptop before you go to sleep? No way.

All of this lead to a pretty serious disconnect with Netflix's DVD rental service. The last couple of DVDs/Blue Rays that I had sat around here for nearly two months. Admittedly, work was busy and a whole host of other excuses (thankfully, no late fees), but think about the disconnect. I had over fifty movies in my queue, some from a year back. And when I thought about watching a movie -- or advancing one from my queue -- it wasn't the one that they were hyping on television... I couldn't watch that for another month or two. Instead of working together, the great entertainment marketing engine had fractured to the point where none of them were getting my attention.

Of course, there was always streaming -- Netflix did a great job of implementing streaming movies on my iPhone. It worked great, and for a time, I actually found myself watching a bunch of video content on my phone. Unfortunately, their streaming library (like my time) was limited. While it was a nice supplement to lunch, it wasn't holding up as my go-to content provider.

And this is where you get into that whole "like Apple" situation. Early on in the iTunes world, the content providers agreed to Apple's license terms because Apple was going up against free. It was all well and good until Apple started to handle a significant volume of their content traffic -- suddenly, they wanted a bigger piece of the action and $.99 per song wasn't good enough.

As Netflix became the go-to source for movie rentals -- and customers sat around with all of this streaming movie access to play with (and let's not forget how Netflix had secured client relationships with so many hardware vendors), people began using their streaming services. Sure, there were other providers and other models, but with Apple you had to pay to watch and Hulu was a new service that you had to try. With Netflix you already had an account with streaming enabled, all you needed to do was try it -- you were already online, managing your account. What's more, in terms of adoption, all they needed to do was to function adequately; after all, it was already included in the cost of your Netflix account (This is also a source of the problems they experienced when they changed their pricing structure. Instead of just including streaming, Netflix essentially forced all of their existing customers to remake a purchase decision over something they had never really decided to purchase in the first place). 

As the amount of streaming (and their success) increased, others in the value chain started looking for a larger piece of the action. From the cable people like Comcast who watched as Netflix ate their bandwidth pipe and kicked the ass of their sucktastic OnDemand product to the content providers who realized that people would actually watch streaming content instead of Yet Another Real American Lip Sync and Dance Idol -- or any craptacular network show overstuffed with commercials. In some ways, streaming the content long tail turned out to be an effective competitor against the broadcast of the 'syndicated' content archive over 700 channels of commercial television. 

It was at this point that Apple said, "if you don't like our terms and want to sell your content to iPod users, fine -- go sell your content to them through some other channel. We go through iTunes, but you can see if you get your customers to go through some other channel before they go through iTunes. You're plan might work, but we'll bet that people will buy more through us. These are our terms -- your choice." Hardware and infrastructure provided leverage against the content forces. Unfortunately, Netflix didn't have that infrastructure to use as leverage. Netflix versus Hulu? Netflix versus a network-focused content channel? In this war, the platform didn't matter. No leverage, only customer base.

In the end, it will be interesting to see how all of these content distribution channels shake out. I suspect that, as with their relationship with Apple through iTunes, many of the content owners underestimate the value of the Netflix software portion of the distribution pipe. However, it may be too late -- content cost increases and price plan changes may have already cost Netflix it's leadership position in the market. In this case, it's not only the coyote's fault, the content owners at Acme keep selling him solutions that blow up in his face.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Remembering Steve Jobs

Since the day that it was announced that he was permanently stepping down as CEO, I've been trying to find words that seemed to do justice to all that is and all that has been Steve Jobs. As someone who never met him or dealt with him personally, it might seem a bit silly to express some grand sense of loss. And yet, as it sometimes happens when moments like this come around, you find yourself rather encumbered with an exceptional and overwhelming sense of loss.

As a kid in Palo Alto back in the late seventies, I remember attending a local computer fair (probably 2nd West Coast Computer Fair, 1978 San Jose) with one of my friends from school. I remember the Pet computer. I remember Apple. Of course, life being what it is, I found myself being relocated back to the south and it wasn't until my senior year that my high school got several Apple IIs and I found myself programming them to solve calculus problems. After that, my on-again off-again relationship with technology kept me mostly away from computers until 1989 when I was introduced to the Apple Macintosh in a document design class. Who could have guessed that this little device would be such a force in the threads of my life.

My instructor for that document design class was physically disabled, but the Macintosh included settings that enabled him to work with it -- something that I don't think was available on the PC at the time. I remember being awed by this technology platform that wasn't just technology -- it changed lives, brought hope, and enabled the future.

Looking back to the PC/Mac wars, as Mac users we often faced inquisitors and skeptics -- PC users pushing the idea that a computer was a computer, that there was no art, no design, no meaning, no purpose. The technology was just a tool. They called us the "cult of Mac", religious zealots dreaming of some crazy ideal, duped into buying a crappy product at three times the cost of a low-cost PC.

In that great culture war, Steve Jobs wasn't just some brilliant marketing guy at the head of a global business, he was Joan of Arc. He wasn't just selling products, he seemed to understand something deeper -- that the essence of what we were dealing with here, if done right, could be transformational. We could change lives, make the world a better place, think different. Philosophy and principles, not just technology at the lowest common denominator. His part was cornerstone, it was the foundation, and it was the focal point for where we were headed. In this mission, we were a community, a family.

Years ago, as my mother suffered through a painful process of dying of cancer, we endured many months of draining decline. By the time she passed, the inevitable had long since been written and the painful conclusion seemed more like a welcome release than a dramatic loss. Tragic. Sad. But finally, relief that the suffering was over, that it would get no worse.

This is where I found my thoughts going when they announced Steve Jobs stepping down as CEO. Amidst all of the other events in my life and the current events in the world, a part of my thoughts were with Steve Jobs and his family.

Steve Jobs changed the world. He made our world a better place. You probably can't throw a rock without hitting someone who's live he has touched -- and improved. I never met Steve Jobs nor dealt with him personally, but -- like many -- I surfed some monster waves from the ripples he created. And I feel a tremendous sadness in his passing.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

#OccupyWallStreet Versus Astroturf: Jefferson Airplane and Hearing The Sound Of Real Grass Roots

My original thoughts for this post started a couple of months ago, but the coverage surrounding the #OccupyWallStreet protests re-energized the idea. As you listen to the media talking about the #OccupyWallStreet protests, you keep hearing a couple of themes being echoed -- small, lacks organization, lacks a single voice, lacks a goal, lacks focus.

To a certain extent, you can contrast aspects of this to the coverage of the birth of the "Tea Party", which seemed to start with a host of generally focused messages, bus tours, and press exposure, even while the actual number of people in the crowds were rather lackluster. And yet, despite connections to conservative political organizations like FreedomWorks, many in the media characterized the Tea Party Movement as a grass roots effort.

Part of the problem -- and it's inherent to the nature of astroturf -- is that it can be difficult for people to tell the difference between a grass roots voice and an astroturf voice, between an authentic crowd and a sponsored crowd. While there are organizations and sites that attempt to drill down into media campaigns and look for astroturf roots, even if you're interested in those kinds of issues, you probably don't go check those sites regularly. 

In today's media culture, it's easy to forget what a crowd sounds like. From television shows like American Idol to the musical world of Autotune, modern music is usually harmonious and on-key. Even crappy-in-real-life performers can go into the recording studio and receive enough audio processing to make them sound like they have talent. Modern audiences expect harmony. They expect orchestration.

Contrast this with the Jefferson Airplane. Jefferson Airplane songs often sound like a collection of dissonant voices trying to shout over one another. They are loosely harmonious yet packed with discord. On occasion, they seem to come together to a chorus, but even in those moments they're clearly composed of separate voices. But don't think that this is simply the result of a bad sound system or poor live performances -- listen to several live performances and you'll see the same songs performed in a similar style. This is protest music. This is the sound of a crowd. This is what grass roots sounds like.