This afternoon presented me with a perfect example of why Rupert Murdoch's dumb idea of charging for access to his media empire's "knowledge" is such a loser.
by Dan Shafer •
My buddy Tony Seton has a great piece today on how CNN, whose top shows are taking in the ratings as the network spirals toward oblivion, can fix the problem. He suggests that what's needed is for a network — and CNN is clearly best positioned to do this — to recognize that what Tony calls the "top one-third of Americans" really want is real debate on issues and authentic journalism.Pointing out that NPR could do this but seems stuck in a pedantic backwater that limits their listenership dramatically, Tony suggests that CNN could provide news that, as he so eloquently put it, "sizzles with accessible erudition." The man can turn a phrase. If there were a network whose news did in fact perform as Tony describes it, I'd become an absolutely faithful viewer. About as close as I've been able to come is on the Internet by blending Google News, Associated Press feeds and Fluent News. TV news remains the "vast wasteland" bemoaned four decades ago with rare exceptions. In fact, even though I thoroughly enjoy Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow on the left (MSNBC), I find them too myopic and Keith far too bombastic to take in large daily doses. Rachel's better, but as I've said here before, her emphasis on very narrow topics of specific interest to her can be distracting and annoying. Jon Stewart of Comedy Central's Daily Show is, on more days than I care to admit, the brightest spot in the tubular commentary pantheon. Who am I overlooking?
by Dan Shafer •
I decided today that I'd start watching the O'Reilly Factor on Fox at least for a little while or as long as I could stand it. I haven't listened to O'Reilly for a long time. All I had on which to base my assessment of him was my favorite progressive news commentator (recently slipped to No. 2), Keith Olbermann of Countodwn on MSNBC. Keith often refers to O'Reilly as "Bill O the Clown" and judging just from the clips and commentary provided by Olbermann, that epithet seemed justified.Tonight I watched his entire show. While it's clear he has a conservative bent to his personal take on the news, I also found him engaging and at least somewhat balanced. I was, frankly, a bit surprised. My usual nighttime news fare consists of the Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC almost without fail, Countdown when I can take the time, and snippets of Jon Stewart's Daily Show and the Colbert Report from Comedy Central on the Net. I get most of my news all day online from hundreds of sources filtered through RSS feeds of my own selection and Google's excellent news site. Keith and Rachel cover almost nothing but politics. This is in keeping with MSNBC's billing of itself as the place for politics. Nothing wrong with that, of course; it's why I tune in. But seldom does Keith even mention stories outside politics except for his nightly "Oddball" segment and the occasional sports take. Rachel does a little better job of non-political coverage but her primary focus is on the political arena. O'Reilly, based just on tonight's show of course, covers politics but also covers tangential topics. I found his segment tonight in which two lawyers disagreed with one another about three different pieces of litigation at least mildly entertaining (though he is pretty annoying as he frequently interrupts his guests). He led tonight with an interview with former Alaska Gov. and GOP VP Candidate Sarah Palin, one of my least favorite politicians on the planet. And while she made only a bit more sense than I've come to expect from her, his questioning was at least partially balanced. He asked her some pointed questions about the so-called Tea Party movement (which, as he pointed out, isn't really a singular movement) and even though she dodged and hedged, he tried to get her to answer clearly. He even succeeded once or twice. He wrapped the show with an interview with Ann Coulter. I have heard about her mostly on MSNBC as well and have formed an opinion of her as an obnoxious, ignorant and angry person. One night on O'Reilly's show made be think the MSNBC folks are being too easy on her. She just makes stuff up, spouts it as truth and insults people who point out she's wrong. The world will be a better place when she is finally fired and silenced. But on the whole I was pleasantly surprised by the O'Reilly experience. I'm planning to watch his show at least a few more times before I decide whether to change my opinion but so far, he's got me leaning in a more charitable direction. Go figure.
by Dan Shafer •
NBC (Notoriously Bad Coverage) has done it again. Virtually none of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics will be streamed on the Web. Most of it won't even be available on the Net by any other sanctioned means either. In fact, as Technorati Blogger Dennis Tarwood says, the network appears to be spending a lot more money preventing anyone who doesn't fit their sit-in-front-of-your-TV-and-shut-up model of viewership from doing any more than curling up with…well…curling.
by Dan Shafer •
(Editor's Note: This is the second in a series of three posts on this subject that will appear in this space. Part One appeared Jan. 18. I'm breaking it up to keep any one post from becoming overwhelmingly long.)
The 24-hour cable news cycle combined with the Internet have rendered the coverage of worldwide news an activity to which the print media are simply and innately unable to engage. The delay inherent in publishing the dead-tree version of the news is an inelastic and unforgiving reality. I don't know about anyone else but even as a life-long reader, long-time career print journalist and near worshipper of the newspaper world, I have long since stopped relying primarily on my local newspaper for world and national news. Long before the San Jose Mercury-News and the Monterey County Herald — the two newspapers I'd consider "local" to me — have been put to bed and are streaming off their presses, I have already read all of the national and global news they are likely to contain. I've read that news on multiple sites with multiple perspectives, probably formed any judgment I'm going to make on it, and read late-breaking updates the newspapers won't get to until tomorrow, if they get to them at all.
It is time the newspaper world woke up to this harsh reality.
But this needn't spell the end of the need for newspapers. Far from it. I still turn to the Monterey paper for one thing: local news. And the notion of "local news" is far broader than might be obvious. I want to hear about schools and local politics, high school and amateur sports, concerts, special events and a host of other things going on in my community. I also want to read local angles on those big, breaking national and international news stories. In addition, I find myself interested in reading local readers' and columnists' opinions about those world and national events if only because it keeps me in touch with the pulse of the community in which I live.
In other words, I love what is local about my local paper. For the rest, I could not care much less. I would pay for this news. Why? Because I cannot get it free at a dozen or hundreds of Web sites. Because it's important to me. And because by supporting a truly local news outlet, I'm contributing to the good of my community. I would patronize advertisers who supported this local newspaper. Immediacy is seldom important with this news.
I know I'm not alone in this. I don' know how widespread the feeling is, but i do know that many others with whom I've discussed this idea are enthusiastic supporters of it. I am totally uninterested in reading yet another wire story about the earthquake in Haiti in my local paper. I would, however, like to read about local folks with Haitian families and connections and how they are handling the news, what their families are telling them. Stuff I couldn't get in the metro dailies of other cities and states.
It is perfectly possible for local newspapers to become purely local again. They can rid themselves of a substantial portion of their paid editorial staffs or convert them to stringers who are paid only when they bring stories of real value and import to the paper. They can hire local "correspondents" to report news of neighborhoods, individual schools, clubs, organizations, events. Local churches could provide information about their weekly services and the papers would have room for this material, which would be well-read. They could reduce ad rates to a level that all local businesses could afford. I suspect they could generate far higher profit margins even if on smaller revenue streams. They could become viable and vital.
Weekly newspapers all over the country are doing just this. And few if any of them are in trouble today. Why? Because their communities of readers aren't likely to let them close. They are seen as an essential part of the local scene.
This way lies success.
by Dan Shafer •
(Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of three posts on this subject that will appear in this space. I'm breaking it up to keep any one post from becoming overwhelmingly long.)The New York Times has indicated that it is going to try the "paywall" approach to making its news operations profitable once again. Once again, those efforts will fail. They will fail because they run hard up against an absolute truth: information wants to be free. (Or, in tech pioneer Stewart Brand's original words, "On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it's so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.") I've said this before, but it bears repeating. The actual news events not only want to be free, they are free. It's the reporting of those events that is in question. With thousands and thousands of outlets for the reportage of current events, the facts of the stories are not something that earns anyone's willingness to fork over cold cash. What at least some people will pay for, on the other hand, is cogent news analysis. Because each of us has our own idea of what the word "cogent" really means, there is room for some money-making publishing at this point. This is where national newspapers like the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Miami Herald, Dallas Morning Star, Philadelphia Inquirer and perhaps another dozen mainstream media outlets can expect to earn some revenue directly from editorial operations. But there are something on the order of 1,400 daily newspapers in the United States today (1,422 in 2007, the last year for which numbers are available for some stupid reason) and readership has been in steady and steep decline for several years now. Some of them make up for part of that loss with online presences but those efforts have not had a corresponding effect on ad revenue, and thus on keeping the newspapers viable. How to staunch the losses? I think the answer lies in newspapers re-inventing themselves in two important ways:
- Focusing intently on local news and on local impact of national and world news
- More tightly and intelligently integrating and linking their print and online publications
I'll outline in more detail what I mean by those suggestions in subsequent parts of this series.
by Dan Shafer •
Director James Cameron, he of the blockbuster hit Avatar, told Oprah this week that the film "represents a lot of ideas and feelings I have as an artist." He singled out the teaching of Oneness as in the interconnectedness of all life, as a central belief of his that finds expression in the film.Oneness being the cornerstone of my spiritual philosophy and teachings, I am of course quite interested in the degree to which Cameron is serious about it. From some of his previous work, it would be difficult to discern a deeply held belief about the essential Unity of All That Is, but that concept is particularly difficult to express artistically because what we recognize as good fiction (or a "good story" if you will) demands conflict and conflict implies the sense of Other, which is of course an idea diametrically opposed to Oneness. I certainly got his message when I saw the movie. I plan to see it again soon to focus just on that theme and take some mental notes that I can expand into a longer discussion of the degree to which I think he succeeds or fails in presenting the complexity of that topic that is at the essential central core of all major spiritual and religious movements in one form or another. Do you know of other movies or novels that have the principle of Oneness as a central theme that you'd like me to know about? I'm researching a possible book on the subject of Oneness' expression in culture.
by Dan Shafer •
Two major Roman media outlets under sway of the Catholic Church have panned the James Cameron blockbuster Avatar primarily along philosophical and spiritual grounds. How unsurprising.Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano devoted three articles to Avatar in its Sunday editions but said Cameron's plot was "bland" and unoriginal. Vatican Radio said Avatar "cleverly winks at all those pseudo-doctrines that turn ecology into the religion of the millennium." Although the Catholic Church says these views accurately reflect those of the Pontiff, they claim he had no input into the reviews themselves. His distaste for what he termed "neopaganism" and efforts to turn nature into "the new divinity" is of course widely known. One could hardly be an influential editor in Rome and be unaware of his thinking. He certainly as more input into and control over the Roman media than, say, President Obama has over the Washington media. As I've previously stated here, my own spiritual beliefs led me to appreciate those aspects of the movie while bemoaning and disliking all the military violence and corporate greed it portrayed. Those who have seen the film (it's sold over $1 billion in tickets worldwide, so there must be quite a bunch of you out there!) will have long since recognized that much of what Cameron does in the movie is at least partly tongue-in-cheek. I mean, he named the mineral the Earth-bound looters were trying to steal, "unobtainium". Geez.
by Dan Shafer •
From all of the press reports floating around the Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas, it appears that by mid-2010 it will be possible to buy a 3D-capable TV. Woohoo! I am stoked. I'm not even a big TV consumer but I know I will love 3D when it's available.A piece in USA Today quotes Mark Cuban as saying that his cable channel HDNet will begin shooting a bunch of its content in 3D format this year. The same piece says that an all-3D cable channel is in the works and that ESPN has announced 3D capabilities this year, starting with the World Cup but also to include college football and basketball. Yes! It's a fun time to be alive, isn't it?
by Dan Shafer •
In the past few days I've been realizing how much my impulse buying of books has skyrocketed since I started using a Kindle. It used to be that if I ran into a book recommendation — particularly online but even in print or on TV — I'd make a note to check out the book, then I'd go to amazon.com when I had a few minutes and check it out. I'm just guessing but I suspect I bought about 70% of the books I checked out. I also suspect I only checked out about 70% of the books I intended to look at.Yesterday I was watching an episode of Bill Moyers Journal from last week and he mentioned that his favorite book of 2009 was Nemesis by Chalmers Johnson. I paused the DVR, picked up my Kindle, found the book was available in that format for $9.99 (as I recall), clicked a couple of buttons and I was reading the book. In this case, Moyers' recommendation was enough to convince me to buy it. But if I'd gotten the suggestion from someone who doesn't have his clout with me, I could still have checked out the book while I sat in front of the TV, read reviews, a synopsis, and ordered it for immediate download. How cool is that?