My given name is David. Family members still call me that. Everybody else calls me Doc. Since people often ask me where that nickname came from, and since apparently I haven’t answered it anywhere I can now find online, here’s the story.
Thousands of years ago, in the mid-1970s, I worked at a little radio station owned by Duke University called WDBS. (A nice history of the station survives, in instant-loading 1st generation html, here. I also give big hat tip to Bob Chapman for talking Duke into buying the station in 1971, when he was still a student there.)
As signals went, WDBS was a shrub in grove of redwoods: strong in Duke’s corner of Durham, a bit weak in Chapel Hill, and barely audible in Raleigh—the three corners of North Carolina’s Research Triangle. (One of those redwoods, WRAL, was audible, their slogan bragged, “from Hatteras to Hickory,” which is about 320 Continue reading "Where the nickname came from"
Emanuele Orazio Fenzi, better known as Francesco Franceschi (1843-1924), was an Italian horticulturist responsible for vastly increasing botanical variety of Santa Barbara (introducing more than 900 species). He was also for awhile the primary landowner on the Riviera, which is the loaf-shaped hill overlooking the city’s downtown. Most of that hill is now covered with houses, but a large part that isn’t is what remains of the Franceschi estate: 18 acres called Franceschi Park, featuring a crumbling mansion and the bust above, carved from the top of a boulder on the property.
The city doesn’t have much to say about Franceschi, with a website devoted to the park that goes one paragraph deep. Which makes sense, because the state of neglect in the park is rather extreme. I won’t go into details, because they’re well presented all these stories:
I was as deeply affected by learning Leonard Cohen died as I was by the election results. Maybe more. I can’t name an artist whose songs mean more to me than his. Not Dylan, not (I’m thinking…) anybody. (Here’s how he lifted me one time when I was sick a few years ago.)
A couple weeks ago, I was driving to the Peets on Upper State Street in Santa Barbara when some station on the radio played the title song of Leonard’s new album, You Want It Darker.
I had to pull over. There was no way I could listen and keep driving. It was too deep, too right. I had never heard it before, and it demanded full attention.
I heard today that he recorded that in his apartment here in Los Angeles, on what turned out to be his death bed.
This photo of Utah is among dozens of thousands I’ve put on Flickr. it might be collateral damage if Yahoo dies or fails to sell the service to a worthy buyer.
This photo of the San Juan River Utah is among dozens of thousands I’ve put up on Flickr. it might be collateral damage if Yahoo dies or fails to sell the service to a worthy buyer.
Flickr is far from perfect, but it is also by far the best online service for serious photographers. At a time when the center of photographic gravity is drifting form arts & archives to selfies & social, Flickr remains both retro and contemporary in the best possible ways: a museum-grade treasure it would hurt terribly to lose.
Alas, it is owned by Yahoo, which is, despite Marissa Mayer’s best efforts, circling the drain.
Flickr was created and lovingly nurtured by Stewart Continue reading "Dear Adobe, Please buy Flickr"
To me the best movie ever made about Jesus is Franco Zeferelli’s, now in HD on YouTube.
Every year about this time I lament the absence of a good copy of Franco Zefferelli‘s Jesus of Nazareth, which aired on low-def TV in 1977, though it was surely filmed in at least 35mm stock.
But this year, to my amazement, there is an HD version on YouTube. It could be better but it’s not the awful VHS version that had previously been (to my knowledge) the only copy available, in stores or online.
It is beautifully and reverently directed, and features an all-star cast, most of which do an excellent job:
We know shit.
I mean, in respect to the Everything that surrounds us, and the culture in which we are pickled from start to finish, what we know rounds to nothing and is, with the provisional exception of the subjects and people we study and love, incomplete and therefore somewhere between questionable and wrong.
But we can’t operate in the present without some regard for the future, which brings me to a comparison of futurist related ideologies, from H+pedia, which was new to me when I saw this in a post to a list I’m on:
Here is my reply to the same list:
Must we all be “ists?”
I mean, is a historian a “pastist?”
I’m into making the future better than the present by understanding everything I can. Most of what I can understand is located in the past, but I’ve only lived through Continue reading "What everything isn’t"
One of the things that fascinates me about Prague are the skewers atop the spires of its many iconic buildings, each of which pierces a shiny ball. It’s a great look.
I am sure there’s a reason for those things, other than the look itself.
I am also sure there is a word for the ball. The skewer too.
I know it’s not spire, because that labels any conical or tapered point on the roof of a building. Prague is said to be the city of a hundred, or a thousand, spires. Most of those have these balls too, and I’ve become obsessed, while I’m here, with finding out what the hell they’re called.
I’m sure more than a few people out there on the lazyweb know. So tell me.
Here is a simple idea for the Brooklyn Nets that will do a world of good for their borough and their team: provide new nets for every net-less basketball hoop in every school and playground.
The cost of few thousand team color (black and white) nets probably wouldn’t be more than the cost of one player hired at minimum salary. The good will coming from it will be immeasurable.
Think about team members going out to playgrounds and helping install fresh nets on empty hoops. The photo opportunities are a lesser benefit than bonding between the team and its borough — or the whole city, if they want to take the program all the way.
Hi, Liveblog fans. This post continues (or plays jazz with) this liveblog post, following my podcast learnings, live.
As an old radio guy and an inveterate talker, I think I should be good at podcasting. Or at least that it’s worth trying. Which I have, many times.
The results, so far, appear at here, at podcasts.searls.com, a WordPress site I set up for the purpose. My first podcast is there. It’s one I did with Britt Blaser, more than two years ago. My second through Nth are sitting in a folder called “podcasts,” on my hard drive.
Today, with help from my son Jeffrey, who is smarter than me about many things, we put together a short second podcast. It combines two tries at podcasting that he and I did in June and July of 2005, when he was nine years old. We also recorded ourselves listening to those, putting them end-to-end using Audacity, and adding the intro and outro music, and other stuff.
The last steps were: 1) heating up podcast blog page, 2) updating WordPress and Akismet (to kill the 3,000 spam comments there), and 3) adding the .mp3 file of the podcast itself. Continue reading "Finally, maybe, getting a podcast rolling"
Unless you look out the window.
When I did that on 4 November 2007, halfway between London and Denver, I saw this:
Best I could tell at the time, this was Greenland. That’s how I labeled it in this album on Flickr. For years after that, I kept looking at Greenland maps, trying to find where, exactly …
all these mountains and glaciers were.
Then, two days ago, I found out. They were just north of the Arctic Circle on the Cumberland Peninsula of Baffin Island, an Arctic landform almost twice the size of New Zealand. I had just finished photographing everything I could of Greenland, en route from London to Los Angeles in a United 777, looking back out my dirty and frosty window near the trailing edge of the wing. After we finished crossing Davis Strait, and started seeing the islands on the Baffin Island coast, I realized that the scene was familiar. My GPS and the plane’s own map filled in the gap I’d been mulling for most of a decade.
Cutting through the center of the peninsula was a 75-mile long Yosemite-grade valley called Akshayuk Pass, connecting the North and South Pangnirtung Fjords. Feeding into the valley were glaciers slowly sliding off ice caps. On the west side of the pass was the Penny Ice Cap, a mini-Greenland icing a spectacular cake called Auyuittuq National Park, almost all north of the Arctic Circle, meaning that it will be in darkness around the clock a month from now, when the Winter Solstice comes.
Wikipedia: “In Inuktitut (the language of Nunavut‘s aboriginal people, the Inuit), Auyuittuq (current spelling: ᐊᐅᔪᐃᑦᑐᖅ aujuittuq) means ‘the land that never melts.’” Nobody lives there.
On the first trip I was fascinated by a mountain that looked like an old tooth with fillings that had fallen out. It’s in the lower left side of this shot here:
So I recognized it instantly when I saw it again. Here’s the same scene after seven years:
The mountain is Asgard, and named after the realm of Norse gods. From below it looks the part. (That link is to some amazing photos, taken from Turner Glacier, above Asgard in the shot above. One of the great James Bond ski chase stunts in history was also shot here. See this video explaining it. Start at about 1:33.)
A bit before I started shooting these scenes, a flight attendant asked me to shut my window, so others on the plane could sleep or watch their movies. Note that this was in the middle of a daytime flight, not a red-eye. When I told her I booked a window seat to look and shoot out the window, she was surprised but supportive. “That is pretty out there,” she said.
Later, when we were over Hudson Bay and the view was all clouds, I got up to visit the loo and count how many other windows had shades raised. There were eight, out of dozens in the long Economy cabin.
No wonder one cynical term used by airline people to label passengers is “walking freight.” The romance and thrill of flying has given way to rolling passengers on and off, and filling them with bad food and “content” from entertainment systems.
But there’s more than meets the shade. Much more, if you bother to look.
There’s a challenge going around Facebook: to name ten books that have changed your life.
So I’ve thought about my own, and kept a running list here in draft form. Now that it’s close enough to publish, methinks, here they are, in no order, and not limited to ten (or to Facebook) —
Annals of the Former World, by John McPhee, who gets my vote for the best nonfiction writer of all time. I’ve read and love all of McPhee’s books, but his geology series — Basin and Range, In Suspect Terrain, Rising From the Plains and Assembling California — turned me on in a huge way to geology, the Earth and the long view of time. All are collected, with one more added, in Annals, which won a Pulitzer in 1999. The best of the series, by the way, is Rising From the Plains, just for the stories of its lead characters, geologist David Love and his parents, living the pioneer life in central Wyoming early in the last century. Great stuff.
Rabbit Run and the rest of the Rabbit series, by John Updike. While many of Updike’s subjects bore or annoy me (and his frequent descriptions of sex, all as clinically detailed as a Wyeth paintings, fail as porn), the quality of his writing is without equal, imho.
The Bible. I was raised on it and read lots of it, back in my early decades. So I can’t deny its influence. The King James is my fave, having a beauty that others lack.
Nature and other essays (notably Self-reliance) by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Hit me between the eyes in my college years. Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events… Without Emerson, there would have been no Linux for me. Also no ProjectVRM, and probably no Cluetrain either. Also from that century, Hawthorne and Poe.
Websters New Collegiate Dictionary. Meaning the one my parents gave me when I went away to high school at age 15 in 1962. It’s one of the most worn and marked up books I have.
The entire James Bond series, by Ian Flemming. Knocked them off in a college summer session. Pure escapism, but it helped my writing. Flemming was good. Bonus link: Alligator, a parody of Bond novels by Christopher Cerf and Michael Frith of the Harvard Lampoon. In it MI5′s front is a car dealership. If any actual customers show up, they are taken to the back and then “politely, but firmly, shot.”
Many books by Thomas C. Hinkle, which I read as a child hiding away from the bitter and humiliating experiences of failing to compete in academics, sports and everything else at school. The books weren’t great literature, but they were great escapes. All were adventures involving heroic animals on the prairie, where both Hinkle and my mother grew up. (He was from Kansas and she was from Napoleon, North Dakota, about which it was said “It’s not the end of the world, but you can see it from there.”) When I got older my interest in prairie settings transferred to…
The Tales of Alvin Maker, by Orson Scott Card. The natives in this one have a heroic transcendence (as do others). Got turned on to these by our youngest son, who has read at least ten times the number of books in his short life than I’ve read in my long one.
The Poltergeist, by William G. Roll. I worked for Bill at the Psychical Research Foundation, which hung off the side of Duke in the late ’70s. His work opened my mind in many ways. Great times there too.
Other authors that run in the credits of my life: Camus, Sartre, Malraux, Conrad, Yates, Kipling, Tennyson, Woolf, Aldous Huxley, Rilke, Thomas Mann, Kafka, Solzhenitsyn, Hesse, Wallace Stevens, Jeffers, Steinbeck, Delmore Schwartz, Card, e.e. cummings, Cheever, Flannery O’Connor, E.L. Doctorow, Stanley Elkin, William F. Buckley, James Baldwin, Truman Capote, Salinger, Mailer, Barth. (Thanks to Interleaves and Robert Teeter for listingHarold Bloom‘s Western Canon, which helped with the list above.)
Ah, and the photo at the top is of our good friend Christopher Lydon, taken while he was giving us newcomers a tour of the Boston Athenæum, which we immediately joined and will love forever. Besides being a great lover of books, Chris is a broadcasting legend whose Radio Open Source is a treasure that spills weekly onto the Net and WBUR.
A couple weeks ago I took a walk around the historic neighborhood in Fort Lee where my extended family had a home from the turn of the last century into the 1950s. It’s where my parents lived when I was born, and where my aunt and grandmother sat for my sister and me (taking us often for walks across the George Washington Bridge, which my father helped build) and holding big warm Thanksgiving dinners.
It was all erased years ago, and the parts that aren’t paved over are now turning into high-rises, starting with The Modern, a 47-floor mirror-glass monolith that towers over the George Washington Bridge. Another just like it will go up nearby, as part of the Hudson Lights project. It’s huge.
It’s also the site of “Bridgegate” a couple years ago, for what that’s worth.
Anyway, I shot a bunch of pictures. More in the captions.
I used to have an open reel tape of song I recorded off some New York FM station in 1970 or so. It’s long lost now. I didn’t know the artist or the title. It was was half talked, half sung, about a loser in Greenwich Village, “Junkie John,” coming down in a fleabag hotel. Very haunting, which is why I never forgot it.
I didn’t know what it was called or who did it. Every so often I’d ask people who knew music better than than I did, if they knew a song about “Junkie John.” A few said maybe it was a Blues Traveller thing, or John Mayall. But looking down those alleys went nowhere. I figured eventually that it was too obscure, and probably had a title that had nothing to do with what I remembered of it.
But a few weeks ago, at 1:30am here in New York, the song popped into my mind. So I looked up “Junkie John” on Google just for the hell of it, and… Wow:::: found this on YouTube, by Tim Dawe.
It’s the real thing. Amazing. Listen to it. Preferably on good headphones or speakers in a dark room.
Dawe starts the story over a plucked string bass. Very slow, laconic. About a minute in comes a Hammond organ with funeral chords. Then a haunting chorus. Gives ya chills. After about 5 minutes it digresses into a weird psychedelic jazz bridge with more instruments (it seems). Then the instruments drop out and it goes back to just the singer, the organ, the bass, and the end of the story, which seems to have no end, really. (Did Junkie John die, or just come down? Not clear.)
It’s very different listening with headphones today, maybe forty years after the first time I heard it, probably over speakers, probably in the dark, probably in a rural New Jersey house, with the kids asleep in another room.
Here’s the back story, from the CD re-issue liner notes. Funny to learn that the whole story of Dawe, the band, the recording, everybody involved with it, took place in Los Angeles and San Diego, not New York — and that it was a Frank Zappa production, on his Straight label (which had the bizarre stuff, as I recall), rather than his Bizarre label (which, again as I recall, had the straight-ish stuff).
The whole album is called Penrod (which may or may not be Dawe’s real name… also not clear). I bought it on Amazon for $9.49. Now I just need to rip it to the laptop.
Anyway, highly recommended.
As of August 10, 2014, Fotopedia.com will close and our iOS applications will cease to function. Our community of passionate photographers, curators and storytellers has made this a wonderful journey, and we’d like to thank you for your hard work and your contributions. We truly believe in the concept of storytelling but don’t think there is a suitable business in it yet.
I’m also afraid Flickr will die, and wrote about that in What if Flickr fails? back in 2011. I believe Flickr is more durable now that it was then, and I like what they’ve been doing under new leadership there. But, with more than 50,000 photos up there now, on five different accounts (four are others to which I contribute), I’ve got a lot of exposure to the inevitable, which is that Flickr will die. As will everything, of course, but stuff on the Web has an especially low threshold of death.
In the early days it didn’t look that way. Making the Web was an exercise in long-term property development then, or so it seemed. There were sites we put up, built or constructed at locations in domains, so others could visit them, and search and browse through them, as if they were libraries. Which they were in a way, since we used publishing lingo to talk about what we put there: writing, authoring, editing, posting, syndicating and so on.
But that was what we might call the Static Web, a term I picked up from my son Allen in 2003, when he shared an amazing prophesy that has since proven correct: a new Live Web was starting to branch off the static one.
I’ve written about that a number of times since then. (Here, here and here, for example.) Back then, live was what we had with blogs, and RSS. You wrote something, posted it, and a Live Web search engine, such as Technorati or PubSub would have it indexed within a few minutes. (Amazing: Google Blog Search, which kinda killed the others, still exists.)
Today the Live Web is Twitter and Facebook.
Here are two important differences between the Live Web of 2003 and the Twitter/Facebook one today:
Blogs were journals. By that I mean they were self-archiving. Their URLs were always yourblog/year/month/day/permalink, or the equivalent. On Twitter and Facebook, they tend to sink away. Same with Tumblr, Pinterest and other services that employ the modern endless-scroll website style. The old stuff seems to sink down out of sight, with little sense that any one thing has its own location on the Web, or that the location belongs fully to the author.
That sinking-away thing is, almost literally, burial. Once it’s gone off the screen, it gets hard to find. Or it’s gone completely.
In its early days, tweeting was called “micro-blogging.” But it was really more like texting, or passing notes in class. While blogging was self-archived, with “permalinks,” every tweet — in spite of having a unique URL ‚ became hard to find, or gone, once it scrolled off the bottom of the screen. Many times I’ve tried searching for old tweets, on Twitter or Google, and found nothing. The best I could do was download an archive. (Or, excuse me, request an archive. I just did that. I’ve heard nothing so far.)
Sorry, but this is not the Web. This is something else: live performance. Kinda like radio.
Many years ago I started writing a book about radio, which had been an obsession of mine ever since I was a little kid. The title was to be Snow on the Water, a line from “Big Ted,” by The Incredible String Band:
Big Ted’s dead, he was a great old pig
He’d eat most anything, never wore a wig
Now he’s gone like snow on the water, good-bye-eeee
Radio’s goods decay at the speed of short-term memory. The best of it persists in long-term memory, but the rest is gone like snow on the water.
That, to me, is part of radio’s charm. At its best, it’s pure performance, something you have to be there for, in a mode they call “live.” Sure, you can record it, but then it’s not the same. It’s like canned fruit.
Performance is like that: a thing that happens in real time, in real place, between the performer(s) and the audience. Theater. Show biz. No second chances.
I was in radio for awhile, long ago. My nickname, Doc, is a fossil remnant of Doctor Dave, a humorous persona on WDBS in Durham, North Carolina. I also wrote for the station’s “alternative” paper, called The Guide. That graphic on the right is how I looked to readers. It was drawn by the late, great Ray Simone. I look like that in reality today, only with less hair.
Far as I know, the only remnants of Doctor Dave, on tape or in print, are buried in my garage in Santa Barbara. Some day, if I live long enough, and run out of more interesting things to, I’ll dig them up and put them online. Or maybe I’ll leave that up to other people who give more of a shit than I do. As of today, that’s nobody. After I’m dead as Ted, maybe some will show up. Who knows.
According to iTunes, I’ve also accumulated 1300 podcasts — time-shifted radio — that I also haven’t listened to. I do like podcasts, and some day will get around to doing my own on a regular basis instead of the one time I’ve done it, so far. (Find it at http://podcast.searls.com.) If I did it on radio first, it would be easier.
But what’s radio any more? Here’s what I said about it last November:
…now radio is streamed audio. That was already the case when webcasting showed up in the ’90s, and even more so with the rise of Last.fm, SiriusXM, Pandora, rdio, Spotify and every other audio service delivered over the Net.
All of these services can do what they do because they’ve cleared “performance rights” to play the music they play, and to pay the royalty rates required by copyright law. Never mind the rates for now. Instead, focus on the word performance. The Copyright Act of 1909 was the first to characterize a musical composition or recording as a performance. So, if you acquire a piece of music, you only acquire the right to perform it for yourself.
So what I’m saying is that the Web is becoming more of a live performance venue, and less of a digital library where published works are shared and stored in easily found ways.
Look at the advertising on websites today. None of it is constant in the least. Hit the refresh button and new ads will appear. Go away and come back and there will be new content, with new ads. This is nothing like the newspapers and magazines — the journals — of old. This is live performance, often just for you (at least on the advertising side).
In How Facebook Sold You Krill Oil, in today’s New York Times, we learn that you, the Facebook user, are in an “audience” for the advertising there. Enough of the performance works to make the spending worthwhile for the advertiser.
There’s an accounting of it somewhere, for business purposes. But nothing lasting, much less permanent, for the rest of us. It’s all just snow on the water.
Watching that advertising — and even most “content” — scroll to oblivion is hardly tragic.
But losing Fotopedia is tragic to this extreme: art matters. What you see and read today on Fotopedia are works of art. Some are better than others, but all qualify for the noun.
Fortunately, the Internet Archive has indexed Fotopedia. But navigating it isn’t the same. Some internal links go somewhere, but most don’t.
There are many regrets (and one persistent offer to help) in the comments under Fotopedia’s final blog post. Here’s hoping something can be done to save Fotopedia’s art the old Static Web way. And that, eight days from now, all that fine art won’t be gone like Big Ted.
The photos above, below, and linked to via the Read More button at the bottom of this entry, were taken during a late-day stroll in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Prospect Heights and a mid-day walk from Park Slope to Boerum Hill, a couple of miles to the west. On most grounds, economic and social, I oppose the rampant gentrification that has pushed out non-white, lower-income, and gray-haired New Yorkers from swaths of northern Brooklyn. However, when I see the revived and manicured beauty of such neighborhoods my opposition momentarily softens … that is, until I remember that, given the pace and expanse of gentrification, ordinary New Yorkers will soon be forced to live so far from the city’s lovely historic neighborhoods that they will rarely have the opportunity, time, or means to visit them.
This hits home in a literal way for me. My ancestors on the Searls side (half of which originated via German and Irish immigration) lived in New York for generations. And I am currently domiciled, at least part of the time, in a district of far-northern Manhattan that remains, as @ChrisAnnade, puts it, “Starbucks-free.” It is a high-character neighborhood of Orthodox Jews and Spanish-speaking immigrants, mostly from the Dominican Republic. It’s an inexpensive part of the city, where commercial establishments are mostly of the non-chain type and sky-bound rents are not yet the norm. But it’s nice enough that I suspect things will change as the neighborhood gets “discovered” by people with more money or fame than those who already live there.
I’ve been having fun shooting panos — panoramas — with my phone. While the one above isn’t especially artful, it does show off what can be done if you let the subject move while you stand still. In this one I’m looking toward the opposite platform in a New York subway station.
This has to be done when the train is going slow enough: when it is starting to depart, or finishing an arrival. My son also pointed something else out: you have to move too, just a tiny bit, so the accelerometer in the phone thinks you’re shooting a normal pano.
Most cameras in new phones have the pano feature. Mine is an iPhone 5s. You just bring up the camera and choose the pano format. It’s the one all the way to the right. Then you can choose panning left to right or right to left. (It reverses when you tap it.) Pretty easy. Play around and have fun with it.
Here’s how dull that pause — that end we call the front page — has become:
And yet every newspaper needs one. So it’s not going away. But to stay current — literally — papers need something else as well — something Net-native that bridges the static page and the live flow of actual news.
Twitter isn’t it.
Yes, these days it’s pro forma for news media to post notifications of stories and other editorial on Twitter, but Twitter is a closed and silo’d corporation, not an institutional convention on the order of the front page, the editorial page, the section, the insert. Most of all, Twitter is somebody else’s system. It’s not any paper’s own.
But Twitter does normalize a model that Dave Winer called a river, long before Twitter existed. You might think of a river as a paper’s own Twitter. And also the reader’s.
In the early days Twitter was called a “microblogging” platform. What made it micro was its 140-character limit on posts. What made it blogging was its format: latest stuff on top and a “permalink” to every post. (Alas, Twitter posts tend to be snow on the water, flowing to near-oblivion and lacking syndication through RSS —though there are hacks.)
Dave created RSS — Really Simple Syndication — as we know it today, and got The New York Times and other publications (including many papers and nearly all Web publishers) to adopt it as well. Today a search for “RSS” on Google brings up over two billion results.
Now Dave has convened a hackathon for creating a new river-based home page for newspapers, starting once again with The New York Times. On his blog he explains how a river of news aggregator works. And in a post at Nieman Journalism Lab he explains Why every news organization should have a river. There he unpacks a series of observations and recommendations:
News organizations are shrinking, but readers’ demand for news is exploding.
The tools of news are available to more people all the time.
News organizations have to redefine themselves.
Users have a special kind of insight that most news orgs don’t tap.
Therefore, the challenge for news organizations has been, for the last couple of decades, to learn how to incorporate the experience of these users and their new publishing tools, into their product — the news.
Like anything else related to technology, this will happen slowly and iteratively.
The first thing you can do is show the readers what you’re reading.
Having the river will also focus your mind.
Then, once your river is up and running for a while, have a meeting with all your bloggers.
— and then offers real help for getting set up.
I want to expand the reach of this work to broadcasting: a business that has always been live, has always had flow, and has been just as challenged as print in adapting to the live-networked world.
I want to focus first on the BBC, not just because they’re an institution with the same great heft as the Times, but because they’ve invited me to visit with them and talk about this kind of stuff. I’ll be doing that in a couple of weeks. By coincidence Neil Midgley in Forbes yesterday reported that the BBC News Division would be cutting five hundred jobs over the next two years. I’m hoping this might open minds at the Beeb toward opportunity around news rivers.
In the traditional model, reporting works something like hunting and gathering. A reporter hunts on his or her beat, gathers details for stories, and then serves up meals that whet and fill the appetites of readers, viewers and listeners. This model won’t go away. In some ways it’s being improved. Here in the U.S. ProPublica and the Center for Public Integrity are good examples of that. But it will become part of a larger flow, drawing from a wider conceptual and operational net.
A river for media as major as the Times and the BBC flows in the center of a vast watershed, with sources flowing inward through tributaries. Each of those sources can be lakes, streams and rivers as well. At their best, all of them sustain life, culture and commerce along their banks and in the areas surrounding them.
For institutions such as the Times and the BBC, what matters is maintaining their attraction to sources, destinations, and lives sustained in the process. That attraction is flow itself. That’s why rivers are essential as both metaphor and method.
To help with this, let’s look at a watershed in the physical world that works on roughly the scale that the Times and the BBC do in the journalistic regions they serve:
That’s the Amazon River basin. Every stream and river in that basin flows down a slope toward the Amazon River. While much of the rain that falls on the basin sinks into the earth and sustains life right there, an excess flows downstream. Some of the water and the material it carries is used and re-used along the way. Much of the activity within each body operates in its own local or regional ecosystem. But much of it flows to the main river before spilling into the sea. The entire system is shaped by its boundaries, the ridges and plateaus farthest upstream. Its influence extends outside those boundaries, of course, but what makes the whole watershed unitary is inward flow toward the central river.
In his Nieman piece, Dave identifies bloggers as essential sources. (Remember that blogs have a river format of their own: they flow, from the tops to the bottoms of their own pages.) Email is another source. So are comments on a news organization’s own stories. So are other publications. So are news agencies such as the Associated Press. So are think tanks, industry experts and investigative organizations such as the Center for Public Integrity.
Missing from that list are ordinary people. All of those people are in position to be sources for stories, and many already contribute to news flow through the likes of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Every one of those intermediary systems cries out for improvement or replacement, both of which will be happen naturally if they feel the by the gravitational pull of rivers at central journalistic institutions such as the Times and the BBC.
But the most important challenge is leveraging what Dan Gillmor famously said many years ago, when he was still at the San Jose Mercury News: “My readers know more than I do.”
As a visiting scholar in Journalism at NYU for the last two years, I have participated in many classes led by Jay Rosen and Clay Shirky. (Most of those were in the Studio 20 program, which Jay describes as “a consultancy paid in problems.”) One subject that often came up in these classes was the institutionalized power asymmetry between news media on one hand and people they serve on the other — even as the preponderance of power to provide news material clearly resides on the side of the people, rather than the media. You can see this asymmetry in the way comments tend to work. Think about the weakness one feels when writing a letter to the editor, or to comment under a story on a news site — and how lame both often tend to be.
This last semester I worked for awhile with a small group of students in one of Clay’s classes, consulting The Guardian — one of the world’s most innovative news organizations. What the students contemplated for awhile was finding ways for readers with subject expertise or useful knowledge to bypass the comment process and get straight to reporters. I would like to see future classes look toward rivers as one way (or context within which) this can be done.
The Guardian is far more clueful than the average paper, but it would still benefit hugely from looking at itself as a river rather than … well, I’m not sure what. It used to be that http://guardian.co.uk went to the paper itself, but now it detects my location and redirects me to http://www.theguardian.com/us. And when I click on the “About us” link, it goes to this front-page-ish thing. In other words, packed with lots of stuff, as front pages of newspaper websites tend to be these days. Which is fine. They have to do something, and this is what they’re doing now. Live and learn, always. But one thing they’re learning that I don’t like — as a reader and possible contributor — is made clear by several items that appear on the page. One is the little progress thingie at the bottom, which shows stuff behind the page that is still trying to load (no kidding) long after I went to the page ten minutes ago:Another is this item at the bottom of the page:And another is this piece — one among (let’s see…) 24 items with a headline and text under it:
The operative word here is content.
John Perry Barlow once said, “I didn’t start hearing about ‘content’ until the container business felt threatened.” But fear isn’t the problem here. It’s the implication that stories, posts and other editorial matter are all just cargo. Stuff.
The mind-shift going on here is that’s a huge value-subtract for both paper and reader alike. (Yes, I know there is no substitute for content, other than the abandoned “editorial,” and that’s a problem too.)
Speaking as a reader of the Guardian — and one who reads it in the UK, the US and many other countries on the World Wide Freaking Web — I hate being blindered by national borders, and regarded as just an “audience” member valued mostly as an “influential” instrument to be “engaged” by “branded content,” even it’s laundered through a “Lab.”
This kind of jive is the sound an industry makes when it’s talking to itself. Or worse, of editorial and publishing factota dancing on the rubble of the Chinese wall that long stood between them, supporting independence and integrity on both sides.
If the Guardian saw itself as a river, and not as a cargo delivery system, it might not have made the moves in the U.S. that it has so far. To fully grok how big a problem these moves have been (again, so far), read The Guardian at the Gate, by Michael Wolff in GQ.
Newspapers and broadcast networks tend to be regional things: geographically, culturally, and politically. The Guardian’s position — what Reis and Trout (in Positioning: the Battle for Your Mind) call a creneau — has been its preëminence as the leading newspaper for culture and leftish politics in the UK. Creating something new and separate in the U.S. was, and remains, weird. It would be even more weird if the BBC tried the same thing. (Instead, wisely, it’s just another program source for U.S. public radio. And its voice is clearly a UK one.)
Another term from the marketing world that’s making its way over to the production side of media (including news) is “personalization.” At the literal level this isn’t a bad thing. One might like to personalize, or have personalized, some of the stuff one reads, hears or watches. But the way marketers think about it, personalization is something done by algorithms that direct content toward individuals, guided by the crunchings of surveillance-gathered Big Data.
Some of that stuff isn’t bad. Some might actually be good. But the better thing would be to start with the role of the paper, or the broadcast system, as a river that flows through the heart of an ecosystem that it also defines. That role is not just to barge content downstream, but to collect and grow shared knowledge.
We’re at the beginning of the process of discovering all the things a river can be. This is why Dave’s hackathon is so important.
RSS gave newspapers a new lease on life at a time when the old one was running out. Rivers will do the same if newspapers, broadcasters and other essential media leverage them with the same gusto.
It helps that, at the heart of both RSS and rivers, there are old and well-understood concepts. For RSS it’s syndication. For rivers it’s publishing. Both RSS and rivers use these old concepts in new ways that work for everybody, and not just for the media themselves.
Curation is another one. It comes up nearly every time I talk to a news organization about what only it can do, or what it can do better than any other institution. Some curation should be done by the media themselves. But it should be done in the context of the new world defined by the Net and the Web. That’s why I suggest flowing rivers into the free and open Web. Don’t lock them behind paywalls. My one-liner for this is Sell the news and give away the olds. It’s off-topic for rivers, syndication and the Live Web, but it’s a topic worth pursuing, because old news can always have new value, if it’s free.
And that’s what the Net and the Web were born to be — for everybody and everything: free. Just like the sea into which all rivers flow.
Back to Tennyson:
Come, my friends, ‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world. Push off, and sitting well in order smite The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths Of all the western stars, until I die.
I was digging around for links toward a post on Brian Knappenberger‘s crowdsourcedAaron Swartz documentary, The Internet’s Own Boy, when I learned that Malik Bendjelloul, the documentary filmmaker who won an Oscar last year for Searching for Sugar Man, was also dead — like Aaron, a suicide.
I would guess that readers of this blog are more familiar with Aaron than with Malik, though the ratio is probably reversed for the rest of the world, or at least for the part of it that cares about movies.
Hardly a week goes by that I don’t urge, in the strongest way I can, that people see Searching for Sugar Man. I also urge people not to read up on it first. Better to just go see it. The story works best if you start knowing little or nothing about it.
Sugar Man is one of those rare things: a deep-hearted feel-good documentary. There is no tragedy to it, but rather an almost holy sense of transcendence. And just a great, great story. Please watch it. Note the artistry behind the titles, the transitions, the editing. And think on how Malik did most of those in his apartment.
I was interviewed by Brian for The Internet’s Own Boy, but I don’t know if what I said ended up in the movie or on the cutting room floor. I suspect the latter, because most of what I said pertained to Aaron’s genius rather than the narrative vector of the film. (A correct one, about Aaron being hounded to death by prosecutorial overreach.) And I don’t care either way. I trusted Brian to make a great movie, and it looks like he succeeded. It got a standing ovation at Sundance, and other reviews I’ve seen were all positive.
It is gratifying to see a number of my still photos of Aaron in the trailer, thanks to having been published under a Creative Commons license (attribution only) that encourages use. Creative Commons was co-created by Aaron when he was still a teenager.
What we lost with both men was their promise. When Aaron died, I wrote, “We haven’t just lost a good man, but the better world he was helping to make.” The same goes for Malik. Like Aaron, he was a sweet, brilliant and talented young man. The world is lessened by his absence, in ways we will never know.
Spent some time this morning wondering whether the butts in the melting snow by the A Train station at Dyckman Street migrated there from elsewhere, or if the former snowbank served as an ashtray for smoking passengers. Either way, it’s an impressive collection.