On seeking trust in public media

Public media consultant Michael Marcotte posted about some of his recent work on ethics guidelines for public media employees and I was moved to comment. I started commenting directly on his blog, but realized — after 700 words — that I should really post this on my site and link over to it. No need to gunk up his comments.

Be sure to check out the source post — Ethics Guidelines for Public Media Employees — and related documents first. Got it? Then here are my comments.

I’m glad someone is thinking about this in the public media world, but I’m disappointed that traditional journalists got their hands so deeply into this document.

We don’t need a replication of existing “view from nowhere” positioning in journalism. We need fairness and disclosure, yes, but objectivity is not increasing public trust. NPR maintained traditional objectivity right through the right-wing attacks of the last few years and it neither illuminated those situation nor generated more trust in any corner. Objectivity-worship sucked the teachable moment right out of those manufactured controversies.

I could go on for a long time about the perils of objectivity, but Jay Rosen has that waterfront covered, so just read his stuff. Instead, I’ll focus on the real flaw I see at the heart of this document.

It’s related to the objectivity thing, but it’s much simpler. It’s right there in the Principles at the top of the list: “Seek public trust“. Three simple words.

  • Trust is good. We all want that. We need it. It makes the mission of public media organizations easier and more supportable. Trust is an unvarnished good.
  • Public is a pretty good word. I think we’ve lost touch with that word through its overuse; we don’t know what it means anymore. Does “public” mean upper-middle-class college whites? It certainly seems that way in public media. But let’s leave that old argument aside and assume the best around the word “public.”
  • Here’s the problem: “Seek“. You’re telling people to seek public trust. You’re advising that people angle for it, grasp for it, hope for it. By choosing the word “seek” you’re admitting that public media organizations must position themselves, marketing-style, as being trustworthy. They don’t have to BE trustworthy, they just have to seek the perception of trustworthiness. (It’s time to post more “PBS is #1 in public trust” press releases!)

When it comes to social media and real life — and I would argue when it comes to news — you either are trustworthy or you are not. You earn trust. You have trust. You can lose trust. But you don’t seek it. You don’t plan for it. “Seeking” to me sounds like someone who’s trying too hard to be my friend. It feels contrived. And contrivances are not trustworthy.

Those three words — “Seek public trust” — flow from a major problem public media organizations (and newspapers) face today: a collection of older executives that are working to protect an anachronistic empire, managers who’ve inherited a system that has a lot of trust built up from 30+ years of valuable public service, most of which was built before their time. They’re seeking public trust because they’re trying to preserve their own income and status.

Early public media leaders didn’t seek public trust. They just did trustworthy things. They were trustworthy people. Trust adhered to them over time based on the things they did. It wasn’t the color of their logos, it was the content of their characters that made a difference. Do you think Fred Rogers sought public trust? He schemed for it?

To take an unrelated example, look at Apple. Apple has tremendous levels of trust built up with millions of customers. They have a brand with worldwide respect. They’re the best at customer service. They have unparalleled product quality, design, and ease of use. People love Apple. Dis Apple “seek public trust” to get where they are? Did they market their trustworthiness? Or do they instead earn their trust with each well-executed product, each simple service, each box opening? Go look at the last 10 years of Steve Jobs’ presentations. Did he ever talk about trust? No. But he and the company earned it billions of times over.

In the case of social media, public media organizations should ask their employees to be trustworthy, be nice, deal in truth, share the spotlight, and promote — at least some of the time — a better world.

The long list of ethics rules should really be shortened to look like this:

  • Be trustworthy (e.g. think before you post, respect privacy, practice transparency, strive for accuracy and truthfulness, use your “real” voice, be nice, share)
  • Either maintain a healthy congruency between personal and professional behavior or at least recognize that your capacity for maintaining separate personal and private lives is inversely proportional to how public your professional position is
  • Keep in mind your public associations, even fleeting ones, may affect whether others are willing to trust you, so associate carefully for positive and negative returns

And that’s it.

The extra rules in the proposed document are designed for managers of an earlier era. I understand why they’re there. They’re all part of “seeking public trust” through manufactured objectivity and too-earnest striving for legitimacy. Which is a losing game in the long run.

Public media actors should be trustworthy, and let the rest take care of itself.

A response to the big Radio Survivor piece on NPR liberalism

I love how other people’s blog posts can get me going. The latest was the widely-ready Radio Survivor piece called Radio’s Fall – Part Two: NPR’s ‘Liberal’ Identity Crisis and it is an awesome read. Just go read it. I’ll wait.

At the end of the piece I decided I needed to comment, but then I went on and on, so I wanted to bring the comments back over here.

A bit of warning: I’m not in public media anymore, so biting my tongue is not required. To say I’m blunt would be an understatement.

The firing of Juan Williams was years overdue. He hasn’t been a journalist (if he ever was) for decades and has instead been an ass-clown for both NPR and Fox for a very long time. NPR kept him around because he gave the place color, if you will. But he offered no useful insights on anything. Good riddance, no matter the reason, and even if it was deemed a gaffe by the prigs of the PR world. Viva la Schiller for sticking it to Williams and even dancing on his grave a bit. He deserved it.

Sadly, Williams is just the latest in a long line of clowns given air time at NPR.

Mara Liaison, anyone? No insights, no reporting. Sleeping with the enemy. Guilty. Get rid of her.

Though she’s gone now, Cokie Roberts was paid $80k+ for years just to sit at home in her bathrobe and slippies with an ISDN line to chat with the Morning Edition hosts on bullshit Washington topics once a week. No reporting, no insight, just chatter from the wonderful DC cocktail parties she attended. Beltway all the way, baby. And NPR paid for it — happily.

Daniel Schorr (did you hear? he was on Nixon’s enemies list!) was on the air for at least 10 years longer than he should have been, dispensing no-duh commentaries. Bob Edwards was shown the door for some good reasons, but was replaced with comparative children as NPR attempted to spruce up the Morning Edition tent pole with a “lighter sound.” Now they pay Inskeep and company $350k+ each every year to dispense half-hearted, half-the-story news. Oh, and they’ll ship him abroad every so often — like that hack Brian Williams — to make him seem worldly. (It’s not working.)

But NPR is guilty of poor programming choices as well as poor talent choices. The once-compelling and even unpredictable Talk of the Nation — it would dig into an issue for a whole hour, if you can believe it — is now just a compendium of issues that get about as much in-depth coverage as any story on CNN. Barf. I remember when Ray Suarez hosted and he would get audibly pissy with callers that didn’t read the book or made asinine comments. You had to play hard or go home. That show mattered. You might not have liked a day’s topic, but if you did like the topic, man there wasn’t anywhere else you wanted to be.

There’s this notion in programming circles that public media has to serve the broadest possible audience in order to remain relevant or worthy of public funding. Moving from 30 to 50 million listeners is the goal to become more relevant. Too bad numbers don’t give you relevancy, they give you advertising dollars that pay for a lot of corner offices.

I would argue that the goal should never be numbers (dollars or listeners) — it should be well-researched news gathering throughout society and sharing that information the most technically accessible way, not the most demographically palatable way. How many people utilize their community library every week? Every year? Yet we fund them. How many people utilize their local fire department or police every year? Have you visited every public park in your town in the last 5 years? We still pay for all those things. I pay for National Parks I’ve never seen, never will, and so do you.

Being publicly funded means you serve a public service that we, as a society, deem worthy of shared-sacrifice funding, and it’s something that for-profit corporations can’t do, won’t do, or can’t be trusted to do. If NPR (and the public media universe) commits itself to a worthy mission — worthy of public funding — the money will come, the support will be there. There is a deep and abiding need for well-researched and reliable news as the corporate hold on news gathering and dissemination grows ever tighter. There’s even a need for intelligent analysis and commentary, or at least curation of said commentary.

But dumbing everything down and keeping no-talent talents on staff because you’re too scared to dump them is no way to provide a valid public service.

NPR and all public media outlets must double-down on their public service mission, and let the demographic chips fall where they may. We need missionaries, not whores.

One of the smartest people I’ve known in my life worked at NPR for a few years, and another major nonprofit news service before that. Insightful, funny, down-to-earth, deadly serious about journalistic ethics, but not blind to the limitations those ethics can have. I would love to be informed about the world from people like that, in conversational ways and in ways where I knew I could trust the information and the research that went into it. The best people will give you their information and tell you how they got it and what doubts they’ve got about it, too. They’ll also come back and tell you when they were wrong.

NPR and even some of the stations have incredibly smart people there, people that can fulfill my dream of getting news from a friend that I trust. But if I listen to an NPR station today, I don’t get to hear much of those folks. They’re the exception, not the rule.

Radiolab is an exception. Ira Glass’ work is an exception. A few of the journalists can be pretty good. But NPR on the whole has lost me. The stories are thin and thinning. The coverage is blindingly beltway and bland. The “sources” and pundits are the same corporate-funded think tank blabbermouths we’ve heard for years. NPR is getting slicker and dumber by the year.

I know there are smart people there. I know there are people I can trust; people I want to hear from; people that do their homework and know their stories. But it’s looking like the spin doctors and the station mechanics have taken over. On the road to 50 million listeners, educated people will apparently have to settle for less information, less trust, and more corporate-sponsored looking-the-other-way.

So here’s the deal, NPR: If you want to go for 50 million listeners and the advertising dollars that come with that, fine — dumb it down and slick it up. But when Fox News says you should be defunded, I’m not coming to your defense. Because if you’re dumbed down and playing the corporate safety game, you’re not worth funding with tax dollars anyway.

NPR working on fantastic new digital experiences

I’ve loved working in public media, but I gotta say there’s a lot of downtrodden and morose people out there just barely hanging on in this industry as it (and all media) undergoes tremendous changes. At least it’s felt that way to me.

But not at NPR. And good for them! They’re having a good enough time to laugh at themselves and share the jokes with us.

Others might consider this kind of tomfoolery a waste of resources, but based on my past experience in large companies, this kind of video is the mark of a company that’s firing on all cylinders and is being led by someone with a grounded sense of reality (not to mention a sense of humor).

There’s an unstated corporate culture message here: We work hard, we play hard; we enjoy our work and you should, too. I wouldn’t mind hearing — and seeing — that corporate culture at the office.

When you and your team are grounded like this, you’re much more likely to make good business decisions. Sadly, I’ve worked around some people in public media that take themselves way too seriously. For some, the media crisis times we find ourselves in are beyond our control. While no one asked to have their world disrupted, to believe you’re at the mercy of these times is debilitating and will lead, over the coming years to many public media failures.

So try a sense of humor. Work hard and play hard. And enjoy the video. I SAID ENJOY IT.

Note to any NPR web editors: I tried to use your embed code, but it wouldn’t work – the video wouldn’t show. So I’ve had to re-host the source video. If you get the embedding working again, let me know — I’d prefer to use your embed than host the video directly.

NPR CEO on towers, revenue and news collaboration

NPR CEO Vivian Schiller appeared at the All Things D conference this week and made some waves. I know John Sutton noticed something she said and didn’t like it. And I was puzzled by it. But let’s be fair — there were several issues she covered while talking with Kara Swisher. A complete liveblog-style capture is here.

Radio towers gone in 10 years?

The most surprising comment she made was her assessment that the business of distributing audio programming via radio towers would be largely gone in 10 years. Though not a direct quote, here’s the transcript-like version:

Some smaller affiliates weren’t really set up for digital, so we had to provide tools for them so they could be part of the process. Some of this was tools for photos, etc. But fundamentally, helping them deliver audio streams. Radio towers are going away within 10 years, and Internet radio will take its place. This is a huge change and we should embrace it. Mobile will play a big part. [emphasis added]

I’m as big into new media as anyone, but even I was shocked that NPR’s CEO would make such a bold statement. Perhaps it was a heat-of-the-moment kind of thing. I don’t know.

Certainly Internet-delivered audio streaming and audio programming (not to mention, video, text, etc.) is gaining ground on old-school delivery technologies. But a 10-year countdown on radio transmission strikes me as a bit fast. This is a generational change, a slow process. Consider the strikes against this prediction:

  • Audio programming, as practiced by NPR and her affiliates, is still a mass media experience — it’s not personalized or socialized to individuals. “We report, you decide” is the model. For that, mass distribution via radio makes a lot of sense. It’s more efficient for most use-cases in play today (listening during “down times” to and from work, running errands, at the desk, on weekends).
  • Car-based Internet access remains experimental today. Yes, I can take the iPhone in the car, keep it hooked to the Internet and stream audio, playing it back on the car stereo. But that’s still a wonky process only geeks could love. My 70+-year-old mother has an iPhone and loves it. But she’s not listening to radio on it. And certainly not doing that while hooked up in the car.
  • Mobile Internet access, especially at mass quantity, is getting more expensive, not less. AT&T’s repricing moves announced yesterday are part of that trend. Carriers, knowing the incredible capital expenditures required to build out towers, backhaul and more, can price their service in ways that lock out casual users. For those casual users, radio remains a free alternative.

And there’s more. But there are also factors that support Schiller’s contention from the user perspective:

  • New cars are already starting to get live Internet and “sync” capabilities. It’s still rare and a little pricey, but it’s here and it will grow. When your car has a simple media center in it that syncs (downloads podcasts) via WiFi when it sits in your garage or driveway, new possibilities appear.
  • The staggering majority of news is not real-time in nature and does not need live streaming. Therefore, a fast record/deliver model could supplant radio broadcast for almost all NPR programming. What if Morning Edition was delivered to the car very, very fast, and it was ready for you when you turned the key in the ignition for the morning commute? A super-fast podcast may be all you need 99% of the time. Local station? Not needed for transmission. Indeed, a local station would just get in the way.
  • It’s easy to imagine a phone/car ecosystem that will unite the two in consumer-friendly ways. I’m not talking about hands-free speakerphones, but much more. Consider the possibilities when a car with WiFi, Bluetooth, media center and GPS functions unites with a WiFi/Bluetooth/3G smartphone and Internet access that’s both broadband (WiFi at home) and narrowband (3G) in nature. Non-live programming goes broadband. Live programming — when needed, which is rarely — comes in via narrowband on demand.

10 years sounds like a short time. But in the technology world, it’s a near-eternity. Consider what Google looked like 12 years ago (1998):

All in all, you can count me as a skeptic on the “gone in 10 years” idea. But I’m delighted someone in a powerful leadership position is thinking big. To me, the real question is when will we cross the line at which point radio technology investments become a liability rather than an asset?

The Battle Royale of Network vs. Stations

Aside from the user-centric and technology issues are the financial and “power” issues. Be sure to read John Sutton’s post where he starts to look at this. Though Schiller talks about collaboration in the news production and distribution business that includes local stations, those notions remain largely ethereal. Setting aside the Argo Project — it’s both too tiny to demonstrate meaningful results and it’s being done with Bryant Park Project-style largesse that cannot be sustained — what work is NPR preparing to do to bring station leaders along when it comes to mission and revenue? Not much that I can see today.

Because the problem isn’t with NPR. They’ve got the digital talent. They’ve got the lion’s share of reporting capacity. They can aggregate advertisers and listeners at scale. Though they couldn’t stay the same size, they could make it on their own without the stations. The problem is with the stations.

Stations have gotten fat and happy buying NPR stuff (even at highway robbery rates) because the audience loves the content and enough of them give money. Plus advertisers like pubradio demographics. It’s working. TV is struggling to survive while radio is largely doing okay. But stations aren’t doing what Schiller appears to want: significant local reporting that would allow for news collaborations network-wide. For her notions of a news network to work, someone outside NPR has to be producing news content and sharing it. Too many stations have too little capacity (or none at all) in this area. And many stations funded by CPB are music-primary or heavily music-based, taking them further from public service news.

So we’re left with a hinted-at battle between the network and the stations over money, power and mission. Or rather, it’s a re-ignition of an old battle that started when the Internet burst onto the scene 10 years ago. Given that NPR’s Board is largely populated with station management, Schiller could be in for some interesting conversations in the months to come.

All this said, readers should note a portion of the Q&A session from her appearance at D8:

Is there a way to support NPR without supporting the local station?
Schiller: No, not really. The lifeblood of NPR is the local station. You’ll note we always route the membership drives through the local station. However, we do have a philanthropic support through the NPR Foundation, but that’s not for small individual donations.

But the listener can go directly to NPR in the Web model, and doesn’t need to go to the local affiliate. So what’s the local affiliate’s role in the new paradigm?
The fact that so few journalists are covering state and local news is scary. We’re committed to providing that local coverage via the affiliates. “We’ve got to have that local coverage, and NPR can’t do it….To the extent that [local coverage] doesn’t suit your needs, then we have to work together to make it meet your needs.”

News Collaboration and Revenue Streams

While we’re on the subject of Schiller’s comments, be sure to check out this video clip in which she talks about collaborating on news content and on pubradio’s revenue streams:


Personally, I’m enamored of Schiller’s vision for the future, of a true news network in which the far-flung nodes are as active in the news process as the central, and to each his own strengths.

But I think that model, and the business operations required to make it go, look extremely different than what the system looks like today. So different that current station management will likely fight it with all their remaining power.

Because yes, the towers will go (too expensive), the middle management will go (too wasteful) and you’ll be left with journalist-bloggers focused on community news that operate local public service networks and both report and instigate reporting from others. Plus you’ll have some sales people and technical web people. In many communities it won’t look like public radio at all.

We just don’t know how fast all this will happen.

Parting (cannon) shot at WNET

Wow. Just wow.

When WNET’s Sam Toperoff retires, he really retires. Something tells me CEO Shapiro is pissed.

A brief excerpt of Toperoff’s full goodbye letter:

On my commutes to work on the E and F lines and occasionally on the Number 7 train, I’d ask people if they watched PBS. Almost no one does. They said there was very little on the air that spoke to their lives. The New York public is not merely the “Upper” East and West sides. It is these “Others” too, millions of them. And during those rare times we do program for this other New York , we do it embarrassingly, in stilted, patronizing “other” fashion. In spite of my left-wing bona fides and my high falutin’ Doctoral degree, I see our general programming for the wider public as elitist and offensive in the extreme. … But of course, when stations run on very rich people’s and Corporate money, how could it be otherwise? And when the corporation is directed by those very clever and very ambitious fellows whose careers will float them to good places no matter what, what else could we reasonably expect?

Gawker has the complete letter — well worth a read. Beautifully written, despite the dark content.

Two comments from me:

  • I’d bet you real money that if you did a survey of employees at public radio and television stations across the country and got honest and accurate answers, you would find very little public television viewing. At one station I knew well, some employees who worked fervently every day to support public TV didn’t even own a TV themselves. Others just didn’t watch much TV of any kind, and if they did, public TV was a minor component of their viewing. I don’t fully understand why this is, but that’s been my experience to date. (If your experience is different, let me know!)
  • I haven’t had tons of exposure to Boards, but those with which I have had contact have been filled almost exclusively with what I call “Rich White Folk” — generally the political and financial power base of the community. This is a deliberate thing, mind you. It’s intended to increase the fundraising capacity of the organization, both by bringing in well-to-do donors and their friends, and by bringing in corporate dollars those people influence or control. Sadly, it also means “public” views and needs are not well-represented; the ages of the Board members often match or exceed public TV viewing demographics, creating major programming and public service blind spots.

I often wonder what happens next, especially with public TV. Toperoff’s letter portends a difficult future. Two questions:

  1. Does Toperoff’s experience sound familiar or alien to you?
  2. If leadership is lacking, how do we fix this situation?

Digital media reaches a 'tipping point'

Digital media consumption has reached a tipping point; more average consumers are discovering all sorts of cool ways to get their media fix. And with radio’s final bastion – the car – quickly being penetrated by Internet radio and devices that make it easy to consume, traditional radio could have an uphill battle in 2011.

Bridge Ratings will soon publish its revenue projections for 2011 and the forecast is not as rosy as 2010.

2009 revenue was down 18%.

2010 traditional radio revenue will be up 4%.

2011 revenue will be down 2%.

via Navigate the Future

I just bought a new car stereo a few months ago. I can hook up an iPod or iPhone no problem. Or any kind of USB memory device with audio on it. HD Radio was an expensive add-on option. Satellite radio was as well (not to mention the subscription fee).

So far, wireless data plans for cars or other non-phone mobile use still relatively rare, expensive and don’t really travel all that well due to variable coverage.

But give it 5 years. I’ll buy a new media and data center for the car by then, I’m sure of it.

Closed vs. Open: Why public media struggles with new media

Public broadcasting has always had trouble engaging in the new media world. Now NYU professor Jay Rosen has come up with an explanation that sheds light on media culture problems I’ve seen and experienced.

In a talk at the World Bank earlier this month, he offered “Rosen’s New Media Maxims,” a set of four rules or observations about the media world in which we now live. And the second maxim was particularly illuminating for me:

Open systems don’t work like closed systems; if you expect them to you’ll get nothing but misery and failure

In the case of public media, the “closed” system represents the old way of doing things: broadcasting from a single control point to a passive mass audience and allowing for virtually no feedback or participation. Or when there is a feedback channel, it’s narrow and tightly controlled. While there are regulatory reasons for controlling broadcast signals in this way, the notion of “we broadcast and you watch” pretty much permeates the culture I’ve experienced.

Online media function differently, however, because by their very nature, they’re two-way or multi-way systems. Top-down still works online, but that misses the point and the power of a networked media system. In an online world, media and conversations flow top to bottom, left to right and back again.

In moving online, most of the stations I’ve seen have done so either in a broadcast fashion or they’ve done tiny projects off to the side that don’t threaten the old system (and consequently can’t lead the company in a new direction). In many ways this makes sense — the money is still coming from broadcast-based memberships and advertising, plus the CPB is, well… the CPB and can’t put too much effort toward non-broadcast service.

Given the sturm and drang I’ve watched (and participated in) Rosen’s open/closed maxim stood out as exceptionally true. In this video excerpt, he makes a full explanation then goes into a lengthy answer to an audience question of how to bring openness to a company that’s always been closed:


Philosophical Differences

So it’s not a technological difference. It’s not a financial difference. Fundamentally, closed and open systems are philosophically different, possibly opposed. One embraces community, drawing in participation and “hosting” conversation and engagement. The other treats the public as a media receiver. Sure, there are some middle grounds here, but this is a big difference that has powered, silently, a lot of conversations in which I’ve participated, without realizing it.

No wonder we struggle with this. No wonder there’s both dismissal of the new as irrelevant to the mission and nevertheless pitched battles over who will control the social network engagements, who gets or shares in the online revenue, and how and when content will or won’t appear online. We’ve been experiencing the “misery and failure” of a closed system trying to adopt an open one, not understanding why it’s not working.

Rosen’s New Media Maxims

In addition to the open vs. closed systems maxim, there are three more Rosen rules, all in this extended excerpt from his talk at the World Bank. Recommended viewing.


The complete talk (more than 1 hour including audience Q&A) is available via YouTube here.

When a PBS journalist attacks

NOTE: Updates added at the bottom of the post.

Late last week the host of a major PBS program took aim, in a pseudo-blog-post, at NYU journalism professor and innovator Jay Rosen because Rosen said he didn’t like that hosts’s program — a weekly talking-heads affair based out of Washington, DC.

I won’t link to the host or their complaint here because they didn’t bother to link to Rosen’s original piece in the Washington Post or his blog or his fascinating Twitter feed. And that host was deliberately ignorant of Rosen’s work, failing to do a shred of research. They didn’t even watch a video of Rosen appearing on PBS a little over a year ago.

But I will link to that insightful Jay Rosen appearance on PBS — with the now-retired Bill Moyers — in which he specifically critiqued the problem of Washington insider journalism, including the many insiders that appear on the outraged host’s program every week (I would have embedded the video here, but the video isn’t embeddable without stealing it). I encourage you to watch, despite the length, because Rosen shares a highly nuanced view of Washington journalists, politicians and their mutual interest in preserving status quo power.

In the reaction to Rosen’s appeal to put this particular insider show out to pasture, the host’s post (yeah, I know this is tedious, but I’m making a point) never referred to Rosen by name, never linked to anything he’s done, including the source article that ticked off the host in the first place, never addressed Rosen’s concerns and in fact reinforced his long-standing critique of beltway insider gamesmanship.

Only calling Rosen “the NYU professor” and failing to link to the source piece is an intentional slap in the face from an elder in what Rosen calls the “Church of the Savvy.” Dismissing his argument simply reinforces his point: that this program, the host and its guests are beltway insiders talking shop rather than helping the public hold politicians to account in meaningful, public-service ways. The host’s total mischaracterization of Rosen’s arguments also proves the prediction that beltway insiders reflexively dismiss outsiders, thus retaining their positions.

I defend anybody’s right to comment on the news of the day – whether it is Chris Matthews or Bill O’Reilly or Larry King or Jon Stewart. I even defend the NYU professor, however misguided he might be.

<sarcasm>How generous of you. Thank God you’re standing up for Jay Rosen’s free speech rights! And you know, you’re right… Bill O’Reilly and Jay Rosen are cut from the same cloth, aren’t they?</sarcasm>

In effect, the host played directly into Rosen’s analysis. But worse, the show’s audience has been denied a serious discussion about the mission of such programs. There may be valid reasons for having an insider show, perhaps as part of a larger programming strategy, but the claim that the show “saves marriages” (I’m not making that up — that’s in the reaction post) is utterly unserious and demonstrates the intense contempt this insider has for meaningful media criticism from a serious and even credentialed source.

What to do?

Look, I’m not on the “cancel this show” bandwagon. It makes viewers happy, which helps bring in the bucks. And for a talking head show, it’s a considerable step above what you get on cable channels. But the demonization of Rosen is breathtakingly ignorant and/or deliberately dismissive at a level unbecoming of a PBS-sanctioned “journalism” host.

I don’t think an apology is in order. I think the next show should have Rosen on as a guest. If you’re not a guardian of the Church of the Savvy, you’ve got nothing to fear. Bill Moyers didn’t shy away from this issue, why should you? And hey — this could be the equivalent of Jon Stewart appearing on CNN’s Crossfire.

Be More: Resourceful

[1] Here’s a brief example (video) of how “savviness” cuts off legitimate debate in the professional press:


[2] And here’s a little more on what savviness is, directly from Jay Rosen.

[3] Meanwhile, if you like talking head shows examining national politics, forget the snoozy Friday evening PBS fare and go for something more entertaining and at least a little further outside the beltway. I highly recommend Slate’s Political Gabfest (also entertaining on Facebook), which has only 1 beltway insider (who also has appeared on the aggrieved host’s show). If you must stick to public media sources, go for Left, Right and Center, which has insiders, but at least it’s from California.

[4] And about linking… Why didn’t the host link to Rosen’s original piece at the Washington Post? Because the host was obeying old-media rules, in addition to being dismissive. Rosen explains the rules in this discussion of outbound linking:


[5] And if you’ve never seen it, here’s the Jon Stewart appearance on Crossfire that pretty much ended the show. It exposed this extreme Church-of-the-Savvy example for what it was:


UPDATE 1: There’s another great Jay Rosen piece, in which he refers to the unnamed PBS program: Audience Atomization Overcome: Why the Internet Weakens the Authority of the Press. And in this piece, he goes on to explain some concepts about how the mainstream press — especially the insiders — defines what ate and aren’t legitimate news and discussion points for consideration in public life.

UPDATE 2: One of my favorite firebrands, Michael Rosenblum, took our subject to task in a seething post that posits our dear host as a member of a doomed noble class.

How to fix Twitter's trending topics? Curation

So the web was abuzz yesterday over some articles focused on Twitter’s “trending topics” feature, in which the most popular words, phrases, hashtags and such are automatically listed in your sidebar, showing you what’s getting the most chatter on the service in near-real-time. In this case, the “trending blog post” was this one: Why Twitter Needs to Do More to Save Trending Topics.

The article goes into what trending topics are and how they’ve been heavily gamed in the past (and present) to get certain topics bubbled up to the top of the list. The writer, Adam Ostrow, also suggests some options of what Twitter could do to fix the situation, namely:

  • Make the topics less obvious throughout Twitter, so you don’t see the silliness
  • Automatically hide hashtags (the stuff with the # symbol at the start of a unique word or phrase)
  • Increase the size of the topics list to perhaps 50 or 100 items to expose more intelligent stuff

These are not solutions to the core problem.

The core problem is what Ostrow points to at the end of the article:

…as a company that’s stated goal is to “[ask] what’s happening and [make] the answer spread across the globe to millions” and has the power to shape public discourse, Twitter needs to do more to balance what its diverse set of users want with what it should see as a responsibility to be a comprehensive guide to what the world’s talking about.

Ostrow, however, points out in the paragraph before this one that editors should not have a hand in shaping the trending list — it should be an expression solely of the users, as calculated by algorithm, and that’s what makes Twitter (and other services) unique.

You sure about that?

Because here’s the list from late Monday night, with my own explanations…

  • Jick Nonas — a play on Nick Jonas, the teen singer
  • #thatswhyyoursingle — a viral joke-telling thing in which that’s the punchline
  • #pleaseexcusemy — another viral humor thing
  • #stoptalkingabout — yet another viral item, not so funny
  • Craig Sager — sportscaster at the Lakers / Suns game tonight
  • Mbenga — basketball player in the Lakers / Suns game tonight
  • Lakers won — outcome of the Lakers / Suns game tonight
  • Cerati — Argentinian singer that had a stroke
  • Game One — tonight’s big Lakers / Suns basketball game was the first in a series
  • Grant Hill — basketball player injured by Kobe Bryant tonight

Of these 10 items…

  • 40% are nonsensical wordplay games that may be fun, but aren’t particularly insightful as to what is being discussed on Twitter
  • 10% are about an injured popular singer
  • 50% are about the Lakers / Suns basketball game (and wouldn’t it be better to have 1 entry for everything related to the game? A sort of trending topic cluster?

A modest proposal: Editors

Trending topics lists today are sometimes interesting, but mostly useless because they get clogged with these nonsense games and deliberate attempts to reshape the topics or traffic around them. There’s limited newsworthiness or discussion dynamics. We need an edited list, crafted through a combination of algorithm and human review.

Twitter can continue to share a raw trending topics algorithmic listing for the public. That’s fine. It’s sort of mathematically interesting. But we also need an edited list, in which the trending topics raw numbers are passed through a human filter and lightly organized.

Using the list above, you’d get a cluster of Lakers / Suns basketball and the Argentinian singer, each with a corresponding list of tags or words that seem to be closely related. But then the editor would delve deeper into the data, exposing more human conversation and topical interest amidst the sea of “gamed” tweets.

The result? A rapidly-updated (though not real-time) listing of what people are discussing online, presented in a way that makes sense and shows the meaning behind the tweets (where possible).

How to do it

  • Hire editors/curators to maintain the service 24×7 in English (maybe other languages later)
  • Editors update the trending topics using the top 250 items out of the algorithm
  • Those topics are narrowed to perhaps 25 items, which includes very popular singular terms or clusters of related terms taken from the prior 15-minute interval
  • Each topic listed is a clickable link
  • A clicked topic link goes to a short-lived topic page in which the highest topic name and all related topics are listed and the most recent tweets are also shown
  • This topic page can include advertising that’s relevant to the keywords or topic involved
  • Topic listings are repeatedly updated every 15 minutes

You could also get fancier, with more sophisticated algorithms, a broad crowdsourcing process for topic analysis and aggregation and so forth. The advertising could pay for the editor costs and then some.


I know engineers want to code artificial intelligence into all the systems out there to make them scalable, but sometimes that just doesn’t get the job done.

Today, I ignore the trending topics because they’re useless and sometimes even offensive. But a well-curated / well-edited trending topics list would be fascinating. Twitter could make money from the listings, of course, and the service would be more relevant to more people more of the time.

Twitter: you can keep the raw numbers, but we need a useful listing of what everyone’s talking about.

Shales on 'Need to Know': Blech!

A couple days ago TV critic Tom Shales participated in an online chat with Washington Post readers in which he bantered about the Betty White appearance on Saturday Night Live last week and other topics. In the mix he took a few questions about the new PBS program Need to Know (produced by WNET), including this one:

…what does Need to Know need to fix?

Tom Shales: A whole new mindset. It’s just HORRIBLE. First the ridiculous idea that you’re very au courant if you somehow incorporate the internet in your show — oh please — and then that “incorporation of the internet” turns out to be not much more than EVERY SINGLE OTHER SHOW ON TELEVISION DOES, which means set up a stupid web site that hardly ever changes and paste some leftover junk on it. …

And if you think this comment is nasty, check out the full review Shales published in the Post this week, including this little gem:

PBS promises that this dreadful “Need to Know” show, which supplements vacuous televised drivel with fancily designed Web-page graphics, “empowers audiences to ‘tune in’ any time and any where.”

Meaning that you are free to supplement inadequate broadcast material with unsatisfying Internet material whenever you inexplicably get the urge.

Shales offers a decidedly harsh assessment. But I watched the first episode and had a similar — though less violent — reaction: it’s dreck.

But I’ll do what Shales didn’t: I’ll answer the question of “what do they need to change?”

Don’t Fake Me Out with the Web

The show was hyped as a web/TV hybrid, but it isn’t that at all. If the audience is getting an “open kimono” view of the production process, I can’t see it. Viewer participation in the editorial process is also nonexistent. NPR’s failed Bryant Park Project had more participation than this — and that was 3 years ago.

Sadly, to fix the show they’ll have to scrap it and start over. If the web is supposed to be a core part of the service, start there, not in the studio. Build a news service on the web, draw in the audience, feed smaller elements over to the NewsHour for exposure and find your editorial voice and rhythm. Don’t produce a TV show until this is working well. Otherwise you’re lying about the role the web plays in the production.

Do New TV

The most cringe-inducing parts of the show were when they copied commercial news conventions, whether with graphics or camera angles or the two-way interview shots of the nodding correspondent. If I didn’t know better, I’d have thought this was a Dateline parody at times.

Good God people, TV news is a plague upon the earth! DO NOT COPY THAT MODEL. If it looks and smells like commercial TV news, you’ve failed.

Get New Hosts

I know Alison Stewart has done some journalism along the way (even winning a Peabody), but I’m sorry… MTV News on the resume? That should be a disqualifier for serious news work in public media. I just can’t take her seriously, whether she asks “dorky” questions about GPS or not. But mostly she needs to go because she was hired as a mini-celebrity.

And Jon Meacham? He’s a passable stuffed shirt straight man when Jon Stewart is verbally goosing him on the Daily Show, but on this show he seemed incredibly stiff and “serious.” The false gravitas was annoying on a level almost equal to James Earl Jones saying, “This is CNN.” Sometimes I thought he was looking into the camera as if to say, “Get me out of here — I have a magazine to buy!

Get hosts that are virtual unknowns, just like the NewsHour did with their online and rundown host Hari Sreenivasan. Focus on the content, not the face. Start with the web to produce news. Start with real journalists to create the face of the program for TV. I know: corporate funders want big names attached to their dollars. But who are you serving here?

And We Pay for This?

Last but not least, if you haven’t read it already, videojournalist gadfly Michael Rosenblum addressed this new program back in March when he got wind of the project. He got several facts wrong, most notably the program length (1 hour instead of 30 minutes) and the fact that staff weren’t hired to work on the show until March or April of this year, but his rant is well worth it for entertainment alone:

The rent on Need to Know’s Lincoln Center studio is $1 million a year. The show’s annual budget is more than $10 million, according to sources.

Are you kidding me?

Are you all on drugs over there at WNET/13?

One Million Dollars a year… for rent? (and to yourselves!)

One Million Dollars a year for a studio from which you are going to produce one half-hour once a week!

And another (gulp!!!) Nine Million Dollars for some lousy website!

Are you all insane?

I don’t wanna make too big a point of this, but we over here produce 3 half-hour local news shows a day (for cable), and we do it 5 days a week for 52 weeks a year, and our TOTAL costs are a tiny fraction of your budget for one half hour once a week.

WNET’s CEO Neal Shapiro then replied on the blog and refuted several errors. But he didn’t rebut the core of Rosenblum’s idea: that $10 million a year for this kind of show is an insane amount of money. Shapiro points out it’s cheaper than network alternatives, but in a later reply Rosenblum makes this proposal:

Suppose we hired 25 of the very best journalists we could find in the country. Suppose we salaried them at $100,000 a year. I think they would like that. Now, we have spent $2.5 million. If we’re going to produce 52 hours a year, and each of them has to make 8 pieces a year (I think this is reasonable, no?). So, we have 200 pieces over our 52 hours or 4 pieces per hour. With me so far?

Lets give them video cameras and laptops and some travel budget. And they can work in a transparent way – on the web, so with wikis and citizen journalists and such, there can be lots of ‘curating’ and contributions to their stories. We can assemble this anywhere really. And we can do it live. Let’s rent a radio studio from NPR and simulcast the show or rent a studio from WNYC in NY. that’s the easy part. Or we can pre-tape the whole thing from my living room. I will rent it out for a lot less than a million a year. Is this do-able? Oh, I think so.

Would we get a great product? Oh, I think so. Let’s put the money in the journalism and not in the carpeting on the walls (which was my favorite feature at the old Hudson Hotel WNET). You don’t need offices any more. Or carpeting. Or receptionists. Or chyron people. Or camera crews. Put the money into the journalism and I will gladly open my checkbook and give all the support I can.

Next Wave TV News

We all know that local public TV stations across the country have basically no news capacity. Their relevance and impact is dwindling. But take on the Rosenblum approach and you’ll get something that looks and functions in new ways. And all for a bargain price compared to traditional TV.

The key for TV news success, to me, is to destroy most of the commercial TV conventions. Make sure the news product looks, feels, sounds and functions differently than commercial TV. Make sure everything starts on the web and lives there 95% of the time. Only go to the big screen as a wrap-up of the week or with stuff that just doesn’t function well on the web.

Imagine a team of 10 VJs hitting the streets to make video for the web and for broadcast each day. Imagine the results: new kinds and styles of stories. Topics covered that would never make it in traditional broadcast. No more ambulance, police and fire chasing. No more vacuous news anchors. Local stories told well and gathered at a rate and with a quality that’s unprecedented.

Need to Know could have led this revolution. It’s incredibly disappointing they didn’t.