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I’ll be on a webinar this morning talking with folks about The Intention Economy and the Rise in Customer Power. That link goes to my recent post about it on the blog of Modria, the VRM company hosting the event.
It’s at 9:30am Pacific time. Read more about it and register to attend here. There it also says “As a bonus, all registered attendees will receive a free copy of Doc’s latest book, The Intention Economy: How Customers Are Taking Charge in either printed or Kindle format.”
See/hear you there/then.
Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.
— Mahatma Gandhi
I’m not sure if Gandhi actually said that. Somebody did. My best human chance of finding who said it — or at least of gaining a learned enlargement on the lesson — would have been David Sallis. “Big Davy” didn’t know everything, but he came closer than anybody else I know, and he was a living exemplar of Gandhi’s advice.
Davy’s answer would have been knowing, clever and enlarged by a joke, a wild story or both. Alas, I can’t ask him, because he died last Friday of a stroke he suffered a few days earlier. He was just 56, and is survived by his wife Margaret and daughter Rosie —
— both of whom he adored absolutely — and by countless friends and colleagues who remain shocked and saddened by his passing.
I caught a telling example of how much Davy knew when he was visiting in Santa Barbara for the first time a couple years ago, and we took a long walk downtown. Observing the distinctive typeface of the city’s street signs, he described in depth its origin and design elements. I don’t remember what he said, except that the typeface, like the town, was of regional Spanish provenance. Now when I look online, all I can find about the typeface is that it’s called “Mission,” and lives in no standard font library. Whether or not Davy knew more than the rest of the world on the subject, it was totally in character that he might.
Davy didn’t like it when I told other people he was a maths genius. A stickler for accuracy, he said he was taught by some real ones, at Imperial College and elsewhere. But while he might not have been their equal, he was wickedly smart on the topic. One evening I saw that demonstrated at a bar in Silicon Valley. Davy was sitting at a table with another maths whiz, talking about how to solve some particularly vexing problem. Pausing in the midst of the conversation, Davy folded a napkin several ways at various angles and pushed it across the table to the other guy, who said “That’s it!” and looked back at Davy in amazement. Davy returned a look of agreement with one raised eyebrow and a wry smile. It was an expression that at once said both that he had won and this was all in fun — and “Isn’t it great that we’re both learning something here?” Here’s a photo I shot of the scene:
Davy was also a lover and player of music. Here he is on a guitar he brought to our house on a visit:
Davy’s tastes were wildly eclectic and refined. That guitar is an Erlewine headless Lazer — the same one played by Johnny Winter. At the time it was on its way to joining Davy’s extensive collection of vintage saxophones and guitars of every kind, any of which he might pick up and wail away on at a moment’s notice. He could hold forth on Bach and punk with equal authority, and had forgotten more about Frank Zappa than all but a few will ever know. Here he is with our friend Robert Spensley (another fabulous musician), in their Zappa shirts:
Davy became instant friends with my wife and I when we met in London in May 2013, at a lunch with a handful of colleagues at Visa Europe, which employed his consulting services for many years. It was Davy who brought VRM (subject of my work with the Berkman Center) to the company’s attention, and who had been the main instigator of the gathering.
Suspecting that we might be among the few who would know a world-changing business and technical hack when we saw one, he shared with us plans for Qredo, an architecture for sending and sharing data securely and privately between parties who could also, if they chose, connect anonymously — and then selectively disclose more information as purposes required. Qredo eventually became a startup, and I served through its formative months on the company board, visiting often to Richmond, Davy’s beloved home town. Here he is, describing how Qredo fit into some VRM contexts :
Yet what I love and remember best about Davy was how much fun he was as a companion — at work on Qredo, in conversation at pubs and in other convivial settings, on walks in Richmond and around London, and over countless meals in places both fun and fine. To all those occasions Davy brought the most irrepressible inner child I have ever known in an adult human being. Here is a small collection of shots that show our boy at work and play:
Since he left I haven’t gone ten minutes without lamenting how much his absence lessens the world. The one solace I find is knowing how much larger he made the world when he was with us.
For those able to attend, a ceremony and burial will be held on Monday, 30 November, 11 AM at Richmond Cemetery.
Let’s reset our thinking to what a user’s expectations are, when operating a browser and interacting with pages and sites.
In my browser, when I visit a page, I am requesting that page. I am not requesting stuff other than that page itself. This is what the hypertext protocol (http) provides.
(Protocols are ritualized manners, like handshakes, bows and smiles. They also scaffold the social contract.)
Likewise, when I visit a site (such as a seller) with a service on the Web, I am not requesting stuff other than what that site presents to me in text and graphics.
So, for example, when I go to some-publisher.com, I expect the browser to display that page and its links, and nothing more. And when I go to seller.com, I expect the browser to display the index page of the site — and, if I have some kind of relationship with that site, recognition that I’m a returning visitor or customer.
In neither of those cases do I expect tracking files, other than those required to remember state, which was the original purpose of Lou Montouli’s magic cookie, way back in ’94. Now known as just “the cookie,” it is in ubiquitous use today. In Lou’s detailed history of that creation he writes, “The goal was to create a session identifier and general ‘memory’ mechanism for websites that didn’t allow for cross site tracking.”
Now let’s look at how we read a newspaper or a magazine here in the physical world. This time I’ll use my sister as an example of a typical reader. She’s a retired Commander in the U.S. Navy, and organized in the way she interacts with what we generally call “content.”
When a newspaper arrives, she “field strips” it. If it’s the Sunday paper, she pulls out all the advertising inserts and either throws them away or sets them aside, depending on whether or not they contain coupons that might interest her. Then she strips out sections that don’t interest her. The Travel section might go on one Sunday, the Sports section on another.
Then, when she reads the paper, she ignores most of the ads. One exception might be the magazine section, which tends to contain full-page brand ads by companies like Apple and Toyota. Those she might notice and like at some level. It all depends
My point is that she consciously blocks some ads and allows some others, some of which she pays attention to, but most of which she does not.
This kind of interaction is what the user expects the hypertext protocol (http) and good manners on the part of websites and services will provide. Websites that spy on users outside of their own domains (or use third parties to do the same) break the social contract when they do that. It’s that simple.
Yes, cases can be made for innocent forms of tracking, such as anonymized data gathering for analytics that improve what websites do. But they should be opt-in for users, not opt-out. Alas, that kind of tracking is a baby in the blocking bathwater. (The EFF’s Privacy Badger blocks many of these by default, and provides sliders for degrees of opting in or out of them.)
How did we get from the online world Lou Montouli sought to improve in ’94 and the one we have today? Check the metaphors for what we had and what we’ve lost.
Back in the mid-’90s we called the browser our car on the “information superhighway.” Cars, like clothing and shelter, are privacy technologies. They give us ways of operating in the world that conceal our most private spaces — ones where others are not welcome, except by invititation.
But, thanks to Zuboff’s Laws, our browsers became infected with spyware. Here is what those laws say:
- Everything that can be automated will be automated.
- Everything that can be informated will be informated.
- Every digital application that can be used for surveillance and control will be used for surveillance and control.
Sure, some of adtech’s surveillance is meant to give us a “better advertising experience” or whatever. Buy that’s beside the main point: it breaks the social contract in both the letter and the spirit of hypertext protocol. It gives us what none of us asked for and what most of us don’t want.
A few years ago, we tried to send a message to publishers and advertisers with Do Not Track, but it was fought, mocked and ignored by those to whom it spoke.
Fortunately, browsers support add-ons and extensions, so we took actions that can’t be ignored, by installing ad and tracking blockers. In doing so we acted as free and independent agents, just as we do in the everyday world with our clothing, our shelter and our cars.
What we need next are ways for us to engage constructively with publishers, in alignment with well-understood social contracts long established in the everyday world, and embodied in the hypertext protocol.
Engagement will also give us scale. As I explain in A Way to Peace in the Adblock War,
Some on the advertising side want to engage, and not to fight. In Dear Adblocking community, we need to talk, Chris Pedigo of Digital Content Next recognizes the legitimacy of ad blocking in response to bad acting by his industry, and outlines some good stuff they can do.
But they also need to see that it’s no longer up to just them. It’s up to us: the individual targets of advertising.
The only way engagement will work is through tools that are ours, and we control: tools that give us scale — like a handshake gives us scale. What engages us with the Washington Post should also engage us with Verge and Huffpo. What engages us with Mercedes should also engage us with a Ford dealer or a shoe store.
If we leave fixing things up to publishers and the adtech industry, all of us will be given different prosthetic hands, each of which will interact in different ways that are not of our choosing and give us no scale. In fact that is what we already get with the DAA’s Ad Choices and Ghostery’s massive opt-out list. We see how well that worked.
The road to personal independence and engagement scale is a long one.
In The Cluetrain Manifesto, we said,
we are not seats or eyeballs or end users or consumers. we are human beings and our reach exceeds your grasp. deal with it.
Except in 1999, when we wrote that, we didn’t yet have the reach. We just knew we would, sooner or later, as a native entitlement of the Net.
In The Data Bubble, I said,
The tide turned today. Mark it: 31 July 2010.
That’s when The Wall Street Journal published The Web’s Gold Mine: Your Secrets, subtitled A Journal investigation finds that one of the fastest-growing businesses on the Internet is the business of spying on consumers. First in a series. It has ten links to other sections of today’s report.
In fact it the tide didn’t turn, because we didn’t yet have the tools to turn it. The Journal’s series, titled “What They Know,” is still at http://wsj.com/wtk. The last entry is in 2013. They should fire it up again.
Because now, in late 2015, we have the first of those tools, with ad and tracking blockers.
But we have to do better. And by “we” I mean us human beings — and the developers working on our side for the good of everybody.
Note: This is the sixth post in a series covering online advertising, starting on 12 August. Here are the first five:
What I’ve always loved most about the Web† is how it allows each of us to publish on our own, as individuals, for the whole world. I started doing that as soon as I could get a dial-up account with a nearby ISP (the late Batnet of Palo Alto) in 1995.
Here is one of my first pieces, published in Reality 2.0, a directory within my self-hosted Searls.com site. I’m resurrecting it here because it does a good job of explaining how easy it is to automate journalism by framing a story in terms of war or sports (and tees up some future posts). So here ya go, copied from HTML 1 and morphed on pasting by WordPress into HTML 4:
MICROSOFT + NETSCAPE
WHY THE PRESS NEEDS TO SNAP OUT OF ITS WAR-COVERAGE TRANCE
By Doc Searls
December 11, 1995
- Web Wars?
- What are the facts?
- Let’s give a big AND to the Web
- So, what IS Microsoft doing?
- How to win users and influence developers
- A new breed of life
Am I wrong here, or has the Web turned into a Star Wars movie?
I learn from the papers that the desktop world has fallen under the iron grip of the most wealthy and powerful warlord in the galaxy. With a boundless greed for money and control, Bill Gates of Microsoft now seeks to extend his evil empire across all of cyberspace.
The galaxy’s only hope is a small but popular rebel force called Netscape. Led by a young pilot (Marc Andreesen as Luke Skywalker), a noble elder (Jim Clark as Obi-wan Kanobe) and a cocky veteran (Jim Barksdale as Han Solo), Netscape’s mission is joined by the crafty and resourceful Java People from Sun.
Heavy with portent, the headlines tromp across the pages (cue the Death Star music — dum dum dum, dum da dum, dum da dummm)…
- “MICROSOFT TAKES WAR TO THE NET: Software giant plots defensive course based on openness”
- “MICROSOFT UNVEILS INTERNET STRATEGY: Stage set for battle with Netscape.”
- “MICROSOFT, SUN FACE OFF IN INTERNET RING”
- “MICROSOFT STORMS THE WEB”
The mind’s eye conjures a vision of The Emperor, deep in the half-built Death Star of Microsoft’s new Internet Strategy, looking across space at the Rebel fleet, his face twisted with contempt. “Your puny forces cannot win against this fully operational battle station!” he growls.
But the rebels are confident. “In a fight between a bear and an alligator, what determines the victor is the terrain,” Marc Andreessen says. “What Microsoft just did was move into our terrain.”
And Microsoft knows its strengths. December 7th, The Wall Street Journal writes, Bill Gates “issued a thinly veiled warning to Netscape and other upstarts that included a reference to the Pearl Harbor attack on the same date in 1941.”
Exciting stuff. But is there really a war going on? Should there be?
After reading all these alarming headlines, I decided to fire up my own copy of Netscape Navigator and search out a transcript of Bill’s December 7th speech.
I started at Microsoft’s own site, but got an “access forbidden” message. Then I went up to the internet level of the site’s directory, but found the Netscape view was impaired. (“Best viewed with Microsoft Explorer,” it said.) I finally found a Netscape-friendly copy at Dave Winer’s site. It appears to be the original, verbatim:*
MR. GATES: Well, good morning. I was realizing this morning that December 7th is kind of a famous day. (Laughter.) Fifty-four years ago or something. And I was trying to think if there were any parallels to what was going on here. And I really couldn’t come up with any. The only connection I could think of at all was that probably the most intelligent comment that was made on that day wasn’t made on Wall Street, or even by any type of that analyst; it was actually Admiral Yamomoto, who observed that he feared they had awakened a sleeping giant. (Laughter.)
I see. The “veiled threat” was Bill’s opening laugh line. Even if this was “a veiled threat,” it was made in good humor. The rest of the talk hardly seemed hostile. Instead, Bill showed a substantial understanding of how both competition and cooperation work to build markets, and of the roles played by users, developers, leaders and followers in creating the Internet. In his final sentence, Bill says, “We believe that integration and continuity are going to be valuable to end users and developers…”
Of course, I wish he’d pay a little more attention to Macintosh users and developers, but I don’t blame him for avoiding them. I blame Apple, which dissed and sued Microsoft for years, to no positive effect. Apple played a zero-sum game and — sure enough — ended up with zero. Brilliant strategy.
Think how much farther along we would be today if this relationship was still Apple plus Microsoft, rather than Apple vs. Microsoft.
The truth is that the Web will be better served by Microsoft plus Netscape than by Microsoft vs. Netscape. Plus is what most of us want, and it’s probably what we’ll get, regardless of how the press plays the story.
So what is the best way to characterize Microsoft, if not as the Heaviest of Heavies?
I think Release 1.0‘s Jerry Michalski gets closest to it when he says: “Microsoft thinks more broadly than any other company about what it’s doing. Its plans include global telecommunications, information creation, applications — even community building.” That tells us a lot more than “Microsoft goes to war.”
Markets are more than battlefields. The OR logic of war and sports get us excited, but tells us little of real substance. For that we also need the AND logic of cooperation, choice, partnership and working together. What we all want most — love — is hardly an OR proposition. Imagine a lover saying “there’s only room in this relationship for one of us, baby.”
But the press is caught in an OR trance. Blind to the AND logic that gives markets their full color, the press reduces every hot story to the black vs. white metaphors of war and sports. Why cover the Web as the strange, unprecedented place it is, when you can play it as yet another story about two guys trying to beat the crap out of each other? Especially when the antagonists are little good guy and a big bad guy?
Look, the Internet didn’t take off because Netscape showed up; and it wasn’t slowed down because Microsoft didn’t. It took off because millions of people added their creative energies to something that welcomed them — which was mostly each other. Death-fight competition didn’t make the Web we know now, and it won’t make the Web that’s coming, either.
That’s because every site on the Web is AND logic at work. So is every vendor/developer relationship that ever produced a product or created a market. So is the near-infinite P/E ratio Netscape enjoys today.
“Embrace and extend,” Bill Gates called it in his December 7 talk. That’s what he said Microsoft will do with products from Oracle, Spyglass, Compuserve and Sun. Is this an AND strategy? Or is it yet an other example of what Gary Reback, Judge Sporkin and other Microsoft enemies call a “lock and leverage” strategy, intended to drive out competition and let Microsoft charge tolls to every traveler on the Information Highway?
It should be clear by now that the Web does not welcome OR strategies. Microsoft Network was an OR strategy, and it didn’t work. If history repeats itself (as it usually does with Microsoft), the company will learn from this experience (as Apple learned earlier from its eWorld failure) and move on to do the Right Thing.
Not that most of the press would notice. To them Microsoft is The Empire and Bill is its gold-armored emperor. But reporters are the ones putting clothes on this emperor. To the people who make Microsoft’s markets — the users and developers — “billg” is as naked as a newborn.
Take away the war-front headlines, the play-by-play reporting, the color commentary by industry analysts, the infatuation with personal wealth — and you see Bill as an extremely competitive guy who’s also trying to do right by users and developers. And hiding little in the process. Is he a bully? Sometimes. Is this bad? No, it’s typical of big companies since the dawn of business. It looks to me more like a personality trait than a business strategy. And what makes Microsoft win is far more strategic than personal.
George Gilder puts it this way in Forbes ASAP (“Angst & Awe on the Internet“):
Blinded by the robber-baron image assigned in U.S. history courses to the heroic builders of American capitalism, many critics see Bill Gates as a menacing monopolist. They mistake for greed the gargantuan tenacity of Microsoft as it struggles to assure the compatibility of its standard with tens of thousands of applications and peripherals over generations of dynamically changing technology.
How does Bill express that tenacity? As Dave Winer puts it in “The Platform is a Chinese Household,” Bill “sends flowers.” Bill courts developers and delivers for customers, who return the favor by buying Microsoft products.
Markets are conversations, and there isn’t a more willing conversational participant than Bill. That’s why I’m not surprised when Dave says “the only big company that’s responsive to my needs is Microsoft.” And Dave, by the way, is a pillar of the Macintosh community. To my knowledge, he hasn’t developed a DOS-compatible product since the original ThinkTank.
Users and developers don’t need to hear vendors talk about how much their competition sucks. No good ever comes of it. Is it just coincidence that Microsoft almost never bad-mouths its competition? Though Bill is hardly innocent of the occasional raspberry, he’s a long way from matching the nasty remarks made about him and his company by leaders at Sun, Apple, Netscape and Novell, just to name an obvious few.
It especially saddens me to hear competition-bashing from Guy Kawasaki, whose positive energies Apple desperately needs right now. As a customer and user of both Apple and Microsoft products, I see Guy’s “how to drive your competition crazy” rap as OR logic at its antiproductive worst.
At the opposite end of the diplomacy scale, I like the way Gordon Eubanks of Symantec has consistently been fair and constructive in his public remarks about Bill and Microsoft (and has reaped ample rewards in the process).
What makes markets work is a combination of AND and OR processes that deserve thoughtful and observant journalism. They also call for vendors who can drop their fists, open their minds and look at opportunities from users’ and developers’ points of view. This is how Microsoft came to change its Internet strategy. And this is what makes Microsoft the most adaptive company in the business, regardless of size. No wonder the laws of Darwin have been kind to them.
- Urge and urge and urge,
- Always the procreant urge of the world.
- Out of the dimness opposite equals advance…
- Always substance and increase,
- Always a knit of identity… always distinction…
- Always a breed of life.
- —Walt Whitman
Where the language of war fails, perhaps the language of Whitman can succeed.
By the great poet’s lights, the Web is a new breed of life. An original knit of identity. Its substance increases when opposite equals like Netscape and Microsoft advance out of the dimness and obey their procreant urges — not their will to kill.
The Web is a product of relationships, not of victors and victims. Not one dime Netscape makes is at Microsoft’s expense. And Netscape won’t bleed to death if Microsoft produces a worthy browser. The Web as we know it won’t be the same in six weeks, much less six months or six years. As a “breed of life,” it is original, crazy and already immense. It is not like anything. To describe it with cheap-shot war and sports metaphors is worse than wrong — it is bad journalism.
*A week after this experience, I went back to Microsoft site and found its whole Internet Strategy directory much more Netscape-friendly and nicely organized. Every presentation is there, including all the slides. Though the slides are in PowerPoint 4.0 for Windows, my Mac is able to view them with the Mac version of the program. [Back to *]
George Gilder’s Forbes ASAP article archives are at his Telecosm site.
† [Added on 8 September 2015] While the Web began as a hypertext project proposed to CERN by two employees there (Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Calliau) on 12 November 1990, it did not turn into the Web we know today (and one I could access through an ISP) until it opened for commercial activity on 30 April 1995. That was when the NSFnet (one of the Net’s many backbones, and the only one forbidding commercial use) stepped aside.
I didn’t know Dave Goldberg, but I can’t count all the friends and relatives who were close to him. By all their accounts, he was a brilliant and wonderful guy, much loved and respected by everybody who knew and worked with him.
Along with the rest of the world, I await word on what happened. So far that word hasn’t come. But it hasn’t stopped speculation. For example, this post by Penelope Trunk, which imagines a worst-possible scenario — or a set of them — on the basis of no evidence other than knowing nothing. And why do we know nothing? Put yourself in Dave’s wife’s shoes for a minute.
You’re a woman on vacation with your husband, to a place where nobody knows you. Then your husband, healthy and just 47 years old, dies suddenly for no apparent reason. What do you do, besides freak out? First you deal with the local authorities, which is rarely fun in the best of circumstances, and beyond awful in the worst. Then you give your family and friends the worst news they have ever heard. And you still don’t know why he died. What do you tell the world? In a word: nothing, until you know for sure. And even then it won’t be easy, because you want to retain a few shreds of privacy around the worst thing that ever happened to you — while doubled over with the pain of knowing that you and your kids now have holes in their hearts that will never go away.
Yes, I am taking some liberties with what I don’t know there, but all those liberties are in the direction of mercy toward the bereaved. While no good is done by speculating publicly about what happened, there is at least a small measure of good in cutting the bereaved all the slack we can. For more on that, some Shakespeare:
The quality of mercy is not strained.It droppeth as the gentle rain from heavenUpon the place beneath. It is twice blessed:It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.(from The Merchant of Venice)
[Later…] @AdamLashinsky in @Fortune reports that Dave died while exercising. More from the New York Times. Calls to mind Douglas Adams, also beloved by many. He died at just 50, also after exercising. [Still later, same day…] More again from the Times. Leaning what happened makes it all even sadder.
This is not the propagandist’s aim. For him the validity of an image must be measured not by the degree of its fidelity, but by the response it may evoke. If it will induce the action he wishes, its fidelity is high; if not, low. … The standard that he uses in choosing the images to be disseminated — his “truths” — would be a scale based on the range of possible human responses to an image. His criterion thus is established on the basis of overt action.
At first this made me think about journalism, and how it might fit Choukas’ definition of propaganda. Then it made me think about how we might confine the study of propaganda to a harmless subset of human story-telling. That’s when sports jumped to mind.
Sports are almost entirely narrative. They also have, as social phenomena go, less importance outside themselves than such highly fraught concerns as politics, religion and business. To the cynic, sports are Kurt Vonnegut‘s foma: “harmless untruths, intended to comfort simple souls…Live by the foma that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy.”
Yes, sports are more than that, but my soul at its simplest is a fan of the Mets. (And, less simply, a fan of the Red Sox.) Likewise, some of my least productive time is spent listening to sports talk radio — unless I count as valuable the communing of my simplest self with the souls of others who share the same mostly-harmless affections. (Hi, @MichaelSHolley.)
But how much more productive is the time I spend listening to NPR, or reading The New York Times? Some, I would say. So, I am sure, would sports fans who favor getting their news from Fox and The Wall Street Journal.
To see where I’m going here, lets unpack “harmless untruths” into a 2×2:
Foma are in the lower right corner. Whether the subject is sports or something else, that seems like a good corner in which to study propaganda.
Sports journalism, like all breeds of the discipline, escapes the foma classification by being about Truth, or at least about facts. But that’s beside my point, which is that interests, talk and reporting about sports all moves toward effects, which happen to be harmless but interesting.
“Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people,” Eleanor Roosevelt is said to have said. But great minds discuss all three. So, even though events and people are the main subjects of sports (and of most) stories, many great sports journalists also traffic in ideas. Jim Murray, Roger Angell and Frank Deford some first to mind; but so do Howard Cosell and Heywood Hale Broun, whose personalities (or wordrobes, in Broun’s case) often upstaged the events and people they covered. Then I think about David Foster Wallace, Bill Littlefield, John McPhee, Andrea Kremer, Keith Olbermann, Michael Lewis, Howard Bryant, Tony Kornheiser, Charlie Pierce, John Updike, Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, Gay Talese, David Halberstam and other greats who work at deeper levels than the the usual bait for eyeballs and clicks.
So, speaking of bait, consider the three words uttered constantly by assignment editors everywhere: What’s the story?
Stories, I was taught, are the main format of human interest; and all of them have just three elements:
- A protagonist, or character. This might be a person, a team, a cause or some other entity the reader, listener or viewer cares about. This character need only be interesting. Likability is a secondary matter. (Example: I hate Christian Laettner, an ESPN film.)
- A problem or challenge, This needs to be a situation that keeps the reader interested: tuned in or turning pages. (Classic edtorial instruction: “No story starts with ‘happily ever after.'”) In fact, it helps if the situation gets worse, so long as we have…
- Movement toward a resolution. If the war is over, or the home team is up or down by forty points with three minutes left, the challenge vanishes. If you’re at the game, your problem is beating traffic out of the parking lot.
If you’re missing one of those elements, you don’t have a story.
Case in point: Cambodia’s killing fields. The first I heard about them was in a story read by Hughes Rudd on a CBS newscast in the mid-1970s. He said that perhaps half a million people were already dead. On hearing this, I was appalled, because it came, in an “Oh by the way” manner, after stories about the Super Bowl and Patty Hearst (whose developing story sucked huge amounts of oxygen out of nearly every newsroom at the time).
The slaughter happening in Cambodia mattered far more than either the Super Bowl or Patty Hearst; but it wasn’t a story, because it was missing all three of those elements. There was no protagonist, other than a population with a statistic. The problem, while immense, was not ours, and also not moving toward resolution. In fact years would pass before the killing stopped.
For us here in the U.S., the killing fields story didn’t get real until The New York Times ran “The Death and Life of Dith Pran,” by Sydney Shanberg, in the Sunday Magazine. That gave us a character, and made Cambodia’s plight real and compelling. (The story also grew, naturally, into a movie.)
Sports is always focused on those three elements. Is that because sports is always about propaganda? Or is it the case that all stories are, by their narrative nature, propaganda of a sort?
Stories are at least tendentious in the sense that the author needs a point of view — even if that point is what Jay Rosen calls the view from nowhere. (That’s pretty much where CBS stood when it first reported on Cambodia’s many dead.)
Look at the photos that accompany a sports story. If a team wins, the star player is shown making a great kick, throw, shot or whatever. Or maybe just smiling. If the same team loses, the picture shows the same player messing up or frowning. Never mind that the game was close, or that the photo is of one moment among zillions of others. The entire meaning of the photo is narrative. Its entire purpose is effect, which is both to serve and drive the interests of the reader, the viewer, the listener. What’s that say about journalism as a whole?
Has anybody studied sports or journalism as propaganda? At least one inquiring mind wants to know.
- The Market for Explainables and What’s right with Wikipedia, by yours truly.
- News withuout the narrative needed to make sense of the news: what I will say at South By Southwest, by @JayRosen_NYU.
11:31pm — Nobody is saying it, but so far the #BlizzardOf2015 in #NYC is a dud. I mean, yeah there’s snow. But it’s not a real blizzard yet. At least not here, and not in Boston, where it’s supposed to be far worse. “A little bit more than a dusting” says the CNN reporter on the street in Boston, sweeping a thin layer of snow off some pavement. The anchor on the street in New York stands in front of a bare wet sidewalks while the street behind is covered with a couple inches of slush.
Apparently the only vehicle on the streets is CNN’s Blizzardmobile:
(Why is it that my mind drops the B and calls that thing LIZZARDMOBILE?)
Meanwhile, WNYC‘s listeners are weighing in with snow totals that look a lot deeper…
But the wind is getting stronger now. Maybe this thing will be as big as they’ve been predicting. But I’m not seeing it yet.
And I do want to see it, because I love snow. A sampling:
- January2005 on Mt. Baldy, Los Angeles
- 16 December 2007 in Arlington, MA
- 27-31 December 2007 in Sun Valley, ID
- 14 January 2008 in Arlington, MA
- 16 January 2008 at Harvard, Cambridge, MA
- 2 February 2008 near Smuggler’s Notch, VT
- 19 January 2009 in Arlington, MA, and at Spy Pond
- 25-31 December 2009 in Zermatt (under the Matterhorn)
- 27 December 2010 in New York
- 12-13 January 2011 in Arlington, MA
- 9 February 2013 in New York
Enjoy. I’ll check back in the morning. I should be putting up fresh photos then.