Posts Tagged journalism

There’s no glory in hindsight

1990 Lexus LS400They say hindsight is always 20/20. It’s also not very stimulating.

The Klingons were right to believe that life isn’t much without glory, and there’s not much glory in reassessing things after the fact.

Take Thomas Friedman’s seminal globalization text The Lexus & The Olive Tree. Friedman chose a Japanese luxury car as a representative of all things modern because, when he wrote the book, it looked like Japan was going to take over the world.

Friedman was blown away by the robots that assembled each Lexus, because after installing and caulking a windshield, they would spin around to allow a well-placed knife to slice off the residue. It’s the little things, I suppose.

The Japanese car industry’s dominance went beyond its products’ well-sealed windshields. When it debuted at the Tokyo Motor Show in 1989, the Lexus LS400 was a revelation: a car with the luxury of a Mercedes-Benz, and the durability of Keith Richards.

As a kid, I remember the adults around me being very impressed when a friend or relative drove up in a Lexus. This was the mid 1990s; Lexus had been around for less than 10 years, and it was already a byword for exclusivity.

Then there was the Acura NSX, which whipped a Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1, Lotus Esprit Turbo SE, Porsche 911 Carrera 4, and Ferrari 348 in a 1991 Car and Driver comparison test, among others.

It seemed like Japan would ruin everything by being too good, but reality turned out to be a lot less dramatic.

Japanese cars are still big sellers in the United States, but they compete with reinvigorated American and European makes, as well as a couple from Korea. Plus, many of them are actually built here.

As Motor Trend editor at large angus Mackenzie noted in a recent column, Japan is now just one of many competitive nations in the automotive world.

Just look at the most recent Lexus LS 460hL: it’s a nice car, but it’s no longer a leader. While Japan continues to excel in other areas of the automotive sphere, it doesn’t strike fear into the hearts of analysts any more.

Qoros 3 sedanSo what’s past is past, right?

The media has a tendency toward sensationalism that doesn’t seem to ebb no matter how many times people are wrong.

There’s been plenty of hysteria over the past few years that China would take over the world economy because of its rapid growth, and its government’s tendency to borrow the most convenient bits from capitalism and totalitarianism.

But are things really that bad? China is already starting to show the strains of unlimited industrialization, so maybe we’re not doomed after all.

“Not doomed” doesn’t sound as exciting as an apocalypse, though. Or a car-building robot.

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The algorithms of progress

After 200 posts, I still have a love/hate relationship with the Internet.

I mean that in the most literal sense: I love the opportunities the Internet has made possible, but I hate most of what comes with using it and interacting with people through it.

Without the Internet, I wouldn’t have a job right now. I certainly wouldn’t be able to cover the car industry from a house in Connecticut.

However, the Internet has also de-valued skills.

For many jobs, remote working has opened up a pool of applicants that literally spans the nation. People with job-specific skills are much more interchangeable than they ever have been.

That’s great if, like me, you want to write about cars without moving to Detroit, but it also means that being good at something just doesn’t cut it anymore.

People are expected to bring much more than relevant skills to a job; they’re expected to bring specific training, connections, and name recognition.

Some call this the entrepreneurial spirit; I call it blurring the line between work and life.

Because when people expect less from organizations, organizations expect more from people. So much for punching out at 5:00 p.m.

Those aren’t the only terms the Internet dictates.

We work for it: we design content for it, adapt messages to suit it, alter our language so that both humans and Google will comprehend it.

Then someone invents a new “breakthrough in communications” that must be satiated on its own terms.

Earlier this year I got a Twitter account, because everyone else has one.

As far as I can tell, Twitter is just a forum for anyone who has ever been involved with Star Trek, and a gruesomely effective way to relay information during a disaster.

Every time a celebrity does something, it explodes like a healthcare exchange website on October 1, 2013. I can’t see how this leads to productive discourse.

We shouldn’t feel obligated to make room for new social media in our lives, but we do. That’s what frustrates me the most about living in the shadow of the Internet.

After several generations of continuous technological progress, people seem resigned to the Digital Age being just another part of an inexorable historical movement. Nothing stays the same forever.

When I was in first grade I learned to type on beige Macs and play with floppy disks. The teachers said computers would one day be an important part of my life. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Even if we use a piece of technology, we should still be allowed to evaluate its effect on us, and tailor it to our lives–not the other way around.

The Internet has certainly changed the way people live, but whether “different ” really means “better” — and doesn’t mean “worse” is a determination we need to make. It’s easy to assume we have no agency in the face of progress, but we need to take account of how we use technology.

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The outrage cycle

Rolling Stone cover August 2013I was originally going to use this post to continue the debate over the now infamous Rolling Stone cover photo (as an aside, I encourage everyone to read the article, which was very well written) of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

I was going to talk about how people who think Rolling Stone made an unethical decision are wrong, about how Tsarnaev looks nothing like Jim Morrison.

I don’t think that is going to resolve anything, though.

The day Rolling Stone released the cover and story, I was arguing with people on Facebook about the article’s content, the decision to put Tzarnaev on the cover, and the quality of the photography. I got up for a break, and walked past people arguing about something else on TV in the next room.

Public discourse seems to have become a never-ending cycle of outrage. People get outraged at things like this, then other people get outraged at the first group’s outrage. Meanwhile, nothing gets resolved.

People have every right to be upset when they see Tsarnaev’s photo in such a prominent place. They have gotten upset, and it hasn’t stopped there.

What’s amazing is how quickly a visceral reaction to something like this gets cloaked in logic. It’s as if people know that they are overreacting to something and feel they have to cover up that blatantly emotional response with reasons.

So the debate shifts from pure anger over having to look at Tsarnaev’s face every time one walks into Barnes & Noble to concerns over how the image is disrespectful to the people of Boston, or how its “glamorization of terrorism” could inspire copycats.

Consequently, the opposition fires back with reasons of its own: freedom of the press, the importance of knowing something, anything, about this unprecedented act of terror, and the acknowledged difficulty in predicting how potential copycats will respond to specific media images.

It won’t work, though, because the people boycotting Rolling Stone aren’t interested in a rational debate; they’re still just upset over seeing Tsarnaev on the cover. They won’t respond to rational arguments because they aren’t being sincerely rational.

In America, logic and emotion are confused way too easily. We use terms like “belief” and “morality” to bridge the gap between these two polar opposites. We have an initial reaction to something and cling to it tenaciously until Judgment Day.

Instead of being resolved, the issues of the day gradually fade away as people get sick of talking about them. Soon, Willie Nelson will be on the cover of Rolling Stone again, Tsarnaev will be on trial, and we’ll all have something new to be outraged over.

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Printed narratives

Cube Colors 034What do this month’s issues of Car & Driver and Popular Science have in common? 3D printing.

There’s something about the summer that causes magazine editors to compile lists of future technologies that are poised to change… something. The Car & Driver cover story  for August features “The Tech 50” for cars, while Popular Science is probing the future of flight in their July issue (both are on newsstands now).

Both the automotive and aviation industries, it seems, could benefit from 3D printing. “Printed Cars” was number six on C&D’s list of paradigm-shifting tech.

Jim Kor, leader of the Urbee printed car project, told the magazine that 3D printing is a superior manufacturing process because it requires less energy, produces less waste, and doesn’t require time-consuming retooling when changes to the design have to be made.

Popular Science was also impressed by a 3D printer’s lack of tooling, noting that aircraft manufacturers already use it to rapidly produce prototype parts.

It seems that 3D printing’s time has come, at least in the media. While there aren’t any cars in production with printed parts, and only a few small items on the spanking-new Boeing 787, the technology seems to have a bright future.

There have been glorious predictions of 3D printers for the price of a cheap ink jet in the tech press for awhile, but now journalists from other beats are developing applications for it. Time to take notice.

Maybe it’s my cynical 21st century media consumer nature taking over, but it seems like every time someone wants to write about the “future” of an industry, they are obligated to mention the hottest new piece of tech.

Whether its phone connectivity or data management, the technologies of centuries past are increasingly expected to absorb new “tech” to stay relevant.

There’s nothing insidious about this, and I have to say I really do like 3D printing. It’s got a whiff of Marxism to it, giving individuals a small chunk of the means of production. It’s theoretical march from startup office to heavy industry is very predictable, though.

Like other aspects of the tech-o-sphere, 3D printing is a very cool, genuinely new technology that hasn’t really found a purpose yet. Hence the endless possibilities being suggested.

If I were allowed to make a prediction of my own, I’d say that these magazine articles will become self-fulfilling prophecies. People will eventually find an ideal use for 3D printing, just as they did for the Internet, and the rest of the world will be subtly warped to maximize that use.

Technologies can become widespread not just because they are useful, but because people want to find uses for them. Will 3D printing follow that trend?

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Boston is bombed, one tweet at a time

Since I got a Twitter account recently, I haven’t been sure of what to do with it. On Monday, I found a very good, but very unpleasant, use for it.

As with so many things these days, I found out about the Boston Marathon bombings through a reference on someone’s Facebook profile. Scrolling through the newsfeed, I saw a status from a college classmate:

“Slowly finding out more about what happened during the Boston Marathon,” it read.

I jumped over to Twitter and, sure enough, a photo of the scene of the first explosion had already been retweeted by a friend. Reports of a series of explosions were starting to come in, intermixed with Pulitzer prize winners and the announcement that Chris Hardwick will be in Baltimore on May 24.

“Two men had bombs strapped to themselves and they both went off,” a tweet posted 32 minutes before I logged on read, “everyone is scrambling.”

Switching over to the New York Times’ website, there were only a few short lines confirming that explosions had occurred, not even using the word “bomb.”

Facebook and the news sites stayed quiet a bit longer, but Twitter was shot through with  reports, mostly from the Associated Press and journalists who were already on site. The Boston Globe posted a video of the first explosion, and soon it was possible see it from nearly every angle by scanning the tweets.

Not everything tweeted that day was accurate (the report of suicide bombers doesn’t jibe with what investigators are learning about the bombs) but the most necessary information was imparted as quickly as possible.

So that, it seems, is what Twitter is for.

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The infinitely deep gap between writing about something and nothing

In college, I had a writing teacher who said that, if you have a column or blog, you can write about having nothing to write about. But you can only do it once. For this blog, I’m saving that free pass for rainy day. However, I thought it would be interesting to discuss where ideas come from and how original they need to be.

I’ve always thought that the best way to come up with ideas for news and feature stories is to draw on experience. Talking to sources, finding out what’s actually happening, or learning about an important trend are the essence of journalism. That’s why it’s called reporting, after all.

What happens when you can’t be near the source, though? Or if you don’t have a monopoly on it? The Internet has dramatically changed how news is reported, especially when it’s related to industry, politics, or other subjects that don’t have a geographic base.

Here’s an example: If Ford wants to show off a new car, it will probably unveil it at a major auto show in front of the world’s press, but it will simultaneously post all of the vital information on the car on its website.

That means every media outlet, even ones that didn’t send reporters to show, has access to the same information (assuming the bigwigs don’t take questions). Since everyone is online, people don’t need to rely on their local newspaper or magazine to learn about it.

That’s why angles are so important. A writer can explain how a story applies to their specific audience, or add analysis that others might not have thought to include. Other outlets distinguish themselves with style, taking on a more informal or humorous tone to differentiate themselves from “traditional” coverage.

This means readers are essentially getting several different takes on the same event, which can be informative, or confusing if they don’t agree.

It also shows that many stories are worth covering, even if someone else is doing it. The flip side of that is that it’s easy to piggyback off someone else’s work without contributing anything.

This clip from Portlandia illustrates the problem pretty well:

Anyone who thinks print media is dead should take a careful look at the sources of some of the digital articles they’re reading. Someone has to actually do the reporting, but that doesn’t mean the discussion stops there.

The “all access” scenario described above applies to original news too. Sometimes a story is important enough that it deserves coverage of its own, but that makes it every easy to just repeat the findings without adding anything.

Avoiding this requires a similar approach to the omnipresent car unveiling. Work the angles. Tailor the story to a specific audience. Add relevant analysis and insight. Also, don’t plagiarize.

Obviously this could be easier said than done, but hopefully this shows that you can come up with some meaningful stuff without direct access to sources. That doesn’t mean these types of articles can replace original reporting, so keep trying to get out there too.

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Anyone want to buy a newspaper?

Today the New York Times Company announced that it is putting its New England Media Group, which includes the Boston Globe, Worcester (MA) Telegram & Gazette, and other related properties, up for sale.

Since the Internet became a thing, it seems like everything something bad or unusual happens to a newspaper prophecies of doom fill the air. While this definitely puts the fate of the Globe and Telegram & Gazette up in the air, it’s not like a newspaper has never been sold before.

The sale is definitely news but, it’s easy to forget that speculation is not news. These papers’ fates are obviously less stable than they were yesterday, but that doesn’t mean they, or print journalism in general, are finished.

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