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April 23 2011

18:22

When I was the ghoulish gawker

princess-di people coverBy popular demand (well, one tweet), here’s the tale of my journalistic function during the last big royal wedding, of Chuck to Di.

At People magazine, I was assigned to write obits for the couple in case an IRA attack struck the wedding. Recall that London still fell victim to sporadic terror and there was no greater symbol of British rule than its crown. It also helped that People’s editor then, Pat Ryan, came from an Irish family and was ever aware of the great struggle.

It happened to be that the wedding occurred on the morning People went to press. So I wrote, as I remember, variations on the theme: Charles dead, Diana dead, both dead. The obits were set in type on pages with appropriately fond photos. The pages were made into plates that were set aside the presses. If the worst happened, the order could go out — “Stop the presses!” — so the plates could be installed quickly and deliveries to the newsstand would be hardly delayed.

All that was missing were the facts of the event, if it happened. So I had to be at work criminally early that morning, sitting in Pat’s office, watching the wedding, ready to write a tight lede with whatever horrific details ensued so that could be set in type (typesetters — how quaint — awaited) and a new black plate could be transmitted to the plant (where the other colors awaited).

Why me? I was a newspaper guy and thus the fastest writer in sight. Magazine people looked down their noses at us newspaper people. We weren’t up to their high gloss, rough-hewn tradesmen that we were. When I applied at People, they were dubious, having never hired the likes of me. They insisted on a tryout and, though insulted, the boyhood dream of conquering Gotham beckoned, and so I acquiesced. The first morning, I was given a reporters’ notes and turned them into 120 lines of trivialized type by lunch. I asked for the next; they had nothing. Next day, same routine and ditto for the rest of the week. At the end, they hired me. My boss at the San Francisco Examiner, Jim Willse, said at the news of my departure for New York: “What, tired of journalism?”

Upon my arrival at People, another grizzled vet, Cranston Jones (there were two Joneses at People, neither a Bob; the other was Landon — one Princeton, the other Yale) pulled me aside and roundly scolded me for my tryout. “Don’t you ever do that again!” he instructed. I was ignorant as to my sin — and afraid to ask more — until a writers’ meeting soon afterwards, where Pat told us all that we had to do be more efficient and get up to writing one story a week. Five a week was, you see, unheard of.

I was a newspaper guy. I’d learned to write fast. As a rewriteman (sorry, not a rewriteperson), I used to write on “half books” — half-sized sheets of paper and carbon paper. We’d write a graph at a time and then — ah, this was my very favorite part of newspapering — yell “COPY!” and the poor slob one year younger and one rung down from me would have to run over to tear the book apart and distribute copies around the newsroom so the process at the heart of newspapering — the sacred production timetable — could get a head start on editing and typesetting and composing my fine opus.

I remember working rewrite on an Indiana prison break at the Chicago Tribune when I turned to the news editor, Ralph Hallenstein, to ask how much more he wanted. Ralph never stopped smoking. He’d fill a large ashtray every night, and until their game was discovered, the editors on the next shift held a “ghoul’s pool” and counted Ralph’s butts. Ralph died of lung cancer. When I asked Ralph this night, he took a pneumatic drag of his cigarette, exhaled three-alarms’ worth of smoke, and rasped over at me, “Find the nearest period.”

That’s how I learned to be fast. When computers came in, that didn’t change. I was the first the newsroom to use them because, as I sat on the midnight shift in 1973 waiting for someone in Chicago to die a horrible death so I could write a story under the rotating slugs “slash,” “crash,” “slay,” or “burn,” I was bored and started using the strange green-eyed monsters that scared everyone else (that, you see, is how I came to like technology and that’s what got me here today). Even on computers and to this day I write fast so I know I can finish in time and so I have a structure and then I use all the time available to edit. I edit more than I write. (Except sometimes on this blog when I just hit “publish” because, what the hell, I can always edit later. That explains the abundance of typos you find — evidence of my fallible humanity.)

So anyway, I sat there that morning on the 29th floor of Time Inc.’s building, staring at Pat’s surprisingly small TV in her office, taking notes to have ready the kinds of specifics Time Inc. editors so loved to jam into sentences like falafels into a pita: Don’t just tell me the bomb exploded the carriage; tell me the color of the horseman’s bloodied hat. But nothing happened, thank goodness.

As soon as the wedding was over, as I recall, the plates were ordered destroyed so no one would see what pessimists we were. At a newspaper or wire service, writing obits in advance is good form. It’s an honor, even: Your impending demise is worthy of a timely report made ready and held for release — “HFR” is boldly written atop such copy. I wish I were important enough to have an HFR obit done of me. Indeed, I’ve long said that the only fringe benefit of working for a newspaper is getting your obit in it. Except now I may outlast papers. Obits are at the heart of what newspapers do.

But at a magazine — even People magazine — writing an HFR obit for HRH was seen as rather distasteful. Actually, for a long time, magazines weren’t fond of death. Time Inc.’s publications didn’t believe in death as a cover story until John Lennon made it into People’s cover and sold like mad. Soon, People was obsessed with that I’ve called bodily fluids journalism: the diseases, affairs, births, and deaths of the famous. I joked that we should have just changed the name to Dead People magazine.

Sixteen years and many, many People covers later, Diana did die. And now, 30 years after the wedding I didn’t cover, William and Kate are to be wed. That’s what led me to Twitter this morning to recall my macabre duty way back when. I was saying how little I care about this event — as, I think, is the case with most Americans. Still, networks and magazines will demand we give a shit and spend a fortune doing so. I dared disdain the royals in a tweet and — it took only a minute for Brits to fall into my trap — I was scolded by those who said they cherish the royals as symbols of endurance. I see them as symbols of privilege. I prefer symbols of change and opportunity.

But still, I wish William and Kate a happy and lovely marriage … and long lives.

March 10 2011

17:00

“Journalists have lost control of the story”: Twitter, tech bubbles, and the nostalgia of the technology press

Editor’s Note: I’m very happy to welcome Tim Carmody — who you may know from Snarkmarket, kottke.org, Wired.com, Twitter, or elsewhere — as a contributor to the Lab. Here he looks at how the increasing speed of media opens us to manipulation — and false nostalgia.

There’s nothing new about speculation bubbles, especially in the technology industry. It’s nearly impossible to be certain which new ideas or products will be able to do what they’re supposed to be able to — let alone whether they’ll be able to do so at cost or scale, if they’ll be adopted by the market, or if a competitor will get there first and better. And when everything’s happening quickly and everything seems exciting, it’s nearly impossible to tell a bubble from a real boom.

The only sure strategy for an investor or inventor is to get in early, push the company as hard as you can to attract attention and investment, and try to sell high, neither too late or too soon. When the economics of money and attention move too far past the economics of the underlying value, you get a bubble. When the money and attention slow, then stop, then rush in the opposite direction, the bubble bursts. The boom is over, if it ever existed at all.

There’s also nothing new about the press’s role in helping to inflate bubbles, worrying over them, and watching them burst. What is new, according to Federated Media’s John Battelle and Thomson Reuters’ Connie Loizos, is how the accelerated news cycle of blogs, Twitter, and other digital media forces the technology press to work at the same speed as the investors they cover — with the same worries about getting in early and beating competitors trumping the real value of the product. In this case, though, the product is their own journalism.

“For several years now,” writes Loizos, “savvy investors have been effectively gaming Twitter and mastering the ability to trumpet their investments in 140-word sound bites.” The credibility (in both senses) of the technology press, when mixed with Twitter’s easy ability to quickly pass on information without comment, gives those trumpet bursts an amplifier. “Journalists have lost control of the story. In rushing to retweet the latest auction results from SharesPost, we’re not thinking about what we’re writing or questioning what we’ve been told.”

Loizos elaborated on her argument in an email. “Thanks to Twitter and, to a lesser extent, other social media like Quora, information about startups and financings has become much more porous,” spreading good and bad information equally quickly, and in volume. “The first story out wins. For example, that first ‘scoop’ is what gets the most real estate by powerful aggregators like Techmeme, while every other story gets scuttled underneath it.” It also changes the relationship between a reporter’s sources and her audience. “[Now] we’re not just competing against one another as journalists but also against savvy investors and entrepreneurs who know they can reach just as broad an audience by delivering their news themselves via Twitter and their blogs.”

Loizos is a veteran of the last tech valuation boom and bust, reporting for the first-generation tech magazine The Industry Standard, founded by Battelle. Battelle’s Federated Media has since gone on to partner with a who’s who of current tech culture and business sites, from Boing Boing and TechCrunch to Business Insider and GigaOm. He sees a problem too, possibly bigger than VCs driving their investments.

The real bubble, or at least the more troubling one, is the “Internet interest bubble.” Here the press is not peripheral but central to the story.

In the new media landscape, “we have migrated to a more free-wheeling discourse driven by any number of interested parties,” Battelle writes. In addition to investors, we see “bankers trying to influence any number of outcomes, and sources within all manners of companies pushing their own agenda on Twitter, Quora, or in private conversations with bloggers and other media outlets…The tweets, conference utterances, and blog posts of these sources are instantly turned into ‘news stories’ by the post-cambrian publishing explosion of sites covering the narrative that was once the province of first-generation Internet magazines” like Battelle’s Standard.

Churnalism, in other words, is a much bigger problem than just press releases and wire stories. It’s everywhere — and creating an echo chamber unprecedented in its size and reach.

“Millions upon millions of people visit these tech news sites, because the narrative they chronicle is more important than it’s ever been,” Battelle writes. “Our industry impacts a huge swatch of society and culture, and increasingly is understood to be the core driver of pretty much all of business today.” And apart from contributing to a tech bubble, Battelle and Loizos think that the echo chamber crowds out better analysis and better stories in our news sources:

But where’s the bigger picture? Where’s the hold-on-a-minute-let’s-think-this-through-and make-a-few-phone-calls-and-see-how-it-develops approach? Where’s the conceptual scoop? The second-day (or even second week) analysis?

“There are stories about healthcare startups that are transforming lives that no one is reading,” Loizos told me. “I think behind-the-scenes profiles of employees who truly make Valley companies valuable are fascinating, but people don’t make time to write them because there’s still this unquenchable thirst for the same stories being written again and again: about the hottest new startup, the hottest new venture capital firm, the hottest new valuation, the hottest new application.” There’s also the comfort of the familiar: “in the tech universe, people could read about Twitter and Facebook” — or Apple and Google, etc. — “all day long and journalists — saddled with driving eyeballs — are giving them what they want.”

“It’s an exciting time, but it’s also pretty screwed up,” she adds.

Both Loizos and Battelle show some nostalgia for the tech coverage produced by magazines like the Standard in the 1990s — partly for the quality of the reporting or at least the relative sanity of print’s slower pace. But Owen Youngman, Knight Professor of Digital Media Strategy at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, is skeptical that things were any better a decade ago.

“In my memory,” Youngman told Loizos, “a lot of glossy magazines back then were by and for the same people that are running up valuations today, and they could make even the wispiest of ideas seemed substantial.” In an email, he added that “the nostalgia is more about the former number of high-gloss, high-profile, high-paying outlets for tech journalism, not necessarily for the journalism itself.”

In a recent article for The Atlantic, James Fallows voices a similar skepticism about our ability to accurately measure journalism’s present against its past.

“When I recently talked to people in the news business, historians, political scientists, and others about the current predicament of the news, every previous era looks innocent,” Fallows writes. Flux in journalism isn’t the exception, but the rule; and what seem to us like venerable staples like Time, Nightline, or NPR are both younger and were more radical than we typically remember. Ultimately, even that is the wrong question: “While it’s interesting and even useful to know whether today’s journalism marks a descent from past standards, what matters more is how it suits today’s needs.”

At the same time, even VCs themselves are balking at the speed of the market and how social media are disrupting their own practices. AngelList plays a similar role for investors and entrepreneurs that TechMeme plays for journalists and readers, using aggregation, filtering, and social media to manage the flow of information and create new opportunities for both. In “Why I Deleted My AngelList Account,” influential VC Bryce Roberts detailed how this approach conflicted with his own investment strategy and style:

At the earliest stages, it’s nearly impossible to pick the next Google so throw a lot of darts in the dark and hope you hit it. That high velocity, light touch style is certainly a viable approach to investing. It’s just not my style.

I tend towards a more concentrated approach to seed investing where we make fewer, larger, investments and take an active role in working with the companies we fund. Frankly, I just don’t buy the notion that making an investment is akin to throwing a dart in the dark. Worse, I think it’s a dangerous idea to promote…

Real or perceived, organic or manufactured, AngelList is in the business of generating heat. As I’ve said here and elsewhere, I tend to be interested in ideas and companies that most investors aren’t, so heat is generally a false signal for me.

Johnson’s post quickly drew a sharp response from Internet entrepreneur/provocateur Jason Calacanis. “Let’s be honest and just say what’s happening here: you’re pissed that you now have hundreds of angels swarming on deals that you used to be able to snap up at half the price…There are now *hundreds* of qualified and unqualified angels who are driven by sport and not return! They are betting with their own money — not some LP’s” — limited partners who invest in a venture capitalist’s aggregated fund rather than make individual investments — “and [they're] more excited by private companies than 4% muni bonds.”

The language is very different, but it’s not dissimilar to Youngman’s critique of journalistic nostalgia — or for that matter, Nick Denton’s defense of Gawker’s approach to web journalism to Fallows. People want what they want — and what they want is low-opportunity-cost fun. Nobody wants “to eat their vegetables,” to use Denton’s phrase for high-substance, high-prestige investigative journalism. These outlets need the support of institutions or nonprofits, not advertising and eyeballs alone.

It’s clear that both technology companies and technology journalism are on the cusp of something. Whether it’s a bubble or a boom, we can’t know. In the meantime, we have all of the problems of indeterminacy: practices and standards held over from an earlier period jostling against emerging conventions which offer something new.

Blogs and social media offer both entrepreneurs and journalists new modes of engagement with each other and a different kind of conversation with their readers. At the same time, the demands of traditional news formats can actually push us into stories that privilege new forms of manipulation. Reporters seeking a news peg for an analysis-driven story about a popular company can find quotes from blogs, Twitter, or Quora as easily as they can from a company’s press release, putting the same texts and voices into circulation.

Finally, news outlets have to recognize that a big part of their readership is driven by popular speculation, particularly if their coverage focuses on hot startups, big IPOs, and new deals. If a valuation bubble bursts, those eyeballs vanish too. Investing in deep analysis, conceptual scoops, alternative content, experimental storytelling — and the reporters who can produce those stories — is a terrific hedge against that dangerous future.

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