Tuesday, May 25, 2010

At my first staff meeting with my interns yesterday, I mentioned some information from the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell describing how opportunity works.

I told them: age matters. You are at the right time in history with the right opportunities to direct the future of news. On the flip side - you have to define what happens next in news, you have to be a part of it, or you won't have a job.

In a little more detail, interns and friends, here is the information. P.S. - I highly recommend reading this book.

"Historians start with Cleopatra and the pharoahs and comb through every year in human history ever since, looking in every corner of the world for evidence of extraordinary wealth, and almost 20 percent of the names they end up with come from a single generation in a single country." - Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers

Immediately prior, Gladwell had explained that 14 of the 75 richest people in the history of the world were born within nine years of each other in the mid-nineteenth century.

So what gives? These people, Gladwell tells us, made their fortunes in the 1860s and 1870s, when the railroads - and Wall Street - were being built, when economics were being remade. What this list tells us, he says, is that it really matters how old you were when the transformation happened.

"If you were born in the late 1840s you missed it. You were too young to take advantage of the moment. If you were born in the 1820s you were too old; your mind-set was shaped by the pre-Civil War paradigm. But there was a particular, narrow nine-year window that was just perfect for seeing the potential that the future held." In a footnote, he adds that this is also the only period in American history when those born in modest circumstances had a shot at this kind of wealth.

Gladwell goes on to apply the same analysis to computer technology. The biggest date in the personal computer revolution was January 1975. "If you were more than a few years out of college in 1975, then you belonged to the old paradigm. You'd just bought a house. You were married. ... So let's rule out all those born before, say, 1952.

"At the same time, you don't want to be too young. You really want to get in on the ground floor, right in 1975, and you can't do that if you're still in high school. So let's also rule out anyone born after, say, 1958. The perfect age to be in 1975, in other words, is old enough to be a part of the coming revolution but not so old that you've missed it. Ideally, you want to be 20 or 21, which is to say, born in 1954 or 1955."

This range - 1952-1958 with a focus on those middle years - describes Bill Gates (1955), Microsoft's co-founder Paul Allen (1953), Steve Ballmer of Microsoft (1956), Steve Jobs (1955), Eric Schmidt of Novell and later CEO of Google (1955), and Bill Joy, computer legend, writer of much of the underlying code for the internet (1954).

Monday, May 24, 2010

This column originally appeared in the Daily Local News.

Mirror or lamp?

Well, hurry up, decide. Which should news be: a mirror or a lamp?

Often, I've heard comments that so-and-so just watches or reads such-and-such news because it confirms their political bias. I seem to detect some disapproval in these remarks. You know, just a smidge.

But it's a little unclear who's at fault. The news consumer, usually, is being criticized for their lack of discrimination; but the news provider is tainted, too, for not educating the consumer properly.

One of the background problems in evaluating whether journalism is "done well" or not stems from figuring out which metaphor we're looking for. Should journalism reflect the passions and interests of the day, or should it take responsibility to guide public debate?

When we read or watch news, we're looking for information, but often we're also looking for context. In business reporting, for example, those of us without finance degrees need some translating, some explanation of why a given business or economic event is important and what consequences it might have.

In political reporting, those of us who haven't memorized the bios of every member of state or national legislatures and can't quote the bill number of every piece of legislation related to the current one need the same thing. But every decision made by the people who give us that background flirts with the space between reflecting and guiding.

The truth is not something that rises up by itself like bread dough; just reflecting, as a mirror, whatever is most noteworthy on a given day isn't enough to meet the obligations we place on our press. But any shaping or guiding, lighting the way like a lamp, can lead to perceived meddling, giving up the authority journalists are supposed to have as truth-tellers.

So it seems there are problems with either metaphor. Treating the news as a reflection is a problem not only — not even, necessarily primarily — because journalism "ought not" to be passive, but because it is not.

Journalism shapes public debate; if journalists ignore that, they fail to dig up the "truth." By consciously recognizing and responding to public needs, though, journalists run the risk of paternalism, or creating the opportunity for the kind of "confirmation bias" of which we are so critical.

For example, there is a growing movement called "public journalism," which tries to take an actively self-reflective role in the production of news with the conscious goal of spurring public deliberation and interaction in the governing process — things that newspeople are sometimes criticized for failing to do.

But who are journalists to tell the public what it needs to know, what it needs to do? Nobody. And yet, isn't that part of what it means to be a "watchdog press" — an inevitable result?

As the much-quoted masthead of the New York Observer said until recently, there is "Nothing sacred but the truth." But here the line blurs. Perhaps the truth is sacred, but like many sacred things, it wears many faces and is invariably interpreted on a thoroughly subjective basis.

In the attempt to figure out what it means for journalism to be "good" — so that we know what we need, so that we know when journalism is failing us or when we're failing it, hey, even so that we know what's worth paying for — we need to recognize that there's some gray area here.

But the complaint about confirmation bias I hear holds the news consumer responsible as much as the news producer. In order to maintain a watchdog press, we need a watchdog public. We need, as individuals, to check our values, to ask ourselves why we agree or disagree with one news source over another. And maybe to do that, we need both metaphors; maybe we need a lamp in front of a mirror.

Katrina Dix is the assistant news editor at the Daily Local News, as well as a graduate student in an applied ethics program. She welcomes your thoughts on the media (because she knows you have them!). To contact her, send an e-mail to kdix@dailylocal.com.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

On leaving Facebook

I miss Facebook.

A week ago today, I finally got fed up with "Facebook drama" - a phenomenon to which, after my five years on Facebook, I thought I might be immune. Until a couple of months ago, when I was reminded just how easy it is to disprove a rule. I was more upset with caring about what people did on Facebook than with what was happening; add in the amount of time I feel I waste there, and it was time for a hiatus. So I deactivated my account.

But I do, in fact, miss the updates; I feel a little cut off. It's surprising how quickly the Facebook world recedes, how easy it is to feel like nothing's happening if you're not witnessing it. It's a little harder to get in touch with some people, a little more stressful; I'm not communicating with acquaintances, only closer friends.

I'm not ready to go back yet, but I know it's only a matter of time - especially as I miss some of the particularly useful elements. I have not been able to utilize the group I made for summer interns; I made a new profile specifically to run such a group, but I find myself reluctant to use it. Perhaps even more importantly, I also think Facebook might be useful to a research decision I have to make.

For me, the most effective way to do research has long been to print a wastefully large stack of articles - journal, newspaper, magazine, et. al - and mark them up with black pen and yellow highlighter. I deeply appreciate the wide margins of journal articles for this purpose. There is something about pen and paper, the immediacy of being able to highlight something that grabs me and scribble a note as to why, that gives me a record of my first response which I otherwise lose in the aether of consciousness.

However, I dislike carting around a large stack of paper almost as much as I dislike wasting reams of it in the first place. So although this is the "most effective" way for me to do my research, it is not effective enough. Now that I am preparing to write my thesis - on something that will require current research, a pile to which I will probably add a short article or two a day - I need another method.

Enter Facebook. It immediately occurred to me that I could take the option of having a "Links" tab at the top of my profile and add links to my research to that. This way, I could effectively share my research and get responses to at least some of it, sneakily pushing discussion of my thesis topic on all my 800 friends. Or the 200 that actually comment on my wall, anyway.

Twitter could potentially serve a similar function, and I need to start making use of that particular social media. But I don't think it would arrange the links in a really easily accessible way.

The added problem is that these formats allow me to save the locations of my research, but not my comments on it - perpetuating the loss of those invaluable initial thoughts. So they don't solve my research problem...but I still really like the idea of publishing my ongoing research via Facebook links.

Thoughts? Suggestions?

On a slightly more personal note - okay, okay, so "more often" updating I promised is "once a month" rather than "once in eight months," instead of the once a day I aim for. But I'm getting there. The semester is mostly concluded; I still have quite a bit of work to finish for one class, but it's manageable. Unmanageable at the moment is my schedule otherwise. I took a serving job at a new and exciting restaurant focused on sustainable practices...and leading up to the opening, I'm there for long shifts every day. The interns are also starting at the newspaper in dribbles and drabs, and I expect to have the full complement by Monday at 11 a.m.

Summer? Vacation? What are those things? =D However, I am energized by the projects at hand. I'm still more focused on taking it easy than I used to be; I am prioritizing rest (as Mark, my forensics coach, used to say: Protect your rest!). There aren't enough hours in the day for all I want to accomplish right now, but that doesn't mean I should hurl myself against the brick wall of exhaustion for longer than necessary - it means prioritizing.

In closing, here is one article that I'm looking at this morning, an impressively well-writing rumination on the pleasures and perils of Twitterporting: Tweet the Press.