Journalism

Words Drive Us to Distraction

Carmageddon begins today. That’s what wags are calling the traffic nightmare that’s supposed to befall Los Angeles because of the three-day surgical closure of the Westside’s main artery, the 405 freeway. It might as well be called Karmageddon; it seems fitting that L.A.’s lifeblood mobility should come back to strangle it. Since we're avoiding the roads, we're left to transport ourselves with thought, and here’s one that seems apropos: the English language is a lot of fun. We can play with it endlessly, savoring its ancient words and idiosyncratic pronunciation, while concocting new terms sharp or sweet with meaning.
Wordlovers are forever coming up with their list of favorites. (Wordlover is no more a "proper" word than carma- or karmageddon, yet. It's just more descriptive than the more correct logophile. Common usage tolerates the violation. In fact it doesn't give a damn.) Deshoda.com, cribbing from a blog called So Much to Tell You, recently presented a selection of 100 of the “most beautiful” [http://bit.ly/qJvnfs]. Many selections shimmered on the (web)page – how can one argue with epiphany, sumptuous, or woebegone? Then there were “ailurophile” (meaning cat-lover) and “chatoyant” (like a cat’s eye). Uh … no. Honestly, when are you ever going to use those terms (and still have people willing to associate with you)?
Other offerings such as "ratatouille" made no sense at all. Love the word, love the dish, love the movie. But it’s purebred French. If that qualifies, then why not put Beaujolais on the list? Phooey is a more worthy candidate. Oh, well. Everyone spouts an opinion in a democracy, which English not incidentally fosters because it's inclined to let people follow their bliss. English is a mutt with French, Germanic, Latin, Greek and other parentage, and its best words tend to be resilient old simpletons and crazy bastards. Whatever their etymologies, English boasts an astounding hoard, more than half a million gems and nuggets, and its enterprising promiscuity adds to the trove each day like a smartphone does apps. If you're a certain kind of person it can leave you feeling a little giddy. (Does nerdy rhyme with wordy for a reason?) Bang, dazzle, glee, languid, mist, perky, pesky, pipsqueak, resplendence, sigh, silly, smidgen, soft, velvet, whimsy, whisper, zephyr … Whoa, I feel dizzy. Of them all, I particularly favor the word laugh. You can’t help but smile just saying, or even looking at, that word. It gladdens the heart. “Love,” “joy,” and “grace” prompt much the same response – how can you resist them? They’ll help see us through any -mageddon life throws at us.

The Business of Writing

Ah, the allure of freelance writing. The creative freedom. The flexible work hours. The intellectual stimulation. The grinding poverty. Consider freelance business journalists. While no one expects them to earn as much as the people they cover, you might think given their field they had made a financially sound, strategically minded career decision. They typically earn about $25,000 a year (and no benefits or pension, of course). That’s according to a survey by Society of American Business Writers and Editors, which also found that three quarters of respondents made considerably more when they had salaries. http://bit.ly/fKwscn
There are fewer of those full-time jobs in journalism, of course, with the outsourcing of the writing trades, and the technological extinction of the newspaper and magazine business. Their replacements, online content mills, do need copy of course ... they’re just not willing to pay much for it, if anything. They’re inclined to interpret that “free” part of freelancing literally.
So do you really want to be a journalist today? http://bit.ly/ikAmbx Really? http://bit.ly/eZtZhy OK, not all freelancers are suffering. Specialized music writers can make $70,000 a year, according to research by Berklee College of Music, so biz writers might want to follow that Pied Piper. http://bit.ly/hZI3UR And there is further hope, if only by way of analogy. Smartphones with their high-resolution cameras have pretty much obviated the need for traditional point-and-shoots. But sales of more powerful cameras like SLRs have increased nearly 29 percent since 2009, according to research firm NPD. Independent writers might think of themselves SLRs and market themselves accordingly, offering something that can’t be duplicated by some mug in Bangalore or Kiev cranking out keyword-laden ad bait at $5 a day. http://nyti.ms/dJ8dwZ Or look at the ongoing popularity of wristwatches. People surely don’t need them to tell the time (their smartphones do that too, and usually more accurately). They’ve gone from a necessity to an anachronism. But against the odds, against all reason, they go on and on. Maybe quality journalism will go that route. Regardless, those freelance business writers probably don’t care. Two-thirds of respondents to that same SABEW survey said they’d never go back to a full-time job. You gotta do what you love. Food, shelter, and health insurance can be overrated.

Of Laughter and Never Forgetting

Time magazine is about to name its “Man of the Year,” the person who has made the greatest impression on the previous 12 months. From A to Z, Julian Assange to Mark Zuckerberg nicely bookend the short list and frame one of the great struggles of our epoch: privacy vs. transparency. The WikiLeaker from Down Under is likely to get the nod for publicizing information from U.S. classified documents. To his way of thinking, candid assessments written for a limited group of decision makers must be exposed as perfidious. Thus, WikiLeaks has informed the world that State Department functionaries think Hamid Karzai is a crook and Italy’s Berlusconi is “feckless, vain, and ineffective.” Uh, tell us something we don’t know.
At the other end of the alphabet, Zuckerberg schemed to tell Facebook’s corporate partners many things they didn’t know about users of his site. He seemed baffled why anyone would want to hold back their personal profiles from the world at large. What are these people afraid of?
For one thing, people don’t want to be commodities to be bought and sold (although that battle is probably already lost). More than that, people instinctively want to be able to control their reputations, which they can’t when information about them is (a) false or (b) once true, but no longer or out of context. People cling to the idea that they can have separate lives: one for home, one for work, one for friends, and so forth. They also want to be able to reinvent themselves at will – which requires moving on from the past, forgetting, amongst other things, indiscretions that seemed amusing at the time. Yet how can we drop this baggage when the Internet shackles us to every comment or image associated with us? “A humane society values privacy because it allows people to cultivate different aspects of their personalities in different contexts,” writes Jeffrey Rosen in his outstanding article in the New York Times Magazine in July. “At the moment, the enforced merging of identities that used to be separate is leaving many casualties in its wake.” http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/25/magazine/25privacy-t2.html?hp It’s not a theoretical issue. Three-quarters of U.S. companies conduct online research on job candidates, according to Microsoft, and seven of ten recruiters report that they have rejected candidates because of discovered photos, discussion-board conversations, or membership in controversial groups. There’s plenty of grist for the investigator’s mill. Facebook has nearly 500 million members, 22 percent of all Internet users, who spend more than 500 billion minutes a month on the site. Its users share more than 25 billion pieces of content each month (including news stories, blog posts and photos), and the average user creates 70 pieces of content a month. There are more than 100 million registered Twitter users, and the Library of Congress recently announced that it will be permanently house the entire archive of public Twitter posts since 2006.
Now advancing facial recognition technology promises (or threatens) to locate photos of people you’re looking for on the web, even if not identified (“tagged”) in the photo. Social-network aggregator search engines will be combining data from various sources to rank people’s public and private reputations. Then there’s the new web site Unvarnished, where people can write anonymous reviews about anyone. People are already rated on their creditworthiness. Soon they may be judged and ranked on the reputation as parents, dates, employees, neighbors.
By “erasing external memories our society accepts that human beings evolve over time, that we have the capacity to learn from past experiences and adjust our behavior,” writes Viktor Mayer-Schönberger in his recent book, “Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age.” The limits of human memory ensure that people’s sins are eventually forgotten. He says “without some form of forgetting, forgiving becomes a difficult undertaking.” Here’s the irony: the internet was until recently seen as the great liberator. Hilary Clinton, now on the warpath against WikiLeaks, praised Google for empowering Chinese citizens with information about their government. Remember that New Yorker cartoon from the early 1990s: “On the Internet they don’t know if you’re a dog.” Now the leash is back. We know who and where and what you are, Rover. And we’re never going to let you forget it. The remedies range from legal maneuvers of dubious value (such as lawsuits to force removal of slanderous information or “Twittergation”) to technological innovations – such as built-in expiration dates for data, controlled by the user. Or just being prudent to the point of paranoia. Supposedly cavalier about over-sharing, the young are catching up to their elders in matters of privacy. A UC Berkeley study this year found that 88 percent of people between 18 and 22 believe websites should be legally required to delete all stored information about individuals. Facebook could implement expiration dates. If it wanted to. It doesn’t, apparently. Bad information, like bad news, has a greater impact, as any behavioral psychologist or journalist or PR rep will tell you. So a new industry has arisen to buried the bad news that can’t be actually eliminated. Companies like ReputationDefender flood the Web with positive or neutral information about their customers to rig Google search rankings, pushing the negative links to the bottom. Whether Time chooses Julian, Mark (or even Sarah) as its emblem of 2010, the bigger story is that technology is rapidly moving us through numbered versions of the world. We’ve left the user-generated content world of web 2.0, and we’re being shoved into 3.0. Welcome to it.

The Devolution From News to Newest

The news media has fallen under the boot of “the forces of entertainment” said a prominent senator this week. Huh? Was this a battle that we missed somehow on one of those 500 specialized channels we can’t find the time to watch? Kiddo, that war is long over. Entertainment won. “Instead of a watchdog that is a check on the excesses of government and business, we have the endless barking of a 24-hour news cycle,” scolded Jay Rockefeller in a hearing that was supposed to be about retransmission rights between broadcasters and cable operators. He stayed on point, however, with his argument that consumers shouldn’t have to pay (and dearly) for hundreds of channels they don’t care to watch and that swamp the mindscape with bread-and-circuses triviality and ideological hokum. He noted the average monthly cost of cable service increased at triple the rate of inflation between 1995 and 2008, according to the Federal Communications Commission.. [http://bit.ly/clo0p8] In any event, the yapping is going to just get more intense. Any day now expect to witness the debut of the The Daily, Rupert Murdoch’s newest creature, eager to show its 24/7 social media pedigree by being available only on tablets like the iPad (a “game changer” declared the savvy old mogul during an earnings call in August). “We think it’s a great format because the tablet in general lends itself to a type of journalism that is really new,” said News Corp. heir James Murdoch. So just what is this new type of journalism? Reports [http://bit.ly/98PPwe] have it that The Daily is experimenting with an investigative secret weapon called a “quadricopter” -- basically a drone with cameras that can be operated with an iPad touch screen. No celebrity will be safe. Just another example, Senator, of how the newest thing (a.k.a., technology) trumps news.

Making Pate from the Golden Goose

Where would Google be without people scouring the neighborhood and the world for news and information, writing and editing and packaging that information at great expense, so Google could then share it for free and score billions in ad revenue? But just because Google gutted journalism as a business doesn’t mean it wants to kill the golden goose. It wants the old bird to evolve. Google says “it’s crucial to encourage innovation at the grassroots level.” So the multi-billion dollar goliath is donating $5 million to help nonprofits develop “new approaches to journalism in the digital age” – $2 million to the Knight Foundation, and $3 million will go to unspecified journalism projects outside of the U.S. All Things Digital called it Google’s $5 million “Get Well Soon” card to media, noting that Google had net profits last quarter of $2.17 billion. Google closed out its blog post announcing the grants with a few words from that old innovation standby, Thomas Edison: “Stop experimenting and you go backward.” Look for publishers to experiment with Google Maps and YouTube Direct to make news websites more engaging for readers.
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