This week in media musings: Tablet madness, and ideas for Sunday talk shows
I hope you’ve recovered well from all your holiday and year-end festivities (here in Nebraska, we’re just now starting to shovel out). Meanwhile, the flood of new media ideas continued (almost) unabated, so we’ve got quite a bit of catching up to do. I’ll try to have you in and out of here in a hurry. As always, if you want to know what this is about, an explanation is here.)
— It’s not often we see veteran media critics go ga-ga over new technology, so when at least three of them gushed about the landscape-altering potential of the tablet this week, it’s probably best that we sit up and take notice. First, we had New York Times media critic David Carr getting giddy over the unreleased Apple iSlate, saying it “represents an opportunity to renew the romance between printed material and consumer.” (Elsewhere in the Times, Alice Rawsthorn says that the iSlate could explode the e-reader market, just like the iPod did for MP3 players.)
Then, longtime-journalist-turned-consultant Mark Potts said the iSlate “has the potential to strikingly transform large swaths of the media business, from newspapers to television to movies, pretty much all at once.” Finally, the biggest surprise: News-business guru Alan Mutter, possibly the most sober critic out there, declared that tablets “will the rock media as much, if not more, than the Internet.”
Wow. That’s a lot of praise being poured on a product that no one has seen yet. (Not everyone’s on the tablet bandwagon, though. Slate’s consummate contrarian, Jack Shafer, decried the tablet hype just before Christmas.) The always-sensible Ken Doctor weighed in with nine good questions about the iSlate and tablets. And by the way, Hearst also introduced its own e-reader this week: The Skiff. (Slate’s The Big Money looks at the details.)
I think the hype’s at least a bit overblown. It seems absurd to me to suggest that just about anything, let alone a new version of existing type of product, will change media as much or more than the Internet did. Some of the bolder statements about the iSlate may end up being embarrassing a few years down the road, the product more of wishful thinking than level-headed prescience.
But I don’t necessarily want to debunk the hype, either: To me, it seems more helpful to think of all of these media sea changes as something the tablet could do, not something it will do. I read Mark Potts’ medium-by-medium list of the effects of iSlate as a sort of call to action for people in those media to do some serious thinking, planning and developing to be on the front end of that revolution if it comes. This could be traditional media’s second chance to be more proactive in finding ways to (gasp!) use technology to its advantage, after its first chance with the Internet was largely squandered.
— NYU’s Jay Rosen has long railed against the Sunday morning talk show format on Twitter, but a couple of weeks ago, he took the opportunity to lay out his case and offer a fix. His case, in a nutshell: Sunday talk shows bring on a hyper-partisan rep from both sides then faux-interrogate them, so the public is no closer to the truth and is left throwing up their hands in cynicism. His solution: Fact-check the guests’ statements and post a midweek review online, as well as making it a segment on next week’s show.
Both The Huffington Post and Media Matters called Rosen’s solution “modest.” Instead, the HuffPo’s Jason Linkins advocated a real-time fact-check that would at the end of each show (ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption does a light-hearted version of this), and Media Matters’ Jamison Foser called on hosts to fact-check guests’ talking points ahead of time, then jump them if they tried using any of those points. The political blog Crooks and Liars has a few other ideas, including a “three strikes and you’re out” rule.
My response: Yes, please — to just about all of the above. And let’s apply it to 24-hour cable news while we’re at it. As Jon Stewart has so deftly pointed out, there are way, way too many patently absurd statements going unchallenged because hosts either don’t have the resources or the cojones to take them on. But lest we get too optimistic about things, one of Linkins’ readers, a veteran broadcaster, interrupts us with the reality of the TV news biz: “Such a program will have no commercially viable audience to sell and, if through some miracle it got on-the-air, it would soon be canceled for lack of revenue.” Call me an idealist, but I’m still hopeful that someone will try it anyway.
— Several interesting Twitter pieces the last couple of weeks: Anil Dash, a top Web entrepreneur and thinker who’s now working within the Obama administration, chronicled life on Twitter’s Suggested Users List, a magical ticket to hundreds of thousands of followers that’s both coveted and reviled. Dash’s counterintuitive conclusion: “Being on Twitter’s suggested user list makes no appreciable difference in the amount of retweets, replies, or clicks that I get.” He later declared that no one on Twitter has a million legitimate followers.
Two other Web/media luminaries offered sterling defenses of Twitter: New York Times media critic David Carr opined on why Twitter will endure and writer and net-neutrality activist Cory Doctorow took down common criticisms of Twitter, MySpace and Facebook. Good stuff to beat your anti-social media friends over the head with.
— We’re now nine days into the new decade, but I’ve still got plenty of year-end/2010 preview leftovers for you. Actually, only one year-end review left — Ken Fang has a very detailed review of 2009 in sports media. As for 2010, Jason Fry has already tied several of the forward-looking pieces together in a good post, so check him out first. Here’s a quick summary:
Several folks take their shots at predicting the next year in media. Rachel Sklar of the Daily Beast says we’ll see bylines become brands and niche media explode; The Economist calls 2010 “the year of the paywall“; Poynter’s Rick Edmonds says we won’t find meaningful online ad revenue this year; Alan Mutter gives a very “maybe, maybe not” preview of 2010; and the Boston Phoenix hits all of the basic hot-button issues.
Others got much more practical, with some useful resolutions. Judy Sims has resolutions for news executives; and Gina Chen, Adam Westbrook, John Thompson and Adam Sullivan all have some tips for journalists to improve and adapt in the new year.
— We’ll probably be reading much more about this in the next week, but I wanted to get the front end of this news in the review yet this week: Rupert Murdoch looks like he’s officially beginning to act on all those fightin’ words about aggregation and paid content. He blocked UK aggregator NewsNow from his Times Online site. Meanwhile, Google News, his main target, has stopped hosting new content from Associated Press, one of Murdoch’s allies in his fight against aggregators. (Danny Sullivan has thoughts on both developments.) These are relatively small moves, but I believe they mean this fight is officially on.
— Writing for The Atlantic, Slate founder Michael Kinsley urged newspaper journalists to write shorter, pointing out numerous examples of unnecessarily verbose language in The New York Times. He got a lot of pushback: The Columbia Journalism Review’s Greg Marx and Megan Garber defended long stories (Garber’s critique is a little more thorough and thoughtful), and political blogger Spencer Ackerman proposed modular journalism — covering one topic per story, and linking to the rest — as a solution.
I think Reuters’ Robert MacMillan hits on it the best, though: What Kinsley really has a problem with is not length, but bad writing that’s overblown and doesn’t get to the point. That’s the root cause; long stories are only a symptom, and kind of a red herring at that.
— I’ve gone way long, so I’ll make these last few links quick. In order of awesome-ness: 1) The Online Journalism Review’s Robert Niles has a wonderful post on journalism as community organizing (You don’t just show up online and get read, he says); 2) longtime Editor & Publisher columnist Steve Outing writes his last piece, an alternative history of newspapers and a look to the future; and 3) ReadWriteWeb has a great primer on the real-time Web. Enjoy.