Mediactive now in Armenian

Mediactive_amArmenia-based “Journalists For The Future” has led a project to translate Mediactive into Armenian, and I visited there last week to help launch the new edition. I met some extraordinary people and learned a lot about the media scene there.

As with the original, the book is freely available online, in an interactive edition. You can find it at this link.

Special thanks to the U.S. Embassy in Yerevan for funding the project, and for covering the costs of my trip there.


A half-century after JFK solidified TV’s dominance, a weekend highlights our messy but diversifying media ecosystem

By the early 1960s, the news media were closing in on an era of relative equilibrium, at least in the marketplace. While there were still competitive daily newspapers in some communities, the trend was inexorably toward local consolidation and monopoly. Broadcast television was settling into an oligopoly of three networks with scores of local affiliates that owned exclusive licenses to valuable airwaves. Equilibrium meant, for decades to come, massive profits for the owners of these enterprises.

Over four days in 1963, beginning November 22 with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, TV news conclusively claimed a new and lasting mantle: the place where most people got vital news. The stars of TV news – actual journalists in those days – became part of Americans’ households.

Over the past weekend, CBS marked five decades since that grim weekend by streaming its contemporaneous coverage of the killing and aftermath. The stream was more than a history lesson, though: the network was also recalling its own ascension into journalism’s highest realm – an achievement that owes most to to the relentless professionalism of Walter Cronkite and his colleagues during those days.

In 2013 the CBS web stream, and the way the company used it, came in a vastly different context. It was just one of many fast-moving situations in the media business – most involving enterprises that weren’t in the realm of anyone’s imagination 50 years ago – that we saw this Nov. 22-26. They included the sale of a web news startup to another startup; an apparent shakeup at a major business news and information service; and the hiring of a TV superstar by a web company that, by today’s standards, is itself almost old media.

All of this reflected a news and information ecosystem that is seeking a new equilibrium. But don’t hold your breath on this one. We’re in the relatively early days of a messy transition to what (if we do this right) will be a vastly more diverse, and therefore healthier, ecosystem when viewed as a whole – but one that will remain, close to the ground, awash in experimentation, turmoil and change.

The higher-minded (and more financially secure) CBS of a half-century ago aired its JFK coverage without a single advertisement, as did the two other networks of that era. But while CBS deserves credit for putting up the stream this year, to watch it – or any of the short segments CBS pulled out of it – you had to sit through a pre-roll ad. If you stopped the main stream and came back, you got another ad. The company was monetizing, as we say today, but the way it did so was clumsy bordering on cringe-inducing – including, no kidding, a life insurer’s ad preceding JFK funeral footage. Meanwhile, CBS had sent takedown notices to Google’s YouTube (and presumably other sites) ordering the removal of segments of this coverage that other people had posted, notably the overwhelming moment when a close-to-tears Cronkite read the official confirmation of Kennedy’s death. The CBS message: We alone will use and profit from our film of this public tragedy. This was obnoxious, in my view, but CBS did have the right, sad to say, to abuse the copyright system in this way.

Traditional media’s relationship with the Web includes competition with it. During the weekend came the confirmation of a TV star’s move to the web. Not long after luring the talented and prolific David Pogue away from the New York Times, Yahoo hired Katie Couric as a “global anchor,” whatever that means. Both hires are part of a major media/news push by the Internet company, founded in the 1990s, that CEO Marissa Mayer and her colleagues are struggling to reinvent for the 21st Century.

I don’t claim to fully understand what Yahoo is doing with these and other media moves. What most people don’t realize, however, is that its reach is beyond enormous when it wants its still-huge user base to pay attention to something. If advertising has a future at all, Yahoo has every possibility of being one of the organizations that profit from it.

The long weekend also brought more details about what is sounding like serious rethinking, if not upheaval, inside the Bloomberg news and information organization. As the Times reported, some executives – all of whom insisted on anonymity, which raises questions about their (and the story’s) credibility – have “begun to question the role of the company’s news operation.” What we know for sure is that about 2 percent of the journalists have lost their jobs there. The company’s own credibility has taken a hit amid believable reports that business priorities led to the killing of a story about Chinese politicians, though executives have denied this.

Financial considerations have always affected journalism, at all companies, some more blatantly than others, though in recent decades most traditional journalism organizations have insisted they prevented corporate interference. But in an era when hyper-competitive enterprises vie for ebbing and emerging markets, the editorial and business sides of almost all for-profit media operations will clash and cooperate. And it should surprise no one that Bloomberg, which overwhelmingly makes its money on the financial data portion of its business, constantly rethinks the proper personnel mix.

Much, much further down the media food chain came the news that PandoDaily, a startup media company based the Bay Area, was acquiring another financially struggling startup, NSFW Corp. The deal was scarcely noticed outside the still somewhat insular world of tech journalism, but it “caused more than a few tremors in the world of new-media startups,” as GigaOm’s Mathew Ingram noted. Count on a lot more tremors like that one, then, because in a market where there’s so little barrier to entry, lots of people will enter and there will be lots of competition – and, besides, most startups fail.

That’s actually good news, if not for the ones that fail (as I did in an abortive media startup almost a decade ago). It’s good news because it means we’re in a fiercely competitive market, awash with experiments and ideas and, in some notable cases, major-league new investments. It’s also good news because a diverse media ecosystem could produce the kind of variety, at all levels of quality, that will create a better set of news and information choices, overall, than the much less diverse – if vastly more stable – environment whose loss we tend to lament.

Yes, we are losing, at least for the short term, some things we will miss – including the calming authority and integrity of people like Walter Cronkite and his team. But I’m ready to live in a world of diversity and choice, and the complexity that results, where I have to make more of my own decisions about who and what to trust – and where I can be better informed in the end.

The Tech World is Overloaded with Data

(Note: I assigned my Media Literacy students a post asking for information on data in a topic area they care about. Here’s an example.)

I spend a lot of time writing about technology and tech policy, in books, blogs and in a weekly column I write for the Guardian newspaper’s US website. Luckily, there’s a tremendous amount of data available on this topic.

As with almost anything else, I start with the federal government. The Census Bureau has an enormous amount of useful data including (somewhat surprisingly) an informative introductory page on tech history. The Federal Communications Commission offers a great deal of data about telecommunications and broadcasting, but it is — I fear deliberately — deficient when it comes to up-to-date information about broadband access and cost at the local level. The “” site is informative but also lacking in some key data.

International data is often incomplete, but the United Nations’ UNESCO  Science and Technology site is helpful.

Needless to say, Google and Wikipedia can be great places to start when looking for data in any specific area. The more detailed the search terms, as usual, the more likely you are to find something useful.

A sampling of other sources:

  • For technology stock market data, CNBC has a useful page with broadly based information.
  • For more detail, I often check the “CrunchBase” database at AOL’s TechCrunch tech blog, which has been compiling information about the tech scene, especially startup companies, for a number of years.
  • The Wall Street Journal offers deep, granular information about companies as well, but its website has a paywall. (I subscribe online, and it’s worth it to me.)
  • Many universities have research units generating significant amounts of data. Typically, these are housed in centers or institutes focusing on one topic. I haven’t found a central database of all such organizations, but there are a number of them by topic. For example, here’s Stanford University’s list of biotech research initiatives.

One of the most important emerging areas in the technology world is called Big Data — describing the massive amount of information we (and companies and governments) are creating every second of every day. It’s simply staggering to contemplate how much there is, and how it’s growing. Articles in the Economist and New York Times do a decent job of explaining the phenomenon.

Big data gives us new insights into our world (and is used for scary purposes, such as in surveillance). One way to make sense of it is through visualization — turning numbers into pictures and animations. One of my favorite ways to explore data this way is an IBM site called “Many Eyes” — take a look around to see what I mean.


A Fine Explainer of Technology and Politics: How a Colorado Community Beat Big Cable

(Note: I asked my Media Literacy students for a blog post analyzing a major story in a topic area they care about. Here’s an example.)

The Washington Post’s technology and policy blog, called “The Switch,” took a deep look at how Longmont, a Denver suburb, beat back the cable-TV industry in a multi-year battle to have the right to install its own fiber-optic communications network. But the article isn’t just about one small Colorado city. It’s about the cable industry’s ongoing campaign to deny people competition.

Here’s a sample from the story, entitled “Big Cable may have felled Seattle’s mayor, but it couldn’t stop this Colo. project“:

There are 27,000 households in Longmont. Even if the city were to connect all of the eligible homes to its existing fiber network overnight, it would still reach only 1,100 residences. Cable companies therefore spent over half a million dollars trying to prevent four percent of city households from gaining access to municipal fiber on any reasonable timescale. That’s around $600 a home, or six months’ worth of Xfinity Triple Play.

Did Longmont set a precedent?

Perhaps that’s why the cable industry has mostly given up fighting Longmont — it’s not worth it anymore. On Tuesday night, voters overwhelmingly approved of the city’s third fiber ballot measure since SB 152, Question 2B. Question 2B asks whether the local government should be allowed to issue $45.3 million in bonds to pay for a city-wide deployment of fiber, one that would finally connect all 27,000 homes, and every private business, to public fiber within the next three years. Proponents estimated that without the funding, it would take a half-century to complete the roll-out. Voters gave it the green light, by a 68-32 percent split. No group came forward to contest the measure. The cable companies had picked up their ball and gone home.

The piece smartly uses a local story to go deep into a national issue. First, it details the long struggle Longmont  had to overcome the cable industry’s money and political clout in the state legislature. Then it shows how the city is just one of many local communities around the country facing this kind of thing. Finally, it demonstrates how a community, with enough tenacity, can outlast even an industry as wealthy — and tenacious in its own right — as the cable companies.

But it is correctly cautious about what message this case sends to other communities that are thinking of doing the same thing. For one thing, it notes that local fiber deployments don’t always work out well for taxpayers. For another, the cable companies definitely don’t see one defeat as a national harbinger.

Indeed, as the Post observes, Comcast led a cable-industry group that poured money into a political race in Seattle this fall — and helped defeat the incumbent mayor, Mike McGinn, a supporter of municipal fiber. (As the story notes, Comcast denies any connection.)

The Post’s story, better than most I’ve seen on this topic, brings home an issue we’re likely to see more often. The end of the piece nicely sums it up:

But what Longmont’s experience does show is how large the gulf is between an incumbent industry that can spend money on a massive scale to promote its interests and advocates of municipal fiber that often lack deep-pocketed allies. Those odds made the triumph of Longmont’s municipal fiber backers all the more remarkable.

I hope the Post will revisit Longmont in a couple of years, to tell us whether this experiment is working. What happens elsewhere may ride on that.

Slow News Catching On? Boston Tragedy Suggests So

In the minutes and hours following the Boston bombings, the media erupted with news, rumors, speculation – just what we’ve come to expect in this instant-access, instant-posting age. Truest to form was the knee-jerk maundering from the usual operators, who posted the rankest kind of rumors as fast as Twitter would permit. (No links to those, on purpose.) How do they live with themselves?

We’ve seen this again and again in recent times. Recall how a member of Congress was declared dead in the Tuscon shootings (by NPR and CNN, no less)? Recall the frothing BS that came immediately after the Newtown shootings? In retrospect, media creators — professionals and non-professionals alike — did some soul-searching after both of those.

It may be having an impact. After the Boston violence for the first time in my memory, I saw a knee-jerk response that moved in a gratifying direction: a host of cautions, including from media people, for all of us to wait for actual facts rather than rushing to judgment. These kinds of warnings were not unprecedented, of course – I and some others have been urging people to take a “slow news” approach in such situations – but I was struck by the large number I saw in the immediate aftermath of this event.

The Washington Post’s Eric Wemple cataloged some of the Twitter warnings. One of the best came from his colleague, Ezra Klein: “What we truly know right now is this is horrible. But be careful about retweeting things people think they know.”

I’ve been hearing this kind of thing lately from students, too. They know better than to believe what they hear and read, especially when it’s close in time to a major event. Slow news means taking a breath.

Of course, several hours later the media were looking for new news. I expect (and am already starting to see) a raft of speculation about suspects, motives, etc. It’s too much to ask news media to behave well for more than an hour or two. I’ll take that much, gladly.

Here’s one knee-jerk response we can almost guarantee, however. Law enforcement and national security people will seize on this to push their ongoing agenda to create a surveillance state where civil liberties are mostly a thing of the past.

My thoughts are with the victims and their families. Whatever we learn about who did this, much less why, let’s remember the human cost of this violence.

Meanwhile, as “consumers” of news, let’s recognize our individual obligation in these circumstances. Take a slow-news approach. Keep clicking the Refresh button in the browser. But wait for verified facts before you come to any conclusions.

(Corrected to fix misspelling of Eric Wemple’s name; ouch, sorry.)

NY Times Still Doesn’t Call Torture What It Is

New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan tackles her paper’s unwillingness to use plain, accurate language in an almost hard-hitting post, “‘Targeted Killing,’ ‘Detainee’ and ‘Torture’: Why Language Choice Matters”. She asks editors about these choices and gets, sorry to say, mushy answers. She concludes:

When news organizations accept the government’s way of speaking, they seem to accept the government’s way of thinking. In The Times, these decisions carry even more weight.

Word choices like these deserve thoughtful consideration – and, at times, some institutional soul-searching.

By my reckoning, the Times could do a bunch more soul-searching.

Teachers: Mediactive Lesson Plans with WordPress Installation

This package of files (Mediactive Lesson Plans — a zip archive of about 18MB) is for teachers who want to help their students become more media literate in this digital age.

The package includes:

  • Lesson plan documents (Word format)
  • PowerPoint presentations
  • WordPress files that let you easily create a site based on Mediactive. (Here’s a screenshot of what you’ll see after importing the file into a new WordPress install:
  • mediactive wordpress installation

The lesson-plan project was created by Kristy Roschke, a former high-school teacher who’s now getting her PhD at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication; and Josh Sprague, who came up with the idea of creating a WordPress version. Huge thanks to both of them!

I hope you’ll find these useful — and that your students will, too. And please let us know how we can improve these teaching aids.

Chinese Translation in the Works

I had the pleasure this week to meet journalism students from Shantou (China) University who are working on a Chinese translation of Mediactive. They’re using the fabulous Yeeyan service, which is like a Wikipedia of translation.

It was great fun visiting with the Shantou students yesterday. Several of them, with big smiles, introduced themselves as “Chapter Nine” and “Chapter 3” and the like.

They’re being supervised by my old friend and colleague Ying Chan, dean of the journalism school at Shantou and director of Hong Kong University’s Journalism & Media Studies Centre, where I used to teach for a few weeks each fall. She tells me the first draft is done and posted, and comments are coming in. There are a number of other steps in the process (including a full copy-edit), and we’re hoping it’ll be posted early next year.

Tokyo Visit re Mediactive, Japanese Edition

Tokyo-area folks: I’ll be there next week for a series of talks and other events relating to the recently published Japanese edition of Mediactive The following events are open to the public. All but the Digital Hollywood event are free, but reservations are required in each case.

Tuesday, Oct. 11: 7-9 pm at Asahi newspaper

Wednesday, Oct. 12: 8-10 pm at Digital Hollywood (School of Media Art)

Thursday, Oct. 13: 2-4:30 pm at Digital Garage

Thursday, Oct. 13: 6:30-8:30 pm at Nikkei newspaper

Q&A With Henry Jenkins on Future of Media

Henry Jenkins, a USC professor and author who knows more about participatory media than just about anyone else, asked me some questions about the news/information ecosystem and media literacy in the 21st century. Here’s how the conversation went, in two parts (Part 1Part 2). 


Q: What role should the news media itself play in fostering basic civic skills, including those of critical reading and thinking? For example, how should the news media be responding to persistent rumors about Obama, such as those promoted by so-called Birthers? Is this a “teachable moment,” as one would say in the Education Schools, and if so, how should teaching taking place via the news media?

A: I wish the news media had made this a core mission a long time ago. They didn’t, and still haven’t. That’s a real shame; it would have helped not just their audiences but themselves – because audiences would have gotten a better idea what it takes to do quality journalism and had more respect for it.

If I ran a news organization and learned that a sizeable percentage of people in my community believed something that was false – birtherism, for example – I would make it part of my mission to help them learn the truth. That sounds easier than it would be, because people who believe lies are invested in those beliefs, but teachable moments abound in today’s world.