1/31/2008 9:08:00 AM
The London Times has been caught resorting to shady practices in search of online friends. Andy Baio at Waxy.org revealed yesterday that he discovered the newspaper’s “extensive campaign to spam social media sites.” Using accounts at over a dozen social news sites, including Del.icio.us and StumbleUpon, an employee at an SEO consulting firm hired by the newspaper posted links to hundreds of Times articles under the guise of normal users. This is a bit like those attractive, friendly women you meet at bars who always seem to steer your conversation around to how Bacardi makes a night magic—before encouraging you to buy them another Bacardi and Coke. It’s a bad practice to try to willfully deceive your readers, and at the very least the Times should fire its SEO consultants.
1/30/2008 8:55:29 AM
The two latest issues of John Porcellino’s King-Cat Comics just fluttered into the Utne office, and I kidnapped them before anyone else noticed. If you haven’t encountered him already, Porcellino—whom I interviewed for Utne.com back in October—writes lovely little stories whose plots focus on everyday incidents like two squirrels facing off on a power line. King-Cat touches you more than the small scope of its stories would suggest. The comic manages this, I think, by preserving small moments of personal beauty, like a strip from the latest issue (#68) which shows nothing more than the author and his cat lying on a couch together, listening to the birds chirping outside.
Don’t think that King-Cat is all flowers and kitties, though. While the comic revels in the beauty of the everyday, it can’t shake off the feeling that those redemptive moments are escapes from an otherwise crazy world. “I’m convinced,” Porcellino writes, “that there’s a way to live in this world—this insane world—in a sane way, with one’s integrity and naturally given good sense intact.” The newest issue also has a series of comics on the Greek cynic Diogenes, and even here Porcellino manages the impossible: He makes the crusty Greek philosopher seem cute!
1/29/2008 1:09:16 PM
Democracy relies on the media to make its citizens well-informed and meaningful participants in civic life. This, of course, doesn’t always happen, especially when you're relying on TV news.
That’s when the fact-checkers come in. In the November/December issue of Utne Reader, Eric Kelsey and I wrote an article on the "fifth estate": journalists who devote themselves to checking other journalists’ facts.
The Columbia Journalism Review, a 2007 Utne Independent Press Award nominee, jumped into this fray once again with two new offerings. The publication first relaunched the Campaign Desk, which looks at the presidential race. Here’s CJR on the mission of the Campaign Desk:
We’ll look at who's doing interesting, original reporting and who's being taken in by spin; we’ll focus on how and why the narratives that come to define a candidate get started and relentlessly repeated, and if they are off base, we’ll try to set them straight. We’re on the lookout for misleading statistics, partial truths and oversimplifications, glittering generalities, and other language crimes that can infect the coverage.
Campaign Desk writers have covered topics as diverse as journalists demanding coffee from John Edwards at an all-night campaign stop during the Iowa caucus to giving the full story behind a scuffle between an AP reporter and Mitt Romney.
The second offering by CJR is The Observatory, which of rakes through the not-always-peer-reviewed muck of science journalism. The Observatory opened with an article about how new, collaborative web-technology is affecting science writing. With all the spin, inaccuracies, and half-truths bandied about in the media, these CJR projects will have their work cut out for them.
Image by Justin Henry licensed under Creative Commons.
1/29/2008 10:37:51 AM
After slobbering over a never-to-materialize Barack Obama win in New Hampshire and flip-flopping on the electoral viability of a crotchety John McCain, the media has proved that their skill at horse-race forecasting is about as reliable as that of people who bet on real-life horse races. That is to say, they’re not good at it.
Jay Rosen, a veteran media critic, has written a great takedown of horse-race journalism for TomDispatch and Salon. Rosen gets to the depth of the problem: It’s easy for over-taxed journalists to write horse-race style pieces, especially if everybody else is doing it.
Who’s-gonna-win is portable, reusable from cycle to cycle, and easily learned by newcomers to the press pack. Journalists believe it brings readers to the page and eyeballs to the screen. It “works” regardless of who the candidates are, or where the nation is in historical time. No expertise is actually needed to operate it. In that sense, it is economical. (And when everyone gets the winner wrong the “surprise” becomes a good story for a few days.) Who’s going to win—and what’s their strategy—plays well on television, because it generates an endless series of puzzles toward which journalists can gesture as they display their savviness, which is the unofficial religion of the mainstream press.
Where the media could be chattering about why a candidate should win, instead they blabber about if the candidate will win. It’s a pernicious problem. Hopefully Rosen’s article might start a narrative of self-reflection among some journalists. I give it about a 20 percent chance of succeeding.
1/24/2008 1:16:11 PM
The writers’ strike may be keeping those new episodes of 30 Rock off our screens, but it does have an upside: Television writers have been making pilgrimages to the mecca of unemployed writers everywhere. No, not the public library—the blogosphere. One of the best-known writers’ strike blogs is United Hollywood, which reports on strike news. But if that gets a bit boring, take a look at Why We Write, a collaborative blog with short essays by television and film writers. Jane Espenson, a writer for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and a co-executive producer for Battlestar Galactica, recently wrote on the site that she perfects characters voices’ by lying in a quiet room and hearing them speak in her head. Mark Gaberman, a writer for Jeopardy!, has chimed in on the joys of filling in clues and making Alex Trebek rap Snoop Dogg’s “Gin and Juice.”
If you haven’t heard enough, turn to The Idea of the Writer, a series of video and mp3 lectures by one of the greatest writers in TV, David Milch, creator of Deadwood. Milch, speaking with an enthusiasm that verges on the unhinged, discusses subjects like how the writer rebels against the established order and Kurt Vonnegut’s extensive cannabis use (and that’s only in the first five minutes!). It may not be television, but Milch has the sort of captivating, insightful energy that will make you forget you’re not watching 30 Rock.
Image by Kris Krüg
, licensed under Creative Commons.
1/23/2008 10:18:44 AM
In the latest episode of the UtneCast, editor in chief David Schimke and librarian Danielle Maestretti sit down with Utne.com assistant editor Bennett Gordon to talk about the 2007 Utne Independent Press Awards. After 19 years, the awards have changed quite a bit, with two new categories (In-Depth/Investigative and Health/Wellness) added this year. Schimke and Maestretti talk about the new categories and how the staff picked the best magazines of the year.
For more on the awards, visit www.utne.com/uipa2007, and stay tuned for Part 2 of our UtneCast on the winners.
UtneCast: UIPA 2007 : Play in Popup
1/23/2008 10:09:54 AM
Bloggers and Internet news-digesters write so extensively about the success of online media—and potential for more success, and capability to accomplish blistering successification—that it’s more than I can reasonably be expected to appreciate. Occasionally, I proclaim that I’ll stop reading anything online altogether and declare, with fist-swirling certainty: “If I see one more blog, I’m going to blog all over my blog.” This probably just reinforces the notion that I’ve read too much online media analysis. (Also, I’m totally blogging about blogging on this blog right now, man. I must be approaching that point of cessation.)
And then I exhale. Writing for the Times Online, Jonathan Weber breaks down the still-vibrant profitability of print media vis-à-vis Internet media. As he reports, local magazines and newspapers—i.e., those in “Anytown, USA”—still generate more ad revenue than their online homes because local print sources remain more visible and desirable to their constituent markets. Simply put, ad revenue is still persistently print-oriented.
Weber also notes that newspapers have not, in general, become unprofitable. Rather, they are no longer “extremely profitable,” as they were following fifty years’ worth of media consolidation that left U.S. metropolitan areas large and small with one newspaper instead of three or four. Weber’s own online magazine, NewWest.Net, is set to launch as a print venture in “a few weeks,” and he anticipates that it will out-earn the website for at least the next two or three years.
By the time online-media revenue catches up to print, things will have changed considerably: I'm thinking we’ll all be curled up in homes constructed with recycled newspaper in updated Hoovervilles, synchronizing our cerebral implants as our bodies absorb the all-encompassing contents of the Internet.
Image by Richard Saunders, licensed under Creative Commons.
1/21/2008 9:31:07 AM
Before the Internet, millions of office workers missed out on the luxury of playing the game Dolphin Olympics 2 on a quiet Thursday afternoon, instead coasting to the day's end in a fog of boredom. Before the Internet, conversations would fall into a confused silence when people should have been quoting interesting facts they’d gleaned from Neatorama, yet could not. But now that the Internet hovers over our every waking hour like a mildly benevolent elf, office employees can amuse themselves while pretending to work, friends can compete over who has memorized the more perfect morsel of knowledge, and our lives—if we can navigate the rich riches of the web well enough—are wholly satisfied. But the Internet is a sprawling place. You need some sort of a guide to all the weird stuff out there. Where could you find one of those?
At the Internet technology blog ReadWriteWeb, Marshall Kirkpatrick has posted a handy, customizable guide to finding weird stuff on the web. What you get at the end of the process—hopefully—is a single RSS feed of blogs that you’ll think are neat (in Kirkpatrick’s case, a collection of weird hunting blogs). And then you can compete with your friends over who knows the most facts about your favorite cat meme, just like the cool kids.
Photo by allspice1, licensed under Creative Commons.
1/18/2008 5:29:07 PM
We just heard some bad news from our friends at NEED magazine. Their Minneapolis office was burglarized last weekend, and all of their equipment was stolen—computers, telephones, printers, even desk lamps. NEED, which launched in late 2006, reports on inspiring humanitarian projects around the world; its current issue (#4) includes a piece on the Breath of Life program, which outfits small Vietnamese hospitals with life-saving devices for premature babies, and dispatches from a conference on innovative philanthropy.
“We’re just putting the pieces back together,” wrote Liz Werner, the magazine’s senior writer and communications specialist, in an e-mail to me Friday. “I think our staff has been able to assess the incident with a certain clarity and perspective. At NEED we know that there are people and communities all over the world who are dealing with (and overcoming) bigger problems.”
The burglary will likely throw their publishing schedule off a bit, so in the meantime, pick up the current issue or learn more about their important work at www.needmagazine.com.
1/17/2008 4:05:27 PM
President Bush just returned from a weeklong tour of the Middle East, which included his first trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories since becoming president. For such an important visit—one that Bush hopes might establish his legacy as a diplomatic peacemaker—a mere press release just wouldn’t do. So the White House tried something new, in the form of what looks to be a blog, aptly titled “Trip Notes from the Middle East.” But don’t get too excited: The Trip Notes, written by various White House staffers over the course of the visit, are anything but substantial. Posts from Bush’s January 8-16 visit include descriptions of the weather, lodging conditions, how the staff kept busy on the airplane, and the array of animals on King Abdullah’s ranch. But cheers to the White House for attempting to embrace modern technology.
(Thanks, Columbia Journalism Review.)
1/16/2008 5:21:38 PM
CBS News and Digg—the social news-sharing site where members vote to determine which stories make the front page—have teamed up for the 2008 election, reports Mike Shields in Mediaweek. CBSNews.com will allow its election coverage to be Diggable (linked to on Digg), and Digg will begin featuring CBS News video content.
This new-media/old-media alliance may do its part to freshen up 2008’s political coverage, hopefully avoiding the traditional 24/7 crawling ticker of presidential race updates. But it might also snowball into an uncontrollable media mutant, joining the mainstream perspective of CBS News coverage with that of Digg users, who tend to favor Internet sensations. Which means we’ll probably be seeing a lot more of Ron Paul.
Photo by Bennett Gordon.
1/15/2008 4:16:21 PM
As the smartest show ever to pop up on the fleeting ether of our televisions, The Wire has generated a lot of equally smart commentary. The series’ gritty, ultra-realistic, and blindingly multifaceted take on life in Baltimore almost demands that television writers bang out heaps of articles about it (especially as the fifth, final season begins to unfold).
Some of the best chatter about the show I’ve found comes from the group blog Heaven and Here. In entry after entry, the writers digest The Wire’s meaning and intent from so many different angles that the site acts as an indispensable guidebook to the tangled streets of the show. It’s fitting that this ponderous hub of thoughtful posts is the best way to understand a work as vast and sprawling as The Wire: How else to grasp the minutiae of five seasons’ worth of dense dialogue, interlocking story lines, and Greek tragedy than with a barrage of interlocking blog posts, each taking a different look at the same show?
But hold back on reading too much until you’ve watched the whole body of David Simon’s opus—you don’t want to spoil any endings.
1/14/2008 12:46:45 PM
College students everywhere owe a great debt to Momofuku Ando, even if they don’t know why. Ando, who died January 5, 2007, is the father of the instant ramen noodle, that easy, affordable dietary staple that sustains so many through their 20s and beyond.
In the years following World War II, Ando was a businessman running a modest clothing company in Osaka, Japan. The country was going through a deadly food shortage. Fresh ingredients were nearly impossible to find, and food prices were exorbitant. It was during this lean time that Ando founded Nissin Food Products and pioneered the first instant ramen noodle in an attempt to feed the starving masses. Although the initial product wasn’t exactly the cheap source of nutrition Ando had envisioned, it slowly evolved into the 20-cent no-brainer we have today. For this, dorms and duplexes should be shrouded in black to mourn Ando’s passing. But they’re not, because few people in the United States have ever heard of him.
Baltimore’s City Paper honors Ando and other great, not-quite-famous people who died last year. Other almost-famous (or infamous) subjects include Liz Renay, a mob moll actress and exhibitionist; Paul W. Tibbits, commander of the Enola Gay, the B-29 bomber that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima; and, strangely, A Wrinkle in Time author Madeleine L’Engle, who seems too well-known for the article’s premise.
Photo by Ksionic, licensed under Creative Commons.
1/9/2008 11:41:59 AM
We just got our hands on the debut issue of a.magazine, a South Africa–based quarterly of writing, photography, and art. In the resplendent first issue, the editors clarify that the magazine will work to “highlight the modern, the beautiful, the unexpected and complex sides of Africa, while not shying away from writing or art that confronts the work still to be done.” This mission statement alone is enough to grab one’s attention—I can’t think of any magazines out there that are doing this right now—but as if that weren’t enough, the table of contents for this issue boasts well-known literary figures like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Purple Hibiscus) and Zakes Mda (Ways of Dying). A piece by Greg Marinovich, “Fence Jumping: A National Sport,” tracks the paths (literally) of Zimbabweans illegally crossing the border into South Africa, with stunning photos that prove the athleticism of the endeavor. This is one of the most exciting, promising projects I’ve seen in a long while.
1/9/2008 10:33:28 AM
If 2007 passed you by and you can’t help wondering where all the trivia went, the BBC has an answer. It’s compiled a list of 100 things it didn’t know last year—little squibs of inconvenient, peculiar, or droll factoids, perfect for whiling away the better part of a drowsy workday or fortifying your dinner-party discourse. Here are a few of my favorites:
Brazil nuts are seeds encased in an outer shell that weighs more than 1kg.
Sleeping on the job is tolerated in Japanese work culture, as long as you remain upright and obey certain other rules. It's called inemuri.
Only about half of China's population can speak the national language, Mandarin.
Well, there you go. I’m off for some rejuvenating inemuri.
Photo by eurok, licensed under Creative Commons.
1/9/2008 9:55:40 AM
Sex trafficking has been in the news recently, with in-depth investigations and editorials decrying this form of modern-day slavery. But at the same time, classified ads placed by traffickers appear in many publications, reports the Fall issue of Ms. (article not available online). And the services they’re advertising—ostensibly “Asian fun,” “Latin pleasures,” or “relaxing body work”—are often illegal.
As part of its campaign against sex trafficking, the New York chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW-NYC) is asking the city’s publications to sign an anti-trafficking pledge stating that they won’t accept ads from sources that seem likely to be trading in illegal sex. The organization’s suggested screening tactics include asking potential advertisers for a valid massage license—because many traffickers disguise their ads as massage services—and checking ad copy for references to a woman’s ethnicity, which is often a sign of trafficking.
Such efforts seem relatively unburdensome—but is it a newspaper or magazine’s responsibility to screen its ads for illegal activities, however abhorrent they may be?
Fifteen of the city’s publications, including New York magazine and the New York Press, seem to think so. Tom Allon, the president and CEO of Manhattan Media, which publishes the New York Press, told Ms. that “providing advertising space for prostitution undercuts our mission as newspaper publishers and as reporters and journalists.”
On the other hand, the Village Voice, which NOW-NYC estimates makes about $80,000 per month from its “adult” ads, hasn’t signed the pledge. And before New York magazine signed in November, a spokesperson told Ms. that when it came to adult ads, “[I]t’s a First Amendment issue. We can’t make decisions about our advertisers’ rights based on hunches.”
I see both sides of the argument, but ultimately, it seems unlikely that a crackdown on sex ads will make a significant dent in trafficking. These ads already flourish online at sites like Craigslist, and would probably have an even greater online presence if pushed out of magazines and newspapers.
NOW-NYC is promoting a worthwhile cause, but if laws and law enforcement were more effective in preventing and eliminating sex trafficking, this wouldn’t be an issue to begin with. There is, however, good news on that front—in June, the state of New York passed a comprehensive anti-trafficking law.
1/8/2008 3:16:24 PM
Not long ago, I ran with a crowd who thought one of the best things about wine was that when you finished the box at the end of the evening, you could pull the bag out, inflate it, and use it as a pillow.
These days I prefer wine from a bottle, but I’m still no wine snob. Perhaps that’s why I enjoyed Blair Campbell’s recent piece on wine in the Monterey County Weekly. It’s a fun and informed takedown of wine snobbery that also makes you want a glass.
Campbell notes a major shift in the demographics of wine consumption, away from the old-guard snobs and toward an emerging group of unpretentious, budget-conscious wine drinkers. For this new breed, she coins the term Wineaux. * Major wine-related media may not have caught up with the shift, Campbell says—magazines like Wine Spectator still mostly cater to fat-walleted aficionados—though she commends the San Francisco Chronicle’s “decidedly populist” wine section.
Campbell’s 2,600-word article ultimately outs itself as a long announcement for a new column, “Wineau,” in the Monterey County Weekly. I like what I’ve seen so far, and I’m eager to read reviews of wines I can actually afford. Cheers!
Photo by John VanderHaagen, licensed under Creative Commons.
* In the original post, we mistakenly referred to Blair Campbell as male. Sorry, Blair, and thanks for letting us know!
1/8/2008 10:03:46 AM
When future archeologists maneuver their space-chariots over the smoldering ruins of our long-dead cities, they will discover—like broken shards of pottery suggesting our fallen civilization—the Internet. What cultural icon will stand as testament to our generation’s lives? I think it will be something to do with cats.
Cats. The Internet really likes cats (or “kittehs,” as they’ve come to be known).
Internet denizens have come up with thousands of creative riffs on the primate’s simple appreciation for the feline: there’s the near-protean permutations of the humble lolcat, chatty cats and ceiling fan cats, and even cats in sinks. To honor the year in which the cat finally took over the world wide web, Neatorama has posted a roundup: The Year In Cats. The basic joke behind these “cat memes” is at first nearly impenetrable. But once you get it, you’ll be giggling to yourself for minutes, and your friends—whose inboxes you will soon flood with cute kitty pictures—will stop being your friends.
Photo by Rachel Pumroy.
1/7/2008 5:11:21 PM
Amid the torrent of coverage of Pakistan’s multiple crises, All Things Pakistan, a blog founded by Tufts University professor Adil Najam, offers refreshing and essential perspective through stories that are woven into a context that thoroughly studies and celebrates Pakistani culture as a whole.
To briefly review recent political events, on November 3 Pakistani president General Pervez Musharraf declared a state of emergency and suspended the country’s constitution. In the ensuing crackdown, members of the opposition were rounded up, protest was suppressed (often violently), and independent media outlets were censored. On December 27 charismatic opposition leader and presidential candidate Benazir Bhutto was assassinated, just 12 days before the scheduled general election. In the wake of her assassination, Pakistan’s Musharraf-aligned Election Commission has pushed elections back, ostensibly for one month, though critics worry the suspension will prove to be indefinite.
Not only has All Things Pakistan been charting the build-up to these major political crises for well over a year, the blog tells a bigger story, because it follows more on-the-ground, local issues, such as recent severe shortages in staples like electricity, flour, and sugar. And while most news outlets have pigeonholed their coverage of this “dangerous” land, All Things Pakistan has managed, even during exceptionally tumultuous times, to file fascinating stories on Pakistani architecture, literature, music, and sports.
1/7/2008 11:04:54 AM
Last summer, Cambridge University Press pulped its remaining copies of Alms for Jihad, J. Millard Burr and Robert O. Collins’ treatise on the charity-fronted funding of terrorist organizations. Cambridge’s liquidation was a direct reaction to a libel claim filed in British courts by Khalid bin Mahfouz, a Saudi businessman who objected to the book’s claim that his family had donated money to al-Qaida. In addition to destroying more than 2,000 copies, Cambridge also issued a public apology and stated that the book contained “errors” regarding its information about bin Mahfouz.
The U.S. media have been all over the story, in large part because the complaint was brought by a Saudi citizen in British court against American scholarship. But I hadn’t heard much from the authors until I read this Q&A with Collins in the December issue of Reason magazine. Other outlets, including the New York Times Book Review and the Weekly Standard, have emphasized the legal circumstances, rather than the authority of the research, involved in the case.
While it is important to grasp the international implications of British libel law, Collins’ Q&A with Reason stresses the integrity of his research and the meticulous fact-checking that characterized the production of the book. In other words, Cambridge’s claim of error appears disingenuous (though, to be fair, one ought to peruse the disavowals on Khalid bin Mahfouz’s website). Collins also notes that libraries have resisted Cambridge’s request to remove the book from their shelves or include an errata slip with each copy. (Read more about libraries that have taken steps to retain existing copies of the book here.)
Hopefully, Collins and Burr will obtain another publishing contract, and their book will have its due audience. That way, we won’t have to assume that their information and arguments are murky and contentious—we can become confused and anxious about it all on our own.
1/4/2008 5:17:06 PM
Have u heard? Mobile phone novels are selling phenomenally well in Japan. According to a recent story in the Sydney Morning Herald, five of the country’s top 10 bestselling novels in the first half of 2007 were written on mobile phones, selling an average of 400,000 copies apiece. These novels, known as keitai shosetsu, may be edited when transferred to the printed page, but they circulate on cell phones via the orthographic luxuries of a small, digital screen: Abbreviations and emoticons abound in each installment of the narrative. And not surprisingly, terse dialogue supplants scene and character development.
Both Gizmodo and ReadWriteWeb—two blogs that have chimed in on the subject—emphasize the lurid melodrama that characterizes these stories. For instance, take Koizora (“Love Sky”), which recounts the travails of a teenage girl who is gang-raped, becomes pregnant, and then miscarries. The cinematic adaptation is already something of a success in Japan.
Regardless of content, I think this is a promising trend. I now have a market for the epic poem I composed as an art project on 37 BlackBerries and 3 upside-down calculators. (If you’d rather have the clean version, you don’t have to read the calculators—I only used them to write the word “hell,” which, as we all know, is “1134” flipped on its head.)
1/3/2008 9:08:43 AM
Last month, when Viacom’s contract workers and freelancers learned that their benefits were getting the ax, their cause found an unlikely ally: Gawker.com. Perhaps in search of some karmic equilibrium following the revelation of its own questionable labor practices (see Sarah Pumroy’s post on the site’s new pay-per-page-view system), Gawker went to bat for Viacom workers by posting fliers for a Dec. 10 walkout on its website. Gawker—known for its witty, often offensive take on the news—even offered a serious, albeit patently snarky, analysis of the situation, including a look at the ins and outs of freelancing.
In an article for the Nation, Anya Kamenetz discusses Viacom’s reliance on non-union freelancers—who often contribute as much as their salaried counterparts—and the myriad ways the media behemoth maintains its bottom line at their expense. But things may be looking up: A few days after the walkout, Viacom announced additional healthcare options for some workers.
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