Thursday, April 30, 2009

Check Engine Light . . .

Wednesday, my wife took our oldest son to Dr. Destin Thayne, the Witch Doctor.

As I understand it, this is a doctor who practices, well, lemme see. Okay, he does say on his web site that he runs an “alternative health clinic.” He follows an admonition, prediction, whatever you want to call it, of Thomas Edison, who said: “The doctor of the future will give no medicine, but will interest his patient in the care of the human frame, in diet and in the cause and prevention of disease.” Not really sure what all that means, but it does mean that they had our boy put his hand on a little thing that looks like a computer mouse, but has spots for all of his fingers to rest.

By reading whatever kinds of readings they got from his fingers, they figured a few things out. I admit to being a bit skeptical about what they figured out (the main things he identified are that he has a fungal and/or parasitic infection that is causing bowel trouble, and that he has a metal allergy brought on, or so the doctor says, by the needles form his infant vaccinations). I'm a little bothered that they don't get more specific than this -- but that would require, I suppose, blood tests and would lessen the whole appeal of the process on a fortune teller level.

I am, however, willing to give this diagnosis (and treatment, which involves a handful of natural remedies and an admonition to avoid using mint within 20 minutes of taking his medicine) the benefit of the doubt, because this doctor was able to help a niece through her post partum depression after her first child was born. And it all only cost us $157, which isn’t too bad, considering the last time I went to the doctor to get my allergy meds prescription renewed, they charged me $55 and only took my blood pressure. So we’ll give these natural remedies a shot and see if they help our boy out. I’d like to think we can get at least the bowel thing taken care of, because I’m sure tired of all the poopy underwear and "butt crumbs" all over the house.

Ah, evidently the little test they did is called a Limbic Stress Assessment Scan. Here’s what they say on the doctor’s web site:

By measuring electrical conductivity through important communication points on
your hands, we can measure the level of toxic stress on your organs and
systems. The Limbic Stress Assessment system is designed to effectively
address those areas of stress and determine the best solutions possible.

The procedure is simple, painless, and sterile. Clients simply place their
hands on the Limbic Arc hand cradle and the computer runs through a sequence of
tests. The LSA System tracks your body’s physiological stress level and
records changes that occur throughout the test. By recording and analyzing
these responses we can pinpoint a clinical approach that will provide you the
greatest personalized benefit in the least amount of time.

This technology is used in various health care practices around the world. It gives
Doctors more information to consider before suggesting corrective procedures.

It all sounds so Star Trek. But, again, I’m willing to see if this works. His degree is a BEP, which I think stands for Bio-Energetic Practitioner. I assume they have schools for this. I know I sound skeptical, but actually I find it all pretty fascinating. I’m sure our bodies are telling us a lot more than we know, and that if doctors can find out a way to get these answers from our bodies, so much the better for us. It kind of reminds me of plugging a car into a computer to figure out what’s wrong when the “Check Engine” light comes on.

Michelle, I thought, was pretty smart with her approach to this. She didn't offer any information. Dr. Thayne asked, "So, is there anything in particular you're worried about," and Michelle said no -- obviously wanting, like me, to see if this diagnosis method could come up with our concerns without them being fed to the doctor in advance. I know enough from watching those shows on TV that you never, ever give people information in advance if you want them to test their detection methods (I've also learned never, ever stop in the middle of a hoedown as well, but that's beside the point). All Michelle did was confirm her concerns after the doctor brought them up. That, too, is a bit worrying on a logical sense, as the affirmation can at least let the doctor know what track to pursue. But to thoroughly test this, I'd have to hear the questions the doctor asks through a bunch of tests, rather than relying on just the two I've heard about.

So I'll keep y'all posted on this as it progresses and, certainly, if the treatment we've been given helps the targeted problems.

PS: I call Dr. Thayne "the Witch Doctor" as a jest, of course. No disrespect.

Speaking of Things I Do Not Understand



Why do people do things like this? Ya know, I could understand it, maybe, if the leader were someone like Robert Mugabe, Pol Pot or Josef Stalin, but Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands? How can anyone hold a grudge against someone named Beatrix? If you've got issues the the idea of a monarchy, sound them out in the press or with your elected leadership (which they have in the Netherlands, by the way). Ramming your little black car into a monument in an attempt to ram the royals' open-roofed bus is not the way to contribute to public discourse.

Thing is I've been to Apeldoorn, possibly have walked past the monument this nut ran into. I'm half Dutch and have visited the Netherlands on two occasions. Though I'm not a subject, I certainly don't like to see the Dutch royal family mistreated. Nor should anyone plow over fellow citizens to get one's point across, especially if the point comes at the front end of a Mitsubishi.

Hey, Apple Geniuses, Part Two

I've written here before how even thought I like my iPod Touch because of its PDA qualities, as a music player it leaves a bit to be desired. Last night on the way home from work, I ran into another reason to reinforce my feeling.

I have three albums on my Touch that are called "Greatest Hits." Yes, they are Wuss Rock greatest hits: Dan Fogelberg, Anne Murray and Seals and Crofts; I make no apologies for my tastes in music. Decided I wanted to listen to Anne Murray on the way home. So I opened up the Anne Murray Greatest Hits Album and let it play way. One song played. Then I get Dan Fogelburg. Wait a second, I said. Maybe this thing's on shuffle. No. Nested inside my Greatest Hit album were songs from the Fobelburg and Seals and Crofts greatest hits albums as well.

Why, I have to ask. It's got to be something in the coding for the Touch, because my regular iPod does not mix albums in this way. But why make the coding for one player different than the other? Mystery upon mystery.

Any explanation, Apple?

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Zane Grey: Tolstoy With Spurs

Over the years, many people have introduced me to books and authors. Zane Grey is the first author recommended to me by a fictional chracter, one Col. Sherman T. Potter, of MASH fame.

Why read a book recommneded by a fictional Korean War colonel and surgeon, aside from the fact that Potter ranks as one of the five top shouters ever to have appeared on television? I could write a lot here about how Col. Potter, acting as a bridge between the old generation and the new generation (at least as generations were related to each other in the early 1950s) also acts as a bridge between the culture of the 20s and 30s to today, but that seems a little disingenious. I've bridged that gap before, primarily through reading the works of John Steinbeck and Sinclair Lewis.

I think, rather, that this has to do with genre. To this point, the closes I've ever come to the western genre is through the books of Farley Mowat, a Canadian who transported the genre of man against nature from its traditional western setting to that of the Arctic. So to hear Col. Potter sing the praises of Sane Grey's western novels over the years finally inspired me to pick one up and give it a read. And, perhaps, Charles Emerson Winchester III's assessment of Grey "Tolstoy with spurs," also pushed me to read one of his books, just to see if Winchester is as full of hot air as I suspect.

I admit to mixed feelings. Grey writes an excellent story and has a brilliant eye for describing not only the landscapes of the west, but also writes a pretty good fight scene, viz:

Adam's grim intention was to hang on to both of them so neither could run to get a weapon. To that end he locked a hold on each. They began a whirling, wrestling, thudding battle. To make sure of them, Adam had handicapped himself. He could not swing his mallet-like fists and he had not been fortunate enough to grip their throats. So, rolling over and over with them, he took the rain of blows, swinging them back, heaving his weight upon them. Foot by foot he won his way farther and farther from where the guns lay. If one yelling robber surged half erect, Adam swung the other to trip him. And once inside the wide doorway of that octagon structure, Adam rose with the struggling men, an iron hand clutching each, and, swinging them wide apart, by giant effort he brought them back into solid and staggering impact.

Given that the novel was published in 1923, there are some bits of dialogue, notably the cliched Indian patois and the cliche of the hardened Western woman, that sound tinny to modern ears. But part of me suspects that some modern ears, mine included, just might be too ful of earwax to appreciate the dialogue taken in its historical context -- we don't mind, after all, the archaic words Shakespeare uses, do we?

So I enjoyed the book. Grey writes from a different time -- he was born in 1872 and died in 1939-- and I enjoyed hearing from that world. Some critics say his writing is overblown and thta it idolizes too much the western ideal, while others say his writing and characters is remniscient of Beowulf, in that these larger-than-life characters are not meant to be real, but ideal. As Grey himself once said “Realism is death to me. I cannot stand life as it is," I'm inclined to believe the latter critics.

Myself, I see a lot of Clark Ashton-Smith in Grey's writing, though I'm fairly sure neither author crossed paths. Grey's characters are under a geas, just as Ashton-Smith's fanciful characters are. Both authors deftly pit man against nature and man against the gods, Grey's gods being the ideals of manlihood and the reverence of nature.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Flu, Swine

Part of me suspects that there is an element in this country that wants a massive Swine Flu pandemic, just so there is something exciting to talk about besides the economic crisis.

Personally -- and even though I'm not feeling the best tonight -- I'm not worried about the Swine Flu. This doesn't come from a Pollyanna attitude, nor am I sticking my head in the sand about the whole mess. It's just a question of numbers. The way some on the Internet and in the media are talking, you'd think there were thousands dropping like flies from this latest epidemic. While there have been deaths, they're not in huge numbers. I do not want to belittle the suffering of those who have lost loved ones to the disease, but to spread fear and misinformation because of these deaths is just as bad a disservice as pooh-poohing the deaths as statistics.

Anyway, I'm going to bed. And I'm not planning any mea culpa, I'm deathly ill posts in the morning.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Space Quiz Part II

As I mentioned earlier, our son Liam is pretty fascinated with all things space. And all things that measure one's general knowledge. So once again he combined his two loves. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you Space Quiz II. On which, I might add, I got an A-. Not bad for an old fart.





Sunday, April 26, 2009

What He's Written Will Be A Window into His Madness

I try to spend my weekends as free of the Internet as possible. I'm with my family, obviously, so I have much more important things to do than fiddle away the hours on the LCD Boob Tube. This weekend, indeed, we did a lot, highlighted by a two-mile hike with three children under ten on Idaho's Cress Creek Trail, which is no slouch for showing off nature and a pretty good climb for little legs to boot. I also put out the lawn fertilizer, bug killer and did my home teaching. A rich, full weekend.

But tomorrow, I head back to work. And since I have my head in a computer all day long, the Internet does leak through from time to time. And what people write on the Internet, as well as what I write, is as Marge says: A window to our madness.

This is a mad, mad, mad, mad world.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Bad Car Karma

To all you Pontiac fans out there, I'm sorry.

GM announced this week, as we all know, that part of their recombobulation as a company that makes cars rather than a health insurance and pension company that makes cars on the side that the venerable Pontiac line will be discontinued.

This is two for two for me.

Currently, I own a Pontiac Montana minivan. (I know, inside every man driving a minivan is a teenager wondering what the hell happened.) I rather like it. It's been a good vehicle for us and has taken us safely for many thousands of miles. Regular readers of this blog, however, will have noted that in the past year it, as many other GM vehicles, has suffered from a bit of automobile leprosy, but that's to be expected ina vehicle with nearly 200,000 miles on it.

So now the Pontiac line is dying.

I did mention I'm two for two. The vehicle I owned previous to this one was also from GM, but a sedan, namely an Oldsmobile Cutlass Calais S. It, too, suffered from automobile leprosy and, before I bought it, had suffered some kind of accident and subsequent cut-rate paint job that could best be described as "tiger-stripe." It looked ugly but the engine and transmission ran like a nut and it saw me through my last year of college and four years of marriage.

And, shortly after I bought it, GM announced it was discontinuing the Oldsmobile line. It's obvious I carry a bad car karma with me. (I have owned other cars, of course, but when I bought them their line had already died out, so I cannot be blamed for that.)

So, auto enthusiasts, if there's a brand out there you'd like killed, let me know. We're currently shopping for a new vehicle.

Addendum: Our Montana has only 123,000 miles on it, so I consider myself chastised. But the still-vengeful vehicle has another trick for us: A bulb has burned out in the dash, leaving part of the speedometer underilluminated. I'm sure it would cost $200 in labor to replace a 5 cent bulb, so that work isn't going to happen.

Friday, April 24, 2009

COSMOS!


We've updated Uncharted yet again, continuing our string of updates since the site went live more than three months ago.

Behold this week the power of Kitt Peak. Read the story here. Read the Uncharted blog entry about the story here.

More Wuss Rock

Ironically, I was introduced to The Christy Minstrels by a missionary in France. He said his folks had 8-tracks of this group and played them while traveling in their RV -- so they remind him of home.

Oddly, I, too, have memories of this group. My sister Marina used to play her guitar and sing this song all the time. Most of my childhood memories are linked to sounds, so listening to this song really helps me delve deep into those memories. I can see myself sitting with my brothers and sisters on the floor in Marina's room -- sitting on that crazy candy-striped carpeting -- as she plays. Bunkbeds on the wall, because there were eight kids in a house with four bedrooms. I can see her fingers strumming the guitar and hear her singing. Happy times.

O Pioneers

Waaay back in 2007, we participated in a pioneer handcart trek with our ward in Sugar City. I've just written a story about it for Uncharted, which you can read here.

I hope it's not too maudlin.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Inadequacies

Back in 2005, I came face-to-face with the Peter Principle, popularized by the book of the same name by Dr. Laurence J. Peter. Basically, the Peter Principle says that in hierarchies, individuals rise to the level of their own incompetence and then rise no more.

I was, kindly said, an incompetent editor at the Post Register. Planning has never been my long suit, and a newspaper editor's job entails a lot of planning. I recognized that I was incompetent at it then, and still recognize it now. Incompetence isn't a pleasant thing to recognize in yourself, but I believe that it's better recognized by yourself quickly so that you can do something about it. Back in 2005, my idea of doing something about it was changing careers. That was a frightening experience, as at the time I had no idea what career I wanted to go into. That year I did bricklaying, early-morning retail and telemarketing. I could have gotten better at the first. The second didn't pay nearly enough. The third quickly reassured me that it was not only newspaper editing that I was incompetent at.

So now I'm a technical writer. I'm happy. I feel competent. Feeling competent is a great feeling. I now know, however, that if the opportunity arises to become the technical writing lead that I will not be taking it. I've evolved into one of those characters Dr. Peter says understand where their level of incompetence is and do what they can never to reach that level again.

Does that mean I'm lazy, or unwilling to stretch my abilities and comfort zones? To the first, no. To the second, yes and no. An unwillingness to stretch may in part be an unwillingness to learn, but it may be at the same time the recognition that stretching often leads to breaking. I've felt what it's like to be broken, and it's not a lot of fun, folks.

So now I'm facing a similar situation -- thankfully not at the day job where I can demonstrate my competence. I have to decide if I want to continue stretching, or if I want to avoid breaking. It's going to be a tough decision.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Only A Matter of Time

Figured it would happen eventually: Got my first Viagra-themed spam tweet on Twitter. Did they have to use a femalush-sounding name?

It's just like Balki Bartokamus said: Some people have to take a gods thing (Twitter, in this case) and pound it into the ground.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Shirky Test

Those who can help the American newspaper industry find a business model or models that work in the Internet Age will be hailed among the publishing geniuses of the 21st Century.

That sounds like hyperbole. I believe it is not.

Nor does Clay Shirky, Internet consultant, author and instructor at New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, who in an essay entitled “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable,” published at www.shirky.com on March 13, 2009, argues convincingly that the transition from print to Web is as revolutionary as the transition from hand-copied and woodcut texts to books, pamphlets and any other kind of printed matter mass produced by the printing press.

Johannes Gutenberg’s invention meant the Holy Bible could be mass produced, and in local languages, not just Latin, Shirky writes. At the same time, books and pamphlets of every stripe – from the erotic to the works of Copernicus and the Theses penned and subsequently printed by Martin Luther also spread, flooding Europe with printed matter and ideas unavailable to the common man before the presses started running.

“This is what real revolutions are like,” Shirky writes. “The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment it appears; bit changes stall, small changes spread. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen.”

Shirky himself can’t predict what will happen. But he does offer in what he calls the “Unthinkable Scenario” a tool technical communicators and journalists may use to vet the models, tools, and ideas proposed as newspapers continue their transition to the Web. I’ll call it the “Shirky Test.”

The Unthinkable Scenario

Shirky’s “Unthinkable Scenario” goes like this, framed as a discussion that never happened:

The ability to share content wouldn’t shrink, it would grow. Walled gardens would prove unpopular. Digital advertising would reduce inefficiencies, and therefore profits. Dislike of micropayments would prevent widespread use. People would resist being educated to act against their own desires. Old habits of advertisers and readers would not transfer online. Even ferocious litigation would be inadequate to constrain massive, sustained law-breaking. (Prohibition redux.) Hardware and software vendors would not regard copyright holders as allies, nor would they regard customers as enemies. DRM’s requirement that the attacker be allowed to decode the content would be an insuperable flaw. And suing people who love something so much they want to share it would piss them off.

The Shirky Test, extracted from the Unthinkable Scenario, sets a set of simple criteria technical communicators can use to determine whether an idea is different enough from what has already been tried to merit further study. The most important of those criteria include: 1) Imagining that traffic due to links and Google searches isn’t as important as traffic from traditional readers, 2) Making readers pay for online content after the content had been offered for free for more than a decade, 3) Overreliance on the traditional Internet advertising model of banner ads and other ads that depend on massive numbers of click-throughs for overall profitability, 4) Assuming that reader and advertiser habits in print media will be the same for online media, and, 5) Dependence on litigation to stop online copying of content. Another criteria, also from Shirky’s essay, is 6) Avoiding too literal a translation of the current business model onto the online model. Those familiar with the Web have seen many of these “unthinkables” come to pass:

  • No one is getting the same rate for Internet advertising as they were for print advertising, even with the number of eyeballs looking at it increasing from thousands to hundreds of thousands.

  • Walled gardens – think of the New York Times’ “Times Select” and that odd little era when CNN.com wanted Internet viewers to pay to watch their news videos – have fallen with the joyful noise of the Berlin Wall.

  • Despite the Recording Industry Association of America’s failure to stop file-sharing despite copious litigation, the Associated Press is now considering such litigation not only against news aggregators like Yahoo! and Digg.com, but against individual bloggers with the temerity to use AP content in a fashion that falls outside the current loosey-goosey Fair Use Doctrine.

Further discussion of how technical communicators (and anyone else for that matter) can apply the Shirky Test to current and proposed online business model solutions is covered later on in this essay. An idea need not pass every Shirky Test criteria to be successful, but if an idea fails too many of them, it’s very likely the idea won’t work as the core part of a new online business model.

The Role of Technical Communicators

Technical communicators will have the primary role in applying the Shirky Test to new online news business models. That technical communicators need to be involved is clear, because old-school attitudes about the impacts of the Internet on journalism hold sway among most of those involved in journalism today. For example, a poll published in The National Journal on April 11, 2009, shows that of 45 media insiders (including representatives of television, newspapers, magazines and radio) polled, 29 agreed with the statement that the Internet has hurt journalism more than it has helped. Many of the comments by those surveyed echo tenets of Shirky’s Unthinkable Scenario:

  • “The benefits flowing from the tremendous new availability of information have yet to adequately offset the damage that the rise of this new business model has done to the expensive, risky, labor-intensive work of gathering, editing, packaging and delivering reliable information from places and people that are often hard to get to and unwilling to help.”

  • “I’ve always maintained that we benefit from the numbers and diversity of news sources in this country. The Internet is shrinking both those things without providing an alternative which is as good, at least so far.”

The Journal, fortunately, takes this poll a step further, asking 32 politically-oriented bloggers the same question. The numbers are startlingly different. Of the 32, 25 said they believe the Internet has helped journalism more than hurt it. Even three of the seven who said the opposite take it purely from the perspective that it is the newspaper business model that has been hurt, not journalism itself. Again, in the responses, we can hear echoes of Shirky’s scenario:

  • “Traditional outlets have been damaged, and I think that bloggers underestimate the contribution of those outlets; however, lots of new people are producing good work in spaces that weren’t available 10 years ago.”

  • “The old gatekeepers of the news have been overthrown. It will certainly change as we know it, but with the advent of true citizen journalism in the micro sense, the information is much more readily available and, at times, more in-depth.”

Technical communicators have clear roles in helping other professionals apply the Shirky Test. First, technical communicators are among the professionals recognized as knowing how readers interact with the Internet and are becoming increasingly adept in explaining this interaction to others. Technical communicators can work with journalists to construct agile Web design protocols to quickly test reader cognition of new ideas that pass the Shirky Test to see if they’ll work with readers’ online habits.

Second, technical communicators represent an outside group of communication professionals who can evaluate the newsroom, the Internet, and journalism education to identify strengths in both the media and the education, and to identify areas where the media and education are insufficient.

Third, technical communicators can help journalists identify what works in the old model. Much of that groundwork has already been laid by studies conducted by the likes of the Newspaper Association of America and the American Society of Newspaper Editors, which have long recommended that newspapers focus on local reporting over everything else to attract and retain readers. Though newspapers have these reports, most have been chided for going too slowly to implement the changes outlined in them. Reader cognition experts with a cold, outside eye ought to be able to spur newspaper innovation along more quickly.

And finally, technical communicators can help journalists identify what is not working as newspapers transition from print to web. A telling report published by the Readership Institute in July 2008 states that 62 percent of those polled had never visited their local paper’s Website, and that only 14 percent had visited their local paper’s Website within the last seven to 30 days. Technical communicators can outline tools and approaches online newspaper sites can take to increase not only their Web traffic but their daily relevance to current and potential readers. This could include asking readers what sites they find indispensible as they surf the Internet each day and then studying those sites to see what good practices newspapers could adopt.

Conversely, journalists can show technical communicators the best of journalism – from writing to commentary to ethics and credibility – as both work to integrate what makes journalism good into what makes the World Wide Web increasingly the place people want to find it.

Taking a critical look at journalism education will also identify likely gaps in how current journalism students are taught to use the Web in their chosen profession. Right now, it’s typical that a class might be offered in vague terms on “online media,” but the unfortunate truth is that, for most students, the assumption in journalism education is that they are already familiar enough with the Internet that no specific instruction on how to use it (or how not to use it) is offered.

Experimental Applications of the Shirky Test

So how can the Shirky Test be applied? Let’s take the example of two of the criteria outlined in the test and apply it to business models both proposed in the past and proposed currently as newspapers face unprecedented pressure to remain profitable while building their online presence.

Shirky brings up two salient points which make or break models for online journalism: First, the model where individuals pay for content, either through subscriptions or micropayments, is dead. Newspapers let that genie out of the bottle in the 1990s, and there's likely little that can be done to put it back in. Second, Shirky posits that a truly sustainable business plan can't result in a literal translation of the old business model of a newspaper being “a general-purpose vehicle for publishing a variety of news and opinion.” as Shirky says.

Applying the Shirky Test to the walled garden argument is simple, as many news outlets have already experimented with the model and given it up. Walled gardens are simply structures in which readers have to pay for all or a portion of an outlet’s online content, much as they have to pay for a printed edition (unless they borrow it from someone else). The New York Times, for example, in giving up its paid subscription model in 2007, stated the following:

What changed, The Times said, was that many more readers started coming to the site from search engines and links on other sites instead of coming directly to NYTimes.com. These indirect readers, unable to get access to articles behind the pay wall and less likely to pay subscription fees than the more loyal direct users, were seen as opportunities for more page views and increased advertising revenue.

“What wasn’t anticipated was the explosion in how much of our traffic would be generated by Google, by Yahoo and some others,” Ms. [Vivian L.] Schiller [then senior vice president and general manager of NYTimes.com] said.

Technical communicators and savvy journalists ought to be able to jump in to explain to news outlets – including the Associated Press, which is currently considering walled gardens and micropayments as a business model – why what the New York Times discovered in 2007 still makes sense today.

Next, let us take another “unthinkable” from the Shirky Test: literal translation of the old business model into the digital world. Spot.us is a San Francisco non-profit organization which hopes to collect payments from readers interested in seeing a certain story published, either in the mainstream media or online. The company asks news seekers to pay $15 to $20 apiece to fund, say, a report on why it takes so long for the City of Oakland to repair potholes. The work would be done by trained journalists working on a freelance basis. They’d be paid through the donations sent in by readers before the reporting and writing was done. If a completed story is published in a paying venue, then the money that comes from the sale is sent back to the individual readers, who are encouraged to “invest” the money in another story.

The idea, unfortunately, fails to pass the Shirky Test, on at least two fronts. First, the idea of micropayments – of which the “investment” model is derivative. Secondly, spot.us’s model mirrors the current freelance journalism model – an attempt to translate the old business model into the digital world. Other evidence that this model violates the Shirky Test will be presented later.

What’s most interesting about applying the Shirky Test is to see that there are some in the Internet industry who don’t understand its implications. For example, Google CEO Eric Schmidt, according to TIME Magazine, told the Newspaper Association of America in early April 2009 to use the cable television model as its new revenue model: in other words, pay-as-you-go online news. Another walled garden. Another failed Shirky Test.

Others have proposed that newspapers work with Internet service providers to get a portion of the monthly fee Internet users pay for broadband access. Another walled garden – and a payment ISPs aren’t likely to shoulder themselves. Another failed Shirky Test.

To survive, those looking for the revolutionary ideas -- and I believe it will be a conglomeration of ideas, not one easy to summarize silver bullet -- will have to ensure their ideas pass the Shirky Test. This revolution will include things old -- notably niche publications that can focus, for example, on hobbies, travel, and entertainment -- to things new. But each will have to be brought to Shirky to see if the ideas pass muster.

"No one experiment," Shirky adds, (and spot.us’ founders are realistic enough to say this as well) “is going to replace what we are now losing with the demise of news on paper, but over time, the collection of new experiments that do work might give us the journalism we need.” Technical communicators and journalists can use the Shirky Test to determine if ideas to be tested are different enough from the current business model to be worth a try.

Monetizing Will Be Critical

At the same time the Internet has liberated would-be publishers from the expense of the printing press, it has made it increasingly difficult for publishers to turn a profit.

“With the old economics destroyed, organizational forms perfected for an industrial production have to be replaced with structures optimized for digital data,” Shirky writes. “It makes increasingly less sense even to talk about a publishing industry, because the core problem publishing solves – the incredible difficulty, complexity, and expense of making something available to the public – has stopped being a problem.”

In other words – making the move from print to digital is fine, but the model that moves has got to be one that makes money. That a model makes money is an important addition to the Shirky Test.

For example, spot.us – realistic souls that they are – admit that the money their model is able to raise to fund a story “probably undervalue[s]” the time and talent of the writers involved, as David Cohn told ReadWriteWeb in an interview about the project in March 2009.

Additionally, Cohn told ReadWriteWeb that to sustain spot.us even as a non-profit, the company would be dependent on voluntary contributions from readers already funding stories. Growth would also be inhibited. Cohn said his idea is for spot.us to spread to other cities than San Francisco – but at the company’s expense. Its code and platform are open source, meaning anyone interested in starting a business that acts and look exactly like spot.us in any city on the planet can be done without those individuals paying a cent to its originators. This suggestion may pass the Shirky test in banning literal translations of the old business model to the digital environment, but it is hardly a way to make a living.

Monetizing isn’t a problem that’s limited to old media on the Web. New media is also struggling with a broken business model. Examples include Twitter, the popular micro-blogging site that has yet to make a penny for is developers, to sites like YouTube, which will lose its owner, Google, $470 million this year alone as the company struggles to pay for the Internet’s version of the expensive printing press: bandwidth. A report at Slate.com says Credit Suisse, a financial services company studying the Internet, says Google will spend $360 million this year alone to provide the necessary bandwidth for YouTube viewers to view their videos, while the company sells advertising on only 10 percent of its videos.

Some insist more radical approaches to finding revenue are needed. “We are in the middle of a crisis in advertising, not journalism,” writes Kirk Cheyfitz, a former journalist and CEO of Story Worldwide, a company that aims to turn traditional advertisements into a text that doesn’t interrupt what people want to watch or read, but is part of it.

“The heart of the problem,” Cheyfitz writes, is the narrow definition of what can constitute ‘advertising.”

This assumption automatically flies in the face of the print business model, which always calls for a wall between editorial and advertising – a recent example of that wall being breached occurred in early April 2009 when the LA Times ran a “story as advertisement” touting a new NBC television show on the front page of the newspaper.

That may be. But the concept passes the Shirky Test.

Conclusion

Using Delphi studies and reader cognition, technical communicators can outline tools and approaches online newspaper sites can take to increase not only their Web traffic but their daily relevance to current and potential readers. This could include asking readers what sites they find indispensible as they surf the Internet each day and then studying those sites to see what good practices newspapers could adopt.

Technical communicators and journalists who can successfully apply the Shirky Test to new ideas as a digital model of print journalism is built will be the heroes of the publishing world in the 21st century.

    Barbed Wire


    This morning, sitting in a cone of light on the bus as it plowed through the darkness to work, I finished reading Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago (or at least the first third of it) as translated by Thomas P. Whitney. It’s definitely something I’ll follow up with by reading something a bit lighter.

    Gulags. Work camps, prisons and worse scattered across the Soviet Union, where millions went to work, many to die. I won’t belittle their plight with my own pithy thoughts, as I have none. In the face of what Solzhenitsyn details, what can we say? Not even “never again,” because that is a lie. What is Guantanamo Bay, but a Gulag the government tells us is necessary, one filled with criminals. Or potential criminals. Or Very Bad Men. Does our government lie with the proclivity that Solzhenitsyn recounts in his? Probably not. We don’t see things like this:

    Here is one vignette from those years as it actually occurred. A district party conference was under way in Moscow Province. It was presided over by a new secretary of the District Party Committee, replacing one recently arrested. At the conclusion of the conference, a tribute to Comrade Stalin was called for. Of course, everyone stood up (just as everyone had leaped to his feet during the conference at every mention of his name). The small hall echoed with “stormy applause, rising to an ovation.” For three minutes, four minutes, five minutes, the “stormy applause, rising to an ovation” continued. But palms were getting sore and raised arms were already aching. And the older people were panting from exhaustion. It was becoming insufferably silly even to those who really adored Stalin. However, who would dare be the first to stop? The secretary of the District Party Committee could have done it. He was standing on the platform, and it was he who had just called for the ovation. But he was a newcomer. He had taken the place of a man who’d been arrested. He was afraid! After all, NKVD men were standing in the hall applauding and watching to see who would quit first! And in that obscure, small hall, unknown to the Leader, the applause went on – six, seven, eight minutes! They were done for! Their goose was cooked! They couldn’t stop now till they collapsed with heart attacks! At the rear of the hall, which was crowded, they could of course cheat a bit, clap less frequently, less vigorously, not so eagerly – but up there with the presidium where everyone could see them? The director of the local paper factory, an independent and strong-minded man, stood with the presidium,. Aware of all the falsity and all the impossibility of the situation, he still kept on applauding! Nine minutes! Ten! In anguish he watched the secretary of the District Party Committee, but the latter dared not stop. Insanity! To the last man! With make-believe enthusiasm on their faces, looking at each other with faint hope, the district leaders were just going to go on and on applauding till they fell where they stood, till they were carried out of the hall on stretchers! And even then those who were left would not falter . . . Then, after eleven minutes, the director of the paper factory assumed a businesslike expression and sat down in his seat. And, oh, a miracle took place! Where had the universal, uninhibited, indescribable enthusiasm gone? To a man, everyone else stopped dead and sat down. They had been saved! The squirrel had been smart enough to jump off his revolving wheel.

    That, however, was how they discovered who the independent people were. And that was how they went about eliminating them. That same night the factory director was arrested. They easily pasted ten years on him on the pretext of something quite different. But after he had signed Form 206, the final document of the interrogation, his interrogator reminded him:

    “Don’t ever be the first to stop applauding.”

    (And what are we supposed to do? How are we supposed to stop?)

    Not that’s what Darwin’s natural selection is. And that’s also how to grind people down with stupidity.

    I make no commentary on our current political climate, or the climate of the past eight years. But this kind of mentality – without the arrests – applies to America today. No one on the left or the right can be found to be the first to stop applauding, lest he or she be accused of “abandoning” the extreme thought of either the Republican or Democratic parties. It’s this kind of dogma that is causing the Republican crisis today, the same dogma that caused Democratic crises in the past.

    Also the same is that no matter what party is in charge, adherents to that party overwhelm all others with smug. Since we are Right, you must be Wrong, and since you are Wrong, you can’t possibly have anything to do or say or think that is Right. And maybe that’s too extreme. Maybe that’s just my warped thinking, or the biases of the extremes showing up in the media, on the Internet (both of which skew to the left in the loud sectors). Or is this all part of an innate desire to believe that what one believes is correct and that investigating other things that we do not believe but that others say are correct is too time-consuming and cumbersome an experience, so we neglect to learn? I think many that do learn are among the many who “sag in the middle,” as I do politically.

    Solzhenitsyn anticipates this impasse:

    So let the reader who expects this book to be a political expose slam its covers shut right now.

    If ony it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

    During the life of any heart this line keeps changing place; sometimes it is squeezed one way by exuberant evil and sometimes it shifts to allow enough space for good to flourish. One and the same human being is, at various ages, under various circumstances, a totally different human being. At times he is close to being a devil, at times to sainthood. But his name doesn’t change, and to that name we ascribe the whole lot, good and evil.

    Socrates taught us: Know thyself!

    Confronted by the pit into which we are about to toss those who have done us harm, we halt, stricken dumb: it is after all only because of the way things worked out that they were the executioners and we weren’t.

    Therein lies the true challenge, the true test of politics, of the soul: Will we be executioners of thought, of protest, of conversation, of debate, of politics or religion or anything else, merely because we can and because we’re right? Or will we pause, stricken dumb, and consider what it is like for the executees? Mercy is always mine. Justice I leave to the one expert we know will get it right.

    Saturday, April 18, 2009

    Sour Grapes?

    I've come down pretty hard on the media here the past few weeks. Trying now to figure out if some of my nattering is fueled by sour grapes. After all, I am a former newspaper person myself who got burned out by the job to the point I made some really stupid mistakes that with less understanding employers could have cost me my job. That I left at the time rather than fight the internal battle to reform myself was a good thing for me and for the paper. The wise editor who gently (and with mutual assent) showed me the door said then that things would turn out, probably, for the better. And they did. I'm on a job and in a career path that for my temperament and abilities is fitting. I'm also not dealing with the realities of The Peter Principle, as this job -- compared to the one I left behind -- doesn't leave me sitting in an area of my own incompetence. I have learned when I'm good at being a leader, and when I'm good at being a follower.

    So what's the moral? Are my thoughts this week fueled by any resentment against my former career? As I see it, possibly. Mostly by regrets that I didn't work harder as a journalist, partly by regrets that I didn't take hold of coaching opportunities offered by those with more experience. And a smidge there that many of my cries for help were dismissed as unimportant or put on the backburner in favor of other priorities.

    I'm glad to be where I am. I can tell that, on occasion when U'm called in to pick up the tools of my former job as a journalist there is relief that I worked on those skills (interviewing, being able to talk to multiple sources) and that I have them, and relief to that I can call on them when I want them, but not because I have to.

    Friday, April 17, 2009

    Local Evidence of Mom and Pop Journalism

    The past few weeks here have seen a lot of posting and discussion (well, a lot for this blog, anyway) about the future of online journalism, and how newspapers especially need to look for a new model for getting their news online. Part of that discussion has focused on how the Internet has freed people who want to express their voices -- in opinion, news or whatever -- from the cost of the printing press.

    During those discussions, I've talked a little bit about what I want to call Mom-and-Pop Journalism, in which a small number of dedicated individuals create a website meant to serve their local community in spreading news. Little did I know that I'd stumble across a fairly good example of that very thing in my own backyard. Behold South Fremont News and Views.

    This is a very snappy little Website dedicated to news -- right now, lots of school news -- in the St. Anthony, Idaho area. The city is small -- population of less than 3,000. Traditionally and up until a few years ago, it was served by its own local paper, the Fremont County Herald-Chronicle, where I actually worked for just over a year. At that time, the county actually had five papers covering the area -- the aforementioned HC, the Warm River Journal in Ashton, the Island Park Villager and the Island Park News in Island Park, and the regional Post Register out of Idaho Falls. Several years ago, the Post bought the Journal and the Villager along with another upstart St. Anthony paper called the South Fremont Stand, and turned out the Fremont Current, which ran for about a year and a half before it shuttered. Then a few years after that, Standard Journal, Inc., the Rexburg company that owned the paper, shut down the HC, leaving their Rexburg paper, the Island Park News, and the Post Register as the papers in the area.

    Now that the boring history is over, on to the meat: South Fremont News and Views is treading on the localized, chicken-dinner journalism traditional newspapers say will be their saving grace in this Internet age. If I were the local papers, I'd be worried a bit, especially if this site can get a following. Right now, it's fueled, literally, by a mom and pop, a couple I remember vaguely as being civic-minded when I was at the Herald Chronicle. That's going to be the secret of online local journalism -- and the bane of newspapers thinking they're the only ones who can do it.

    I've read a few of their stories. They're not necessarily journalism -- and that's not necessarily a bad thing, as journalism, especially for straight news in this area, tends to be a bit on the staid side. But this mom-and-pop group is giving it a good go. A story they've written on the closure of a local elementary school due to the state's financial crisis is just as good as anything I'd expect to read in a local paper. That right there ought to have local print journalists worried. All these folks need is a following, and the print papers will see their subscriptions dwindle.

    These folks don't have any ads on their site. It appears they're writing out of a passion to help their community better. That, folks, is the future of online local journalism.

    OK, AK

    So Ashton Kutcher won the race to be the first person with one million Twitter followers. I will be gracious and congratulate him, thought I'm sure he doesn't care that I have done so. Not that he's snotty in looking down on the minions who did or did not follow him, but that he's got no time considering how many tweets he's likely reading at the moment. I can't handle the number of tweets I get, and I'm still in the double-digits, following-wise.

    I've Ruined My Boy

    All signs indicate that my youngest son Isaac has inherited my taste in clothing. This morning, as his Dad loomed over him wearing a red shirt and green sweatshorts, looking everything like a discount Christmas item bin at Wal-Mart, Isaac pouted as he was not allowed to wear his clothing of choice: Fire engine red shorts with an orange stripey shirt. Even though the last time his mother saw him in that outfit she went blind for an hour, Isaac insisted that the ensemble was acceptable. I had to tell him no because last time, after the blindness wore off, I was the one disciplined for letting the boy's tastes in color get the better of me.

    Now, I subscribe to the purely utilitarian male view on clothing: Functionality. If it covers enough of what I am legally and socially bound to cover, I don't care what color it may be, whether it has stains or holes in it, or whether or not an item of clothing, when worn with another, can incite riots among color-sensitive mental patients.

    I've promised my wife no photographs.

    And I have passed this trait on to my son. My wife fears for his future wife. I say he's just ready to go to the hardware store.

    Thursday, April 16, 2009

    Trifecta: Peak, Peek, and Pique

    The Grammar Nazi, for reasons that are becoming more clear, is considering a name change: Word Nazi. Thus far, all of my posts under this guise have been on spelling and word choice, not grammar. The only things that compel me to stick with the Grammar Nazi monicker is its broad applicbaility and ubiquitous meaning.

    That, however, is only a trivial matter. On to today's business.

    First, the mantra. Pursue pursue pursue pursue pursue. It's getting easier. Part of my trouble may be that pursue is awkward to type. Almost, in fact, as awkward as awkward.

    Today's egregious sin is the phonetic confusion of three words:

    peak, meaning the pinnacle, or top;

    peek, meaning (verb) to take a quick, furtive glance, and (noun) a quick, furtive glance, and;

    pique, meaning to provoke, arouse, or stir.

    Say each word in rapid succession and you won't hear a difference in pronunciation. That won't change if you mix the order and say them slowly, either, as all three words are pronounced the same. All three words, however, have pronounced difference in meaning.

    Peak, as far as I can tell, seems to be the preferred spelling, or misspelling, as it were. See peak misused for peek here, and peak misused for pique here. (Do a word search; the Grammar Nazi can't do everything for you.)

    Monogamus Internet Bigamy

    The past few weeks, I’ve written a bit here about the state of the media on the Internet. Though tere is some really serious stuff to discuss on this issue, there are also instances where what transpires goes beyond the serious to the silly. Included in this is the asinine Twitter race between CNN Breaking news and actor Ashton Kutcher.

    This is what Kutcher said, in throwing down the gauntlet to CNN, in a typical Web video, shot while the actor was driving down some freeway:

    “I found it astonishing that one person can actually have as big of a voice online as what an entire media company can on Twitter.”

    As big of a voice. As big of a voice. Yeah, I suppose if you’re looking at sheer numbers – right now, the race between Kutcher and CNN Breaking news separates the two by only 12,000 Twitter followers, with CNN on top – that one person could actually have as big a voice online as an entire media company. But what’s being missed in this asinine contest – and in many of the arguments and the lack of empathy for news companies struggling to monetize the Internet – is that you have to consider what the voices are saying. Just because one person has as much of an online voice as a major media company, by counting the number of Twitter followers, does not automatically mean that this one person has as much important information to share with that audience as the media giant does.

    Twitter, while it has its uses, is not much different from RSS feeds or any other kind of service that gets message from Person A to Person B (and by person I mean anything from an individual shouting into the darkness to a media company shouting live 24 hours a day). Satirists, I believe, nail the average Twitter user when they say that Twits aren’t necessarily interested in knowing what the others on Twitter are doing, but are certainly interested in letting everyone else know what they’re up to.

    I, myself, have been on Twitter for a while now. My first earth-shattering tweet – “Anyone for cribbage,” a throwaway line from an old Donald Duck cartoon on workplace safety – earned me a follower, evidently the proprietor of one of the largest cribbage-based Websites in the known universe. Others followed at random, finding me somehow through my own shouts into the darkness, but to say my “followers” know me beyond the crap I tweet and the cave painting I use for my avatar would be a lie. I have followers I know, and I follow them – but what we say to each other comes as no surprise, since we communicate more fully through other venues that don’t limit our shouts to 140 characters or less.

    So to say one has a voice as big as a media company on Twitter – and to opine that that is such an amazing thing, is virtually meaningless. Can Ashton Kutcher – or CNN for that matter – really believe that their near one million followers hang on every word they utter? I have 42 twits I follow. Nearly every time I turn on my iPod Touch and open up TwitterFon, I have at least a hundred tweets to read. I’m regular readers of three or four of them – but only one of them, philthethrill, a Los Angeles-area policeman, offers anything remotely interesting that I can’t find in other venues such as blogs, or e-mails and telephone calls from my friends. And yet I find the desire for more followers – and more to follow – strangely alluring. Almost as if Twitter were legalizing bigamy in a way, but a strictly monogamus bigamy in that consort and consortees are in the same room but never allowed to touch. Or maybe a harem is a more apt metaphor, because in a harem one has one’s favorites but holds on to the rest out of some vague necessity that if the caliph next door has a bigger harem, all is not right with the world.

    A Question for the Apple Geniuses

    I know it's a favorite joke of Apple enthusiasts to ponder why, when shutting off a PC, we have to click on the "Start" button.

    I counter with this: Why, when listening to music on my iPod Touch, do I have to turn it on, move the slider, open my music whatsit and then press stop to turn the music off?

    I'm waiting . . .

    Wednesday, April 15, 2009

    DOWN WITH PROTESTS! Part Two

    Those who lean to the left are having a field day with these tax day tea parties. Yes, I mean their joy in connecting the word (and concept) of teabagging to a conservative protest. I havent' seen news people have this much fun with a word since they got to repeatedly use the word penis in connection with Lorena Bobbitt.

    Their glee is asinine and pitifully juvenile. How can the party that so loquaciously speaks of (and fawningly covers) gay rights protests, million men marches, G-20 protests and the like with avuncular objectivity sink into middle school when it comes to fixating on a word that the tea party groups aren't really even using to describe their protests? I think this is, again, evidence that the left enjoy their power in the media and on the Internet and don't mind making the other guy look childish. You can bet that if conservative media were to call gay rights protests anything as uncomplimentary as teabagging is to the tax day protests, the left would be livid.

    As it is, their behavior, and tittering over this word, demonstrates that while the Reublicans may be the Party of No, the Democrats are the Party of Middle School.

    DOWN WITH PROTESTS!

    The, well, I’m not sure what to call them. The anti-tax people. The anti-government bailout people. The conservative protesters who are going to see their protests dovetail with activists hoping to legalize marijuana so the drug can be taxed and fix everybody’s economic problems. Those guys. They picked a very snowy, rainy day to have their protest in Idaho Falls.

    It’s not that I don’t mind activism, or object to free speech. I just think the picketing demonstration is so clich├ęd now as to be utterly useless as a form of change. The civil rights movement was able to enact social change though protests because of the time in which they were held and with the novelty of their approach. We now practically have million-man-marches every year on everything from gay marriage rights to anti-tax. We’re bored by protests and pickets. The only way they get on the news is if local media does some one-minute blurb or if, as with the G-20 summits, the picketers are anarchists who wear bandannas over their faces and assault police vehicles and storefront windows.

    I feel the same way about lobbying. Hey, look at me, I’m a lobbyist. I have money. You have votes. Let us meet and make this A Better World ® for everyone! Everyone? Really. Not really.

    I also feel the same way about blogging. Who reads this crap anyway?

    Anyway. I wish the picketers luck today. They’ll get on the news tonight, in the paper tomorrow. And nothing will come of it.

    Now, if I were to protest something, these would be my Top 5:

    5) People who insist on calling children “crotchfruit.”
    4) Silver-white winters that instead of melting into spring cling to power like some depraved dowager empress with her wig askew and makeup all over her bloated face.
    3) The John Tesh Radio Show.
    2) Warts.
    1) Furniture stores that are perpetually “Going Out of Business.”

    I Must Stop Now

    I can tell I need to stop thinking about technical communicators and journalism for a little while. I just had some more thoughts this morning that I added to the essay in yesterday's post. I still don't know if it's worthwhile. But it's done, at least in the rough stage.

    Tuesday, April 14, 2009

    The Essay

    Addendum April 15: Added to the "Role of the Technical Communicator" section today, concerning journalism education.

    Addendum: Arrgh! Then there's stuff like this I keep finding. I must be on the front edge of something if I keep finding fresh material to read about it.

    Blogger's Note: I'm floating this rough draft out here in the hopes that someone (anyone) will comment on it and let me know if I've gone to La-La Land here somewhere. I'm certainly no genius, I will confess to that.

    Newspapers Desperately Need Technical Communicators who Know the ‘Shirky Test’

    Brian Davidson
    Utah State University 2009

    Those who can help the American newspaper industry find a business model or models that work in the Internet Age will be hailed among the publishing geniuses of the 21st Century.

    That sounds like hyperbole. I believe it is not.

    Nor does Clay Shirky, Internet consultant, author and instructor at New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, who in an essay entitled “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable,” published at http://www.shirky.com/ on March 13, 2009, argues convincingly that the transition from print to Web is as revolutionary as the transition from hand-copied and woodcut texts to books, pamphlets and any other kind of printed matter mass produced by the printing press.

    Johannes Gutenberg’s invention meant the Holy Bible could be mass produced, and in local languages, not just Latin, Shirky writes. At the same time, books and pamphlets of every stripe – from the erotic to the works of Copernicus and the Theses penned and subsequently printed by Martin Luther also spread, flooding Europe with printed matter and ideas unavailable to the common man before the presses started running.

    “This is what real revolutions are like,” Shirky writes. “The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment it appears; bit changes stall, small changes spread. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen.”

    Shirky himself can’t predict what will happen. But he does offer in what he calls the “Unthinkable Scenario” a tool technical communicators and journalists may use to vet the models, tools, and ideas proposed as newspapers continue their transition to the Web. I’ll call it the “Shirky Test.”

    The Unthinkable Scenario

    Shirky’s “Unthinkable Scenario” goes like this, framed as a discussion that never happened:

    The ability to share content wouldn’t shrink, it would grow. Walled gardens would prove unpopular. Digital advertising would reduce inefficiencies, and therefore profits. Dislike of micropayments would prevent widespread use. People would resist being educated to act against their own desires. Old habits of advertisers and readers would not transfer online. Even ferocious litigation would be inadequate to constrain massive, sustained law-breaking. (Prohibition redux.) Hardware and software vendors would not regard copyright holders as allies, nor would they regard customers as enemies. DRM’s requirement that the attacker be allowed to decode the content would be an insuperable flaw. And suing people who love something so much they want to share it would piss them off.

    Those familiar with the Web have seen many of these “unthinkables” come to pass:

    No one is getting the same rate for Internet advertising as they were for print advertising, even with the number of eyeballs looking at it increasing from thousands to hundreds of thousands.

    Walled gardens – think of the New York Times’ “Times Select” and that odd little era when CNN.com wanted Internet viewers to pay to watch their news videos – have fallen with the joyful noise of the Berlin Wall.

    Despite the Recording Industry Association of America’s failure to stop file-sharing despite copious litigation, the Associated Press is now considering such litigation not only against news aggregators like Yahoo! and Digg.com, but against individual bloggers with the temerity to use AP content in a fashion that falls outside the current loosey-goosey Fair Use Doctrine.

    The Role of Technical Communicators

    Technical communicators will have the primary role in applying the Shirky Test to new online news business models.

    That technical communicators need to be involved is clear, because old-school attitudes about the impacts of the Internet on journalism hold sway among most of those involved in journalism today.

    For example, a poll published in The National Journal on April 11, 2009, shows that of 45 media insiders (including representatives of television, newspapers, magazines and radio) polled, 29 agreed with the statement that the Internet has hurt journalism more than it has helped.

    “The benefits flowing from the tremendous new availability of information have yet to adequately offset the damage that the rise of this new business model has done to the expensive, risky, labor-intensive work of gathering, editing, packaging and delivering reliable information from places and people that are often hard to get to and unwilling to help,” writes one respondent – an echo of Shirky’s “Unthinkable Scenario.”

    “I’ve always maintained that we benefit from the numbers and diversity of news sources in this country,” writes another. Then, in another echo of Shirky’s scenario, the respondent adds: “The Internet is shrinking both those things without providing an alternative which is as good, at least so far.”

    The Journal, fortunately, takes this poll a step further, asking 32 politically-oriented bloggers the same question. The numbers are startlingly different. Of the 32, 25 said they believe the Internet has helped journalism more than hurt it. Even three of the seven who said the opposite take it purely from the perspective that it is the newspaper business model that has been hurt, not journalism itself.

    Again, in the responses, we can hear echoes of Shirky’s scenario:

    “Traditional outlets have been damaged,” writes one of the blogger respondents, “and I think that bloggers underestimate the contribution of those outlets; however, lots of new people are producing good work in spaces that weren’t available 10 years ago.”

    “The old gatekeepers of the news have been overthrown,” writes another respondent. “It will certainly change as we know it, but with the advent of true citizen journalism in the micro sense, the information is much more readily available and, at times, more in-depth.”

    Technical communicators are among the professionals recognized as knowing how readers interact with the Internet and are becoming increasingly adept in explaining this interaction to others. Technical communicators can work with journalists to construct agile Web design protocols to quickly test reader cognition of new ideas that pass the Shirky Test to see if they’ll work with readers’ online habits.

    More importantly, technical communicators represent an outside group of communication professionals who can evaluate the newsroom, the Internet, and journalism education to identify strengths in both the media and the education, and to identify areas where the media and education are insufficient.

    First, technical communicators can help journalists identify what works in the old model. Much of that groundwork has already been laid by studies conducted by the likes of the Newspaper Association of America and the American Society of Newspaper Editors, which have long recommended that newspapers focus on local reporting over everything else to attract and retain readers. Though newspapers have these reports, most have been chided for going too slowly to implement the changes outlined in them. Reader cognition experts with a cold, outside eye ought to be able to spur newspaper innovation along more quickly.

    Second, technical communicators can help journalists identify what is not working as newspapers transition from print to web. A telling report published by the Readership Institute in July 2008 states that 62 percent of those polled had never visited their local paper’s Website, and that only 14 percent had visited their local paper’s Website within the last seven to 30 days. Technical communicators can outline tools and approaches online newspaper sites can take to increase not only their Web traffic but their daily relevance to current and potential readers. This could include asking readers what sites they find indispensible as they surf the Internet each day and then studying those sites to see what good practices newspapers could adopt.

    Conversely, journalists can show technical communicators the best of journalism – from writing to commentary to ethics and credibility – as both work to integrate what makes journalism good into what makes the World Wide Web increasingly the place people want to find it.

    Taking a critical look at journalism education will also identify likely gaps in how current journalism students are taught to use the Web in their chosen profession. Right now, it’s typical that a class might be offered in vague terms on “online media,” but the unfortunate truth is that, for most students, the assumption in journalism education is that they are already familiar enough with the Internet that no specific instruction on how to use it (or how not to use it) is offered.

    Experimental Applications of the Shirky Test

    As I'm in the alternative online news business with my work at Uncharted.net, a travel and adventure website where we seek to combine the worlds of journalism and social media, I like to observe and learn as other entrepreneurs try to figure out business models and sustainability plans for their online journalism projects. Our experiments are not perfect. Any opportunity to learn from the successes and failures of others will be a boon as we undertake our own reader cognition studies to make our Website – and our business – what we want it to be and what our readers think it ought to be.

    Postmortems of many of our ideas show clearly how vetting them through the Shirky Test could have revealed flaws early on, saving us time as well as money.

    Shirky brings up two salient points which make or break models for online journalism: First, the model where individuals pay for content, either through subscriptions or micropayments, is dead. Newspapers let that genie out of the bottle in the 1990s, and there's likely little that can be done to put it back in. Second, Shirky posits that a truly sustainable business plan can't result in a literal translation of the old business model of a newspaper being “a general-purpose vehicle for publishing a variety of news and opinion.” as Shirky says.

    Applying the Shirky Test to the walled garden argument is simple, as many news outlets have already experimented with the model and given it up. Walled gardens are simply structures in which readers have to pay for all or a portion of an outlet’s online content, much as they have to pay for a printed edition (unless they borrow it from someone else). The New York Times, for example, in giving up its paid subscription model in 2007, stated the following:

    What changed, The Times said, was that many more readers started coming to the site from search engines and links on other sites instead of coming directly to NYTimes.com. These indirect readers, unable to get access to articles behind the pay wall and less likely to pay subscription fees than the more loyal direct users, were seen as opportunities for more page views and increased advertising revenue.

    “What wasn’t anticipated was the explosion in how much of our traffic would be generated by Google, by Yahoo and some others,” Ms. [Vivian L.] Schiller [then senior vice president and general manager of NYTimes.com] said.

    Technical communicators and savvy journalists ought to be able to jump in to explain to news outlets – including the Associated Press, which is currently considering walled gardens and micropayments as a business model – why what the New York Times discovered in 2007 still makes sense today.

    Next, let us take another “unthinkable” from the Shirky Test: literal translation of the old business model into the digital world.

    Spot.us is a San Francisco non-profit organization which hopes to collect payments from readers interested in seeing a certain story published, either in the mainstream media or online. The company asks news seekers to pay $15 to $20 apiece to fund, say, a report on why it takes so long for the City of Oakland to repair potholes. The work would be done by trained journalists working on a freelance basis. They’d be paid through the donations sent in by readers before the reporting and writing was done. If a completed story is published in a paying venue, then the money that comes from the sale is sent back to the individual readers, who are encouraged to “invest” the money in another story.

    The idea, unfortunately, fails to pass the Shirky Test, on at least two fronts. First, the idea of micropayments – of which the “investment” model is derivative. Secondly, spot.us’s model mirrors the current freelance journalism model – an attempt to translate the old business model into the digital world. Other evidence that this model violates the Shirky Test will be presented later.

    What’s most interesting about applying the Shirky Test is to see that there are some in the Internet industry who don’t understand its implications. For example, Google CEO Eric Schmidt, according to TIME Magazine, told the Newspaper Association of America in early April 2009 to use the cable television model as its new revenue model: in other words, pay-as-you-go online news. Another walled garden. Another failed Shirky Test.

    Others have proposed that newspapers work with Internet service providers to get a portion of the monthly fee Internet users pay for broadband access. Another walled garden – and a payment ISPs aren’t likely to shoulder themselves. Another failed Shirky Test.

    To survive, those looking for the revolutionary ideas -- and I believe it will be a conglomeration of ideas, not one easy to summarize silver bullet -- will have to ensure their ideas pass the Shirky Test. This revolution will include things old -- notably niche publications that can focus, for example, on hobbies, travel, and entertainment -- to things new. But each will have to be brought to Shirky to see if the ideas pass muster."No one experiment," Shirky adds, (and spot.us’ founders are realistic enough to say this as well) “is going to replace what we are now losing with the demise of news on paper, but over time, the collection of new experiments that do work might give us the journalism we need.” Technical communicators and journalists can use the Shirky Test to determine if ideas to be tested are different enough from the current business model to be worth a try.

    Monetizing Will Be Critical

    At the same time the Internet has liberated would-be publishers from the expense of the printing press, it has made it increasingly difficult for publishers to turn a profit.

    “With the old economics destroyed, organizational forms perfected for an industrial production have to be replaced with structures optimized for digital data,” Shirky writes. “It makes increasingly less sense even to talk about a publishing industry, because the core problem publishing solves – the incredible difficulty, complexity, and expense of making something available to the public – has stopped being a problem.”

    In other words – making the move from print to digital is fine, but the model that moves has got to be one that makes money. That a model makes money is an important addition to the Shirky Test.

    For example, spot.us – realistic souls that they are – admit that the money their model is able to raise to fund a story “probably undervalue[s]” the time and talent of the writers involved, as David Cohn told ReadWriteWeb in an interview about the project in March 2009.

    Additionally, Cohn told ReadWriteWeb that to sustain spot.us even as a non-profit, the company would be dependent on voluntary contributions from readers already funding stories. Growth would also be inhibited. Cohn said his idea is for spot.us to spread to other cities than San Francisco – but at the company’s expense. Its code and platform are open source, meaning anyone interested in starting a business that acts and look exactly like spot.us in any city on the planet can be done without those individuals paying a cent to its originators. This suggestion may pass the Shirky test in banning literal translations of the old business model to the digital environment, but it is hardly a way to make a living.

    Monetizing isn’t a problem that’s limited to old media on the Web. New media is also struggling with a broken business model. Examples include Twitter, the popular micro-blogging site that has yet to make a penny for is developers, to sites like YouTube, which will lose its owner, Google, $470 million this year alone as the company struggles to pay for the Internet’s version of the expensive printing press: bandwidth. A report at Slate.com says Credit Suisse, a financial services company studying the Internet, says Google will spend $360 million this year alone to provide the necessary bandwidth for YouTube viewers to view their videos, while the company sells advertising on only 10 percent of its videos.

    Some insist more radical approaches to finding revenue are needed. “We are in the middle of a crisis in advertising, not journalism,” writes Kirk Cheyfitz, a former journalist and CEO of Story Worldwide, a company that aims to turn traditional advertisements into a text that doesn’t interrupt what people want to watch or read, but is part of it.

    “The heart of the problem,” Cheyfitz writes, is the narrow definition of what can constitute ‘advertising.”

    This assumption automatically flies in the face of the print business model, which always calls for a wall between editorial and advertising – a recent example of that wall being breached occurred in early April 2009 when the LA Times ran a “story as advertisement” touting a new NBC television show on the front page of the newspaper.

    That may be. But the concept passes the Shirky Test.

    Conclusion

    Using Delphi studies and reader cognition, technical communicators can outline tools and approaches online newspaper sites can take to increase not only their Web traffic but their daily relevance to current and potential readers. This could include asking readers what sites they find indispensible as they surf the Internet each day and then studying those sites to see what good practices newspapers could adopt.

    Technical communicators and journalists who can successfully apply the Shirky Test to new ideas as a digital model of print journalism is built will be the heroes of the publishing world in the 21st century.

    Monday, April 13, 2009

    NW Squirrel News Continues Unabated and Unrivalled

    Just in case you were wondering if we at Mr. Fweem's Blog were slacking on our continued efforts to route excellent Pacific Northwest squirrel new your way, check this out: Spokane, Wash., plans to BLOW UP SURPLUS SQUIRRELS.

    Blog as Inbox

    I‘ve had a few people ask me a rather good question: Why do I blog, and, on a more general sense, why do I write?

    Because I can, is my pat response.

    But it struck me this morning that in many ways this blog is my inbox for my writing projects outside of work. Any writer, of course, is always writing, and I’m lucky enough to have enough diversified types of writing going around that I’m able to stay fresh (OK, at least active if not necessarily original 100 percent of the time. Or even 10 percent of the time). Waaay back when I was a newspaper reporter, for instance, I noticed my creative writing was suffering, because a lot of the things I was writing at the day job were intruding onto that platform. I had a hard time separating the two creative veins. Now that my day job is mostly technical writing, there’s little to no interference. And I have Uncharted, which is like journalism but is most importantly like the stuff I really enjoyed in journalism, so it doesn’t feel like work. Much.

    But it’s on this blog that I get to kick around ideas, try a few writing and rhetorical exercises, think out loud and otherwise do some experiments. Not everything here is a gem. Most of it is absolute crap. But there are a few things I can read and re-read and think, well, that wasn’t too bad.

    Just like Mr. Incredible and Frozone, I like to write to “stay loose.” While most of the time I may resemble an incompetent bad guy, I realize a lot of what I do here is just clearing out the inbox, then filling it up again with other little ideas. Hope that helps. Some of the things I work on for this blog may turn into something quite different. Others may go nowhere. But at least I'm using the ol' brainium every day. That's what counts.

    Medieval Help Desk

    I first saw this video a few years ago (under which circumstance I cannot recall). But considering what I've been blogging about here for the past week, it's pertinent once more. As Clay Shirky indicates in his essay "Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable," the newspaper business is undergoing right now a revolution akin to when the printing press arrived. Seeing this IT help guy assist the monk struggling with the transition from scroll to book is hilarious, but at the same time telling of the struggles we're seeing in the print-t0-web platform today. Enjoy.

    Sunday, April 12, 2009

    Ooh, What A Hypotwit

    As I've done my reading the past few weeks ok the news media and it's shaky relationship with the Internet, one comment on something I read has lingered in the ol' brainium. The commented, a current member of the media, sneered at the primary post, deriding its substance and its author because the author confessed to being "a former reporter." The commented seemed to think that since the comments came from someone no longer affiliated with -- and somewhat disappointed by -- the media, that the comments were somehow less valid. That is a significant attitude coming from an individual working in an industry that uses whistleblowers, the disgruntled and easily talkative, and the industry rebels as part and parcel of their trade. Why not, I wonder, listen to the recently departed, who certainly have reasons to be disheartened with the industry, unless, of course, you don't want to hear whatever they may have to offer.

    I, myself, am a former journalist, one who left for two reasons:

    1) I screwed up. Muffed two stories in the same issue. I have no defense, though I bristle at being called a lazy reporter -- I was called this -- for the slipups. They were not intentional. Nor was I habitually lazy.

    2) I was tired of the business. A second strike against me, obviously, in the eyes of those still in the business. But considering how many Idaho journalists have left journalism for greener pastures (Randy Stapilus keeps a list of them at ridenbaugh.com) I'm not alone. Nor do I feel shamed by it. I got my current job as a technical writer because my boss saw in my resume a person who could meet deadlines -- and I do that. I do many other things for which I developed the skills as a journalist. And, more importantly, I'm now able, both on and off the job, able to write passionately about the things I want to write about. No more boring city council meetings fir me. there are reporters out there who enjoy a good meeting, and for that I am grateful. I'm also glad I'm not one of them.

    So, should my "checkered" past disqualify me as an extremely minor commentator on the state of the media today? No. If I were in the nuclear industry (which I am) and were only minorly incompetent (which I am, and which everyone is to some extent) the old media types would be glad to hear from me and others like me. But the saying goes that lawyers don't like to sue other lawyers out of professional courtesy. It appears that attitude is mirrored in media as well.