Monday, November 26, 2012

Selling Dead Trees

"One of the problems of publishing a newspaper is that you have to sell something that is dead.  
"It was once alive, standing high in leafy splendor in the woods, swaying, breathing and sighing. But it has not only been cut down; it is floated down rivers, soaked in water, ground up, treated with chemicals, made into pulp, and put through rollers until it comes out as paper, shipped to SanFrancisco, trucked to Monterey and then run through a press. 
Not even the smallest bug on the bark, nor the smallest termite inside the tree, can stay alive through all this ordeal. 
"We can sell these pieces of dead trees only by creating the illusion that they are alive. This we attempt to do, with varying success, by headlines that grip the eye and written material that clutches the heart and soul of man." 
-- from a November 1963 editorial by Ed Kennedy, editor of the Monterey Peninsula Herald (renamed the Monterey County Herald in 27 years later).
Manuel Roig-Franzia, my former colleague at the Washington Post, quoted that editorial in part in a recent profile of Kennedy, whose experiences as a correspondent  during World War II are the subject of a posthumous autobiography, Ed Kennedy's War: V-E Day, Censorship, and the Associated Press. Sounds like quite a yarn -- in dead-tree form or digitally.

Printing press photo above by WenRoo via iStockphoto.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

All The Judgment That's Fit To Download

"I think that paper and ink are here to stay for the kind of newspapers we print. There’s no shortage of news in this world. If you want news, you can go to cyberspace and grab out all this junk. But I don’t think most people are competent to become editors, or have the time or the interest. . . . You’re not buying news when you buy The New York Times. You’re buying judgment." 
-- Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, in a 1997 interview after he stepped down as chairman of the New York Times Company. Sulzberger died yesterday. He was 86. 

The Times launched its website the year before Sulzberger retired and a century after his grandfather Adolph S. Ochs bought the paper. The Times' Jan. 22, 1996, story about the newspaper's new site helpfully defined the web for readers, as we had to do back then. calling it "the Internet's fastest-growing service, which lets computer users see electronic publications consisting of text, pictures and, in some cases, video and sound." The story also noted that the Times had already been publishing a digital edition called "@times" via America Online since 1994:

"The Web site's global audience means a larger potential readership than that of @times, which is limited to America Online's subscribers, currently more than four million."

(The screen shot from Nov. 22, 1996, above is the earliest New York Times homepage I could find on the Internet's Archive Wayback Machine.)

Friday, September 14, 2012

'A Past That Wasn't Even My Past'

Two of the main characters in Michael Chabon's latest novel, Telegraph Avenue, own a used record store in a land that modern retail forgot near Berkeley. Talking to host Tom Ashbrook on WBUR's On Point, Chabon explained that the novel emerged in part from his own chronic nostalgia -- a lifelong struggle he said began during his childhood in suburban Maryland.

The author speaks in the kind of sprawling sentences he is famous for writing, editing himself a little along the way. So the remarks below were edited slightly to take out the stray words he crossed out while he was talking:

"Speaking for myself, and I think it's true for my characters too, what I experience is a kind of ongoing sense of loss.... But that is something that has affected me my whole life, in the sense that the past is slipping away from us. Something, a feeling, an emotion I became aware of as a kid -- maybe...when a building gets torn down in a city, and suddenly on the adjacent building, covered up for many years by the building that was just torn down, a huge painted advertisement appears for some shop or product or service, long vanished, with a telephone number that has two letters first for the telephone exchange -- a 'KLondike 5' kind of thing. And seeing that as a kid, as an 8-year-old, 9-year-old kid, I was already overcome by a sense of loss. And it was the loss of something I had never actually even experienced or had.... 
"I'm not a technophobe.  I am not a Luddite at all. I embrace the present and I anticipate the future. But at the same time, I just feel like I've gone through this lifelong process of having things that were pretty great, pretty amazing, that were just as good as they could be kind of vanish and pass away.... 
"That's just how I'm wired. And just to bring the subject back to vinyl a little bit: The first record that I was allowed to put on to the family record player, and to operate the record player myself, to turn on the switch, lower the needle and all the series of sacred steps involved in the rural of playing a record -- that record was a record called 'Themes Like Old Times,' which was a collection on vinyl of the themes and introductions from several dozen classic radio shows of the 1930s and '40s. So my first encounter on vinyl that I was controlling myself was with all this popular material from a past that wasn't even my past. And I can remember when I was listening to an intro to a show like The Whistler or The Shadow or Henry Aldrich [The Aldrich Family] or one of those radio programs, and just having this crazy, irrational sense of having lost it all, and it was never mine to begin with."
Photo above by Travis Smith (tsautoart) via iStock.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

A Roomba With a Viewpoint

From a conversation in my office earlier today:

Me: "... not that I'm prejudiced against robots." 
Another editor: "Wait until they make you kneel down before them after the revolution."

My coworker and I were talking about whether typical news site readers would appreciate -- or even recognize -- the difference between a collection of selected user comments chosen by an editor rather than an algorithm. The consensus in our meeting of journalists, social media experts and designers was, yes, the readers probably could tell -- but maybe we were just whistling past the recycling bin.

We also imagined a John Henry-like contest to see if we're right.

As for the robot revolution, THAT is just a matter of time.

(Image above by Thomas Vogel via iStock.)

Sunday, February 19, 2012

'Internet Is Coming'

When NPR correspondent Pam Fessler switched desks recently, she came across a 1994 memo she'd saved heralding the Internet's arrival in the newsroom. "Internet is coming to NPR!" the memo began -- before helpfully explaining just what the Internet was:
"Internet is a collection of computer networks that is connected around the world...."

The iPhone photo of that old memo shown above comes from assistant producer Sam Sanders. Sam posted it on the Instagram photo-sharing service last week. That's where NPR's multimedia staff saw it and shared it on their Tumblr page, where it was quickly "liked" and re-blogged hundred of times. All of this just underscores how much the world has changed in a mere 18 years -- as does the fact that the memo was sent in paper form to begin with.

Along with Pam's copy of a 20-page manual handed out the following month to explain how to use email, that 1994 memo brought back memories from those relatively early days on the digital frontier. OK, "early" for those who weren't directly involved in academia, technology or national security.

NPR's Internet link was established around the same time I joined the staff at the News & Observer in Raleigh-Durham, N.C. -- one of the very first newspapers to invest heavily in online anything. I was hired to cover science and technology. My only qualification: The editors told me I was one of the first reporters they'd met who had a personal email address.

The cluster of universities and technology businesses that make up North Carolina's Research Triangle area meant I was writing for a readership that was unusually well-connected digitally. But the newspaper's editorial style also required me to define any terms I used in my stories that were not yet in common use. Not so easy, given my beat, which led to some fairly contoured phrases in my stories.

In a February 1995 article about a hacking case, I had to define the "the Internet," which I called "a vast matrix of interconnected computers used by millions of people." A few months earlier, in a story about free speech online, I called the Internet "a decentralized, international web of computer networks."

Another article from that same time was about a new online patent database. That one required me to define "the World Wide Web," which I dutifully described as "a graphical, easy-to-use way to look for digital information from around the globe." That was November 1995, not long after the first versions of Netscape Navigator, Internet Explorer and AOL's rudimentary browser began popularizing the Web.

To protest this frustrating style edict, I sometimes seeded my stories with Yiddish words from the "sch-" pages of the dictionary. In one article, I referred to a three-dimensional computer model of rat's nose used for toxicology research as a "cyber schnoz."

"You can't cut that," I told the copy editors. "It's in the dictionary."

Speaking of the dictionary, I should probably remind you that newspapers were a paper-based format for distributing news and advertising to large audiences.

The format was popular in 19th and 20th centuries -- before it was superseded by a decentralized, international web of computer networks called the Internet.