August 2009

The Hacker Journalists

Renay San Miguel:

Most of those attending were using social media long before “social media” became the easy buzz-phrase to describe not only a revolution in communications, but also a symptom of what’s good—and bad—about modern journalism. I put myself in the camp that wants to meld social media with best journalistic practices, which is why I was one of the geeks attending the Gnomedex session entitled “Hacker Journalism.”

Aug. 31, 2009 journalism webdev

District 9

An apartheid allegory meets E.T. meets The Fly. Good, but not great.

Aug. 28, 2009 movies reviews scifi

Blade Runner

I first saw Blade Runner at Chicago’s gorgeous Music Box Theatre in late 2007, when Ridley Scott released to theaters his “final cut” of the film ahead of the December DVD release.

It was unlike any film I’d seen before, and I loved it. I watched it again last week, and I love it even more. Intelligent science fiction is a tough combination—it’s all too easy for directors to forsake the story for special effects and futuristic gadgetry—but Blade Runner pulls it off in spades, and for that, it’s one of my very favorite films.

Aug. 25, 2009 movies reviews scifi

Making the Clackity Noise

Merlin Mann:

I’ve learned that my job is to just sit down and start making the clackity noise. If I make the clackity noise long enough every day, the “writing” seems to take care of itself. On the other hand, if there’s no clackity noise, no writing. No little stories. The stories may be in there, alongside God knows what else, but there’s no way to know. You must make the noise.

Aug. 24, 2009 writing


It’s very hard not to like Ponyo, the latest film from Hayao Miyazaki. Sure, the story is simplistic and lacks the sophistication of Princess Mononoke or Spirited Away, but that’s OK, because visually it’s irresistible.

Ponyo is a waltz through a fantastic and magical world, and every frame is a joy to behold. Accept the plot for what it is—an excuse for Miyazaki to loose his fertile imagination on something new: the sea—and just revel in the experience.

It’s not Miyazaki’s best, but it’s a very satisfying film nonetheless.

Aug. 21, 2009 animation movies reviews

Unicode Table for You

Paul Ford’s very neat Unicode toy.

Aug. 21, 2009 webdev

Dive into HTML5


Aug. 20, 2009 html5 webdev

Kind of Bloop


Aug. 20, 2009 chiptunes jazz music

A Josh Wilker Reading

On the Chronicle podcast.

Aug. 20, 2009 baseball podcasts sports


For anyone in or around the industry, it’s been the unavoidable question of the last few years: How can we save newspapers?

It hasn’t always been put in those exact terms, of course. Just two years ago I was taught that newspapers simply needed to reduce expectations and realize that high margins were no longer possible. The monopoly was gone, but the fundamentals, as it were, remained strong.

We now know that they are not. Journalistically, perhaps, the fundamentals are unchanged—though even that is a debatable statement. But the business model on which that journalism depends could not be weaker.

And so, as papers fold and quarterly reports grow grim, print media tread on uncertain ground. And the question is: What’s to be done to save them? But it’s a misleading question, one that assumes newspapers in their current form should be saved.

Much has already been written on the subject, with the short-sighted looking for increasingly unrealistic ways to preserve newspapers. And there’s the problem, as the forward-thinking have realized: Newspapers don’t need saving—it’s journalism that does.

Journalism itself is independent of any medium. It exists as ink on a page, pixels on a screen, sound in the air—but it is not really any of those things. New means of communicating will develop, and journalism will follow. Saving newspapers for the sake of journalism couldn’t make less sense. Claiming that newspapers need preserving assumes that, through new technology, journalism can’t be made better.

What then of the news organizations behind the newspapers? Perhaps, one might say, they’re worth saving.

Again, that’s a bit disingenuous. Is it even possible to save those news organizations as they are? To date, that’s been nearly impossible. Revenue from the print side has withered, and news organizations, bloated and overreaching, have been unable to support themselves with meager Web revenues.

Newspapers as they are cannot survive on the Web. They’re too large, too unfocused, too general. Look at the successful, independent web publications of the day, and you’ll find they are everything newspapers are not: small, hyper-focused and reader-driven. More importantly, though, there is no pay wall, which many newspaper publishers see, however wrongheadedly, as the answer to their woes.

So here’s where we are: Newspapers—the physical products—have little hope of surviving as they are. The same holds for the news organizations that publish them. They just aren’t viable in an age when the day’s news can be had instantly, for free, from any number of Web publications. Magazine publishers, living in their world of niches, have long known that general-interest news is incredibly hard to monetize—you don’t see many newsweeklies today for a reason.1

But it’s a lesson that newspapers are only now learning. What, then, is the future of printed news?

Make Something Awesome

Print as a medium need not die, and I certainly hope it doesn’t. Printed products do many things far better than their digital equivalents. But to survive, print does need to reinvent itself.

Before long, all content will be digitized and available for download cheaply, if not for free. And why shouldn’t it? Digital content is cheaper to distribute, infinitely reproducible, instantly available, searchable—the list of advantages grows long, and will only grow longer as devices and experiences improve. But there will always be something missing, I think, when you’re not holding in your hands a physical, purchased good, and that difference, that experience, is to be exploited. Bits on a hard drive or pixels on a screen—they’re fleeting, gone with the press of a button. A beautiful print product resists that pull.

Vendela Vida, author and co-editor of The Believer, spoke in 2007 with Jesse Thorn on The Sound of Young America about the magazine:

Jesse Thorn: One time your husband [Dave Eggers] came to one of my college classes, and somebody asked him, “I want to start a magazine. What should I do?” And his two pieces of advice were, (1) don’t start a magazine, it’s not worth it, and the (2) was make sure that you can pay for the magazine with the price of the magazine rather than having to rely on advertisers. […]

It seems to me as though one of the elements of this plan is to create something that has more of a lasting value. A lot of periodicals are designed to be very much of the moment, and it seems like you designed it to be of the opposite.

Vendela Vida: My favorite thing that someone said to me once about The Believer was that it was the hardest magazine for him to recycle. And I like that, because we do try to make it more like a literary journal that you want to keep on your shelves and not something that comes in the mail and you throw out the next week. And part of that longevity does stem from the fact that because we’re not timely or relevant or anything like that you don’t need to throw it out when the week comes to an end. It’s not going to tell you what to do on Saturday night or what book came out this week, and so there is something that has more of a lasting appeal, to me at least, about it.

That, I think, is the future of print in a digital world. It won’t work for every publication or every type of content, but that’s OK—it doesn’t have to, not with the Web and e-readers available as publishing platforms.

Print media can’t compete with the Web as a means of publishing simple information and news, nor should it be so. To be successful, print products—newspapers, magazines, books and anything in between—must make use of the medium and offer something that can’t be duplicated online or on an eight-inch screen: something beautifully made, worth keeping (as much for the content as the design) and thus worth paying for. Offer anything else and you’re competing against a platform that trumps you, or soon will, in almost every way. But make something awesome, and people will pay for it.

For traditionally printed publications, this new model means radical changes. No more dumping content verbatim from one medium to another, or relying on one to subsidize the other. Daily newspapers will disappear: the news of the day moves exclusively to the newspaper website2, while a lavish print product is published once a week or twice a month, perhaps, filled with content much like that soon to appear in the McSweeney’s newspaper prototype:

Issue 33 of McSweeney’s Quarterly will be a one-time-only, Sunday-edition sized newspaper—the San Francisco Panorama. It’ll have news (actual news, tied to the day it comes out) and sports and arts coverage, and comics (sixteen pages of glorious, full-color comics, from Chris Ware and Dan Clowes and Art Spiegelman and many others besides) and a magazine and a weekend guide, and will basically be an attempt to demonstrate all the great things print journalism can (still) do, with as much first-rate writing and reportage and design (and posters and games and on-location Antarctic travelogues) as we can get in there. Expect journalism from Andrew Sean Greer, fiction from George Saunders and Roddy Doyle, dispatches from Afghanistan, and much, much more.

For print, it’s a reduced role, to be sure, but the Web cannot be stopped in its reinvention of journalism. As soon as publishers realize that fact—and start taking advantage of it—we’ll see productions on each side that are greatly improved and better suited to their mediums and the media landscape today.

  1. Overall, magazines are struggling too, with ad revenues way down. Beyond the business model problems, printed magazines face tough competition, much like newspapers, from online artisanal news. The model’s there, but most magazines have been slow in adopting it. 
  2. Most newspaper websites need significant overhauls, to say nothing of the design. The key is in the content: Make your site the go-to place for information about your community. And that means more than just news stories—trusted, fraud-free classifieds; compelling community blogs; etc. Curate, aggregate and make your site indispensable for your readers. 

Aug. 20, 2009 journalism publishing

How to Do What You Love

A classic from Paul Graham:

To do something well you have to like it. That idea is not exactly novel. We’ve got it down to four words: “Do what you love.” But it’s not enough just to tell people that. Doing what you love is complicated.

Aug. 11, 2009 creativity ideas passion

Artisanal News

This, I think, is the future of the industry.

Aug. 11, 2009 journalism

The Right Way

Chris Ahearn, President of Media at Reuters:

I believe in the link economy. Please feel free to link to our stories — it adds value to all producers of content. I believe you should play fair and encourage your readers to read-around to what others are producing if you use it and find it interesting.

Vs. the wrong way:

Visitors to the Web sites of newspapers owned by News Corp. will have to start paying fees to read the news within the next year, Chairman Rupert Murdoch said.

Aug. 7, 2009 journalism