With News Worth Less, is Less News is Worth More?

Newspapers are dying all over the country. Television news, on both the local and national levels, is cutting back. We live in a news environment that has more commentary than ever but less and less original reporting.

For reporters and media professionals, this is an opportunity.

Original, investigative, reporting was once fairly standard in newsrooms and, unless the scoop was Watergate big, unremarkable in itself. The relative absence of original information in today’s market, however, and the increase in the number of outlets hungry for news about which to opine, has turned the discovery of new information into an opportunity for a multimedia platform.

Two fairly recent sports books brought this notion to mind. When Selena Roberts learned that Alex Rodriguez, one of baseball’s biggest stars, had used performance enhancing drugs, it turned her about to be released book into an event. She gave interview after interview, in print, on television, on the radio, to blogs, and had an excerpt of the book run in Sports Illustrated (where she is a Senior Writer), all based around what was essentially one fact. Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams had a similar experience with their book, Game of Shadows, about Barry Bonds and his steroid supplier.

During the relative frenzy around their books, the authors seemed to me, at times, to be like a student with a particularly great science fair project who’s asked to show it to all the other classes. “Take a look at my fact. I found it myself.”

In both cases the author(s) already had a strong platform, Sports Illustrated and the San Francisco Chronicle, respectively,  from which to promote their discoveries And in years past the outcome of their work might have been a great magazine article or a series of hard hitting newspaper stories, not a multimedia blitz.

The opportunity then, is in the increased potency of new information that might not otherwise have been discovered. While such nuggets once created a news story or drove it forward, now they’re a book deal and a tour up and down the television dial.

With News Worth Less, is Less News is Worth More?

What Zombies Can Tell Us about the Aughts

You can a lot about a culture from the monsters it embraces. Sometimes even things it might not know about itself. (And we’re talking literal monsters, like werewolves and such. While Bernie Madoff certainly counts as a monster under most definitions, say, no child outside of Palm Beach leaves their closet light on just in case he’s in there.)

In the boom times, earlier this decade, the our monster of choice was the zombie. Starting with the film 28 Days Later and continuing with Dawn of the Dead, the reverent spoof Shaun of the Dead, the excellent black and white comic The Walking Dead, and even the Resident Evil franchise of video games and movies, zombies were everywhere.

What we didn’t know at the time was that zombies really were everywhere.

In everyday life we were surrounded by zombie institutions. Banks and brokerages leveraged past the point of viability, and with portfolios of worthless assets, shuffling about their business until being told that they’d actually been dead for years.

A news media that let a war get sold to the public on provably false pretenses while producing the same millions of column inches and hours of talking heads it always had. Reading or watching it, you’d hardly know they missed anything.

A political system that turned against itself. A justice department actively trying to influence elections. A disaster agency designed to prove, at high human cost, its own inadequacy. A Congress content to argue on the margins with constitutional principles at stake. It seemed like it was still mostly doing what it always did while inside it was rotting.

Maybe the zeitgeist was trying to warn us.

If the early and mid- part of this decade belonged to the zombie, what does it mean that now the monster of the moment is the vampire? (Twilight, True Blood, The Vampire Diaries…) I’m not sure, but I suspect things are about to get mean.

(And I’d keep a close eye on one’s precious bodily fluids, just in case.)

What Zombies Can Tell Us about the Aughts

The NBA Draft and the Power of Empty Vessels

The NBA Draft is just about my favorite sports event of the year. I prepare for it like I have a stake in the outcome. I’ve got seriously considered opinions on dozens of basketball players, many who I’d not even heard of 12 months ago. When the Knicks make their pick, I will be elated or crushed based on the thinnest of evidence.

I will judge within seconds if teams did well or poorly which, considering we won’t know for years how things will turn out, is ridiculous. I will not be alone in this mania.

The Draft is intoxicating because it is hope manifest.

A not yet used draft pick is the purest vessel in sports for dreams. Even though all involved know a great deal about the players involved (excepting the Clippers) and their strengths and weaknesses, those things remain pleasantly abstract up to the moment of selection.

Yesterday there was a fantastic example of this phenomenon. The Minnesota Timberwolves traded two pretty decent players, one a borderline blue-chipper, for the 5th pick in a weak draft. Would they have traded that same package for the player they would have taken with the 5th pick, the day after the draft? I suspect not.

The hope a pick represents is far more valuable when it’s just hope. Once the pick becomes a very real player who, say, has a suspect jump shot or can’t go to his left, the possibilities for excitement are greatly reduced.

I’d argue that the most successful NBA franchises are the ones that take hope largely out of their draft analysis. That view their draft picks not as empty vessels, but as stand-ins for the flawed players they will become. And while that view might make for a better basketball team, it feels too hardhearted for me and antithetical to the reasons I love sports.

I love falling into the trap of hope during the NBA Draft.

Go Rubio.

The NBA Draft and the Power of Empty Vessels

Saving the Poor by Dodging Bullets: When “Conventional” no longer equals “Safe”

In an extremely competitive marketplace, why be expensively mediocre?

I’m fascinated by the promos for NBC’s new summer series and they way they seem to embody a whole Big Media mindset.

Despite being a multitasking, distracted, TV watcher, I’ve seen enough promos for NBC’s new show “The Philanthropist” to tell you the plot (a billionaire saves a poor African boy and realizes that he should use his wealth to help people while getting shot at a lot), the actors (Neve Campbell, finally out of “Scream” residuals; the big guy from “Rent”; the fellow who quit “V for Vendetta”; Omar), and the big action beats (a helicopter is involved). What I can’t tell you is why anyone would watch the show. The previews seem determined to exactly mimic the promotional material of every show, failed and not, that’s come before.

A successful television series is a franchise that can produce huge revenues for years and years, but the failure rate for new shows is French Revolution conviction rate high. Why, then, would a network aim to create a promotional campaign that’s, but for the particulars, completely generic?

My guess would be fear.

For someone to be unconventional in their promotion of a show is to fully own its failure if it, like nearly all new show, fails to catch on. Being conventional is, on an employee to employee level, safe. Hey, you’re just doing what everyone else does.

Being conventional also makes it far less likely that a passionate audience will develop around a property.

It seems to me that media companies can no longer afford to operate from a default position of fear. If they want to stop doing so, however, they need to change their culture and how success and failure are interpreted. When the odds are already stacked against you, “conventional” is no longer synonymous with “safe.”

Saving the Poor by Dodging Bullets: When “Conventional” no longer equals “Safe”

The Nature of Political Compromise, and Bourbon

Watching the GOP on cable news fulminating about health care reform makes me think about the nature of compromise.

(Well, actually, first it makes me giggle a bit; then I get very quiet and think about America’s future; then more giggling, only bitter now; then I give the television the finger; then I grab a bottle of bourbon while muttering about John Boehner being an “asshat”; and then I start thinking about the nature of political compromise.)

Near as I can figure, there are three reasons for compromise in our legislative system.

1) To get the votes necessary to pass a bill – With the large Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, compromise for votes (at least outside of the Blue Dogs) is not very needed. Also worth noting that when the Republicans were in power their approach towards this flavor of compromise went along the lines of telling the Democrats they were communistic, terrorist loving, troop hating, wusses if they didn’t tow the line, and then calling them that anyway after they did.

2) As an end in itself – The idea that bringing the other side to the table is either an inherent good, or will make generalized aspects of governing easier. Given the clubbiness of Congress, this could also be the “I don’t want anyone to feel awkward at Cokie Roberts’ next dinner party” position. We know from their recent history that the Republican Party doesn’t consider this one much of a value, hence Dick Cheney’s telling a Democratic Senator to “go [expletive deleted] himself.”

3) To make the legislation better – The Easter Bunny of political goals. Besides an impulse towards harmony as opposed to discord, I think this is at the heart of the desire for compromise on important pieces of legislation. Both in the media and Democratic leadership, there’s a tendency towards looking back wistfully at some hazy former day when both parties met, exchanged ideas, and shook hands over the improved bill. That carries over today into an attitude that posits the solution to national problems as being invariably found somewhere in the middle of what each party is advocating. Which is, of course, bunk.

With all there reasons for political compromise being either deeply flawed or fully broken, might it make sense for the Democratic Party to just quietly push away from the table and go about the business of governing mostly on their own?

The Nature of Political Compromise, and Bourbon

In Which I Learn about Fire and Hubris

Last weekend I took my lovely wife, our nieces, age 15 and 9, and nephew, 11, camping in the Catskills. (“Camping,” in this instance, meaning “backing the car up to a spot, complete with fire pit and picnic table, that was reserved online and setting up the tent about ten feet away.”)

After having the kids help out with setting up the tent, and feeling quite uncle-like in the process, it was time to get the fire started.

As I knelt down at the fire pit, I thought to myself, “Hold on, my oldest niece is in a New York Public High School, surely she’s got some experience with starting fires. And, by asking her to start ours I can get some serious ‘I trust you and think you’re capable’ points and then, when it doesn’t start, I’ll get a generous heap of ‘I am a wilderness master Eagle Scout’ points.’ Win win.”

So I asked my niece if she knew how to start a fire and if she’d like to put that knowledge to use. I busied myself with other tasks while she went about her business, though from the corner of my eye I thought I could see a great deal of paper being tossed in along with a suspiciously large amount of wood.

She called us over when it was ready for a match. I was delighted. The pit was filled with a solid foot and a half of variously sized wood haphazardly stacked. Clumps of ripped up paper bags were randomly distributed through the mess. It looked as if a very large, very drunk, bird had quickly tried to build a nest. In the dark.

As she got ready to light it, I offered, “You know, in the Boy Scouts we’d only get one match to start a fire…” and readied my most humble “oh well, I guess I’ve got to step in” expression for when nothing happened.

You know where this is going.

Damn thing went up like a Roman candle. Serves me right.

In Which I Learn about Fire and Hubris

The Awesome Usefulness of Kayfabe (“What’s Kayfabe?” you ask…)

Every Monday evening, for the last couple of months now, I walk over to my 10 year-old nephew’s place to watch professional wrestling with him and bond. Not having paid much attention to the pro wrestling scene since the late 90s, and aware of its tendency towards downright 12th Night levels of plot complexity, I’ve been spending a lot of time on Wikipedia getting up to speed on who’s feuding with who. That research led me to “kayfabe.”

Kayfabe,” originally a turn of the century carny term, is the rule or code that requires wrestlers to treat their business as real. The idea that the good guy and the bad guy really hate each other, or that they’re really trying to do grievous injury to one another, are examples of kayfabe. In the old days of the business, promotion owners would go so far as to disallow “good” wrestlers from eating out or traveling with “bad” ones, in order to maintain it.

But kayfabe isn’t just useful for thinking about wrestling. It turns out that it’s everywhere, in all sorts of different areas of our culture. In fact, once I started looking around with kayfabe in mind, it began to feel like one of the defining forces of the mainstream media universe.

Take political coverage: I’d wager that most of the right-wing talking heads opining about Sonia Sotomayor don’t really think she’s a “racist.” And they’d be hard pressed to explain at length their contention that somehow growing up Hispanic and poor in the Bronx provides advantages that upper-class white males just can’t compete with, yet on our mainstream news David Gregory or whomever will nod knowingly at their line of agrument and wrap up the segment by telling viewers something like “serious questions have been raised about her qualifications.” That’s kayfabe in action.

Or Hollywood: The idea that, yes, Hugh Jackman is thrilled to be on your mid-market morning show talking about his abs and absolutely the most important thing for him about his new Wolverine movie was the script. Kayfabe.

Sports: When the announcers of a late season NBA game between two teams with no shot at the playoffs say something about how much these players “want it.” You guessed it.

In a media landscape dominated by these little fictions, I like having a name for them.

The Awesome Usefulness of Kayfabe (“What’s Kayfabe?” you ask…)

Canoeing Tips: Partner Communication

When you’re on the water in a tandem canoe, the other person in the boat is the most important person in your world.

In fast water, you’re at their mercy and they are at yours. You both have distinct responsibilities (which vary depending if you’re in the front or the back of the boat) but if you aren’t coordinating your actions, you’re both going to get wet. Because of this, the relationship between you and your partner is a complicated one in which communication is vital.

Partnerships grow over time, as you each get better at anticipating the actions and responses of the other. At the highest and most zen-like level, an experienced pair will make it down a rapid with nary a word uttered between them. Those of us who aren’t at that level, however, develop a system of shorthand to coordinate our reactions while we’re under the intense pressure of making it through a rapid in one piece.

Because there isn’t always time to express full thoughts, each utterance between partners can have a variety of meanings depending on the situation and what’s gone before it. Fascinatingly, it doesn’t take long at all before even novice partners can understand each other’s intent in just a couple of syllables.

Let’s take a look at an example.

You’re in the back of the boat in the middle of a difficult class III rapid. Your partner has less experience than you do and seems a touch overwhelmed. The canoe has already hit a couple of tricky rocks which you were able to recover from. You see a submerged rock coming up on the right that could be trouble, but aren’t sure if your partner has seen it. You shout out “2 o’clock!” the rock’s location.

In this situation, “2 o’clock” could mean any one of the following:

1.  “I’m sure you’re already aware that there is a dangerous rock coming up on the right, but thought I’d shout out its location just in case. Better safe than sorry. I trust you to make the right decision about how to get us out of its path.”

2.  “Perhaps you could execute a cross-draw, or similar stroke, that would move us out of the way of this rock I’ve just identified to you. You’re doing your best and I’m sure you would have seen it in time, but I’m a bit paranoid. Thanks.”

3.  “Even if you don’t see it, trust me that there is a rock at 2 o’clock. Don’t think, just move your ass.”

4.  “Hey, look. It’s another goddam rock we’re going to run into. If I didn’t need your feeble contributions to get down the rest of this rapid I would beat you to death with the paddle I’m holding confident that not a jury in the world would convict me you worthless and blind sack of flesh.”

Part of the beauty of partner communication is that after your partner navigates you both flawlessly around the rock in question, your shout of “2 o’clock” retroactively means:

“I have complete and total faith in you and am only speaking to make myself feel better, such a master of the river you are.”

It won’t take long before both you and your partner excel in the art of on water communication. In short order you’ll be able to alert each other to danger using only your eyebrows and dismissive exhalations.

Good paddling!

Next time: Choosing where to poop

Canoeing Tips: Partner Communication

With Marketing more Important than Ever, Can Companies Afford Marketing?

A Slate article about Microsoft’s new ad campaign linked back to a longer piece about that campaign’s creator, the ad world giant Crispin Porter & Bogusky. That article, from April 2007, mentions that Crispin demands nearly total message control over it’s clients (companies such as Burger King, Miller Brewing, and Volkswagen) and was increasingly taking an ownership stake in the companies with which it worked.

That last piece, the ownership stake, is a fascinating comment on the state of marketing and authenticity in the marketplace today, and portends trouble that may be ahead for companies like Crispin Porter & Bogusky.

First off, having an advertising/marketing company literally buy into a corporate enterprise seems to me pretty close to an admission that isn’t much inherent value to the products the company sells. If your company communications have to be so pitch perfect and well coordinated that you’re willing to cede huge swaths of authority over to a previously outside group then perhaps what you’re making simply isn’t that good.

Second, while it’s long been known that a positive recommendation from a trusted word of mouth source is far more powerful than any media buy can ever be, the ability of people to check in with their sources about products or services is getting easier and easier. In response, marketing companies like Crispin have tried to co-opt trusted sources through campaigns designed expressly to generate social network traffic (like the “Subservient Chicken” website they created for Burger King) or through rigging the game a bit by paying directly for positive word of mouth on twitter, blogs, yelp, and others. While these strategies might currently work, I suspect they’ll have the eventual effect of causing a person’s network of trusted sources to get more exclusive, leaving people even less susceptible to conventional image branding and skeptical of enthusiasm from sources they don’t have a track record with.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that the future for communicating with customers will be based on excellent products/services and authenticity. (Cue, “if you can fake authenticity…” joke.) And authenticity may not always be compatible with companies that take selling themselves as a goal that’s on par with making things people can get excited about.

And by “authenticity” I don’t mean the canned, “we know you’re being marketed to all the time and are way too smart for our ruse, so we won’t even try to be slick with our pitch” anti-advertising aesthetic that’s been used by every company up to and including Nike, which hasn’t done a non-slick thing (excepting that sweatshop business) since the inventing of the waffle sole.

While branding that creates positive connection between a brand and its market will never go out of style, I wonder if the larger mission for smart marketing companies will be to teach their accounts how to intelligently speak for themselves, from their place of expertise, and to provide them with the metrics needed prove the positive effects of doing just that.

With Marketing more Important than Ever, Can Companies Afford Marketing?

Who’s Your Fullback?

One of my favorite football players is a guy who’s scored exactly 6 touchdowns in his career. He’s never rushed for more than 175 yards in a season, nor caught more than 31 passes. By every conventional statistic measuring offensive players, he’s a non-factor. And he’s been told by 6 different teams that his services are no longer required.

And yet, for nearly his entire career (and in a league where the average player lasts less than 4 years he’s lasted 16), an interesting thing happens to every team to joins. They start to win more.

The player is Lorenzo Neal, and he’s a fullback.

A fullback basically serves as the bodyguard for a more highly paid, more famous, running back. The fullback is allowed to carry the ball, but very few do. Most often, when a play calls for the running back to run through a certain gap between linemen, the fullback’s job is to get there first and knock the stuffing out of the defender in the best position to make a tackle.

When a fullback does his job correctly, the viewer at home will be treated to endless replays of the highly paid running back prancing untouched down the field while the announcers talk about his “breakaway speed.” In success a fullback is invisible.

In the case of Lorenzo Neal, for most of his career, each time he’d arrive to a new team, that team’s running back would suddenly get much better. The running back would, running untouched through the holes opened up by Mr. Neal, start appearing in Nike commercials, get a big new contract, appear on the cover of Madden. Then Mr. Neal would be released or traded and the running back would suddenly be normal again.

This all occurs to me because, having spent the last number of years as an book editor, for many of us in the background of the culture business, we are fullbacks.

If I did my job well on a given product, the end result would have my fingerprints on it, but not my name.

Each project was an opportunity for me to block for an author, and that could mean fighting to get the right kind of marketing support, convincing them that a particular change to the book’s structure might more effectively tell their story, or keeping them on track when it felt like forces were aligning against them.

If I block well and a project is a touchdown, the satisfaction in watching the author get to do a touchdown dance is immense. If the result is a first down, I’m excited to take another shot. And if it’s a tackle for a loss, I know I’ve overextended a metaphor.

Do you have a fullback? Are you one?

Who’s Your Fullback?