Thursday, November 1, 2007

Love that Dirty Water ...

So, for the second time in four years the Boston Red Sox have won a World Series, after NOT winning won for 86 years. The city, no, the entire region seems to be euphoric.

What this all meant for us at the Web site was almost an entire month of covering baseball games, stretching the staff out to make sure we had the latest game stories, which is a bit ridiculous since our numbers indicate that almost NO one goes to our Web site for this kind of sports information. At the end of the month, the story that garnered the most page views (about 500,000) was one about a 9-month-old baby that appears to have drowned in a bucket of bleach. Time and again, the stats indicate that what people want from us is a) NEWS about BOSTON; b) stories you can't get anywhere else (i.e. on a sports site, or Yahoo, Google, CNN, etc.) c) TEXT stories (as opposed to videos) and d) interactive content (where they can send in their own slideshows, etc.)

Unfortunately, we try to be all things to all people with a staff of three and it's a bit pointless. Endlessly spinning our wheels. The times where it works are those where we're offering uniquely Boston content. This week we livestreamed the Sox victory parade and there were more than 125,000 page views for the stream, and more than 114,000 unique visitors that day. We also received emails from as far away as New Zealand thanking us for making this available to people who love Boston but wouldn't be able to see it (0bviously) on TV.

The thing is, eventually everyone will be able to see EVERYTHING on the Internet. The computer screen and TV screen will become one.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Boys of Summer

Imagine this. You have to cover news 24/7, but you only have three people. The same three people. Who are only supposed to work eight-hour shifts.

This is the situation I'm faced with every day. We could go around the clock, with only one person working each 8-hour shift, but there's no point in staffing overnight because there's only about 80 people looking at the site overnight. The numbers also decrease drastically after 8 p.m. and they peak around noontime. So we staff during the high-traffic times.

Except, of course, when the Red Sox are playing. And they're in the playoffs. And then they're going to the World Series. We've been working around-the-clock schedules, switching hours, for the past three weeks, as the Sox worked their way past the Angels and then the Indians ... always going the full seven games.

Now, of course, it's the World Series and there are seven MORE games. I've had one day off in the past two weeks and will probably go in to work both days next weekend as well (which I've done the past two weekends).

Don't get me wrong. I LOVE the Red Sox, I really do. But it's insane trying to keep up with the TV news staff, which numbers over 100 people, with our three. We are burning the candles to nubs.

We livestream the news conferences, write and publish stories, and we post the locker room interview videos and we create slideshows, and really, people don't come to sites like ours for sports.

On the one hand, I always enjoy the work because (as someone in the newsroom said recently) it's not stories about dead babies. On the other hand, we all have lives and families and groceries to buy and laundry to do etc. and that doesn't get done when you're only coming home to sleep and eat and go back to work.

This is the state of the Internet at this moment in time -- do it all on a shoestring. It's only computers, right? But if they only knew the actual brainpower that's involved. Someday I hope we have enough people to do this job properly, but I'm not holding my breath.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Keeping The Balls In The Air

It's been a busy fall and we're heading into an even busier baseball post-season with the Red Sox heading into the ALCS games.

Over the past few months we had a couple of Boston firemen killed fighting a restaurant blaze. They were given what amounted to almost state funerals and we livestreamed both of them ... one lasted about three hours.

Then a few weeks later, their autopsies found a high blood alcohol level in one and traces of cocaine in the other. So that was a big story as well, and viewers did not like the fact that this information was reported at all. We received what seemed like hundreds of angry emails about it.

On one day last month, an MIT student went to Logan Airport to pick up her boyfriend wearing a circuit board strapped to her chest. She was lucky that she did not end up dead as police there surrounded her with machine guns thinking she had a bomb strapped to her chest. LIGHTS ON, NO ONE'S HOME. We did a good job getting that story up right away with a lot of background on her.

So, all that kept us very busy through much of September and now we are trying to stretch our tiny staff to cover the Sox in these playoff games, most of which take place at night.

Because I work the early shift (4:45am start time each day) the other two people on the Web staff are trading off on covering the night games and I worked last Sunday to cover one of them. Six or seven hours for a lengthy play-by-play story and added post-game videos, etc., and I don't even want to say how many page views we got. Let's just say not a lot.

As a result, we've had lots of discussions about whether we are allocating our slim resources toward something that isn't going to do much for traffic in the first place -- primarily because people are not coming to us for sports news. For that they go to ESPN or or one of the other sites, and they do not allow us to post any of their game highlights or shoot our own, so it really limits what we can do.

There's a lot of frustration to go around and I strongly feel that we have to think outside the box to come up with some other solution -- some other way to do what we need to do. I guess what should be done at a higher level is "define" what the site should be and then be that, instead of trying to be all things to all people, because we end up being a mile wide and an inch deep (to throw one more cliche in there.)

In the meantime, we continue to try to mentor all the people who are tech-challenged. It's like a million people who all want to drive but have no idea how to turn the key. The station is trying to encourage people to blog (for instance) but as simple as using this tool is, several of them still have trouble. And there's only so many ways you can explain something. I guess the fundamental cultural thing they don't understand yet is that this is a new medium and it still has a lot of "bugs" -- stuff that needs to get worked out. They just expect that it's all always going to work all the time. There's one person who wants me to explain Blogger to him and I think I've said about 27 different ways that "it's not my tool," but he still seems to think I am personally responsible for making it work and showing him how to use it.

Well, I suppose it could be worse. I'm not cleaning sewage for a living!

Monday, September 24, 2007

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Feast Or Famine

It's a truism of the news business (and a cliche as well) that it's either feast or famine. We've been following the story of the New England Patriots allegedly "spying" on the New York Jets during their season-opening game last Sunday.

NFL security caught a Patriots cameraman taping the hand signals one of the other team's coaches was making during the game.

Yesterday, we had some meat in that Pats coach Bill Belichick issued a statement apologizing to his team and others for the entire incident. It's amazing what you can do to stretch a two sentence statement into an entire story. I'm sure the Pats organization labored over it too.

Today, however, the station didn't do much to follow the story in the early hours and it was a relatively quiet news day. We were scratching around for some new content to post on the Web site, always a priority because the conventional wisdom and research indicates that people check the site all through the day to see if there are any new stories posted. We are constantly feeding a voracious beast that is never satiated. Then, at night when I go to the gym, all the TV sets are showing the "old" news of the day ... stuff we've given people all day long. And the TV folks are scratching their heads at why Nielson numbers show a declining television news audience all across the board.

Like the newspaper industry, television has to re-invent itself or die, or just do with a much smaller piece of the pie. Maybe at the network level they've been thinking about that, but I think they're eons behind where they need to be. It's intresting to be here in my industry at this place and time.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

'What a World, What a World ...'

We have transitioned rather easily to the new video capture system, but it only works for newscasts that have been pre-programmed. We do not have a solution yet for capturing live video or unscheduled video.

In the meantime, the technology continues to confound us all from time to time. Yesterday, a complete meltdown of our content management system (cms) left all of us across the network writing haiku poems to wile away the time until the techs could diagnose the problem.

Many were quite clever, along the lines of:

Blank blue screen sits mute
I can do nothing but wait
Phaedra you mock me

The cause of the meltdown remains a mystery, although all systems were up and running today. There are so many ways we can fail in this tenuous dance of connections. There can be disruptions within our station, if the line sending data becomes too clogged. (This is the layman's description, obviously.) There can be some kind of failure at the Hearst Service Center in Charlotte, N.C., where all of the information must go before it wends its way to the Internet Broadcasting servers in Minnesota. From there, it comes back to us, distributed through Akamai.

When looked at this way, it's amazing that the system works at all, much less as well as it actually does. I imagine this network is replicated in other systems nationwide.

What's more complicated, in many ways, is simply trying to maintain a balance as a "credible" news source. Stories published on our site about our crumbling infrastructure of fragile bridges and tunnels don't garner near the page views that a story about finger-painting gorillas at the local zoo does. Britney Spears stories are always traffic generators, whereas articles about changes to our auto insurance rate system fall short. Last week, we livestreamed both funeral services for two Boston firefighters who died battling a restaurant blaze. Both made the "Top 10" lists, but did not garner huge page views. (Even so, there were quite a few emails from people who were glad we provided the opportunity.)

All this constantly leaves me somewhat frustrated. OF COURSE people are going to eat junk food if that's all you give them. What kind of a service are we providing to the public, and at what cost? Do we even have a right to argue for the protection of a free press that doesn't provide much beyond titillating infotainment? More importantly, do we really have any other choice than to do so?

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Change Being The Only Constant

We are in the midst of changing the way we capture and process videos on the Web site and (once again) going at backwards.

For years, we've used a combination of Vegas Videos and Digital Rapids apps to capture, livestream and digitize videos. It's a time-consuming process. To put it simply, it got to the point where it would take 20 to 25 minutes to produce a video for the Web site that was on the air for about 2 minutes. In other words, if we captured a weathercast that lasted for 3 minutes, it wasn't on the site for close to 30 minutes.

It was time-consuming, but it works and allows us to do things we need to do, such as capture and livestream at the same time.

A decision was made, however, that this was all taking too long (which it was) and the powers-that-be decided to use a different process. A company called Anystream has a system where all the newscasts are programmed and the material is captured automatically. We still have to delineate which video clips we want (which takes MUCH more time using Quicktime Pro than it does with Vegas) but they are processed much faster.

One of (several) problems with the new system, however, is there is no quick/easy way to capture the images we need to associate with the videos. The guy from Anystream who came to put the system in place is a great guy, but it became apparent over the course of two days that NO ONE gave a thought to how we actually do the work at the Web site before choosing a new system to integrate into it. (This wasn't his fault, by the way -- those decisions were made way above his head.)

No one came went to a site and watched what we do, observed the work flow, etc. Instead of choosing a system to use based on what we already do, they chose it based only its merits alone.

What is WRONG with this picture?!

So, the process is going to be extremely gummed up for awhile, even as we head into election season and the transition is not going to be pleasant.

A lot of time gets wasted this way when it would be much more efficient and cost-effective to simply figure out what we do AHEAD OF TIME. Would it ever kill anyone to ASK US before making these decisions? At no point did any of the engineers involved in investigating and implementing this new system ASK US WHAT WE DO OR HOW WE DO IT.

I continue to be dumbfounded.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Summer Hiatus

Like many New Englanders, I seem to have taken a bit of a summer hiatus and neglected this blog. Unlike last summer, when the Big Dig ceiling panel collapsed and killed a motorist in July, this has been a relatively quiet news cycle. We've had garden variety mayhem in the news world.

Which is good, because it never stays that way for long. The Patriots have started playing pre-season ball again, the Sox lead in the AL least is now down to a few games, and the Celtics have signed a new player that has fans all excited about the team's prospects for the new season. Surely we'll have some sports stories in the offing soon, if nothing else. I don't know why we think of Jan. 1 as the start of the new year, because (at least in TV world) the cycle begins anew in September, as the kids go back to classes and the networks announce their fall lineups.

Unfortunately, none of the nets ever seem to offer much that is promising anymore. Reality TV. Dance or song competitions. I don't think it's a stretch to say that in any given season, each network only manages to come up with one "winner," which (if you think about it) is NOT a great track record for companies such as ABC, NBC, Fox, CBS, who have thousands of employees and VERY high paid executives making big creative decisions.

I seem to recall that when I was a kid, you could turn on the TV at 7 or 8 p.m. at night and watch for three or four straight hours and there would be one great show after another. Even as a teenager, I used to stay home to watch "The Carol Burnett Show" or "The Mary Tyler Moore" show. We loved "Bewtiched", "The Dick Van Dyke Show," "Happy Days" and "Laverne and Shirley" and before that, I remember shows like "Petticoat Junction," and "Green Acres" and "Colombo" and others.

My theory is that basically the "creative" people in these industries are now pretty much creatively bankrupt. Essentially, many of them have spent their childhoods watching television, which is a passive entertainment that does squat in terms of fostering creativity. The people who made all those great 1960s and 1970s TV shows were WWII generation people who grew up READING. They grew up playing make-believe games outside, with other kids, in an environment that forced you to use your imagination to entertain yourself because there weren't many other options.

That's why so many of the movies that come out are just recycled TV shows, like the Charlie's Angels movies, or "Bewitched," or all the movies made about comic-book superheroes who were invented back in the 1940s. Ever wonder why very little "new" comes out? It's worth somebody writing their dissertation about.

If any of these people really want to be inspired, they need to move out of the dissipated wasteland of L.A. and go live in the woods of anywhere for awhile, doing nothing but reading and fishing. It's amazing what your brain will come up with when you have no pre-packaged inane entertainment to anesthisize it.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

I Only Have Two Hands

"I only have two hands" was an expression my mother used often when I was a child and it seems to come back to me quite a bit these days while I'm on the job. The problem is, we have become amazing multi-taskers, but I'm beginning to wonder how well you can do any one thing when you're doing eight different things at once at any given moment.

That's how many browser windows I usually have minimized on my desktop, at least. Today, I was on a conference call when an video tape editor came in and asked if I was ready to capture a video. I dropped the phone (on hold) as I got a Digital Rapids stream going, which was fine, but I had also been sending an instant message, checking my emails, trying to post and pop stories, all at the same time.

At the end of the day, then, I am sometimes a bit exasperated because I don't feel there is any one thing I can point to and say, "Ah. That was a job well done."

Actually, last week there was a four-hour hearing on Capitol Hill where the National Transportation Safety Board released its report on a fatal accident in a Big Dig tunnel which occurred last summer. I was freed up enough to "cover" that particular story for our site and it was nothing short of delicious to be able to focus completely on one story and really give it the attention it deserved. Naturally, it was the story that garnered the most page views that day and all of last week. picked it up as well. I was able to give it thoughtful attention and it reflected a better quality than most of the crash & burn stories that are often all we can muster in a day crammed with a million other responsibilities. We spend countless hours digitizing videos that no one watches. It just doesn't make sense.

What it all says to me is that news web sites need dedicated news staffers whose sole mission is to cover the news of the day and (ideally) to enterprise the kinds of stories that TV and other mediums might not touch. I hope that is the way this business is evolving, but it's a long slog as we try to get there.

Friday, July 13, 2007

The Times They Are A Changin' ...

Interesting week at work in that one of the long-time anchors at the television station at which we're based announced that she is retiring from her regular on-air gig after 35 years on the news desk. She was one of the most well-known local TV news anchors in the country and the first female anchor in Boston when she landed the job in the early 1970s.

She's had a good long run and it seems to be what she genuinely wants to do and, frankly, I can't blame her for wanting to hang up the spurs. But it's a bit symbolic in that 50 years in, television is already something of an "old" medium and anchors like her really don't exist anymore. During the heyday of these anchors, TV stations were getting huge ratings, in the double-digits, and these folks were known as local "stars" who could command exorbitant salaries. The station at I worked at in Florida had something like a 57 share at one point and had the strongest ratings of any local station in the country. No more.

That was all before cable and broadband and, now, digital. What's peculiar is that the media landscape has shifted so dramatically, and yet many of the people working on the "factory floor" are basically pretty unaware of the change, although they call themselves news people. You can keep up with some of the changes by tracking sites devoted to Internet news such as, or the online news association web site, but it seems the only people reading these are the people who are already working as online journalists.

If they were reading them, here's some of what they would run across. This recently published on

"Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates laid out his vision of the future of media last week, and painted a grim picture of the transition for traditional media.

"We're saying newspapers will go online, and there will be massive innovation that comes out of that," Gates said. "We're saying that TV, the biggest ad market in the world, will completely go online and have the kind of targeting interaction that you only get out on the Web today.

"As dramatic as things happening on the Web are, that's actually what all advertising ... will be in the future....

"I have a lot of friends in the newspaper industry and, of course, this is a tough, wrenching change for them, because the number of people who actually buy, subscribe to the newspaper and read it has started an inexorable decline," he said.

Gates is right, of course, but it doesn't have to be a wrenching change because, if anything, the media beast is just expanding. Because online news changes constantly, it's like news radio on the Internet - it can never be satiated. That's ultimately good news for journalists.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

What They Want

One of the great things about the Internet is that we can easily track which stories people are looking at, how long they're looking at them, what times of day they come to us, and even where they're coming from.

One of the disturbing things is that this also gives us a constant snapshot of what the public is interested in, and it's not always high-brow content. In fact, it's almost never high-brow content.

For example, the "Most viewed" stories on our Web site right now happen to be "Police Respond to MBTA Shooting," and "Man Charged with Stripping in Hair Salon," as well as "Ex-Sox Player's Drug-Infested Property Raided."

"Viewers Beach Photos" is the most viewed slideshow and "72 Year old fends off pickpocket" is the most viewed video.

If you were an alien from another planet, studying our civilization 2,000 years from now, what would this tell you about us? It's a bit frightening. Going on the theory that we "are what we eat," what does this tell you about us as a nation?

In one of my past lives editing a newspaper, we put together a little feature that looked back at newspaper articles from 100 or 150 years in the past. All the old articles had to do with topics such as U.S.-Spanish diplomatic relations during Cuba's fight for independence, or tax policy. Anything even remotely "sensational" such as man jumping off a bridge, was buried in the back pages and usually didn't merit more than just a few lines. It was as if in those more genteel times, such items were considered in "poor taste," as, indeed, they are.

But today it is nothing to see photos of young entertainers exposing panty-less crotches to paparazzi lenses. I'm not a prude, but ... this is journalism? In fact, it isn't. But so many people seem to want to see it and read about it and I haven't quite figured that part out yet. It's like all those people who slow down on the highway to see a car accident. It always makes me want to yell, "YOU'VE NEVER SEEN A CAR ACCIDENT BEFORE, FOR HEAVEN'S SAKE?" after waiting in the 3-mile backup on the highway and realizing that the slow down was caused primarily by gawkers.

What is it that makes humans so interested in grizzly details. The Fear Factor? The thing is, I don't think it serves our broader interests. The same people who'd rather read or see a story about some actor's drug addiction will be the first to cry foul when they find out they have to pay three times as much for car insurance next year, but they would not have been interested in a story about the debate over whether to raise those rates.

The notion that we have a right to a free press is founded on the principal that a free press is necessary to keep us informed so we can make the decisions needed to run an honest, efficient government. It's something we need to have in order to govern ourselves. If we're not using it for that purpose, why have free press at all?

Monday, June 18, 2007


The problem with working in Internet news right now is that there aren't enough of us. Despite the fact that growth in Internet traffic has been exponentional ever since I started working for an Internet news company in 2000, the brass still seem skeptical about whether the business is going to "take off," -- whether they should make a significant investment in manpower.

Forget the phenomenal success of mega-sites such as MSNBC or, there still seems to be reluctance to hire staffers in the same way that a magazine or TV news operation has traditionally staffed.

As a result, we're just not able to do more than keep our noses above water. Get the main stories of the day up, after a fashion, but no enterprise reporting, very little original content -- which is, of course, what viewers go to any particular site for.

I know things will change, I know they are changing, but not fast enough.

Friday, June 15, 2007

History on The Run

A few years ago, I went to a newspaper editors' conference and bought a T-shirt that said, "Journalism: History on the Run."

This news week was a good example of that as the two major stories that dominated the headlines on our Web site focused on labor unions and gay marriage, one institution (perhaps) going out of vogue, one (perhaps) coming in to vogue. I qualify with "perhaps" because it's difficult sometimes to truly gauge a trend when you're living in a state like Massachusetts, which is either a bell weather state or incredibly out-of-step with the rest of the nation. You wouldn't be hard-pressed to find people to argue either point of view.

The fact of the matter is, we're still the only state in the union to have made gay marriage legal, so you couldn't exactly call that a trend. On the other hand, several other New England states have recognized some form of civil unions for gays, so Massachusetts may indeed be in the vanguard of change, although I'm not sure I will ever live to see the day a state like Oklahoma legitimizes gay marriage. From this bastion of extreme liberalism, it's hard for many here to understand that we're an anomaly on issues such as this, but it is the truth.

Over the past 25 years, probably beginning with stories I did on the PATCO strike in the early 1980s, it seems we've seen a decline in the influence of organized labor, a good concept to begin with but a victim of its own excesses and the changing nature of the American work force. We are no longer an industy-based economy, we're an information-based economy. In this week's story, a local teacher's union went on strike because their city asked teachers to pay 20 percent of their health care costs, instead of 10 percent.

The teachers said the increase would wipe out any pay hikes they might receive. The problem was, the taxpayers in their community didn't have a lot of sympathy for their cause. One man said he didn't have any health insurance at all, so why should he pay for theirs. In the end, they didn't come out with much and had to go back to work or face stiff fines. Almost every labor story I've covered for years has ended this way. The unions lose. It begins to beg the question whether they're necessary at all anymore, except to the union officials who draw their paychecks from union dues. I'm not sure how much longer unions will be relevant (or if they are any more at all.) In a country like China, however, they might be able to do amazing things.

My gut tells me, however, that the gay marriage question will begin to consume the national debate for years to come. Gay rights activists have pledged to take their fight to the national level, where no doubt it will be passionately hashed over for decades, much as the intractable abortion issue has been. Abortion has been legal here for 30 some years, but that hasn't kept if from being the divisive issue it is. It's interesting how some issues take so long to germinate in the U.S. Slavery was an issue even before the Revolutionary War, but it percolated for almost another century before boiling over, and even after the Civil War it was far from a done deal.

So many of the issues that create conflict in America center on personal freedom versus morality. Our Founding Fathers established the country on (among other things) the notion that freedom was the penultimate goal and good of man. That notion, however, is predicated on a philosophy (Locke, Hobbes, Rousseau?) that man is inherently good and will do the "right" thing if given the freedom to make his own choices. The problem is, the prevailing notions of what was "right" and "moral" were different in the 1700s and there was much more consensus then. The Founding Fathers were assuming, wrongly I think, that the nation would continue to have moral consensus into perpetuity, which we can now see, is incorrect.

As strongly as gays may believe they have as much right to "pursue happiness" and marry, there are just as many people who believe, just as passionately, that homosexuality is morally wrong. Back in the 1700s, such a debate would have been inconceivable. Notions of morality across all ethnic groups and nationalities were much more uniform and all were pretty much governed by religious precepts. That's just not the case any more. The gay marriage question mirrors the abortion question and the right-to-die question. All put the concept of personal freedom at odds with various notions of morality.

The problem is, in the U.S., the idea that personal freedom IS moral is ingrained in our collective consciousness, but events in recent years belie that idea. People with unlimited freedom do NOT always act in a moral fashion. In fact, history has shown us that increasing levels of freedom seem to have gone hand-in-hand with the decline of some formidable ancient civilizations. We have only to study the decline and fall of the Roman (or Greek) empires to provide a compass to our own future. I'm not so sure that mankind is or ever will be "enlightened" enough to be able to handle unlimited freedom. I guess that may mean I'm not convinced that mankind is fundamentally good. Working in the news business as long as I have, that's no big surprise.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

The Other Side of the Coin

Another day, another presidential debate, this time the Republicans taking the stage. We livestreamed real time response again and technically there were no major problems. You would think, however, that in 2007 we would have developed some kind of modern format -- something different than what Lincoln & Douglas employed. I'd like to see people e-mailing in real-time questions that get printed on screens that candidates answer in a rapid-fire format. SOMETHING different. Anything.

The reality is, you rarely get a real sense of who a candidate is when the debates are so formatted. It seems it's only when there's some deviation from standard "issues" questions that you get the true measure of the man. For example, I recall the 1988 debate where Mike Dukakis was asked how he would react if his wife was raped and murdered. Because he dispassionately re-stated his opposition to the death penalty, he was seen as being cold and emotion-less. Voters saw a side to the candidate that transcended his platform. Same applied when Lloyd Bentsen told Dan Quayle he was "no Jack Kennedy." Those moments tell me, as a voter, so much more about the candidate I might vote for than a policy statement.

This GOP debate was completely different in tone and flavor than the Democratic debate. For some reason, the Democrats always seem to come off as cartoon-ish. They talk rhetoric, platitudes, and never seem to get to the meat of any issue. The Republicans, on the other hand, can be very serious, very intellectual and downright frightening. Their topics covered evolution versus creationism, abortion, the health care system and the cost of prescription drugs. All I can recall of the Democratic debate was Hillary braying like (shall I say it?) a donkey who got a kick out of calling Dick Cheney names. THAT'S original.

There are plenty of weird Republicans as well. Tom Tancredo seems to be an angry, vindictive, small-minded creature. I'm not sure why he's running, but it seems like it's just to get even with the Bush Adminisration for some perceived slight. He said as much on national television. Some of them seem like they're just running to get attention, like they were children who never got enough of mom and dad's time, because you know they don't have a snowball's chance in hell of winning anything and they've got to know it too. There were people on the GOP debate stage I have never heard of before and I work in the media. Who the heck is Duncan Hunter? Sam Brownback? Come on! Are these guys for real? Do they seriously think anyone's going to elect them president?

There were only three people on the stage who can be considered viable GOP candidates and the rest should stop wasting other people's time and money: Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney and John McCain. That's it.

Which isn't to say some of the others didn't appear to be decent human beings. Mike Huckabee was apparently a Baptist minister at some point in his life and he was at times eloquent and articulate -- even if I'm far from being a conservative. But he'll never get elected to the White House.

Maybe what they are really doing is running for Cabinet positions -- trying to get their name on a national marqee and build some political capital. Otherwise it makes no sense.

On some levels, the Republicans are scary because they're SO sincere. In this they are the polar opposites of the Democrats, who you get the sense are trying to pick all your pockets even as they grin and shake your hand. The problem with the GOP is that while they're sincere, the things they believe in are appalling. One of them talked about building a wall along the U.S. southern border to keep illegal immigrants out, but when he was asked if a similar wall should be built between the U.S. and Canada, he said no. Archie Bunker, your spirit is alive and well in the Grand Old Party, where everyone is welcome under the big tent as long as they're wealthy, educated and white.

John McCain, interestingly enough, has always seemed to have a soul. He seems to be genuinely trying for an illegal immigration solution, unlike all the politicians who argue about it and do nothing. He's put his money where his mouth is and he sincerely seemed to believe it when he said during the debate that our neighbors to the South are "all God's children," too. The problem with McCain is, someone let the air out of his tires. I don't know whether he's on medication or what, but he's not the firebrand he once was, which was what always made him so appealing. Whether you agreed with the guy or not, he said what he said and he meant it, no retreat. You had to respect that. The other night he was like a man who's taken anti-depressants. Very little affect and tired to boot.

Which leaves the growing legion of Independent voters, once again, without a place to hang our hats. I almost can't remember the last presidential election that anyone I know got excited about. I think, maybe, it was when Nixon ran. Everyone I knew thought he was the boogie man he eventually turned out to be, but people were psyched about that race. For some reason, I always remember the "Don't blame me, I voted for McGovern" bumper stickers that sprouted later on. Ever since then, I haven't seen anyone become passionate about a presidential election. It's really a pity.

No, like a lot of things, politics as we know it is freeze-dried, formulaic, tired and predictable. Get one candidate out there who can shake things up and they could have the world as their oyster.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Sublimely Ridiculous

For the Democratic debate, we had multiple livestreams going and, despite the fact that I pre-tested mine about three times with no problems, they still managed to send the wrong feed from Manchester during the first 45 seconds of the debate.

It was not a major problem, but you have to wonder how many people are really exercising critical thinking skills, for starters. I also wonder why anyone deviates from specific instructions.

As I expected, none of the candidates said anything earth-shattering. They all adhered to previously stated positions on the war and taxes. After you've heard their shtick once, it begins to sound so rehearsed. Hillary Clinton seemed to dominate the forum, noteworthy in that she was the only female in a panel of high-powered men, but the gimmicks she employs are somewhat Ayatollah Khomeni-ish.

Hillary conjures the evil Republican party as a comic book nemesis that everyone should fear and tries to rally the faithful around a "we're so much better than them," kind of sanctimonious mind set. High school pep rallies spring to mind. Dick Cheney is a caricature of a bad, bad man in Hillary-world, and George Bush has big red horns. In a way, it's kind of insulting that a politician in this day and age would try to appeal to voters that way, but I suppose there are enough people with simple minds who fall for that kind of nonsense. Lincoln said you can fool all of the people some of the time.

She's convincing enough that you wonder if she really believes the drivel she spouts, but then you realize she's just got to be smarter than that. As many politicians are, she's just selling her brand of snake oil. Coming up as a feminist, I used to think that women could or would somehow make better leaders, but her approach indicates she's sold out as easily as the next man. She even talks like all those other candidates, forgettable men with white hair and dark suits. Obama, at least, seems to carry a whiff of sincerity about him, but everything else about him spells greenhorn.

If I had to put my money on a horse today, I would wager that John Edwards will come out on top in the Democratic field. Hillary is hated as much as she's liked, but she's a polarizing figure. To me, she's kind of like a George Wallace candidate for the 21st century. Obama just isn't soup yet. The others are all forgettable -- they shouldn't even bother. Edwards is a lot like Bill Clinton: Southern, charming, smart, smooth, seemingly-sincere, good looking and a moderate. In the end, he'll break out of the pack and take the nomination, because he can be all things to all people in that party, and because in American politics you have two flavors of candidate: vanilla and vanilla. The question is whether he'll have the stomach to stay in the race, given the personal issues in his life.

If I seem skeptical, I am, but I'm not partisan. I am one of those curmudgeonly Independent voters and proud of it. This just happened to be the Democratic debate. Tomorrow night, the GOP hopefuls will take their places at the podiums.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Testing, 1, 2, 3 ...

Another "slow" news day. In this morning's news some of the top stories included a piece about chunks of concrete falling from a railroad bridge and a story about the town of Brookline, Mass., passing a ban on trans fats. Nothing that was going to send people surging to the web site in any great numbers.

The slowness of the day was a blessing, however, as I am down an editor who's on vacation and I had to spend a good deal of time in meetings, either in person or on the phone. The Manchester presidential debate is day after tomorrow and we were still trying to determine whether we would get the correct feed from Manchester.

We were also trying to make sure the new PC was set up to livestream correctly. This was something we started a week ago and, not counting the weekend holiday in between, it took four days to get it accomplished. Even now, we haven't tested the entire set-up to my satisfaction. I could work 24 hours a day and still feel I haven't gotten everything done, so at some point I just have to get on with my personal life.

In the meantime, I do take away what I think are key lessons from every endeavor. In this case, the notion that PLANNING is everything has been reinforced. It simply does not do to throw a project at people a few weeks in advance and then expect everything to fall smoothly into place. One invites problems with that approach.

I sometimes feel impatient with the way that engineers do things slowly and methodically, planning everything out in advance and then completing steps in a linear fashion, but over time I have truly grown to appreciate this approach. It's important to envision the ultimate goal, the final product, and then work backwords from there, planning each phase of a project as you would design an outline for a term paper.

Nothing guarantees a flawless finish, but I do think you seriously boost the odds for success when you take the time to anticipate problems and do what can be done to reduce them. I also think communication is vital. The more people know far enough in advance what the goals are, the better off everyone is.

I know all these things may seem like truisms, but it's truly amazing how often some of these basic precepts are NOT followed.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Pushing the Rock Uphill

As news days go, it was a slow one, but it seems that on most days I have very little time to dwell on the news.

As a manager, a big part of my job involves attending to problems, of which there is never any shortage. It's a bit like doing the dishes. You can do them really well, and put them all away, but the next day they're just going to be there again, some old ones and many new ones. I am a modern day Sisyphus, the sinner of ancient Greek mythology who was doomed to an eternity of rolling a boulder up a hill, only to see if roll back down again.

Today I posted all new stories and videos to the Web site in the morning, but then had to work with engineers who were trying to figure out how to install a second PC that will capture and digitize video. We are trying to get everything hooked up for the presidential debates in Manchester this weekend. The new PC has to be connected to a router that pulls in video feeds from around the state and the nation.

It's been a slow process that started more than a week ago and which has involved trying to coordinate a local computer tech and local engineers with an audio-video expert in Minnesota.

The indisputable truth I have learned in this job is that engineers just don't talk to each other much, not willingly anyway, which is why my communications skills have come in so handy. Basically, I often just translate for them.

In this Internet world, where we are spread out all over the country, I have done quite a bit of translating -- between local engineers and weather engineers in Alabama, or between local engineers, Hearst engineers in Charlotte and our own engineers in Minnesota. For awhile, the provider of our news aggregator tool was in Atlanta, so I've had quite a few conversations with them as well. To my mind, the only people who will never come up short in this global workplace are the people who own stock in Verizon or some other phone company.

What if anything, one might ask, does any of this have to do with journalism? I will tell you: I do not know. Had you told me back in my college days that I would one day be conversant about things like file transfer protocols or XML code, I would have been extremely skeptical. The human brain, however, is an amazing thing. I've learned so much it seems second-nature to me now, even though when I started this job they said we would primarily be journalists, and other people would worry about the hardware. That, it turns out, has never been the case. We are married to our computers, whether we like it or not.

I do worry that we spend so much time figuring out how to get information where it's supposed to go that we don't really have time to gather the information itself. That is a daily frustration. It was there in the newspaper business and, before that, when I was working as a television reporter. If we couldn't get a signal in, we couldn't do the story. Period. For some reason, however, I have constantly found myself in a position where I have to figure out how to get the story ON. On the air, on the Internet, in the paper.

I spend so much time on the mechanics of getting the story out that it actually makes it a joy when I have nothing more to do than immerse myself in the production of the actual piece. It makes getting the information, organizing and writing it into a coherent piece of journalism seem like a walk in the park. I've been doing that part of it so long I could do it in my sleep. The perfect order for a story will unfold in my head so fast sometimes that it's a race to get it down on paper (or computer screen.)

In my very first television job I would go to work, make assignments, then go out with another reporter, the two of us shooting each other's stories. We'd go back to the station, write our stories, edit them, and then assemble the newscast and go into the control room and produce it. All in a day's work. I think I probably made about $2 a day. It feels a little like that again.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Where Is The Disconnect?

Something seems to have gone seriously haywire in the American marketing community.

For the third time in the last six months, just in the Boston-area alone, we are reporting a story on our Web site about a promotional scheme that went awry, prompting the evacuation of a bank branch and strip mall in Ashland, Mass., -- including the daycare center there -- and an all-out response from the local HAZMAT team.

It seems the bank received a fax that appeared to be some kind of bomb threat -- a sheet of paper with badly-drawn bomb on it -- but there was nothing to it. (See story link for photo.)

According to the bank, "the fax was meant for Bank of America employees and was intended for internal purposes for an upcoming small business promotion."

They said the fax was sent "by a marketing group for a promotion to kick off a special offer from the bank. "

Well, whatever the reason, it was a really bad idea.

About a month ago, another marketing company draped small black knapsacks along a fence outside a Newton, Mass., high school, which also triggered a call to the bomb squad early one morning. It was a promotion for a new Web site aimed at teenagers.

In early February, another marketing ploy for a cable cartoon show drew nationwide attention when it triggered a city-wide alert in Boston. A marketing firm in New York hired two men to place Lite-Bright-like contraptions around the city, which some people, unfortunately, thought might be explosive devices. Again, the HAZMAT crews showed up in force and highways were shut down. The entire ruckus ended up costing Turner Broadcasting millions and the general manager of the Cartoon Network resigned.

Yet here we are again today, however, with yet another dumb marketing promotion gone bad. Who the heck are these marketing people anyway? And where were they on Sept. 11, 2001?

Are they all just 20-somethings starting out at their first firm who've grown up on a steady diet of "Jackass?" If so, maybe they're too young for 9-11 to have made an impression. But presumably their managers and supervisors are a little older, with enough sense to reject a bad publicity stunt in this post-9-11 world. Do any of them have any shred of social responsibility? Sure doesn't seem like it.

We're told these stunts are a form of "guerilla marketing" which, according to one of its gurus, is "an unconventional way of performing promotional activities on a very low budget." There are dozens of Web sites devoted to it, but the bottom line is, it's all about selling a product or service. The aim of going "unconventional," I assume, is to cut through the vast thicket of other more traditional ads and promotions. But can't we employ a little more intelligence here?

It seems apparent in many ways that American society has become creatively bankrupt. The most successful movies and plays all seem to be based on comic book heroes someone else dreamed up 50 years ago, and there hasn't been a "great American novel" written since ... when? Music? Well, what's the last truly original American sound you've heard? Rap? Hip Hop? Even that has gotten old. Even our hit TV shows ("American Idol," "The Office") are coming from Europe. Maybe the U.S. marketing industry has also run out of ideas. I'm trying to recall the last memorable commercial I've seen ... and I just can't.

Now, if someone came up with the next great marketing campaign, something truly original, that would surely get some attention. Until that happens though (and I won't be holding my breath) someone in charge needs to decide it's time to dispense with the "guerilla" approach. There's enough scary stuff happening out in the world that people don't need any more terror in their lives.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

What, Actually, Are They Getting?

As I left the office today the story that was breaking was about a man "with a rare and dangerous form of tuberculosis who may have spread the disease to passengers and crew on two trans-Atlantic flights."

This news, I thought, will certainly alarm and concern a great many of our readers. On the other hand, I often wonder how much of the information we report actually sinks in with the public.

Example: We have been posting stories about global warming for several years now. One might think it's almost a household word. From where I sit every day, I would almost assume that everyone knows what it is and what is probably causing it. Yet yesterday, I sat outside a Dunkin' Donuts with my son as a woman in a large SUV drove up. Two pre-teen girls hopped out of the SUV, went inside the shop, and proceeded to wait 10 minutes or more to place and get their order. THE WOMAN SAT INSIDE HER CAR WITH THE MOTOR RUNNING THE ENTIRE TIME.

The weather was not hot enough for her to want to keep the air conditioner running, nor cold enough to justify the heater. In fact, it was a sublime 75 degrees or so on a glorious late spring morning. God has rarely created such a perfect day.

I debated whether I should politely tap on her window and suggest that she turn the motor off, but I also realized such an move would probably be perceived as an act of aggression. What do to?

As I watched the woman mindlessly waiting in the running car, I couldn't help thinking about the Gary Larson "Far Side" cartoon where all the dinosaurs are standing around smoking cigarettes and the caption beneath it says, "The real reason dinosaurs became extinct."

For decades I have worked in the communications business, sincere in my belief that if we just get all the information out there, people can make wise choices about the world they live in.

But they don't.

The woman in the SUV obviously was ignorant about global warming (and probably a great many other things as well) but that's not as surprising as her sheer wastefulness. The price of gas is now more than $3 a gallon. It would seem she might have a little concern, at least, about that.

Weekly, we also report stories about the rising price of gasoline, but it appears that until there just isn't any anymore, Americans are going to continue to expect that it will be plentiful and (relatively) inexpensive (in Europe and other countries gasoline is far more expensive than in the U.S.) Again, the dinosaurs come to mind.

Monday, May 28, 2007

The Gathering Storm

Memorial Day is often a quiet news day and this one is not much different. The newest story of the day for us is New England Patriots football player Marquise Hill missing in Louisiana's Lake Ponchartrain. He disappeared while jet skiing. The Coast Guard has moved into recovery mode following a search.

We have included not only the story, but video from our sister-station WDSU in New Orleans on the Web site. While there is interest in the story, our metrics indicate that our viewers are more interested in a story about vandals who burned decorative American flags in Natick, Mass. last week and then stuffed them in a trash can.

Ahead this week we will prepare for special Web coverage of presidential debates to be held June 1 and June 3 at our sister station WMUR in Manchester, N.H. (I work for Internet Broadcasting, which runs the Web sites for more than 25 Hearst-Argyle television stations, and many other station groups as well.)

Covering the debates on the Web sites will be challenging. We are planning multiple livestreams from several different sites which will all be receiving the debate feeds. Getting the logistics planned is one thing. Executing another. At the end of it, we will likely have provided a great deal of information about both the Democratic and Republican candidates, but I often wonder if we're shouting down the rabbit hole with very few to hear us.

I know there is an appetite for politics on the Web, but I'm not sure, in the long term, how much of it people want or will actually read or watch. I am skeptical myself about what politics has become in our country. I'm not certain it has any real relevance anymore to the "price of eggs in Boston," as the old saying goes.

I sometimes suspect that politics in the U.S. is a way for people to think they have a say in how our government is run, but in the long run, I'm not sure our politicians truly have any real or significant impact on world events any longer.

It's almost as if we're rooting for athletic teams when we support a candidate or party, and I'm beginning to think they may have just about as much influence on energy policy or global warming as the Red Sox do -- not much. Certainly not as much, perhaps, as the International Monetary Fund does, or the Group of Eight (G8) , which we almost never cover, unless there are protests surrounding a G8 summit, and even then we (the media) don't seem to do a very good job of explaining what it's all about.

I once worked with an African-American photographer who told me on the way to a story one day, with all solemnity, that he believed a group of about 8 or 12 white men somewhere pretty much controlled the world by controlling all the money. I tried to disguise my incredulity when he said this, but the older I get, the more I wonder.

Which brings me back to the question of whether the time, money and energy we spend covering and publicizing political debates is worth the effort. I'd like to believe that who we vote for still makes a difference, but I see very, very little difference in political parties and politicians once they get in to office.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

At The Beginning

The term "Internet journalism" may be an oxymoron, especially for many journalists still primarily employed by "traditional" media organizations -- newspapers, radio, television, magazines -- and yet, it is what many of us are practicing even now, and will be practicing, for years to come.

We are here in significant numbers, some not entirely by design, working (as I sometimes like to think) at the beginning of all things. Or, rather, at the beginning of another great thing. We're on the cutting edge of a new news medium, more far-reaching than all that have come before. One that truly creates a global news village. It has already happened. Yet, by far, many of us are unknown, unrecognized, undocumented, providing news and information to millions around the world. We inform and influence thousands, but few know who we are or how we do what we do.

Who are we? What are we doing? What are we trying to do? Why are we doing it? What are we encountering along the way?

These are the questions framing this blog, which I hope will draw the comments, experiences and expertise of Internet journalists around the globe. I also see it as a way to provide a Web history of what we are going through as we build this new medium, this new journalism "discipline." In college, I learned about what Edward R. Murrow did as he shaped what came to be known as television journalism. A few years ago, I read a biography of William Randolph Hearst, who helped shape newspaper journalism. Now it's our turn to write the book on the beginnings of Internet journalism, using our medium, the Internet.

In a way, it doesn't feel unusual to be working in a new news medium. As one of my bosses at Internet Broadcasting said a few years ago, "If you're looking for a guidebook on how to do what we do, don't. We're writing it every day." It's not the first time I've been on the cutting edge of a journalism job.

More than 25 years ago, I got my start as a journalist working at a television station in Austin, Texas. We were still using manual typewriters then, (small type) and ripping wire off huge machines that spewed out reams of copy 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We would tear copy and organize it by category -- sports, news, entertainment -- slapping it on to nails on the wall designated for each. The engineers were excited when we first tried transmitting "live" from a remote location. This being Texas, they sent me to do a live shot from the rodeo. They had a remote van that looked like an ice cream truck and it seemed like they were using twine and bubble gum to get the job done, but somehow it worked. They were elated when they were able to beam a picture back, and I felt a little like a human guinea pig.

A few years later, I was working for a television station in Tampa, Fla., WTVT, and it was one of the first local stations (if not the first) in the country to own and operate its own satellite truck. At that time, only the networks were operating satellite trucks. My assignment desk sent me down to Naples, Fla., to do a story on some beached whales, and my managers decided that, since we were out of microwave range, it was a good time to test our new satellite capabilities. The only problem was, we still didn't have a communications package entirely established. I didn't have IFB, the little ear piece that fits in a broadcast reporter's ear connecting them to the directors, producers and control room back at their stations.

No problem. They decided to go with the shot anyway, since they could see and hear me. They would have the photographer I was working with talk via walkie-talkie to another photog in a small motel down the road, who would in turn be communicating via telephone with the control room in Tampa. I stood there gamely until my photographer hissed "go" and simply began talking. Voila. On the air was our first satellite feed from Naples to Tampa in which I never heard a cue and didn't even have a monitor to look at to see what I was doing. Looking back, not having the benefit of "direction" from a producer was sometimes the greatest blessing the universe could bestow upon a reporter, but at the time it felt like flying blind. Again, I felt a little like a human guinea pig.

Years later I went "retro." I had a child and decided to leave journalism and paid work entirely. I wanted to focus a bit on raising another human being. I was never able to stay away from a keyboard for long, however, and eventually decided to try my hand at print journalism, which had always been my first love. I spent the next six years learning the newspaper business from the ground up. I even learned, quite literally, how to cut and paste. After assigning stories to reporters, spending hours editing their copy and then laying out each page of the paper, I would go out to the printing plant to oversee "paste up," sometimes going so far as to take the small Exacto-style knives in my own hand to cut tiny lines of newsprint from an article or headline to make it "fit" into its alloted space.

It was a "back to the future" experience, because it gave me the newspaper experience I lacked, having started my career in broadcasting. It also gave me some of the most fulfilling years of my professional life because of the great latitude we had in "enterprising" news stories. Noticing a trend toward the construction of larger "McMansions," we could write a story that we'd see a month later in the big daily newspapers and, later, in national magazines. There was tremendous satisfaction in rooting out stories and trends, not merely "reporting" events that had already occurred or were occurring, as I had done for so many years as a television reporter.

For my money, being able to enterprise a story is about as good as it gets for a journalist. It's what puts the "new" in the "news." Everything else is just "repurposing," which is what many journalists do on a daily basis, not really realizing it. They see a story someone else has done and they modify it for their medium and run with it. But to be the reporter who first spots a trend or informs about a topic, issue or event which has never been published before --that, to me, is the Holy Grail of journalism.

So here I am, again at the "cutting edge" of a new news medium, and much of what we are still doing on the Internet is "repurposing," just as in the early days of radio announcers would simply read stories that were printed in newspapers to fill air time (until the newspapers put a stop to it) and just as television reporters have been reporting stories out of the newspapers for decades.

We won't, however, be doing this for very long. Even now, when news breaks, Internet journalists are racing to get a few bits of information populated to their sites, long before a story is on the wire, printed in the paper or read over the air. We know the world sits poised at desktops everywhere, waiting for whatever details we can provide. My first experience of this was when I was still working at the newspaper as the Columbine High massacres were broadcast live on national television. We immediately turned to the Web sites of Denver newspapers for any shred of detail that could place the unfolding tragedy into some kind of context. Today it is passe' for news consumers everywhere to come to go to the Internet first.

We, however, are struggling as we work within a still-evolving new news infrastructure. It is so new, and there are still so few of us, that having an opportunity to enterprise a story is still an almost unheard of luxury. News managers are racing to create and implement guidelines that will be relevant to the developing news environment in which we operate. We adhere to traditional print style guidelines and conventions, and yet we know that the Internet requires, and offers, through multiple media options, a different approach to presentation . Additionally, the roles of journalists who work within the new medium are changing as well. Newspaper journalists are shooting pictures and videos to include in their Internet reports. Soon, broadcast reporters will be asked to produce print-worthy copy that can live on the Internet.

How will it all end? That's what we're finding out. We do know some "traditional" journalists are worried and threatened by the Internet as a news medium, but that train has left the station. What they should embrace is the potential if they want to continue doing what they love. We are all looked upon now not so much as "journalists" but as "content providers" for multiple information "platforms." Those platforms are always going to need content. People who know how to gather information and communicate it to the public, regardless of the medium, will still have a place to work -- their work may now just reach a wider audience on more "platforms."

How we go about the work of Internet journalism on day-to-day basis is what this blog will be all about. I see myself, again, as a bit of a pioneer or "guinea pig" working on the cutting edge of a new news medium. I think it's important that we have a record of what we're building, the obstacles we encounter, and a dialogue about what works and why. So, in this forum, I'll talk as often as I can about the day's work and the issues we confront. It often seems it's never easy, but sometimes it can be fun ... and it's always enlightening.