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.