Jan 23, 2012

Wallowing in the Media Slime

Last year, two pals of mine were arrested for drunk driving in separate states. Both were without prior such charges, and after undergoing the requisite legal, financial and emotional nightmare that accompanies such an occurrence, both were disposed of by the system in similar manners.

One of them, Mr A, happens to be gainfully employed in the private sector, while Mr B is a public servant for a suburban township. It is because of this difference that one's nightmare continues forward.

Mr A's means of connecting this personal matter to his workplace went like this: the Monday morning after the incident, he disclosed it to his fellow managers in the coffee room of their 75-person technology business. He was offered both sympathetic and “you dumb idiot” type responses, as well as referrals to a good lawyer and future ride-shares, if needed. There was no need to take it to the Board of Directors or the shareholders or to disseminate it to the whole building. That was pretty much the end of it.

Our friend Mr B, however, didn't need to worry about breaking the news to his co-workers: the local daily paper did this job for him, complete with a front page headline, story and photo. It also opened up an online comment section and poll asking whether the gentleman should be fired or not. The Town Supervisor had him into his office immediately, and the governing board was already matching schedules for the purpose of convening an emergency session on the matter. B's job – and professional future — hung in the balance. After being put through the ringer for three weeks, he was able to retain it, but it was a very close call. We've all read of many officials not faring as well.

Faithful readers of this column can no doubt predict where this is about to go: we're on the road to some heavy handed media bashing, right? Yes sir, we are. Those same readers will also know that we are all about 'disconnects' here at the 'Burgh. Let's run with that theme here:

Apologists for the current version of our legacy news media will argue that public officials work for the citizenry, therefore the latter is entitled to receiving a more micro-level of scrutiny and reporting on the former's indiscretions.
Meanwhile. most of that same citizenry longs for seeing private sector–like smarts, efficiencies and productivity making its way into the public sector culture.
But the private sector does not feel the urge to subject its personnel to the aforementioned scrutiny, especially for offenses with little or no relationship to the offender's job responsibilities (note: my friend is a town clerk).
Therefore, the legacy news media is disconnected from logic

This BS is any easy one to call. The local print news franchise in his sleepy little town has as its editorial model – which in turn becomes part of its business model – a willingness and eagerness to report (and emphasize) the twin pillars of SCANDAL and CONFLICT in its reporting of local affairs. Illicit affairs uncovered? Check. Somebody got into a heated argument with a neighbor? Yep. Somone yelled at someone else during a meeting? Bring it on! DWI? Paydirt!

The arena in which they are best able to play this little “caught ya” game, then, is the public/governmental sector, where they can hide behind “public servants/public service” shield as cover for their wallowing in this mud. Again, except for the most profile individuals in the private sector (think a Bill Gates), these “reveleations' won't fly and will have minimal effect ad far as causing various consequences to the offenders. But major damage can be inflicted to those in government jobs, so let 'er rip, goes the logic.

Why anyone would want to serve in a public capacity, given this type of nonsense, is beyond me. So we have Reason #432 as to why the best and the brightest among us opt not to. Not to mention the fact, that is type of reporting normally unleashes a fury of nonproductive distractions within the town/city/state office, as witnessed by my friend's situation. Tax dollars get wasted, but the newspaper at least gets to play its red meat card and hope it sticks to the worst aspects of its dwindling readership's tastes.

In a classic local example of this deterioration of the news media's role in our communities, we have a local (Greater Capital Region) daily and its targeted campaign against a sitting official in that city's government. Apparently, this individual had a problem fifteen years ago; one which resulted in a jail sentence. Time was served and afterwords a life was turned around in the most positive of ways with a new career and a new family . By all reports, this person is performing the public function in an exemplary manner since the local appointment. But that's not the story that needs to be told, at least to this newspaper. Not when that fifteen year old story is suddenly thrust into their lap, courtesy of “an anonymous email.”

As if the Page One publication of this trash is not enough, the fact that this rag allows itself to be 'played' by someone with an apparent personal grudge is equally disturbing – yet not surprising. Thankfully, that city's Mayor is doing the right thing and basically telling the paper to “get real here.” The few people in the general public who are now freshly aware of the back story obviously feel the same, as apparent from published comments and their general “who the hell cares?” replies. But it has succeeded in no doubt destroying this person's professional career (future advancement into larger cities) as well as no doubt causing family turmoil. Congratulations, folks, on a job well done.

Finally, this particular newspaper has prominently displayed on its masthead its receipt of a particular journalism prize;, the result of one of its columnist's receiving that accolade for some good works. I'd suggest it add the tag “Perfect Example of the Decline of the American News Media” right below it.


Jan 17, 2012

Fat squirrels in Winter

A recent session of the Morning Geniuses Club:

"This winter is certainly off to a warm start. But it is still gonna be a long winter, going deep into Spring."

"What makes you say that?"

"Because the squirrels are all fat. They've loaded up. That means a long winter. Never fails to predict."

"But couldn't their being fat have something to do with the warm start? Food is easier for them to find, so they are just pigging out."

Despite a lively discussion, the session was adjourned without a resolution to this matter.


Jan 10, 2012

The Snowmakers of GE Schenectady

Here is an interesting bit of local (Capital Region) business/technology history...

Thinking Outside the Cold Box:

How a Nobel Prize Winner and Kurt Vonnegut’s Brother Made the Clouds Snow at GE in the 1940s

Bing Crosby was famously dreaming of a white Christmas, and so were many Americans this snowless holiday season. But a review of historical documents, archival photographs and press clippings shows that GE scientists led by Nobel Prize winner Irving Langmuir mastered the technology of coaxing snow out of clouds half a century ago. Langmuir’s feat was even recorded in a 1950 Time magazine cover story titled “Can man learn to control the atmosphere he lives in?”

Named Project Cirrus, Langmuir’s weather research was an outgrowth of a war time study to prevent aircraft icing and improve radio communication inside winter storms. Langmuir, a polymath scientist who won his Nobel for work in chemistry that led to GE’s early coronary artery imaging technology, teamed up with his protégés Vincent Schaefer and Bernard Vonnegut to figure out the science of snow. “Why was it that sometimes snow forms so easily, with no apparent lack of nuclei on which crystals can grow, and at other times there seemed to be none?” asked the G-E Review magazine in November 1952.

(Bernard Vonnegut’s brother, the novelist Kurt Vonnegut Jr., worked in GE’s advertising and publicity department in the early 1950s. He famously fictionalized his brother’s cool science in his classic Cat’s Cradle, where a substance called Ice-Nine freezes the seas.)


Dreaming of the Sea

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” (Antoine De Saint Exupery)

A good argument for building some creative courseware related to the concept of The Entrepeneurial Spririt into the core curriculun of our educational system.

Let's get people dreaming of the sea instead of working for the man.


Jan 3, 2012

Go Defense! The Newspaper Playbook

“We're better. Why? Cus We Say So.”

The newspaper industry has at least one advantage over its Old Media cousin, the broadcast radio business. Whereas tower heads generally don't have a clue that the world is changing around them and their legacy operating model is crumbling, newspaper people typically do. Talk to any news hound and one can receive a pretty accurate assessment of the basic cause & effect dynamics of their current predicament. Recognition of the problem is not their shortcoming.

But owning such enlightenment is only half the battle. Not having the right strategies for dealing with those issues and megatrends is just as big a problem as being in the dark in the first place. In most cases, the newspaper sector's reaction strategies are both baffling and clueless.

The most common reaction is to get defensive and adapt a holier than thou attitude; claiming a superior moral high ground over the threatening hordes of new media heathens banging on the gates. We've all heard this spin: they are not trained in journalism schools, they don't use the the style bibles, they don't follow the standard formula for structuring paragraphs, they're too opinionated, they're foul-mouthed, they don't use editors or spell checks, they don't have news rooms, they don't know how to monetize.....like we do. On and on it goes. Meanwhile, the numbers talk as the eyeballs walk.

We agree that some examples of net-based journalism are, in fact, not worth the megabyte or two they are taking up. A good portion of this sample is shovelware – the SOS (same old shit) blather of the daily newspapers' output, simply re-positioned into a web format. Plus, there are a lot of idiots and sociopaths out there suddenly feeling empowered to share their limited world perspectives. Just Google such phrases as Fed conspiracy, 9/11 truth, New World Order or Obama birth certificate and you'll meet a few of them. But, please: don't point to this crowd as being the yang to the ying.

Fact is, there's also a whole lot of output out there that offers a whole lot more of the long form / deep analysis type of writing that the print media is entirely clueless (or dis-interested) in publishing. And a lot of it is well written, researched and composed. But, doing the same would cost your typical hometown daily big money – in the form of subject matter experts and deep thinkers who actually have a background sense of the community in question and its place on the globe. That's an investment they won't make, given both ugly balance sheets and this general philosophy of continuing on the well-worn righteous path.

They remain content in the reporting of the most mundane aspects of community activity: government meetings, traffic wrecks, lawbreaking, and so on. But such information is available for consumption everywhere, so they continue to tie the hanging-cord around their own necks – albeit with a skeleton staff.

Meanwhile, we await the emergence of a new form of local community information sharing. We don't see it yet. But it's coming. Markets often work wonderfully in just such situations. Hopefully it will do so here.