Month: July 2011

Page One

Gwen and I recently saw Page One, the documentary about the New York Times.

It was a sort of mile-high survey of the problems that most American newspapers are facing today. It was interesting watching it while the scandal surrounding Rupert Murdoch’s British tabloids is at its peak—Murdoch had nothing to do with the movie except extolling the iPad as the potential savior of the newspaper industry. The issues that the movie touched on—and there were so many that it didn’t really have much time to do more than touch on them—are all familiar to anyone paying attention to the news about newspapers—declining ad revenue, competition from online sources, the chummy, codependent relationship with power that leads to horrors like Judy Miller—but it was still very interesting seeing these discussed by the people directly affected by them.

Just as the movie hopscotched from issue to issue, it never quite developed a central thesis. But if a documentary can have a hero, this one definitely did in the person of David Carr. And if it can have one defining moment, this one’s came when he was on a panel talking about the future of journalism or something like that, clearly representing the old guard. At one point, Michael Wolff stands up and talks about how the world would manage without the New York Times. Then Carr gets up, shows a printout of the Newser.com (Michael Wolff’s project) front page; then shows the printout with all the stories sourced from old media ripped out, leaving nothing but a rough paper sieve.

There was talk about the role of the professional journalist vs citizen-journalists, of whether the civic function of newspapers actually makes business sense. There was a lot of talk about Twitter. Interestingly, not a lot about Facebook. The talk about blogs was mostly in the context of tabloid-grade professional blogs like Nick Denton’s properties—at one point, Denton is interviewed, and we see his “leaderboard”—the most popular current stories—on a big TV. None of the stories are news. They’re gossip.

For a brief moment, when blogs were new to most people, some people suggested that in the future everyone would have a blog and we’d get our news through legions of citizen-journalists, with some editorial control or artificial intelligence or something to make sure we as readers got the stuff that was of highest quality and greatest relevance to our interests. Technically, that’s possible. My friend Chip long ago set up the website Austin Bloggers, where anyone with a blog can post a link to their Austin-related postings. There’s definitely some good stuff there that’s too finely focused for traditional media.

But the idea that citizen journalists could replace professional journalists entirely was naive from the start, and since then, we’ve learned that most people, even if they are interested in sharing stuff online (and lots of people are), are not very interested in blogging per se.

I think there are two reasons for this: the effort and the reward. While it is possible to dash off a simple blog post, blogging software has not really encouraged this. The writing interface for this blog looks like this:

Admittedly, there are blogging systems that are simpler than this, but this is the system I’m using, and it’s a mainstream one. Contrast that with the posting interface for Twitter:

Even once you’ve got a blog set up, there’s just a lot more cognitive load in getting a post up.

And then there’s the payoff. With Twitter or Facebook, your friends are probably going to see what you write and can easily comment on it; if you’re writing something personal, it’s relatively easy to make it so that only your friends see it. There’s more of a message-in-a-bottle quality to a blog post. Friends are less likely to comment (partly because even the commenting interface is more complicated, thanks in part to comment spam in blogs), and making a blog post visible only to friends involves considerably more administrative overhead for the writer and readers. Live Journal, as easy as it is to ridicule as the repository for bad poetry by teenagers, got this right by providing a blogging platform with social-networking features built in.

And unfortunately, while Facebook and Twitter have displaced what might have otherwise been a lot of blogging, they have not adequately replaced blogging. They’re fine for ephemeral, off-the-cuff communication—better than a blog, I’d say. A friend’s Twitter or Facebook postings are like a running stream that I can dip into when I feel like it, but they don’t work as a repository for sustained writing—one the writing side, because Twitter and Facebook are designed for off-the-cuff and short writing, and on the reading side, because it’s relatively difficult to backtrack and look at previous postings. As a medium for citizen journalism, this means that Twitter can be useful as a channel for minute-by-minute breaking news (Facebook less so, because posts are more often hidden from those you don’t know even if they are on Facebook, and Facebook in general is walled off from the rest of the Internet), but worthless for anything longer than that—especially with Facebook, where it seems almost impossible to dig up an old post. The same is true for discussions on posts, so while Facebook is great for getting people talking, it’s lousy for looking back at what people were talking about. For superficial gossip-grade conversations, this is fine. For more substantial discussions that one might want to look back on, it’s a problem.

Google Plus is too new to have been discussed in the movie. It allows for longer-form writing than Twitter or Facebook. The fact that Google is behind it suggests that maybe old posts would be searchable (though right now, they aren’t). And Google already owns a blogging platform, Blogger. I’ll be interested in seeing how they play out.

Bird down

This morning while Gwen was puttering in the back yard, a juvenile bluejay landed on the ground, near our back door. He looked like he had his flight feathers, but the feathers on his head were still downy. He wouldn’t or more likely couldn’t fly away; he could hop, but mostly stayed put.

Not knowing what else to do, we set out a shallow pan of water for him. He made no effort to get away from us, but did hop into the pan of water.

About an hour later, I looked in on him. He was still in roughly the same spot. I refilled the pan of water and set it next to him. He looked at me and opened and closed his beak a few times as if silently chirping or begging for food. He flapped his wings for a moment and flipped over on his back. The nictitating membranes blinked across his eyes and he died.

When we looked at his corpse, we saw a spot on his back where he had been attacked.

Sometimes the new ways are the best

Char Griller brand dual grill

I’ve been barbecuing all my adult life. I don’t claim to be a grillmaster. I haven’t made a study of scientifically optimized barbecuing techniques. But I can usually get pretty good results. I’ve always been a traditionalist about it, only using charcoal, and always owning a primitive grill. I had a L’il Smokey in college. I had a tiny thing that fit in a backpack when I lived in Japan. Since then, I’ve always had one of those converted 55-gallon drums. I always felt that part of the fun of grilling was the unpredictability—that each time I got good results in spite of the lack of control, it was a small triumph over chaos, and my ability to get good results was evidence of some inarticulable talent.

It turns out that this represented one of those unexamined assumptions that turns out to be wrong.

The bottoms on those drum grills eventually rust out completely, so I’d wind up replacing them every few years. After the last one was gone, Gwen decided it was time for something different. She knew that charcoal grilling tastes better, but she also knew that gas grilling was more convenient, and can be a better-tasting option than stovetop cooling. She picked out a two-way grill, with gas in the left barrel and charcoal in the right. It was on sale at the big-box store, and we bought it. This is not something I would have picked out for myself—the charcoal side alone is fancier than any of those drum grills I’ve owned. And I felt a bit odd about allowing a propane grill into the household, even though I can avoid using it if I want.

We took the grill on its maiden voyage yesterday, and it immediately proved itself to be vastly superior to any grill I’ve owned before. To hell with triumph over chaos and inarticulable talent. I’ll stick with convenience, predictability, and control from now on. At least when it comes to grilling.