Reporting on reporting the end of the world
It’s been a big couple of weeks for the apocalypse. In case your “apocalypse reporting” Google Alert has been lagging, I wanted to point to a couple of the highlights.
After I blogged about our Newsfoo session “Reporting the End of the World”, it was picked up by David Carr at the NYTimes: The World is Ending Please Update the Home Page. (Mr. Carr was in attendance at our little session, and a big part of why it was so fun / informative.)
The Media Decoder post set off a flurry of other posts on the Twitters and blogs, but before I could think my fifteen minutes was up, NPR’s On the Media came a’calling: Covering the Apocalypse.
(I’d love to be able to embed the piece right here, but I can’t seem to find the embed code on the page. Suggestions?)
It was a lot of fun to get to chat with Brooke Gladstone and to say the phrase “alien-hugging Democrats versus alien-killing Republicans” on the radio.
Thanks everyone who helped spread the word about this. Have any ideas for what I should do with “Reporting the end of the world” next? Let me know.
(Also, thanks to everyone who pointed out that my blog theme is “soooo 2007″. I know, I know.)
Reporting the end of the world
This weekend at Newsfoo, a fun little future-of-news (un)conference put on by O’Reilly Media, I proposed a session. Important sidenote: It’s an “unconference” because anyone can propose a session and structure it however they like. I proposed “Reporting the End of the World.” Quite literally, how we as journalists will do our work in the apocalypse. It is almost 2012, after all, we should be prepared.
What began as a relatively fun conceit quickly turned into a discussion of very practical things, best illustrated by how our corroborating examples began increasingly to be localized apocalypses like 9-11 or Katrina. Particularly with the scenario of global pandemic, we found ourselves unearthing critical weaknesses in our abilities to do our jobs amidst catastrophe.
Choose Your Own Apocalypse
We started by deciding which apocalypses to prepare for, eventually settling on alien invasion and global pandemic. (We decided that The Rapture, an event that wouldn’t change our lives all too much, was too entry-level to discuss.)
Alien invasion: Borrowing from Independence Day, in this scenario Earth is the target of invasion by an aggressive alien species focused on the eradication of the human race. You wake up on a Tuesday, make yourself some coffee, open your laptop and check Twitter to find spaceships are suspended above our planet’s major cities. They are preparing to attack.
Global Pandemic: The aliens left us miraculously alone, disappeared into the far reaches of space, and everybody won Pulitzers for their coverage of Invasion Watch 2012. But then, you wake up on a Tuesday, make yourself some coffee, open your laptop and check Twitter to see reports of a fast-moving, fatal illness sweeping the planet.
The first things the aliens would do, we decided, was shut down the internet and broadcast media. This is, um, a challenge for us. How are you going to post to your Alien Attack Liveblog and Alien Species Topic Page when there is no internet?? Other telecommunications? Thinking about 9-11 in particular, we realized that even if the aliens waited to zap our mobile networks, humans themselves would render them ineffective in a flurry of phone calls to Mother. This led to us recalling a list of the impressive history of human communication technologies: SMS of course (and Twitter’s 40404 short code), CB and ham radio, broadsheet newspapers, carrier pigeon, heck, even just a bullhorn.
Lessons of conflict reporting
All of us have trained for reporting in non-conflict zones. But in an alien invasion, all zones became conflict zones. As David Carr pointed out, “In conflict journalism, it’s the symmetries of war that keep reporters safe.” But there is no symmetry in our war with our would-be destroyers.
Journalists vs. Humans
Midway through this scenario someone asked if we shouldn’t be trying to interview the aliens to hear their perspective. Maybe these galactic destroyers actually have a point – a strong rationale for the elimination of the human race? (Insert much snickering about which celebrity journalists we would volunteer to be the first to sit down across from ZLORG the alien lord.) There’s a meaty question here about our role as journalists. Are we observers of a conflict between two sides? Or are we members of the resistance? (This also prompted snickering over Alien-Hugging Democrats vs. Alien-Killing Republicans.) We also discussed trying to find the alien’s journalists to make common cause- though they were likely to be propagandists. But maybe we could appeal to the alien Leni Riefenstahl?
Public Service Journalism
Both scenarios provide great opportunities to do public service journalism, “news-you-use” like “what looks like an alien’s claw-hand is actually its mouth-tube, be careful not to approach it with your delicious human guts.” A lot of reporting on aliens would be informing the public of the areas of conflict to avoid. A lot of reporting on global pandemic would be widely disseminating information about the disease.
Don’t go outside
In the pandemic scenario, how do you reporting on raging disease if you can’t go outside? We talked about building a self-reporting platform where a network around the globe could send in information about the spread of disease. Google already has a leg up on us with Global Flu Trends.
In both scenarios we discussed the necessity of strong emergency preparedness, but it was most evident talking about pandemic. As the superflu raged through towns and cities and the global air travel system, you would do best to stay in your home. Do any of us have two weeks worth of food and water (and whiskey) in our homes? Public service providers are well-trained to think about disaster, but journalists, who would also provide a public service in a cataclysm, seem to assume that circumstances will always be optimal.
Should we suspend facts?
But getting hard facts about the disease would be hard. I asked if, in times of crisis, we shouldn’t suspend facts? Offer our audience a spectrum of probably true to probably not true? The room agreed pretty strongly that in these scenarios facts were more important than ever. Kate Crawford talked about her organization’s experience in the recent flooding in Australia and the devastating power of rumor. We all circled back to the role rumors (and the over-reporting of false rumors) played in New Orleans immediately post-Katrina.
All in all, reporting the end of the world turned out to be great fun to imagine. I would advise every journalist out there to put together an emergency pack in your house. And probably learn ham radio.
Thanks especially to the absolutely fantastic and creative group of journalists we had in the room. If you all have any other favorite moments / take-aways, send them along and I’ll add them. Also if anyone has a picture of our whiteboard – let me know!
Thoughts on Vanguard
Let me first say that there is no one out there pulling for Current TV as hard as I am. I understand the business logic behind the changes to the Vanguard show and I want Current TV to be successful as a business. (Let me also note that so far Current says Vanguard will continue to be produced, just by freelancers.)
This is not about decision-making at Current TV. This is about the state of our news industry, and a little bit about me being wistful and idealistic.
Vanguard is an amazing show. If you’ve never seen an episode, you should track it down. Engaging, important documentary journalism, albeit hard to find on your cable dial. Vanguard does something rare on TV: add new information to the conversation. As they often phrased it, they shined a light into the dark places.
I like that idea of Vanguard as a source of illumination. Particularly while most of cable television news does not provide new light sources- it reflects back those little lights like a riot of mirrors. I hear this accusation leveled against blogs all the time – they’re just building off of other people’s coverage. TV news commentary is the same: a competition to put the best spin on the day’s news.
But when you bounce light endlessly between mirrors, it degenerates, it begins to lose its power. And when you start extinguishing the sources, there is less and less illumination happening at all.
Current made its decisions because our broadcast marketplace values entertaining commentary higher than expensive original reporting. I don’t begrudge them the choice, I know it must have been difficult. But I do mourn the slowly-dimming luster of our world of journalism.
All of my best to everyone at Vanguard, may you continue to shine your lights elsewhere.
My new, new job
One of my new colleagues pointed out to me last night that the most recent post here was celebrating my old new job.
In my defense, it’s been a busy time. I’ve started a new job (yes, I realize the repetition), I’ve gotten married, gone on a honeymoon, *and* finished off Project Lazarette (at a whopping 617 pages).
But a personal blog, even a poorly-maintained one, should accurately reflect a life’s milestones. So here it is: I’ve joined Twitter’s Content & Programming team. I’m working with some old friends and making a lot of new friends. I’ll be based in DC but spending a fair amount of time in San Francisco over the next few months. Twitter, unsurprisingly, is a pretty awesome place to work and I’m looking forward to many exciting projects to come.
Also, working for Twitter means that you attract more Twitter-y attention, as I learned last night. The very next tweet to me after Isaac’s was the New York Times’ fridge. The future is pretty great.
I officially have a new job
And I am officially moving to Washington, DC.
Many of you already know this – but this is the big ol’ official announcement: I have taken a full-time job with Al Jazeera, as a senior producer on The Stream. This also means I’m moving to Washington, where the show is based.
But you’ve been working there for a while, right? Yes, that’s true. I came on temporarily to help launch the show. But, to be honest, I’ve enjoyed the work so much that when they asked if I’d like to come on full-time I couldn’t help but say yes.
When do you move to DC? This next week is my last in San Francisco. I’m actually writing this from my flight home to move out of the apartment.
What’s The Stream? Oh man, you obviously don’t follow me on Twitter. It’s Al Jazeera’s new social media show. Here’s a link.
I will of course miss the west coast like nobody’s business (It’s been over ten years, Golden State!) but I’m very excited about moving east. And DC is a pretty cool town!
George R.R. Martin farts in your general direction
I’m currently trying to wean myself off Game of Thrones with the methadone of The Tudors. Man, was that a dizzying sprint. I started reading the very first book in May. Since, I read all four available books, watched the entirety of the HBO series and then read the fifth book in just a weekend. Devoured it, more like.
There are many good things to say Game of Thrones (and many, many fine mashups to be had in Tumblosphere) but as I’m still digesting, I had one short item of note from Dances with Dragons that I wanted to point out to the Internets.
Somewhere in that fog of a weekend I happened upon a funny and familiar phrase: “fart in your general direction.” Now you and I both know where that comes from:
I don’t presume to know whether that phrase was a rare and gentle wink from Martin to his readers (an audience that most certainly knows where that comes from) or whether it was one of those phrases that just kind of slips through a writer’s fingers to his keyboard and into his manuscript, passed over in all later edits.
I do find its use fascinating though. Fantasy writing, and certainly in the Tolkein-esque ring Martin seems to be boxing in, is ageless. It is not tied to its time. Yet, this little slip of a phrase places this book. This is a book written by someone who watched (and probably several times) Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Whether or not this is intentional it leads me to wonder: Could there be a post-modern fantasy? Could you write that book, brimming with clever references and asides, without subverting all the laws that make a fantasy book a fantasy book?
Anyone else find any little telltale phrases in your respective devouring of Dances with Dragons? (I also noticed “shubbery”, but that’s perhaps excusable.)
Why Google+ Hangout Is Good for Long Distance Relationships
Let me preface this with the admission that I haven’t used Google+ nor am I a tech blogger. I’m just a guy whose fiancée happens to be on the other side of the continent. And I think “Hangouts” are brilliant.
I think this “Hangouts” feature of Google+ is brilliant in that it addresses one very core problem with video telephony: the expectation of interaction. While you’re on the phone, you can be doing plenty of other things. While you’re on video chat, in a way, you’re on stage. You feel like your full attention should be given to the chat at hand. Which is a real bummer if all you want to do is…well…hang out with the other person.
My fiancée is beautiful. I love to look at her. But I’m in Washington and she’s 3000+ miles away. Thanks to video chat seeing her is no longer such a barrier. The problem is that we always feel like video chat forces us into having a “conversation”. What if all we want to do is enjoy each others’ company? I can still look at her when we’re not talking, but after some time “looking” turns to “leering.” And no one wants to creep out the woman they’re about to marry!
So we came up with a solution: We watch TV shows on our laptops together. (Everyone facing a long distance relationship – here’s a big tip for you.) We make sure we’re on the same site (Hulu or Netflix) or buy from the same online store (iTunes or Amazon) and then we sync up our strikes of our respective play buttons. And there we are, in each others’ company, just watching TV. To “hang out.”
Hangout isn’t new technology, it’s just a new framework for existing technology. And that can be just as revolutionary. Kudos to Google.
Didn’t the Big Groupon Article Miss Something?
In that very long Sunday NYT article that went on and on about “the Voice” of Groupon, I thought there was one glaring omission: that big Super Bowl ad that was a titanic disaster of…comedic voice.
From the article:
“People have grown numb to the elements of advertising that pander to their fears and hopes, that insult their intelligence with safe, bland approaches at creativity,” says Mr. With, who at nights and on weekends is lead singer in the band Volcano. “We’re mixing business with art and creating our own voice.”
The Voice. This, Groupon says, is what subscribers respond to as much as the deal itself. “Thirty percent of our subscriber base makes over $100,000 a year,” says Mr. With. “They don’t need $20 off at a restaurant.”
That reliance on comedic voice is what defines the company, but while “GROUPON was first noticed by people who do not use Groupon when Google tried to buy it in December for a reported $6 billion” it was then two months later noticed by millions of people as the company that entered into comedic television advertising as tone deaf as an elementary school choir.
Don’t know why this was left out…but, you know…big wet, sloppy kiss….impending IPO…bubble enthusiasm…blah blah blah.
My Iphone Life
Inspired by Alexis Madrigal, I took a few snapshots of my life with the iPhone.
This is our nation, seen through the filter of my movements over the last couple of years.
Really the most interesting area in my iPhone history is the East Coast. The lines you’re seeing there are largely train lines. Amtrak from DC to NY to Boston. And that little hook up and to the left is my favorite train ride in the country: the Adirondack to upstate New York is actually to the same destination, but on the highway.
It’s interesting to see the incorrect pings. I’ve never really been anywhere in New Jersey that the Amtrak doesn’t run through – yet you see those pings scattered across the countryside like a drunken ramble.
Last summer’s trip to Nova Scotia had the same thing: pings all over PEI. But I love too the personal stories. Here’s San Francisco, where I live. And that persistent cluster traveling up and to the left is to wine country, where I’m getting married.
A few weeks in DC
In non-writing news: I’m headed to DC for a few weeks to do some work with Al Jazeera English on a new show they’re developing called The Stream.
Here’s a short write-up about it from Wired.
I’ve long been impressed with the work Al Jazeera English has been doing and particularly in these last few weeks as they’ve covered the various protests and revolts in North Africa. I’m very excited for the chance to work with them on what sounds like a very cool new project.
If you’re in DC or will be in DC sometime this month – let me know!