More on micropayements in journalism

The two Freakonomics gods of economics, Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt, have now joined in the debate about whether or not micropayments are the future of newspapers, a debate I first pointed to last week.

Unfortunately, so far they have only sampled views from the people I’ve already linked to. I hope that means they are getting ready for their own economic analysis of the issue. A lot rides on it.

Personally, I still think that the Kindle and its ilk point to the future. Technically, it is not a micropayments platform yet (micro = thousands, not hundreds, of a dollar at a time). But it begins the process of news publications charging modest amounts for a new reading experience, and that is what this is about.

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Do not go gentle: The “dying” newspaper

559px-the_deathsvg

The death metaphor for newspapers: It is everywhere. For example, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. Even The Economist and The Hannibal Blog have used it.

I suspect this is because journalists (and bloggers are journal-ists too) love crisp, primal metaphors, which usually leads to sex or death, if not taxes.

That said, the metaphor is, of course, utter and silly nonsense. In this post I want to suggest why.

Indulge me with a “brief history of the media”, which comes with an R-rating for subjectivity, exaggeration and incompleteness. My point is only to lead up to a new and better metaphor for what is happening to the news industry.

1) Trojan War (ca. 1200 BCE) to ca 750 BCE

The mainstream media of post-Mycenaean and pre-Archaic Greece live* through their heydey of oral story-telling about the great war. Audiences are captive, attendance is good.

An upstart working in a new medium, Homer, disrupts the industry with great success by writing the stories down. After initial concern about the death of oral story-telling, new and smaller audiences form in every Greek polis whenever Homer’s Iliad is read out loud in the Forum, cheering at the precise point in his  long list of Achaean ships when the local hero is named. A consensus emerges that oral story-telling has changed context but is alive and well, benefiting from the written word.

2) High Renaissance: Gutenberg to Aldus Manutius

The mainstream media of monastic Europe, monks, are living through their heyday, transcribing Aristotle by hand (= manuscript) until lunch and getting sloshed in the brewery downstairs thereafter. Readership is elite, limited and assured. Barriers to entry are high.

An upstart working in a new medium, Gutenberg, disrupts the industry with a new patent. An investment bubble leads to other start-ups such as Aldus Manutius who starts printing not Bibles but paperbacks for the masses. The European clergy warns of the death of the media, with dire consequences for civilization. Within a century, gazettes and books are everywhere, literacy is up, vernacular languages flourish, and a consensus emerges even among monks that their calligraphy, though it has a new context, is as sought-after as ever, as well as entirely sufficient to subsidize the goings-on downstairs.

3) Mid-nineteenth century

The radio industry is in its heyday. Recent predictions that radio would cause the death of newspapers and live orchestra performances have turned out to be wrong, with all media flourishing happily. During “prime-time” (a neologism), entire families gather around a large box in the living room to listen to FDR’s fireside chats.

But a new medium challenges the industry. Called “television“, it abhors the mainstream-media tycoons, to whom it is “half Greek, half Latin: no good can come of it.” The death of radio is announced and widely mourned.

Within a decade, it turns out that radio is more popular than ever, though in a new context. It has moved out of the living room and prime time and into the car during commute times. A new heyday is proclaimed.

Lesson

Any history of the media suggests that

  • no medium ever dies when a new medium arrives because
  • the old media instead change context–social, spatial, temporal–and live on happily ever after

What metaphor might capture this idea?

  • From geology: sedimentation
  • From Eastern philosophy: reincarnation

Who knows. But death it ain’t!

So the challenge is much less primal and more subtle than our headlines make it seem: to figure out what the new contexts for our old media will be, in order to prepare them for a new heyday.

*Pedant alert: Media is a plural word, medium is the singular.

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Breaking news: broken news

And an update on yesterday’s post: Yes, this really is quite a “week in the drama of the printed word” (and I write this on Wednesday!). Several heavyweights of the blogosophere have now weighed in on the debate over micropayments and the future of newspapers.

If this interests you, you can stay abreast of it by reading just a few blog posts:

  • Clay Shirky (arguing against micro-payments, previously featured here)
  • Nick Carr (predicting a horrifying bout of blood-letting and creative destruction as the “over-supply” in the news industry corrects itself)
  • Matthew Gertner (rebutting Clay, and starting with a blood-curdling 😉 anecdote about how and why he has just dropped his subscription to …. The Economist!)

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One week in the drama of the printed word

Just a quick alert to those of you who may not follow these matters as obsessively as I do: This is a cacophonous week even by the standards of the echo chamber that houses the pundits who hold forth about “the future of the newspaper” and such matters.

For once, I cannot really weigh in until The Economist‘s next issue is out (on Thursday night), because I am writing on one aspect of this. But I wanted at least to point you to various angles at whose intersection you may independently find … a thought:

  1. Amazon yesterday announced its Kindle 2 (ie, its electronic reading device for books*). I have been trying the Kindle 1 and am on the list to get the Kindle 2. I cannot say more for now.
  2. Google is making available over one million out-of-copyright books for reading on your mobile phone, thus joining many others apps, such as Stanza, that let you do that already.
  3. In case it’s not obvious*, the Kindle lets you receive (wirelessly–yucky word) and read not only books but also newspapers and magazines. In fact, I am about to unsubscribe from my last remaining print newspaper, the New York Times, in order to read only the Kindle, iPhone and web versions.
  4. Into this maelstrom, Walter Isaacson (whose biography of Einstein is in the bibliography of my forthcoming book) has written a cover story in Time Magazine in which he argues that “micro-payments” will save the journalism industry. (Here he is kidding around with Jon Stewart about it.)
  5. Other stalwarts of the industry, such as Michael Kinsley, are already busy dismantling every part of Isaacson’s argument.
  6. To summarize, for those hibernating in an igloo without WiFi: We were confused at the beginning of the week, we are confused in the middle of it, and we will be confused at the end of it.

As I said, I will today try to make sense of at least one part of this mess, and you can read the result in The Economist on Thursday night. It’s one of those rare occurrences when my private interests as a writer and aspiring author overlap with my day job of covering my beat. Yesterday, for instance, I was interviewing the boss of Penguin, John Makinson, about the topic–we began by kidding around, because Penguin, of course, owns Riverhead, where an editor is right now looking at my manuscript.

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Can a storyteller make stuff up?

Truman Capote making stuff up

Truman Capote making stuff up

The book manuscript that I’ve just sent off to my editor at Riverhead happens to fall into the genre of “creative non-fiction.” It is a story built on actual lives–ancient ones and modern ones–that illustrate various themes around the great mystery of success and failure in life, including yours and mine.

The job of creative non-fiction, as Ira Glass would agree, is to make true stories riveting and small stories grand. It is, in short, simply good story-telling.

Still, you would have to lack all sense of irony not to smirk at that phrase. Creative non-fiction. Say what?

Creative means making stuff up. Non-fiction means not making stuff up. The very notion would seem to be an oxymoron. Or perhaps not?

Herodotus and Thucydides walk into a bar….

This particular question happens to be the oldest controversy in non-fiction writing. Recall that Herodotus believed in embellishing history to make it more palatable and (ironically) realistic, whereas Thucydides took him to task for telling lies and promised to stick to just the facts, ma’am. But even Thucydides then found that he had to “make stuff up” to get at the actual truth, because if he had used only, for instance, dialogue that he himself had actually overheard (while taking notes), he would have painted the wrong picture of the Peloponnesian War altogether.

By the time, we get to the era in which my main characters–Hannibal, Fabius and Scipio–lived, Polybius is the one who tries to stick to just the facts (but again doesn’t quite manage), whereas Livy is the one who says ‘Oh Heck’ and just tells a good yarn. By the time we get to Plutarch, we essentially throw out the rule book and just enjoy–even as we, paradoxically, come away with the impression that we have finally gotten closer to the truth of the characters involved. And so the controversy bubbles on, down the ages.

… and Truman Capote serves them a drink

Jean Ku, a friend of ours, just passed on a fascinating essay on the topic by her writing teacher, David Schweidel, the author of two books. Schweidel begins his history of creative non-fiction more recently. One strand, which Schweidel calls reportage, started with Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and continued with Tom Wolfe and The New Journalism. The other is memoir.

So what makes reportage creative non-fiction? Schweidel thinks that

Creative nonfiction, I’d say, attempts to convey the feeling as well as the facts. Clearly, Truman Capote does a lot of work to convey feeling.

It does this by using the techniques of fiction, which are

  • dramatized action
  • dialogue
  • the point of view of a participant
  • the presentation of specific details, … such as gestures, habits, manners, customs, styles of furniture, clothing, decoration, styles of traveling, eating, keeping house, ….

And what makes memoirs creative non-fiction? Well, the fact that they

are works of memory. Memory is selective, self-serving, often mistaken. People lie to make themselves look better. Sometimes people lie to make themselves look worse… Or simply misremember. Most readers understand that story-tellers, especially when they’re telling stories about themselves, take such liberties. In the words of Grace Paley: “Any story told twice is fiction.”

And so, concludes Schweidel,

In theory, creative nonfiction has to be an oxymoron. Creative means made up, and nonfiction means not made up. Hence, oxymoron. In practice, though, creative nonfiction is a redundancy. Why? Because virtually every work of nonfiction is creative.

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Humanity, suspense and surprise in storytelling

Ira Glass

Ira Glass

So what makes a good story good? That’s where we left off last time in this series on the art of story-telling.

To begin deconstructing the magic, listen to th amusing and thought-provoking video talk below by Ira Glass, the host of NPR’s This American Life and a great story-teller. (I already mentioned once just how good a story teller I consider him to be when I praised the episode that explains the current financial crisis and that remains the most memorable, clear and touching piece of journalism done on that subject.)

In the talk, Glass says what I’ve always thought: that journalism, and the American sort in particular, imposes a “fake gravitas” on stories by artificially separating the world into a) serious or b) funny, with a barren no-man’s-land in between. Glass calls this a “failure of craft”–the craft being story-telling.

What he and his team do, and what so many other journalists don’t do, is to “inject joy and pleasure” into stories. They choose–and I love his way of putting this–

stories whose aesthetic is suprise.

These stories, furthermore,

portray people at exactly human scale.

There is no fake or contrived grandness, at least not in the conventional sense. Somehow, these very human characters make us feel right from the beginning that

something is about to occurr.

Why we feel that way we cannot quite say, because this is

not about reason but emotion.

Events seem to “accumulate”, and they seem to be

heading in a direction.

In the process, the story-teller is constantly

raising and answering questions,

which leaves the audience (in this case listeners rather than readers) feeling that they

can’t get out.

And now, just as they are hooked, there is a surprise. What seemed small suddenly reveals itself to be about a

bigger, universal something.

The big idea comes effortlessly but forcefully in a rhythm not unlike that in Beethoven’s Fifth:

Action, action, action and then thought.

And so, what seemed small was really grand after all! Only, there was no need to yell at the audience at the start. It became clear all by itself.

Fittingly, Glass then illustrates all of this by choosing the story of Scheherazade, whom The Hannibal Blog anointed as the matron saint of story-tellers in the previous post.

I just came across Glass’s talk but, as you can imagine, I felt as though I were meeting my soul mate. All of this is exactly what I have been trying to do in the book manuscript that I just sent off to my editor this week.
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My mentors

Aristotle_tutoring_alexander_by_j_l_g_ferris_1895

Mentor was the wise old man whom Odysseus left behind to look after his son Telemachus while Odysseus went off to fight the Trojan War. Odysseus, of course, would be gone for twenty years in total, so Mentor played an important role in pointing Telemachus in the right direction.

Carl Jung later believed that Mentor was one of the archetypes in our collective unconscious, a character that appears in our dreams and in any good story. Think Obi-Wan Kenobi for Luke Skywalker.

Socrates mentored Plato; Plato mentored (well, at least taught) Aristotle; Aristotle mentored Alexander the Great (pictured above).

So I’ve been thinking about Mentors as I feel myself into the characters in my book. What roles does a Mentor have to play? What makes a bad mentor? And, of course, who were my mentors?

Good and bad mentors

Contrary to the Hollywood image, I don’t think that a good mentor necessarily needs to spend a lot of time with a young person. Instead, he or she is just somebody who shows up at crucial moments, takes a genuine and benevolent interest, and gives a fillip or advice where it is needed.

I am reminded of how David Williams, the first Westerner to study Yoga with Pattabhi Jois (in the 1970s!), once explained to me (as we were practicing yoga in David’s garage in Maui, with his Bernese Mountain Dogs running around us) the concept of guru. Gu means darkness in Sanskrit, Ru means light. So a guru is someone who “lights your candle” but then lets you go, indeed sends you off. An older person who passes himself off as a guru but tries to keep control over you, who lingers, is a fake guru.

My three mentors

Speaking only in the context of my writing career, I had three mentors, I believe.

Clive Crook

Clive Crook

1) Clive Crook

I first met Clive when I was twenty-two or so. I was out of work and confused about life and flew to London on a whim to “interview” with The Economist and the FT, even though I don’t recall having set up any actual appointments. I had the flu, and it was raining. I was down and out. Somehow I got into “the Tower”, as we call our 50s-style building in St. James’s Street, and into Clive’s office. He was perhaps economics editor at the time. He sat in a tiny office with stacks of books all around him that I thought would come crashing down on him any minute. To my shock, he didn’t call security but … talked to me.

Nothing immediate came of that, but many years later I was in some god-awful investment bank and fed up. I wanted out, and into journalism. I wrote Clive a letter. To my renewed shock, he remembered me and was now deputy editor. He invited me to sushi. Again, nothing came of it, but he said something might open up. He advised me to get out of that stupid bank and go to a small sweatshop magazine that was known to take young journalists with no experience. I did. Five months later, he took me out to sushi again. Then I joined The Economist. He saw something in me, and that’s why I have my job today.

Marc Levinson

Marc Levinson

2) Marc Levinson

As I said earlier, the job of a guru is not to stick around forever but to let go at the right moment. Once I arrived at The Economist–rather clueless, I should say–Clive stepped back and another editor, Marc Levinson, stepped up as a new mentor. He was very New York in a very British place. He had recently taken over the job of editing the finance section in the magazine, and was controversial. Some people said he was “dumbing the paper down” (he would have said that he was making it comprehensible and unintimidating.) And he was, by the occasionally evasive standards of British toffs, brash.

He certainly put me through the wringer. On Wednesdays, which are our deadline days (London time), I was occasionally close to tears as he made me re-write the piece I had just filed. He minced no words. “This anecdote is flat, take it out!” “You’re not ready to write this piece yet; go out and find something out!”

Over time, three things occurred to me. 1) He was tough in my face but supported me like a rock behind my back. This is the inversion of normal. People like that are a certain kind of nobility. Over time, I saw actual tenderness in his toughness. 2) While he often re-wrote my copy, he also often forced me to re-write my own. Again and again. He could have saved himself time by just doing it himself. He didn’t want to. He wanted me to learn. 3) I got… better!

Marc left The Economist and went home to New York, where he is the author of a fantastic book called The Box. And thus we parted ways. But if Clive discovered my potential, Marc made me fulfill it.

Orville Schell

Orville Schell

3) Orville Schell

Years later again, I arrived in California from Asia. One of the Sinologists I had always heard about in China was Orville Schell, who was now dean of the Journalism School at UC Berkeley. I sent him an email to see whether he might like to meet some time, and, to my surprise, immediately got a message back in which Orville invited me to lunch at the Faculty Club.

Some time after that, he invited me to … teach! This was amusing to me, because I considered (and will always consider) myself a learner. But hey. If Orville Schell asks me to teach a class, who am I to say No? I said Yes.

For two years, I was a teaching fellow at his school. Just as Clive and Marc had no reason to take an interest in me but did, Orville inexplicably included me in all sorts of events. Interesting people were always coming through, and Orville liked to take them to Chez Panisse for dinner. Very often, he invited me to come along. (My greatest regret is that the night that he took David Halberstam to Chez Panisse and was looking for me to invite me along, I was somehow not to be found. Halberstam died in a car crash the next day.)

As a good mentor, Orville also knew just when to step in forcefully with advice and when to bow out. Three years ago, before I had the idea for the book that I am now writing, I was approached with an unusual offer/opportunity. A literary agent who had researched me and liked my writing asked me to write a book about an extremely large and interesting organization (one that you all use every day). The money was good and to spice it up he had already arranged for exclusive and intimate access to the key individual, whose co-operation might make the book great. I was taken aback but very tempted. But something bothered me. I didn’t know what.

I went into Orville’s office and he immediately made time for me (!). He listened to the situation. Where I was unsure and hesitant, he was forceful and sure. “Don’t,” he said. “If you want to write a book about BLANK, then write it, but don’t take this deal. It will compromise you forever.” And if I didn’t want to write this particular book, well, why was I even contemplating it?

I knew that he was right on the spot. But Orville then grabbed me and led me into the courtyard, where Michael Pollan, author of the Omnivore’s Dilemma and other bestsellers, was mingling. Orville explained the situation, asked Michael to give his opinion, then walked away so that he would not influence the conversation. Michael said exactly the same thing.

And so, I learned a great deal about character, ethics, books, writing and life in one day.

Here is to Clive, Marc and Orville, to Mentor and to Aristotle. May every Telemachus find one at the right time!

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My magazine vs. all magazines

Play with this interactive barometer of ad pages inside the major magazines.

The overall picture is grim, grim, grim. Fortunately, we at The Economist are still going strong. (I wonder how we do that. ;))

But lest you hypothesize about a “flight to quality”, note that the New Yorker is also down, really down. Breaks my heart.

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Non-profit newspapers

Orville Schell

Orville Schell

Orville Schell, formerly the dean of the graduate school of journalism at Berkeley (where I used to teach) and one of my mentors (of which more another time), has for years been saying that the future, if there is one, of the news business is as a non-profit public service.

In the last couple of years, I’ve been sensing that this is becoming conventional wisdom. Today, David Swenson, a legendary fund manager of Yale’s endowment, makes exactly this case in the New York Times. Given his credibility in matters of analysis–especially when the subject is endowments–this might lead to actual and big change soon.

Note that The Economist, though officially called a “newspaper”, is in a very different position than the kind that you used to wrap your fish in. Still, after years of chaos in the wider news industry, the thinking is at last getting clearer…

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