Interview tips for ships that pass in the night

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing, only a signal shown, and a distant voice in the darkness; So on the ocean of life, we pass and speak one another, only a look and a voice, then darkness again and a silence.

These words by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow popped into my mind this week, as I read an internal email from The Economist‘s “brand communications manager” that landed in my inbox. It began:

As more and more of you are doing broadcast interviews now, I thought it might be useful to re-circulate these hints and tips…

I have indeed, over the past 14 years, been doing more and more broadcast interviews, and made more than my share of mistakes. So I began perusing these tips with an open mind. Many were about the mechanics (wear plain shirts on TV, no patterns, no black; don’t fiddle with your hands; etc). But the important ones were about content. And, as I kept reading, I grew somewhat pensive.

That’s because, as I see it, the tips were simultaneously

  1. good — ie, anybody doing media interviews is well advised to heed them — and
  2. awful — ie, heeding them is what makes our political, public and personal conversations increasingly pointless and frustrating.
I shall explain, in two parts:

1) The tips

I was slightly suspicious of the Powerpoint-style pseudo-acronyms (this email came from the “business side”, after all), but could not argue with the advice:

Prepare beforehand – decide what it is you really want to get across, having stats to hand will usually be useful. Know your:

  • Audience
  • Messages (focus on three key things to say)
  • Evidence (third party endorsement is good e.g. quotes or research)
  • Negatives (what’s the “worst” question they could ask?)

(AMEN, get it? Oh dear.)

Then:

Get in early with your messages/evidence – don’t wait for the perfect question, it may never come

Translation: Ignore the question, just say whatever the heck you want to say, which is probably whatever you said in your last article in The Economist.

More tips:

Avoid being question-led so the interviewer gets a neat segment that fits their preconceptions but you don’t get to say anything really interesting or useful.

Add value. Don’t feel forced to answer a question at length that you feel is unclear or irrelevant. You are the expert, talk about what you think is most significant.

If you are asked a difficult question:

1. Acknowledge it (“I understand that view…” / “we need to look at this issue in the light of..”)

2. Bridge back and communicate what you want to say.

3. Don’t repeat any negative language – if the audience is only half-listening, that’s all they will hear.

4. Don’t fake it if you don’t know, bring the conversation back to where you feel comfortable.

Translation: In case you didn’t get the first translation, ignore the question (but be suave about it) and say whatever the heck you want to say….

2) The consequences

I did say, right up front, that I had contradictory reactions to this advice. I know too well how utterly demoralizing it is to be on the radio or on TV, and to go off on that tangent that might become so very sophisticated in just a few minutes but dies suddenly and ignominiously when the interview is … over.

‘Wait, you mean, you don’t want to hear all my complex thoughts on this issue?’

No, they don’t.

If you don’t seize the conversation, they, or it, will seize you.

On the other hand, what kind of “conversations” are we talking about?

The worst kind: the eristic kind, as Socrates would say, the kind that obstructs communication and discovery of truth.

And so we all — journalists, politicians, consultants, pundits — become “media-trained”, talking right past one another, just like ships that pass in the night.

The Economist’s new home page

I’ve mentioned here and there how The Economist has been — really, really, honestly, totally, prove me wrong! — entering the internet era. 😉

Well, you should finally start to see some changes.

Our new home page will go live at the beginning of July. You can see a mock-up here, and you can take tell the web designers what you think about it here.

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How the French view my media habits

You might remember that I wrote a post last fall about my own, personal media habits and how they have been changing.

Based on observing only myself, I concluded that, contrary to what you might have read or heard in the media, there is no media crisis for citizens and consumers, who can inform themselves better than ever — and indeed that we may be at the beginning of a second Renaissance.

La Francophonie écoute

Well, somewhat to my surprise, that little post has had quite a career in the French-speaking world. It probably began when Francis Pisani, a respected French blogger in America, picked it up in Le Monde.

A while later, a French-Canadian newspaper, Le Devoir, ran a cover story (picture above) on it. 😯

And now Owni, a cutting-edge website, has not only translated my post but invited two experts to rebut my thesis. (As you know, intelligent rebuttals delight me, because they make me learn and refine my views, which is sort of the point of life, isn’t it?)

Divina Frau-Meigs

The first expert is Divina Frau-Meigs, a media sociologist and professor at the Sorbonne. In her rebuttal, she

  • concedes that access to news and information has become more “democratic” for those who are “intellectually and technologically equipped”, whom she calls the “info-riches”;
  • laments that this does not resolve the economic, social and cultural “divides” — in other words, she worries that people whom she calls “info-précaires” lose out;
  • dismisses the idea (which she believes I espouse) that we can just get rid of journalists, since most citizens don’t have the time to do the hard work of investigating and reporting on the world’s problems;
  • appeals for a wholesale reform of media education, both for the young and for poor adults;
  • sets out principles she believes should guide that reform.

Bruno Devauchelle

The second expert is Bruno Devauchelle, a researcher at a think tank in Lyon. In his rebuttal, he

  • redefines the crisis as one of overinformation;
  • argues that blogger-journalists like me feel good only because we have all the necessary skills to deal with this, whereas most young people today lack those skills;
  • also appeals for better education;
  • calls in particular for teachers to be trained in internet technology and internet culture;
  • calls for new pedagogic techniques.

De quoi s’agit-il?

I will respond to these rebuttals in a separate post. But first, I want to make sure that I do justice to Divina and Bruno. My own French went from passable (circa 1992) to laughable, so the translation was hard work for me. But among you, there may be more proficient speakers of French.

If you’re so inclined, read their rebuttals and put their main points, to the extent that I have not captured them above, in the comments.

And, of course, go ahead and give your own opinion.

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Bad writing in the mainstream press

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Michael Kinsley, a witty and incisive journalist formerly of Crossfire and Slate, has an amusing critique in The Atlantic of the awful writing that dominates so much of America’s “mainstream media.” My only regret is that he was so gentle, by Kinsley standards.

I have long felt the same way, especially since I taught a course at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, where a lot of the students in my class were already “spoiled” by the same conventions that Kinsley here lampoons. And yet, I could not dissuade my students from using those conventions. So they produced over-long and corny writing that you might find, well, in the New York Times.

What are those conventions? First, says Kinsley, grandiose verbiage:

Once upon a time, this unnecessary stuff was considered an advance over dry news reporting: don’t just tell the story; tell the reader what it means. But providing “context,” as it was known, has become an invitation to hype. In this case, it’s the lowest form of hype—it’s horse-race hype—which actually diminishes a story rather than enhancing it.

Next, the convention of banal, pointless and stupid quotes from “experts”, which repetitively restate what the article’s author has already stated, and where identifying the speaker takes up more words than are in the (unnecessary) quote. Example:

“Now is the chance to fix our health care system and improve the lives of millions of Americans,” Representative Louise M. Slaughter, Democrat of New York and chairwoman of the Rules Committee, said as she opened the daylong proceedings. (Quote: 18 words; identification: 21 words.)

Why? Because in this American convention,

it’s not [the reporter’s] job to have a view. In fact, it’s her job to not have a view. Even though it’s her story and her judgment, she must find someone else—an expert or an observer—to repeat and endorse her conclusion. These quotes then magically turn an opinionated story into an objective one.

Compare this with our view on quotes at The Economist:

…all meaningless and trivial quotes should be excised … I cannot abide the constant oscillation between (a) serious reporting, and (b) meaningless quotes by non-entities. All I want is the story, clear and concise and preferably with a bit of style. As soon as I get to “Joe Bloggs, an accountant, says ‘these are big numbers’”, I turn over the page… In general, our rule with quotes should be that either the singer or the song should be interesting.

Back to Kinsley. The next stupid convention is the equivalent of what the software industry calls “legacy code”, meaning yet more verbiage

written to accommodate readers who have just emerged from a coma or a coal mine. Who needs to be told that reforming health care (three words) involves “a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s health care system” (nine words)? … Anybody who doesn’t know these things already is unlikely to care. (Is, in fact, unlikely to be reading the article.)

Next, what I (as opposed to Kinsley) call “fake color“, the obligatory “anecdotal lede”, whether it is germane and riveting or not. As Kinsley puts it, these are

those you’ll-never-guess-what-this-is-about, faux-mystery narrative leads about Martha Lewis, a 57-year-old retired nurse, who was sitting in her living room one day last month watching Oprah when the FedEx delivery man rang her doorbell with an innocent-looking envelope … and so on.

Kinsley’s conclusion: Cut out the crap. You might be better.

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Pew and me, “imagining the internet”

The Pew Internet & American Life Project invited me to participate in the next iteration of their serial “expert” reports on the future evolution of the Internet.

The questions themselves were interesting and telling, and I thought I might share them with you and let you know how I answered. (I look forward to finding out what all the other participants said when “Future of the Internet” is published by Cambria Press.)

The questions were “tension pairs” of alternative scenarios around the following themes:

  • Human intelligence
  • Reading and writing skills
  • Social and human relationships
  • The Internet’s “end-to-end principle”
  • Desktop versus cloud computing
  • The next takeoff technologies

Human intelligence

Here is one tension pair (their words):

By 2020, people’s use of the internet has enhanced human intelligence; as people are allowed unprecedented access to more information, they become smarter and make better choices. Nicholas Carr was wrong: Google does not make us stupid.

Or:

By 2020, people’s use of the internet has not enhanced human intelligence and it could even be lowering the IQs of most people who use it a lot. Nicholas Carr was right: Google makes us stupid.

I chose alternative 1 and elaborated (my words):

What the internet (here subsumed tongue-in-cheek under “Google”) does is to support some parts of human intelligence, such as analysis, by replacing other parts, such as memory. Thus, people will be more intelligent about, say, the logistics of moving around a geography because “Google” will remember the facts and relationships of various locations on their behalf. People will be better able to compare the revolutions of 1848 and 1789 because “Google” will remind them of all the details as needed. This is the continuation ad infinitum of the process launched by abacuses and calculators: we have become more “stupid” by losing our arithmetic skills but more intelligent at evaluating numbers.

Reading skills

Here is another tension pair (their words):

By 2020, it will be clear that the internet has enhanced and improved reading, writing, and the rendering of knowledge.

Or:

By 2020, it will be clear that the internet has diminished and endangered reading, writing, and the intelligent rendering of knowledge.

Here, too, I chose alternative 2 but elaborated (my words):

We are currently transitioning from reading mainly on paper to reading mainly on screens. As we do so, most of us read more, in terms of quantity (word count), but also more promiscuously and in shorter intervals and with less dedication. As these habits take root, they corrupt our willingness to commit to long texts, as found in books or essays. We will be less patient and less able to concentrate on long-form texts. This will result in a resurgence of short-form texts and story-telling, in “Haiku-culture” replacing “book-culture”.

Friendship and intimacy

Here is another tension pair:

In 2020, when I look at the big picture and consider my personal friendships, marriage and other relationships, I see that the internet has mostly been a negative force on my social world. And this will only grow more true in the future.

Or:

In 2020, when I look at the big picture and consider my personal friendships, marriage and other relationships, I see that the internet has mostly been a positive force on my social world. And this will only grow more true in the future.

And again I chose alternative 2, but said:

The question presents a false dichotomy: Technology has no impact whatsoever in the long term on human relationships. What it does is to facilitate some aspects of it for a time (thoughts with letters, speech with telephony, updates with social networks, nearness-awareness with geo-location, etc) at the expense of outrunning the etiquette and courtesy protocols of the previous generation (disturbance during dinner time with telephony, privacy and discretion with social networks and geo-location, et cetera). Over time, etiquette catches up (or evolves), but efficiency advances elsewhere. But throughout, people remain responsible for their human connections–ie, the commitments in time and trust they make to others and their expectations of reciprocity.

Privacy and “sharing”

One more tension pair:

By 2020, members of Generation Y (today’s “digital natives”) will continue to be ambient broadcasters who disclose a great deal of personal information in order to stay connected and take advantage of social, economic, and political opportunities. Even as they mature, have families, and take on more significant responsibilities, their enthusiasm for widespread information sharing will carry forward.

Or:

By 2020, members of Generation Y (today’s “digital natives”) will have “grown out” of much of their use of social networks, multiplayer online games and other time-consuming, transparency-engendering online tools. As they age and find new interests and commitments, their enthusiasm for widespread information sharing will abate.

And again, I chose alternative 2 and elaborated:

The human maturation process does not change because of a new technology. Starting before we left the savannahs, the young members of Homo “Sapiens” have over-shared in order to make themselves socially interesting to the group and to potential mates, only to discover the enormous risks involved when shared information reaches malicious individuals or a group at large, at which point they have re-learned the discretion of their parents. Thus sharing on the internet will continue on its present trajectory: more will be shared by the young than the old, and as people mature they will share more banal and less intimate information.

The other topics didn’t interest me quite as much, although I gave my opinions. Regarding the question of “cloud computing” versus PC-based computing, I made my thinking quite clear when Apple’s support team gave me ample (in terms of time) opportunity to ponder it.

Can’t wait to hear what you guys think.

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My changing media habits (or: there is no crisis!)

D1606SU1

More than three years ago–it seems like three decades–I wrote an eight-chapter Special Report in The Economist in which I tried to envision the future of the media. (It starts here, for those of you with a subscription.)

In it I argued that we (society) were in the midst of a transformation equal in significance to that started by Gutenberg’s printing press during the Renaissance. One media era was ending, another starting:

  • Old: Media companies produce content & captive, passive audience consumes it.
  • New: Everybody produces content and shares, consumes, remixes it.
  • Old: Media companies lecture the audience (one to many).
  • New: The audience has conversations among itself (many to many).

To show you how long three years can be, consider:

  • As part of my Special Report, I did our (The Economist‘s) very first podcasts–a word that many of the editors in London had not even heard yet. Today our podcasts are among the most popular on iTunes.
  • During my research for the Report, I heard the word “YouTube” for the first time (the company had just been founded). When I sent the Report to the editor, it contained one single reference to YouTube. Four (!) weeks later, when the Report was published, YouTube had already become the biggest story of that year (2006).
  • I had never heard of Facebook (not to mention Twitter). And so on.

How I use the media today

All of this sounds quaint today, so I thought I might share with you how my personal media habits have changed since my Report, and then answer some questions:

  • Does my 2006 thesis hold up?
  • Would I refine it today?
  • Is there a media “crisis”?

1) More efficiency in my work life

Back in 2006, I still subscribed to a lot of paper newspapers and magazines, as all journalists used to do, in order to “keep up” with the competition and to be informed. Those things piled up on my floor and made me feel guilty.

Today I have no paper subscription at all! I have precisely two electronic subscriptions on my Kindle, one newspaper (The New York Times) and one magazine (The Atlantic).

I use my Kindle in the morning over my latte to catch up with the global headlines, the mass market “news”. It is almost relaxing. It takes maybe 15 minutes. Later in the day, if I am driving, I will listen to NPR in the car. That represents my entire consumption of “mainstream” media through their traditional distribution channels. I do not own a TV set.

After I put down my Kindle, my work starts. This means that I open my own, personal “newspaper”, which is my RSS Reader. Here is what it looked like yesterday:

Reader.

In my RSS reader I mix “feeds” from the “head” and the “long tail”, from the LA Times to small blogs on California politics and obscure research outfits such as the Public Policy Institute of California.

The important thing to note here is that I have

  1. disassembled many disparate publications and information sources, including sources not traditionally considered “news”, and
  2. reassembled them as only I can for my own productivity. I have thus replaced “editors” and will never, ever allow them back into this part of my life.

I probably spend an hour or so reading inside my RSS reader. This is not so relaxing. I consider it work. This is my deep dive into stuff I need to know to cover my beat (ie, the Western states). I don’t worry about printing or filing anything because I tag the items, knowing that I can search for them in future. (And yes, that means that my office is now paperless.) Sometimes I hit “share” and my editor can see what I’m reading.

Then I’m done for the day, and I move on a) to do research for my stories and b) to take occasional study breaks for fun with the other media….

2) My intellectual life: Social curation

In my “private” (ie, non-Economist) existence, I now essentially live the vision that I sketched in my Special Report. Which is to say that I am simultaneously the audience for other “amateur” producers of content and an amateur producer myself. This is simply a highfalutin way of saying:

  • I blog (right here) for motivations that are not remotely commercial, and
  • I read other blogs for intellectual stimulation, and
  • I occasionally post to my Facebook news feed, and
  • I glance into the Facebook updates of people I know.

Through the blog, Facebook and the old-fashioned medium of email, I now have a spontaneous and unplanned but remarkably efficient and bespoke system of social curation for my media content.

I can easily spend an hour or two a day just following the links that you guys, ie my blog readers, provide. Virtually all of you on this blog have never met me in person but you have a keen sense of my intellectual tastes by now, and you provide links that are, for the most part, stunningly relevant. Sometimes you bring to the surface specific research papers or articles in obscure journals that I would never have discovered in the previous media era.

facebook

On Facebook, I find that the connections are of the opposite nature: Most of my “friends” I really do know in offline life, but many understand my intellectual tastes less than my blog readers. But my Facebook friends nonetheless are in my social circle, so their links tend also to be obscure, risqué, ironic, or moving–in short, more interesting and enjoyable than any content the media companies used to dish up for me in the previous era. Ten years ago, for instance, I would probably never have seen this stunning Ukrainian artist perform the Nazi invasion of Ukraine with sand:

The things to note here are:

  1. My social curators also disassemble and reassemble the sources of content. They mix Jon Stewart clips (mainstream media, commercial) with homemade music ensembles (amateur, non-commercial) into one bespoke media flow.
  2. My online and offline friends have thus become what media editors used to be, and they are far better at it than their media-conglomerate predecessors ever were. I will never allow the old editors back into my life.
  3. It goes without saying that I “time-shift” and “place-shift”, which is just a highfalutin way of saying that I “consume” this content wherever and whenever (laptop + iPhone) I happen to be.

3) My intimate media

The final layer is what Paul Saffo in my Special Report called the “personal” media. These are media produced by family members and very intimate friends for defined and tiny audiences.

Example: baby pictures and clips on my private family web site. The site is protected and only grandparents and dear friends have access. The motivation is thus the opposite of the traditional media:

  1. The audience is deliberately kept small (whereas media companies want large audiences)
  2. The intent is to share and preserve personal memories.

Because the capture and sharing of such intimate media is so much easier than it ever was, I spend much, much more of my media time immersed in them. Where do I find this time? Easy. As Clay Shirky has been saying for years: We have a surplus of time, once we get rid of the crap in our lives.

Conclusion

So, to answer my three questions:

  • Does my 2006 thesis hold up? Yes, I believe it does. We all have the equivalent of many Gutenberg printing presses in our pockets and on our laps, and we use them to tell stories to one another as never before.
  • Would I refine it today? I would pay more attention to video and audio as opposed to text in the mix.
  • Is there a media “crisis”? No!

It is that last point that may come as a surprise. I am in an unusual position in that am both a professional and an amateur writer. So I must be aware that the news industry is dying, right?

I am indeed aware that it is shrinking. But is that a problem? There are indeed two crises:

  1. A money and profits crisis for owners of media capital.
  2. An employment crisis for journalists.

But those are two constituencies that the rest of society need not care about. For society as a whole, I believe there is no crisis, once we stop being hysterical and examine our media habits.

What I have discovered in my own personal media behavior is that I am today better informed than I have ever been before. But much of the information I consume no longer comes from journalists.

Instead, much, much more of it now comes from universities and think tanks in my RSS reader and iTunes University, from scientists and thinkers and other experts at conferences such as TED, and from you, who are a self-selected and thus qualified bunch of editors.

Speaking purely as a consumer of the media and a citizen, I believe that there is no media crisis–indeed, that we are entering a second Renaissance.

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Tracking The Economist’s success

EconomistCirculationChartWe have a new, moderately interactive and even somewhat interesting “widget” on our website that gives all sorts of circulation data, by region, country and so forth.

It continues to amaze me, like everybody else, that we at The Economist keep growing when everybody else, with a few exceptions, is suffering.

The growth continues to come disproportionately from North America, as you can see on the left.

Worldwide, circulation has doubled in the past decade to about 1½ million a week now (which = about 3 million readers, since every copy tends to get “passed along”).

I joined a dozen years ago, so everything I write now reaches more than twice as many people as it did back then. I will continue to ponder this mystery, the sausage factory I work in, and the world around it. One day I will have an answer.

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The Atlantic on the success of The Economist

Michael Hirschorn

Michael Hirschorn

Our success at The Economist continues to baffle and intrigue an entire industry.

Where some postulate that it is our tone (analogous to coffee beans “shat out be a civet cat“), others are analyzing our position as simultaneously niche and global, which is no longer oxymoronic but suddenly à la mode.

Michael Hirschorn in The Atlantic is the latest. As he puts it,

The Economist has become an arbiter of right-thinking opinion (free-market right-center, if you want to be technical about it; with a dose of left-center social progressivism) at a time when arbiters in general are in ill favor.

This is the American part of any article about us, which is always amusing, since there is a one-word synonym for the convoluted phrase “free-market right-center, if you want to be technical about it; with a dose of left-center social progressivism”: That word is liberal.

But Hirschorn is really interested in why we are doing well when Time and Newsweek, which are trying to copy us, are not.

The easy lesson might be that quality wins out. The Economist is truly a remarkable invention—a weekly newspaper, as it calls itself, that canvasses the globe with an assurance that no one else can match. Where else, really, can you actually keep up with Africa? But even as The Economist signals its gravitas with every strenuously reader-unfriendly page, it has never been quite as brilliant as its more devoted fans would have the rest of us believe. (Though, one must add, nor is it as shallow as its detractors would tell you it is.)

Here he is expressing what I’ve observed to be a persistent sour-grapes, cringing, squinting snobbishness toward The Economist from American journalists at the “good” publications: They always feel compelled to call us “smug”.

Indeed, he does:

At its worst, the writing can be shoddy, thin research supporting smug hypotheses.

I don’t actually disagree. But Hirschorn then comes around to what I’ve been saying internally at The Economist for a while now:

The Economist prides itself on cleverly distilling the world into a reasonably compact survey. Another word for this is blogging, or at least what blogging might be after it matures.

This of course leads to an irony that we at The Economist all savor:

For a magazine that effectively blogged avant la lettre, The Economist has never had much digital savvy…. most of the magazine’s readers seem to have no idea the site exists. While other publications whore themselves to Google, The Huffington Post, and the Drudge Report, almost no one links to The Economist. It sits primly apart from the orgy of link love elsewhere on the Web.

As it happens, this missing “link love” was the topic of my presentation at our internal powwow last fall in Danesfield. The title of my talk was “Google Juice”. I was offering thoughts on how to increase our link love, but Hirschorn thinks that our relative dearth of it

turns out to have been a lucky accident. Unlike practically all other media “brands,” The Economist remains primarily a print product, and it is valued accordingly. …

By that he means that we are really friggin’ expensive. He then signs off with an interesting thought:

General-interest is out; niche is in. The irony, as restaurateurs and club-owners and sneaker companies and Facebook and Martha Stewart know—and as The Economist demonstrates, week in and week out—is that niche is sometimes the smartest way to take over the world.

I like that. That’s exactly what I might try to do when my book comes out.

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The Economist: “shat out by a civet cat”

An amusing discussion on why The Economist does so well while other magazines are hurting: According to Tom Ascheim, the boss of Newsweek, it is because we:

  • are non-American and thus necessarily global in outlook,
  • have high subscription rates, and
  • snob appeal

But the fun is in this quote attributed to Vanity Fair writer Matt Pressman:

The Economist is like that exotic coffee that comes from beans that have been eaten and shat out undigested by an Indonesian civet cat, and Time and Newsweek are like Starbucks — millions of people enjoy them, but it’s not a point of pride.

Would that make me the shitting civet cat?

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