The Written Word, Hanging On For Dear Life
(By Joel Achenbach, Washington Post, 05/23/2011)
I’m supposed to write an SEO headline on blog items, but sometimes the topic at hand is not something for which anyone would reasonably be searching, and thus there is no way to optimize the headline. Sometimes I’m just kvetching about the human condition. No one types “kvetching about human condition” in the Google search box. And many times we’re just talking about gardening, or child-rearing, or personal finances, and I would hate for someone who is legitimately searching for advice on those topics – who needs real, useful information -- to wind up here, in the land of the Terminal Digression. What I would really like is to find a website that tells me what terms are not trending. Then I can use those terms in my Keywords box, and in my headline, and we can be assured that no one will inadvertantly find us here. We’ll be safe. I hope that doesn’t sound too…you know…Unabomberish.
Now then, picking up on my brief item yesterday: I’m wondering if there’s been a general decay in literature in recent years, or, more precisely, a decline in the overall quality of the written word up and down the ladder. High end books, not quite as good. Newspaper articles, sloppier. Blogs, dumber. Even emails and instant messages and texts and tweets: Maybe the gibberish is getting even more incomprehensible. There’s more BAD gibberish, if you follow me. I have no empirical evidence of this. I’m not even sure I have any anecdotal evidence. This is not a theory in any strict sense. It is barely a conjecture. But I’m throwing it out there to see what people think. Obviously, technology has democratized the information universe and made writers of us all. This is, in some ways, the Golden Age of Letters (so long as there aren’t too MANY letters and you exceed the limit). We are now awash in the invented language of the thumbs (LOL...OMG...G2G). This tongue of abbreviations and slang is the new Esperanto. There are a lot of platforms now in which creative spelling is not only tolerated but barely noticed.What concerns me more is the erosion of the commercial foundation of “content creation” (a colleague points out that the turning point came when we started using that execrable term) and the attendant disappearance of multiple strata of editors. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Editors shouldn’t be viewed as overhead. Writers need editors. Writing needs editing. Good writing is typically collaborative. (I’ve been lucky: My editors over the years have been like the ’27 Yankees.)
Let’s ponder the counter-argument: There are still a lot of boffo writers producing fantastic stuff. I didn’t think Franzen’s “Freedom” was quite as good as “The Corrections” but it was still beautiful stuff, tremendous fun, capturing the American vernacular at this moment in time. I’m reading my friend Geraldine Brooks’s “Caleb’s Crossing,” and marvel at her ability to recreate the language of the 17th century. Every sentence is immaculate. Here’s someone who knows exactly what she’s doing. And, echoing what I said yesterday, that John McPhee book “The Control of Nature” (here’s the New Yorker excerpt about the Atchafalaya River) is so well crafted you couldn’t find a stray comma without first hitting the book with dynamite. Readers get a lot of credit here. There are still a lot of people who appreciate, and demand, and reward quality. [Tell me who you’re reading.]The Internet makes it easier for people to recommend good books. In theory this should help the quality books that linger on the back list for years, long after their marketing campaign has ended. If readers demand quality, good writing won’t vanish. But maybe things will get pretty Darwinian: Only the very best can survive. Picture this: The midlist books become imperiled, and those writers wind up drifting into self-publishing. Next thing you know, they’re badgering old friends to do the copy editing. They’re working harder for less reward, and gradually feel themselves succumbing to the temptation to lower their standards. They split infinitives, misuse “hopefully,” sling clichés like they’re going out of style, and then cease to maintain their basic hygiene. And then come the emoticons….
Texting Generation Doesn't Share Boomers' Taste For Talk
(By Ian Shapira, Washington Post, Aug 8, 2010)
Jane Beard and Jeffrey Davis didn't realize how little they speak to their children by phone until they called AT&T to switch plans. The customer service agent was breathless. TheNearly all age groups are spending less time talking on the phone; boomers in their mid-50s and early 60s are the only ones still yakking as they did when Ma Bell was America's communications queen. But the fall of the call is driven by 18- to 34-year-olds, whose average monthly voice minutes have plunged from about 1,200 to 900 in the past two years, according to research by Nielsen. Texting among 18- to 24-year-olds has more than doubled in the same period, from an average of 600 messages a month two years ago to more than 1,400 texts a month, according to Nielsen.
Spring couple had accumulated 28,700 unused minutes. "None of the kids call us back! They will
not call you back," said Beard, a former actress who with her husband
coaches business leaders on public speaking. A generation of e-mailing, followed by an
explosion in texting, has pushed the telephone conversation into serious
decline, creating new tensions between baby boomers and millennials - those in
their teens, 20s and early 30s.
Young people say they avoid voice calls because the immediacy of a phone call strips them of the control that they have over the arguably less-intimate pleasures of texting, e-mailing, Facebooking or tweeting. They even complain that phone calls are by their nature impolite, more of an interruption than the blip of an arriving text. Kevin Loker, 20, a rising junior atThe bias against unexpected phone calls stems in good part from the way texting and e-mail have conditioned young people to be cautious about how they communicate when they are not face to face, experts say. Deborah Tannen, a linguistics professor at
, said he and
his school friends rarely just call someone, for fear of being seen as rude or
intrusive. First, they text to make an appointment to talk. "They'll
write, 'Can I call you at such-and-such time?' " said Loker, executive
editor of Connect2Mason.com, a student media site. "People want to be
polite. I feel like, in general, people my age are not as quick on their feet
to just talk on the phone." George Mason
One of Seidel's congregants, Lianna Levine Reisner, 26, a development director at a nonprofit group, said her peers have phone gripes of their own about their elders. "My parents call and leave voice mails. They do that a lot," she said. "I might listen and realize they're not saying anything other than just, 'Call me.' I am not much of a phone talker." Not only are people making fewer calls, but they are also having shorter conversations when they do call. The average length of a cellphone call has dropped from 2.38 minutes in 1993 to 1.81 minutes in 2009, according to industry data. And between 2005 and 2009, as the number of minutes people spent talking on cellphones inched up, the number of cellphone messages containing text or multimedia content ballooned by 1,840 percent.Land lines are disappearing. Verizon, the nation's second-largest land line carrier behind AT&T, says its hard-wired phone connections have dropped from 50 million in 2005 to 31 million this year. "Here's the issue: We don't want to talk with each other most of the time," said Naomi Baron, an American University linguistics professor who published a paper in June called "Control Freaks," dissecting how Americans communicate online and on mobile devices. "In a very profound way, our lives changed when the remote control was first introduced: You didn't have to watch what you didn't want to watch."
The difference in communications preferences has created a palpable perception gap between young adults and their parents. Beard said that when her niece, Lindsay Spencer, 20, "is in classes at theNot all parents are quite that open to new ways. "My mom gets offended," said Muggaga Kintu, 32, an administrative assistant at
, I'll never hear from her --
until she comes over to do the laundry. We text multiple times a day.
Otherwise, I wouldn't have a clue [what's going on] in her life." Spencer, who was raised by Beard and Davis,
said Beard's perception is skewed. "I think I call her more than I
text," she said in a rare phone interview. But Beard is understanding about the change in
ways of conversing. "Parents are like, 'They're controlling who they talk
to,' " she said, "but so did we when we screened people with
answering machines." University of Maryland
Answering a phone call requires a certain amount of psychological energy, she said. "I put it off because there's something confrontational about someone calling you," she said. "You have to gear up for it." Sometimes Reisner gets phone calls from other synagogue members asking her to take on leadership roles, but the calls go straight to voice mail. She wishes that she could respond by e-mail. That way, in true Washington fashion, she could calibrate a more careful response instead of being put on the spot. At Tifereth Israel, the waning popularity of phone calls has become such a controversial issue that Seidel fired off an essay in the synagogue's April bulletin, lamenting that no one calls him back anymore. About 10 people, he said, hadn't returned his calls so far this year. Technology, he said in an actual phone call, was diluting his rabbinical status.
Media Types Live In The Land Of Twitter, But Most Regular People Don’t
(By Monica Hesse, September 18, 2011)
When the East Coast earthquake struck in late August, it appeared to hit particularly hard a place called “Twitter.” “U.S. East Coast earthquake generated more Tweets than Osama bin Laden death,” the United Kingdom’s Telegraph reported. “Earthquake Hits East Coast: Aftershocks Felt on Twitter,” said TheWrap.com, a Los Angeles-based publication. The Wall Street Journal helpfully chimed in with “Earthquake on the East Coast: The Reaction on Twitter,” composed of earthquake tweets from experts such as Ice-T, Rihanna and Snooki. Bethenny Frankel, we learned, was in the middle of lunch! Where is this Twitter? Was it anywhere close to the earthquake’s epicenter in Mineral, Va.? The people who live in Twitter — do you think that they often consort with the people who live in Facebook, another strange and wonderful land that often appears in the news?
Media types love social networking. Love using it, love finding sources with it, love analyzing it, love writing about it, love love love. It’s a way of demonstrating how much we “get it.” Except it can also demonstrate that we don’t. You’ve read these stories. There were stories when teachers started using Facebook, stories when coaches started using Facebook, stories when congressmen and judges and authors started using Facebook. There were stories on mothers using Facebook, then grandmothers. There were stories on every demographic using Facebook, until, finally, everyone was there and someone left to join something new. Then there were stories on how everybody was on Twitter. “I bet that what’s happening is that editors of a certain age are starting to discover it and are getting a little amazed by it,” says Mike Hoyt, the executive editor of the Columbia Journalism Review.It’s all happened before. In the past few years, online social networks have, indeed, allowed us to witness amazing behavior. People have found biological parents on Facebook. People have discovered cheating spouses on Facebook. People have been cyberbullied on Facebook. (Disclosure: I have written dozens of articles about Facebook and Twitter. Some of them were good, I think, and some weren’t. Irony: A reporter who has written lots about social networks writes another article about overexposure to Facebook.) Facebook and Twitter have become, depending on the theme of the article in question, either beacons of light or harbingers of doom — revealing how profoundly the world has changed and how, because of social networks, things are happening that never happened before. Right?
Except that people cheated on spouses before Facebook. And people found birth parents before Facebook, too. Bullying, social isolation and teenage heartbreak are not made sadder by the fact that they now exist online as well as in the corners of middle school locker rooms. “The moral panic about teenagers and technology is an ongoing frustration for me,” says social media researcher Danah Boyd, whose area of expertise is the way young people use the Internet. Boyd recalls one story about a teenage girl who was charged with murdering her mother. “The [television] headlines were, ‘Girl on MySpace Kills Mother,’ ” she says. “But what’s heartbreaking was that for a year and a half she’d been documenting how her mother was abusive. It’s sad that ‘Abused Girl Kills Mother’ is not a story, but ‘Girl on MySpace Kills Mother’ is.” (An actual print headline from this case: “Murder, They Blogged.”)
What happened in that instance is what frequently happens in news stories about technology, Boyd says. “Technology becomes the point of focus, even when it’s not the most salient point. But we focus on it rather than really trying to understand what’s at play.” There are revelatory stories about Facebook and Twitter — stories that examine how social networks are shaping or reconstructing our concepts of modern life. But sometimes, social media become a new slipcover for an old couch — a way to dress up stories that are otherwise sagging and tired. Facebook and other sites may have their own rules, mores and cultures, but as often as they reveal something unexpected about the human condition, they reveal what’s always been there.What mattered in the MySpace story was that a troubled girl took unspeakable action, not that she had an online profile. What mattered in Egypt was the revolution, not that revolutionaries first learned to go to Tahrir Square by checking Twitter. What matters in stories about hooking up with old flames on Facebook is the deep yearning people apparently have to reconnect with their 17-year-old selves — not that their ex-boyfriends have “It’s Complicated” relationship statuses. What matters about how Frankel reacted to the earthquake? Nothing. Nothing about that matters at all. “Techno-narcissism,” Siva Vaidhyanathan says knowingly. Vaidhyanathan is a former reporter who is chairman of the department of media studies at the University of Virginia. “It’s a particularly acute phenomenon with people who are technologically blessed. People love to tell ourselves that the things we do six to eight hours a day matter.”
A lot of people spend a lot of time online — at their computers, at desks. It helps explain why these stories get written and why they get read. We all want to think that our lives mean something. But there’s less to social networking than meets the eye. It offers an appealing and immediate sense of intimacy — showing what people are doing and whom they are doing it with — but the intimacy is often illusory. Twitter feeds and social networking profiles are carefully constructed performances. Life there is restricted to 140 characters, or to scrupulously curated status updates that reveal more about who posters wish they were than who they are. “The real question here,” Vaidhyanathan says, “is, how much can you really understand a person — with all of their complicated interior life — merely through his or her electronic expressions?”
And how much can you understand a society based on its tweets? In 2011, the Pew Internet and American Life Project reported, about 13 percent of adults who were online were users of Twitter. Those users were disproportionately young, disproportionately urban and disproportionately educated. Stories about things that happen on Twitter — all the Twitterati sounding off about East Coast earthquakes and Osama bin Laden’s death — represent the reactions of a relatively small subset of the population. When journalists comb Twitter for sources or story ideas, it’s the equivalent of combing America’s bangs and leaving the rest of the head untouched.“Wolf Blitzer reading a Twitter stream on television,” deadpans Adam Penenberg. “How meta can you get?” Penenberg is a journalism professor at New York University. (He also, famously, was the online reporter for Forbes who discovered that the New Republic’s Stephen Glass was making up his stories.) “Wolf doesn’t do that,” says CNN’s Washington Bureau Chief Sam Feist, when told about Penenberg’s “meta” comment. Other CNN reporters seem to — Jon Stewart lambasted reporters from one show for repeatedly quoting a Twitter user named LadyBigMac. Whenever Penenberg sees gee-whiz articles relying or focusing on social networks, he thinks that it’s “all about trying to sound so hip and cool — and there’s nothing more pathetic than middle-aged people trying to sound hip and cool.” And “whenever anyone reads Twitter feeds on television,” Penenberg says, “I roll my eyeballs so far in the back of my head I’m afraid they won’t come out the other end.”
In the latter part of the 19th century, The Washington Post published a rash of stories about events that would now seem unremarkable. There were two stories about people listening to music. There was a story about a man learning that he was the father of a child, only to realize that he had been mistaken for someone else, and another in which a woman mistakenly believed that her chatting partner was making lewd remarks about young women, when really he was describing a movie poster. In 1877, Alexander Graham Bell had applied for a patent. These stories were written because these events unfolded on the telephone.
Survey: Readers Don't Want To Pay For News Online
(By David Bauder, The Associated Press, March 15, 2010)
Getting people to pay for news online at this point would be "like trying to force butterflies back into their cocoons," a new consumer survey suggests. That was one of several bleak headlines in the Project for Excellence in Journalism's annual assessment of the state of the news industry, released Sunday. The project's report contained an extensive look at habits of the estimated six in 10 Americans who say they get at least some news online during a typical day. On average, each person spends three minutes and four seconds per visit to a news site. About 35 percent of online news consumers said they have a favorite site that they check each day. The others are essentially free agents, the project said. Even among those who have their favorites, only 19 percent said they would be willing to pay for news online - including those who already do. There's little brand loyalty: 82 percent of people with preferred news sites said they'd look elsewhere if their favorites start demanding payment. "If we move to some pay system, that shift is going to have to surmount significant consumer resistance," said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the project, part of the Pew Research Center.
Last year, online advertising saw its first decline since 2002, according to the research firm eMarketer. Four of five Americans surveyed told the project that they never or hardly ever click on ads. Despite a lot of choices, traffic on news sites tends to be concentrated on the biggest - Yahoo, MSNBC, CNN, AOL and The New York Times. "There was this view that we're retreating into our own world of niche sites and that's not true," Rosenstiel said. That offers a glimmer of hope for establishing a pay system if operators of the biggest sites could somehow agree on how to do it, he said. The survey found that if forced to make a choice, consumers prefer some kind of subscription service to a pay-as-you-go plan.The Wall Street Journal requires readers to pay for content and The New York Times recently announced plans to charge for full access to its Web site. Starting next year under a metered system, Times readers will be allowed to click on a certain number of stories for free each month, with fees kicking in for readers who exceed that level. In addition to attempts to reach back and charge readers for content they have become accustomed to getting for free, news executives hope that advances in technology and changes in consumer habits will provide future revenue opportunities.
The Associated Press last month announced a new business unit, AP Gateway, designed to develop and promote products that will help the cooperative, newspapers and broadcasters create revenue-producing products. The AP, for instance, will charge for an application it is developing for use on the iPad, Apple's tablet computer. While consumers may seem reluctant to pay for news, they're more likely to pay for the functionality of news products on various devices, including smart phones, said Jane Seagrave, senior vice president and chief revenue officer at The Associated Press. "I'm more hopeful now than I ever have been," Seagrave said. "There seems to be a broad understanding that there is a value to professional journalism that is at risk right now."
Pew's survey also noted how news habits are changing rapidly. Blogging is declining in frequency, one quarter of Americans now say they get some news on their mobile phones and people are looking for news more frequently on social Web sites, the survey found. For the online survey, the project interviewed 2,259 people from Dec. 28, 2009, to Jan. 19, 2010. The margin of error is plus or minus five percentage points. Beyond the online activity, the study found that cable news, led by Fox News Channel, seemed to be the only sector of the news industry thriving. Newspaper advertising revenue fell 26 percent in 2009 compared to the year before, the study said. Local TV and radio ad revenue were both off 22 percent. Network television ad revenue was down 8 percent. Network news division resources are down more than half since the late 1980s, and that doesn't count ABC News' recent announcement that it could lose as much as a quarter of its staff due to cutbacks. Newspaper spending on reporting and editing has fallen roughly 30 percent over the past decade, probably more at many big-city dailies, Rosenstiel said.
End Of Days For Bookstores? Not If They Can Help It
(By Lynn Neary, NPR, December 14, 2010)
There was a time, not so long ago, when chain bookstores had a pretty bad reputation. Barnes & Noble and Borders were seen as predators eager to destroy local booksellers — and neighborhood bookstores were weathering threats from all sides. Megastores like Costco started selling bestsellers and encroaching on local shops. Then came a little company called Amazon, and the rise of online book buying. The indies were struggling to make ends meet, and many had to close their doors. But these days, independent bookstore owners Rebecca Fitting and Jessica Stockton Bagnulo of Greenlight Books in Brooklyn argue that the struggling local bookstore is a thing of the past. "That was the only story people — especially in media — could wrap their heads around," Bagnulo says. " 'Oh isn't it sad that all the independent bookstores are dying and they are being destroyed by chains!'" Now, the tables have turned. In the era of online buying and the e-book, both currently dominated by Amazon, the big chains are in trouble — and new technologies may provide independent bookstores with a lifeline.
A Local Touch: Defying all the naysayers about the future of bookstores — especially in a tough economy — Fitting and Bagnulo opened Greenlight in the Ft.
Green section of Brooklyn
a year ago. They knew the neighborhood they moved into desperately wanted a
bookstore. And that local support has proven to be invaluable. The store has lots of regular events, like
Saturday morning story time for children and high-profile author readings from
the likes of Jennifer Egan and Jhumpa Lahiri. But on any given day, it attracts
locals like Ft. Green resident Roxanne
Powell. "It's good to have it here
and to see it flourishing," Powell says, as she browses the store's
collection. "I even feel like I have to stop going to Barnes & Noble
and support my local bookstore." Fitting
and Bagnulo know that a delicate combination of factors has to come together to
make their particular neighborhood bookstore succeed. But they believe this
could be a good time for stores like theirs everywhere. According to Fitting,
it's the chain stores, not independent booksellers, which belong to another
era. "I kind of feel like we're
coming to end of the age of dinosaurs and there's all these warmblooded animals
running around instead," she says.
If the dinosaurs are the two big chain stores Borders and Barnes & Noble, the latest news hasn't been good. Last week, Borders reported a third-quarter loss of more than $74 million, and confirmed that it is closing 16 stores. Despite its precarious state, one of Borders' biggest stockholders has offered to finance the purchase of Barnes & Noble, which put itself up for sale last summer. That offer helped boost Barnes & Noble stock, but many observers think a merger of the two chains is unlikely. Barnes & Noble says it's considering a number of options, including not selling itself at all. For her part, Bagnulo sees the chains' woes — and the recent news that Google is entering the e-book market — as something of an opportunity. "The potential is for there to be two trends," she explains. "Digital content — which is ubiquitous and everywhere — and the local, boutique, curated side. And the chain stores unfortunately don't have the advantage in either of those areas. I mean, they can't carry every book in the world in their store, and they don't have the same emotional connection to their neighborhood that a local store does."
E-Books: Threat Or
Opportunity?: "It's really hard for me to be
sympathetic to the chains," says Elaine Petrocelli, the co-owner of Book
Passage in San Francisco. She's been in the business since the 1970s, and has
not forgotten when a chain store moved into her neighborhood and almost put her
out of business. The most recent threat
to bookstores like Petrocelli's is the emergence of the e-book and Amazon's
dominance of the market with its e-reader, the Kindle. So Petrocelli was
heartened by the news that Google will make it possible for independent
bookstores to sell e-books from their websites. "I
think it gives us a chance," she says. "I don't think it's a panacea,
but I think it gives us a chance." Petrocelli
views e-books as a new marketing challenge, especially now that she can sell
them herself. "I
think that it's possible that the Kindle could turn into the Betamax," she
says. "That's my nasty wish, because they won't share with other people.
You need to buy your book through Amazon in order to use your Kindle. [On] all
of the other readers you can work with the Google editions [of the books], and
so I think that's going to be the next thing."
Len Riggio, the CEO of Barnes & Noble — the very chain that once threatened Petrocelli's business — thinks that the two of them have something in common. In the future, Barnes & Noble chairman Len Riggio hopes to bolster the sale of traditional books by selling e-book devices. Barnes & Noble put itself up for sale last summer. "I think the biggest threat to Barnes & Noble is the same threat that exists to independent book sellers and to anyone engaged in the sale of printed books," he argues. "It's all about the Internet itself." Book sales have declined for everyone, says Riggio, because whole categories like reference books and travel books are no longer needed, now that such information is available for free on the Internet.
That's why Riggio, like Petrocelli, is banking his stores' future not on books alone, but on the sale of electronic devices. Prominent among them is Barnes & Noble's own e-reader, the Nook, and its latest iteration, the Nook Color. But as important as the Nook is to Barnes & Noble, Riggio says the strategy for the future is to be device agnostic. The potential market is huge.
"We really don't care if someone has an iPhone, because you can read Barnes & Noble e-books on your iPhone," he says. "You can read Barnes & Noble books on your iPad or your BlackBerry. So we don't consider the other devices to be competitive, and we may very well sell some of those devices in our stores." The sale of those devices, he adds, would then support the sale of traditional books.
An Uncertain Future: This past year, Riggio fought off a hostile attempt to take over the Barnes & Noble board, and along with it, his chairmanship. He won't comment on the potential sale of Barnes & Noble, though a decision is expected early next year. Still, he says this is an exciting time to be in the business, and he is anything but downbeat about his company's future. "It's pretty heady times," he says, "and we don't know how it's going to turn out. But if you want to count up the people who will have a say in how it will turn out, put us in as one of them."
And what about the independents? Will they just become precious reminders of a time when most people read books made of paper? Not a chance, says Elaine Petrocelli. All bookstore owners know that the digital future is now. It's up to them to work it in a way that keeps their doors open and their shelves filled with actual books. "I don't think we're going to become precious," she says. "I think we're going to be a vital part of the future, but we're going to have keep growing and changing."