Friday, June 26, 2009

Media coverage of Michael Jackson

I first heard about Michael Jackson's death when my wife popped her head around the door mid-afternoon yesterday and asked if I'd seen the news. She'd found out through Twitter, roughly within a half-hour of Jackson's passing. Yesterday's events were a fascinating case study of the schism between new and old media. was first to report that Jackson had been rushed to hospital and it was first to report that the Peter Pan of Pop would never return to Neverland. As such, Harvey Levin's upstart startup left even the Los Angeles Times flatfooted.

As LA Observed, notes, "TMZ displayed the best of old media values. It got out in front of the pack early, then confidently reported Jackson's death based on its own solid sources."

TMZ has also been out front on the details of the initial 911 call, reaction from the Jackson family and other celebrities, the results of the autopsy, and the issue of the pop star's elusive doctor.

Also worth noting: TMZ didn't rise to the bait of the false rumor on Twitter that Jeff Goldblum had died yesterday. Those who complain that new media sites such as TMZ lack old-school journalistic values forget that TMZ's frontrunner status in celeb news is based on its credibility as a news source. (The subject of TMZ's ethics in, say, running pictures that allegedly show Rihanna blackened and bruised is another discussion for another time.)

Maybe the lesson in all this is that old media/newspapers shouldn't try to be comprehensive anymore, but rather specialize in niche areas in this Internet era. The NYT, for example, doesn't do particularly well in sports or business coverage, yet it remains quaintly dedicated to the old model of all-encompassing coverage. In an age when people rely so heavily on the Internet for news -- and jumping from site to site to cherrypick news, sports, weather, entertainment, and opinion -- it makes less sense now to try and be everything to everyone. Especially as news organizations struggle with fewer resources. On the Internet, those with a niche specialty reap the rewards of a competitive advantage.

But, I hear you ask, "What about in-depth investigative reporting? What about and providing background and context -- things newspapers have traditionally excelled in?"

Once again, it's a question of where best to allocate resources and expertise. The New York Times should duke it out with Bob Woodward and Seymour Hersh in unearthing political skullduggery. But its sports pages are never going to usurp Sports Illustrated in terms of breadth and scope of well-written coverage. (Also, it was Sports Illustrated that unearthed Alex Rodriguez's steroid use). For pop culture, I'm going to turn to Entertainment Weekly or Nikki Finke's Deadline Diary for both breaking news and in-depth coverage before I read any of the newspaper Arts sections. And so on, and so forth.

That was very much the case yesterday. Since newspapers lagged behind the news, I kept refreshing TMZ. Later, I started reading LA Times coverage because this happened in the newspaper's back yard. But I certainly didn't bother with The Washington Post, New York Times, or Wall Street Journal, even though those papers threw dozens of writers on to the story.

Given the magnitude of Jackson's death on the pop culture radar, each of those publications would have gained a good share of interested readers. But what was the opportunity cost of trying to chase a story that other outlets had a better (and faster) handle on? Wouldn't it have been better for those outlets to link to, say, TMZ, Billboard, People, or Entertainment Weekly? Instead of diverting manpower and money to covering the Michael Jackson story, wouldn't it have made sense for the Wash Post or the New York Times -- both strapped for cash -- to have allocated those resources to say, covering the Iraq war that everyone's forgotten about?

As newspapers struggle with smaller staffs, some of them are at least recognizing their limitations by embarking on partnerships with others. My alma mater, The Christian Science Monitor, recently embarked on a content-sharing partnership with the McClatchy-Tribune newspaper group, for instance. McClatchy-Tribune recognized the Monitor's strength in international reporting at a time when many new outlets have downsized or closed bureaus.

It's a step in the right direction, but these newspapers are still trying to cover a wide landscape of topics. In the long-tail era, it's no longer a viable business model.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Nice work, if you can get it

Here's a recommendation for your reading list on vacation: a book about work.

Alain de Botton's "The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work" may not sound like the most ideal escape from the office. But de Botton, a writer whose every sentence is a delight, has penned an exotic travelogue that traverses the globe in an ambitious quest to pin down the meaning of work.

It's enjoyable armchair travel and it may give you a fresh perspective on your job. You can read my full review, which ran in today's Books section of The Christian Science Monitor, here.

De Botton's most essential book is "The Architecture of Happiness." It's a profound work that will literally change the way you look at the world around you. Below is my brief review of that book, which ran in The Monitor's Books section on November 14, 2006.

The Architecture of Happiness, By Alain de Botton

Frank Zappa reportedly once said, "Writing about art is like dancing about architecture." If only the musician had lived long enough to read Alain de Botton.

In The Architecture of Happiness, Mr. de Botton, a polymath renaissance man of sorts, and a self-styled "Everyman's philosopher," effortlessly untangles a knotty question: "What constitutes beauty in art?" And, by extension, "What is a beautiful building?"

On the face of it, the subject might sound dull, arcane, and, frankly, impenetrable. It certainly did to this reader, whose interest in buildings ended at age 10 with the permanent shelving of his LEGO set.

Yet de Botton renders this finest of arts (albeit one constructed with the coarsest of materials) compelling by explaining how buildings affect us on an emotional level - even when those feelings are subconscious and difficult to articulate.

Step by step, and with intuitive logic, the author reveals how we each assign different values to different materials, shapes, and colors. Thus buildings evoke associations with qualities that range from playful to austere, from kind to foreboding. He observes that architecture we now deem "dated" reflects how the culture has embraced a new set of values.

De Botton's writing style isn't academic. But it is scholarly, thoughtful, and infused with literary prose - each sentence a perfect choreography of words - that makes one forget that he's using a pen and paper rather than a paintbrush and canvas. (Almost every page is handsomely illustrated with photos, too.)

The result isn't just a primer on architecture, but a work that will profoundly change the way you see your everyday environment. When was the last time you could say that about a book?

Friday, June 12, 2009

Does Twitter matter?

Neil Young's "One of the Days" starts out with the following lyric:

One of these days
I'm going to sit down and write a long letter
to all the good friends I've known

And I'm going to try
And thank them for all the good times together
So far apart we've grown.

I got to thinking about the song, first released in 1992, now that Facebook and Twitter have become ubiquitous. I imagine most people struggle to keep up with all their friends, relatives, and acquaintances, especially once career and kids -- y'know, life -- start to accelerate the daylight hours. For years, many of us have sought to compensate for lack of regular communication by sending out a generic Christmas letter that encapsulates the news and activities of the past 12 months.

Now, social media allow one to post snapshot updates to a wide circle of friends and associates. The appeal of these tools is that we can scatter Haiku-length updates to our extended network and feel as if we're looping them into our lives with minimum effort. (The downside: Some people feel obliged to divulge the mundane minutiae of their lives. Trust me, not even your oral hygienist wants to read tweets about you brushing your teeth.)

Now, of course, the entertainment industry is circling this newfangled evolution of social media and wondering how to best utilize it.

The answer to that question is all in the "how." In our information overload society, Tweets are yet one more tap on the shoulder. As such, you're going to feel less inclined to subscribe to Twitter feeds that are irrelevant and dull time wasters. But, if used smartly, Twitter is a great way for entertainers to connect with their audiences and deepen fandom.

Case in point, Trent Reznor, who used Twitter to great effect, most notably creating news headlines on the Internet when he slammed Chris Cornell's Timbaland-produced album. Later, Reznor used Twitter for a humorous April Fool's joke in which announced that the new Nine Inch Nails album had been produced by Timbaland. (The fake cover showcased Reznor in one of Kanye West's slatted sunglasses.)

Today Reznor announced that he was quitting Twitter altogether because of abusive feedback he's received from various folks. As Pitchfork notes, "It's a shame because Reznor's online persona is one of the most engaging in rock; his interest and participation in the web helped changed his image from a nihilistic angst machine to something more well-rounded and interesting over the last few years."

Twitter is an incredible resource for rock stars. Though the new Twitter feed by favorite band Marillion is a bit of a dud, mainly through lack of activity, the band's keyboardist, Mark Kelly, allows fans a glimpse into his world. Marillion already has the most devoted fans of any band thanks to a familial relationship the band has fostered online.

The keyboardist's tweets -- which range from sad news about his puppy's death to iPhone images of Marillion's singer signing autographs in the airport today -- help to deepen the connection fans feel to their band. And when Kelly drops hints about which songs the band is reinterpreting on its upcoming acoustic album, it serves to generate excitement and sweeten anticipation.

Imogen Heap knows a thing or two about whetting fan appetites. I've been a fan of Imogen's for many years now, own all her albums, and have seen her in concert. That said, I only used to visit her website perhaps once or twice a year. But when the electro-pop princess started filming regular vlogs from her studio I started to pay attention. The songwriter not only plays new music -- sometimes live broadcasts of piano improvisations -- but also regals viewers with her adorably flighty observations.

Though Heap's imminent new album, "Ellipse" (which I just reviewed for the upcoming issue of Filter magazine) has taken several years to create, she has managed to maintain and fan interest in the project through numerous tweets. Her mix of honesty and answers to fan questions is without parallel in the pop world. She's even gone so far as to marshal her army of followers to write a biography for her new press release. It's the first crowd-sourced press biography. Heap has also used Twitter to encourage fans to help her create artwork for the album by submitting images via Flickr. Heap is nurturing a grassroots album promotional campaign that other musicians will surely wish to emulate.

The fact is, stars can harness the compulsive voyeurism of our celeb-obsessed society to shape their public image and also break news to their flocks of followers. Since Tweeting is still relatively new and (relatively) uncluttered by stars of the entertainment industry, any celebrity tweets tend to a disproportionate amount of attention due to their novelty. Especially if the tweets ostensibly offer peeks into their lives and make us momentarily believe that "stars: they're just like us." How else to explain Ashton Kutcher's 1 million-plus followers? -- his movies don't exactly pack 'em into the cinema aisles.

Take Mindy Kaling, who not only plays Kelly Kapoor on "The Office" but is also one of the principal writers of the show. Though she's not one of the highest-profile characters in the show, she can claim 125306 followers on Twitter as of today. It can't help but raise her profile now that she has a development deal for her very own star-vehicle comedy on NBC.

Kaling's tweets also underscore how crucial it is to make maximum impact in 140 characters. Kaling posts stuff like, "Just had the best run, listening to Bjork's Army of Me 7 times. I was the head of a zombie gang attacking a hospital." Or try this one: "They're filming something at Canters! Hopefully it's a movie called "I'll Have What She's Having" and it's just old horny broads saying that." Or even, "I think people are going to really like when Jim and Pam are murdered by a goofy serial killer, special guest star Chris Parnell!"

Thank goodness we have Kaling to put the wit back in Twitter.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

It Might Get Loud -- (let's hope so!)

Forget "Transformers 2," here's the trailer for the one movie I can't wait to see this summer.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Is TV's Golden Age over?

"The Wire" has been cut. "The Sopranos" has faded to black. "Six Feet Under" has gone to its grave. And "Battlestar Galactica" has completed its interstellar voyage. Is TV's golden age over?

Entertainment Weekly seems to think so, but I'm not as pessimistic. Maybe that's because I avoided "The Apprentice: Celebrity Edition," which could have been renamed "I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here" if another show hadn't already claimed that title. (If boardroom tantrums by Melissa Rivers seem like the nadir of network television, it's only because we've willfully forgotten about the televised boxing match between Tonya "axels of evil" Harding and rival ice queen Paula Jones.)

And yet, there's much to be optimistic about. Television has been irrevocably altered by premium and basic cable. Many of the best writers in Hollywood are now working on the small screen. Why? In part, because they have freedom to develop complex story lines with more finely developed arcs than they could ever pull off in a 120-minute movie.

In a recent column comparing the movie "Revolutionary Road" and the similarly themed TV series "Mad Men," Variety's ever-thoughtful TV critic, Brian Lowry, observed that Leo-Kate movie barely had time to satisfactorily shape its characters' arcs in a nuanced way. Longform storytelling in television, on the other hand, allows for the sort of complexity that "Revolutionary Road" is missing.

Lowry concludes, "While mainstream movies have become the understandable vehicle of choice for visualizing comic books and graphic novels, more intricate dramatic storytelling has found a
particularly satisfying home in television, capitalizing on the medium's novelistic latitude to develop characters over extended arcs, whether that's 'The Wire' -- really the great American novel in TV form -- or programs such as 'Big Love' and "Mad Men.' It's been a long road (more evolutionary than revolutionary) to this juncture. Yet after years in which TV has suffered from an inferiority complex vis-a-vis movies, at certain key nodes those lines have been erased --
so much so that many of this generation's finest creative moments are, indeed, being televised."

Granted, there are some troubling trends, too. For a while there, it seemed that audiences were less interested in predictable procedurals than they were in ambitious sagas such as "Lost." But that fad has, sadly, passed. The most popular shows on TV nowadays are once again “NCIS,” “CSI,” "Cold Case,” and “The Mentalist.” Frankly, it's a miracle that "Friday Night Lights" is still on the air. Moreover, the fall schedule is filled with even more shows about lawyers, cops, and doctors.

As networks struggle to hang on to viewers in the long-tail era, a certain conservatism is inevitable. But as network television retrenches through cost-cutting moves such as moving Jay Leno to 10 p.m., more viewers will likely look to TNT, AMC, USA, FX, Showtime, and HBO for salvation. The days of network monopoly are over. The medium's future looks bright.