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Archive for the ‘media’ Category

Earlier this week I went to an excellent discussion put on by danah boyd and her Data & Society Research Institute, entitled “Social, Cultural & Ethical Dimensions of ‘Big Data.’” Right off the top, I have to give major kudos to danah for organizing a fantastic panel that incorporated a great combination of voices – who, not for nothing (indeed, for a lot) were not just a bunch of white dudes (only one white dude, in fact) – from across different disciplines and perspectives. I’ll do a brief play-by-play to set the table for a couple of larger thoughts.

Following a rigorously on-message video from John Podesta and fairly anodyne talk (well, except for this) from Nicole Wong from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, danah led off with introductory remarks and passed off to Anil Dash, who served excellently as moderator (mostly by staying out of the way, as he made a point of noting). Alondra Nelson from Columbia University was first up, giving an account by turns moving, terrifying, and engaging on the state of play and human consequences flowing from DNA databases – both those managed by law enforcement and the loopholes that allow privately-managed data repositories to skirt privacy protections. She was followed by Shamina Singh from the MasterCard Center for Inclusive Growth, who provided several on-the-ground examples of working with governments, NGOs, and poor people to more efficiently deliver social benefits. In particular, she focused on a MasterCard program to provide direct transfers of cash to refugee populations, cutting out the vastly inefficient global aid infrastructure network.

Singh was followed by Steven Hodas from the New York City Department of Education, who laid out an illuminating picture of the lifecycle of data in education systems, the ways in which private actors subvert and undermine public privacy, and – not just a critic – offered a genuinely thought-provoking new way of thinking about how to regulate dissemination of private information. The excellent Kate Crawford batted cleanup, discussing predictive privacy harms and what she called “data due process.” Dash facilitated a very long and almost entirely productive audience question and discussion session (45 minutes, at the least), and I left with many more things on my mind than I entered with. I’d had the privilege of listening to eight different speakers, each from a background either subtly or radically different from one another. Not once did a speaker follow another just like them, and no small value came in the synthesis from those differing perspectives and those of the audience.

This week also saw the relaunch of FiveThirtyEight.com under its new ESPN/Disney instance. It was launched with a manifesto from founder Nate Silver, entitled “What the Fox Knows,” which is a bit meandering but generally comes down as setting FiveThirtyEight as opposed to both traditional journalism and science research, based on some fairly blithe generalizations of those fields. What it doesn’t quite do, oddly for a manifesto, is state just what FiveThirtyEight is for other than a sort of process and attitudinal approach. Marx (or even Levine/Locke/Searls/Weinberger) it ain’t.

Silver has come in for no small criticism, and not just from his normal antagonists. Emily Bell laid out the rather less-than-revolutionary staffing makeup of the current raft of new-media startups, led by Ezra Klein, Glenn Greenwald, and Silver. And Paul Krugman detailed some rather serious concerns about Silver’s approach:

you can’t be an effective fox just by letting the data speak for itself — because it never does. You use data to inform your analysis, you let it tell you that your pet hypothesis is wrong, but data are never a substitute for hard thinking. If you think the data are speaking for themselves, what you’re really doing is implicit theorizing, which is a really bad idea (because you can’t test your assumptions if you don’t even know what you’re assuming.)

These two critiques are not unrelated. Bell called out Silver for his desire for a “clubhouse,” and rightly so, because groupthink clubhouses – whether of insiders or outsiders – are the most fertile breeding grounds for implicit theorizing. Krugman revisited and expanded his critique, saying:

I hope that Nate Silver understands what it actually means to be a fox. The fox, according to Archilocus, knows many things. But he does know these things — he doesn’t approach each topic as a blank slate, or imagine that there are general-purpose data-analysis tools that absolve him from any need to understand the particular subject he’s tackling. Even the most basic question — where are the data I need? — often takes a fair bit of expertise.

Which brings me around to the beginning of this post. The value in Monday’s discussion flowed directly from both the diversity – in professional background, gender, ethnicity – and the expertise of the speakers present. They each spoke deeply from a particular perspective, and while “Big Data” was the through-line connecting them, the content which animated their discussion, approach, and theorizing was specific to their experience and expertise. The systems that create data have their own biases and agenda, which only discipline-specific knowledge can help untangle and correct for. There is still no Philosopher’s Stone, but base metals have their own stories. Knowing their essential properties isn’t easy or quick, but little is easy that’s of lasting and real value.

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Fascinating news from ESPN:

A panel of faculty from The Poynter Institute, which offers training to journalists, will serve as the latest ombudsman for ESPN.

The panel, known as the Poynter Review Project, will review ESPN content across all platforms and offer public comment on ESPN’s efforts in the form of monthly essays and additional timely responses as issues arise, ESPN and Poynter announced Thursday.

The panel also will address fans’ concerns during its 18-month tenure. Commentaries will be posted on ESPN.com, beginning with an introductory column in March.

The institute’s role expands the tradition of ESPN ombudsman, most recently held by television producer Don Ohlmeyer. His term was preceded by Le Anne Schreiber, a former New York Times sports editor-turned-author, and George Solomon, former sports editor of The Washington Post. [emphasis added]

The last part is the key. Poynter has been at the forefront of documenting, criticizing and analyzing online news reportage and dissemination, and however accomplished or ethical those previous ombudspersons have been, they were decidedly old media. This shift to not one person but a panel of experts who are at the top of the profession in its current state is great news for fans and readers.

ESPN clearly recognizes that the future of all its business – sports, journalism, commentary – is online. Its free online broadcasts of the World Cup last summer were the best yet done, and recent acquisition of Michael Wilbon (further gutting the once-great Washington Post sports section) for online columns and chats a further investment in same. Bringing on board an ombudsboard that understands not just sports journalism but the emerging dynamics and ethics of online commentary and interaction is a great step forward for the colossus of sports coverage, and at least a potential step towards regaining the kind of credibility that journalism strives for.

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This story got a lot of buzz on the web the other day, and has stayed in the news cycle since. The long and the short of it is this:

“The film has no distributor in America. It has got a deal everywhere else in the world but in the US, and it’s because of what the film is about. People have been saying this is the best film they’ve seen all year, yet nobody in the US has picked it up.”

That’s according to Jeremy Thomas, who produced the Charles Darwin biopic Creation, and that’s fine and all, but let’s put this into some perspective. He’s the film’s producer. That means that he’s making money off the film: indeed, that he’s on the hook for the financial success or failure of the film. I’m sure there are some people who’ve said it’s the best film they’re seen all year but, you know: my mom says I’m cool, too.

It’s possible that there’s some great conspiracy of film distributors – all film distributors in the United States, based largely in those hotbeds of conservatism, Hollywood and New York City – who support a right-wing, anti-science agenda, and who would spike a great film that would make them tons of money just to keep Americans ignorant of the true story of Charles Darwin.

Alternately, it’s also possible that the film is a low-key costume drama about a 19th C. English naturalist and his internal struggles. Or as the review of the film in Variety puts it:

“Creation” feels somewhat static in storytelling terms. Once basic conflicts are established, we simply wait for Darwin to come to terms with his grief, marriage and imminent notoriety. Not much “happens,” though the pic does its best to maintain energy in both physical presentation and mixed-chronology structure.

Leads are also a little monotonous: Bettany is appealing but this Charles is at times nearly a sickly bore, while Connelly, not an actor with much lightness, is OK but emphasizes Emma’s grave concern and disapproval to the exclusion of nearly every other quality.

In other words: maybe it’s just kind of a boring movie.

I know it’s fun to beat up on Americans for being a bunch of crazy know-nothings, to point out as the author of the Telegraph story did, that “only 39 per cent of Americans believe in the theory of evolution” and that there are message boards full of nutty anti-science kooks who call Darwin a Nazi, etc. It’s certainly a favorite past-time of many Britons, and there are a lot of folks here who get in on the game, too. And, you know: yeah, it’s pretty frustrating that there are so many Americans who are kinda nuts.

But let’s keep this in perspective. Hollywood likes to make money. Lots of it. They’re perfectly willing to produce and distribute eye-poking nonsense like Religulous – which the right wing was a lot more pissed off about – if they can count on $13 M receipts on a $2.5M budget, with a $3.5M opening weekend. That’s a very nice margin, and Religulous got pretty wide distribution to get there – not just indie theaters but a fair number of multiplexes, too, opening on over 500 screens and staying at over 400 screens for a month. There’s no way Creation opens that big, so to even approach those kinds of numbers, it’d have to not just do respectable business but really blow the doors off of the art-house circuit – sellouts, $60K screens, etc. – and given what it appears to be, I’m not really shocked that it failed to find a distributor willing to roll the dice.

We’re getting into Oscar season, both in big-budget and Oscar-bait-indie vintage. The screens are crowded and you need a pretty hot property to get into the conversation. The fact that Creation doesn’t rise to that level doesn’t say anything about Darwin’s theory of evolution being “too controversial for American audiences” and everything about some pretty banal economic realities of the movie biz.

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In his most recent online chat, Bill Simmons offered the following exchange:

PeteFitz (chicago): Mr. Sportsguy, Any reason for the podcasts over the columns these last two weeks? I personally like the columns better (for selfish reasons, I like to read at work), so I was wondering if there was a specific reason.

Bill Simmons: (12:50 PM ET ) Again, I am desperatrely trying to finish my book – so that’s one reason, I only have so many writing hours in me each day. The other reason is that I love doing the podcasts and feel like I’m on the ground floor of a medium that is really starting to take off. It’s like radio on demand and I think it’s going to kill satellite radio in 2 years. I really do. It’s also a huge threat to real radio in my opinion, especially when people can get internet in their cars and can just cue podcasts up within 3 clicks. It’s astonishing to me that nobody has written a long piece about podcasts yet. This is EXACTLY the same as what happened with sportswriting in the late-90s where nobody was taking the internet seriously and suddenly within 7 years there were a million sports blogs, mainstream sites were crushing newspapers and newspapers were hemorrhaging money. We are headed that way with podcasts. I just think radio is going to become much more niche-oriented over these next 10 years… people don’t see it yet. Christian Slater in “Pump Up The Volume” is going to look like a genius.

Bill’s a smart guy, and he’s obviously got a horse in this fight, so I’ll forgive him a bit of rose-tinted boosterism here. The death of radio has been confidently predicted for the better part of the last half-century to no avail, because what fans of [INSERT COMPETING MEDIA HERE] don’t quite get is just what it is that radio does or is. Radio is at base a very low-bandwidth media – you click it on and it’s there, and you can listen to it or not but can also be doing any one of a number of things (e.g., driving a car, cooking, working, etc.) and radio doesn’t get in the way. TV, the Internet and even podcasts demand more attention from the audience – you have to watch TV, read (or watch) the Internet and with podcasts, there’s the matter of a multi-click process of finding and then selecting the desired program. Those three clicks are a lot more important than Simmons allows for, because you have to think before and during them – radio doesn’t ask that.

This isn’t to say that radio is going to be unchanged  by the introduction of the Internet and podcasts (which radio developed a fancy word for a long time ago, “programs”). Before the introduction of TV, dramas and comedies dominated radio – they don’t anymore, but people still listen to radio. After a long period of domination by music, the 1980s through the present saw the rise and increasing dominance of the radio airwaves by talk and news radio – NPR is at least as big a success in this regard as the right-wing talkers. And maybe the large and still-increasing relevance of online news and commentary means that there’ll be a bite out of that audience. But that won’t be the end of radio, either.

What will happen – because it’s already happening – is that there’s going to be much more of a dialogue between radio and podcasts. Because radio producers haven’t had the same hang-ups about intellectual property as TV or the movie or record industry – they’re already giving their product away free and over the air – they’ve been very well-positioned to move online, and NPR has been among the best in this regard. Taking a look at the iTunes store’s (yes, yes, but it’s not unrepresentative) top-25 downloaded podcasts, fully seven of them are produced by NPR. Eight others are produced by the mainstream media; two are President Obama’s weekly address; one is produced by iTunes, another is ringtones, and only six can really properly be called Internet-based podcasts (including the Onion). Similarly, music blogs are now moving onto radio – Sirius’ XMU channel features several hours a week of music bloggers on their Blog Radio feature, which is a good deal for both – low production costs for Sirius, and more exposure for the music bloggers.

Radio is a channel, a low-commitment, low-bandwidth channel that’s good for passive interaction and has a huge installed base of receivers that isn’t going anywhere (to wit: what car manufacturer is going to go all Apple and be the first to take the radio out of the car?). I’ll allow – and hope! – that the Internet and podcasts might turn out to be good for radio by showing that there are large audiences for audio content outside of the current top-40/urban/country/Latino/classic rock/right-wing-talk/sports talk/NPR selection of channels (go on – try to find more than a few examples of major-market broadcast radio stations that don’t fit one of those). Or it could just work to reinforce the dominance of current audio content producers by giving them another another opportunity to disseminate their content. Most likely, a bit of both. But radio isn’t going away.

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