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Archive for ‘Media’ Category

Crass news image o’ the day

datePosted on 13:59, January 5th, 2010 by Lew

water

Yes, Stuff editors, we know it’s a slow news week, but … honestly?

L

Deeply subversive

datePosted on 15:43, December 10th, 2009 by Lew

Some of you will know that I take perverse joy in waking up to Geoff Robinson and Sean Plunket each morning,* and I regard Sean as one of the country’s best interviewers (and the best hard-news interviewer, though Mary Wilson gives him a fair run some days). Pablo has written about Radio NZ’s treatment of him over his bid to write a column for Metro, and I think it’s fair to say he (Sean) is pretty sore about the whole affair. He does not strike me as one to trifle with, and though I can’t quite put my finger on it, I think something very subtle is going on with Sean Plunket’s new blog: Sean Makes Crafts.

Welcome to the blogosphere, Sean. We watch with interest.

Update: It seems Poneke and The Standard got onto this before me.

Update 2: Sean Plunket denies he has anything to do with it. Well, that’s just the sort of thing he would do, wouldn’t he?

L

* Not only me. My daughter, just turned 1, does a little dance when she hears the Morning Report music. Strange, but true.

Death is not the end

datePosted on 16:54, November 25th, 2009 by Lew

A curious post from Marty G at The Standard, who asks: “as newspapers die?” This is part of a wider debate about the future of the media, which I’d like to expand beyond just newspapers. As a caution to those who would conflate ‘newspapers are dying’ with ‘the media is dying’, I would suggest that the demise of the mainstream media is, in words incorrectly attributed to Mark Twain, greatly exaggerated. Fundamentally this comes down to the following:

1. If people care about it, it can likely be profitably monetised.
2. If it can be profitably monetised, big business will eventually come to dominate it.
3. The existing newsgathering infrastructure, brand authority, networks, subscriber bases and institutional expertise are still held almost exclusively by big business.

Big business may not be good at innovating, but it is very good indeed at buying innovation and covering the last mile. That’s what it’ll do, and in some cases, what it’s doing already.

There will be changes — in terms of how content is created and distributed, to the revenue model and in particular to the specific media consumed — but fundamentally the mainstream news media will continue to do what they do, which is tell people what they need to know.

The media do not predominantly provide consumers with a good — news or information or something to wrap fish and chips in or something to watch while eating dinner) — rather, they provide a service — a filtering system which sieves out and highlights the things which people need to know to function in their social and professional and ideological worlds. There’s already more news and information out there than anyone can possible pay attention to. We all have our preferred filtering systems — The Standard and Kiwipolitico are two; who you choose to follow on Twitter is another; whether you wake up to Morning Report as I do or Marcus Lush or The Rock or Southern Star, you’re relying on those sources to give you the information you need to function competently in your world that day, and in the days to come. This is the Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery principle: “If you can’t find it at Ralph’s, you can probably get along (pretty good) without it”. At present, mainstream media filtering models are more advanced than they’ve ever been — but extremely crude by comparison to the sorts of models employed in new media.

Adopting the filtration models which are being developed in new media will require media companies to adopt some of those media forms, and abandoning the old forms. To take one thing (there are plenty of others) which newspapers, radio and television don’t really do at all: interactivity. So we’re going to see things become more interactive, and that interactivity become part of the filtration system. This is how Google’s advertising functions: your usage choices are a source of data about you, and that data is a pretty good predictor of what you’ll click next. That’s good for advertisers, because it offers them a chance to sell you stuff you might want, and it’s good for you, because of all the zillions of pieces of media out there in the world, it allows a media provider to better determine which are more likely of interest to you.

We’ll also see much more device integration, and in particular the development of e-reader hardware which acts and behaves like paper, and the development of news products which use that hardware to mimic newspapers in function — providing the visual grammar of headlines, columns and images on a broadsheet or tabloid page, a form which is very highly developed and so well-understood as to barely be considered a semantic form any more (like continuity editing, or 4/4 time) — but which is almost entirely absent from existing internet news media. I understand that Apple Computer has on order a couple of million high-resolution low-power 10-inch touchscreen LCDs to make a next-generation reader device for market in the next 12 months or so.

But these things are largely cosmetic. Overall, the fundamental nature of the media market will not change. Some of the big companies might die or fall apart, but they’ll be replaced. It won’t be independents and startups for ever, and there will never be a persistent community-of-knowledge citizen-journalists-ruling-the-roost utopia such as many in the blogosphere so desperately wish for (because it would allow them to quit their jobs and get paid for doing this full-time). The main reason for this is that news costs money, whereas opinion (i.e, 90% or more of bloggery) is mostly free but is reliant on news. The money for the news machine comes from the interesting fact that, in the commercial media industry, the ‘product’ and ‘consumer’ are the reverse of what most people think they are. The ‘product’ is not programmes or articles or news (that’s a service); and the ‘consumer’ is not the person reading, watching or listening. That person — you, and me, and everyone else who consumers the media — is the product, and the consumer of commercial media services is the advertiser whose products you also consume. The media, by functioning as an effective filtering system, serves you up content you want and serves up your eyeballs, earholes, networks and ultimately your wallets to advertisers who pay the media handsomely for doing so. Everyone wins — or at least, everyone goes away thinking they’ve gotten a good deal. This model, at a fundamental level, is not under threat, because there is no other ready means of monetising news. That’s not to say it will always be so. It’s possible that a media business model will emerge which doesn’t rely on advertising, but one way or the other, someone is paying, and if it’s not the advertisers paying for you, then in all likelihood it will be you paying for yourself. How much would you pay? Would that be enough? These are real questions, because talk might be cheap, but news ain’t.

L

Dreams and realities

datePosted on 22:18, October 29th, 2009 by Lew

This morning at The Standard, vto* questioned how anyone can figure that the TVNZ7 ad featuring Bill English could be political advertising, since it doesn’t contain any baldly partisan political statements.

What is party political about it? Nobody has come with anything specific to support the contention – merely, “it looks political” “I know political when I see it” etc etc. Specifics folks, specifics.

Although I tend to think vto is either being purposefully obdurate or is just simply oblivious, it’s a fair question. Since in my experience he is usually genuinely puzzled rather than just shilling for the blues,** I undertook to do an analysis of the clip for his edification (or ridicule). As I said in the comments thread, you don’t create this sort of thing by accident:

This is a form which has been finely tuned and crafted over half a century to serve a very specific set of purposes — it’s a complex and very challenging medium where every frame, every word, every note is loaded up with as much subtle meaning as possible. With apologies to Tolkien, one does not just walk into political advertising.

A few basics of political discourse, first. While in the case of video, a text is made up of sounds and images, this is different from the ‘words’ and ‘pictures’ vto talks about. There is also a temporal dimension to video: editing, mise-en-scene and lighting changes, camera and focal movement, etc. which I’ll lump in with ‘image’ for these purposes. Likewise, most of the sound is spoken words, but there is also music, which is non-trivial in terms of meaning. The point is that nothing is in there by accident. When you have a limited budget and the requirement to work within a 45 second ad slot, nothing is optional or discretionary.

Given that there are images and sounds, and that they’re all there for a reason, it should be clear that there’s more to analyse than just the words and pictures, and so an apparent absence of political meaning in the words and pictures doesn’t mean the text lacks political meaning; it just means that it’s not overt (or not overt to everyone). The meaning lurks in how the various parts of the text hang together as much as in the ‘words’ and ‘pictures’ themselves. This, also, is purposeful: people are natively suspicious of political messages, and it helps to be able to communicate them via means which people aren’t accustomed to analysing closely. People are very well accustomed to interpreting political speech (‘words’), but much less accustomed to parsing video texts and the subtexts which emerge when multiple texts are intercut with each other in a dense and coordinated fashion. This is what makes video such a strong medium for political communication; why Eisenstein and Riefenstahl and Capra were given such prominent positions in their respective regimes, and why practically every US presidential election since 1960 has been predicted by which candidate’s TV coverage was the stronger.

The clip in question presents a dual narrative which appeals simultaneously to peoples’ cautious, empirical, rational side and to their hopeful, nationalistic, emotional side in order to produce a sense of hope. It is composed of two separate video texts intercut: one featuring footage of Bill English, Minister of Finance and Deputy Prime Minister; and the second of Bill English, kiwi bloke. The topic is the same, and the visual edit minimises the visual difference between the two narratives, while the voice remains constant throughout. This continuity of voice leads us to interpret the statements of Serious Bill and Chipper Bill as if they are uttered by the same person (which they are) and in the same role and context (which they certainly are not). The context is provided by the image, not the sound, and demonstrates that one person can (and should) hold both opinions simultaneously although the relationship between the two narratives is arguable. Of course, people can hold both views simultaneously (though whether they should is another matter).

The first, Serious Bill, establishes the Minister of Finance at a respectful social distance in a dark suit (with cut-ins to tie and face); the Sky Tower and the bright lights of NZ’s commercial capital in the background, a composition chosen to provide authority and credibility. This is a fairly soft form of the tycoon shot, a wealthy man overlooking his glistening domain. He speaks calmly and in technical terms, playing NZ’s economic problems with a straight bat. He uses the first person plural (“we”) throughout in order to include the audience in his statements. He looks the camera (audience) square in the face, talking directly to us.

The second, Chipper Bill, is established in a full-frame headshot, cut from a full-frame headshot of Serious Bill. This is what I mean by ‘minimising the visual distance’ between the Two Bills. He starts with “Y’know”, a commonplace employed more often to tell people what they (should) know than to genuinely appeal to shared common knowledge. This also marks a distinction between the complex, technical language used by Serious Bill and the colloquial, understandable terms and sentiments which follow. It is a relief to hear someone speaking ‘plain english’ after all that techno-jargon, right? Especially when he’s saying something we want to hear: good news about how “we can beat those Aussies”, after the bad news which Serious Bill was talking about, how our we’ve been “underperforming” when compared to them.

Chipper Bill — smiling and personable, an approachable everyman in a patriotically black polo shirt, continues to be intercut speaking in exhortative platitudes about how we just need to “back ourselves” (cut briefly to Chipper Bill gazing into the middle distance) and “apply some old-fashioned Kiwi can-do”, and so on, in response to Serious Bill’s authoritative but somewhat dry and gloomy facts. This use of “old-fashioned” is a hint of a dig at the previous government, the one responsible for “underperforming”; this dig is made a bit more explicit with the enthusiastic “we’re nearly through the tough times and things are looking up” — just leave it to good old National and everything will be well, not like that other lot, who were opposed to everything traditional, right?

The two narratives describe the reality of how things are (described by Serious Bill) and a dream of how things could be (described by Chipper Bill), as the music gradually rises in the background. The clincher, and the factor which makes this more a political advertisement than anything else, is that Bill English is the connection between the two narratives: if you accept the narrative line, he is the key to turning the dream into reality. This is essentially an overarching ‘hope’ narrative, a most powerful sort in troubled times, as Barack Obama realised, and as expressed by Drew Westen in the first chapter of his book The Political Brain, which opens with an analysis of two contrasting video advertisements for Democrat presidential candidates: one successful, for the Clinton campaign, and one unsuccessful, for the Kerry campaign. What was Clinton’s narrative? Hope.***

This ad was not about policy. Its sole purpose was to begin creating a set of positive associations to him and narrative about the Man from Hope — framed, from start to finish, in terms of hope and the American Dream. […] The ad created in viewers a vivid, multisensory network of associations — associations not only to the word hope but to the image of Hope in small-town America in an era gone by.

This “Two Bills” ad creates a similar hope narrative around the putative Kiwi Dream of “beating the Aussies” with “good old Kiwi can-do”. How could anyone not like that?

Just so you’re not starved of policy analysis, there are unstated, non-trivial National party assumptions about what’s important all through the ad too. The prime one among these is a focus on financial metrics (GDP growth, productivity growth) to the exclusion of other considerations. A Labour ad along these lines might have emphasised a balance between economic and environmental and other outcomes such as quality of life — the fact that this ad mentions no other metrics than wealth is not value-neutral or void of political meaning: it demonstrates the writer’s policy priorities and direction. As well as that, the “beating the Aussies” narrative is a core plank of the government’s current policy of “closing the gap” — it’s not policy-neutral either, but is a function of the government’s own preferences and their political strategy of measuring themselves against previous governments on metrics which favour them. And hang on a minute: are we really “through the tough times”, and are things really “looking up”? Depends who you ask; this is a matter of opinion and legitimate professional dispute among Those Who Know About Such Things, it’s not a slam-dunk even if the Finance Minister says so: after all, it’s his job to say so. And will “old-fashioned Kiwi can-do” on its own really be sufficient to bridge the significant productivity and GDP growth gaps between NZ and Australia? What the hell is “old-fashioned Kiwi can-do” anyhow, and if it were that easy, why haven’t we done it all before? The entire narrative is constructed of politically-charged assumptions, but it is formed in such a way as to discourage the audience from thinking too hard about it.

There’s one other thing, too: Plain English is Bill’s newsletter to his constituents, and it looks like the similarities don’t end there. It was a catch-cry of his 2002 election campaign. Perhaps if he’d had this production team working on that campaign he’d have won, or at least done well enough to prevent Don Brash from taking over.

So that’s a reasonably thorough teasing out of the political content of this seemingly-innocuous 45-second commercial. As I said in the comment thread at The Standard, the only thing more absurd than this ad getting made and screened with a straight face is Eric Kearley employing the Lebowski Defence when challenged on the fact that the ad quacks very much like a propaganda duck. Regardless of whether it was bought and paid for, as the more conspiratorial commentators think, or whether the use of the form was simply a (very successful) ploy to garner attention, it’s idiotic to pretend that this isn’t political advertising in function. While I tend to find industrial explanations for apparent media bias more compelling than political explanations, people like Kearley obstinately denying the bleeding obvious doesn’t make it especially easy to keep doing so.

L

* Stands for ‘Vote Them Out’, as I recall.
** What else this implies about vto I leave as an exercise to the reader :)
*** It helped that Bill Clinton was from the town of Hope, Arkansas.

Traction

datePosted on 16:12, October 21st, 2009 by Lew

hide-rort

The story of Rodney Hide’s ministerial fundraiser is making headway — at present, it’s the splash spot on stuff.co.nz and is pretty prominent on the Herald site as well.

This image is strong. Close-ups are rarely flattering, and this one has an unctuous, indignant defensiveness which evokes, well, just about every crooked politico in history. The text, leading with the universal refrain of officials on the take and following up hard with that beloved word ‘rort’, gives the audience all the necessary context. This is a position Hide has spent his political career avoiding, and one which he was once merciless in prosecuting. It’s a long way to fall.

It seems that the credit for this should go to Eddie, who drew together its various strands into the narrative we now have. It’s been picked up by a few blogs, including Red Alert, where Phil Twyford published his own clearly-derivative-but-not-attributed riff on the topic earlier today, complete with Goff’s press release which forms the basis for the NZPA story. And it looks like Eddie even chose the photo which Stuff ran with — only one is flipped on the vertical. Well done.

Update: Lyndon in the comments points out that the threads were in fact drawn together by North Shore mayor Andrew Williams in the first instance, and published on Scoop.co.nz – so Frist P0st credits there, although the Labour response seems more derivative of Eddie’s work than that, so my point largely remains.

L

No longer a good, not yet a service

datePosted on 17:07, August 13th, 2009 by Lew

“Getting what you deserve” by Nick Smith in today’s Independent (which isn’t, it’s Fairfax-owned) is a good read about the future of the media. In beautiful irony, it doesn’t seem to be online, so I’ll excerpt it here:

“Journalists deserve low pay” Robert Picard, media economics professor at Jonkoping University, Sweden, opined provocatively. “Wages are compensation for value creation and journalists simply aren’t creating much value these days.”

The alarming disappearance of papers and journalists (27,000 have lost their jobs in the US alone in the last 18 months) is, Picard argues, a result of loss of control of content.

Picard believes skilled journalists are not like skilled plumbers. Their skill is the distribution of other peoples’ knowledge. Now, that knowledge is distributed online at little cost, and control of the saleable commodity has disappeared. “The primary value created today comes from the basic underlying value of the labour of journalists. Unfortunately that value is now near zero.”

Rupert Murdoch, so often cast as the scourge of journalism, is shaping up as a white knight. His News Corp is to start charging for website content. … His determination to wrest control of content and ensure payment is significant. The Financial Times followed last week with its own iTunes-inspired business model Fairfax Media, Australia-based publisher of The Independent, is also said to be considering joining the pay-per-read campaign. If both follow through, every daily Australian newspaper, save the West Australian, will charge for at least some online reading. Fairfax chief executive Brian McCarthy’s comments that digital delivery must be monetised will cheer Barry Colman, publisher of the National Business Review, the only New Zealand website to charge a fee. Colman says a pay-per-view model is the only way to stop further newspaper losses and the erosion of quality.

[Edit: It’s online now. Thanks I/S.]

The problem with Murdoch, Colman and indeed the good professor whose quote leads the piece, is that they see news as a good; a thing which people should pay for. But really, it’s not a good – it’s a service.

Or more precisely, news text and information is a good, but it can’t readily be monetised – what can, and must, be monetised is the service of distributing and providing access to that good, and most critically, the service of filtering out all the stuff which is irrelevant. This is the service journalists provide – their real value isn’t, as Picard says, generating content in the paragraph factory, it’s in their role as decision-makers defining what is news and what isn’t, what people need to know about and what they don’t.

Murdoch and his cohort see the internet, which robs their ‘good’ of value, as a problem to be solved or circumvented. But the internet is the only thing which will allow for the establishment of a genuine service which will enable media companies to provide tailored, targeted content to individual readers.

Content can be free – but as the volume of content grows, the value of relevance increases. That’s where the money is.

L

Passion and reason about climate change

datePosted on 22:15, August 6th, 2009 by Lew

While I agree with most blogging folks that John Key was a fool to try to smack down Keisha Castle-Hughes for her role in the Greenpeace climate change campaign, I do still have concerns about the specifics of how she fronts it.

BK Drinkwater posted on this recently, and then took it back after some criticism. I don’t think his first instinct was that far wrong, but it was framed poorly – in terms of expertise as granting a right to advocacy, rather than expertise as being necessary to meaningful advocacy. I don’t have concerns about Keisha’s views or her right to advocate for them, or about her position as a young mother concerned about the future of humanity rather than a scientist or a policy expert, or about her being exploited for a cause. The problem for me is that Keisha’s advocacy is apparently based entirely in passion, and not at all in reason.

Her breathless and slightly incoherent performance on Close Up (horrible flash video) the other night, while it may have been inspiring for some, left me in little doubt that she doesn’t know anything much about the topic. She completely avoided answering Sainsbury’s question (from about 01:50) as to whether she knew anything about it – saying (again and again) that she was passionate about climate change and wanted to know what she could do about it. This is the problem with celebthorities (actorvists, pseudo-experts, etc.) – they frequently substitute passion for reason, and in doing so they encourage the wider public to do the same.

While I don’t expect celebrities (or anyone, really) to be an expert before they’re allowed to advocate, their passion for a cause should be somehow proportionate to their knowledge of it. Keisha’s passion seems to far (far) outweigh her knowledge, and passion without reason is dangerous. It may be that she does know more than the first thing about it – any reasonably intelligent person can familiarise themselves with the scientific orthodoxy in a few hours and after a few days of reading will probably know more than 90% of the general population – but as a media person, having not prepared a convincing answer to that question of credibility gives me serious doubt that she has any, even as little as the average celebthority. The same goes for her published response to Key on the signon blog. At the very least she should demonstrate some knowledge of the subject matter. Perhaps she’s saving this for the proposed tête-à-tête. Extreme optimism if that’s so.

Don’t get me wrong – both passion and reason are necessary weapons in the campaign arsenal. Al Gore’s passion was instrumental in breaking the issue into the mainstream, which no amount of science or evidence could have done. But passion without reason is especially dangerous when the task, as with climate change, is to convince people to believe and accept science, reason and evidence instead of uninformed opinion, ‘I reckons’, conspiracy theories and convenient misinterpretations of the evidence which perpetuate a particular lifestyle to which they’re accustomed. The primary tactic of climate change denialism is to muddy reason with passion, and get people thinking with their gut rather than their brains, and by privileging passion so completely over reason Keisha risks weakening the strongest weapons the climate change environmental movement has – science and reason and evidence.

Advocacy is great – but let it be based on something.

L

Sovereign Democratic Realism

datePosted on 12:18, August 6th, 2009 by Lew

2003849206Via Scott Yorke’s excellent Imperator Fish, pics of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s Siberian vacation photo-op.

The wider photoset (you’ll have to google around for all the photos, since each website only contains part of the set) is a strong statement of Russia’s new national identity as a fit, keen, ruggedly independent nation which is the master of its own destiny, answerable to nobody. Vladimir Putin idealises Russia as it wants to see itself.

The wider campaign propagandises Putin’s adopted doctrine of Sovereign Democracy, essentially ‘we call our system democracy, so democracy it is’. It fetishises Putin’s personal capability and authority; his command over nature, his idolisation by ordinary Russians (even those thousands of miles from Moscow), his statesmanship. Closely resembling what I/S calls Heinlein’s psychopathic frontier barbarism, Putin rides horses, treks in the mountains, fishes in a wild river, pilots a fast boat, builds a fire, helps rescue a beached whale, comforts an Ingushetian politician injured in a suicide bombing, works in a metallurgists’ plant, gives orders as to a train crash, visits a political youth camp, meets Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s widow, and shares tea with the locals. All with the cameras in attendance (and in some cases, with the sound guy in-shot – no attempt at pretending it’s not a propaganda exercise).

There has been much speculation as to the import of this photoset, ranging from the suggestion that, by appearing bare-chested in the outdoors on a holiday with the Prince of Monaco, Putin is sending a signal of tolerance about homosexual rights, referencing Brokeback Mountain. The semi-official spin, naturally, is that it’s simply a demonstration that Putin knows how to relax – a signal that he will retire peaceably at the end of his second term as Prime Minister.

I am not so convinced. This lays the groundwork for a perpetuation of Putin’s role as Russia’s eminent statesman of the 21st Century, and in a much more subtle and compelling way than either Hugo Chávez or Manuel Zelaya’s clumsy attempts at circumventing constitutional term-limits. The key to sovereign democracy is its illusory consent – the appeal to Russian independence, strength, unity and capability which Jonathan Brent and others have argued (audio) present the danger of sliding back to a new form of Stalinism, even with the support of those who would suffer under such a system. This is a strong warning to Dmitry Medvedev, who has criticised ‘sovereign democracy’ as a form of authoritarian doublespeak, and to the Russian people that if a ‘real’ leader is needed, one exists. Former KGB officer Putin, here, is presenting himself as another Man of Steel.

L

Some sort of justice

datePosted on 11:57, August 3rd, 2009 by Lew

The Australian and many other sources report that Austereo has suspended 2Day FM hosts Kyle Sandilands and Jackie O and their show indefinitely for their revictimisation of a 14 year-old rape victim on-air last week. Advertisers are boycotting the network and Sandilands’ other contracts are in jeopardy. A firm response.

L

On media bias and distortion

datePosted on 23:58, August 2nd, 2009 by Lew

BK Drinkwater has posted a good response to some of the comments on Bryce Edwards’ synopses of chapters from the book Informing Voters? Politics, Media and the New Zealand Election 2008 (edited by Chris Rudd, Janine Hayward and Geoff Craig of the University of Otago Politics department). In comments to BK’s post, Eric Crampton recommended Groseclose & Milyo‘s paper on the topic. Having not read the book, I’ll constrain my comments to the posts, comments and paper which I have read.

[Apologies, this is a long and dry post on a topic very dear to my heart. I also banged it up in a spare couple of hours while I ought to have been sleeping, and haven’t proofed it, so it may be incoherent. I reserve the right to subedit it without notice. The rest is over the break.]

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