ReachOut.com training camp

Over the weekend I led a session as part of a workshop camp training youth media advocates for ReachOut.com. ReachOut.com is an advocacy group that seeks to raise awareness about issues relating to youth mental health and suicide, and is part of Inspire.org.au. I was very happy to donate my Saturday morning and the couple of days it took to put together my session. Like most people, I’ve had some personal experience with a loved one struggling to overcome the ‘black dog’. It has been good to see depression and mental health issues receive proper media attention over the last few years as struggles with mental health issues transcend social and cultural boundaries.

In my session I introduced the youth advocates to the concept of a ‘complex media environment’. It builds on well established concepts within media studies from key figures such as Marshall “The medium is the message” McLuhan (see this video of McLuhan in Australia from ABC Open) and Neil “Media Ecology” Postman. The key outcome from my session was to get the advocates to realise that as media advocates they are no longer simply ‘consumers’ of media content, but nor are they properly ‘producers’ within the media industry. Instead, they are somewhere in between, what I described as being ‘operators’.

ReachOut.com’s own media advocacy kit for the workshop was put together (EDIT: 13/12/11) under the direction of co-manager Nathalie Swainston by Phoebe Netto and it is a brilliant practical guide for working with journalists and other content producers within the media industry. For example, it presents the well known values of news worthiness (timeliness, proximity, impact, etc) in an inverted form so media advocates know how to position their message so as to be useful for journalists working on producing a story.

I built on the media advocacy kit by reaching out to the youth media advocates’ existing mode of engagement with the media — as mostly ‘crticial consumers’ — to point out ways this could be extended and intensified so as to spot and plan for ‘opportunities’ for their message. I focused on two methods for doing this. The first involves working within the constraints of the journalistic ‘news cycle’ and also tracking the rhythm of the media activities of other social institutions, such as governmental authorities or the NGO sector publishing relevant reports.

The second involves appreciating the strucutral dimensions of the media industry. The commercial media industry basically operates as an ‘apparatus of capture’: it produces content so as to ‘capturre’ an audience, and then sell this audience to advertisers (or others). The questions the media advocates need to work through are, what sort of audience can I help produce and who would want the traffic/metrics/listeners/viewers/readership that my message can help deliver? The session after mine was delivered by the lovely and talented Pheobe Netto (who also took the phone camera snap above during my presentation!) and it was about the practical skills of crafting one’s media message. The ‘complex’ bit of the ‘complex media environment’ comes from the structural changes that the Australian media industry has undergone over the last decade or so. There are increased opportunities for engagement for those with the necessary skills to turn out good copy for many media outlets.

One of the qualities of this complex media enviroment that I discussed in my session was the way media stories can cascade across multiple channels and platforms. Most people are familiar with the concept of an ‘echo chamber’, but a more general example of a similar phenomenon is the way various media outlets will pay attention to what other media outlets are reporting on. This doesn’t only happen amongst competitors (or ‘co-opetitors’) but also sub-jacently related channels, such as local radio stories picked up by larger ‘talkback’ radio, picked up by print journalist, picked up by TV journalists, etc.

I think it was a very good day and the feedback I’ve received from participants is that they found my session to be very productive.

Steve Jobs RIP: Can Design Make the World a Better Place?

My tweet questioning the outpouring of grief regarding the passing of Steve Jobs has generated a range of responses. My original tweet:

Deliberately provocative, it certainly provoked. Perhaps too much, so I am writing this post.

My first response to hearing about the news was ‘whoa’ and then I began thinking about Deleuze’s discussion of death as a perfect example of an event. Death is necessarily impersonal; ‘your’ death is never experienced as such, only by others. The greater the proximity to death (as one is dying, for example) the more the living can appreciate you for your ‘life’; a life. Life itself. Deleuze draws on Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend:

A disreputable man, a rogue, held in contempt by everyone, is found as he lies dying. Suddenly, those taking care of him manifest an eagerness, respect, even love, for his slightest sign of life. Everybody bustles about to save him, to the point where, in his deepest coma, this wicked man himself senses something soft and sweet penetrating him. But to the degree that he comes back to life, his saviors turn colder, and he becomes once again mean and crude. Between his life and his death, there is a moment that is only that of a life playing with death (28).

I recognised that in Steve Jobs’s passing. A life had passed. I am not a psychopath; I also felt sad at Jobs’s death, particularly because his illness was rendered public due to the market-based connection between his health and the relative share value of Apple.

Yet, Jobs is no hero to me. There has long been a nascent hostility amongst the digital elites between those that saw Jobs as a hero and those that did not. By ‘digital elites’ I mean those whose professional lives and perhaps existence is in part defined by the competent, if not masterful use of information technology devices. The hostility is played out in rather fascile ways in a discourse of fanboiism. Every member of the digital elite is familiar with it, and participation in it, at whatever level, probably marks you as one of the digital elite. I certainly recognised Jobs as a skillful innovator in the consumer technology markets. He is on par with Alfred Sloan the GM President from 1920s-1950s in terms of the scale of transformations he helped introduce and guide through development. Sloan was behind the introduction of the annual model change, brand architecture, industrial design, automotive design (styling), and planned obsolescence. If Sloan herald the creation of the proper mass market, then Jobs herald their innovation. That sounds great, doesn’t it?

Well, no. Think of how much waste has been created in the world because of these initiatives. Having done a little research in car culture, I used to boggle at just how much was wasted creating new model lines every year. So? This is typical leftist propaganda, surely?

Coming out of the Sydney inner-west crowd, I was very aware of a progressive political ethos by a number of people who work in the information technology, design and marketing industries. I would talk with them at various social media shindigs, chat on twitter and the like. I could see a pattern in my twitter stream that those announcing their grief largely belonged to this group. These are people that I mostly personally know, so I am not describing tweeted links to other stories or similar. There is a contradiction here. Between a cohort strongly emphathetic with those who suffer because of the injustices in the world and the various mechanisms by which suffering and injustice is reproduced.

Steve Jobs seemed to embody the belief that well designed devices could somehow make the world a better place. This belief is materially realised whenever one typed or swiped the screen of a phone. Maybe I am misunderstanding some of the assumptions here. By increasing the degrees of freedom — experienced at the level of design/interaction — for relatively privileged elites how is the world made better, except for those privileged elites? I certainly agree with design philosophies that valorise creative innovation but what did Jobs lead Apple into innovating?

Discussing this with Barry Saunders I pointed out that Apple was not One Laptop per Child, he pointed out that computing freedom is more complex than basic access. I certainly agree, and I was glad that we could come up with a spectrum upon which it would make sense to locate the work of Apple and in particular the role of Jobs. Some of the more enthusiastic comments on Twitter have correlated Jobs’s role within a global society of somehow increasing access to personal computers for the unprivileged and non-elite. Apple’s business is not giving away computers or devices, it is selling them…

Perhaps the closest the empathising Left can come to making a convincing argument is when they point out the market segments created or innovated by Apple under Jobs’s leadership comes to define a given discourse. This discursive category then becomes the locus for democratisation. Here is an example from Gavin Costello:

The rolling out of “iPad-like tablet to university students” can be interpreted as the democratisation of access to personal computing technologies that is in part attributable to a Jobs-lead Apple.

The suturing of effective technological design and the discursive production of markets is what is troubling me here. The best research I have seen on this is by Kamal A. Munir and Nelson Phillips “The Birth of the ‘Kodak Moment’: Institutional Entrepreneurship and the Adoption of New Technologies” (2005). They describe in their abstract:

[We] examine how Kodak managed to transform photography from a highly specialized activity to one that became an integral part of everyday life. Based on this case, we develop an initial typology of the strategies available to institutional entrepreneurs who wish to affect the processes of social construction that lead to change in institutional fields.

They analyse the introduction of the roll-film camera by Kodak in 1882, and its role in producing change to the consumer markets. They “stress how a transformation in the ‘meaning’ embodied by particular technologies — the roll-film camera in our case — is critical to the evolution of a new field. Accordingly, we focus on how discursive processes reconstructed the field surrounding photography, and led to the development of this new field. Furthermore, we focus on how Kodak managed strategically to embody its interests in the evolving institutional framework through carefully planned and executed discursive practices” (1666).

Kodak produced a number of innovations with the goal of influencing the popular imagination so as to ‘democratise’ the roll film camera so it became ‘institutional’. The problem for Kodak was that photography was a specialist and expert practice. Munir and Phillips draw on Latour (1987) to pithily note that “while the solution was at hand, the problem remained to be created”. They continue, “Cameras and other implements of photography were still considered tools of the experts, and ‘Kodak moments’ did not yet exist in the popular imagination” (1671).

There is a parallel here to the way Jobs has been mythologised. Firstly, Jobs has come to personify the work of an entire company. This is evident in the way those on twitter slip from discussing Jobs to discussing what ‘they’ did. Jobs is not a ‘they’. The mythology imagines something like the above with ‘Kodak’ replaced by ‘Jobs’. Secondly, Jobs was certainly gifted at being able to create solutions for which there did not seem to yet be a problem. The first problem created by Jobs for which an Apple product was the solution, was the artefact of the ‘personal computer’. Then there were many others.

These innovations do not last forever. The socio-technological assemblages that occupy special social functions are often replaced. The practice of photography with a Kodak roll-film camera capturing ‘Kodak moments’ for the purposes of storing in a ‘photo album’ (the ‘photo album’ was another Kodak innovation, Munir and Phillips 2005, 1678) is a socio-technological assemblage. I discuss in one of my lectures how the ‘Kodak moment’ has now been replaced by the ‘Facebook moment’. People do not necessarily take photos with film cameras for their photo albums, they take photos with their smartphones so as to be shared through social media.

Hopefully, you can see I am not diminishing the effect Steve Jobs has had on the world or on my life. Has Steve jobs made my life better? Yes, I am part of the privileged elite. Yet, I am very hesitant to celebrate design work, however innovative, that contributes to the production of new markets for the purposes of commercial profit. This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone I know. The point is this is what Steve Jobs was very good at. Imagine what could have been achieved if Jobs took questions of sustainablity more seriously? And I don’t mean only environmental sustainability.

I am struggling with the students I teach in our Online News journalism units to formulate a way of imagining sustainable opportunities. I don’t only mean ‘triple-bottom-line’ initiatives that take into account environmental and labour issues, as they are still oriented towards generating a profit. I mean a model of sustainable opportunity for appreciating a mode of entrepreneurship for industries like journalism, which have a social function that is often at odds with the commercial function of the media. What if iTunes had returned more its profit to artists? What if iTunes wasn’t a closed ecosystem? These questions are obviously foolish if you do not believe in working for sustainability…

Online Niche/Enthusiast Media: Business Models

Online business models. I hadn’t thought about ‘business’ at all except in a critical (but not always negative) sense until about a year ago. Here is an abstract to a paper I have in the works. However, I’ve been thinking about business models for the magazines since I’ve been involved in developing a new online presence for some of them. This post is the result of some of the thinking I have been doing on the subject and has been in the works for a while now (several weeks). I’ve been thinking about it constantly but have little time to actually work on it.

I work at Express Media Group, which publishes a number of niche-market enthusiast titles. EMG is currently developing its online presence and is working on ways to successfully integrate print and online publishing. As well as working as a Production Editor, I’ve been involved in developing some of the websites for the motoring titles. The first new website up is that for Zoom magazine.

We have a massive advertising campaign starting tomorrow that requires the other websites to be up and I am waiting on our overworked web team to finish them. I look forward to seeing the results.

I’ve been carrying out research in my own time to think about new business models that integrate print and online publishing. I have no official role in this at EMG (yet), rather I have been treating it as an extension of my PhD research on enthusiasm in modified-car culture where I looked at the relation between the enthusiast media and the scene over a 30 year period.

I used philosophical concepts to examine the composition of power relations in the organisation of the scene (dispositif) and how this has changed a number of times over the time period (an event-based conception of history). Now it seems my research is going to be the most relevant if it is developed in a simple set of critical tools for understanding legacy business models.

The general character of these legacy business models is mostly well understood. The current public workshops being hosted by the FTC are working on the issues and problems of “how the Internet has affected journalism”. The FTC has posted a Staff Discussion Draft paper that explores some of the points raised over the course of several months worth of hearings. In the first few pages of the paper (2-3) the FTC outlines the general problem with legacy business models faced by all print-based publishers. I have extracted the three main points below:

1. Newspapers’ revenues from advertising have fallen approximately 45% since 2000. For example, classified advertising accounted for $19.6 billion in revenue for newspapers in 2000, $10.2 billion in 2008, and is estimated to be only $6.0 billion in 2009.
2. With the advent of the Internet, advertisers have many more ways in which to reach consumers, including, for example, through a marketer’s own website or through topical websites that relate to the products that an advertiser wants to sell (e.g., a soccer blog for soccer equipment). Search engines also provide sites for advertising related to particular search queries.
3. Although some types of online advertising (e.g., advertising targeted to a consumer’s known interests) can generate greater revenue than other types (e.g., banner ads), the vast supply of online sites for advertising reduces the amount that an online news site can charge for advertising at its site. This means that online advertising typically generates much less revenue than print advertising (often described as “digital dimes” as compared to the dollars generated by print ads). It appears unlikely that online advertising revenues will ever be sufficient to replace the print advertising revenues that newspapers previously received.

First year journalism students are taught about the ‘news hole’ well in the actual publishing business there is often an ‘advertising hole’ as well. As more advertisers have moved online to directly target the niche market enthusiast communities that the advertiser services, there are less advertisers looking at print-based advertising. Of course, this is a generalisation as there are many enthusiast communities, of mostly older enthusiasts, that have not gone online.

All is not lost, however. There are other ways to sell advertising beyond simple ‘display’-type advertising. Dan Blank has a good post up from over a year ago on different sources of revenue for online media publishers.

The main goal here is for editorial teams to be pursuing fewer standalone articles that rely solely on CPM ads, and look to more integrated packages that build many products from a single effort.

For the last six years or so I have long looked at this from the flip side. Media events assembled from a series of inter-related texts. Often these texts are assembled around a non-media product, so a product is doubled as its media-based simulacra. It was the basis of my work I carried out on exchange to Sweden during my PhD looking at media events not as the media coverage of an event, but the event produced through the media.

In social media circles posting the same material across a number of channels is called ‘content leverage’. So a Facebook post about a blog post describing a Youtube video is Tweeted. At EMG I have been working on producing media content from single opportunities that can be distributed across a number of media channels. So far the best example of this was an ECU guide in Zoom issue 147 that is currently on the stands. I have several hours of video that I shot and I am currently editing to be posted to our Youtube channel and posted to our blog. Here is an example:

The real problem with thinking about new business models for niche/enthusiast media that integrate online and print elements is that most of the current discussion about the state of print media has been about ‘hard news’. Niche/enthusiast media and ‘hard news’ work following different journalistic models of content production. For example, Blank writes:

An underlying theme in many of these is to create evergreen content whose shelf life is longer than a news article – with multiple segments that extend the ways you can market it and sell it. Focusing on business needs beyond the cycle of “breaking news” may diminish the reliance on the single revenue model of advertising.

We already do this to a certain extent, but we are going to be doing much more of this style of content production and it is going to be a real challenge for editorial teams working under increasingly tight deadlines (we make a magazine per week on average!). To make this possible Blank has two suggestions:

1) Editorial teams mapping out a product roadmap, not just an editorial calendar.
2) Editorial teams working more closely with their sales teams to come up with these ideas, and ensure that the sales dept has this information with enough time to test the market, and ideally, sell these products.

Working closer to advertising sales teams is not a problem, the other challenge, beyond deadlines, is getting a sense of what is happening in the scene. There is so much activity nowadays that to track it all, even just all the online activity, for the scene in Australia is a full-time role.

So where to go from here? I am currently rewriting some of my PhD research for a draft paper about legacy media business models for niche/enthusiast media.

Hello Blog!

I’ve been a bit busy lately and have been neglecting my blog.

Firstly, I’ve been promoted at my day job from Feature Writer to Production Editor. This has meant a different set of responsibilities, which I am enjoying, but also a new set of opportunities. I’ve been attacking these new opportunities with gusto as my activities and capacities are now more visible within the workplace. One opportunity has been to take on some of the responsibilities of event management for our presence at certain car shows. I’ve been developing event strategies to maximise the benefit to the magazines and these strategies have been received well by management and the other editorial teams.

Secondly, I’ve taken on another job that is mostly at night. This is back at Gleebooks working events. I have been made Assistant Events Manager and my responsibilities so far mainly include staff rosters and some initial tentative forays into social media. I will also be organising the Gleebooks presence at conferences and other similar events. This is basically all event management work.

There are some other exciting developments that may or may not happen, but more on these as they come to fruition (or not).

I am also behind on some promised writing, including a blog post on here about the Ford Fiesta Econetic which I had on loan from Ford as a media car and a book chapter on Derrida and Marx for a forthcoming book. I am hoping to wrap both of these up by the end of this weekend.

There is a meeting

New thoughts are rare to me now. Thoughts that are worth dancing with in my mind. Thoughts I want to buy a drink, that I want to ask home, that I want to seduce and be seduced by me. That I want to be brave for. Thoughts that scare me.

There is a meeting. Between someone with power and someone who has power exerted over them. I read somewhere once that power is the capacity to get someone to carry out one’s will. It isn’t. Power is the capacity to get someone to share your expectations. The transference of action, the extension of one’s capacity to act, is a dumb force. It is muted. You can’t have a conversation with it. You can manipulate it like a lever. This has to happen, therefore I can make this happen. It can be reversed. It is a weak power.

For someone to share you expectations means there is a temporal feedback loop. It is inescapable. A future event guides your actions. You have an expectation of what should happen and it isn’t your own. It is inevitable. This is far more profound that getting someone to act. One is a question of ideology, a question that can be answered with action. The other serves as the basis for reality itself. There is no question, because all questions assume it.

Within this meeting the person with power acts with a ruthlessness. They are ruthless which means they don’t care about the other person’s expectations. There is no ethical dialogue of a common goal, of shared equitable expectations. To be ruthless means imposing one’s expectations on another.

It also means acting without shame. You need to be shameless to be ruthless. Most decent human beings feel shame when they impose their will by forcing someone to share their expectations.

The profit motive of capital is how we describe its ruthlessness. Capital has no shame.

In the meeting the person without power is in a room full of his bosses, his managers. They all share expectations. They want him to share their expectations. For that he shall be rewarded. He needs to learn how to become shameless.

Or figure out how to make them feel ashamed.