How Vast Is Your Wasteland?

A graduate level media law class would intimidate anyone given the subject matter alone. But when I walked into my seminar room I was greeted by not one, but two instructors. One, a youngish, overly-casual Craig LaMay, sporting shorts and flip-flops. The other, a smiling, grandfatherly man smartly attired in a sharp, but not overly ostentatious, tailored suit.

Professor LaMay introduced his teaching partner: Newton Minow.Newton Minow

I almost fell over. I didn’t know him on sight, but by reputation. He was a personal hero – once removed. As new chairman of the FCC in 1961 he did the unthinkable. He took broadcasters to task – to their face – for the content of network television and reminded them that they had a legal obligation to produce a product that served the public interest in return for the priceless gift they had been given – unfettered use of the public airwaves.

He delivered that speech 50 years ago. (Three years before I was born, in fact.) But the phrase that he hoped that would be remembered from that speech, “the public interest,” was lost in the face of the far sexier, and much more damning, quote: “Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.”

Broadcasters were aghast. But some people listened. When Sesame Street debuted in 1969, it was seen as a response to the challenge that Minow put forth – to create high-quality programming that meets the public interest.

“When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better.

But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite each of you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.”

Minow was my hero because here was a government bureaucrat putting his new career on the line advocating courageously for the American people. Minow took his governmental position seriously as a trustee for the public, not the corporation, the public. And here was was advocating for the public to the corporations – reminding them that they have a societal responsibility.

That didn’t make him a fan of Sherwood Schwartz, creator and producer of a vast swath of 60s fare such as The Brady Bunch and Gilligan’s Island. Schwartz named the battered shipwreck in Gilligan’s Island the S.S. Minow as a dig at the FCC chair.

Minow’s speech was delivered 50 years ago this spring. And now we have a new medium challenging television for our time and attention. Will it, too, become a vast wasteland? I’m hopeful that it won’t. My proviso here is twofold.

1) That the interactive innovations of Web 2.0 grow because of the participation of the users.

2) And that corporate America can be kept at bay – lest it succumb to the monotony of monopoly.

Minow Discusses His Most Famous Speech

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So, What Are You; a Reporter or a Writer?

Professors of media – both new and traditional – sometimes do not agree on the finer points of whether all this new interactive media is indeed, finer than what it seeks to replace.

Recently, CUNY Journalism Prof. Jeff Jarvis got into a friendly discussion with ePresse consortium general manager Frédéric Filloux regarding the role of social media tools in the news gathering and storytelling functions. Their discussion reminds me of scenarios that played out numerous times in my journalism carrer whenever I interviewed for a new reporting position at a different publication.

Jarvis – who has been leading the Web 2.0 revolution in journalism since before Web 2.0 had a name – stated in his blog, BuzzMachine, that:

A few episodes in news make me think of the article not as the goal of journalism but as a value-added luxury or as a byproduct of the process.”

After stating several notable examples where news events have been tweeted and blogged in real time, Jarvis goes on to say:

“Carry this to the extreme — that’s my specialty — and we see witnesses everywhere, some of them reporters, some people who happen to be at a news event before reporters arrive (and now we can reach them via Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare….), some who may be participants but are sharing photos and facts via Twitter. Already on the web, we see others — bloggers — turn these distributed snippets into narratives: posts, stories, articles.

The bigger question all this raises is when and whether we need articles. Oh, we still do. Articles can make it easy to catch up on a complex story; they make for easier reading than a string of disjointed facts; they pull together strands of a story and add perspective. Articles are wonderful. But they are no longer necessary for every event. They were a necessary form for newspapers and news shows but not the free flow, the never-starting, never-ending stream of digital. Sometimes, a quick update is sufficient; other times a collection of videos can do the trick. Other times, articles are good.”

Filloux, who co-writes the Monday Note ‘blog, took issue with Jarvis:

Defining article as a “luxury or a byproduct” as Jeff Jarvis did last month, is like suggesting jazz is secondary to rap music, or saying literature is a Deluxe version of slamming. Reading Jarvis’ Buzz Machine blog is always interesting, often entertaining and more than occasionally grating. His May 28th blog post titled The article as luxury or byproduct reverberated across the media sphere – as provocative pieces are meant to, regardless of the argument’s actual connection with facts.”

Filloux says that he teaches his students that live blogging and tweeting is not journalism but a tool, “sometimes an incredibly efficient one…”

“The article actually is the essence of journalism. And by no means a “byproduct of the process”.

Two and a half years ago, the Airbus landing in the Hudson became the poster-child for crowd-powered breaking news. Then, the only true visual document was a cell phone picture taken by a ferry passenger. Today, the same event would have been live-tweeted by a dozen of witnesses using all the digital nomad firepower you can think of, from hi-res pics to HD video. And, by the time the genuine reporters show up, all relevant material would have been broadcast to the entire world.
Then, if we follow the Jarvis Doctrine, any additional reporting – let alone narrative reconstruction – would become extraneous or useless. (OK, I’m slightly over the top here).

Still, this “extraneous or useless” byproduct is precisely when and where the real craft enters the media stage. For me, William Langewiesche’s 11,000 words article in Vanity Fair became one of the most compelling stories ever written about this spectacular event.”

Jarvis counters with an article-length post answering Filloux:

“Frédéric Filoux willfully misrepresents me so that he may uphold the orthodoxy of the article. He will be disappointed to learn that we agree more than he wishes. Here is what I am really saying about the article.

First, far from denigrating the article, I want to elevate it. When I say the article is a luxury, I argue that using ever-more-precious resources to create an article should be taken seriously and before writing and editing a story we must assure that it will add value. Do most articles do that today? No. Go through your paper in the morning and tell me how much real value is added and how much ink is spilled to tell you what you already know (whether that is facts you learned through Twitter, the web, TV, radio, et al or background that is reheated more often than a stale slice in a bad New York pizzeria).”

I met Jarvis in 2004 at a conference during which he was live-blogging a panel discussion he was simultaneously hosting. His blog posts were projected above his head while he talking about blogging. It was weird and disarming. Now that level of split attention is normal.

It struck me, as I said, that I’ve had this conversation before.

Journalism interviews are grueling, day-long affairs where you meet dozens of people and they all get to weigh in on whether you get the job. At some point, some editor asks you this question:

“Are you more of a reporter or a writer?”

At first the two might seem synonymous, but the editor is getting at the heart of how you see yourself and what your greatest value to the organization is going to be. Reporters are experts at research and social engineering. They know how to develop sources and tap them for the most valuable information when it counts. Reporters navigate professional and personal relationships to find the best information that helps make a story make sense to the reader.

Writers, on the other hand, really know how to turn a phrase. They produce stories that are informative, entertaining, concise and truthful. Writers cut through to the essence of a story and tell readers what is most important to know and why it is important to know it.

This is the same tension playing out between Jarvis and Filloux. Reporting is a process. Writing is the storytelling.

The difference now is that by using social media tools, the readers and viewers can witness the process. In addition, we can now all witness news events being “reported” by people who traditionally would not be considered reporters. At best, they would have been sources for a reporter. Now, they can be the primary source of the information.

I’m tempted to say that both Jarvis and Filloux are right. Just as you cannot have a good journalistic story without solid reporting, journalism will now forever have to deal with the news gathering process being not only visible to the audience, but also open for audience participation in the process.

I have a feeling that from now on, journalism will have to account for Heizenberg’s uncertainty principle — that the more precisely you attempt to measure something, the less precisely its future position can be determined.

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Wireless Experiments in Convergence = Wired

Reading your ‘blog posts from this week reminded me of the effect that technology and changes in government regulation can have on our perception of the time and effort required to make something happen. When we get used to the time- and effort-saving convenience of technology, can we ever go back?

As many of you know, I’m an amateur radio operator – or at least, in possession of a license – and though I didn’t acquire my first license until I was in my mid-20s, I had always had a soft spot in my heart for radio communication as a favorite medium. Baby boomers who grew up in Springfield in the 1970s and ’80s will remember WDBR had a 4-hour marathon show on Sunday nights (The Goldmine Show) that played ’50s and ’60s hits well into the 1980s. It was the last gasp of the golden age of locally-produced rock radio and a must-listen program is you were in middle or high school.

In 1978 I entered high school and met new friends who were “technologically inclined.” One was an amateur radio operator – a ham – who encouraged me to study and try for my license. That involved learning a lot about electrical and radio theory as well as learning to decode Morse code  by merely listening. I was intrigued, but both enterprises required an intense commitment and the materials were not cheap. Even mowing lawns at $5 each – my source of income – would take years to amass the $500-$700 to afford even the most modest equipment.

But it was the height of the CB fad – sparked by C.W. McCall’s song “Convoy” and the FCC had relaxed the permit requirements for operating a CB – and they were significantly cheaper. All my friends and I got single-sideband rigs. Coincidentally, the sun was at the peak of its 11-year sunspot/solar flare cycle and Earth’s upper atmosphere was supercharged – turning the short-range radio signal into a long-distance skip contact. Collecting QSL (confirmation of contact) cards became a hobby. Little did I know that experimenting with radio was going to lead to my first exposure to the Internet. (Thusly named, at least.)

Fast forward 10 years past college and the launching of a career lands us huddled in comfortable apartment on the west side of St. Charles, Illinois in 1991, where technologies and media to whom few were exposed up until that point in time had converged.

We crammed four single guys in our mid-twenties into apartment. We all had disposable cash (we all should have been saving, of course,) and myself and another roommate decided to study for our amateur radio licenses. That year, the FCC dropped its Morse code requirement from its Technician class license and an older ham who knew me (and my interest in getting a license) hounded me until I decided to go to a class that his club was sponsoring on Wednesday nights. I ended up joining the Fox River Radio League and began wiring the apartment with coaxial cable and began making my own antennas from scratch. I purchased an Icom IC-24at handheld rig, which I still have.

Add to this mix, my roommate George, a true “first adopter” of early technology, had purchased an Amiga 500 computer, a 500 MB hard drive and a 19.2 kbs modem. The hard drive and modem set him back almost $1,100 (used) whereas the computer and monitor was a mere $500.

George got hooked instantly hooked on calling dial-up BBSs (bulletin board systems) all over the place and downloading software “cracked” by hackers to remove the copy protection. Amigas were common in Europe, but the latest software (games) was hard to come by in the United States. At one point, we had a $600 telephone bill because George had found a productive BBS located in Belgium. My other roommates and I staged an ‘intervention.’

One of the BBSs George called frequently hooked into the burgeoning Internet and later purchased the Internet Service Provider that I used through the 1990s (ExecPC.)

I went a more legal route to get my techno-kicks. We all started sending e-mail to people we didn’t know (just because we could) and met with others on the various board’s chat functions – a precursor to Instant Messaging.

George and I had both earned our amateur radio licenses. He was N9LXJ and I was licensed N9LXI. We both purchased FM handhelds that allowed us access to the various repeaters in the Chicago area. Repeaters intercepted your low-power transmission and boosted it over the vast region of northeastern Illinois. We could talk to fellow hams throughout the Chicago area, Wisconsin and Indiana – even farther when the atmospheric conditions were right. Hardly anyone had cell phones then, but we could make free telephone calls from anywhere through the repeaters’ autopatch functions. In fact, hams at Motorola were experimenting with the ham radio repeaters of the area to work out switching issues with the cellular networks they were creating.

I had purchased a used XT compatible laptop computer and printer for about $400 (a bargain then) and soon found a new movement afoot in ham radio.

Around that time, a group of hams in the Tucson, Arizona area (who had some knowledge of the Internet and TCP/IP) developed a standard based on TCP/IP called AX.25 that took modified Bell 1200 baud modems and used them to control a ham radio and encode digital text. They called it “Packet Radio.”

Well, this was the coolest thing ever. I bought a packet TNC (terminal node controller) and bridged my laptop to my handheld radio and began sending “wireless” e-mail literally all over the world — for free. With packet, you could chat with others in your immediate area, or connect to a BBS and send E-mail. The mail is then “bucket-brigaded” to the other BBSs in the network until the message lands in your recipients box… it could take days, but it was cool nonetheless.

My first exposure to the modern Internet came in 1992 at a FRRL meeting where a teacher at the Illinois Math and Science Academy gave a presentation by chatting in real time to someone in Australia over packet radio through an Internet gateway at the academy.

It’s hard to imagine now how impressive it was to see someone connect with the Internet over the radio and carry on a text chat with someone in Australia. In 1992, phones were connected to the wall. No one you knew had cell phones. Long-distance calls cost an arm and a leg. Computer BBSs – even Prodigy and Compuserve – were self-contained. The World Wide Web was a small-scale experiment.

In each of these instances, the common theme has been that each of these developments shrunk the physical distance of the world we lived in. The geeky fun we had was really derived from the ability to communicate easily with others of a similar mindset. Isn’t that the heart of social networking today?

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Kickstarting the Online Class…

Great job, everyone, getting your ‘blog set up and your Twitter accounts as well. As we get up to speed with the short semester, I posted the first podcast to Blackboard. Please download it and listen to it however you most prefer. This doubles as a mini-lecture and it designed to go along with this week’s reading material.

Remember to write a response to this week’s reading material to your ‘blog and then Tweet your response’s existence before Monday. If you having trouble getting started, think about the reading material and what parallels there may be with the material from the podcast. If you have subscribed to everyone else’s ‘blogs they will be informed when you post a reply to their posts.

I’d love to see how you respond to Kara’s post about the 2014 Beloit College Mindset list. I have my own reaction that I will ‘blog about over the weekend.

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It really is deja vu all over again….

I came across this blog post from 10 years ago. Little did I think that when I wrote it, I would be teaching in the classroom adjacent the room that housed the very thing I was writing about. Indeed the Plato IV terminals were in a small room that is now part of the painting studio. The room partitions are gone, as are the dedicated phone lines that linked the terminals to Urbana. Here’s a little blast from the past:

Sunday, February 18, 2001 10:32:14 PM

About the time my friends and I earned our driver’s licenses, we discovered a wonderful thing. Housed in an afterthought of a room in a “temporary” building at Sangamon State University (now the University of Illinois-Springfield) were six giant computer terminals which were part of the PLATO IV system. (Programmed Logic Automated Teaching Operations)

As slightly nerdy, would-be computer geeks, (computers, such as they were, were out of reach for all but the most well-to-do of individuals then,) playing educational games on the immense, plasma touch-screen terminal, which literally clacked and whirred (a relay simulated a ticking clock for its chronograph function!) was enough to get us out of be early on a Saturday morning.

An experimental computer educational computer system built by the University of Illinois supercomputing center and hooked to the ARPANET, the progenitor of the Internet through a sort of virtual private network, PLATO IV was required to be made available to the public for about six hours every Saturday morning. Since no one knew about it except us, we hogged every available minute.

In his book, Mediamorphosis, Roger Fidler makes the point in chapter six that, regarding the Viewtron and Prestel systems of the early 1980s, that it was not the multiple layers of information to be retrieved, but the interactivity and messaging functions that the people who used those early systems really liked.

The same could be said for PLATO. Even though it was created to carry instructional games such as “Projectile Mountain” and “Lunar Lander” (which taught trigonometric and analytical geometric formulas by having you try to shoot a mortar shell from the peak of one mountain and strike the top of the other – and landing on the moon) what really drew people to PLATO was its interactive, multi-user game such as Empire! and Airfight. Empire was a Star Trek – style game where you flew around the universe and captured planets in order to attack the ships and planets held by other players in the game. Airfight was a flight simulator (with gattling guns and missiles!) You could fly a Sopwith Camel against an F-15 and shoot it down because the game gave you a tighter turning radius and the same missiles your opponent carried. Airfight was later developed into Microsoft Flight Simulator.

We weren’t totally hopeless. My friends and I were actually on to something. The games themselves were fun, but the real joy came in taunting other human beings via the programs’ chat functions. It was the interactivity. You were pitting your wits against a real, live person (perhaps in Europe!) but having a friendly conversation with them as you did your best to shoot them down.

Keep in mind this was about 1980. The most advanced “computer game” was “B-17 Bomber” for the Intellivision system. “Pong” was still considered cool.

I have fond memories of carrying on chats with U.S. Air Force officers who were stationed on the early-warning line in Nome, Alaska who, likewise stationed their butts 24 / 7 in front of their PLATO terminals and endlessly played Airfight through the long winter months without sunlight.

Your tax dollars at work.

The terminals were there (of all places) for continuing education courses that they apparently never took. Hey, at least we weren’t nuked!

Vannevar Bush's "Memex"There was a guy (probably several guys) who went by the moniker “Midnight Shadow” who racked up more “kills” on Airfight than anyone. (The system kept track of the kills assigned to your login name.) He told me that the only reason he kept playing the game was that he enjoyed talking to the continuous stream of people worldwide who logged on and off the system throughout the day to take their shot at Midnight Shadow. It alleviated the boredom of being in Nome, Alaska and reminded him of why he was there.

Fidler is right. Tell me it’s not about the interactivity.

UPDATE: Check blackboard for a PDF of this Atlantic Monthly article. The machine described within would look like the desk-shaped device above right.

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Cavanagh Dot Info Updated

Coat Of ArmsFinally getting the hang of the new template that replaced my 12-year-old one, I have updated

At the top, readers will notice the blogroll from each of the COM 545 Weblogs. Updates will follow.

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Second Thoughts on The Flameout

It was the spring of 2000 and irrational exuberance was in the air. Between the summer of 2000 and summer of 2001, the “new economy” of the Dot-Com era deflated, causing the venture-capital money which drove it, to dry up.

This week’s readings give the impression that venture capitol money fled the economy and hasn’t returned. That’s not the case. It is just that people who have vast sums to invest are investing in things that can show they have the chance to become profitable. That wasn’t (at all) the case during the dot-com heyday.

It must be pointed out that many of the VCs that invested in such grand ideas as Kozmo and Webvan were often using “paper wealth” from their cashing out on previous dot-coms before they, themselves, flamed out.

How far did things fall? Well, as an exercise, myself and three others split $1 million in (imaginary) investments in Nasdaq stocks as a fun exercise to see which one of us got “wealthiest” from the rise in the value of their portfolios.

My $250,000 “investment” on Tuesday afternoon was worth $20,908.63. That’s 8.35 percent of its original value. It doesn’t help that 3 of the stocks I picked no longer exist. The bright spot is that 6 of the stocks still do.

By the way, the volume of the Nasdaq on Tuesday was 2,755.39 while the Dow Jones IA was over 12,100.

I guess real economy still trumps the virtual one.

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