4/3/2015

Let me start by saying that I never dis the coast I'm not on. I spent half my life in California, but never made fun of my native New York the way some folks do in LA and the Bay Area. Fuck the snow and the subways. In the immortal words of Ratso, "Hey, I'm walkin' here."

Now that I'm back, I refuse to indulge in schadenfreude when I hear about earthquakes or wildfires. I turned the other cheek when friends on the west coast sent snarky weather reports during our recent east coast Snowmageddon. I did not retaliate then (OK, maybe a short burst to keep their heads down), nor will I now sink to the level of jokes about the drought, which is serious business indeed.

Still, I can't help noticing that the recent concern over the possible death of tech journalism seems a bit overblown. Just my two cents, five years into my repatriation, but the Darwinian process at work here, or more accurately in Silicon Valley, leaves no room for handwringing.

The term "reality distortion field," originally used to describe the singular confidence of Steve Jobs in the face of any challenge, becomes especially onerous when discussing journalism. It's one thing to prosecute a campaign of selective optimism when designing products that are not only new but revolutionary. One has to think outside the box, if only to avoid measuring its walls. But when the coverage of such innovation transcends the arc of integrity, when distorted reality is peddled as the truth, then it's time to call foul.

In the early Nineties, two magazines, Upside and Red Herring, covered tech with a fresh approach, a mix of fact, opinion and insider gossip. Those of us who lived in the Valley got it, and we weren't too concerned with those on the other coast who didn't. At some point, the term "tech journalism" transcended the brand of fact-driven reporting pioneered by folks like Tim Bajarin.

At the end of that decade, The Industry Standard, a well-read weekly with punchy articles and dot-com hiring announcements that read like blurbs in the Hollywood trades, sailed off the cliff with the rest of the lemmings.

GigaOm, founded in 2006, appeared to be a return to old-school credibility, its tripartite revenue model of blog ads, research subscriptions, and conference tickets an apparent indication of smart brand management. Along with TechCrunch, and later Business Insider, GigaOm's reporting was first-rate, prescient when possible, always reliable. Over time, I became annoyed with the periodic headlines that touted research reports whose price, on click-through, seemed a bit high. After clicking into an ad for one of its conferences, I realized that the reports were cheap by comparison. Still, I thought it was just me.

Apparently not.

The end was quick and unexpected. GigaOm shut down on a Monday, stunning the ecosystem as founder Om Malik reported that "assets are now controlled by the company's lenders." The conjecture was immediate as pundits on both coasts weighed in, and the impassioned exit interview of Matthew Ingram, star GigaOm columnist, led the chorus of employee statements that no one had seen this coming.

Three weeks later, a piece on the blog BGR decried the growing publicity for video streaming app Meerkat. Tero Kuittinen, an equity analyst based in New York, stated flatly that the hype around Meerkat's fundraising ahead of Twitter's competitor app Periscope was "the creation of a handful of West Coast tech bloggers."

Predictably, the Valley returned fire. Frank Meehan wrote from Palo Alto that Kuittinen "could be as guilty of 'jumping the gun' as the journalists he accuses of hyping Meerkat in the first place." As a venture capitalist with skin in the game, Meehan's response nevertheless seemed more objective than Kuittinen, a failed game entrepeneur by his own admission.

The real story revolves around the definition of tech journalism.

Financial journalism thrives predominantly on the east coast, where the emphasis is on the markets, and a handful of major institutions. Secrecy is the by-product of an industry where big deals like mergers and acquisitions are only trumpeted after the fact. Certainly, the lack of disclosure during financial meltdowns suggests a code of silence taken too far, but generally speaking, the money raises itself, and the products, such as they are, don't need to be hyped.

These days, when people talk about tech journalism, they really mean west coast financial journalism. Yes, PCWorld does have a business section, but its focus is on technology and politics. When your main focus is on Sand Hill Road, and where its money flows, you're a financial reporter, my friend. To those who would point east, I concede that Jim Cramer of TheStreet.com is no shrinking violet, but he knows the boundaries of hype, and respects the regulators who police it. Back here, we can't afford to distort reality. Boring? Possibly. We're workin' here.

3/21/2015

Like most viewers of the NBC Nightly News, I've weathered the absence of Brian Williams with aplomb. Outside of deleting and reentering the series in my DVR's scheduled recordings, just to avoid looking at his picture in the channel descriptor, I've done nothing different. Naturally, they didn't replace Brian's picture with one of Lester Holt. No, that would be too much of a commitment, but I won't digress. Suffice it to say that NBC's reluctance to recognize what the market already knows, that Lester's straight-up style is a relief from Brian's gravitas, confirms a tone-deaf management in thrall to the past.  

Bringing Andrew Lack back would appear to be an attempt to retake the high ground, a return to the so-called glory days of the 90s, before Brian took Tom Brokaw's chair. Certainly, Brokaw, who evidently suspected his successor's casual approach to the facts, won't return in any capacity beyond guest commentator. He doesn't need the money, and I believe his private assertions include a eulogy for the news in general.

You'd think Lack would restore order by mandating a return to quality journalism. Perhaps his work at Sony Music Entertainment and the Bloomberg Media Group altered his commitment to serious reporting, though it's difficult to imagine the latter organization tolerating such an indulgence. Maybe Lack hasn't taken full control of the situation at Nightly News, another implausible scenario.

Whatever the reason, last night's astounding fall from grace signals a network in jeopardy, and I don't mean the game show.

Full disclosure: I'm a fan of Clay Shirky, which is the digital media equivalent of being a yellow-dog Democrat. That means I'd sooner watch a yellow dog read the news than accept where some forms of journalism, and I use the term loosely, are headed. Unlike some folks at Time Inc., I'm not a fan of Buzzfeed, but they're rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, and will do anything for a buck. We are in the first years of the digital news revolution, so it's bound to get messy.

The old school mindset won't go quietly. A few years ago, I attended a Bay Area event for Columbia alumni, where Nicholas Lemann, then dean of the journalism school, spoke about the current state of his profession. During Q&A, I asked about the importance of brand. His reply? "That's not a word we use in our building."

I hope the kids in his program today have a different opinion.

But you've got to draw the line somewhere, even in a brave new world. Last night, I settled back after a long day to watch the recorded Lester go through his paces. Story after story unfolded in a punchy sequence of clips and live delivery. Once again, I enjoyed the upbeat style. And then, all hell broke loose.

Cut to Lester sitting in front of two full-size images: a montage of photos showing a mother and child, and head shots of a dark-haired guy wearing a suit and hat (not Don Draper), and a shot of the well-fed tyke today. Superimposed over the montage, the phrase "Past Lives?" raised an immediate red flag.

Luckily, I was on my first cocktail. Lester's lead-in about Ryan, the boy who remembers details of a past life as a gangster, was oddly soothing, lulling me into complacency until they rolled the footage. I almost dropped my glass when I heard the creepy music. Suddenly, we were on Dateline NBC, Lester's other gig. The segment began with a summary of the "facts" before devolving into complete conjecture. No, that's too good a word, but my hangover precludes effective cursing.

Music under a news story? Call me old-school. I don't care because I know that I'm not. But the news is not a lap dance, and Lester should not be a lap dog for an NBC that mistakes streetwalking for brand management. Can you imagine Brokaw doing the piece?

Here's the link, until they take it down, no way to avoid the 15-second commercial: Expert Investigates 10-Year-Old 'Reincarnation' Claims.

No words.

2/25/2015

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.

- from "Dreams," by Langston Hughes

I lost a close friend yesterday. Dori Maynard, head of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, lost her battle with lung cancer and passed away at the age of 56. We had drinks last October, during one of her frequent visits to New York City, a place she could call home as much as Oakland. This was several months after our previous get-together, when her severe cough made me think that she had been running herself more ragged than usual. She seemed better in October, and said as much, as if to reassure me, but her resigned fatigue, the wan smile in place of the beaming mischievous expression I knew so well, spoke volumes that I chose not to engage.

She was more than a sister, but I'll start there, because we had that type of connection. Her father, Robert Maynard, was Barbadian-American, like my father. Both men pulled themselves up out of a Brooklyn that gave no quarter to anyone, let alone black intellectuals. Bob Maynard became the first African-American editor of a major daily newspaper, the Oakland Tribune. He was a Nieman Fellow, an honor later bestowed on his daughter as well.

Dori was ten years younger than me, and went to Middlebury College in a different time than my turbulent days at Columbia. Had we been contemporaries, we might have dated, or something...whatever our insouciant hormones would have permitted.

Beyond the sibling fantasy, our reality centered on words: articles in newspapers, audited for demographic coverage. Dori hired me as a consultant to the Institute in 2002, to convert a manual content audit process into a web application. I had just come off a great run in Silicon Valley: several years at Cisco during the late-Nineties heyday, followed by three glamorous startups in LA. But then, the dot-com bust took everyone down, and I had to spend my winnings to support my family. The part-time gig at the Maynard Institute was a lifesaver, and though I struggled to admit it, a welcome change from the lockstep Valley mentality that had proven strangely inequitable in difficult times.

After commuting from my home in San Carlos, a fairy-tale town with no sense of hardship, down to Beverly Hills, or back east to Manhattan, I took BART every day out to Oakland, coming up out of the 12th Street station and dodging the human traffic in front of the Tribune Building where the Institute had its offices. In those days, the street commerce was so fierce that a pair of Oakland's finest were continuous fixtures on the corner. I like to think that this was one of many lessons Dori taught me: "You might have been all that, but here you are now, so make the best of it."

She was always supportive, and firm. Whatever my accomplishment, she would be gracious with her remarks, not effusive, but appreciative. Over the years, we grew together, taking the Institute into the digital age, to the extent that her resources permitted. She was constantly raising money, as if shoveling coal in a locomotive cab. No foundation, or donor, was too distant. Frequent flier miles were her staple, and she enjoyed the travel that in the end must have been such a challenge.

Above all, Dori was humble, and tolerant, except when it came to the dignity of all ethnic groups. On the rare, inevitably drunken occasion when I might make a politically incorrect joke, she would recoil in horror, knowing my inherently liberal nature, but abhorring even superficial slights to others. And yet, she was one tough cookie in the trenches. When her good friend Chauncey Bailey was murdered on an Oakland street in 2007, Dori spearheaded the Chauncey Bailey Project, as if daring evil to show its head again: “We cannot stand for a reporter to be murdered while working on behalf of the public," she said. "Chauncey’s death is a threat to democracy...We will not be bullied.” This took courage, because the threat was real, local to Oaktown.

She and I used to have the greatest conversations, skewering everyone from George W. Bush to more challenging targets. We talked about books, politics, anything and everything that came to mind. She listened with a gimlet eye when I whined about this or that, the challenge of writing fiction and software at the same time, the lack of respect in the Valley, and she kept me on as a consultant past the time when she could afford to, sensing the importance of whatever she could pay me.

Generosity, along with championing journalistic diversity, will be Dori's legacy. Her work is too important to end with her passing. I aspire to the audacity of her efforts, and miss the pleasure of her company. RIP.