Wednesday, September 30, 2009
Clay Shirky gives an excellent talk over at the Nieman Journalism Lab where he lays out how monolithic organizations like the New York Times were able to fund accountability journalism through advertisers. The nut of it is this: advertisers don't really want to be a part of accountability journalism but there simply weren't enough outlets for them to reach the audience and so they had to buy into newspapers. By buying ads in one section they supported the whole organization. The same was true for readers. One might want the sports section, the other the crossword puzzle, another the arts section and so on, but each had to pay for the whole thing.
That monolithic package kept the newsroom open. Now with newer efficiencies and many more options, the erosion of the monolithic news organization is leaving the newsroom with fewer and fewer options for income. The result? The demise of accountability journalism on a medium scale, ie state and federal reporting. Crowd sourcing can handle the hyper-local and the few remaining news organizations can handle the global, but state and federal reporting is severely diminished. Corruption goes up and accountability drops.
In the second piece, Brent Cunningham in the Columbia Journalism Review calls for journalism to step up to its role as citizen advocate and to renounce its recent functions as a mouthpiece for those with power and influence. This is an excellent and lengthy read on what hasn't been done well and what journalism could offer as a fourth estate that monitors and challenges public discourse to keep it honest and fair.
And finally, David Campbell has a thorough and thought provoking series on his blog that examines the new media strategies that are available or are being considered for journalism as it transitions into the internet. There are many new options for multimedia storytelling and rethinking the arrangement of information away from linear to nodal and matrixed forms.
To oversimplify things a bit, Shirky demonstrates why there is no current sustainable economic model for accountability journalism, Cunningham lays out in detail what journalism could offer that is of direct value to citizen consumers, and Campbell gives a look at the tools and strategies that will be employed in the new journalism of tomorrow.
If Shirky is right and the last century of accountability journalism was coincidentally funded by advertising, then the increasing and more targeted options available to advertisers are only going to continue to move them away from it. Without advertising, the current economic options for reporting dwindle. Since the only revenue sources available online are advertising related, there is no sustainable economic model going forward. And that is the hole at the center of all three of these discussions.
Cunningham's piece in CJR offers a good picture of the kind of journalism that would provide real value to consumers in our democracy, value that is worth supporting financially in some way. That is something to aim for.
In the meantime, the market has gotten so used to the idea of accountability journalism being invisibly bundled with other ad funded media that it has little or no market presence. That has to change. For the market to recognize the value of a fourth estate, even as flawed as it has been, it may have to experience its absence.
What will emerge will likely be a new economy of some kind. To put it in venture capital parlance, the pain of the market will make a new solution somewhere down the road. But there is a significant gap between where we are today and the time in the future when consumers are brought to a position where the pain is tangibly real and paying money for accountability journalism in some fashion is better than enduring a world without it.
Addendum: It's worth noting that this is primarily an American narrative. Other countries such as the UK have decided that journalism is a public good that is worth state funding. In my market in the US, local budget cuts at NPR have led to significant cuts in programming which have been replaced by the BBC World News. So, a big thank you goes out to the citizens of the UK who pay through their taxes to keep the BBC functioning. And you can already see how the shift is taking place toward the split between the global and the hyper-local.
Tuesday, September 29, 2009
The rhetoric of American journalism describes an adversarial fourth estate, a redoubt for professional skeptics who scrutinize authority in the name of the public and help keep the public discourse honest. As long as our newspapers enjoyed quasi-monopolies and the evening newscasts were a national touchstone, the moth-eaten reality of this self-image was easily ignored. But the hard truth is that the press mostly amplifies the agendas of others—the prominent and the powerful—and tends to aggressively assume its adversarial role only when someone or something—a president, a CEO, an institution—is wounded and vulnerable. (Even some of the most important journalistic work of recent years—the exposures of warrant-less wiretaps and CIA ghost prisons—came after the Bush White House had begun its precipitous slide in the polls.)
[...] If ever there were a moment for our press to begin to change this dynamic, to embrace a mission more in keeping with the ideals of public service and an adversarial fourth estate, it is now. America is at a perilous juncture in its history, but one that is ripe with opportunity, too. The mythology of the nation—exceptional, above the taint of history—has been undercut by a terror attack, two botched wars, the reality of torture, a flooded city, a wounded economy, staggering inequality, a shameful health-care system . . . the list is long. It has been undercut, too, by the emerging realities of the twenty-first century: a multipolar world, transglobal problems that no amount of debt-funded escapism can keep at bay, a realization that America must lead, but cannot dictate. America has created systems—legal, political, educational—that have much to admire, but they are not sacrosanct. In short, many of the ideas that we take for granted are not the only good ideas, or necessarily the ones best suited for every set of circumstances. On many fronts, the circumstances are decidedly different from those that allowed this notion of American exceptionalism to persist, fundamentally unchallenged, for so long.
Take a Stand: CJR
[...]dated from some time between the rise of the penny press and the end of the Second World War, we had a very unusual circumstance — and I think especially in the United States — where we had commercial entities producing critical public goods. We had ad-supported newspapers producing accountability journalism.
Now, it’s unusual to have that degree of focus on essentially both missions — both making a profit and producing this kind of public value. But that was the historic circumstance, and it lasted for decades. But it was an accident. There was a set of forces that made that possible. And they weren’t deep truths — the commercial success of newspapers and their linking of that to accountability journalism wasn’t a deep truth about reality. Best Buy was not willing to support the Baghdad bureau because Best Buy cared about news from Baghdad. They just didn’t have any other good choices.
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
In that time I retouched across the spectrum of the magazine industry, from documentary/photojournalism and fine art all the way to fashion and beauty. On the one end working on "straight" photographs with tight restrictions on the retouching, and far on the other end of the spectrum doing major alterations of the female figure, the kind that in real life could only be achieved in Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory.
This latter kind of retouching I grew to call "bone saw work" for it required reshaping the models in ways that could only be achieved by reforming their skeletons. This included moving eye sockets, raising cheek bones, stretching limbs, lowering foreheads, raising foreheads, narrowing shoulders, shrinking ears, lengthening necks, straightening fingers and toes, reshaping shins and calves, narrowing pelvises and waistlines, shrinking and straightening noses, re-contouring brows and chins, squeezing ribcages, reducing knee caps, and straightening teeth. After that came the retouching to flesh and skin.
For a major project on that end of the retouching spectrum, I might receive an image of a gorgeous young woman that at first glance appeared near perfect. Then, with scrutiny, the flaws begin to emerge. These are not really flaws at all, but are the things that make her an actual living person like the rest of us; nostril hair, a dangling eyelash, a thin spot in her eyebrows, a slight asymetry in the arrangement of her eye sockets, a cleft in her chin, veins in her eyeballs, pores, chin hair, ear lobes, a slight shine from natural oils on her skin, deep clavical indentations, boney shoulders, ligaments in her neck, wrinkled knuckles, chapped lips, chewed fingernails, and so on. In the course of the retouching process the image is slowly, carefully, reshaped into something else entirely.
That original image of a remarkably beautiful young woman will look like a mangled mess once it is compared to the final retouched version. Through the process the image is transformed from a photograph of an actual person with a human body, a name, and a history, into an idealized picture of her that speaks to an unachievable perfection, out of the reach of any but the rarest of individuals.
Bone saw work became possible only in the past decade and is becoming more and more prolific throughout the industry. When I started working with Photoshop in 1992, much of the retouching was very surface level and happened pixel by pixel. With each iteration of the program since, powerful new tools have been introduced into the profession and the speed of their introduction has outstripped the industry's ability to stay in control. Reshaping a nose in 1992 was painstaking work that could take hours or even days. Now with liquification tools, if you don't like the shape of a nose, you can pick a brush and push it around. In a few seconds the whole character of a face can be altered. The implications of this are profound.
Any serious artist studying the human form must be keenly aware of how the internal structures of the body fill out and influence the figure. A simple and accurate drawing by Rembrandt, for example, depicts the surface features of the body--its skin, hair and so on--but the line accounts also for the location and accuracy of the internal structures as well. Bones, organs, muscle, and fat all combine, each performing their own function, to create the volume of the overall person. Part of what makes the work of the masters so incredible is that we recognize the authenticity of the overall volume of the figures they draw and paint.
Photography quickly allows us to skip this entire body of anatomical knowledge and go straight to mechanized accurate depictions of the body which can be captured in any state of rest or motion, dress or undress, exactly as it appears. No understanding of the body as a whole is required to adequately represent the human body. And generally speaking, the raw photographs start with anatomically accurate information, even if the models being photographed represent a tiny fraction of the body types that make up the human race.
In the retouching though, complete alterations of the figure are routinely practiced, creating an evolving abnormal vision of the body. This results in the ongoing erosion of our visual sense of what is natural. We understand photographs to be depictions of the real, and they are dependent on the real for their source, and yet we are bombarded with images that are retouched in ways that defy nature and establish unachievable visual norms for the human figure.
Much has been written about the negative effects of such retouching. It normalizes perfection and sets standards of comparison that no individual viewer can achieve. Only a tiny fraction of women wear a size two or zero, but by looking at the pages of some magazines, you'd think that was the norm. Presenting the exceptional as the norm puts the average viewer in a position of constant failure to compare to this artificial and synthetic vision of a person floating in front of us. a ghost of what might be possible if only we could find the formula for breaking our own bodies down or apart and reassembling them in this other vision of self. This plays perfectly into the overall business strategies at work in the fashion and beauty industries.
Professor Jeremy Kees at the Villanova School of Business ran a study demonstrating how the skewing of body norms increases the effectiveness of advertising. In his study women were presented with images of skinny models in a commercial setting and were then tested as to how they would respond. The women exposed to the images of overly thin models tested as feeling worse about themselves, but tested with more positive attitudes about the products being sold. Women exposed to normal sized models had no diminished sense of self, but tested with less favorable attitudes to the products being sold. See the logic at work here?
This constant beating down has real consequences for many viewers. One of the most remarkable examples of this can be seen in an image from a recent issue of Glamour Magazine that defeats this process. Many of you will have already seen this image, photographed by Walter Chin. On page 194 of the September issue, in a three inch by three inch photograph, 20 year-old model Lizzi Miller sits on an apple crate in a thong. She leans forward slightly, her arm covering her breasts, a confident and radiant smile on her face. There is a small roll on her belly and actual curves on her legs and arms. At size 12, Lizzi is the size of the average American woman.
That little belly roll is pure rebellion in the fashion and beauty industry, and it's everything as to why this image has had such an incredible effect. Images of Lizzi have been published before, and in each (that I have seen) she is doing what models do, tucking in, tightening, lifting up. Here she appears relaxed and unguarded, and is all the more beautiful for it. Relief and appreciation poured out from readers and can be read in the 1000+ responses posted on Glamour's website.
Equally significant to the reader response is the extreme rarity of a photograph like this in the context of a fashion magazine. To be clear, this image was intentionally created to have this impact on its viewers. As Glamour Editor in Chief Cindi Leiv says, "We'd commissioned it for a story on feeling comfortable in your skin, and wanted a model who looked like she was." The image isn't rare because it can't be done. It is rare because it is selling something outside of the consumer logic of the fashion and beauty industry.
The stereotypically thin model image serves a very pragmatic purpose in generating an overall climate of desire and consumption that serves the fashion industry at the personal expense of the audience. Lizzi Miller, as she appears on p. 194, defeats this basic exchange between the readers and the advertisers, and the reader responses are permeated with an atmosphere of relief from the pressures to conform and consume. It is also significant to note how far the difference is between talking about body norms and actually showing them.
Here is where it gets really interesting and exciting if you would like to see more of this kind of work. Judging from the comments on the Glamour site, thousands upon thousands of you do.
The magazine publishing industry is in a state of suspension. Trapped between increasing online competition and falling ad dollars due to the recession, many publications are scrambling to figure out what the future holds. If you like, you can read here how a lot of the industry has gotten itself into a serious financial pickle catering to advertisers at your expense. The short of it is this--more than ever, you, the reader, have the power.
You have the power to talk back to the magazines through social media. And you have the one thing that they absolutely must have to survive--your attention. That attention is a commodity that is traded by magazines with advertisers and converted into real dollars. If you withhold your attention, magazines fail. If you lavish it, they thrive.
Two things need to happen soon, and they need to be reader generated.
First, there needs to be a reader generated movement to request magazines to give an honest and full disclosure of their internal retouching policies. The audience has a right to know how the images are being manipulated. Every image receives some form of digital manipulation. Retouching disclosure statements would simply explain in broad terms what a magazine allows and doesn't allow in their image processing.
A reader would be able then to appreciate a magazine with a more clear understanding of what they are looking at. It would also be a commitment from the magazine to its readers to work within a set of self described limits. If even just a few major magazines made a point of communicating their limits to their readers, it would set a precedent in the industry with far reaching implications.
The second thing that needs to happen is going to sound crazy. There needs to be a reader generated campaign to raise subscription rates. Imagine what would happen if the subscribers of a magazine said that they would voluntarily pay more for the magazine if it would give them more quality content of the kind that they want. The publishers would fall off their chairs.
I realize that this seems counter-intuitive, but here is how it works. If you are buying subscriptions on the cheap, the only hope magazines have to make money is from advertisers by selling your attention as a commodity. After all, you aren't really paying for the magazine. But if you are willing to pay more, suddenly you, the reader are starting to pay for the content and the magazine has to work for you, not the advertisers. Remember Kees' study? If you aren't going to pay for those pages, advertisers will, and it will serve their purposes, not yours.
Disclosure: I have never worked for Glamour Magazine. I only identify them by name because they published such an exemplary photograph.