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30 JANUARY, 2012

The Death of the Editor and the Rise of the Circulation Manager

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A 1923 critique of everything that’s wrong with media today.

Recently, The New York Times asked me to weigh in on SOPA. Partly under the pressure of an impossibly short notice, and partly because I was hesitant to reduce such a complex problem to the slim word limit, I didn’t go into what makes SOPA just one manifestation of a deeper, wider, much more worrisome issue, which is this: So long as we have a monetization model of information that prioritizes the wrong stakeholders — advertisers over readers — we will always cater to the business interests of the former, not the intellectual interests of the latter. SOPA exists because we have failed to create an information economy in which editorial integrity and reader experience are the only currencies of media merit. Instead, we have a value system based on advertising metrics, and the reason for this can be traced to our chronic tendency to fit old forms to new media — the funding model for media and journalism today is a near-exact replica of the funding model of early newspapers.

Last week, David Skok over at Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab unearthed a 1923 essay titled “Our Changing Journalism” (original text below) by Bruce Bliven, former managing editor of The New York Globe and eventual editor of The New Republic. In it, Bliven exquisitely encapsulates the brokenness of this media model, as reflected in the newspaper industry of the era, identifying eight deformities of journalism that map onto some of their contemporary equivalents — SEO-centric headlines a la Huffington Post, linkbait infographics, click-grubbing slideshows — with astounding accuracy. Among them:

…a steady tendency to condense newspaper articles into mere tabloid summaries. This is due to the great increase in the physical volume of advertising, and the desire to hold down the bulk of the paper.

This, of course, is a perfect summation of the strategy behind today’s content farms, as well as the increasingly prevalent and increasingly worrisome practice of over-aggregation. (Something I myself frequently grapple with as Brain Pickings articles are regurgitated by the Huffington Post and others of the same ilk.)

…a wider and wider use of syndicated material, so that newspapers all over the partially identical from day to day in their contents. This is true not only of telegraphic news, obtained from one of the three great news-gathering associations, but also of ‘feature’ articles, drawings, even editorials.

The homogenization of curiosity is something that keeps me up at night, as does the thickening of the filter bubble, from mainstream churnalism to smaller and niche publications’s propensity for regurgitating MetaFilter or Reddit headlines — our modern-day newswires.

…the great invested capital and earning power of a successful paper to-day. Because of this fact — the result of the increase in advertising — ownership has slipped out of the hands of the editor, whose type of mind is rarely compatible with large business dealings, and has passed to that of wealthy individuals or corporations. This means that, in the overwhelming majority of cases, the editorial attitude of the paper reflects the natural conservatism of these ‘capitalistic’ owners, or is of a wishy-washy type which takes no vigorous stance on any subject.

…and…

…[newspapers’] race for added sales is reflected editorially in the production of journals which more and more represent, not an editor’s notion of a good paper, but a circulation manager’s notion of a good seller.

This, precisely, is the fundamental folly of media today. (And is the reason why, for the past six years, I’ve been running Brain Pickings as a donation-funded, advertising-free, and thus unconcerned with “circulation” — or, in modern terms, pageviews — editorial project.)

Whether it’s Hollywood, as in the case of SOPA, or the pageview overlords, as in the case of content farms and over-aggregators, today’s “circulation managers” still dictate the editorial direction and vision for most of the information we consume. Until we, as an information culture in general and as media producers in particular, figure out a way to reinstate the editor as the visionary and the reader as the stakeholder, the Internet will remain a dismal landscape for intelligent, compelling media.

Excerpt from Bliven’s essay follows.

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27 JANUARY, 2012

Schematics: A Love Story in Geometric Diagrams

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The mathematical poetics of time, or what matrices reveal about the matters of the heart.

Somewhere between the psychology of love and the intricacies of romance lies a vast and unmapped territory of abstract and subjective existential paradoxes. That’s precisely what New-York-based British photographer Julian Hibbard sets out to map in Schematics: A Love Story — a truly unique, in the most uncontrived sense of the word, project exploring love, memory, and time through 43 schematic diagrams drawn from old books and paired with poetic text that gleans new meaning from the geometric forms. From them emerges a layered and paradoxical narrative that is at once very personal and very universal, a kind of forlorn optimism about what it means to be human and to follow the heart’s sometimes purposeful, sometimes erratic, usually unpredictable will in pursuing the deepest of human connections.

I learnt to tie my shoes

I learnt to ride my bike

I learnt to smoke

I learnt the vulnerability of fully exposing an idea

I learnt to tie my shoes

I learnt to adapt my behavior in the light of others' actions.

I learnt the difficulty of sustaining the hopes of youth.

I remember a French girl with an English name.

'Leave me now, return tonight,' she told me every morning, and I did.

I remember an English girl with an French name.

We were the circle that no one could break, or so I thought.

The book, whose own unusual, geometric, highly tactile physicality reflects its substance, begins with a beautiful T. S. Eliot quote:

We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

Yesterday I was there.

Today I am here.

The two are light years apart.

I dance with a friend,

holding her hand realize,

how disconnected I have become,

from the simple beauty of touch.

I return and sense,

that things are not the same as before,

but feel had I stayed,

everything would likely seem the same.

David LaRocca writes in the afterword-by-placement-introduction-by-purpose:

Schematics operates simultaneously on two distinctive registers: the deeply personal (a love story between the narrator and the objects of his affection, desire, and confusion) and the profoundly anonymous (a love story within matter — subject to gravity, magnetism, genetics, mechanics, electricity, and the space-time continuum.”

Your words touch me.

Your thoughts excite me.

I want to try all that.

Explore everything with you.

Alone.

All one.

If and but and maybe and whatever.

I hate those words.

Everything doesn't have to be perfect.

To idealize is also a form of suffering.

LaRocca concludes:

Schematics is a love story because love involves (tragically, incorrigibly, but also beautifully) a desire for something that continuously transforms. Love is painful because we want the object of love to change and to stay the same; love is a desire and a fiction that animates our greatest pleasures and our most profound sufferings. Love holds us to this life, keeps us faithful to it. Yet nothing can save us from our ultimate reentry into oblivion — the point at which no amount of consciousness or desire can preserve identity or the energies that we once called our own. Hibbard’s poetic concept-curating presents schematics that invite us to consider — alone and as ‘all one’ — the existential graphs that underwrite life, and take us out of it.”

Page images courtesy of Mark Batty Publisher

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27 JANUARY, 2012

An Animated History of Human Communication: 1965 Educational Film about the Telephone

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Barely a decade into the age of the social web, it’s already difficult to remember — or imagine — how the world operated before it. As difficult, perhaps, as it was for kids in the 1960s to imagine a world before the telephone.

We Learn About The Telephone is a 1965 educational film that traces the history of human communication, from the messenger runners of the Ancient world to Native Americans’ smoke signals to the invention of the telegraph and telephone, and explores the science and technology of how the phone actually works, from the anatomy of speech production to the physics of sound waves. Animated by the legendary John Hubley, the film is as much a treat of vintage animation as it is a priceless piece of cultural memorabilia from the golden age of media innovation.

Bonus: At around 10:56, you get a detailed tutorial on how to dial a rotary phone — for your collection of obsolete life skills — followed by some phone etiquette lessons. (“You should let the phone ring 8 to 10 times.”)

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