whose news? clean it up

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The last few days I’ve reached a new level of frustration with what is often called “news”. I pretty much only watch Al Jazeera English and a smattering of Swedish news these days. AJE is the only straight news sans fluff, sans glorifying ‘celebrities’ and that covers all of the world’s parts (not just western concerns). Swedish news – well – it’s local, so I kind of want to know about that stuff.

But online I follow loads of news, tech, music/entertainment, development, marketing/SEO/PR/comms blogs and sites… and I swear that the only thing that seems to appear across disciplines is the most asinine stuff that is not news and about which we should not care. I don’t even want to give it the time to write about it now except that it seems important in the sense that we are to blame for our own fake news dilemma. We begged for more bullshit, and we got it. So today when every media outlet put out ‘headline news’ about the “quiet” relationship forged by musician Grimes and tech ‘mogul’ Elon Musk, I started to get angry. I am silently screaming, “Who cares, who cares, who cares?!” It’s not news; no one should care… and it’s not quiet if it is the headline on every news, tech, music/entertainment and PR blog or site in existence.

For two days, I have seen too many articles about Donald Glover and his (Childish Gambino’s)  “This is America” single and video. Don’t get me wrong. I love Donald Glover. Yes, Glover is beyond talented; “This is America” is brutal and beautiful all at once. I’ve seen the backlash pieces (i.e. don’t make or expect Glover to be the anti-Kanye). But is this newsworthy? (Arguably this is more newsworthy than the aforementioned bit about celeb personal lives… or about royals having babies and getting hitched and BBC stopping EVERYTHING to report on such truly insignificant trifles; they would have done this anyway but it’s also a convenient way to ignore covering the shambolic state of Brexit.)

Why is this kind of frippery what we care about instead of real things? This is what our sweet tooth begs for, and the 24/7 news (infotainment) cycle, competition in channels and platforms, our inability and lack of desire to understand or grapple with complexity, the sad state of journalism today, too many other things distracting us – why not?

We gluttons of talent we don’t have, money we will never make, and elusive, ephemeral ‘fame’ prioritize these shallow displays over anything that actually matters. We think it’s normal to pay actors and athletes millions of dollars – we don’t even bat an eye at this insanity. We think events like the Met Gala last night, another thing that was plastered all over the headlines, are important. But I don’t even know what the hell the Met Gala is – and not one of these headlines told me. In fact, all they could highlight was what these ‘special people’ in attendance were wearing.

Meanwhile… I can’t even begin to recount what we ignore in order to find out what designer some personality du jour is wearing or breaking news on celebrity dating. Who has the attention span any more anyway?

When The Economist is Your Greatest Pleasure

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Nonetheless it is clear that pot is… a ‘performance-degrading drug’.

Unlike many, when I want to reward myself or give myself a treat, I don’t buy a bottle of wine or a new pair of shoes. I buy a subscription to The Economist.

I find myself falling a couple of weeks behind because I devour these weekly publications from cover to cover. I cannot even explain why I devour it this way. It’s not casual. It’s like an overdose, multiple weeks saved up to take in all at once. Does not matter if the current event news is outdated. Maybe it is the sometimes tongue-in-cheek delivery and play-on-word titles and subheadings in articles. Maybe it’s the topics. Sometimes it’s just the slightly annoying way the magazine prescribes “solutions” and offers up its opinions (I don’t always agree with its assessments but appreciate that such a thing is churned out weekly).

I could have taken a digital-only subscription, but I like carrying the magazine copies around with me to read whenever I am stuck waiting or flying or what have you. And I am never disappointed. There’s always something – even in a slow news week.

A few weeks ago it was an entire special report on Turkey and its move toward being a “sultanate” under Erdogan. Then it was an entire briefing on legalization of cannabis. When David Bowie died, which filled me with unreasonable, irrational grief, the magazine dedicated not one but two pages to his obit and titled/subtitled articles throughout the entire magazine with his song titles and lyrics (and even did this a few times weeks after he had died). Small touches here and there, small things that give me a chuckle. It feels like a strange indulgence, but there are worse, more destructive pleasures to indulge.

Lunchtable TV Talk: Dicte – Not the finest hour of Danish TV

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The Danish TV show, Dicte, starring Iben Hjejle (most non-Danes will recognize her only as the girlfriend from the film High Fidelity), is not a bad show, but compared to other recent Danish television, it’s not exactly great either. While Dicte (the name of the titular character) follows the same kind of investigative bent as police procedurals, it is actually a show about a journalist returning to her hometown – Aarhus, and yes that is what Aarhus looks like – after a divorce. She investigates and finds herself in a lot of trouble at times, but she has a bristly relationship with the cops.

The very popular and well-lauded show, Borgen, crosses some of the same paths in that there are several investigative journalists and journalism at the core of the story. We don’t see many shows that treat journalism with much respect or importance – at least not that I can think of. Maybe The Wire (it figures that a former journalist was responsible for bringing that show to life). I like it when “entertainment” questions the role and place of journalism, the rights of journalists and the media in general. (One reason I will miss The Daily Show with Jon Stewart so much. He called the media out all the time.) Dicte does not do much of this – quite the opposite of something like The Newsroom, which took this kind of questioning too far into ridiculously preachy territory. A balance could be struck somewhere in the middle.

Dicte, then, is a passable show with compelling enough stories, decent acting and of course the thrill of listening to the weirdness that is spoken Danish.

The Limited Portfolio: “Continues to demand the immediate release”

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I watch way too much Al Jazeera English. I suppose this is because I like a constant stream of news. How else would I know about the coming clown shortage?? I don’t have a TV and AJE streams live 24/7 online. I can just let all the day’s bad news filter directly into my brain to create hybrid reality-fiction nightmares and wonder when I wake up what really happened and what my brain concocted from what I half-heard.

Watching as much as I do, I have been seeing the anchors repeat every half hour for the past 110 or so days that, “Al Jazeera continues to demand the immediate release…” of three of their journalists from Egyptian jail.

I understand their point and how seriously they are taking the matter, but after a while, the wording sounds like such an urgent plea for something that just isn’t going to happen. Can you really “demand” something that you are “continuing” to ask for after… ten, forty… one hundred days? And adding in “immediate” on top of that… it threatens to sound almost comical even though there is nothing funny about it. But that is how I dissect language. After a while, these words designed and put together to create a more powerful meaning can be taken apart and reflected back on themselves to show how naked they are. It is not that the speaker does not mean them every half hour of the day for almost a one-third of a year. And it is not that the speaker should not be repeating something – we can’t be allowed to forget the fates of these journalists who were just doing their jobs.

At last everything comes down to “continuing”.

Everything is on a continuum, and you have to continue to change, grow and evolve to become and be more. I suppose this is why I so seldom rest, why I keep taking on more and different work, studies, projects – I want to keep evolving. I have given this a lot of thought lately, surrounded as I have been by creative artist types. Those who took a corporate job to get some corporate work in their portfolios and managed to limit that experience to two or so years are doing great – they moved on when they got what they needed and moved forward. They continued – and expanded. Those who have continued on, doing the same designs day-in, day-out, have stagnated. And the longer that sameness goes on, the less chance there is to evolve. It is perfectly possible, as illustrated in repeating the same words verbatim day after day, to continue to do the exact same thing. Continuing can embody either path.

But the portfolio – figurative or literal – that continues in the same way forever – it cannot be expanded on.

 

Pile on Yahoo! I’ve got my shovel

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I am not sure where all my ire for Yahoo! came from. Sure, the whole backpedalling on allowing employees a work-from-home option pissed me off even though I don’t work there. I think technology companies moving backwards like this is always counterproductive, a bad idea and not a way to garner employee loyalty or happiness – especially if you are taking away something that employees already had and valued.

I won’t even start on the tech missteps – not even getting the basics rights, like major Yahoo! mail and other service outages and redesign debacles that basically just piss off loyal users.

What is the trend you’re sensing? Yes, Yahoo! keeps making big, grand changes that piss everyone off. They are not making anyone happy, they are investing time and money and yet always come off like – first and foremost – they don’t give a shit what their users want. They are stepping backwards or stepping on someone’s toes or taking things a step too far. Or two-stepping to long-dead trends.

Today I was researching Yahoo!’s move to hire respected journalist Katie Couric as the face of its “media empire”. Smart move in that Katie Couric is a smart, respected journalist. But is it a smart move in terms of what they can actually do or expect to gain? Is it a smart move in terms of what Yahoo!’s audience and users want? I am sure they have run their numbers (although I cannot imagine that they take into account user needs given all the disasters they’ve launched into the world in recent years), and I want to say first of all that going in, guns blazing on hiring Katie Couric is a move that, on its surface, looks like wanting everyone’s 60-something grandma to stand up and take note. It’s not going to impress or attract a younger demographic. It’s probably not going to attract the army of women Oprah Winfrey once commanded (Katie sure did not manage anything like that with her daytime tv talk show).

Women in the 35-65 group might notice just because Couric is a marginally powerful and highly visible woman (not unlike Marissa Mayer, Yahoo!’s beleaguered and not very likeable CEO – not that I think CEOs need to be likeable, and I don’t love bagging on a female CEO since there are so few of them – but, from my outlying half-observant distance, I just think Mayer is not particularly good at her job). I doubt that Couric’s presence is going to interest anyone – at least not internet users. Maybe Yahoo!’s target demographic is 65-year-old women because everything Yahoo! has done seems remarkably in line with what older audiences, just on the edge of not understanding the digital world but trying to, might be into.

Couric has also sort of failed at every major news anchor bid she’s taken on so far, so it seems counterintuitive to sink six million dollars a year on giving Couric an ill-defined, part-time gig that gets Yahoo! a few mentions in the mainstream and tech press. “Reading the headlines — Katie Couric, Saturday Night Live cast members, David Pogue all joined Mayer on stage — I wondered if it was 1999 again. Content as a core strategy rings of AOL in the early aughts. Let’s say it’s a good idea — are you really building a future consumer base on journalists from the most legacy of media? Probably not.”

Yahoo! might think that broadcast dollars will follow Couric to the digital realm and thus that’s the play. I have my doubts. “Faced with consistently declining ad prices, Yahoo needs a shot of exclusive, high-profile content to get viewers to stick around and advertisers — especially TV advertisers — to pay attention.” It’s thus not about the content the audience wants but more about ad pricing, which can be quite lucrative. From a content point of view (what viewers want), this seems like a really bad idea. From a revenue standpoint, it is more of a calculated risk – Mayer is probably betting that big-money advertisers and the types coming from broadcast media would be made of more traditional, possibly even conservative, stuff, and thus would put their money where Couric’s mouth is. Smart? Shrewd? Profitable? Remains to be seen.

The bottom line, as the cited Forbes article above puts it, is: “It’s one thing to acquire a demographic you want, à la the Tumblr acquisition, it’s another to find the developers who can figure out what that demographic wants next. If Mayer is going to win me back to Yahoo — and more importantly, those who never had the habit — it will be by figuring out what I want and need before I do.” (Emphasis mine.) It’s not sorcery. From my vantage point, it doesn’t look like Yahoo! knows or understands that – and it does not even appear to be the business Yahoo! is in.

Must I Paint You a Picture?

Handlingsfrihet – invented freedom and voice

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and let the pleasure we invent together

be one more sign of freedom

-Julio Cortázar – “A Love Letter

(“y que el placer que juntos inventamos
sea otro signo de la libertad.”)

When he told me I had complete “handlingsfrihet”, I was exhilarated. At least for that brief moment. With him, I knew it was just fantasy and would never come to pass. Total liberty and freedom to do whatever I wanted was possible only in our shared imagination in those very limited moments.

In reality, the only place I have complete control, artistic license, the freedom to choose and speak is in using my voice. I could hear my true voice somewhere inside but never really pushed it into the world with any degree of authenticity. As soon as I consciously decided to write something (other than a letter, a school paper), all kinds of artifice and “trying to make things sound good” clouded the basic premise of the writing and the core idea of what I wanted to express. Still, the voice was there. It was just muffled under layers of my own doubt.

Even when I was young, teachers and influential adults around me told me I would be a writer. Teachers in whose classes I was never a student even referred to me this way. I don’t know where the reputation came from nor how it spread. By the time I was a confused adolescent, I had convinced myself that all these adults were praising my writing only as a means to bolster my self-confidence, not because there was any truth to it. I felt cheated, mistrustful and misled. In my own dorky academic way, I rebelled – I could not live up to the expectations they had created (I thought) and did not want to be told what I was. I took language classes but steered clear of explicitly writing-focused courses (journalism, creative writing, etc.) and never looked back. My life ever since has still been all about writing – academic, corporate or what have you. But the practice of writing a short story every day, as I had done effortlessly when I was 13, was and is long gone.

These days I think a lot about writing and freedom and how, for me, they are intertwined. I can only escape from the unhealthy misery I feel right now if I embrace writing as a rope with which to climb out of the space I am increasingly feeling trapped in.

Handlingsfrihet will be mine, one way or another. (Baking and recipe posts coming soon.)