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April 19, 2015

When Mom beat Ma

I have a friend who wonders when “mom” turned into a plain old noun instead of a name, as in “My mom drinks coffee” vs. “Hey, Mom, would you like some coffee?” I can’t remember a time in my life when “mom” wasn’t a noun, so I checked at the Google Ngram Viewer which lets you chart the use of words throughout Google Book’s entire corpus of tens of millions of books. Here’s the result:

So, it looks like the two track each other pretty well, at least in books.

The Ngram does show a serious uptick for both in the early 1940s. But before you go hypothesizing that during WWII we started writing about our mothers more, here’s the Ngram for Mother and mother:

The Mom/mom upturn was really just a blip when compared to the mammoth of Mother/mother. So, I dunno. (But we can conclude that Mother is the mother of all moms.)

I tried the same search, but for “Ma” and “ma”:

Ma and ma again seem to be in sync. But for some reason in 1986, for the first time Mom beat Ma.

Fascinating? You tell me.

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April 16, 2015

Hillary in the uncanny valley

As a strategist for nine successful presidential campaigns and a selectman’s race in an Indianapolis (not the Indianapolis), I’d like to offer Hillary Clinton some free advice:

Get yourself out of the uncanny valley. When you try to be sincere and folksy you get just close enough that it’s a bit uncomfortable to watch.

Say what you will about Clinton’s campaign announcement, you have to admit that the tiny vignettes were effective.

Did you doubt that they were real people? Nope. Were they charming? Yup. Would you like to see more of them, including giving the fish kid his own sitcom where he teaches life lessons to the gay engaged couple and to the woman who’s about to retire? I’m already setting my Tivo!

What was the one moment of ickiness? Clinton bringing the whole scene to a screeching halt with her announcement “I’m getting ready to do something too.” The delivery was poor and the idea itself clanged against the first minute and a half of the video: ordinary folks talk about what they’re doing, and Hillary Clinton equates that with running for president. “We’re not so different, you and I: we both do things.”

Unfortunately, these issues of personality and performance count far more than they should. So, if we want Hillary Clinton to be president (and I do), then she needs to not be “warm and approachable.” When she tries, it just doesn’t work for her.

Ms. Clinton, I have no doubt that you are a delightful person when out of the public eye. But after more than twenty years of experience, we ought to conclude that in the public eye you’re socially awkward. Fine! Lots of us are. (You know someone who’s not? Your husband. Try to avoid standing next to him.)

So, how about if you embrace that awkwardness? Let it work for you. Be a bit shy. Bumble visibly. Get angry at heartless questions, like ones that act as if you were somehow personally responsible for the murder of your friend, Ambassador Chris Stevens. When not giving a speech, stop giving the internalized version of that speech; talking points are for See ‘n’ Say toys.

But recognize that when you do speak from the heart in public, it’s still always going to sound stilted and a bit uncomfortable. Acknowledge that. Make a joke. If you can’t be comfortable with yourself, at least be comfortable with that lack of comfort. You’re super-competent and will be the best-prepared president in decades, so it’s ok for you to have a personality flaw.

Because that’s what you really have in common with the rest of us.

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April 14, 2015

[shorenstein] Managing digital disruption in the newsroom

David Skok [twitter:dskok] is giving a Shorenstein Center lunchtime talk on managing digital disruption in the newsroom. He was the digital advisor to the editor of the Boston Globe. Today he was announced as the new managing editor of digital at the Globe. [Congrats!]

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

As a Nieman fellow David audited a class at the Harvard Business School taught by Clay Christensen, of “creative destruction” fame. This gave him the sense that whether or not newspapers will survive, journalism will. Companies can be disrupted, but for journalism it means that for every legacy publisher that’s disrupted, there are new entrants that enter at the low end and move up market. E.g., Toyota started off at the low end and ended up making Lexuses. David wrote an article with Christensen [this one?] that said that you may start with aggregation and cute kittens, but as you move up market you need higher quality journalism that brings in higher-value advertising. “So I came out of the project doubly motivated as a journalist,” but also wanting to hold off the narrative that there is an inevitability to the demise of newspapers.


He helped started GlobalNews.ca and got recruited for the Globe. There he held to the RPP model: the Resources, Process, and Priorities you put in place to help frame an organizational culture. It’s important for legacy publishers to see that it isn’t just tech that’s bringing down newspapers; the culture and foundational structure of those organizations are also to blame.

Priorities:
If you take away the Internet, a traditional news organization is a print factory line. The Internet tasks were typically taken up by the equivalent groups with in the org. Ultimately, the publisher’s job is how to generate profit, so s/he picks the paths that lead most directly to short-term returns. But that means user experience gets shuffled down, as does the ability of the creators to do “frictionless journalism.” On the Internet, I can write the best lead but if you can’t read it on your phone in 0.1 seconds, it doesn’t exist. The human experience has to be the most important thing. The consumer is the most important person in this whole transaction. How are we making sure that person is pleased?


In the past 18 months David has done a restructuring of the Globe online. He’s been the general mgr of Boston.com. Every Monday he meets with all the group leads, including the sales team (which he does not manage for ethical journalism reasons). This lets them set priorities not at the publisher level where they are driven by profit, but by user and producer experience. The conceit is that if they produce good user and producer experiences, the journalism will be better, and that will ultimately drive more revenue in advertising and subscriptions.


The Globe had a free site (Boston.com) and a paywall site (bostonglobe.com). This was set up before his time. Boston.com relative to its size as a website business has a remarkable amount of revenue via advertising. BostonGlobe.com is a really healthy digital subscription business. It has more subscriptions in North America outside of the NYT and WSJ. These are separate businesses that had been smushed together. So David split them up.

Processes:

They’ve done a lot to change their newsroom processors. Engineers are now in the newsroom. They use agile processes. The newsroom is moving toward an 18-24 hour cycle as opposed to the print cycle.


We do three types of journalism on our sites:


1. Digital first — the “bloggy stuff.” How do we add something new to those conversations that provides the Globe’s unique perspective? We don’t want to be writing about things simply because everyone else is. We want to bring something new to it. We have three digital first writers.


2. The news of the day. We do a good job with this, as demonstrated during the Marathon bombing.


3. Enterprise stuff — long investigations, etc. Those stories get incredible engagement. “It’s heartening.” They’re experimenting with release schedules: how do you maximize the exposure of a piece?

Resources:
In terms of resources: We’re looking at our content management system (CMS). Ezra Klein went to Vox in part because of their CMS. You need a CMS that gives reporters what they need and want. We also need better realtime analytics.


Priorities, Processes + Resources = organizational culture.

Q&A
Q: You’re optimistic…?


A: We’re now entering the third generation of journalism on line. First: [missed it]. Second: SEO. Third: the social phase, the network effect. How are we engaging our readers so that they feel responsible to help us succeed? We’re not in the business of selling impressions [=page views, etc.] but experiences. E.g., we have a bracket competition (“Munch Madness“) for restaurant reviews. We tell advertisers that you’re getting not just views but experiences.


Q: [alex jones] And these revenues are enough to enable the Globe to continue…?


A: It would be foolish of me to say yes, but …


Q: [alex jones] How does the Globe attract an audience that’s excited but civil?


A: Part of it is thinking about new ways of doing journalism. E.g., for the Tsarnaev trial, we created cards that appear on every page that give you a synopsis of the day’s news and all the witnesses and evidence online. We made those cards available to any publisher who wanted them. They’re embeddable. We reached out to every publisher in New England that can’t cover it in the depth that the Globe can” and offered it to them for free. “We didn’t get as much uptake as we’d like,” perhaps because the competitive juices are still flowing.


Then there are the comments. When news orgs first put comments on their site, they thought about them as digital letters to the editor. Comments serve another purpose: they are a product and platform in and of themselves where your community can talk about your product. They’re not really tied to the article. Some comments “make me weep because they’re so beautiful.”


Q: As journalists are being asked to do much more, what do you think about the pay scale declining?


A: I can’t speak for the industry. The Globe pays competitively. We’re creating jobs now. And there are so many more outlets out there that didn’t exist five years ago. Journalists today aren’t just writers. They’re sw engineers, designers, etc.


I’m increasingly concerned about the lack of women engineers entering the field. Newspapers have as much responsibility as any other industry to address this issue.


Q: How to monetize aggregators?


A: If we were to try to go to every org that aggregates us, it’d be a fulltime job. We released a story online on a Feb. afternoon about Jeb Bush at Andover. [This one?] By Friday night, it was all over. I don’t view it as a threat. We have a meter. My job is to make sure that our reporting is good enough that you’ll use your credit card and sign up. I’m in awe in the number of people who sign up every day. We have churn issues as does everyone, but the meter business has been a success.


Q: [me] As you redo your CMS, have you thought about putting in an API? If so, would you consider opening it to the public?


A: When I’ve opened up API sets, there has been minimal takeup.


Q: What other newspapers are doing a good job addressing digital issues? And does the ownership structure matter?


A: The Washington Post, and they have a very similar ownership structure as the Globe.


Q: [alex] What’s Bezo’s effect on the WaPo?


A: Having the Post appear on every Kindle is something we’d all like for ourselves.


Q: Release schedule?


A: Our newsroom’s phenomenal editors are recognizing and believing that we are not a platform-specific business. We find only one in four of our print subscribers logged on to the web site with any frequency. We have two different audiences.We’ve had no evidence that releasing stories earlier on digital cannibalizes our print business. I love print. But when I get the Sunday edition, I feel guilty if I recycle it before I’ve read it all. So why not give people the opportunity to read it when they want? If it’s ready on a Wed., let them read it on Wed. Different platforms have different reader habits.

Q: What’s native to the print version?

A: Some of the enterprise reporting perhaps. But it’s more obvious in format issues. E.g., the print showed the 30 charges Tsarnaev was charged with. It had an emotional impact that digital did not.


Q: Is your print audience entirely over the age of 50?


A: No. It’s a little older than our overall numbers, but not that much.


Q: What are you doing to reduce the churn rate? What’s worked on getting print and digital folks to understand each other?


A: I’m a firm believer in data. We’re not pushing for digital change because we want to but because data backs up our claims. About frictionlessness: It’s so easy to buy goods. Uber. Even buying a necklace. We’re working with a backend database that is complex. We have to tie that into our digital product. The front end complexities on how users can pay come from the complexity of the back end.


Q: [nick sinai] I appreciate your comments about bringing designers, developers, UX into the newsroom. That’s what we’re trying to do in the govt. for digital services. How about data journalism.


A: Data journalism lets you tell stories you didn’t know where there. My one issue: We’ve reached a barrier: we’re reliant on what datasets are available.


Q: How many reporters work for print, Boston.com, and BostonGlobe.com


A: 250 journalists or so work for the Globe and they all work for all platforms.


Q: Are different devices attracting different stories? E.g., a long enterprise story may do better on particular devices. Where is contradiction, nuance, subtlety in this environment? How much is constrained by the device?


A: Yes, there are form-specific things. But there are also social-specific things. If you’re coming from Reddit, your behavior is different from your behavior coming from Facebook, etc. Each provides its own unique expectation of the reader. We’re trying to figure out how to be smarter in detecting where you’re coming from and what assets we should serve up to you. E.g., if you’re coming from Reddit and are going back to talk about the article, maybe you’re never going to subscribe, but could we provide a FB Like button, etc.?


Q: Analytics?


A: The most important metric for me is journalistic impact. That’s hard to measure. Sheer number? The three legislators who can change a law? More broadly: At the top of the funnel, it’s how to grow our audience: page views, shares, unique visitors, etc. As you get deeper into the funnel it’s about how much you engage with the site: bounce rate, path, page views per visit,time spent, etc. Third metric: return frequency. If you had a really good experience, did you come back: return visits, subscribers, etc.


[Really informative talk.]

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April 7, 2015

[shorenstein][liveblog] Phillip Martin on reporting poverty, and Boston’s racist image

Phillip Martin of WGBH is giving a Shorenstein Center lunch. He is a Boston-based investigative reporter who (says Alex Jones) “tries to explain the city to itself.”

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Phillip starts “at the intersection of memory, history and symbolism.” The first image that comes to his mind is the instersection where he came of age in Detroit. It’s now considered to be one of the most dangerous in the area, which masks the complexity of the place. Coverage of poor people oversimplifies matters all too often. His neighborhood was composed of “full-bodied individuals.” His mom and step-dad had third grad educations but were very smart and pushed the children into watching thew news every night. And to the library, where they found The Detroit Free Press.

Later in 1967 the Detroit Riots occurred, which is political neighbors called “The Detroit Uprising.” An image that always sticks in his mind is of a kid nicknamed Bobo. He was a bully, but Phillip remembers his parents’ anguish as Bobo was pushed up against a tree and was beaten by the National Guard and police for violating the curfew. “There’s no excuse for this,” said Phillip’s father, even though he didn’t much like Bobo either.

Phillip saw that the images in the news didn’t match the reality in the streets. One radio newsman referred to the people in the streets as “wild animals.” But Phillip didn’t see any “wild animals” at the church fish fry the week before. “They were people and they were sinners, and they were enjoying themselves.”

He was working on the docks of a newspaper. A labor reporter (Steve Orr [?]) liked to talk with him. He was reporting on the UAW and plants closing across Detroit. The coverage by this reporter did jibe with what Phillip saw happening and what his cousin Cyrus said about his experience working in an auto plant. Phillip started talking with this reporter about journalism.

At Wayne State he joined the student newspaper briefly. He “was not enamored with the structure” of journalistic reporting and push back against the edicts of the paper.

From Detroit, Boston seemed exotic. In 1974 he was hearing about: A Haitian man being pulled out of his van and beaten in South Boston. School buses being stoned when they drove through white neighborhoods. A woman being set on fire. That was a different vision of Boston than his next door neighbor Willy had painted. So Phillip decided he’d like to write about Boston.

In 1975 he came out here with other students. “It was much worse” than he imagined when it came to race relations. Boston was almost equated with Birmingham, Mississippi. There was a demonstration in Carson Beach to keep blacks and Latinos off the beach. This was in response to court ordered desegregation and busing. The more he learned, the deeper it got. The people protesting blacks and Latinos were in the same economic class as they people they were objecting to. Phillip wrote a few pieces that “did not land me a job in journalism.” But it did increase his curiosity bout Boston. “And it scared me. I didn’t know if I could live in a place like this.”

When he went back to Detroit he realized that the city had become much worse in the course of a single summer. So he went to San Francisco, but found it too cold [laughter]. Detroit’s economy was deteriorating further. So he tried Boston again.

In Boston he heard Danny Schechter (“The News Dissector”) on WBCN doing a report on the poor that didn’t rely on stick figures, that let people speak for themselves. Phillip approached him out of the blue and asked to be an intern.

Years later, after trying to broaden his worldview through self-education and the Fletcher School of Law Diplomacy, he started working for Oxfam America. Oxfam’s notion of self-development was very important to him. He was in charge of Oxfam’s “hunger banquets,” but he didn’t think he was doing enough to change journalism’s “framework of assumption” about poverty. He was interested in how race frames so many aspects of our society.

In 1992 he went to South Africa. Apartheid was still in place. He picked up an Afrikaner hitchhiker who said that Americans know nothing about South Africa. Phillip was thinking, “This is amazing! I’d never get this perspective if I were a black South African.” The perspective was complex. Ridding South Africa of apartheid will be difficult because you have individuals who fully believe that a black government would be terrorist and communist. He wrote about this for the Boston Globe, which led to more work for them.

In 1994 he was back in South Africa for the election and was in Johannesburg when a bomb went off on April 24. NPR asked him to come on broad as a commentator. In 1995 he wrote a commentary after the Oklahoma City bombing that compared the two bombings and about what the proliferation of guns means to him as a black man.

He was conflicted about journalism because he wasn’t sure that news media would let him explore beyond the standard framework. But then PRI’s The World came up and he was asked to help put it together. He started to cover the intersection of international relations and race.

He went from there to a Japan fellowship looking at disaffected minorities in Japan. The themes he’d cared about all his life were resonating internationally.

After a Niemann Fellowship, he was hired as NPR’s first race relations correspondent, looking at race in terms of ethnicity and hue and tone. “We all know that race is a false construct,” but hue and tone are nevertheless used worldwide to discriminate.

His interest drifted to Europe at the end of the Cold War. He was talking with a right-wing friend from Romania who, when the wall came down, said that the neo-Nazis are going to come out of the woodwork. He went to Germany on a Marshall fellowship in 2003, and saw some of that happening, as well counter movements…

Q&A

Q: [alex jones] You’ve come across the fundamental truth about American journalism that journalists don’t know poor people and thus don’t do much reporting on poverty. How do we break through that? The reporting on gays has been better because reporters do know gay people.

A: Let people speak for themselves. There have been some great series that do that. When experts interpret information, they often allow their expertise to be the proxy for how people are really feeling. That’s problematic. Journalism has to go deeper.

Q: Whenever I have friends visit me from other cities, they’re always struck by the degree of segregation in Boston — particularly on the T where there will be a car of white people, another of minorities… [Really? I’ve never seen this. I’m mainly on the Green and Red lines,] How does Boston look to you these days?

A: I’m a middle class guy. The city has changed in extraordinary, fundamental ways. I once went to the North End and when I came back, my windows were smashed. I went into South Boston in the 1980s and got into a scuffle on a train platform. I remember being afraid to be in Charlestown. Gentrification has made some of these neighborhoods palatable for people of color. They opened up but also closed: you can go to certain neighborhoods but are unable to live in those neighborhoods. True both for whites and for people of color.

He recently asked Julian Bondwhat he thinks of Boston. Bond said that he’s still afraid of the city. He’s afraid to go to a baseball game. Phillip told him that the city has changed. Bond admitted that this is simply how he perceives Boston. Boston just got a milllion dollar grant to change the perception of race in Boston. Many people across the country still think of Boston in terms of the 1970s pro-racism actions. Now Boston is demarcated by economic classes.

Q: Are media orgs doing enough to diversify their staffs?

A: NPR has made a major effort and some of those have seen fruit. NPR works on the use of words that carry racial meaning. Michele Norris [in the audience, which Phillip just discovers; Phillip has a totally delightful reaction] has done extraordinary work on race.

A: Michele Norris: The member stations are the feeder system for reporters. The staffs of the member stations are overwhelmingly white. The pipeline is not sufficiently diverse.

Q: My sister is a documentary film maker who made a film called “Daddy Don’t Go.” You come away understanding that the dads in it have made a lot of mistakes, but they love their children. The reception she’s getting is disturbing: everyone is telling her that it’s too dark, too sad. It really lets these guys speak for themselves.

A: Maybe she should join forces. E.g., Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow.” Both want to have their voices amplified.

A: Michele Norris: Also try to get it in front of African-American audiences.

A: Jackie Calmes: For the past 35 yrs I’ve seen a regression of the efforts in journalism to hire women and minorities, and it’s worse for minorities in my experience. But, in covering poverty the mistake that’s made too often is equating poverty with black people.

A: Phillip: I agree 100%. A filmmaker at the CBC asked me to work on a series about a black man traveling through poor white America. The idea is to show how structurally problematic poverty is in this country. It engenders a view that this is America. It’s a false picture. White people need to understand the problems in terms not only of race but also of income inequality. We need to bring the contradictions in our understanding to the fore.

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How to hear Bach’s St. John Passion

I find the weird sounds that opera singers make — singing — to be creepy, but even I find Bach’s St. John Passion moving. Of course, it helps not to be able to understand the words since it places the blame for the whole Messiah-killing nastiness on the shoulders of a Jewish mob and Jewish law.

There’s a wonderful episode of Christopher Lydon’s Radio Open Source that explores this question from scholarly and musical points of view, always sympathetically, and with transcendently beautiful passages from the work itself.

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April 6, 2015

Culture is unfair

At Jonathan Zittrain‘s awesome lecture upon the occasion of his ascending to the Bemis Chair at Harvard Law (although shouldn’t you really descend into a chair?), he made the point that through devices like Microsoft Kinect, our TVs are on the verge of knowing how many people are in the room watching. After all, your camera (= phone) already can identify the faces in a photo.

This will inevitably lead to the claim that if five people are watching a for-pay movie on a TV, we ought to be paying 5x what a single person does. After all, it’s delivering five times the value. What are you, a bunch of pirates?

There is some fairness to that claim. We’d pay for five tickets if we saw it in a theater.

But it also feels wrong. Very wrong. And not just because it costs us more.

For example, I’m told that if you buy a subscription to the NY Times it comes with one license for online access. So, if you’re having the old roll o’ stories thrown onto your porch every morning, your spouse is free to read it too, but you’re going to have to buy a separate online subscription if s/he wants to read it online. That doesn’t feel right.

The pay-per-use argument may be fair but it flies in the face of how we all know culture works. Culture only exists if we share what matters to us. There is no culture without this. That’s why it’s so important I can share a physical book with you, or can send you a copy of a magazine article that I think you’ll like. Culture is the sharing of creative works and the conversations we have about them.

That’s why the creators of the US Constitution put a time limit on copyright. Yes, it feels unfair if after fourteen years (the original length of copyright protection) someone publishes my book without my permission and doesn’t give me any of the profits. Sure. But fairness is not the only criterion.

Culture cannot flourish or perhaps even exist when everything has a fair price.

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April 2, 2015

[shorenstein][liveblog] Juliette Kayyem on communicating about security

Juliette Kayyem, a former Boston Globe columnist, a commentator, Homeland Security advisor to Gov. Deval Patrick, and a former candidate for governor of Massachusetts, is giving a Shorenstein Center talk about how to talk with the public about security issues.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Juliette oversaw the local Homeland Security response to the Marathon Bombing and had participated in the security planning. After the bombing, she became a CNN commentator on terrorism. She stresses her personal connection to the event: “It’s my home.” After she left the Obama administration, the Boston Globe asked her to be a columnist. She did not see herself as a professional writer. In her twice-weekly columns she tried to show how global events affect Boston locally. She took on topics she didn’t feel comfortable with, which she attributes to “woman insecurity.” [Do I need to mention that she is insanely qualified?]

In her column and on CNN her rules are: 1. Bring it home. 2. Don’t create strawmen. 3. Tell it to them as if you’re sitting with them at the kitchen table. She learned that last lesson from her security experience. Journalists and security experts have a common goal of engaging the public in ownership of something that matters to them and their children. “The security apparatus is to blame” for the failure to engage the public. “Stuff happens.” There’s no such thing as perfect security.

The security apparatus created with the media “a total lose-lose situation.” Two lessons about communications:

1. She got an email from her cousin on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. “Juliette, I am a little nervous now. Can you help?” Her daughter was heading to NYC, and had heard rumors about a planned attack. “Would you send your kids?” She wanted Juliette to just talk to her without jargon or defensiveness.

2. Juliette was director of the BP Oil Spill team, overseeing 70 people. There were two narratives, she says. First, the narrative we all heard. Second, we saved an ocean. That second narrative was not a foregone conclusion: “Much of our slowness at the start was due to our fear that the well would explode.” [Yikes!] The administration failed to “bring it home,” i.e., make it understandable and relatable.

“Never again!” about disasters is not possible. It’s delusional. E.g., we focused on never again letting 19 terrorists on planes, but we were hit by Katrina. Also, we tended to spend money on things — e.g., tanks — far more readily than on training, support, etc. Worse, the govt said “Never again!” but failed to involved the public. Worse still, it makes a narrative that says “Only 20 people died instead of 200″ very difficult to sell.

Here’s some of what she’s learned:

First, There are black swans — freakish events that cannot be predicted or stopped. But we should be able to learn lessons.

Second, you have to define success. During the BP Spill, the President should have said early on that oil will hit the shore so when some did, it didn’t look like failure. We should not define success or failure as binary.

Third, we need resilient, layered defenses and redundancy. We as a nation thankfully are getting away from “Never again!” to “Stuff happens.” The question is how these layered defenses are being built. And not just for terrorism but for pandemics, climate change…

Fourth, public engagement is an operational requirement. E.g., Occupy Sandy did great work, but it was reported in a binary way as a failure of FEMA.

Fifth, we need to tell these stories as you would tell your best friend at the kitchen table. There’s no such thing as no risk. Stuff happens. There are things we can do prepare ourselves at home.

Q & A

Q: [alex jones] Are you speaking for yourself or are you reporting on the lessons learned by the security establishment?

A: The apparatus is headed in this direction. The response agencies are better than the intelligence apparatus in this regard. It matters to have a separate director of resiliency. We can’t stop everything. Politically it’s incredibly hard. Obama has tried talking about resiliency. It goes better with governors and mayors. We’re starting to see political leadership saying that there’s a limit to what they can do for us. The public needs not to be asses, e.g., surfing during Sandy, so the public safety apparatus can be used to help people who really need it. The agencies need to acknowledge their own limits and errors. “Are you safe? Now, of course not? What world do you live in? We can make you a little safer, but …”

Q: [alex] If there’s a series of bombings at malls, what will happen?

A: We can’t prevent everything. We’re in a world of whack-a-mole. Part of the grip you saw during the manhunt in Boston was laid out in a series of prior decisions? Why did people in Boston feel “We got this”? That’s because of decisions that were made, planned out. The police immediately moved people off the street and began the process of family unification, which is really important. Also, the public health apparatus kicked in. Six hundred emergency patients and not one of them died. [I.e., if you made it to emergency care, you didn’t die.] You have to prepare for the disasters that will happen.

Q: [alex] At the Marathon the emergency apparatus was there already. But longer term, what would a mall bombing do to the economy?

A: It comes down to how political leadership communicates. And it’s important to prepare people so they’re not surprised.

Q: Where do you see some of the vulnerabilities? Are there plans underway?

A: The Boston Globe today has a story that the failure of the T during the snowstorms was not inevitable. We have an infinite number of vulnerabilities because we have infinite soft targets. We have them because we chose to make them soft, which is a totally reasonable choice. E.g., no security gates in the MBTA. Terrorism is a threat, but in my lifetime climate change will change the way we live in ways we’re not addressing. It’s about zoning, planning, getting people to live in particular ways. I’ve advocated changing how we compensate those who are harmed by disasters. They used to be rare and random. Not any more. We keep bailing out people who build on shorelines and are flooded out. We shouldn’t pay for the same behavior but should pay for altered behavior, e.g., building a sea wall.

Q: ?

A: Security apparatuses are inherently conservative. We can’t have systems that have single points of failure. Also, there’s something to closure to families that have suffered in disasters. Also, why can’t black boxes beam their info to someone on the ground.

Q: [nick sinai] People in OSTP in the White House worked on disaster relief, etc. From your point of view, what was working and what wasn’t?

A: It’s important to engage people, not for feel-good reasons but to help relieve the burden on the official apparatus. FEMA has only 3,700 employees. It’s a coordination agency. The shared economy is very exciting. E.g., AirBnB is helpful about housing in an emergency. Could Uber move first responders to centers? Also, using social media to communicate info. FEMA is doing a good job with this.

Q: [alex] JournalistResource.org was helpful during the BP crisis.

Q: Does Boston have the capacity to hold the Olympics? There’s no security in the transportation system.

A: I’m the senior security advisor to the Boston Olympics committee. Security in a complex system is about risk reduction but also being welcome. You can’t have an unwelcoming Olympics. The Olympics are one of the last forums on the globe in which people come together and don’t fight. Four major pieces of security for Boston: 1. Intelligence. Feds will run that. 2. Response. If something bad happens, can we minimize the harm? 3. Cyber attacks. London suffered 27K cyber attacks during the 2 wks of the Olympics. 4. It sucks to come into this country if you’re not an American. Can we have a safe and secure immigration system? And we’ll increase the security for the transportation system without creating a police state. BTW, it’s looking good for Boston getting the nod, although a growing majority of Bostonians are against it. If the populace favors it, it’s ours to lose. (She favors a referendum.)

Q: How successful were those 27,000 cyber attacks in London? And what about our infrastructure?

A: Cyber defenses for the Olympics were strong. Our infrastructure is at risk. We’re going to have to make a major commitment to, e.g., putting our wires underground. But we seem unwilling to make the investment.

Q: How about the Massachusetts infrastructure?

A: It’s not in great shape. We have to prioritize. Everyone has an equal voice but not all bridges are equal.

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March 26, 2015

Searching for news media that support Schema.org

Let’s say you have the weird desire to see if a particular online news site is producing news articles that support the Schema.org standard. I just posted a tiny little site — even uglier than usual — that lets you search for a particular news media site. It will return the items on that site that have been classified by that site as newsArticles in the Schema.org standard.

Thanks to a suggestion from Dan Brickley, it’s using a custom search engine from Google. One of the parameters permitted by custom search engines is to only return items that are one of Schema.org’s types. (I’m sure I’m messing up the standards lingo.) All I’ve done is specify newsArticle as the type, and prepended “site:” to whatever search you’re doing, saving you five keystrokes. You’re welcome!

If you get back a bunch of articles, then presumably the site is supporting Schema.org. I think.

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March 25, 2015

[shorenstein] Farnaz Fassihi on Reporting from the Middle East

I’m at a Shorenstein lunchtime talk where Farnaz Fassihi is giving a talk titled “Reporting from the Middle East.” Farnaz writes for the Wall Street Journal. Among other achievements (and there are a lot), she is the author of an email in 2004 that was at the time a shockingly frank and dire assessment of how things were going in Iraq.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

She was a reporter for the Newark Star-Ledger on 9/11. She insisted that her editor assign her to the Afghan war. “I always wanted to cover wars. I don’t know why.” She thinks that she wanted to make sense of events in her own life, including the revolution in Iran when she was 8. She was sent to Afghanistan, covered the second Intifada, the Iraq invasion, became WSJ’s Beirut bureau chief, covered Arab Spring, etc. She has only recently returned to the US.

“How we approach reporting has significantly changed” since she first went to Afghanistan she says. In part this is because journalists are more at risk than ever. Before 9/11, it would have been fine for her to pack a backpack and a satellite phone, and head off into Afghanistan. Now journalists have security guards, and there are zones into which journalists simply don’t go. “That’s taken some of the serendipity” out of the coverage and has made it harder to cover what’s happening on the ground. You have to rely on sources “and most of them have an agenda.” Also, now it’s visual first and mobile first, “putting even more pressure on journalists to turn things around quickly.” As a result, reporting is less original than before: when all the journalists are covering Syria from Beirut, they’re using the same Youtube feeds, tweets, etc. It makes it harder to make readers care by “putting a human face” on the tragedies and horrors. As a result, readers in the US have grown tired of reading about these events.

On the other hand, “the invasion of Iraq has gotten the US to where it is today.” There’s thus even more of an obligation to have reporters on the ground. E.g., Al Qaeda didn’t have a presence in Iraq until the invasion. “We no longer have an isolated crisis in Syria but an entire region up in arms.” We need journalists in place because, e.g., Yemen is a very tribal society that is difficult to understand. “When I started out, even in Iraq, I’d get in a car with translator, go out and talk to people. Much of my coverage in the past 13 yrs has been to put a human face on war.” She’s written a book about this. “I have a very hard time now replicating that when it comes to Syria or Yemen because I’m not there. It can be extremely frustrating as a reporter. Not just for me but for all my colleagues.”

As the result of not being on the ground, journalists sometimes miss where things are heading. “We all missed the takeover of Mosul.” “I think that was because of our lack of access.”

“In terms of where the Middle East is going, I’m not optimistic at all.” “The same forces seem to be going in cycles.” “I don’t have an answer about the right way out of this, but I do feel there is some level of responsibility that the US has.”

Q&A

Q: [alex jones] If you were advising the US President about what to do, what would you suggest, if only to have the least worst path?

A: We missed the window when we could have had real influence on the Syrian rebels. We were so traumatized by Iraq that we didn’t want to be blamed for another Arab state’s disintegration. At this point I don’t know what we can do. America’s involvement is always a double-edged sword. If you don’t go in, you get blamed for letting the radicals win. If you do, you get blamed for radicalizing moderates.

Q: [alex] If we do nothing, what happens?

A: Countries in the Middle East will turn into what Afghanistan was before the US invasion: institutional breakdown of Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya. The conflict might spread. And that’s a region the US has a lot of interests in in: oil, Israel. And we’ll have to accept that the Islamic Republic will become a major power player. It already is one. If we do nothing, our influence will even further diminish.

Q: [alex] Why aren’t other Arab states as fearful of ISIS as we are?

A: They are.

Q: [alex] Why aren’t they fighting ISIS?

A: Many Saudi and Kuwaiti businessmen have funded ISIS. A lot of private donations. But local countries are fighting in different ways. Iran is fearful and leading the show. Saudi Arabia knows that now it has a very real rival.

Q: [alex] Why do the Saudis allow their citizens to support ISIS?

A: The Saudis are fearful of Shia dominance, and Iran gaining power, as well as of ISIS. After the US invasion we saw a Shia revival which was a real threat to Sunni dominance of the Middle East. These are rivalries that are thousands of years old.

Q: [alex] Why do these Shia and Sunni cultures have such incredible animosity? If you’re a Moslem do you feel a primary identity to Shia or Sunni instead of to Islam?

A: Sectarian identity is very important in the Middle East. And the Shia were oppressed for many many years. It’s a political and social organization as well as religious; it rebuilds the villages that Israel bombs when the government does not. “I don’t think we can necessarily crush” ISIS. With all of the effort in Iraq we were unable to keep Al Qaeda in check. The question is: what are we trying to accomplish? Will aerial bombardment turn it around? I don’t think so.

Q: [alex] So we’re just headed to genocide?

A: We’re already seeing that. 100,000 killed in Syria. Chemical weapons.

Q: [alex] So there’s nothing to be done.

Q: I was with the Yemen Times. How do you maintain your sanity as a reporter in a war zone. And how do your own balance your own agenda?

A: I don’t think we have an agenda. But we are human beings. It depends on the info we’re getting. Sometimes our sources are unbalanced, and that can reflect in the story. I write about Yemen with a Yemeni stringer, and we have a trust relationship. But if I’m talking with a source, I have to be very aware of what their agenda is, which can be hard when you’re on deadline.

A: 9/11 created a new generation of war correspondents. There are maybe 40 of us and we go from zone to zone. We’ve formed intense bonds. Those friendships are the most important thing. But if you spend that much time in the Middle East, you have scars. It’s difficult to continuously put yourself at risk and hear the stories of what people are going through.

Q: Covering ISIS reflects the problems of journalistic cutbacks. How do we cover these issues given the cutbacks and the dangers?

A: Security comes first. I discourage new journalists from going to rebel-controlled territory. But people do. If our paper is not sending staff, we don’t send freelancers. The idea is that no story is worth your life. We try to fill the gap by having more experienced regional reporters who understand the context. So you mainly have seasoned reporters writing the analytic pieces. But the unique and amazing reporting usually comes from freelancers who take those risks.

Q: Charlie Sennott‘s GroundTruth project tries to set up guidelines for coverage. Is it having an effect?

A: Too soon to tell. But no matter how much security you have, if you’re surrounded by militants who are determined to behead you, you can’t really protect yourself. When I went to Afghanistan I didn’t get any training. Now journalists are trained. The more training the better, but nothing can fully protect you.

Q: Talk about Iranian domestic politics?

A: Grand policies in Iran such as nuclear negotiations or its goals in Syria are determined by Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader. From everything we can gather, he’s given the green light for a deal. I think the reality of sanctions and falling oil prices is making it very difficult for the Iranian regime to sustain itself. They also know that there’s real dissent in the country. The regime is trying to hold off by the working class. Getting a nuclear deal is essential for that. It seems that for the first time Iran genuinely wants a deal. But just like in the US there are hardliners that don’t. As Pres. Obama said, it’s very odd that those 47 US Senators have such much in common with the Iranian hardliners.

Q: When you were 4 yrs old, I was a guest of the empress of Iran for two weeks. At this Meeting of 100 Leaders, no one anticipated that the change would come from the right. Now my source is Anthony Bourdain. His program on Iran is spectacular and says that the public is nowhere near the leaders.

A: You’d be very surprised if you went to Iran now. It’s become very urban — 70%. 60% of university students are women. Women are big part of the workforce. The Iranian Republic has pushed to modernize rural areas, with healthcare, and modern roles for women. Women are a force of change from within. Iran is also very connected: one of the top users of the Internet. The young generation is very eager to be in touch. It’s probably the most pro-American population in the Middle East. Iranians are not extremists by nature. Change will not occur there the way it’s occurred in Syria. They want change through moderate means.

Q: The bombing in Yemen and Tunisia?

A: Tunisia was the one example of where Arab Spring worked. I don’t want to rush to judgment and say Tunisia is a failed enterprise, but it does make one worry that ISIS is gaining momentum there. The conflicts are no longer localized.

Q: Couldn’t the US help bolster Tunisia. Are we?

A: I don’t know.

Q: It’s ironic that the French Defense Minister lost her job at the beginning of the revolution by suggesting France could help. Tunisia is tiny and unable to defend itself. But back to Iran: the Supreme Leader is apparently ill. Could Pres. Rouhani become the Supreme Leader?

A: He’s lacking the right credentials, although exceptions can be made. But the council that picks the next Leader just appointed a very conservative council head.

Q: Anything positive?

A: Some of the most gratifying moments have been encountering the resilience of human beings in war zones. Even in those circumstances, people still try to find a way to live a dignified life. E.g., a wedding in Baghdad was made enormously difficult because of security. Car bombs were going off but people were dancing. Or the women in Afghanistan. I interviewed a teacher who had been banned because women were not allowed in the workforce. She turned her basement into a classroom for neighborhood girls, staggering their hours so the Taliban wouldn’t notice the stream of children.

Q: In addition to all of the dangers there’s the incredible apparatus of the US military’s PR machine. What’s it like dealing with the US military?

A: If you embed you have to follow guidelines: your PR person stays with you, if you’re in an attack you can’t send photos of injured or dead soldiers, etc. If you violate the rules, you’re kicked off the embed. Because they take you on the embed and protect you, they expect you to write something positive. Sometimes you don’t. And then you and your organization are in the doghouse. They didn’t like what I wrote about the capturing Saddam Hussein and for three months the WSJ couldn’t get an embed.

Q: [me] A few times in my life I’ve seen an about-face in coverage of villified countries. Are we likely to see this with Iran?

A: I think we’re already seeing it. Since Ahmadinejad left, it’s been quite positive coverage.

Q: Why are there no gay people in Iran? (laughter)

A: [audience member] It’s a world leader in sex change operations.

A: I know many gay Iranians.

Q: What is Iran’s real attitude toward Israel?

A: Despite the rhetoric, I don’t think Iran has any plans to eradicate Israel. But they do support the Palestinian cause, and arm Hezbollah and Hamas. So I don’t think those tensions will go away. Netanyahu would like to derail the talks because then Israel loses its puppet enemy.

Q: If there’s no deal?

A: I think Iran will open up their centrifuges and continue with the program.

Q: A Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian has been jailed in Iran. Why? Also: The former head of Mossad said that Iranians are the most well-educated, brilliant people in the the world.

A: Journalists are arrested all the time in Iran. He mostly wrote features, not investigative reports that would anger the govt. But reports, especially Americans, are always at risk. Sometimes Iran wants a bargaining chip, or a prisoner exchange, or domestic politics. It’s very seldom because the person is a real threat.

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March 24, 2015

In praise of Starbucks’ #racetogether

There are a lot of things wrong with how Starbucks implemented its “Race Together” program for which it deserves the mockery it’s been getting. Whether it was intended to stimulate discussions with busy baristas (“So, you want that with nonfat milk and we shouldn’t fill it to the brim. Right? What’s it like being white? Did you say ‘Nicky’ or ‘Mickey’?”) or among customers who in my experience have never struck up a conversation with another customer that was not met by a cold stare or a faked incoming text, it was unlikely to achieve its intended result. (Schultz seems to indicate it was to be a barista-to-customer conversation; see 0:20 in the John Oliver clip linked to “mockery” above.) Likewise, the overwhelming male whiteness of the Starbuck’s leadership team was an embarrassment waiting to happen. The apparent use of only white hands holding cups in the marketing campaign was inconceivably stupid (and yet still better than this).

Yet there’s much that Starbucks deserves praise for more than just its recognition that racial issues permeate our American culture and yet are more often papered over than discussed frankly.

  • They trusted their on-the-line employees to speak for themselves, and inevitably for the corporation as well, rather than relying on a handful of tightly constrained and highly compensated mouthpieces.

  • They have held a series of open forums for their employees at corporate events, encouraging honest conversation.

  • They did not supply talking points for their employees to mouth. That’s pretty awesome. On the other hand, they seem also to have provided no preparation for their baristas, as if anyone can figure out how to open up a productive conversation about race in America. The made-up phrase “racetogether” really isn’t enough to get a conversation going and off to a good start. (Michelle Norris’ Race Card Project might have provided a better way of opening conversations.)

Starbucks got lots wrong. Too bad. But not only was it trying to do something right, it did so in some admirable ways. Starbucks deserves the sarcasm but not just sarcasm.

[Disclosure: No, Starbucks isn’t paying me to say any of this. Plus I hate their coffee. (The fact that I feel the need to put in this disclaimer is evidence of the systemic damage wrought by “native ads” and unscrupulous marketers.)]

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