Blogs vs Newspapers: Both have already lost.

Like many writers, I?m occasionally concerned with the reach of my work. Since this column also lives online at the newspaper?s website (and is often sliced and diced by my own hand into other online enclaves as well), it naturally has a potential reach that transcends Sonoma County. Though I?ve invested much of myself in the ?Sonoma Wide Web,? I have to admit that the World Wide Web has a tad more allure. It also sounds so direly ?90s when written out ? or even about ? that I can?t wait to get to the next paragraph.

Blogs vs Newspapers

In real life, I?m more akin to a blogger. The online version of these columns is a strange genetic offshoot that co-exists with its leaner, meaner cousins in the blogosphere (who?ve been around nearly as long) but its identity is hinged upon the dead tree media that precipitates it. In essence, it?s the Neanderthal to the blogs? homo sapiens. They co-exist, even interbreed a bit, but eventually will kill off the other (that was the plot to ?Quest for Fire,? right?).

Blogs themselves have long been experiencing evolutionary disruption at the hands (and limited character counts) of other means of messaging the masses. If, as the Kodak cliche goes, a photo is worth a thousand words, consider that Instagram ? the social photo-sharing network ? boasts, as of October 2013, 16 billion images. Now, multiply that by a 1,000. I can?t do math that quickly, but I?m counting on the product to be something close to a googolplex. This surely has the number crunchers at the other Googleplex down in Mountain View a wee bit concerned (?plus one? this if you care ? I don?t. In fact, no one does, which is the crux of the search giant?s social media problem).

Sure, it?s the content, not its point of distribution, that should be most important. But if you?re an acolyte of media philosopher Marshall McLuhan (and anyone who stumbled through a college communications course is by default), you?d know that content often takes a backseat to the vessel through which it?s delivered. To clarify for Sonomans: Consider how your pinot tastes in your Riedel stemware versus a repurposed mustard jar.

Like my colleagues at the New York Times, I?ll defer to the wisdom of the crowd and let Wikipedia sum it up: ??The form of a medium embeds itself in the message, creating a symbiotic relationship by which the medium influences how the message is perceived.?

Fair enough ? so how might this change the meaning of these very words, should you be reading them in their native printed form or online. And by online, do we mean at,, Facebook, Twitter, etc., and if then, by which device? A smartphone, tablet, laptop, cranial implant, etc.?

So far as I can tell, the only way the medium influences the message if you?re reading a newspaper is that you?re probably wearing bifocals.

According to the Newspaper Association of America, if you?re holding this in a form that was formerly a vegetable, you?re probably 55 or older. If you?re reading this on a device that didn?t exist until seven years ago, you could be anybody, but you?ve also very likely turned your back on the 17th century technology that has defined much of my career.

I?m squarely in the latter camp. I haven?t touched a newspaper, other than to kill a fly, for nearly a decade. I?ve also ?cut the cable? and plan to neuro-map my brain so I can upload my consciousness into the cloud-based environs of the digital afterlife ? you know, when it?s time to put this borrowed meat back into the ecosystem.

And yet, no matter how I write and how far it goes ? today Sonoma, tomorrow off-world ? in the end, I?m only ever reaching one person at a time. That?s you. I suppose no matter how much time and distance lies between the moment of this writing and the moment of your reading ? it?s really never that far is it? And that?s the whole point.


Narrative Science Robots Want My Job

When I first learned about Chicago-based Narrative Science, the smallest, weakest part of my ego caught flame and soon an inferno of doubt engulfed my every thought. The firm’s artificial intelligence algorithms combine “business analytics” and “natural language communication” in a manner that makes raw data easily consumable. Basically, they’ve taught robots to write news stories. And it works.
In many ways, this is old news though it grows increasingly relevant day by day for those in the news trade – or at least those still in the trade.

As content becomes further commoditized it stands for reason that its creation would be taken over by technology, assembly-line style, like every other business since the industrial revolution. Instead of Dickensian wastrels working in 19th century factories, however, we’ve got the lovechild of Gutenberg and Babbage plus a few centuries of machine maturation doing the dirty work. And writing is dirty work, mind you. Beyond the industrial waste both produced and consumed in the form of alcohol distillates, there’s also the low pay, lower self-esteem and the lowest common denominator as a target readership which weighs down one’s lofty prose (though I don’t believe this is the case with you personally, dear reader – you’re as highbrow as a Vulcan with botox).

I had mistakenly thought creatives and knowledge workers were immune to the robot revolution because what we do requires that certain je ne sais quoi we purchased with our student loans. When it comes to data-driven business and sports stories, however, the robots kick ass with their deep data-mining and preprogrammed boilerplate that reads as well as any wire copy. This is probably why Reuters is a client – Reuters, which daily feeds national news sites and papers with hundreds of perfectly inverted pyramids, like a multitude refugee newsies, paper hats in hand.

The fact that Narrative Science named their technology “Quill” might be stinging to those writers for whom the icons and trappings of the lifestyle are still sacrosanct. To me, it’s the kind of branding genius that’s always lured me to the dark side. To wit, I don’t see Quill as a threat to my vocation as much as a tool, nay, a weapon, to defend myself from the growing hordes after my gig. I shall use technology like that developed by Narrative Science as a way to franchise myself, to multiply my output, to use the robots as my own private clone army. Though I don’t have the same depth of pocket as a national news organization, I do have thousands of published clips that, in aggregate, constitute an editorial profile of my voice, tropes and schemes. I have oodles of digital DNA the company could use to effectively replicate me as an algorithm. With a small investment in an online thesaurus, they might even be able to match my Brobdingnagian vocabulary.

I called Narrative Science to propose my plan – I mean, why wouldn’t they want to help me metastasize my byline into every crack and crevice of written media? – but I couldn’t find my way to human on their phone system. This got me thinking – do they even employ humans? I could email but how would I know I wasn’t receiving a robot’s reply? Had I just tripped into some rabbit hole where the machines have already won? Was seeking their services the beginning of my downfall, an invitation to replace me with some code-borne Stepford writer? I suppose we can only ask if in their words among the nations, the Promethean fire is burning.

All Saints Day: Simon Templar is The Saint

Because you have nothing better to do on All Saints Day, here’s a selection of the opening credits of The Saint, a Brit TV spy thriller starring a pre-Bond Roger Moore as a suave modern Robin Hood known as Simon Templar. He is described by his creator, author Leslie Charteris,?as a “buccaneer in the suits of Savile Row, amused, cool, debonair, with hell-for-leather blue eyes and a saintly smile…” Though you wouldn’t know that from his graphic design.

The Saint boasts quite a mass media pedigree. He first appeared in books penned by Charteris dating back to the late 20s, which spawned comics and radio plays, a stage play and sundry early film adaptations from the 30s onwards.

The Saint hit its zenith in a parade of TV versions that began in the early 60s and has been reincarnated at regular intervals to our present day (Moore himself is a producer on the latest, yet-to-be-released version). And lest we forget, ?Val Kilmer appeared as Templar in a 90s film version for some reason.

Though not as popular in the States as it is in the UK, The Saint?is easily one of the most successful media franchises ever created that has spent, like, zero on logo design. A stick figure with a halo. Somehow it works as Templar’s calling card. As Da Vinci said??Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.?

War of the Worlds Radio Broadcast: When Hearing is Believing

Orson Welles and War of the Worlds

Prior to watching the American Experience presentation of War of the Worlds, I assumed that John Lennon’s apology for his comments on the popularity of Jesus relative to the Beatles was the first mass media act of contrition. Wrong.

Watching the 23-year-old wunderkind Orson Welles apologize for causing mass panic with his infamous radio adaptation of the H.G. Wells Martian invasion tale 28 years earlier, in 1938, is a case study of how to put the “me” in mea culpa. One claimed to be bigger than Jesus, the other simply scared the b’Jesus out of a large portion of the East Coast. And then became a film god.

Produced by American Experience, the documentary mines the fallout of Welles’ infamous Mercury Theatre on Air production broadcast on CBS, using interviews with talking heads like Welles’ daughter and perennial “Orsonista” Peter Bogdonavich, among others. Likewise, the doc, which first airs at 9 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 29, on KQED (75 years to the day-ish of Welles hysteria-inducing adaptation), makes splendid use of letters from the listening audience who feared that New Jersey had been laid to waste and would’ve learned the disappointing truth had they waited for the next station ID.

Here’s the original broadcast:

Among Welles’ detractors was a gentlemen who wrote that Welles was a human “carbuncle.” Having no idea what that meant, I Googled it and now I can’t get the image out of my mind. Proceed with caution. NSFW would be an understatement. It’s more like NSFL: Not Safe for Lunch.

Predictably, Welles was both pilloried and celebrated for his virtuosic performance — both that of the fateful broadcast and later his wide-eyed, “Who me?” apology, which some say was the performance of a lifetime. In the footage, Welles’ broad, usually babyfaced cheeks are shadowed by stubble, his hands are folded in his lap and his brows knit with befuddlement and concern. Looking back over the course of his career and the characteristic commitment to his roles, from “Harry Lime” to his latter days as a pitchman for Paul Masson wines, it’s hard to imagine anything other than an actor, whose genius bordered on sociopathology, was caught on that newsreel.

The actors in the American Experience film are similarly invested in their roles — it’s a wonder director Cathleen O’Connell didn’t ditch the documentary altogether and opt for a docudrama instead.

Of course, this territory was trod before, in an ersatz manner, by Woody Allen’s Radio Days, in which a favorite aunt is ditched in mid-date when her beau’s fear of Martian invasion supersedes his chivalry.

In terms of lasting cultural significance, Welles’ War of the Worlds far outpaces that of the 1953 and 2005 film adaptations. Despite their special effects and multiplex idols, neither can compete with the “theater of the mind” when paired with pure naivete. It didn’t help that the flying saucers from the 50s version sounded precisely like a loose fan belt.

What looms in every media maker’s mind, however, is “Could it happen again?” Sadly, some dark part of me realizes that, the way we consume media, despite it’s contagions of memes and viral videos, the days of inducing mass panic with a mockumentary are long gone (But then there’s always “fake news”).

First off, there’s no longer a single medium that unifies the masses — could you imagine War of the Worlds unfurling on the fractal-like world of, say, Twitter. Second off, whatever the medium, anyone with an inkling of incredulity would go online and dispel their concerns within a couple clicks, not to mention the time-shifting means by which many now consume media. No one reads, watches or listens to anything at the same time anymore.

Welles’s schtick could only work in simpler times, When America was gullible, innocent and still able to believe in the media.

Naturally, Radio Lab created a tour de force meditation on Welles’ War of the Worlds radio broadcast, its fallout and follow ups: