I’m sick of the Foxconn bullshit

In 1996, I was invited to visit a factory in the USA  which produced laptop computers for a colossal global technology brand.

The visit was conducted by a supervisor who walked us around the factory floor. At one point, within earshot of workers, he said words to this effect:

“These people don’t need any skills. In fact we want them to be just like robots. We just want them to do the same thing over and over all day. That’s why it is a minimum wage job. When we need new people we just hire them for as long as we need them. We can train them to do this in half an hour.”

That incident is a vivid memory 15 years later,  because of the extreme bluntness of the comments and the fact they were made within workers’ earshot.

Now let’s fast forward to late 2010 and the present, when it has become fashionable to write about – and then wring one’s hands about – working conditions at Chinese manufacturers in light of reports of suicides at Foxconn and followups like this one in Wired or this one in the SMH.

I have no problem with these stories premises, although the latter inhabits that grey zone between conventional journalism and techniques that see journalism almost but not quite admit it’s a secondary or tertiary source.

But what I am sick of is the moral relativism that comes when we analyse one company and ignore others, and consider one issue but ignore others.

My personal experience means I know that workers who assemble consumer electronics get a shit deal. Living in the USA on minimum wage as a casual and being told to your face by a supervisor that you have no valuable skills is not a good gig. Is it worse than life in the Foxconn campus? Is the forced overtime worse than the economic reality of being offered more hours as a casual knowing that you have no power to negotiate?

For me, there are parallels.

But where was the media when I was touring that factory? Why has it taken a “sexy” product to get this debate started? Why is  our collective sense of social justice aroused by one manufacturer and the company it serves?

Where’s the inquiry into the many, many other issues that accrete around our consumption of gadgets and the companies that make them? For what it is worth, the plant I observed is now owned by a Chinese concern. Why aren’t we reading about investigations of its practices?

I’m partly to blame. I could have  reported on what I saw. It was beyond my remit at the time but I could have found somewhere to run a story about the working conditions I observed.

I chose not to.

And lots of journalists and readers around the world are also choosing to ignore things that are probably at least as bad as what goes on a Foxconn.

We can all vicariously slough off  some guilt  by tut-tutting about these stories, but that won’t make a difference. And I suspect, as I also read reams of speculation about the next shiny gadgets, that we don’t really want to.

Are media consumers killing the media with love? And is Tony Abbott helping?

Since the Australian election I’ve been feeling a strange ennui.

The media cycle has slowed down and I don’t get novel or interesting information anywhere near as often as I’ve become accustomed to.

I wait for a new factoid to arrive, something to get my thought processes going or fire my emotions.

There’s nothing there.

That’s not to say the media – of which I am of course a part – is not trying.

All through the negotiations between the major parties and the independents, there was speculation galore. Every word seized on. Tiny factoids analysed.

Like many, I revelled in it. But I now see the same sort of writing, at a time when less is happening.

It’s made me realise that I go looking for news a lot, but that the content on offer is not very nourishing. I get a lot of “who” and “what” and “where” but very little high-value “why.” And it is the “why,” I have always believed, that is the reason to consume media because I want to be able to make sense of the world, not just know how it is turning.

Now as it happens, I think the Liberal Party’s communications plans are tailor-made for this environment where there’s a lot of interest in the “who what and where.”

I surmise those tactics as containing the following elements:

  1. Always attack;
  2. If you cannot reasonably attack, cast doubt on whatever the government is doing;
  3. Make any weakness a strength by linking issues on which you are weak to related issues on which your opponents are weak. Hence the NBN is not argued against on grounds of utility, but on potential to create wastage;
  4. Never admit mistakes, instead dispute the interpretation/and or motives of the source whose views have become dominant and made yours appear in error. Thus the Attorney General’s advice on pairing the Speaker can be dismissed as somehow errant.
  5. If all else fails, drape yourself in the flag and say you are defending Australian values and your opponents are dangerous pinko flakes.

This kind of communications style, I believe, lends itself to constant coverage because it always creates drama. You cannot attack without being colourful.

Media consumers who want more, more often, get what they want.

And the sheer volume of it means the meme of the day or the week floats to the top pretty fast.

I’m not sure if anyone’s understanding of issues really gets advanced all that far, or if debate improves as a result. Others have talked about how the blogosphere can become an echo chamber for one’s own prejudices, so there’s no need for me to go there again.

Slow News

Myself? I’m trying to wean myself off the expectation there’s always novelty springing up, and that I could or should seek it out.

I’m trying to reduce my media consumption, to seek out byways of perspective and analysis instead of always wading into the river fact.

I don’t want all this news any more.

Ten reasons this journalist is not banking on anyPad to save my career

I wrote a few weeks ago about my newspaper holiday.

I haven’t been enjoying it. The Australian feels like an endless stream of admonishments from a schoolmistress. I’m always reading that something is badly handled or could be the harbinger of bad times, or that vested interests are somehow being unreasonable in pursuing their vested interests. And I am more offended by a headline attributing personal responsibility for the arrival of refugee boats to the Prime Minister than I am by the illogical, biased and ridiculously-swayed-by-movies opinions of Miranda Devine.

The thing that really grates is News Ltd’s deification of itself and its values. Of late that has meant endless gushing coverage about the iPad, along with generous hints about the publisher’s commitment to the device.

For the record I am yet to behold the device, although I do not doubt reports that it is lovely to use. Apple products tend to be that way. Apple products also tend to sell in the multi-millions, which means there’ll be an audience for content on the iPad. Everyone expects there’ll be competitors, so there’ll be a decent market for content in this form factor.

I cannot see it “saving” journalism – not for years and years, anyway.

Here’s why.

Firstly, the initial audience will be small. You don’t save anything with early adopters. You make something new, so I expect whatever media these devices spawn will not flourish in the ways people now hope or expect. The street, as William Gibson put it, finds its own uses for things.

Secondly, the price is high. I know – d’uh! – it will come down, but exactly why I need to spend $500 on a device so that I can then subscribe to a newspaper is beyond me. My newspaper sub costs $29 a month and I’m cool with the blend of broadsheet accessibility and the lesser iPhone experience when I’m on the move. When News Ltd is willing to give me a tablet/slate – like it happily doles out set-top boxes – I may become more interested.

Third, the idea that dead tree distribution is broken is wrong. It actually works quite well – as Alan Kohler observed, it take a well-oiled machine to get my newspaper onto my front step every morning. Its non-trivial to arrange that distribution system, and if you want proof is there still a milko or bread delivery person in your neighbourhood? More importantly, the business of spreading pigment on sheaves of cellulose, then delivering it to retailer and/or consumers is something publishers invented, so it formed in ways that suit publishers and was even quite vertically integrated until relatively recently. Sure, publishers eventually outsourced lots of the process, but they had invented it to start with and innovation came in specialist areas like logistics.

The iTunes distribution system was not designed by a publisher. It was designed by Apple to make money for Apple. As Apple constantly enforces conditions that crimp its rivals’ activities to preserve its own preferred modus operandi (think Adobe on iPhone), I expect its distribution system will eventually prove to be less-than-ideal for publishers. Just look at its intransigence on music pricing and the small-but-significant number of artists who get on just fine without iTunes – this system is not for everyone!

Fourth, slates do represent convergence of media, but not convergence of devices just yet. Think about it – do you still wear a watch or has your mobile taken over that function? Do you play music or movies through your PC? When we can get it, we want a swiss army knife of a computing device and the iPad and its immediate, 1st-generation competitors aren’t there because they force us to have one device for media consumption and another for other tasks. This will restrict adoption as many people persist with good-enough laptops and PCs for the stuff that slates do exceptionally well.

Fifth: Artefacts matter. I have a room lined with books and 15 years worth of magazines. They look great. People are packrats by nature and artefact hoarding won’t go away in a hurry. Don’t forget the social function of artefact display, either. Your collections say a lot about you and it’s not like someone can come into your house and appreciate your values by seeing your iPad!

Sixth: People are subscription-averse. All the magazines I have ever been associated with get perhaps 20% of their readers from subscribers. Newspapers do better. Quite why we’ll all decide to buy more subs just because they get pumped into a tablet/slate is beyond me.

Seventh: How much value does extra images and video add to news? For me, not much. I’ve almost never opted in for an extended interview online, because for me the news is about getting a concise dump of pre-edited material. I TRUST journalists to bring me the best bits (I know, such naivety!) because I am time-poor and want a quick, digestible content nugget.. Extras slow me down and will need to be bloody good to add value. It takes expensive, collaborative processes to make rich media. Are newspapers really going to invest in the stuff that makes for a satisfying 3-minute video to enhance printed coverage? The small amount of newspaper-created video I’ve seen to date generally does not betray massive mastery of other media – journalists speaking to camera are dull – and I have no information that suggests iPad inspired investments are in the pipeline to change this.

Eighth – The iPad model is terrible for trade publishers, who often rely on “controlled circulation” strategies of sending unsolicited magazines to a desirable audience. How many CIOs are going to give out their iPad Ids to let this happen digitally? SFA, IMHO, ergo the iPad is very unlikely to save trade media, a segment of media that is very large but generally excluded from discussions about the wider media!

Ninth – I just don’t see journalism as having the same susceptibility to iPodisation as music. I’ve long felt that the iPod thrives at the intersection of instant gratification and freedom of choice. Not too long ago, if you wanted to listen to that obscure b-side you last heard sometime last millennium, it was painful to find it and more painful to re-acquire. Now it’s either in your iTunes file or for sale on the iTunes store. Either way, you can access it in less than a minute. Now … name the written product you crave in the same way. I’m betting it takes longer to think up that great article you’d like to experience again than it takes to do the same for a song. I think this is important because the impulse buys and impulse listens that make the iPod so great won’t happen for other media.

Tenth: One of the reasons the mainstream media is in strife is that there are now more outlets in the market. Quite how the iPad or any similar device will stop leakage from MSM to new media is utterly beyond me. As the eyeballs go, the ad rates drop … I see no way out via. an iPad.

All of these reasons mean I am not banking on the iPad to save my career. I’m sure there will be some lovely innovations that emerge, and I hope to be able to participate in some. But I do not expect an immediate – or even short term – uptick in the media’s fortunes as a result of these devices.

Oh and I’m also going to go back to the SMH, even though it means more Miranda …

Does the ABC belong in tech media?

Rural media have, of late, expressed concern about the ABC’s plans to create a series of regional news websites, each dedicated to news about and/or from a town or region. Worried that ABC content will drag eyeballs away from their own offerings, rural media has complained long and loud that the national broadcaster could reduce their audience, thereby reducing the likelihood anyone will want to advertise in their publications.

IT media may now have the same issue to confront, because Auntie has recently advertised for an Editor, Technology and Games.

The job description says the successful application will, among other things, be expected to “Develop an agenda setting online destination for audiences interested in both consumer and business aspects of digital technology.”

Yep – you read that right: head on competition for the IT media.

Quite why the ABC feels the need to get into our business is anyone’s guess. Diversity seems not to be a sustainable argument: regional areas seldom have more than one media outlet, but IT is replete with dozens of outlets.

If the aim is to supplement current offerings like Good Game, I think the ABC is on the wrong track because I don’t get how it serves the public to air a show that basically consists of  free publicity for commercial products. (Ditto The Movie Show)

So I suppose I should get all upset that Auntie now wants to challenge the publishers who help me to make a living … except for the fact the ad also says the successful application gets to commission outsiders to provide content.

Seriously, though, this job does raise important issues about why the ABC is coming into tech media.

The iPad and “private media spaces”

One of the interesting things that is happening in the world of media, I believe, is the arrival of what I call private media spaces.

Let me explain what I mean.

I grew up at a time when a single TV was a bit of a luxury. Not everyone had one. Not everyone had a colour TV. And the box took pride of place in a room of the house in which it could be seen by all the members of a family. We all gathered around to watch and all we watched was free to air TV, because home VCRs were 10 years away from being affordable.

This arrangement remains prevalent today, but as just one of several media spaces centred around other screens. Sometimes the new screens – think media rooms, second TVs in second family spaces – remain shared spaces. Others are private media spaces for a single person. Kids have PCs and/or TVs in their bedrooms. TVs have arrived in grownups’ bedrooms. Or we can curl up with a laptop. Often, we make a shared media space into a private space by using a mobile device for private media while watching TV!

I think proliferation of media spaces is notable because it means that instead of media consumption being a communal experience, it is (increasingly) becoming a private experience (there’s a whole bunch of stuff to consider around the demise of “appointment TV” that goes with this, but that’s for another post).

At present, I believe that computing devices don’t lend themselves to easily facilitating a private media space. Laptops are large, hot, have poor battery lives, take ages to boot, insist you update their anti-virus sofwtare in the middle of a movie, aren’t easy to use when reclining and have all those stupid buttons (the keyboard) which scream “not for entertainment”. Desktop PCs have “work chairs” in front of them, hardly the relaxing furniture best-suited to taking in a movie. Desktop PCs aren’t much fun to use with headphones.

An iPhone seems a candidate for creating private media spaces and as it happens I’ve extensive experience of the device in that role. I often wake up very early in the morning and need something to do that is very quiet, as my home has a central corridor and turning on the TV or typing on a PC are both no-nos as they would wake the rest of the family. The iPhone almost works for pre-dawn video, but not quite as the screen is too small to allow comfortable viewing. I also get frustrated because the iPhone is not useful for work-related tasks other than email (and it is not very good for that).

Enter iPad, which I think makes it easier to create and sustain a private media space than an iPhone, while also being a bit easier to use than an iPhone for other tasks. It’s far from perfect, becaue downloaded content is not sorted, but it looks a lot more “movie-friendly” than other devices I mention. I also think that touch without a keyboard to confuse matters works better, as the interface is less confusing (and there’s a rant coming on touch on the dekstop). I therefore think it fits into the emerging niche for convenient, elegant devices that create comfortable private media spaces.

Having said all that, I don’t like the idea of private media spaces. I dread my kids being holed up in their bedroom experiencing media alone, because I think it erodes an important part of family life. So it may be a while before I buy an iPad.

I also think that private media spaces will become more common, but that central home storage will rise at the same time. Right now, iTunes’ performance on a NAS is spotty. That may need to change.

I bet the iWhatever is useless outside the USA to start with

Here’s a prediction or three about the iWhatever, Apple’s new geegaw.

We all know it’s a tablet-y e-reader thing that will do books, newspapers, videos music and the web, probably with some kind of subscription model.

I bet that subscription stuff is not available outside the USA for ages. I reckon Apple has done deals in the USA, probably Disney-centric deals, and that the subscription stuff is limited to start with. So the company won’t bother selling the iWhatever outside the USA until it gets more deals up.

This will demonstrate, yet again, how odd it is that we have a global network to excite people about content but national arrangements for its release and distribution. Apple treads carefully with its content partners, so I suspect the iWhatever will not begin to erode these odd arrangements. But just as the music industry took a while to wise up to digital distribution when the iPod came along, I suspect the iWhatever will start the process of eroding national content fiefdoms.

Post 32, 2009: Why are online image libraries *STILL* so amazingly shit?

One of the most disappointing things in the journo/PR interface is the continued patchy availability and quality of online image libraries.

The need for online image libraries became glaringly apparent in about 1996.

Since then, I reckon less than 50% of vendors get them right. I have no idea why as a good image library is a blindingly obvious idea.

Some holdouts, I suspect, wish to control distribution of their images. I cannot imagine why.

Others have just been lazy.

Whatever the reason, let me state this now, loud and proud, for the last time.

IF YOU HAVE REALLY GOOD IMAGES ONLINE THAT JOURNOS CAN GET ASAP, YOU WILL GET MORE AND BETTER COVERAGE.

So get to it!

Post 18, 2009: Journalists and musicians

A few times a year, I pull my old guitar out of a cupboard and play it for a while.

I can still remember a few tunes and chords and I have fun for a while. Back when I was more interested in playing music, I was a competent if talentless guitarist.

I would never, however, call myself a musician or suggest that anyone should go out of their way to behold me playing music. But I can play a little music.

Of late, I have been wondering about how we consider “journalists” vs. “musicians”. I think the comparison is useful because no-one runs down someone who occasionally picks up a guitar, sits down at a piano or plays any other instrument. It’s cool to have a go at playing music! Heck – it’s normal to encourage kids to do it, even though the sounds they produce are sometimes not much fun to experience!

As I swirl around inside the washing machine of debate about the future of journalism, I think we can usefully apply the attitudes we bring to people who play music for pleasure to those who practice the new forms of journalism that have been made possible by Blogs, Twitter and countless other online tools.

These tools mean that those with the inclination to do so can now pick up a journalism tool (maybe instrument is a better word) whenever they feel like it, and produce some journalism.

It may not be good. It may be the journalistic equivalent a tonally-challenged, lyric-mangling, 40-something playing hits from his teens on a cheap acoustic guitar with 15 year old strings.

But I think that rather than agonising over what sort of journalism is legitimate, we should simply say that it’s cool when people have a go at journalism.

The musical metaphor is also useful, I believe, because music is wonderfully fragmented. We have classical, pop, jazz, rock, about ten different sub-genres of each and about a million other top-line genres I haven’t mentioned.

I think journalism could do with similar diversity.

Music, of course, has some common values. It tries to entertain by making pleasing sounds (experimental music, IMHPO, tries to entertain through the self-conscious creation of un-pleasing sounds, but that’s another story).

Journalism also has common values. It seeks to discover and re-present facts, using the journalist’s experience of events and some rules about objectivity.

I believe that if we agree that journalism has very simple ingredients and apply the same liberal thinking we apply to music, we can get to a place where we revel in the diversity of journalism that we have today, rather than agonising over whether those using the new tools/instruments of journalism are any good at it. The quality, to me, is no longer the point. Understanding the diversity is where it’s at.