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.

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 …

Post 20: Will SEO homogenise English?

I had a conversation yesterday with a colleague and, as often happens these days, the topic turned to getting more traffic for web sites.

One of my colleague’s foremost requests was for me to stop using British English in my writing, and to stop applying it to stories we source from our content partners.

The reason? “Virtualization” is a mighty search keyword, requested by hordes of folks around the globe every day.

But “Virtualisation,” our genteel Australian alternative, is searched for several orders of magnitude less often. So it makes no commercial sense for us to make the small adjustment to our copy to spell the word with an “s” rather than a “z”.

Some would argue that changing the single letter was a futile act of pedantry in the first place. I argued against because I think that small elements like this can be an important marker of identity that is appreciated by readers, even if only because it shows you care enough to make some small adjustments.

Right now, however, the fact that commercial online publishing is driven by the need for good search engine optimization* outcomes seems to me to be a likely source of homogenisation of the English language.

I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. I find bland opposition to change stupidly antediluvian. But I think it is worth noting that the combination of commerce and technology are creating forces that work upon language in interesting ways.

* Yes, that is a deliberate and ironic reversion to “z” there, folks

Post 19: Giving up on surveys

I’m very glad that Media Watch had a go at coverage driven by vendor-created research this week, because I have reached the decision not to use them any more.

For ages I have been uncomfortable with the way surveys are used to generate coverage, largely because the methodologies used are far from transparent and the intent – generating media coverage – is blatantly obvious.

Recently, however, I encountered the worst, most dishonest piece of research I have ever seen. I label it as such because it simply asked the wrong questions and the researcher was ignorant of the right questions. For example, the survey contained assertions that business data stored on computers is not well protected. But it had not asked those surveyed about the use of the most common data storage and protection technologies, so was simply not reporting on the real world. The research also asserted that businesses cannot recover lost or damaged data at acceptable speed, citing 40 hours as disastrous. Yet when I pressed the researcher on the fact that many organisations deliberately set recovery time objectives of more than 40 hours, the researcher was ignorant of the term “recovery time objectives” and admitted it was something it should look at in the next version of the research.

That’s not good enough.

Yet the research concerned has been cobbled together into a glossy brochure and will be pressed into the hands of prospects and suspects for a year, until the next edition of the research is produced.

I sincerely hope that no-one falls for this flawed study which has (to mix cliches) pissed in the well and broken the camel’s back, because it is such an obvious example of research being abused to prove a point that I simply cannot contemplate trying to find out what is wrong with other research I encounter.

Independent research created by dedicated researchers without commission remains something I will consider. But I simply feel I can no longer trust anything initiated by a vendor. And if I cannot trust it, why would I present it to my readers?

Post 16, 2009: Two new ways to fund journalism

I think everyone now agrees that while newspapers in their current form are in strife, nobody wants quality journalism to disappear.

But no-one knows how to fund it.

I’ve got three ideas and in this post I want to deal with two.

1. Industries should fund journalism directly

I cover a couple of obscure industries that have little dedicated media and only a very small number of writers with any appreciation of the technical nuances of the fields concerned. I’d argue (in a self-interested way, of course) that these industries are the poorer for their lack of a full-time focus on their activities, services and products. These industries also lack the vibrant hub that a good publication creates. They also miss out on the chance to reach prospects and customers through a medium they trust, namely journalism.

So I can imagine that farsighted industry associations could start to talk to publishers about subsidising a journalist’s wages, in order to ensure there is a resource dedicated to covering their industry. An Association’s investment in a journo could benefit its members by creating a virtuous circle in which the dedicated writer means a publication becomes more attractive to readers and therefore more useful as a marketing vehicle.

Is this feasible? I do some work with an industry association that could probably not afford to do this. But not by a vast distance.  (Obviously this is my personal opinion and in no way reflects the position of the association, in case anyone knows the association concerned)

2. License PRs to access journalists

I think the way PR relies on journalists, but does not pay for them, is in many way analogous to publishers’ complaints about the way search engines monetise their content without any financial contribution.

I recognise that PR probably lowers the cost of operating a publishing house by providing content and/or making it easier to access (albeit with the content groomed for commercial intent, rather than reader value). But let’s face it: PRs are stuffed without influencers to influence!

I can imagine publishers licensing access to their journos to PRs that have paid for the privilege. Such a scheme could be run through a PR industry association and would involve a sliding payment scale,  so as not to disadvantage small PR shops. But unless a PR had paid their dues, a publisher’s journos would not take their calls. Blocking their email would be simple.

I imagine PRs would hate this regime. Everyone hates it when new costs arrive in their industry.

But seeing as the way we fund journalism now is borked, costs are going to land somewhere. And right now, PR cannot exist with media but does not fund it at all. Maybe that needs to change to help journalism survive.

These ideas are both thought experiments and have obvious problems in terms of how this kind of funding impacts’ media independence and the likelihood of fearlessly critical coverage. They both also devolve to industry paying for coverage, either through associations or via. increased PR bills. I suspect that, over time, industry will miss having a media to read about itself in. Or maybe not – which is a whole other kettle of fish and something I will blog about with my third funding idea soon.

Post 13, 2009: Events need to get over the artefact, too

I’ve written several times before that I try not to attend real-world press events. They are nearly always overly-long and contain too much marketing-speak, so are not often particularly good uses of my time.

I’ve been thinking about why, and I think there are some hints in the decline of newspapers.

The thing about newspapers is that while they are nice artefacts, the journalism they contain is what is really important. The artefact of the newspaper has massive cultural inertia for many people, but the sheaf of cellulose that arrives on my doorstep each morning is now just one of several ways to distribute and monetise journalism.

I’m beginning to think that press events (and many conferences) are in a similar position to many media outlets, i.e; wedded to the artefact of the get-together in a big room with adjacent catering facilities, when the real issue is not how to run good events but how to preserve the information transfer they allow while thinking about how to use technology other than that embedded in today’s most popular artefact.

There’s one barrier I perceive: no-one’s very good at using the technology yet. I’ve attended webinars that were just the usual drone-and-slides affairs. If I had any real wisdom in this area, I’d be starting a consultancy around it right now, to help businesses take advantage of web conferencing and similar technologies to improve the effectiveness of their communications. Because I don’t have that wisdom, I’m hoping someone else does so they can lead a charge towards new ways of sharing information that take the good bits from the meeting/event artefact of today and take steer it in useful new directions.

Post 5, 2009. A missed opportunity

Miranda Devine today tries to build on the argument she advanced last week that environmentalists’ opposition to controlled fires made the Victorian bushfires worse than might otherwise have been the case.

If you really must, check out her piece here.

What I find most interesting is not her argument, but the SMH’s opacity in terms of helping a reader understand how it was constructed. I say this because the story quotes numerous documents and a website or two along the way.

So why not link to all the sources, so the reader can see if the quotes are in context or representative of the whole document?

It seems to me that when one is advancing a contentious argument, failure to provide those links is a missed opportunity.