Thursday, April 30, 2009

37 Wired puzzlers

I'm #37. I could leave it at that and let you figure out the rest but this isn't supposed to be a puzzle. I was attracted to the obfuscated metapuzzle in the recent Wired magazine puzzle issue guest authored by J. J. Abrams and then couldn't leave it alone. After bits and pieces of time spent finding and solving 12 of the 15 puzzle parts, I arrived at the final resting place of the congratulatory message after 36 other people.

It was a satisfaction that was pleasing, especially after reading in the magazine that JJ had lost the pleasure of beating a Mario game by cheating. Wired editors helped me not follow in the footsteps of JJ by making sure there were no solved puzzles on the web.

The puzzle people that scattered ingenious clues and complementary puzzles throughout the issue's pages were insanely good. And it produced one heck of a great magazine by combining the visually stunning layout, photography and fascinating articles.

I grew up on the mathematical recreations of Scientific American's Martin Gardner (a puzzle contributor) and relishing the wonderful problems of Sam Loyd but generally was bored with school. So I took on cryptanalysis for a few years and found something both enjoyable and useful. But it hasn't been until this magazine that I found a little of that pleasure restored.

Thanks to the Wired editor team and J. J. Abrams for an alternate universe of fun. But now I have to get back to my real life.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Journalism stinks

The Atlantic/National Journal polled 43 prominent insiders about the state of journalism and found that it stinks. They blame the internet.

There was whining. Oh, yes, the internet is good because it brings more people together (why can’t they all buy my newspaper/magazine?). But it’s getting hard to separate facts from opinions (I only reported the facts on Palin, of course). They’ve taken away my financial base (where have all the people like me that like to read my stuff gone?).

The internet, they declare, damaged the status quo by morphing the reader into something they don’t understand. I seem to have heard this excuse from parents after their kids grew up. My mom just won’t adapt because she likes me to be a cookie hungry kid. I can deal with that. But journalists have talent to write and customers still want to read what they write. The readers just matured.

Nearly two-thirds of the clueless journalist elite seem to think that they have been victimized by the internet age. It costs too much to do what they have been doing and it isn’t a sustainable business model anymore. That and maybe I’d rather not get out of my computer chair to read inane repetitions days later after being hashed about by dozens of online nouveau journalist news sources.

Newspapers think that the internet is training readers to chew smaller bites of info and that it’s “a disaster for newspapers and magazines.” Help us to digest it and give us a better range of flavors. We love the internet because of the variety but it’s just so confusing. Just because we want to read shorter articles doesn’t mean we don’t want good information. Stop putting it on those big plates with all the fluffy garnish around it.

There was talk of the internet killing sacred cows. Newspapers would kill to get a breaking story out to their hungry readers to sell more papers. Movies glamorized the chase scene speed of churning presses and newsboys running from the press to their eager reader at the newsstand. That’s what the internet has killed. There’s no faster speed than http delivery.

Several major newspapers have died out because they didn’t know the way to engage the customer and in general the journalism trade hasn’t picked up on what will engage the paper reader. The web has a trial and error cost much less than the paper/magazine cost of failure. It’s horribly risky when nine out of ten fresh magazines fail.

It’s true that the substructure of news production today is in the hands of the traditional paper journalists but only because the web hasn’t paid them enough to produce news for them. The paperistas want to take the web and make it work the way they have always worked. Produce, sell, and feed. That was classic web and it doesn’t work that way on the Web 2.0. Now it’s about attract, trust, and sell. Do you see Twitter making money yet? Do you trust it yet?

Maybe the future news sources are not the correspondents that shoot and bag the news items but the aware members of a trusted community on sites that attracted them in the first place. You do need aggregators to make sense out of all the bits of info though but it doesn’t take a backdrop of Tehran and a talking head to make sense out of it. We have green screens.

The news desk of the country can be the people of that country. We have a cultural need to understand information in the way we’re used to so when we hear that African charitable aid puts Africans at an economic disadvantage, we can’t understand it. It takes a good aggregator who interprets it for us in our language to make sense out of it even if riles some political people.

The future of the newspapers is to re-engage the readers with a way to understand the information glut that is happening online. People read the newspaper because they trust it and as we trust web sites more, the likelihood of dropping a paid subscription increases. Now they have to make me trust something else.

The main substance of trust and appeal is quality writing and focus on what the reader wants to read about. We still care about standards so tell us what they are and follow them. How many web sites publish their journalism standards? If you don’t tell us where you stand, you’re out there standing with the Drudge Report.

The new dynamic of the web invites people to participate by providing them a path to meet and contribute. It’s this type of involvement that the customer has always wanted. Readers wrote letters to the editor, worked crosswords, and welcomed more colorful entertainment for chatting topics. How can we participate with online sources except online?

The journalism trade should work on news item aggregation. Hire some history students that understand research and analysis. Give me links to more sources with well-crafted articles to help me interact with them. Where’s the best five responses to yesterday’s story? Print it so I can read it at lunch and talk about it. Do you have some splashy graphics telling me what the top searches on Google are and why? Stop me from using my color printer because I don’t want to pay for the consumables. Is there a new blog in Cincinnati from a person who used to live here in Kansas City and still talks about how good it was? Showcase it, quote it, and make it important.

I agree that the state of journalism stinks. That’s why I’m reading the internet and piecing together the state of the world in my head but believe me, I’d pay you to do it. My head wants to take a vacation.