Category Archives: Random Thought

Things I think about, tend to be essay length.

Why don’t I care if newspapers die?

I was once an avid reader of newspapers – a three-paper-a-day man: the local paper for local news; the capital city daily for national and international news and the national Financial Daily for business news. I now read none and think that the whole industry has the stench of death about it – not financially (although it certainly has) but the quality of work was what sent me away.

Newspapers (and television news) is notoriously inaccurate. There are exceptions. Occasionally a paper will do a great job of investigative reporting and team it with great writing, but this is not the “norm”. Most newspaper content is filled with slightly rewritten press releases, information easily found elsewhere (movie start time, tides, weather, TV program guides, etc) and copied from the real source to the newspaper) and some hastily written article about an event that is full of inaccuracies because the reporter hasn’t a clue about the content.

Do you think I’m judging too harshly? Consider this. Have you ever watched the TV news report, or read a newspaper article, of an event you were part of or participated in? Has that report been 100% accurate? I can honestly say that, of the dozen or so appearances I’ve made in newspaper or TV media, or those associated with other family business where I’ve been privy to the facts, not one report was 100% accurate. Not a single one.

So I have to assume that every article is written with the same sloppy adherence to the facts of the story.

The average newspaper adds very little value. Most of the content is not original reporting – between the previously-mentioned press releases and Associated Press and/or Reuters and fact-based content sourced from elsewhere there’s not much original, true news gathering.

The little there is is easily reproduced elsewhere. For example, local news site Pasadena News outsources the writing to Indian writers. If you’re only rewriting a press release, or reporting the outcome of local council meetings, which are placed online anyway, then the desk could be in Pasadena or Mumbai. Fact checking (if anyone actually does that) is an email or phone call away wherever you are in the world (as long as you’re prepared to deal with time zone issues).

Newspapers, in their current dying form, are not adding a whole lot of value. Instead it’s nostalgia that’s keeping them going – the nostalgia of lazy Sunday mornings with paper, family and coffee, not the delivery of well-researched original reporting.

If we have Associated Press – who have a very useful RSS feed to deliver relevant content directly to me – why do I need the LA Times to print it for me? If they added a local angle, maybe.

Journalism won’t die with newspapers. In fact, contrary to the opinion of some journalists, the blogosphere – the sheer number of people fact checking – has led to some real stories breaking. Remember the Dan Rather/George W Bush faked papers scandal? Or how the citizen reporter who videotaped (and shared) George Allen’s “macacca” moment that lost him re-election in 2006? It seems in many, many recent cases, citizen journalists have out-performed (in aggregate) the established media in uncovering stories.

So, I’ve gone from a three-a-day habit to a zero newspaper life and am better informed about news than ever. I keep track of Australian news and am better informed than my Australian-resident mother. I scored very highly ion the Pew Research Test Your News IQ with a better score than my newspaper-reading, TV news watching friends and associates.

I won’t be dancing on the graves of newspapers, but their failure to adapt and their high minded refusal to see the log in their own eye makes me indifferent to the failure of the whole industry. Let it be replaced with new forms of news-gathering where some accuracy might slip in.

See also: We need a Fifth Estate and Will “amateurs” save democracy from the “professionals”?

What if “video” is just another form of literacy?

A long, long time ago (at least 10-12 years back) I started to hypothesize that we were heading for a generation for whom “video production” was just another form of literacy. Eventually the majority of people will have some degree of production skills as a part of their work.

It’s not as wacky idea as it seems.  Go back a couple of  years and you’ll find only a very small elite had the tools and skills to read and write (the classic definition of literacy). Pre Gutenberg it was a very elite skill and definitely not something you’d want the unwashed masses doing. The ability to read and write was a defining skill that separated the “educated leadership” from the masses of followers. The Catholic Church continued the elitist practice of a Latin Mass, in part to continue a “mystique” about the ceremony because only the priesthood understood Latin.

Literacy, or the lack of it, is a way of controlling a population. Then we had the Industrial Era and (relatively) cheap printing and slowly more and more people acquired the ability to read and write. It was no longer “special” and no longer a guarantee of income or career that it once was.  Being able to read or write no longer defined the position.

Now that about 90% of the Western population reads and writes acceptably, we see how important it is to all types of jobs. There are very few jobs where you could fulfill the function of the job without knowing how to read and write.

Business WomanFor some people, their ability to write is their primary skill. Novelists, playwrights, screenplay writers, etc all primarily use their writing skills to make a living. But nearly every business person writes reports or writes PowerPoint presentations. People fill out forms for a living, or correct filled out forms and enter them into an electronic storage system. People (used to) write classified ads before Craigslist  came along. 

If you think about it, there are very few places where you could survive without knowing how to read and write: to be literate.

As I predicted, I think we’ve seen video production and post production skills move from being niche knowledge areas, accessed only by the High Priests (and occasional Priestess) of the Television and Film businesses. The technology was hard to work with, bulky, needed a lot of power and a lot of light. There were genius engineers who kept cameras aligned within themselves and with other cameras.

Today’s young production crews don’t have the joy of recalling the pain of aligning the three tubes in a camera to each other; or the “fun” of 4-Field (NTSC) or 8-Field (PAL) frame sequence in editing. Personally I’m glad those days have gone, along with linear editing and all that went with it.

Now, like the advent of cheap tools in reading and writing like the ball-point pen, electric typewriters and eventually laser printers, means that anyone who has a reason to write, can do so.

That’s where we are, or are heading, for the very broad field of ‘video production and post production’.  It’s not the job any more, it’s just a set of tools almost everyone uses in their life somewhere.

Laptop in classic library

But like classic literacy, only very few will make it their primary means of earning an income. Instead, those skills will be common to most people. Some will use the same basic skills to add some video to a news website along with the article, some will use it to record and present events, some will use it only personally, some will have to use it as part of their work and some will make it the primary means of income generation.

Instead of the latter being the only way to exercise these skills there are now many, many more ways to exercise them. As I say in my seminars on the subject, because of the advent of low cost, high quality production tools, anyone who has an idea and the drive can produce their project.

I don’t think “high end” production is going to go away, any more than widespread literacy forced the novelist out of business. 150 years later there are still highly successful novelists, just not a whole lot. There are a whole lot more (thousands of times more) who use their literacy skills as part of the way they make their living.

And that’s where we’re heading: to a world where there’s nothing special about video production skills, per sé, just different ways of leveraging those skills into an income stream in association with other skills.

What’s a hat stand?

hatstandAs NBC have pretty much ruined the nascent term “Preditor” (a combination of Producer and Editor) I’m coining the term “Hat stand” as a way of describing people like myself that “wear many hats”. People who are adept at many facets of production: producing and editing but also the very large, and increasing, group of people who not only write, but edit and do graphics. Or those who are editors and awesome motion graphic designers.

There are a lot of mult-talented, multi-faceted people and I’ve never known how to describe what I do. So from now on, when asked “What do you do”, I’m going to reply “I’m a hat stand”.  I’ll still have to describe that I do a whole bunch of different things (from writing this blog to business plans, editing, encoding, some graphic design, marketing, etc, etc) but at least there’ll be a bit of fun while we talk.

The term first came up at an Adobe event in LA last week, when thinking about the Olsen Brothers who between them wear all the hats needed in production. That’s a lot of hat stand!

A great customer service story

So, I’ve had a bad week, twice ordering the wrong card for a particular configuration I manage. First I forget that this is a PCI-X install (one of only two left I have to deal with) and the second I misread specs on another card. The original purchase was from PC Pitstop, as was the follow up card.

There was no problem with shipping back the first incorrectly ordered card, and even though I’d opened the sealed inner package on the second before realizing my mistake, it was also accepted back without restocking fee.

That’s good, but when I realized my second mistake I got on their live chat and within a minute or two was chatting with Mark. I explained the situation and he made a couple of suggestions as he got closer to understanding the limitations of the configuration. Ultimately he made a different recommendation then took the time to check that it would work with the existing drive enclosures. He thought it would with one type and not with the other, but ultimately it turns out that neither were suitable.

But Mark didn’t stop there, he then pointed me to a Sonnet Tech card (that they did not carry), which sadly Sonnet have stopped making! Apparently determined to solve my problem even though there was no longer much chance of a sale (this time) Mark very quickly found a refurbished unit at another dealer and gave me the URL in the iChat.

Ultimately PC Pitstop are going to be refunding these purchases as they’re returned, but Mark, who appears to be a search engine master, has certainly guaranteed I’ll be shopping there again some time in the future.

When is a market saturated?

A post this week by Justin Evans titled RED One Rentals Impending Crash hit my reading at just the right time. Over the weekend I recorded some interviews with Rick Young of MacVideo – a fellow Aussie now living and working in the UK – and a whole bunch of people who were around the foundation of the LA Final Cut Pro User Group. I started to form some parallels in my mind. As have many others to be sure.

Justin has one very, very good point: a RED One is not a good investment for a rental company. Sadly neither was setting up for Final Cut Pro rentals. In both cases a solution you rented as needed (because it was so expensive you couldn’t afford to own it) has been supplanted by “buy it and you’ll always have it to use.” That pattern also applies to HD video camcorders.

The DV Rebel’s Guide author Stu Maschwitze advises readers to own their own camera above owning an edit system. He proceeds to give several examples of where he’s been able to get dramatic shots that add high production value to his shows, just because he had the camera with him.

Projects that wouldn’t have been made are now being made. There are more opportunities to make money in video production than ever before. There are probably few opportunities to make enormous – dare I say “excessive” – profits.

Right now budget projects tend toward formats like HDV or AVCHD/AVCCAM because the cameras are very affordable and the quality “isn’t too bad.” Heck, it’s high definition with quality at least 10x that of my first pro video cameras, and in inflation-adjusted terms about 1/10th the cost. (Not to mention 1/10th the weight.)

But it does limit production in two ways: it limits where the product can go given the quality requirements of some outlets, and it limits what you can do with the image. Particularly with RAW footage – what the sensor saw is what’s in the image – you can push the image in Color Timing a lot, lot further than those formats that limit color information.

Quality has always cost. No-one’s ever been unhappy about that other than the cost-requirement limited what got made and distributed. So industries evolve high cost structures. Budgets get bigger because there’s more at stake and when successes happen, everyone who contributed to their success wanted their share of the (quite often extreme) profits.

Television is the child of film and radio and inherited many of the same cost structures for program production. Given the limited outlets of the day that was entirely appropriate. In the last decade there’s been an explosion of outlets. The number of cable channels have dramatically increased thanks to the Clinton-era Telecommunications Act of 1996. And there’s this thing called ‘The Internet’ that seems to be opening up increasing number of distribution opportunities.

Back in 1999, if you told me there’d be more than 1.25 million registered Final Cut Pro users within 10 years, I’d have been credulous. Although there were about 300,000 Premiere 5/6 users at that time, it was the dominant NLE – Avid having fewer than 1/3 that number of customers at the time. People seem to find a reason to pay for professional editing software beyond what ships free on every Mac.

Apple announced their customer number at the MacWorld ’09 Final Cut Pro User Group Supermeet, but these following are likely to be reasonably close. Avid’s user base has continued to grow and I’ll say a generous 200,000. Premiere Pro has to have well over half a million legitimate customers. Sony Vegas is up over 300,000 customers. Avid Liquid has about 400,000 customers iirc. Other NLEs, like Edius I don’t have a feel for. (Please feel free to correct any numbers in the comments or private email.) Add them together and there about 2 million people in the world who have paid for professional editing software.

You’ll note how I’m carefully avoiding calling them all “editors”. People are obviously using Final Cut Pro in ways that would be quite foreign to an experienced entertainment industry or documentary editor. But if they’re editing, satisfying a need and making a living from it, that’s a good thing. That’s a heck of a lot more people employed (or working for themselves in some way) – making a living doing what they like doing – than ever there was before.

It’s the same in the music and print design businesses. The transition to digital technologies demolished existing cost structures and opened up thousands of new employment opportunities.

Red Digital Cinema, with the RED One now and Scarlet and Epic coming up, will probably sell in numbers that “make no sense” if you expect the industry (film, television, entertainment, education and all other types of production) to not change.

The concept of an “Independent model of Television production” came from Mathew Winer, write/producer of Mad Men: Television production more modeled on Independent Movie production approaches. People like Television, and YouTube-like content supplements but does not replace Television programming.

What we’re currently seeing is a trend for “quality production” away from the big four Networks to smaller players simply because the market (viewers and therefore advertisers) for drama or comedy production on the networks is not big enough. Even ratings winners like American Idol attract audiences that would have seen the show cancelled even 10 years ago.

The cable industry doesn’t have the same cost structures as network, and the Internet has even fewer constraints. Josh Whedon’s Dr Horrible’s Sing-along Blog was purportedly produced for around US$100,000 on the SAG “low budget production” contract. His cast probably didn’t get paid as much as their Network Shows did, but at a time when nothing was shooting because of the writer’s strike, any work is good work. Particularly if that work is in a Guild that has a greater than 95% unemployment rate!

Shows like Mad Men and Friday Night Lights are doing high quality work with “very constrained” budgets. (Anyone know what the per-episode budgets are, let me know in the comments or private email.) What’s to say that under-employed actors and under-employed writers and under-employed-everything-else in LA (Toronto, New York, Vancouver, Denver, wherever) couldn’t produce their own shows for Internet distribution?

There are budget ways to do effects and better green/blue screen tools than ever before. Apple has put advanced color timing in the hands of anyone who wants to try and give their project the “big production” look.

The availability of “quality that no-one can complain about, ever” tools like those coming from Red Digital Cinema completes the production side. The tools of quality production are democratized. A new, new industry arises that aspires to decent middle class incomes with employment opportunities for anyone with the desire, drive and talent to create television, film, conference video, or event videography…

May a million United Artists bloom. If only we could get the distribution side solved.

What is the future of the trade show?

Seems like everyone is withdrawing from trade shows. Apple has removed itself from all trade show exhibits, with 2009 being its final MacWorld. That was the last trade show that Apple had not formally withdrawn from. Apple has better ways to meet the needs of its bigger market – Apple stores! Along the way, the Mac, while still important to Apple, is not Apple. Once upon a time you could pretty much use them interchangeably, but no longer.

Avid, and then Apple’s withdrawal from NAB 2008 seemed shocking at the time, but it makes sense. They have better ways to reach their customers: More cost-effective smaller – but focused on the Apple product – Pro Apps events and better online communication.

Today it became public that RED Digital Cinema would not be attending NAB this year. The stated reasons echo what Avid and Apple said last year: there’d be too many mock ups on the NAB booth because key components won’t arrive until a month later. NAB (like MacWorld) puts deadlines on developers calenders that don’t really suit them. RED will be holding “RED Day” somewhere, some time in the future instead. Their brand is strong enough, so they can do that.

Isn’t it crazy that in April Apple announces a version of Final Cut that doesn’t ship until September of that year? It was barely in beta testing and really not ready to be seen. Not exhibiting at NAB leaves Apple flexible as to whether they announce an upcoming version of Final Cut Studio at a special event coinciding with NAB; or they hold it back until after Snow Leopard ships because it will use features only available in Snow Leopard and not yet announced. Hypothetically. (Please, that is NOT a rumor, it’s a hypothetical case. I know nothing!)

Why were trade exhibitions valuable? There’s the opportunity for direct comparison, theoretically. But the camera folk are all over the place and you’ll probably get a better “shoot out” at a local dealer or through a user group. And you don’t have to shout at anyone to do it.

A Trade Show was a way for companies to get attention, because media focused on shows. But that kind of changed with the Internet. In 1998 my then editor at Digital Media World magazine in Australia wanted a decent article on the latest news. By the next year, he wanted a “color piece” because all the news was on the Internet and he didn’t need no expensive journalist writing that up. (It could have been written in India as one local Glendale, CA website does for its local news.)

They are also a way of stumbling over unknown little companies or technologies that you might not already know about, but with news sites like Digg, Blogs like newteevee.com, freshhdv.com (and another 293 I use to keep in touch) all feeding the latest stream of information, it’s unlikely I’ll miss something.

So why am I going to NAB 2009? To socialize and to see what I would have missed otherwise.

What is the future of advertising?

I hate advertising. I guess, if I’m completely honest, I hate irrelevant advertising like most people. Trouble is, I’ve yet to experience relevant advertising! I also don’t believe that advertising has affected my decision making process at any time. Last time we purchased a car I’d never seen a Kia advertisement: we had rented a Kia and it turned out a friend of a relative worked at a Kia dealership and could get us a decent deal.

I go out of my way to avoid advertising. In our last residence “TV” came off a PVR and ads were universally skipped. These days with TV coming from the Internet there are no ads in the downloads. The few times I’ve watched Hulu, the irrelevance of the ads was distractingly annoying.

The only sane way to surf the Internet is with ad blocking! I was recently categorizing the entries in my research database that involved loading pages directly in DEVONthink Pro, which claims to have ad blocking but nowhere near as good as the plug-in I use for Safari. After an hour or so it felt like my eyes were bleeding from the garish, flashing, irritating ads all over the place. It was a shocking realization of just how unappealing browsing without ad blocking was.

I am surprised, then, that the entire “new media” business seems predicated entirely on advertising support! (How many times do new business have to repeat the mistake of modeling themselves on their immediate predecessor – we know from history that the final model will never look like the preceding one.) This is within the context of at least one survey from Yankelovich Research that show 70% of Americans would pay to view content without advertising and go out of their way to avoid brands that “overly market their products and services”! Who wouldn’t after being barraged by up to 5,000 advertising messages a day!

But if there was no advertising how would we find out about products we wanted to buy – things that would be useful for our business. To which I would answer, the same way I do now: reading and research. Particularly searching on the Internet. Dave Winer nailed it:

The Internet is a wonderful commercial environment. It has trained me to expect the impossible from real-world retail. When I last visited Fry’s I wished I could hide all the items on the shelf that don’t match my search criteria.

Frys is intimidating and it has no search engine (in the store) making the online version much more satisfactory. In that same posting, one of his commentators – Hartsock – puts it this way:

“I look forward to the day when I can search like this: “pants waist:38in inseam:32in cargo” and find a listing of cargo pants that fit me and places I can go and buy them.”

In other words the information is being pulled by the customer when the customer is ready to buy. Not pushed at the customer thousands of times when they’re not ready to buy, which simply annoys and intrudes. As Dave puts it:

However this is not advertising! It is commercial information. The former is in our way, the latter is what we seek.

Advertising was useful in reaching mass markets with relative homogeneity – America in the 50’s when TV was new – but now there are few mass markets, tanking advertising spending and little advertising relevance. Now it’s time to realize that people seek commercial information that’s relevant, on their schedule and pace, not something pushed at them intrusively.

That’s exactly the same changes we’re seeing in media consumption: people want their programs, on their schedule on their device of choice. Advertising made sense for appointment television, but that’s dead!

In terms of our businesses perhaps it’s time to realize that being findable in search engine by having an active web presence is much more valuable than a big advertising budget.

We need a Fifth Estate

A story that came through my newsreader last week You Don’t Understand our Audience and summarized by Ars Technica resonated with some of my thinking around a book I’m working on.

The way the United States system was set up was an attempt by the Founding Fathers to avoid the perceived problems of the English and French political systems of the day. Congress balances the Executive Branch while the Executive Branch balances Congress. The Judiciary is there to ensure that Laws are Constitutional and that the actions of the President are Constitutional. The press – the so-called “Fourth Estate” – reports on, exposes flaws and generally keeps the rest honest.

At least that’s how it’s supposed to work. Avoiding the political commentary on the first three “Estates” (Executive, Congress and Judiciary) it’s clear that the press and media have failed us completely. The linked article begins to explain why but one thing that’s not noted there is that “the press” has changed significantly since the days of the Founding Fathers. Then, there were hundreds of small, independent (and local) newspapers – not a very limited number of very powerful “media corporations”. The White House Press Corps are intimidated and will never call out the press secretary when they are clearly, obviously and provably lying; or where other lies can be easily proven by playing back a tape. But they don’t and they let the people down when they don’t. They know their job requires access to the press room and they too scared to do their job.

But they fail America because of their timidity. With so few media outlets obvious lies do not get exposed by timid “journalists”. We need a return to hundreds of independent voices uncovering lies and doing real journalism.

I hate to say it but it seems the blog-o-sphere is our last chance to save democracy and “keep the bastards honest” to quote Don Chip – a now-dead politician in Australia who led the third party trying to break the duopoly of political power that exists there (and in the US).