We’re approaching the first anniversary of David Carr’s death. Carr was the New York Times media critic, a former drug addict and newspaper editor who was adored by most (possibly all) reporters and media pundits. I have never seen anyone say a bad word about him. Considering how much time his cohort spends on Twitter, a platform not known for its users’ niceness or ubiquity of opinion, that’s impressive.
When Carr died I had just started becoming interested in journalism as a discipline and economic phenomenon. I had no idea who he was. It was bizarre to see, as Ben Thompson put it, “a nearly unending stream of expressions of grief mixed with personal anecdotes of a figure so clearly beloved.” Bizarre not because I found the outpouring unbelievable — I didn’t — but because I had just started following a bunch of tech and media analysts. It was the first topic that I watched everyone converge upon. The next was probably some Gawker-related scandal.
In a way, although it was tragic, David Carr’s passing was a wonderful introduction to a normally contentious community. I got to see everybody at their best, united in affection and gratitude for someone’s ideas and mentorship. Admittedly I enjoy the everyday arguments about ethics and money, which involve no shortage of sniping and ad hominems, but I’m glad that I know all these @handles can be kind too.
Brian Krebs, an investigative reporter who covers cybercrime, made this comment in his Reddit AMA last month:
“Whether we’re talking about security or some other beat, the most interesting stories are those that are essentially stories about people — who they are, their experiences, and their weaknesses and failings, etc. Most failures in cybersecurity are not failures in the technology, per se, but in the way the tech is implemented or not. […] Sure, there are software and hardware vulnerabilities, but from my perspective the vast majority of data breaches succeed because they exploit the person behind the keyboard, as well as organizational lethargy, disorder, neglect or incompetence.”
Yesss. I wrote a while ago that “Tech Is Only Awful Like People Are Awful”, and a related hypothesis is that tech is only interesting like people are interesting. Some readers and consumers love gadgetry for the sake of it, but I’m definitely more intrigued by the socioeconomic and/or sociopolitical machinations behind the scenes.
Stories about how humans make, use, and misuse computers are really just stories about how humans stumble through the world, bashing into every obstacle we possibly can.
Stephen Totilo, the editor-in-chief of video-game blog Kotaku, just published a piece alleging that Kotaku has been ill-treated by two very large video-game studios:
For the past two years, Kotaku has been blacklisted by Bethesda, the publisher of the Fallout and Elder Scrolls series. For the past year, we have also been, to a lesser degree, ostracized by Ubisoft, publisher of Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry and more.
In those periods of time, the PR and marketing wings of those two gaming giants have chosen to act as if Kotaku doesn’t exist. They’ve cut off our access to their games and creators, omitted us from their widespread mailings of early review copies and, most galling, ignored all of our requests for comment on any news stories.
I used the word “alleging” not because I don’t believe that Kotaku has been stonewalled, but because I disagree that the companies are doing anything wrong. Yes, it would be annoying — even infuriating — to be cut off, and I support Kotaku’s right to publicize the issue. But I object to Totilo’s implicit attitude of entitlement. And I disagree with everyone who thinks that Bethesda and Ubisoft are behaving unethically. That position depends on the idea that journalists deserve access, that they have some inherent right to interviews, review copies, and answered emails. They don’t.
Too many big game publishers cling to an irrational expectation of secrecy and are rankled when the press shows them how unrealistic they’re being. There will always be a clash between independent reporters and those seek to control information, but many of these companies appear to believe that it is actually possible in 2015 for hundreds of people to work dozens of months on a video game and for no information about the project to seep out. They appear to believe that the general public will not find out about these games until their marketing plans say it’s time. They operate with the assumption that the press will not upend these plans, and should the press defy their assumption, they bring down the hammer. […] Millions of people still read our stories about them. The companies just leave themselves a little more out of the equation.
True, it’s silly to expect to be able to keep information totally under wraps in the Internet Age. But with respect to Bethesda and Ubisoft “bring[ing] down the hammer” and absconding as much as possible — yes, that is their intent! They think it’s a wise business decision — whether that’s true is irrelevant to my point. The whole point of PR and marketing divisions is to propagate the perspective you want and quash the one you don’t. A method of quashing is limiting access. It would make no sense for Bethesda and Ubisoft to throw the doors open to Kotaku and welcome all scrutiny.
For the better part of two years, two of the biggest video game publishers in the world have done their damnedest to make it as difficult as possible for Kotaku to cover their games. They have done so in apparent retaliation for the fact that we did our jobs as reporters and as critics. We told the truth about their games, sometimes in ways that disrupted a marketing plan, other times in ways that shone an unflattering light on their products and company practices. Both publishers’ actions demonstrate contempt for us and, by extension, the whole of the gaming press. They would hamper independent reporting in pursuit of a status quo in which video game journalists are little more than malleable, servile arms of a corporate sales apparatus. It is a state of affairs that we reject.
Totilo and Kotaku’s staff are free to reject this “state of affairs”, but Bethesda and Ubisoft are also free to ignore them. Crucially, Bethesda and Ubisoft are not violating any obligation or doing anything wrong. They never made a promise to renege on. The companies are acting to further their own plans, which have nothing to do with disseminating information to an ad-viewing gamer public (which is Kotaku’s goal). Are they being immature? Maybe — that’s a different argument. Is the tactic counter-effective, as Totilo seems to think? Also a separate discussion — but it’s definitely not evil. It’s just corporate.
Note: I wrote this quickly so I’m probably going to fix typos and wording later.
Writing “Case Study Of A Magazine Purchase” made me consider the amount of money I spend on media every month. I suspect that I’m more extravagant than most people, but I’ve never added up the $$$. Here’s my list, in no particular order:
This is all for digital material. $36.17 per month; debatably actually $26.17 because The Marshall Project is a nonprofit and the donation comes off my taxes. Either way, it’s really not much. I could easily drop $36.17 on dinner or drinks.
I also periodically buy books and I benefit from my parents’ subscriptions to The New York Times, the New Yorker, The Sun (print), and Funny Times (print). I suppose you could include Netflix, but that erodes the focus on journalism.
Currently I’m considering a subscription to The Economist. Their one-year bundle would run me $13.33 per month, whereas the two-year option comes out to $11.63 per month. Either package includes Espresso, their “daily briefing” app, which I really want (Nieman Lab did a fascinating interview with Tom Standage re: digital strategy). I’ll pull the trigger if I get a raise.
I am a young writer by every definition, twenty-one and relatively inexperienced. My ideas for my career are half-formed. Accordingly, this is an education-heavy portion of my life, which is good. I’m not going to college like many of my peers, but I am actively learning and developing myself as an editorial professional (broadly speaking).
Part of that is working, part of it is reading, and an increasingly large part is listening — not only to people in my “real” life, but also listening to wise strangers who aren’t addressing me specifically. For instance, I pay close attention to the journalists interviewed by Max Linsky, Aaron Lammer, and Evan Ratliff on the Longform podcast. (Only a few months ago, I didn’t like podcasts, but that opinion changed quickly after I acquired a commute.)
I don’t have access to many professional writers in my “real” life. Sure, occasionally I hang out with Adam Brinklow and I got to meet Yael Grauer the other day, but mostly I encounter regular people with a bunch of different types of jobs. Which is fine — variety is the spice of life, right? Only interacting with one type of person would be like having salt on your food and eschewing all over flavors.
But I dearly want to feel connected to people who do the work I aspire to. The Longform podcast gives me a window into the circumstances and habits of journalists I admire, and it feels… nourishing. It makes me believe the career I’m in love with is possible.
It’s awesome that the internet enables this. I know it was technically possible back when people mainly read words on paper, but not in the same way, at the same scale, or on demand. In 1985 I couldn’t have Twitter-followed everyone who wrote an article I liked, to keep up with their future posts and maybe talk to them personally. Being able to do that is so cool — and it helps me stay motivated.