Real World Media: the reinvention of journalism

By Susan Older
Founder, Displaced Journalists and Real World Media
Aug. 7, 2011

I refuse to give up on good journalism. I refuse to give up on displaced journalists, either. Not just the members of our Displaced Journalists community on the Web, on Facebook, Twitter (DPJournalists) and LinkedIn, but all journalists who can’t find a place where they belong anymore.

We need to reinvent our profession to keep good journalism alive.

Our society depends upon a free and vigilant press. It is a fundamental building block of our democracy.

  • It provides citizens with the news and information they need to make their lives safer, easier, happier and more fulfilling.
  • It gives citizens the comfort of knowing someone is out there looking after their interests.
  • It provides the fundamental role of ensuring an informed electorate.
  • It holds accountable the officials citizens elect at the polls.

Why is journalism broken? We all know the answer: It’s money. It’s not the Internet. It’s the lack of revenue models for both print and online news and information operations.

Only Steve Jobs has hit on a real revenue model. The App Store is brilliant, but it appears publishers who try to sell their content as apps will get only a small bite of the Apple – too little for sustenance. We need to think about how we could emulate that model without giving our product away.

We need to determine who will pay for quality content. I believe the demand still exists.

We need to restore citizens’ trust in the news they read and the journalists who report it. We can do this. The solution lies in getting the best and the brightest back to work and in a position to mentor young journalists, to pass on the mojo, the dedication, the ethical standards and the devotion to excellence that once defined our profession.

I propose a revolutionary solution to save journalism and journalists.

Real World Media.

It is a big idea and it will require serious funding. Can it be done? Absolutely. Can I do it alone? Of course not. We need help and we need funding. I do believe, though, that it is a start.

We must pose the question of how to find buyers for quality content. Let’s give it a shot. Let’s come together to devise a plan that will improve as it evolves. We need solutions that address the concerns of citizens of local, state, national and global communities. Let’s be realistic: globalization has changed the rules of the game. Almost all of the things we cover are playing out to some degree on a global scale.

So what is the future of journalism? How can we address these issues.

Real World Media: What is it? Why participate?

Real World Media is designed to be the first location-based, mobile-device-driven global news web. It will provide tailored news and information coverage by top-notch, vetted reporters, photojournalists and news videographers who are already at or near the scene – and top notch editors who interact with these journalists and fine-tune their work.

Real World Media will provide journalists with the work they haven’t been able to find and the respect they deserve. Journalists will be paid fairly and immediately (think PayPal) – a rare occurrence for freelancers in the wake of our industry’s massive job losses.

Journalists will be associated with the best and the brightest colleagues – reporters, editors, photojournalists and news videographers – all of them drawn to Real World Media because it’s a prestigious, trusted network and it’s their best chance of getting fair compensation for a job well done.

The editorial board of Real World Media will screen journalists who seek to be part of its global network. Journalists who have the right stuff will start receiving assignments once it’s up and running. Journalists who don’t make the cut right away will be referred to customized training and performance-improvement solutions to help them qualify at a later date.

The first step in any new venture is to look at it from the point of view of the customer. Of course, this has always been the case for journalists. We’ve been trained to make coverage decisions based on what our readers want. I have always referred to this as the “what does it mean to me” factor. Readers didn’t subscribe to newspapers unless they delivered news and information that directly affected their lives. How can we make our coverage so good that readers or users will pay for it online? It’s a tough question, but we must come with a solution. We can’t just give up.

What about coverage of “what they need to know”? Yes, we’ve always done that, too, because the great thing about newspapers was that readers stumbled upon things they couldn’t have predicted they would want to read. It was serendipity. That’s something we’ve lost to varying degrees as news and information migrated to online sites. Now users tend to go to the sites that reflect their specific interests or views. Real World Media will offer engaging enterprise stories, photos and video designed to put the serendipity back into news sites.

What keeps Real World Media customers up at night?

Entrepreneurs in every field look for the “pain point.” They ask the question: “What keeps our potential customers up at night?” If they can’t answer that question, they need to go back to square one and figure it out.

Let’s look at our potential customers’ needs and address them as if we were speaking directly to them.

This is a sample scenario:

You are a managing editor at a news and information operation – either print or online. You have dismissed more of your staff than you knew was wise. You did it because, financially, you believed you had no choice. You or your publisher felt it was necessary to trim the budget to stay in business. Unfortunately, you got rid of the best and the most experienced journalists because their salaries were the highest.

Now you’re looking at a decimated newsroom and a big story breaks – one that directly affects your readers and your community. It could be floods, drought, and forest fires. It could be corruption in your local police department or city hall. It could be a scandal, playing out in Washington, one that involves local or state officials. It could be a story about a local military man or woman engaged in battle half way around the world. You want to cover these things, and you want the local angle, probably with photos and video, but you don’t have a staffer to spare.

What do you do?

  • Do you send a journalist, possibly insufficiently experienced, to deal with a difficult assignment, bagging the important story he or she was working on before you had to shift gears?
  • Do you resign yourself to using a wire service story, knowing that they are extremely unlikely to give you the local angle and that the same story will appear everywhere else?
  • Do you call a freelancer whom you may not know? Are you confident he or she will get to the scene on time? Are they any good? Do you need to find a photojournalist or news videographer, as well?
  • How much time can you afford to spend setting this coverage in motion?

You get the point. No matter what you do, you rob your readers of one thing to give them another. That hurts. You never had to make this tradeoff in the past. You once had a good and sizable staff that was capable of doing it all and doing it all well. Your newsroom ran smoothly – okay, as smoothly as possible. You could afford to take time lining up freelancers around the world for a big story, and once you did that you had a big enough staff to assign your own reporters to get the local angle.

Readers were loyal because you gave them news and information that truly affected their lives – their children, healthcare, family budgets, safety, schools, workplaces, neighborhoods, housing, etc. When it came to investigative reporting or breaking news coverage that affected your readers anywhere around the globe, you gave readers your best. Can you do this now, with sparse resources?

Real World Media clients: what we give you

So you decide to become a Real World Media client. Real World Media will provide a simple and affordable solution to the many problems brought about by staff shortages. You will get full coverage without breaking the bank. You, your publisher, your readers and great journalists can all sleep at night.

Real World Media takes your requests and uses cutting edge technology to locate journalists, photographers and videographers around the world to cover the story to your specifications. Maybe it’s a story breaking halfway around the globe, but it affects people from your town, city or state. Real World Media will cover the global and the local angles of the story.

You will pay Real World Media and its journalists well because you know they are worth it and you get what you need from them. Just think about what you once paid your most valuable staff members, the ones you had to dismiss as advertising dwindled and news and information took off into uncharted digital territory.

Real World Media is not designed to take jobs away from working journalists. We’re happy to see journalists working at all. As for jobless journalists, we genuinely hope they will find great jobs again. For now, though, why not tap into their talent and experience through a system you can trust. But let me be clear: Real World Media is not a content mill.

It’s a win-win for everyone. You will save on salary, benefits, travel expenses, and expensive equipment by using the services of Real World Media.

Journalists will get what they need by joining the Real World Media network, which ensures that they will be paid fairly and rapidly. As our network grows, we hope to negotiate group rates on benefits such as health care.

Your readers will get what they want, whether it is international or domestic coverage with a community angle or an investigative reporting project right down the road that you cannot begin to staff. It might even be a feature story you just know your readers would enjoy, one that would enrich their lives.

As a client of Real World Media you  will have at least three options:

  • You may make a special request for a local angle on any given story. Real World Media journalists will report it for you. This will serve your needs regardless of whether the story is happening inside or outside of your geographic community. It doesn’t matter. You will have the option of informing readers of more than what’s happening. You will tell them exactly what it means to them, with quotes from local citizens and local officials.
  • You may request an exclusive story that will not be available or even visible to other clients on the Real World Media site. This will serve your needs if you want an exclusive on a breaking story or if you want a highly qualified team to handle an investigative project or local story that you don’t have the staff to handle.
  • You may buy a story that appeals to your audience straight off the Real World Media site. This will serve your needs if you simply want the best possible coverage on an important story. This would serve your needs if you don’t need a local angle and aren’t concerned with exclusivity, but don’t want to run a wire service story identical to the one your competition carries.

Real World Media will run the network. We will find, evaluate and direct the reporters, editors, photographers and videographers. We will have layers of editors – all highly experienced, respected and trustworthy. We will maintain a website featuring synopses of all the stories available for purchase, the price, and the option to negotiate exclusive stories or big stories with local angles.

You will tell us what you need and we will find the best journalists for you.

We will use cutting-edge, location-based, mobile technology to stay in touch with journalists (reporters, editors, photographers or videographers) who are at or near the scene and prepared to take the assignment. If another journalist is required to interview people in your community for a local angle, we will provide that service, too.

You will pay a fair price for stories produced by Real World Media’s global network of journalists because you know they are worth it. They will fill the void created when you laid off your best staffers.

Real World Media will charge for the story, the photos or the video you commission from our network of journalists. You will be obligated by contract to buy the assigned story, photos or video, regardless of whether you use it. You will pay more if you decide to alter your original request. Of course, good reporters, photographers and videographers think for themselves and are highly likely to deliver more than you asked for, simply because of the situation they find on the ground when they are in the process of reporting or shooting photos or video.

Real World Media will have a multi-layered network of highly experienced and vetted editors to ensure that customers receive professionally edited products.

None of this is carved in stone. In fact, this is just a jumping off point.

Editor’s note: You may be wondering why I chose to speak to the customer rather than directly to journalists about this idea I’ve been hatching for the past year. The answer is this: You, my fellow journalists, can see your role as you read this. We need to draw attention to the concept and get customers and funding sources interested. All of the information I’ve come up with thus far is in this piece, except for how we will price stories and how much Real World Media journalists will be able to earn. At this point, I don’t know how much you will earn if we do get funding and this becomes a reality. However, I am devoted to ensuring that journalists are paid fairly. You will be part of the process as we begin to determine rates. In no way will this resemble a content mill. If any of you can offer your programming, design or marketing skills for the cause, I can certainly use them. I have no funding at this point, and, of course, Displaced Journalists has never been about making money. On the other hand, it goes against our very credo to work for nothing, so I’m in somewhat of a bind. It’s been interesting learning web development of WordPress.org, but I’m certainly not going to learn design and programming fast enough to get this off the ground when we need it most – now. – Susan Older

Readers can’t trust news sites that publish sloppy copy

By Susan Older
May 15, 2011

A former colleague from UPI posted a comment on my Real World Media blog yesterday jokingly lamenting the fact that it took him a year to respond to my commentary of March 14, 2010, regarding sloppy copy.

I responded that the issue is still relevant. As we all know, it seems to be getting worse. I can honestly say that it’s rare to find a story on the website of a major publication, one I once respected, that is free of grammatical or spelling errors.

As we all know, readers who see errors in spelling and grammar are likely to wonder whether there are also errors in reporting, quotes, and in the substance of the story.

There is another comment on the same blog post, also from a former colleague, a guy I worked with back at USA Today.

The original commentary, “The world needs good editors,” appeared on this Real World Media blog and on DisplacedJournalists.com.

Both comments are from journalists I respect. They both hit the nail on the head.

I think there are far too few seasoned editors in newsrooms these days; they’ve all been laid off, bought out, fired or otherwise cast adrift.

This leaves a few exceedingly busy seasoned reporters (if you’re lucky) to show young journalists the ropes, to mentor them, to teach them why perfection is not optional, to help them resolve ethical dilemmas, to teach them how to file an FOI request and why you would want to, and to help them learn to craft their stories well, keeping the readers’ needs in mind.

Gone are the pros, the journalists who’ve been around, the ones who held us accountable because we still had a lot to learn.

Remember how much passion there was in newsrooms in the old days? People cared, so much so that they were willing to fight over matters of principle.

Remember the gut-wrenching sound of a pica pole whacked on your desk just inches from your quivering hand? That’s what learning from the newsroom culture feels like.

Remember when you woke up in a cold sweat at 4 a.m. because your brain finally got around to telling you that you made a huge, embarrassing error on Page 1? That’s what learning from your own mistakes feels like.

These were the checks and balances that made our profession so great. I know plenty of young people are going to J-school these days, so there must be something about the profession that draws new recruits. I don’t mean to knock these students or recent graduates, either. I think it’s fantastic that people want to be journalists, and I think the new grads are just as smart as we were. I just don’t believe there are enough dyed-in-the-wool pros left in newsrooms to teach them well.

If you are a displaced journalist, you have probably been replaced – usually by someone who has less experience and is willing to work for far less money than you earned. However, too many of these replacements lack the education, the on-the-job training and the mentoring we received. I realize I’m generalizing, but I think this is largely accurate.

I think we all feel that it’s especially painful to see stories riddled with errors on the websites of The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, CNN, USA Today, etc.

The really sad thing is that many of us love our profession so much that we would probably work for the same wages younger journalists make if it meant a once-trusted publication could turn out perfect copy again. But they won’t hire us.

I know why our cover letters and resumes get deleted without a response. Those at the top of news organizations see us as trouble. We know too much. We have opinions and we’re not afraid to express them. We might cause trouble. We might want to take their jobs or incite discontent. We might shake things up. They can’t have that, now, can they? Working in the newsroom of a financial site for just a year in the past decade taught me that.

In many ways, I like the new era. I love the Internet and I love digital media. I think with some proper guidance, it will all shake out to be good – different but good, much the same as we once progressed from radio to television.

Standing up for what you know to be right? That era is largely gone, along with the insistence on perfection. That was our era. This is a new one.

That’s why I started Displaced Journalists. That’s why I seek funding to create an innovative news operation bearing my existing company name, Real World Media. It would need to embody all the old fervor, fair compensation and high standards, while working as a digital operation on a digital platform. I do believe it can be done.

But back to my point: Errors sap trust. Hire some copy editors.

Nobody wants to read sloppy copy. More importantly: Nobody believes it.

The world needs good editors

By Susan Older
March 14, 2010

One of the things that irritates me most about the layoffs and firings at newspapers, magazines and major websites these days is the fact that the people in charge have chosen replacements who don’t seem to care about the quality of the product.

 
Either that or they are uneducated. I don’t know which is worse. However, it doesn’t really matter; management hires (and fires) people and is responsible, ultimately, for quality control. 
 
I’ve spent much of my career as a news manager, but at heart I’m a word editor. So when I read this sentence online today, it made me sad and angry:
 
“Smartphones and e-readers are not like laptops, where each computer lets you interact the same Web.” 
 
How does one interact the Web? I wonder if the writer intended to say access the same Web or perhaps interact with the Web in the same manner.
 
In the next sentence, the story reads: “For example, Apple iPad won’t support Flash software, which supports most online videos.” 
 
Wouldn’t you write “Apple’s iPad”? I would.
 
In the very next paragraph, the story reads: “If the last 10 years were a heyday for open content on the Web, the next ten years could be the age of platforms.” Now I don’t care which stylebook you follow, but for heaven’s sake, pick one and stick to it. Is it 10 or ten?
 
These errors would grate on me regardless of where they appeared. But some publications have the money to invest in great editors. They should hold themselves to higher standards, because they have more resources, they have great reputations to protect and plenty of readers that they are trying desperately to keep.
 
The sentences I’ve quoted above did not appear on someone’s blog or on an obscure Web site that might not have the resources to hire qualified editors.
 
These sentences appeared on the site of the once-revered publication, The Atlantic. I know it was revered because it was always present in the homes and offices of people I respected and I used to subscribe to it on paper.
 
Now that I’m reading a piece in The Atlantic online, should my expectations be different? Really, should they?
 
The Fall of the Internet and the Rise of the ‘Splinternet’” is the article in which these errors appear. Go read it. It’s a great piece. The writer makes excellent points that interest me enormously.
 
But I ask you: How can we trust a source when the editors are sloppy about spelling and grammar? It’s reasonable to assume that they might be just as sloppy about the facts.
 
I’m not writing this because The Atlantic stands alone here. I’m writing this because I’m tired of finding an error of some kind in nearly every story I read these days. I just happened to be reading this particular story when I came upon one too many errors. I read most things online, but I’m talking about big names, such as The Washington Post, The New York Times, CNN, you name it. I repeatedly find errors in stories on every one of their sites.
 
I certainly don’t mean to embarrass the writer. It’s not his fault that these errors slipped through. I’m irritated at the editors. Not one editor, but multiple editors, because no story should be published unless it has been read by more than one editor.
 
In the early days at USA Today, errors were few and far between. About 15 editors, up the line to Bob Dubill, John Quinn and Al Neuharth, read every word in the paper. Yes, a few things were slipped in at the last minute and, as a result, there were mistakes. But quality was everything to us. Gannett hired the best editors and paid them well in order to guard against errors of grammar, spelling or facts.
 
Is it possible that there was no editor reading the story in question? Is it possible that the writer hit “send” and it was published without a single read-through?
 
I know from experience that it’s possible, but only when management doesn’t care. When I took the job of editor-in-chief at United Press International in 1997, I went out to talk to the people in the Los Angeles bureau. They were completely frustrated. Apparently, each of them had to write, edit and publish (directly to the wire) every single story they wrote. Their stories did not go through a central copy desk, and they were so overworked that they didn’t even have time to read copy for one another.
 
These journalists honestly cared about errors, but they worked for management that might as well have been selling tires as protecting the brand of a nearly century-old, once-revered news wire. Management simply didn’t give a damn. And when you don’t care about quality, you don’t fund quality. I think we’ve seen evidence of that in the automotive industry lately. Just look at what Toyota is going through. 
 
Of course, we fixed the problem at UPI as well as possible, considering available funding, and everything went through a copy desk in Washington after that, but my point is that I know what can happen when people at the top don’t value quality. You get what you pay for when you hire anybody, editors included.
 
Quality wasn’t always the most important thing in publishing, even when many of us tried to make it so, but it has taken far too big a hit in the past decade. 
 
And don’t blame the Internet. That’s insane. A story is a story is a story. When it’s published, even if it’s on the palm of Sarah Palin’s hand, it should be perfect.
 
You know, I used to think my father was nuts when he looked at things that had changed in his lifetime and proclaimed, “The world’s going to hell.”
 
Well, now I see what he was talking about. The world may not have gone to hell, but the publishing business is certainly on its way.

Welcome to New York, terrorists: American justice wants to meet you

By Susan Older
Nov. 14, 2009

 As a New Yorker, I experienced the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center from a mere 10 blocks north.
As an American, I can’t imagine a better place to try self-described 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four alleged co-conspirators than in Manhattan federal court, just a few blocks from Ground Zero.
 
Yes, it brings back bad memories. It poses legal and security challenges. But that would be true no matter where we tried these men. Yes, we could try them in a military court. But this was not a military crime. It was a crime committed by foreign civilians against the people of America. And while military courts are closed, civilian courts are open. That’s a good thing, because America and the rest of the world need to watch.
 
I want to see them face justice in an American courtroom, and, hell, yeah, as close as possible to the site where they broke my heart and shattered my soul. I have battle scars. We all do, no matter where we were the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
 
I was on my way to the West 4th Street subway to get to work up at Times Square. It was a beautiful, sunny morning. And then it happened. At first, there were just a few observers. But as we walked south toward Canal Street, the crowd grew.
 
We watched as determined rescuers – firefighters, police officers, and emergency medical technicians – raced to the scene, sirens blaring. They drove fearlessly right into the heart of the beast, most of them never to return.
 
We gathered around any vehicle with a radio – cabs, service vans, the occasional car – and tried to comprehend the scope of it all: Four commercial airliners had been hijacked. One had flown into the North Tower, another into the South Tower. Another had flown right into the Pentagon in Washington. And the fourth, well, we’ve never heard what its target was. A cadre of heroic passengers forced their hijacked plane to crash in rural Pennsylvania rather than allow their captors to have their way.
 
Back in New York, I stood on Canal Street, wanting to comfort the bleeding, disheveled victims who ran toward us, struggling to breathe. I watched powerlessly as the towers collapsed – sealing the collective fate of more than 2,600 people who could not escape.
 
I am still angry.
 
I am still horrified.
 
I am still brokenhearted.
 
And I want justice. I want it badly.


So when U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced plans to try the men who allegedly planned the attacks in federal court in downtown Manhattan, I felt good. I felt really good.


Holder explained that the five 9/11 defendants would be tried in civilian court, while five others, charged in the Oct. 12, 2000 attack on the U.S.S. Cole, docked at the time in the Yemeni port of Aden, would face justice in a military court. That seems reasonable to me. The Cole was a military target. And, while the Pentagon was attacked on 9/11, it was an attack on all of us.


Finally, these defendants, held in limbo at Guantanamo Bay during the Bush administration, will face justice, American-style, for the deaths of nearly 3,000 people that day.
 
I find the schism over whether they should be tried in civilian or military court amazing and the fact that it’s shaping up along political lines even stranger. We all bear these scars. We’ve borne them since 2001.
 
Let’s get some justice and let’s watch it unfold. After all, the attacks happened right before our eyes; so, too, should the trials of the accused. Military courts aren’t transparent; they’re shrouded in secrecy. True, there’s an advantage when dealing with classified information and state secrets.
 
But such challenges will exist regardless of where we try the defendants. Holder said he was confident that the men would be convicted, and the New York Times reported that other administration officials said they had ample legal authority to keep classified information secret.
 
The United States Constitution is the best in the world. Our justice system is among the best in the world. If we don’t believe in them, we don’t deserve them. So let’s allow our constitution and our legal system to work. Let’s watch these defendants experience American justice firsthand.
 
Let’s stop the polarization, the whining about increased risk to the city of New York, legal entanglements and national security. Of all times to be divided, this isn’t one of them.
 
The Feds will be out in force during the trial. And New York can handle it. No city police department is as equipped and ready for any and all security threats as New York City.
 
You heard New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg: “It is fitting that 9/11 suspects face justice near the World Trade Center site where so many New Yorkers were murdered.”
 
Rudolph Giuliani, who has decorated himself as some kind of hero because he was the mayor of New York on 9/11, disagrees. He thinks the defendants should be tried in military court.
 
“This is the same mistake we made with the 1993 terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center. We treated them like domestic criminals, when in fact they were terrorists,” Giuliani said in response to Holder’s announcement Friday.


In truth, all six of the 1993 terrorist bombing defendants were tried and convicted in in federal court in Manhattan, each of them sentenced to 240 years in prison with no chance of parole. I’d say that worked out just fine.


But, Giuliani insists, “In the dangerous world we live in today, a nation unable to identify and properly define its enemies is a nation in danger.”
 
Save it, Rudy. You’re no authority and you’re certainly no hero. I walked right past you after the attack. You walked north, as I walked south. You walked away, as I walked into the fray. And I heard you say, loud and clear, to your aides who walked beside you: “Where are we?”
 
Admit it: You weren’t in control that day. You were dazed and confused. So, yes, let’s go with Bloomberg’s sentiment.
 
This is the terrorists’ day in court, but it is first and foremost America’s day in court, and we will not have it happen in secrecy. We’ll have it in the people’s court, right in downtown Manhattan. We need to watch. The world needs to watch.
 
Some of the victims’ families are concerned that the trial will open old wounds. But, let’s be honest. Those wounds are as open and raw as the day the attacks on our country tore us apart – forever traumatizing our hearts and our minds.
 
So to the terrorists, I say: Bring it. You sent suicide hijackers to murder us on American soil. Now it’s your turn. Come to New York. We’ll show you some Big Apple hospitality the legal way.
 
Maybe then we can start to heal.

Digital addiction: The dark side of technology

By Susan Older
Oct. 27, 2009

When absolutely everyone on the plane is 35,000 feet high and clueless, something is terribly wrong.

Excuse me. Is whatever’s on your laptop so enthralling that you can’t look up for, oh, I don’t know, 91 minutes? Or are you just bored with flying this plane?

That’s the question that came to mind as I read that the two Northwest Airlines pilots who overshot Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport last Wednesday weren’t asleep, drunk or even embroiled in a heated business discussion when they ignored a barrage of urgent radio signals, cockpit lights and warning signs for what the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said today was a one minute more than an hour and a half.

The two highly experienced pilots weren’t even flying the plane. They were on their laptops and lost track of time, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) stated. So were many of their passengers, I’m sure, but they weren’t responsible for flying the airplane.

Precisely what the pilots were doing on their laptops may never be shared with us or with the 144 passengers and three flight attendants who occupied the cabin of the “auto-piloted” Airbus 320. All we know now is that during the 91 minutes they were off the grid everyone on that plane was 35,000 feet high and clueless.

It reminded me of the Amtrak commuter train engineer who was text messaging on his cell phone 22 seconds before he rammed into a freight train in Chatsworth, Calif., in September 2008, killing 25 passengers and injuring about 140, many of them critically.

At least no one died this time. When air traffic controllers couldn’t get the attention of the wayward pilots, other airline pilots found an alternate radio frequency and managed to get them to put down their laptops and get back to reality.

Northwest Flight 188, which had begun its flight in San Diego, turned around over Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and eventually landed safely in Minneapolis. The FAA has revoked the licenses of both pilots. They have 10 days to appeal the ruling to the NTSB.

You know, there is a basic moral code we like to think we share as humans: We have an obligation to act responsibly when we are in a position to hurt or kill other people. It’s simply wrong to endanger others in order to take care of personal business, whether you’re a pilot, a train engineer, or a soccer parent.

So why do so many of us break this Golden Rule? Why do we talk or text on our cell phones while we’re driving? Why do we feel the need to update our Facebook statuses or tweet our every move on Twitter at stoplights when the information we’re sharing can wait? Why do we spend hours online only to look up and realize that we’re late for work or have missed an important appointment?

It’s digital addiction. And we’ve got it bad.

“When we think of addiction, most of us think of alcoholism or drug abuse. But the easy access, anonymity, and constant availability of the Internet, email, texting, chatting and Twittering has led to a new form of compulsive and dependent behavior,” writes Dr. Gary Small, a UCLA Psychiatry Professor and a renowned expert on technology and the brain. His name for its sufferers: techno-addicts.

How does it work?

Dopamine, the brain chemical that’s responsible for addictions, is what drives digital dependency, Small explains on his blog Brain Bootcamp, which appears on the Psychology Today site.

When you do something that you find pleasurable, your brain releases dopamine. That feels good. It’s like a runner’s high. When your brain wants more dopamine, you turn to your addiction of choice to get it.

“The same neural pathways in the brain that reinforce dependence on substances can reinforce compulsive technology behaviors that are just as addictive and potentially destructive,” writes Small.

Digital addiction comes in all forms: social networking, random Web browsing, iTunes purchases, video games, gambling, stock market quotes, and sports scores. Oh, and eBay. Yes, eBay is addictive.

But does engaging in these activities make us digital derelicts? Not necessarily. Most of the time, we’re not risking lives in the pursuit of our virtual thrills. Generally, we’re in a safe environment – at home or at work – but we’re still just as addicted. And we’re often making a conscious choice to interact anti-socially, using a digital device rather than speaking directly to other people.

We can sit at our computers for hours without talking – convincing ourselves that networking online is more important than talking to the real, live person sitting next to us. And when we seek more “immediacy,” many of us turn to instant messaging or video chats.

This reality-avoidance behavior is emblematic of the damaging effect digital addiction is having on all of us. It’s like one of those Redneck jokes: If you text your wife to ask her if she’d like to engage in sex, you might be a digital addict.

Let’s hope we all learn from the mistakes of the Amtrak engineer and the Northwest Airlines pilots. And, let’s hope we learn not to drive with one hand on the wheel and the other on a cell phone. That’s a lesson we can learn from Maria Shriver.

The first lady of California has been caught on camera three times since June talking on her cell phone while driving. That’s in direct violation of the law that her husband, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, supported and shepherded into state law last year. It’s inexcusable and it’s dangerous.

I have a visor-mounted Bluetooth device in my car. It pairs with my cell as soon as I hop in the driver’s seat and makes calls on voice command using my iPhone’s address book. It was less than $100 online. And the nice thing about getting one for yourself is that you can earn a gold star for effort while engaging in one of my favorite digital addictions: online shopping.

Hey, we’re all ensnared in these habits. But we can put them in perspective and use them to our advantage. We can use them to become less careless human beings.

UCLA’s Dr. Small believes that, in some respects, technology is actually altering the way our brains work and making us smarter.

Like all addicts, we have to take the first step if we want to conquer our demons. And that’s why I’m going to finish this column and get off my computer. One thing to remember, though: When the digital devices that we say make our lives better actually become our lives, no one wins (except the technology companies).

Apples to lemons: Microsoft’s new retail showrooms

By Susan Older
Oct. 24, 2009

Hey, I love a blue screen of death as much as anyone, but I wouldn’t drive to the mall just to see one.

I have a Mac. My husband has a PC.  This makes for hours of hilarious fun.

When he starts to fire up his computer, I set the timer on my iPhone for 10 minutes. That’s how long it takes his PC to boot up. Then I set the stopwatch on my iPhone to see how long it will take him to ask if he can use my Mac while his antivirus software runs a scan. (My Mac doesn’t get viruses.) When that’s done, it’s either the blue screen of death (BSOD) or a complete crash. “I hope you backed up your data,” I say in a condescending tone that I now have down to a science. The fun never stops.

Now the frivolity is coming to a mall near you. Microsoft opened the first of its highly anticipated Apple Store knock-offs Thursday (Oct. 22, 2009) in Scottsdale, Ariz. I watched one of the videos and you can, too. They’re all over YouTube.

 

Oh, how hard they tried to make it look as hip and as cool as an Apple Store opening or a new Apple product launch. They even hired Apple employees by paying them significantly higher wages to work in the store and hike the cool factor. The signature all-glass front window revealed a similar layout. A line of people waited in an orderly, cordoned-off line. And when the doors opened, employees in Apple-like color-coded T-shirts executed a somewhat pathetic re-enactment of a new Apple Store opening, complete with clapping and high-fives for everyone.

Now, you may not love Apple as much as I do. Perhaps you even find Apple’s arrogance annoying. The clapping, the shirts, the Concierge team, the One-to-One training that actually educates customers so they won’t feel powerless when they are alone at home with their computers.

Maybe you laugh condescendingly when, on your way to Macy’s, you see customers actually getting their computers fixed in the store by the oh-so cutely named Genius Bar. But think about it, when your Dell breaks, do you think the Guru Bar at the Microsoft Windows Store is going to fix it. The “gurus” there won’t; they can’t. Microsoft doesn’t make your PC. It simply makes the operating system that makes your computer run, then crash. Apple makes its own products and its own software. Apple teaches you to use them and fixes them if they fail you. Apple is the Nordstrom of technology when it comes to customer service.

The Microsoft “store” is a clone, all right, but it’s a mutant clone. It’s not bright, sleek and hip, and it’s certainly not a store – if, by store, you mean a place you go to buy things. It’s a showroom. There are computers, but Microsoft doesn’t make computers. Apple does. You can buy copies of Windows 7, the new operating system Microsoft rolled out to drive away memories of the bad dream that was Vista. And you can buy the few hardware products Microsoft does make – the Zune and the X-Box game console.  But if you were going to buy a Zune or an X-Box, wouldn’t you keep doing what you’ve done all along — go to Best Buy or Walmart or Amazon in search of a discount?

It strikes me as more of a museum than a store. At first it seemed like comparing apples to oranges, but then it struck me that the fruit of Microsoft’s tree this time around is more like a lemon. So, yeah, it’s like comparing an Apple to a lemon.

As for me, I’ll take a pass when they open one of their “stores” near me. After all, I can observe the pitfalls of Microsoft Windows in the comfort of my own home.

Note: If you liked this obviously biased bit of Apple flattery, you’ll love this video.

Comments at older.blogspot.com.

“Fear and Loathing” in the American workplace

By Susan Older
Oct. 11, 2009

Fear of being fired or laid off in this harsh economy is creating an environment that has all the trappings of what I would call, borrowing a phrase from the late Hunter S. Thompson, “fear and loathing” in the American workplace.

I just gave up my livelihood rather than work in a climate of fear and degradation. I feel for my co-workers who don’t have the financial means to do the same.

I wonder: What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think about the rising unemployment rate in the United States? Most likely, it’s the sad plight of workers who’ve lost their incomes, health insurance, retirement accounts and, most likely, a big chunk of self-esteem.

And, there is no question about the fact that the unemployed grapple with these losses on a daily basis. Many rise early to jump on job boards, write cover letters, and perfect their resumes, only to be met with rejection. Many of them are anxious, depressed and suffering increasingly from related physical illness.

But what about the ranks of the still-employed who live in fear of being tapped for the next layoff or becoming the target of managers who can fire them – in most cases – at will?

A study at the University of Michigan shows that people who constantly worry about losing their jobs report poorer physical health and more symptoms of depression than those who have actually been laid off.

Researchers analyzed nationally representative samples of surveys from more than 1,700 adults over age 25 who were asked about their physical and mental health, as well as their feelings about the security of their job.

“The negative effect of being persistently insecure was more significant than the unemployment itself,” said study author Sarah Burgard, a research assistant professor at the school’s Institute for Social Research.

People are working overtime without being paid for the extra work. They’re putting up with lower or no increases in compensation as a reward for excellence. They’re scared to speak up to or against management. They’re undercutting one another in the belief that it’s better to see a former workmate fired than to be fired oneself.

“By no means am I trying to belittle the stress of job loss,” Burgard said. “But the negative anticipation of an event can be more stressful than the event itself. People feel they have the sword of Damocles hanging over their head, but they can’t exert any control over the situation.”

And it’s not just the slackers who are worried. It’s been my observation that the most productive employees, those who show the most talent, are often targeted by managers whose own insecurity drives them to harass or oust top performers, people who could challenge them for positions in management – possibly for lower salaries, saving the company money.

It’s not just a battle between employees and their superiors. This rampant fear creates hostility between equals at all levels: manager on manager, worker on worker.

Perhaps the saddest thing about this climate of fear and hostility is that this is precisely the time when people at all levels in the workplace could be finding solace in a mutual dedication to survival of the best.

They could be banding together to ensure that the hard working among them will weather the economic storm. Instead, it’s every man for himself.

Clinton’s “vast right-wing conspiracy” quote: That’s not the news

By Susan Older
Sept. 27, 2009

I’ve been putting off starting my Real World Media blog, but I came across a news peg today that left me anything but speechless.
 
I watched “Meet the Press” this morning, as I do every Sunday. David Gregory led with a terrific segment from an interview he conducted Friday with former President Bill Clinton.
 
The piece covered a broad range of topics, and Clinton was, as usual, on point. He answered Gregory’s thought-provoking questions with characteristic eloquence, commenting on the war in Afghanistan, the Taliban, al-Qaeda, Iran’s nuclear plant outing, Obama’s performance in his nine-month “honeymoon” period, health care, the economy, the Clinton Global Initiative and even a one-liner on whether he still has political ambitions.
 
Now, I’ve been a journalist for 35 years. I’m old school in the sense that I have ink flowing through my veins, Watergate and Vietnam still in mind, and Hunter Thompson in my heart. My grandfather’s uncle, Fremont Older, was a San Francisco institution as editor of the city newspaper that rivaled William Randolph Hearst’s Examiner.
 
I’ve been a founding editor of USA Today, managing editor of the Gannett New Media Group, founding editor of Inter@ctive Week (the tech magazine that’s now called eWeek), editor-in-chief of United Press International, and chief content editor for quite a few online news operations.
 
I love the Internet. I love to read my news online. I don’t think online journalism is inherently bad. And I believe there are still some great journalists out there. NBC’s Richard Engel, for example. I feel proud every time I watch him and listen to him, and I worry about his safety as he jumps from war zone to war zone to keep us informed. They don’t get any better.
 
So when I hit on CNN this afternoon and saw the lead story: “Bill Clinton: ‘Vast right-wing conspiracy’ as ‘virulent’ as ever,” I thought to myself: OMG. I mean, really? If you haven’t seen the interview, go to MSNBC’s site and watch it for yourself.
 
Choosing that minute and relatively insignificant question and answer as the lead story is shoddy, lazy, and dirty journalism at best. And it was CNN. It wasn’t even Fox News.
 
(Wait, hold that thought while I check out the Fox news site.)
 
Okay, I’m back, and, yes, Fox has it, too. At first I didn’t see it. What I noticed first was a rather repulsive and large ad — in the right-hand column in the “above-the-fold” position – for a tooth-bleaching product.
 
How could you not notice giant yellow teeth with braces on them in a place you used to read your news? I finally spotted it, though, below and to the left of the yellow teeth. The headline: “Bill Clinton: Obama Focus of Right-Wing Conspiracy.” Now NPR is running it on its site, having picked up an AP story titled, “Bill Clinton Speaks of Vast, Right-Wing Conspiracy.”
 
This makes my blood boil. That interview was full of fascinating quotes from a highly respected former president. And although I did find it interesting to hear Clinton’s take on whether Obama has been the object of a right-wing conspiracy, I can tell you one thing: That most certainly was not the news story in the interview. In fact, I’ll bet the editors who edited those stories and wrote those headlines are too young to know the origin of the phrase “vast right-wing conspiracy.” I seriously doubt they could discuss “Whitewater” or the death of Vince Foster off the top of their heads.
 
This isn’t the kind of “news” I signed up to report, write and edit in the 1970s. And I know there are plenty of good journalists – either still working or laid-off – who feel the same way. Journalism isn’t in trouble because we’re reading it online instead of on paper. It’s in trouble because of poor judgment on the part of sloppy, clueless, and often angry, people who handle carelessly the precious gem we used to call the “news.”
 
There’s still reason for hope, though. Look at how NBC played the story on the network’s MSNBC website: “Clinton talks poverty, climate on “Meet the Press.” David Gregory didn’t even mention the “conspiracy” comments in his breakout box of highlights from today’s show.
 
That’s how the late Tim Russert, veteran moderator of “Meet the Press,” would have played it, too.