On Homer, the oral tradition and social media



An item on paidContent a few weeks ago pulled some disparate threads together and got me thinking – no small task after completing a semester-long entrepreneurial project and a 2000-word business story — to say nothing of the attendant celebrations, of which nothing, indeed, will be said. What if, the piece posited, the era of mass communications was in fact an historical anomaly – a mere interlude in which new communications technology temporarily supplanted the one-to-one and small-network communication modes which had been civilization’s default state, and to which it has at least in part returned via the Web and social media?

This is hardly a new idea, of course. The work of Cornell media researcher Lee Humphrey on diary-keeping and that of Tom Standage on historical precursors to social media have both explored it in great depth and fascinating ways. Their point in part is that the disruption of mass media by digital is merely returning us to an earlier and more time-tested mode of communication. But what really got me thinking about it was a piece in the Wall Street Journal that a friend sent a while back about writer-scholar-war hero-classicist-Graecophile and, it so happens, proud Irishman Patrick Leigh Fermor, who wrote a book called Mani about his life and travels in Greece.

At the start of the book, Fermor lists at several pages’ length the elements of the Greek diaspora throughout Europe and the United States in an obvious and humorous homage to Homer’s famous “catalogue of ships” in Book II of The Iliad, in which the blind poet lists the Greek forces and commanders laying siege to Troy.  Though the stories that comprise The Iliad later were collected and printed by the millions of copies, the poem itself was a product of a pre-mass-media -– pre-literate, in fact – culture, in which the stories were passed along by bards who memorized them for performance.

And that’s when it struck me: How could some illiterate bard recite from memory something as lengthy as the catalogue of ships—29 battle contingents under 46 commanders along with a word or two about each one — when I can’t even remember my seven-digit phone number half the time?

But seriously, folks, My point – and I do have one – is that different modes of communication inevitably draw upon – and perhaps even draw out — different skills and talents. No one, presumably, is born knowing how to recite hundreds of lines of Homeric verse from memory. And this forms the basis of my answer to those who worry aloud about the weakening of newsgathering and reporting standards in an era when media gatekeepers have been deposed by citizens wielding smartphones and social media instead of pitchforks.

The argument that we need mass media institutions to preserve standards is no less spurious than the assertion that we need the mass media for its expertise in rooting out, assessing and interpreting facts – see Jay Rosen’s penetrating meditation on the networked beat for more on this – or for its ability to moderate the national conversation. Last time I checked, the national conversation was more vibrant and contentious than ever even as journalists continued to lengthen unemployment lines here in New York and elsewhere.

Assertions such as these are the last gasp of a formerly privileged institution desperate to find some purpose in a world that is learning to live without it. Ironically, some elements of big media put the lie to those assertions themselves during the marathon bombing investigation, dispensing with their vaunted standards and making major errors in in their haste to compete with social media.

But I digress.  How is the ability to recite hundreds of lines of Homer from memory like news judgment? Simple: No one is born with either one. Just as the bards learned their Homer, so, too, can citizen journalists learn news judgment.. Yes, I know good news judgment is a mix of both knowledge and experience — but that isn’t an argument for not providing the knowledge.

And this is where education comes in. For decades there has been a campaign – sadly more honored in the breech than in the observance, to butcher Shakespeare – to teach media literacy in the schools. You have to wonder why, in our news-and opinion-saturated times, that is perceived as less important than, say, driver’s ed or gym, and whether it is an idea whose time, at long last, has come.

One Reason Why Sponsored Content Sucks


By Kevin R. Convey

 Up until last week, I was a dove in the sponsored-content controversy. Or rather, I had evolved into one. Though I had been dubious about the category to begin with – and fearful about where it might lead – I had settled into a kind of fatalistic complacency.

Content operations, after all, need to find ways to replace dwindling ad revenue. And as long as content supported by sponsors was clearly marked as such, I didn’t see much difference between it and old-fashioned and long-accepted advertorial.

That was until I saw the post on PBS Mediashift last week touting, among other things, CUNY’s Tow-Knight program in general and Skillcrush and Narratively – both products of the program — in particular.

This is great, I thought. I immediately posted a link to the Tow-Knight Google+ community site to allow fellow TK-ers to take pride in the great ink – sorry, pixels. A few minutes after I did so, I saw a comment from classmate Ranjan Roy pointing out that it was sponsored content. Returning to the post itself, I found that I had read right over this at the top and bottom of the story:

“Educational content is sponsored by City University London’s International Journalism MA, a one-year professional master’s degree for the globally-minded (sic) journalist. Journalism is changing – we’ll give you the know-how to succeed. Apply today for entry in September 2013.”

In my rush to get to the good news, I – a reporter and editor for more than 35 years– had read right over that attribution/disclaimer. Suddenly, I felt deflated. A sponsor had essentially paid the site to hire a writer to say nice things about journalism education in general and CUNY in particular.

The piece crossed none of my earlier lines. It was clearly marked as sponsored content. It didn’t even mention the sponsor itself.  But I no longer felt proud about the piece — somehow it now felt hollow, like a compliment you suspect may be false.

And this is one reason sponsored content sucks – one I hadn’t considered before.  A story can be completely legit — and the Mediashift post, despite the fact that it was essentially a one-source piece with nary a discouraging word, was a professional piece of work – but the fact that some outside entity paid for it cannot help but dim its luster among those involved, those who know something about the field and those, unlike me, I guess, who are paying attention to the provenance of the story.

Who can know the motivation for running the piece? What orders were given to the writer? What involvement did the sponsor have in it? How many people, like me, will read right over the attribution and not even ask these questions?

This is what Jeff Jarvis was getting at Monday when he pressed us to make finer and finer ethical distinctions about the legitimacy of sponsored content. But I had to see it in action on a topic dear to me to really get it.





Thinking About “Getting To Yes”

(Photo: Kyle MacDonald / Creative Commons)


By Kevin R. Convey

 I’ve negotiated for things all my life – many jobs, half a dozen cars, two homes, a stainless steel bracelet from a sullen African vendor in Marseilles and an antique brass mortar and pestle from a grumpy Greek in an Athens bazaar He hammered the thing so hard after we settled on a price that my ears were ringing for the rest of the day.

But I didn’t truly understand some aspects of negotiation from the inside out until our exercise in Jeremy Caplan’s class on Monday. And that despite preparing to negotiate the terms of my most recent newspaper job by studying the classic book on negotiation, “Getting to Yes” (Fisher and Ury, Penguin).

The thing about “Getting to Yes” is that it trains you to consider your BATNA (best alternative to a negotiated agreement) and that of your negotiating partner – the book eschews terms such as “opponent” as counterproductive urging you to try to see to your, well, opponent, as a partner in a joint venture to reach an agreement.

And “Getting to Yes” also counsels you in several other ways. It suggests that you separate people from the problem, focus on interests rather than positions, invent negotiating options for mutual gain and insist in using objective criteria.

The problem, of course, is that while it’s easy to arrive at your own BATNA – since I was happy in my job at the time, mine was simply to stay put – it’s hard to know what your partner’s is, especially if he will not share it with you. In my case, my partner had said there were no other candidates – suggesting that his BATNA was less palatable than mine — but it was such an astonishing admission from a veteran negotiator that I suspected it was ploy. Knowing my BATNA – and being at peace with it — allowed me to react to what I considered a first, low-ball offer by revealing it.  If a better offer were not forthcoming — and I suggested what that might be, higher than I would actually settle for, to create some room for negotiation — I would happily stay put.

“Getting to Yes” also places great stock on identifying your own interests – what’s most important to you in the negotiation — and in trying to determine you partner’s. Again, though, the problem is, you can guess at your partner’s interests and you can ask. But if he will not reveal what is most important to him in the negotiation, you are stuck. In my negotiation, every effort I made to learn this so I could bargain a better outcome for both sides was met with a stone wall. What the other side really wanted, it seemed, was to buy me as cheaply as possible.

Fisher and Ury confront this problem as well in their chapter called “What if They Won’t Play?” But every attempt I made to use their suggested negotiation jiujitsu techniques wound up flat on its back on the mat. No dice. In the end, we managed to settle on the only thing that seemed to matter to them – my salary. They spent more than they wanted on me, and I accepted less than I’d hoped for. I suppose mutual disappointment is as good a definition of a successful negotiation as anything else.

But what was interesting about our in-class role-playing was the mutually assured destruction aspect of it. You could clearly see in each game – in a way it’s hard to see during an actual negotiation – that greedy behavior ultimately punishes both sides. The best results consistently came about from a share-the-pie, live and let live approach to the negotiations. It was eye-opening.

But here’s what I wonder about: What we did in class was an exercise, with very little at stake besides learning something and trying to do it well. Had I gone into my job negotiation with that approach – moderating my own expectations in the hope the other side would reciprocate for mutual gain, I wonder what would have happened. Somehow, I doubt I would have made out as well in the real world as I did in the classroom.