A Meditation on the Journalism of the Future

bendable phone

 

In a scene from the 2002 science-fiction thriller “Minority Report,” a subway passenger reads constantly updated news on a small, thin, flexible sheet he could shove in his pocket. When cop John Anderton, played by Tom Cruise, strolls in another scene, human holograms serve him ads based on his preferences and location.

It turns out that the moviemakers foresaw trends in journalism years before they emerged. While iPad isn’t quite flexible, it grows closer with every iteration. The proliferation of Wi-Fi hotspots combined with digital-first news publishing make frequent mobile updates a way of life.  And the geolocation abilities of smartphones and tablets will make it easy to serve proximity-based advertising within a year or two, experts say.

And the filmmakers couldn’t have known that current hardware trends would help make their vision reality: The number of adults in the U.S. who own a smartphone has doubled from 30 to 60 percent in the last three years; more than one-third of adults in the U.S. own a tablet; laptop and desktop sales are cratering.

The trend is clear: Mobile rules the journalism of the future.

On the production end, savvy reporters are already using the same tools to gather news as their readers employ to consume it, using smartphones to tape broadcast interviews and create podcasts, create and edit videos, shoot and edit photo packages, write stories and posts and file them all on the fly. In the next 10 years this trend will accelerate at legacy news organizations as managers continue to squeeze their staffs in response to advertising declines.

Meanwhile, adoption of a mobile-first ethos will be key to the success of all news organizations, and to the very survival of legacy organizations, some of which are still struggling to be digital first – the journalistic equivalent of fighting the last war.

Being mobile first means reorganizing reporters and desks to focus on mobile customers and the mobile experience. It means streamlining workflows so updates, posts and stories go up instantly; it means adoption of responsive design and possibly discrete mobile design; and it means focusing ad departments on where the money rather than on where it’s been.

And news organizations soon will have a new technology to cope with: wearable computers such a Google Glass, smartphone watches such as the Samsung Galaxy Gear, the rumored iWatch and more sophisticated versions of the Nike Fuelband and its analogs.

The nearly always-on nature of these devices (as opposed to those that are frequently pocketed) and their tiny size pose new challenges to news organizations. Lightning fast updates are even more important for a nearly always-on device. Because of their size and/or design, reading text on them will be even more tedious than on smartphones, so successful organizations will need to focus even more on visual journalism, tight editing and thoughtful design.

Finally, Google Glass in particular brings a final conceit of “Minority Report” within reach. The device’s nearly always-on nature makes the idea of proximity-based advertising almost as powerful as it is onscreen when John Anderton is being shown ads as he walks. And the speaking holograms that serve the ads? Well, it’s a lot easier and cheaper to create one on an LCD screen than it is in three-dimensional space.

In other words, it can’t be far off.

 

 

 

Photography goes back to the future at the Sun-Times

Wikipedia

Wikipedia

By Kevin R. Convey

The Chicago Sun-Times’ decision to slaughter its entire photo staff last week wasn’t just a dramatic reaction to the paper’s declining fortunes. It was also — knowingly or unknowingly — a return to the way business used to be done at small and mid-size papers across the country not so long ago – in the days before the industry became a prisoner of its own success.

My first reaction to this photocaust was, I must admit, a snarky one. As managing editor and editor in chief of the Boston Herald between 2004 and 2010, I looked at the country’s other five tabloids for ideas and inspiration from time to time and was always struck by how poor the Sun-Times’ use of photos was – especially for a tab. The editors didn’t seem to know a good photo when they saw one, or how to play it when they had one — that is to say, big.

So when I heard the entire photo staff was gone, I thought, well, the editors really didn’t need a staff anyway considering the way they consistently underplayed its work. Recovering from that uncharitable assessment, it struck me that the way the paper would now be forced to proceed was not unlike the way business was done in the photo departments of small- and medium-size papers when I first broke in as a young reporter in the late ‘70s.

Jeff Jarvis, by the way, has written an excellent post in which he critiques the Sun-Times move and suggests that the photo staff’s mission should have been redefined in a more curatorial way to save cash and both foster and take advantage of the smartphone-primed explosion in amateur photography.  I agree with him. But my purpose here isn’t to recapitulate his analysis.

When I was hired onto the staff of the Times Record in Brunswick, Maine, shortly before my college graduation in 1977, I was told its reporters were required to shoot their own photographs, and asked if I owned a 35mm camera. I was young but not foolish. I lied, said yes and begged my parents to make my graduation gift a Nikkormat FT3 and to give it to me early so I could teach myself how to shoot.

For the next few weeks I shot everything that moved and a lot of stuff that didn’t but looked like it did in my photos because of my superb technique. By the time I turned up for work, however, I was capable if not exactly proficient with the camera. The Times Record’s photo staff was exactly 1.5 shooters; reporters provided the bulk of the paper’s photography with staff photographers reserved for page-one work, features or photo stories.

Now, the Times Record was admittedly a small paper (about 15,000 circ. five days a week in those days) in a small town (about 20,000, if memory serves), and, indeed, by the time I landed at my next paper  — the then-60,000-circ Standard-Times of New Bedford — I was told my photo services were neither required nor, frankly, welcome. Devotees of the art will be happy to know that I never touched another shutter-release button in the line of duty. That’s why God invented the photo staff.

Now, some will argue the difference between the policy of the Times Record and the Standard-Times was simply one of size-related professionalism: the larger the paper, the greater the commitment to consistency and excellence in all phases of the game, including photography. And that’s undoubtedly true. Union restrictions also played a role at larger papers.

But it’s clear that larger papers created independent photo staffs in part because they had the money. Smaller papers such as the Times Record relied on reporters to shoot because they didn’t. And they made it work. In spite of my meager efforts, there was no uprising of readers demanding more consistently excellent photography in Brunswick. Now, with papers slowly choking on so-called “legacy costs” – expensive ways of doing business instituted when the industry threw off returns greater than 20 percent – its clear that a full-service, fully staffed photo operation is among them and needs rethinking. The small-paper method is, it seems to me, a better option than the Chicago-style meat ax.

And this trend certainly won’t be limited to photo staffs. The ultimate implications of Jay Rosen’s visionary thinking on the “networked beat” will seem unhappily clear to any reporter who takes the time to contemplate it. Here, too, smaller papers long ago discovered a means to keep reporting-staff headcount low: the town correspondent who covered quotidian affairs while full-time reporters were carefully husbanded for deployment on larger stories. This was, in fact, an early form of citizen journalism, and its implications in the present era are also clear.

Don’t get me wrong: I have enormous respect for the photo staffs I’ve worked with and no desire to see former colleagues out of work. While we’re at it, I would be happier if newspapers could afford to keep their own presses running, maintain their grand old buildings, preserve their Sunday magazines and TV books and re-stock decimated reporting staffs. None of this is going to happen, and wishing it would isn’t a business model. But examining the industry’s pre-legacy past for solutions to its current dilemma may well be.

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.

 

 

 

 

What Makes Writing Sticky?

I’m glad I’m taking feature writing this semester at the same time as I’m completing my concentration in entrepreneurial journalism. Because they draw on such completely different skills that one is always a refreshing break from the other. Rarely do they intersect.

Writing feature stories feels like a right-brained enterprise, intuitive, holistic and creative, while entrepreneurial work, once you’re past the ideation stage, anyway, feels more left-brained: logical, analytical, sequential.

So, imagine my delight this past Monday when Jeremy Caplan introduced our entrepreneurial class to Made to Stick, by Chip and Dan Heath, an engaging fun-to-read book that ditches the usual biz-babble to examine the characteristics that make ideas “sticky.”

On the surface, the list seems simple. It forms the acronym SUCCES: simplicity, unexpectedness, concreteness, credibility, emotions and stories. But the concept is given depth and richness both by the examples the Heaths deploy and by the conversational, storytelling style they use.

As an example, the simplicity, unexpectedness, concreteness and narrative quality of any of the best urban folktales – the microwaved poodle, the choking Doberman, the kidney harvest – all explain why these tales, each patently untrue, are so persistent in our culture.

But as I read and listened, my right brain and left brain converged and presented me with an apercu – not to be confused with a stroke. I realized that these attributes could also function as a set of rules for the kind of great writing we’d been studying in feature writing and trying to imitate.:

Simplicity: Whether it’s the plot of Maupassant’s short stories or the leanness of Hemingway’s prose, simple is sticky when it comes to writing.

Unexpectedness: Has anyone who has ever read “The Little Match Girl” or “Gift of the Magi” ever forgotten the final plot twists? They are stickiness defined.

Concreteness: The first lesson every reporter/writer learns or should learn. Details are the soul of good writing. From the Hemingway’s opening scene-setter in A Farewell to Arms to the environmental description that strikes the tone for James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux novels, it’s detail that sticks.

Credibility: Whether your narrator is reliable or not, if your story isn’t believable at the gut level, it will not stick.

Emotions: What is it we remember most about a piece of writing? Usually it’s the either the emotions expressed or those we are made to feel. Returning to A Farewell to Arms, who can ever forget the terse yet miserably lonely, rain-soaked concluding paragraph?

Stories: “Stories within stories” is what Charles Leerhsen, our features instructor, is always telling us makes for a good, long-form story. But even on a more basic level, the first question anyone asks about a novel or a movie is, “What’s it about?” There’s a good reason for this: Stories stick.

So, please excuse me. I have to go try to pry the left and right sides of my brain apart.

Marathon bombing leaves cracks in the “new news ecosystem”

When news of the Boston Marathon bombing broke on Monday my reaction was worthy of one of B.F Skinner’s pigeons in a Skinner box: I wanted to press the lever that delivered a newspaper – one of those thrilling extras we used to put out when big news broke in the morning back in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

But since nobody puts extras out anymore – just 10 or so years after my former employer, the Boston Herald, printed its last, the notion already seems as quaint – and as dead – as the paperboy – I did what I thought was the next best thing: I went to the Boston papers’ websites: bostonherald.com and boston.com. The Herald’s website was accessible, but clearly the staff was scrambling. A half-hour after the first bomb went off at 2:50, a breaking news banner led to a jumbled, four-paragraph story. The Globe’s website had crashed entirely.

As I looked up, stunned, a classmate had jumped onto Twitter, and began reading off posts that unfolded like a series of news bulletins, hundreds pouring in every minute, providing everything that the newspaper sites could not.

I’m afraid I sound like a naïf here, but I’m really not. I’m an old-media guy by training and experience for sure, but I’ve been on Twitter for a couple of years. I understand the role it has played in breaking-news stories since the earthquake in China in 2009 and especially during the Arab spring that bloomed a year later. I could even pick Andy Carvin out of a crowd. But this was the first time I saw its incredible power to report a story in which I was personally invested – and how lame it made big media look moment by moment. For me, things have changed, and for the better.

Of course, no good in the new-media world is unalloyed. As usual, Twitter was distinguished in part by the amount of bad information it put out along the way. As Slate’s Jeremy Stahl later said, if newspapers provide what Washington Post Publisher Philip L. Graham called “the first rough draft of history,” then Twitter “is the first rough draft of journalism.” And, as anyone who has ever produced one knows, first drafts are messy.

But so what? In this, Twitter and other social media outlets were hardly alone. Perhaps in an effort to keep up with the speed of developments on social media, old-media outlets, ranging from CNN to Fox, from the Globe itself to the New York Post, made egregious errors along the way that they were forced to walk back, often grudgingly. Some of the mistakes were never corrected. As radio and TV reporters have known for decades, the immediacy/accuracy ratio is thornier than any quadratic equation.

But here’s where it gets weird. Not content merely to provide breaking-news developments, social media denizens began to dabble in press criticism, pointing out the mainstream media’s mistakes with all the gleeful high-school snark we have come to expect from the medium. One commentator went so far as to celebrate social media’s new role as ombudsman. Excuse me, but it’s hard to imagine the Times’ Margaret Sullivan pointing out other outlets’ mistakes without taking note of those made by her own. The other way around is more often the case, in fact.

This phenomenon reached the Everest of absurdity on Reddit, where would-be critics of mainstream journalism raged about the New York Post’s decision to splash with a photo of two men (not the brothers later ID’d as the bombers) allegedly sought for questioning by investigators, charging that the paper had unfairly stigmatized, and possibly even libeled, the pair. Flash forward a day, and posters to Reddit named as a suspect a Brown University student who almost assuredly had nothing to do with the blast. What’s wrong with this picture?

What’s wrong with this picture is that both social media and the mainstream media need to understand their new roles in this part of what Jeff Jarvis has called the “new news ecosystem.” Social media gives us a speedy, crowdsourced first draft of breaking news. As such, errors are to be expected, although restraint and discretion about what to post and re-post should be exercised, as Carvin does so well.

The mainstream media provides the context, analysis, depth and breadth that social media by definition cannot provide. If it wishes to retain the credibility that is one of its natural advantages, the mainstream media needs to be far more careful about competing with social media for immediacy, because errors are more apparent when they’re frozen in print or on tape, making it tougher for the mainstream to walk back an error.

For their part, social media natives need to understand that they are part of an ecosystem that includes mainstream media. Where would social media be, for example, without the reporting of the mainstream to post? Instead of behaving like a high-school clique bent on ridiculing the errors of old-media outlets, they need to grow up, put aside the snark and self-righteousness, and strive to improve at doing what they do best. To do otherwise is to display all the intelligence of a pigeon in a Skinner box.

This post brought to you by… me

Our spirited discussion about advertising with Lewis D’Vorkin yesterday reminded me that I’ve wanted to scratch the itch of sponsored content for a few weeks. Happily, the New York Times sanctioned such discussions the week before last, when it discovered – in much the same way Columbus discovered America, I guess – the controversy over this growing form of advertising.

In truth, the controversy’s been simmering for more than a year. And that’s as it should be. Because, done improperly, sponsored content threatens the only thing that old and new media alike really have to sell – and that’s credibility.

First, let’s define the terms: sponsored content is exactly what it sounds like – a story, a photo, a chart, a video directly sponsored by an advertiser. They can be written and edited by the sponsor or by the outlet’s staff on behalf of the sponsor. On this everyone agrees. It’s not much different from the concept of “advertorial” in the old media world: a piece of print content, often an insert, sometimes a page or two of ROP, prepared by or in cooperation with the advertiser and clearly marked as such.

Notice I’ve italicized “clearly marked as such.” That’s because this is where the agreement on sponsored content begins to break down these days. In the old media world, the marking would take the form of a narrow banner at the top of the page that said “advertorial” or “advertising.” Papers took pains to insure that readers were further tipped off by fonts, headline and layout styles that differed visibly from those employed in the news pages.

Why did papers go to the trouble? First, because they aware of the eternal tension between advertisers and news organizations. Advertisers, naturally, want to get their messages across to consumers with the least possible amount of mediation. And, if they can, they also seek to appropriate some of the news organization’s credibility by making their message resemble news content as much as possible.

This is undeniable. Some of most brutal battles I had with my colleagues in advertising were over their requests that advertorial be made to look a little less like what it was, and a little more like news content. The nadir of this approach was the infamous grapefruit diet ad and others like it that some newspapers, including mine at the time, published in the ‘90s and 2000s. That was one fight I lost.

Forbes handles sponsored content well. If the banner designating it isn’t entirely intelligible, it is large, and there’s a clickable “what’s this?” link that explains it all very clearly. But I can’t say the same for Mashable, Buzzfeed and some other websites, where the game seems to be to cater to advertisers by giving them what they so badly wanted from newspaper advertorial back in the day – as little distinction between it and news content as possible.

Yes, it’s a new digital day, and a much more challenging environment than in the glory days of old media. But one thing hasn’t changed. Readers still value credibility highly when it comes to news websites. And advertisers want to be part of a site in part because it’s credible. For online news executives to squander this with vague justifications such as “content is content” and “readers don’t care where content comes from” is to sell, like Esau, their birthright for a mess of pottage.

Can you hear me now…?

When the blog posts and tweets started cresting last week celebrating the 40th anniversary of the cell phone, I didn’t know whether to sing a chorus of “Happy Birthday” or pitch my iPhone off the roof and then run it over with my car.

Cell phones have had that sort of affect on me almost from the start.

Though most writers were quick to offer the ritual top tens – worst handset, best handset – or the hoary foundational story of the first call from a Motorola Dyna-TAC (a brick-like appliance that made Maxwell Smart’s shoe phone look sleek) -from a Manhattan streetcorner in 1973, – few dug beneath the surface to examine the impact of the cellphone on our lives.

Though it can hardly be understated – cellphones, it could be reasonably argued, are the sina qua non of the modern world — that impact, I would suggest, is decidedly mixed. In truth, like Antony, I bury my cellphone much more often than I praise it.

It wasn’t always this way. Unlike many of my youthful classmates, I not only remember the early cell phones, but I carried one of the first models to make a commercial splash in the late ‘80s – the unbelievably ungainly Motorola Micro-TAC, which despite its optimistic nomenclature was about the size and weight of half a brick, available in any color as long as it was it was death-pallor-gray and with its whip antenna looked more like a walkie-talkie than the walkies it was replacing in the newsroom. When you loaded one of those babies into your inside breast pocket, it made your jacket sag so one-sidedly it looked like it had had a stroke.

But we loved them. Call anyone, anywhere, anytime. Reporters in the field. Wow. “Can you hear me now?” Your wife from the train. “I’m calling from a cellphone.” To repeat, wow.

Of course, that was before we realized that cellphones made you reachable at any time as well. Like while you were driving your car, formerly an inviolable oasis of solitude, or traveling, or in the grocery or during a hundred other formerly solitary activities that once defined daily life in the era of the landline. And once those boundaries of solitude were erased by the cellphone, it was only a matter of time until the appliance leveled the wall between work and play as well. Like the appliance to which they were increasingly tethered, workers were soon considered always on.

Thus, the era cell-phone serfdom had begun. And, remember, this was well before email, broadband, mobile internet access, text messaging and social media made the cellphone even more essential, not just a communications tool but the device through which we have, for better or worse, come to access much of our world. Need evidence of the cell’s centrality to our lives? Just watch the next time someone you know almost leaves the house without his or her cell phone but catches himself. You would think they had almost left the house without pants.

I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater here. Much of what I do for a living, as well as much of what I do for pleasure, would be infinitely more difficult without a cell phone, and sometimes I even appreciate mine. But you’ll forgive me if I sit out the candles and the birthday cake.

But I do have a birthday present for you, my little cell phone. Come with me. It’s up on the roof.

The days when every business broke guitars…

When Jeremy showed us the “United Breaks Guitars” movie during class the week before last, I had to laugh. Not just because it was a funny bit – although it was – but because there was a time when many businesses treated their customers in that way. Especially in media.

I know – I used to do it myself.

To recap: Band members traveling together to a gig on United looked out the windows of their plane before takeoff only to see United’s baggage handlers tossing their instruments around like the gorilla in the old American Tourister commercials.

Sure enough, the players found on arrival that their instruments had been damaged, thus beginning a customer-service nightmare that culminated in the short film we saw. Even after the film went viral, United’s response was tepid at best.

Like Jeff’s well-documented experience in Dell Hell, this was the nature of much customer service in the era before the full bloom of social media. And this despite the lip service paid to such notions as “customer-facing companies” and hoary shibboleths such as ”the customer is always right.”

This was particularly true in media companies, where the lines of communication tended to run in direction only and executives were unaccustomed to dealing with unhappy customers, who were treated as annoyances at best and marks at worst.

Home delivery customer service – the lifeblood of most newspapers — was comically bad, with papers delivered everywhere but where they were supposed to go, circulation directors who found a rich vein of humor in the resulting complaints, and little done to solve small problems that sometimes dragged on for years.

Things were hardly better upstairs in editorial, where citizen complaints about stories were routinely laughed off, ignored or treated with disdain. And if you wanted to get a top editor on the phone to talk you had better be the governor, the mayor or the police chief – or you’d find yourself talking to an overworked editorial assistant or secretary-gatekeeper at best.

Small wonder, then, that this period coincided with a noticeable rise in libel suits against newspapers, a decline in trustworthiness ascribed to the media in attitudinal surveys and a growing feeling that the media was just another arrogant, unresponsive institution instead of the public-spirited citizen watchdog it was supposed to be. This attitude has hardened into the current serves-them-right perspective on the disruption of big media.

That disruption has brought a lot of pain to legacy media, but it has also forced it to walk the walk on customer service — now that social media has institutionalized two-way communication and evened the balance of power. After experiencing their own versions of “United Breaks Guitars” and “Dell Hell” campaigns, you can bet that old media doesn’t respond to complaints in the way it used to — even if it is a result of fear rather than respect.

Either way, it’s a good thing.