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0023: Make it better than Twitter.

This is 2012. Blockbuster is dead. Best Buy is a showroom for Amazon products. HMV barely sells music these days. Borders is gone. Chapters is selling kitschy housewares. EB Games gets maybe 10% of their profit from new game sales.

A newspaper lays off a number of editorial staff. And a news consumer under 30 tells us, with perfect and honest forthrightness, exactly how she consumes the news.

More and more, the crunch is coming. Newsrooms shrink, unable to sustain their talent. It’s a problem. It’s the problem, if you work in media. You look, and you see, and you take a little breath, and you work, and you keep an eye out for good jobs for good people. Print media is seeing it first, but I don’t think they’ll be alone in facing the crunch.

So how do we tackle the problem? Because it can be tackled, in my opinion. But tackling it will first require a precise set of realizations:

1. News publications are products. We’re forcing them to become a service.

We know what newspapers are. We know, even if the glory days are gone. They’re still here. Inch upon inch of silversmithed words dissecting the day’s events in a digestible way. A well-crafted product, a new one each day.

It is nearly impossible to produce products with the same level of craftsmanship 24/7 — and that’s what we’re demanding of newspapers today. We demand permanent access to the latest information on our own terms. That’s a service, more akin to a library than a bookstore.

Compounding this transition is the simple fact that…

2. Online service providers are better and more effective than offline ones, when they’ve got the pricing down.

Remember that list of crippled retailers I provided above? They’re in that sorry state because online companies are providing a better service, hands down.

Why rent a movie when you can pay Netflix eight bucks a month for every movie? Why bother with physical books when you can buy a Kindle and every book? I can’t recall the last time I played music directly from a CD in anything but my car. It’s all iTunes, all the time.

(Even in the car, I should note, I’ve taken to playing music from my iPod using an adapter. Nothing is safe.)

The media is seeing a crunch for the same reason: it makes no apparent sense to bother with physical product — even virtual product, in the case of television — when they can satisfy much more demand online, and in many cases with less people. But how do you monetize it? Because as it stands…

3. News publications don’t have the pricing down, so on top of the above, they’re facing Vlasic’s “gallon jar of pickles” problem all over again.

It’s a famous story, but permit me a brief summary:

Vlasic spent years and years becoming the leading provider of pickles in the US. Their stuff was excellent, their expertise was top-notch. Wal-Mart wanted in on that. Vlasic said hell yes, we want the nation’s leading retailer to sell our stuff. So Vlasic produced a gallon jar of pickles, and Wal-Mart priced it at $2.97.

Sales were incredible. People couldn’t believe they were getting this much stuff at that price. Wal-Mart and Vlasic moved mountains of product. Happy times all around, right?

Wrong. At that price, Vlasic was making mere pennies on every gallon jar. Sales were up, but profits were shrinking. They couldn’t provide the quality product people wanted at the price people were willing to pay. Vlasic’s incredible numbers were killing them.

Sound familiar?

Per the Fast Company article I linked above (fascinating read, btw), Wal-Mart eventually decided that they “killed” the pickle market and started selling Vlasic’s stuff at $2.97 a quart instead of $2.97 a gallon. It became a premium, luxury product again. And Vlasic, eventually, survived.

Conclusion: Here’s what I’m willing to pay for.

I’ll be direct: nine times out of ten, I only buy print media when I expect to be out of cell service for a while. And since it’ll be a while, I lean towards newsmagazines over newspapers. If I’m going to be reading physical media, I want it to be a.) worth my while, and b.) something where the product is a bit of a luxury, and not stuff I can digest in ten seconds when I get Twitter back.

So if you want me to pay for something, and you’re asking me how to make something I’d pay for, here’s what I’ll tell you: make it a luxury and make it better than Twitter.

Make an official app and official website where the day’s news is constantly updated. Make a premium magazine at the end of the week with exclusive columns from the experts, and mail it out. Then tie them together with subscription packages that let people get what they want. Throw a few ads in there. Test the market. Leverage what you find out. Maybe discount the app as a loss leader for the magazine. Or do it the other way ’round. Whatever works.

Bottom line: develop luxury products, figure out what they’re worth, subsidize it with unobtrusive advertising, and I will hand over my credit card.

 
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Posted by on 10.6.12 in me being opinionated

 

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0022: CTE notwithstanding.

The pass from Wellwood hits Kane’s stick right on the tape.

Evander Kane’s skates slice over the blue line. He looks up. He’s surrounded. Two Islanders defenders in front of him, including Manitoba product Travis Hamonic. Two more forwards coming up on his six, homing in for the backcheck. They’re pros. They know he’s dangerous when the ice is open, so they’re closing off the ice. Four on one. Simple, right?

Maybe not.

Kane dekes left, pulling Hamonic towards the boards. Taps the puck underneath Hamonic’s stick and leaps to his right, bringing his stick down just in time to catch the puck on the other side. (Yes, Virginia, Evander Kane just broke open a four-on-one with a crisp pass to himself.) That makes three Isles behind him, one in front, plus the goalie.

The guy in front of him is Andrew MacDonald, a rock-solid defender out of Nova Scotia by way of the QMJHL’s Moncton Wildcats. He’s quiet, you don’t notice him, but that’s just the way MacDonald plays. He takes care of business in his zone. And that’s why he spent a good chunk of the 2010-’11 season clocking more than twenty minutes a game.

It doesn’t show.

MacDonald assays the world’s laziest poke check. Kane ignores it. Wires a wrist shot. It hits MacDonald’s right shin, bounces back. The forwards have closed in behind him, and now everyone’s invited to the party in the Islanders crease. Kane tries again. MacDonald clicks his ankles together like Dorothy trying to get back to Kansas. The puck skitters in between his skates, drifts right. Kane tries again, gets a tiny piece of it. It’s headed past the goalie, but it’s gonna go wide. Good thing Kane’s got a backhand. The puck sails in, and it’s 1-0 Jets.

It’s a textbook example of why Evander Kane is a rising star. So, why am I talking about it?

Well, there appears to be a debate about whether hockey fights have any value. Whether fighting should be banned from the game of hockey.

I hear people talk about pride, about standing up for your guys, about “teaching them a lesson”. I can’t help but think that the best way to “teach them a lesson” is to win the game. After all, you don’t forget a loss you earned.

I hear people talk about bringing some energy, creating a spark, getting the fans into it. You know what else gets the fans into it? Goals. Goals like the one Evander Kane scored.

Bruises don’t go into the history books. Wins and losses do. I say we end hockey fights.

 
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Posted by on 12.10.11 in koans, me being opinionated

 

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0021: Go buy something.

It’s the fall of 2007. I’m a college student, and I have established that screenwriting is my Plan B if the bottom falls out of this journalism thing like everyone says it will. I’m looking for inspiration. Preferably, a copy of Stuart Beattie’s script for Collateral, but I’ll take anything that looks like Oscar bait.

Walk west, down Princess Street from the campus (“go west, young man”), cross what feels like the only two-way street in the Exchange District, and head into Aqua Books.

The place is too big for its britches. Titles teem from tall pine shelves, local art winks at me, ancient chairs beckon. A guestbook rests open on a low, dark table at the back — right in front of a comfy couch, right beside an incredible, dominant wall of speculative fiction. I’d spent some hours on that couch, reading under the antique light, but that’s not where I’m headed. I round the corner, my first right, round it again, and there they are: screenplays.

(I must have ended up buying Kelly completely out of the damn things at the time; I picked up eight inside of two weeks.)

I take Casablanca, The Matrix, The Truman Show, and Erin Brockovich (success has many forms) up to the counter, and Kelly Hughes, being Kelly Hughes, strikes up a conversation.

– Yes, I’m from Red River, just up the street.

– Creative Communications. Majoring in Broadcast Production, so, producing videos, doing radio, doing TV news, that whole thing.

– Yeah, actually, I am looking to freelance. I do some live event work for the Bombers, but I could use some corporate video in my portfolio.

– Definitely. Video content is bringing in the audience, and YouTube has democratized it a lot. 

– You guys are moving? Why don’t you do a series of vlogs — like a blog, but videos instead of text — on the process?

– Sure, I’d love to. I’ll cut you a deal on the pricing, too, since you’re taking a chance on me.

And that’s how these were born:

I did a total of ten Renovation Vidlogs over the next few months. You can watch them here: http://aquabooks.ca/video.php

Kelly was fantastic to work with. Everybody was phenomenally patient with me. And the Vidlogs — along with the letter of recommendation that followed — helped give me my start in this business: Aqua Books and EAT! Bistro were the clients for the first professional videos I ever did.

Not that that’s saying a whole heck of a lot; I’ve only been in the media for a bare handful of years. (Job as a videojournalist for a national news network notwithstanding.) But when I look back, a decade or two from now, after more stories than I can count and more people than I can remember and more cities I’ll have driven through and more wild documents in the vault, after I have a wife and a house and maybe some kids, after Sam Katz has permanently moved to Phoenix and Campbell’s Soup has taken some classes in parody and parking meters are user-friendly and everyone lives downtown because city planners have finally discovered that people need grocery stores and not megaprojects, after all those monolithic e-mails are gathering dust in the Manitoba Archives and the Thin Air festivals are making Cannes jealous and the Stone Angel statue has had its foot worn smooth just like Timmy Eaton’s, I’ll be able to call Kelly and say, “Hey, remember that time when you gave me a chance?”

(This is not to mention the summer where I would have been nearly destitute had Candace not given me a job serving at EAT! Bistro. But Candace has never been a huge fan of spotlights, so I’ll try not to shine one on her. Except for this: ask her about the sun tea, and the pastries. And those fries, those delicious, sanguine, ascetic, perfect fries.)

That’s what Aqua Books means to me. It’s the place that gave me a chance. It’s the place where I’d go to clear my head. It’s the place where I could roll in with a camera and a laptop and edit right in the restaurant if I wanted to. It’s the place that was somewhere off on Notre Dame Avenue for a while, before it was on 89 Princess Street for a while, before I watched it move to 274 Garry Street, where it stayed for a while. It’s the place that knew how to play host. It was a hall, in the truest sense of the word.

So it doesn’t have walls and a ceiling for a while. That’s okay. You don’t have to let it go away. Just have some authors and a musician over, and bring some friends.

* * *

The best part is, Aqua and EAT! are still staying open for weeks and weeks yet. So go buy something! Support them! Have the black bean cakes, seriously, they’re awesome. And the fries. Best. Fries. Ever.

Check out twitter.com/aquabooks and aquabooks.ca

* * *

Before I go, I’ll leave you with another video from the Renovation Vidlogs. This was shot during the “Inaugural Superfun Clean-Up Bee!”, when dozens of volunteers came together to help Kelly clean up the building that would become Aqua Books and EAT! Bistro.

Warning: I pull no punches. It’s set to “Hide and Seek” — the original. And yes, Kelly, it’s got a very, very special guest star.

 
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Posted by on 8.11.11 in me being opinionated

 

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0020: What “hard work” means.

A man comes to the door. He’s got a cane, and a strange, digital box. He seems half-broken, like he can’t stand up straight. I answer. He whuffles an attempt at speech; all I can determine is, he’s asking for my roommate by name. My roommate runs a store nearby — maybe it’s a customer? I summon him over.

Roommate walks up. This guy presses a button on his strange digital box: a computerized voice comes out, requesting that we donate money, asking for charity. Now I know why he’s got the box; he has a speech impediment, so the box speaks for him.

My roommate says he can’t donate any money. I can’t, either — stone broke until payday tomorrow. The guy nods, like he knew what the answer would be before he asked, and begins to shuffle away. Makes his way to the sidewalk. His digital box continues, asking for our charity, while we close the door.

He’d worked so goddamn hard, getting to our front door, and we couldn’t give him anything. He couldn’t even talk. Couldn’t walk right. His carefully programmed speech kept playing while he walked away. He knew what would happen. But he tried anyway.

Broke my heart.

 
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Posted by on 6.29.11 in koans

 

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0019: Quotation.

It is not the critic who counts. Not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done better.

The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena. Whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood. Who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again because there is no effort without error or shortcoming. Who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions. Who spends himself for a worthy cause. Who — at the best — knows in the end the triumph of high achievement. And who — at the worst — if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place will never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.

Teddy Roosevelt, at the Sorbonne in Paris, April 23, 1910. From a speech titled “Citizenship in a Republic”.

I haven’t posted much due to my workload, but we’ve just wrapped Season 2 of APTN Investigates, so I should be able to write a bit more going forward.

Came across the above today, after not seeing it for at least a decade. It’s something I want to keep in mind; as a journalist, it would be all too easy to be the critic, to watch the men in the arena instead of being one. Within the constraints of the profession, I want to make sure I am always a doer of deeds, if quiet ones.

 
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Posted by on 3.25.11 in me being opinionated

 

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0018: Battlefield: Bad Company 2.

Dust contrails sprint through the air as our tanks fire. A curved line, linking friend with foe. Me, I’m less than a graceful curve: darting from cover to cover, anxiously reloading my machine pistol, scanning the village on the cliff for enemy movement, I look more like a Ralph Steadman piece with bullet holes in it.

There! Right next to the relay station. Our team needs to arm and explode two relay stations in order to push forward and win the round; looks like two of the enemy just finished disarming one of those stations. They duck around the corner of the building, fast, but not too fast — I can see the telltale “hairiness” of a sniper’s ghillie suit on a vanishing figure. Wonderful. I hug my cover like a bridesmaid at a wedding.

A chunk of ground six feet away vanishes, and my hearing goes with it. Abrams round. Looks like the other side got their own tanks. Time for me to swing into action: I’m playing the Engineer class, taking care of tanks is what I do.

Back up into the treeline, pull out my rocket launcher from nowhere, begin reloading. I can hear the Abrams treads rolling forward, back, forward, back, in an odd tank-sized variation on the “sniper dance” you see in so many shooting games. (In short: stay too long in one spot, and people can follow your bullet trails back to you. If you move in weird, quick little circles, you can stay zoomed in and dodge incoming fire at the same time. Sniper dance.) Finally, the Abrams driver decides he wants to be a man today, and begins trundling down the forested slope. I glance behind me, looks like he’s got reason to be a man: our tanks are gone. Also wonderful.

The Abrams rolls by underneath me, searching for more artillery to take out. Lucky me. I introduce my rocket launcher to the tank, and they become the best of friends. Tank’s down to fifty health, and I’m backpedaling like a CEO in a scandal while I reload for another shot.

Machine gun fire shreds the trees around me. Great — one of the tank driver’s squadmates respawned on him, placing him inside the tank and at the controls of the tank’s secondary machine gun. Truly a red letter day for me, because now I get to do my own sniper dance, dodging his bullets while I try to nail them both with another rocket.

Beep. Squadmate respawns on me. Good, it’s one of my level 40+ teammates — the elites of the game. He pulls out some C4 and runs up to the tank, tagging it with blocks of plastique. I finally finish my reload. Click, click, boom: tank’s gone. I get the assist and not the kill: looks like my teammate triggered his C4 at the same time. Ah, well.

Copter rotors roar overhead, too low. I backpedal even faster, running for my virtual life. But wait — there’s no angry buzz from the helicopter’s mounted miniguns. Puzzled, I look up, just in time to see the copter crash into an adobe building next to the one of the relay stations and explode. Ten seconds later, the relay station is armed and the kills readout shows that one of my teammates has died from SMG fire.

Ah. I have one of THOSE guys on my team.

Rustle through the undergrowth, take up a position near that relay station. Squadmates and teammates move in. I let them take care of the dirty work: they’re playing Assault and Medic classes, more suited to the up-front work of arming points. I hang back and pick off enemies trying to man stationary guns or drive tanks.

Thirty seconds later, we’ve won, and I’ve got the Gold Squad pin for my efforts.

I shut off the computer and go outside for a walk. It’s a fun afternoon, but I don’t think I’ll play the game for too much longer. I went to high school with Cpl. Mike Seggie (KIA at 21), and multiplayer military-sim FPS games get to me after a while. Single-player campaigns are fine (it’s like a movie), the more ridiculous ones like Halo and TF2 are fine, but doing what Mike did for points in a game just doesn’t sit well for too long.

The sun shines. I light up a cigarette, and I think about sacrifice.

 
 

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0017: Lost in Vancouver.

I drop my reporter off at the IKEA in Richmond, twenty minutes’ drive from Vancouver International.

“You’ll be alright, Josh?”

“Yeah, I’ve got directions and a GPS on the cell. It’ll be easy. Plus, it’s warm!”

Smartphone goes into map mode, balanced delicately on the steering column, and I head up Sweden Way (appropriate!) to Bridgeport. Turn on Bridgeport, smartphone screen times out, traffic mobs me, I decide to delicately remove the smartphone from the steering column and drive using good old-fashioned Google Map directions. It’s sunny, it’s warm, Vancouver’s got that fresh coast wind going, five hours to the flight and two-thirds of a tank left. I’ll be fine.

During Accidental Detour A, I overshoot the Vancouver-Blaine Freeway, I’m trundling through northern Richmond with $50,000 of camera gear that (I should note) isn’t mine. That’s cool, whatever, breeze blowing, et cetera. I take the Mazda 3 through the world’s longest and largest U-turn (illegal in BC, they’d prefer it if you went around blocks and took the scenic route, after all there is so very much scenic), end up back on the freeway, heading over the Oak Street Bridge and into Vancouver proper.

Google Maps directs me to take the off-ramp onto SW Marine Drive. Alright. I inch the wheel right, take the off-ramp. It turns out to be an off-alley, with parked cars on it, and oncoming traffic, which I took as a wonderful and life-affirming challenge that would help me expand my boundaries. I promptly expanded the last available parking space on the road, let the traffic by, and moved all my boundaries over to SW Marine Drive.

The street goes around a couple of angles and delivers me onto Knight Street and then Kingsway, which are amazing streets with lots of awesome views when you’re not desperately trying to follow directions on a half-folded printout in the middle of Vancouver traffic. I roll down (and up, and down, and up) Vancouver, checking the Google Maps printout for my next landmark. It’s telling me to take the exit for North Vancouver/Capilano Canyon/Grouse Mountain. Alright. I keep my eyes peeled for the exit for North Vancouver/Capilano Canyon/Grouse Mountain, and when I see it, I take the exit for downtown Vancouver instead.

This is Accidental Detour B, and it’s less than fortuitous.

Downtown Vancouver is a castle. There’s a great wall of parapet-esque highrises surrounding a complicated core of activity and development. I am now, at this point in the story, lost off my ass in this nexus of conspicuously good-looking effort.

I keep going, which seems intelligent. Take a couple of turns when it looks like I’ve gone too far, including one disturbing left turn onto a hilly avenue with a giant on-ramp yawning open in the middle lane (Vancouver is hungry and it’s going to eat this desperately lost flatlander, oh noes!). Just keep going, just keep going.

Here, my awesome decision-making skills laid bare: I decide to follow people that look like they know what they’re doing.

This leads me into the wake of a shiny grey SUV taking sharp, businesslike turns and heading west. Works for me. We zig our way through Vancouver’s zagging blocks, and head into Stanley Park.

Now, I’m getting a little antsy. Three hours to the flight, yeah, but I’m down to 33% of a gas tank (note to self: Mazdas are unkind when it comes to mileage). But hey: Stanley Park! Trees! Weird, bright lights hanging over the lanes telling me which ones are closed and which ones are open! Alright!

It’s when I go through Stanley Park and hit the Lionsgate Bridge that sweat flecks my brow. A bridge? A huge bridge? Necessitating complex navigation of cloverleafs as well as staying tuned for APTN’s Vancouver bureau? Life challenge, yes. Wonderful expansion of boundaries, not so much.

I cross the Lionsgate, barely soothed by the gorgeous mountains walking up underneath the city on the other side. There’s construction at the end of the bridge, which I can handle… and, lucky star of lucky stars, I can see our Vancouver bureau to the right of the bridge, looking like a hobbit-house amidst the trees.

Drop off the $50,000 of camera equipment, take one look at the Google Maps printout for the airport, and wisely decide to go there without following any directions at all.

 
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Posted by on 2.28.11 in koans

 

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0016: Safe as Houses, Part II

Rising through Canadian horizons on artificial wings.

The houses in Vancouver crowd the coast, crowd the islands, crown the mountains, until they look like so much hoarfrost on the edge of Canada, glittering in the black night.

In daytime, the houses in Calgary surround a rebellious upthrust of skyscrapers, waiting to hear what they have to say.

And there is one point, 30,000 feet above the Rockies, where the mountains fade from choppy waves of rock into mute blue bezier silhouettes, the Pacific climbs over the horizon, and all of a sudden, you lose track of which ocean you’re crossing.

 
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Posted by on 2.2.11 in koans

 

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INTERMISSION 001: Port Burwell, NWT.

My apologies for the silence; while I’ve had a busy couple of weeks, there hasn’t been much for me to write about. Or, perhaps more accurately, I haven’t been able to order my thoughts into a set of words that make a point. But that should change soon.

In the interim, check out this link: http://parkinsonsdance.blogspot.com/2005/10/chapter-32.html

Let’s remember stories that haven’t been told before.

 
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Posted by on 1.23.11 in me being opinionated

 

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0015: The newsroom.

I step into the office, where chaos is given form.

This is not a clearinghouse for information, this is no gate. It’s a social network for stories; they meet, see what they have in common, go places. Lives told in life.

It’s humming, today: producers are in the middle of story meetings, reporters talking with sources. Colourful posters and bits of flash frame an inferno of organization. I take off my jacket, scarf, swing into my seat. Research is flowing into my computer like it’s a river delta.

We write the first draft of history; first drafts do not happen in austere, silent houses of the mind. They happen in the thick of things, in a forest of tapes and scripts and thermoses. They happen in media res.

And I should probably be shot for that pun.

 
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Posted by on 1.13.11 in koans

 

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