Life is easy, and then you die

Mr. Arakawa and Ms. Gins are conceptual artists whose challenging loft apartments in Japan include brightly colored walls, bumpy, undulating floors and floor-to-ceiling ladders.

bioscleave_verticaljpgYesterday’s Wall Street Journal had a front page feature on a New York couple who design environments that challenge our cognitive assumptions — and, they believe, stimulate us in ways that prolong our lives, perhaps to the point of immortality.

The couple’s savings were lost in the Madoff scam, halting their work.

Mr. Arakawa and Ms. Gins are conceptual artists challenging loft apartments in Japan feature brightly colored walls, bumpy, undulating floors and floor-to-ceiling ladders. They’ve also done a house in the Hamptons, priced at $5.5 million. Their goal was to build an entire village based on “transhumanism” priciples.

I’m intrigued by this approach, and would very much like to spend a week or two living in one of their lofts. Until the past century, humans spend  much of their lives in environments that were extremely challenging, biologically and psychologically. It makes sense to me that, at some level, we need this more than we do CAT-5 wiring, motion sensing lighting, and bug-repellent clothing.

The long, slow death of the American newspaper

Journalism began dying about 50 years ago, but the public seems to have noticed it just recently, when the walking dead that American dailies had become finally started dropping into their graves.

You could say that the rise of the Internet, creating an alternate pathway for transmitting information, was the final nail in the coffin.

If you looked at a local newspaper from 50 years ago today, it would seem boring to you. That’s because newspapers used to be filled with stories about Planning and Zoning Board meetings, School Board meetings — even meetings of the schools’ finance committee. There were police blotters, with the names of everyone in town who’d been arrested, and for what.

Somewhere along the line, local newspapers became convinced that their readers would rather see syndicated gossip about Britney Spears and American Idol than read “boring” stories about which developer was about to build a high-rise blocking your view and raising everyone’s taxes. Papers stopped reporting on who’d been arrested (yet again) for assault or drunk driving.

The papers that are disappearing today are but ghosts of local journalism, finally fading away.

Oddly, the investigative journalism that appeared to have revitalized the field in the 1960s probably contributed to its demise. As a reporter who did investigative work as well as beat reporting, I was on two papers that plunged into investigative projects in the 1970s. But instead of focusing investigative projects on suspicious activities beat reporters unearthed through their reporting, the investigations often began with a paper’s top officials asking “Who’s big who we could take down and make a nice, Pulitzer-style splash?” Those investigative witch hunts usually focused on a safe-to-attack government agency or on an individual in public office (such as the mayor with personal problems, or the social services project that was under-serving children or the elderly). You rarely saw investigations of banks, real estate, or private industry. That’s because local companies paid taxes and local real estate and financial operations were headed by the same folks who lunched with the newspaper publisher at the country club.

Yes, the demise of the American newspaper leaves Americans without any way to get information on what’s really going on in their towns and cities. But how upset can we get, since it had been years since we’d been seeing that information on more than a sporadic basis, anyway! (BTW, the local new site Crosscut does a better job of traditional reporting than the Times and P-I ever have.) And, finally: Many people make the argument that people would rather read about Britney Spears and American Idol than about the goings on in local government.

So…anyone want to blog about the Seattle Planning Commission?

Can we talk type size?

The Writer Way blog looks fine to me in the Safari 4 Beta browser, but I’m finding the type is tiny and hard to read in Firefox 3.0.7.

Obviously, I could control my own reading experience by adjusting browser preferences, but what I’m really concerned about is your experience.

Is this font (type size) too small for you? If so, please leave a comment to let me know, and tell me what browser you’re using. After collecting some data, I’ll take whatever steps are necessary to improve the reading experience.

Many thanks!

Er, do I know you?

The irony here is that adding a little bit of actual identifying information to their email wouldn’t have cost them a cent.

<rant mode on>

I received email today from a company whose software product I apparently downloaded at some unspecified time in the past. Here are the first four paragraphs of today’s email, with the product name changed to Prod and the Company acronym changed to COM (but typos included):

Subjectline: Prod & COM
Lots is happening in Prod Land these days. We have 3 important things to tell you:
*Prod Version 2.0.2 Released:*
We’ve just released an update to Prod, version 2.0.2, which has lots of new translations and bug fixes. As always, download it here:
Overall, the release of Prod 2 has received lots of great coverage and more users that ever. Take a look at some of the recent reviews: [URLhere]

I download three or four pieces of software a week (that would be more than 150 apps a year), a few of which I use regularly and the rest of which I soon forget. Might I want to take a look at this one again? Perhaps, but this email gives me no clue whatsoever. Is Prod for calendars? Audio? Backups? Font management? No idea.

What I do know is that as a piece of marketing communication, this email gets an “F.” Oh, wait, they don’t give those sorts of grades any more, do they? Well then, it gets a “B – – – – – – -”  (with the number of minuses being significant as placeholders for letters which could complete a appropriate word).

Would it have killed these people to have included in the subject line of the email or the first paragraph, a clue as to who they are and what their product does? Might they want to give me the teeniest little hint about why I might like to download the update they’re hyping?

From a marketing communications viewpoint, the irony here is that adding a little bit of actual identifying information to their email wouldn’t have cost them a cent. Going to their website (which I would never have done if I weren’t writing this blog post) I discovered that the product has an excellent tagline that explains exactly what it is, what it does, and why someone would want to acquire it.

This company is halfway there in terms of MarCom. Now all they have to do is get their tagline into their “marketing” email.

<rant mode off>

Getting back on course

istock_000006938421xsmall3I pride myself on having a fairly good idea of what path I’m on and where it’s going. Nevertheless, I often find myself drifting off by a few degrees. Doing too much of X, and not enough of Y — and pretty soon I realize that if I keep it up I’m likely to wind up at quite a different destination than I’d envisioned.

Career advisor Curt Rosengren addresses drift and similar issues on his blog The M.A.P. Maker (Crafting a Life of Meaning, Abundance & Passion). I liked the post he did on “8 simple questions to move you to towards your dreams.”

Speed, transparency, and the long tail

Tomorrow I’ll be talking about PR and social media to another communications class at the University of Washington. This time, it’s an undergraduate class. I’m going to hit many of the points I did in my earlier presentation to students already in the business world, but this time I’m going to attempt to give more context.

So much has changed in the PR world in the past 10 years, it’s hard to know where to begin!

The model of PR in which corporate communicators developed carefully reviewed press releases and distributed them to known contacts in print and broadcast media by mail or fax, is over. Five minutes after a company announces a new product, it’s been Twitter and blogged about. (Example — Amazon released Kindle software for the iPhone last night, and that rocketed to a top spot on Twitter in about two hours. Interestingly, it was being discussed on Twitter even before it had registered on Google News searches.)

Any hope PR folks once had of controlling public perception of the announcement — via their carefully chosen words, or via the sedate reviewing of a friendly news reporter — is a quaint delusion. People are raving and ranting about it on blogs — or pointedly ignoring it — within 24 hours. And good luck to the PR person who tries to spin or puff a product. Her or she risks being reviled right along with the product itself.

Clearly, old-school PR doesn’t work in the current online environment. As anyone who follows Twitter has seen, a new school of PR is emerging to meet the new challenges. It can be successful, if it’s mindful of three characteristics of the social media world:

Speed. If PR wants to be part of the discussion, it needs to get out there, fast. A good PR operation, representing an organization that genuinely has something to contribute to the conversation, can make a splash. That may mean twittering about the city’s inept response to the snowstorm at 4 a.m. (Does your PR person work at 4 a.m.? Let’s hope so.)

Transparency. Successful PR folks have to come to grips with the transparency created by online social media. Many companies tried to hop on the social media bandwagon by making community commenting, or video contests, a part of their marketing campaigns. Often they forgot that they could no longer control the distribution of the resulting comments or videos. In 2006, General Motors’ attempt to harness “viral marketing” for their Chevy Tahoe SUV inspired hundreds of people critical of SUVs to create and then post anti-Tahoe videos. To its credit, General Motors remained cool and the flap eventually died down.

The Long Tail. The days when nearly everyone read the newspaper and families gathered around the TV after dinner to watch the network news are long, long over. Instead, household members are more likely to be getting information individually, from a variety of sources (such as watching a NetFlix video, playing World of Warcraft, reading their favorite blogs, or talking to friends on Facebook). To be successful, PR campaigns will need to focus on these narrower audiences, often with savvier members.

The professor of the class asked me to emphasize the continuing need for strong writing skills in PR. That will be no problem. Sure, you see sloppy writing all over the web. But you don’t see it on highly ranked blogs. If PR people want to draw traffic to their blogs and followers to their Tweets, clear, polished writing is a must.

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