Jake Ellison

Technology + demographics = open question about the future of journalism


“In Tahrir Square, I watched as young people predisposed to admire America — the Facebook generation — expressed a growing sense of betrayal. In a country where half the population is under 24, we are burning our bridges.”  – Nicholas Kristof (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/10/opinion/10kristof.html?hp) 


Every time I try to think about the effects of new media technology on journalism, I get stuck on this: While the actual number depends on the years you think make a generation, somewhere between 50 and 80 million Millennials – a generation possibly as large as the Baby Boomers – are out there in America and they are changing stuff just by virtue of their size. 

 In Egypt, though proportionally a bit larger, a young generation overthrew a government just by protesting. What will young people do here?

Us Gen-Xers, a generation somewhere between three-quarters and HALF the size of either the Boomers or Millennials, are standing astride two major demographic forces. 

To do a little generational whining, try to think of the major events that happened when we were in our generational prime (18 to 30 years old). I don’t mean things we invented that became big forces in culture. I mean stuff that happened in the world when we were swilling our first legal beers.

 There was the Berlin Wall and that felt like something … There was MTV and that surely changed a thing or two … but really, I can’t think of much else. 

 In fact, the president of our generation is remembered most for a sex act and our attitude that he probably deserved all the troubles the Republicans were giving him.

Bill Clinton’s actual achievements are less memorable, though important. In fact, it was his leadership and the sudden dramatic expansion of the economy and the wealth of the country that gave most of the members of my generation our first real shot at economic success. 

 In short, the 1980s and 1990s were so boring because there were so few young people running around gumming up the works and pissing everyone off with our energy and naive certainties.

But think about the events happening when the Boomers were young and vibrant and ready to rock ‘n roll. The list is staggering. Think about the forces at play for a generation that now is of age in a major way … just the revolutions of new media and the first black president are enough to make your head spin.

 Basically, we Gen-Xers and Boomers are sitting on top of a powder keg of a generation, the same way the G.I. Generation and the Silent Generation were.

 The Millennials may be better off than the youth in Egypt and so may not rise up and overthrow the White House and Congress in 18 days … but they will do something just as powerful. They are facing a future much less bright than their parents (who are mostly Boomers), they are underemployed and over stimulated. 

 One story on MSNBC.com put it this way: “Gen Y: No jobs, lots of loans, grim future” (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/38364681/ns/business-eye_on_the_economy/ )

 The famous generational experts, Straus and Howe, in the 1990s wrote in a paper titled “The Cycle of Generations” that “The cycle of generations predicts that today’s cute Millennial tots could become the next great cadre of civic doers and builders. Like the child G.I.s … they will grow up basking in adult praise for their intelligence, obedience, and optimism.” That was 20 years ago, and I can tell you from working on a university campus those generalities seem to hold. The scary thing is we know how the G.I. Generation got its name… 

 The Pew Research Center has done some great work on Millennials. One article, “The Millennials: Confident. Connected. Open to Change” from last year, said, “They are more ethnically and racially diverse than older adults. They’re less religious, less likely to have served in the military, and are on track to become the most educated generation in American history.”

 Add “most unemployed and underemployed” and you have an agitated, charged-up storm cloud that could really do something big.

 I don’t have the brain power or research to wonder in detail what this many young people are capable of, but they are into everything in such big numbers that, like the Boomers, they will force changes across the society. Sure, the Boomers revolutionized pop culture with their drugs, sex and rock ‘n roll, but they also filled the ranks of the military, of corporations and the economy, of politics and social justice movements, colleges and churches … 

 So, whatever the Millennials do, they will do it in a big way … and that brings me to journalism. 

 For me, the power of asking the question, “How will this massive generation change journalism and the sharing of information?” rather than, “How will technology and new media change journalism?” is that it shifts the focus from inert matter to conscious human brains, which is the true force of change in society. 

 So, here is the open question that I for one would like to hear from you all about: “How will this massive pool of young brains shape journalism? 

 Of course, I understand that whatever we think, they are going to shock and surprise us.

 (Meanwhile, this link to an NPR interview on social media really speaks to what I said above … http://www.npr.org/player/v2/mediaPlayer.html?action=1&t)


Jake Ellison worked in newspapers for 22 years, 10 at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer until it closed in 2009. He now works in marketing.


Baying at the moon and other knee-jerk journalist reactions

Democracy depends on the Internet, now that we have it

Monkey lust and the rise of branding

What’s in a name? The saving of an important cultural institution — journalism

Big J journalism and the great corporate elections of 2010

Mr. Speaker of the House, just who is an American?

Baying at the moon and other knee-jerk journalist reactions


Mass hysteria: “It is commonly applied to the waves of popular medical problems that ‘everyone gets’ in response to news articles.” – Wikipedia.

Boy, I bet lunar journalists feel stupid, because just today it has been definitively proven that there is no moon in the sky! Or, there is a “Moon” in the sky, but it is not what we thought of as the real moon out in space.

Those people who thought the trips to the moon were staged and filmed in California are feeling dumb too because there is no moon in the sky! Or, rather, there is only a fictional moon in the sky! Ha! Ha! Ha!

Okay, just channeling the day when global warming is proven to be wrong. Won’t everyone be overwhelmed by mixed emotions? “I knew it! The lying and deluded BASTARDS!! Tides caused by the moon?! Who could ever believe it! Boy am I glad it was all a hoax! Ha! Ha! Ha!

This particular sarcastic outburst is due to our friends at The New York Times because of its story about China’s worst drought in a generation or two or three that has fallen on the heels of the worst ever drought in Russia, which was crowned by the worst fires they’ve probably ever had, plus wildly major flooding in Australia, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Not to mention the worst-since-Noah snowstorms across most of the United States, which last time I checked wasn’t a tiny island in the North Pacific (which will be under water soon) where Sarah Palin hunts endangered species with a Glock 9 with a high capacity magazine.

None of which, of course, has anything to do with steeply rising food prices across the globe.  

The problem I have with The New York Times story about the collapsing agricultural scene in China is that no where in it, not even between the lines, did they mention global warming or climate change.

Here are some possible reason why:

1. They know it isn’t true!
2. Scientists are reluctant to call any single weather event a direct effect of global warming.
3. Reporters are worried they will come off as advocates or activists if they whisper the phrase.
4. Editors would require a counter point of view (someone who would say it wasn’t global warming).
5. They can avoid all these problems by leaving it out and justify it to themselves with “Let the public connect the dots.” Of course the problem is that the public is connecting the dots to the wrong conclusion. They assume that since the connection to global warming isn’t in the story … it’s not really happening!

(Our friend over at Humanosphere has links and connections.)

To get some perspective on this problem of the media not mentioning global warming in stories that are clearly related to it or, when they do, getting the knee-jerk counter position just to give the appearance of balance, I called my pal Robert McClure, who has been reporting on the environment for a tsunami of publications. Most recently he has been at the estimable Investigate West and less recently at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

McClure didn’t have any guesses about the editorial decisions at The New York Times, so we turned to the matter of why more Americans today than ten years ago have more doubts about global warming’s existence (Gallup and Pew).

Here is an edited version of his comments (edited because while he was talking to me he was also driving in traffic, though he assured me he was “hands free”):

“When I first came on the environment beat in the late ’80s, this was the new hot story and I didn’t write anything about it. I just followed it for about 7 or 8 years because it was one of these science stories that took a long time before they would actually say anything that they could hang your hat on.

“But like by the late ’90s when they had the Kyoto thing, now it was pretty clear to me that something was going on and there was a scientific preponderance of evidence, most of the scientist who were studying this were saying yeah something is going on but we don’t know how big it is and we don’t know how fast it’s going to go but we have to take this seriously.

“My point is that it took me awhile to actually be convinced that this was [happening]. That was a reasonable thing to think at the time, to think well you know they are not that sure about it, right?

“But if you keep up with it then eventually it is like, okay. You know by the late ’90s, it was clear. But even then I think the public continued to think for many years after that: “They’re really not sure about it.”

“But the thing is, that is no longer true.

“What happened was that basically corporations and those who have oxen to be gored have put up a lot of money into trying to put up pretty much a smoke screen … The first really early evidence of this was by a former journalist and activist named Rob Gelbspan. He wrote a book “The Heat is On.” He documented very thoroughly and the story hasn’t really changed that much since then that corporations and the business centers for whom this is going to be very painful, and you know like the entire state of West Virginia (certainly the Bush administration helped to do that)  but it’s to the advantage of those people to confuse the American people, and I think that is what has happened.

“What’s scary to me is that when I started reporting about this 14 years ago, it was more a problem of the future like 2020, 2030, 2050 is what scientists were kind of concerned about and certainly 2100 that was not looking good pal, but now the pace at which it appears to be moving is just … It seems a lot quicker.”

Here’s the punch line: Global warming is real and it is killing people and it is causing massive economic disruption and it has just stepped into the ring and news organizations must start reporting in every related story that “this is what global warming looks like.” Make it a tagline, maybe.

Oh, come on!

Thought Experiment 2.01: The rise and fall of the dirigible nation


I’m sure you’ve heard about what’s going down in Egypt.

Anyway, say a few years back we began to notice a silvery splotch in the sky, something like a film of tinfoil rippling in the stratospheric winds. Folklore has it that this floating quicksilver circles the planet (spilling a foul black fluid and blocking out the sun as it glides past) every dozen or so years. 

 Deeper folklore has it that it is a city, that it began as a resort, a resort made out of dirigibles that over a few years became a “gated” community and eventually the center of all government – the bankers, the corporate elite, the political masters and the lever-pullers of the military eventually moved up to that level.

 It became an ever expanding city of oblong dirigibles. At first the wealthy who moved there would keep contact with the grounded world, keeping track of shipments and manufacturing and the flow of expenses and the tally of incomes … When they had big parties they would have massive pallets of beef and chicken floated up to them. 

 They had a cast system up there too, so most people associated with the dirigible city lived in hanging baskets at varying distances between the top level where they all played and worked the levers of industry and financial instruments and the Earth, where things became predictably worse.

 In fact, the Earth level was succumbing to all of the problems everyone had said it would — pollution and global warming (think massive winter storms and higher-than-ever seas), over-population and starvation and … well it was pretty grim there for a few hundred years. During this time, the people of the dirigible world counted their blessings and occasionally showered the world with the scatterings of their bank accounts. But they shut all the windows and turned off all of the cameras pointed Earth-wise and eventually each side lost contact with the other.

 But the world was not finished with humanity and allowed it to live, though it was without all it had desired (though truth be told it became what most truly desired and happiness was chief among all values).

 Over a century of disconnection ended when one man fell to Earth from the dirigible nation and survived. That silvery cloud spat out one of its inhabitants like a sunflower seed mistakenly spat out the window, no doubt regretted. We know he had value as a unique specimen, but he also held great risk and many people wished him killed while others felt bound first to their morals and sought to allow him to live and mingle among the People of the Earth as a matter of principle. 

 “But he will corrupt us,” some said. “He has what the ancients called concupiscence.”

 Others said there was no greater challenge to humanity than to let a man with a lust for machines and materials among them BUT to deny him life (there was no technology left to contact the dirigible world or raise anything to that height for 50 years) was to reject the foundations of their society.

 So they let the man with the iPhone live among them and some did indeed marvel at his knowledge of the screen and moving images that were replicas of the human form. Others said, “You can’t eat an iPhone!” and left it at that.

 However through him, through the man who had fallen from the sky, the People of the Sky became reacquainted also with the world. They too had overcome what they considered to be trials and tribulations. The People of the Sky yearned viciously for the People of the Earth to respect them and all they had been through. So the People of the Sky … (you know what happens next) 

 Oh, and what happened to the rich in Egypt?


Jake Ellison worked in newspapers for 22 years, 10 at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer until it closed in 2009. He now works in marketing.


Democracy depends on the Internet, now that we have it

Monkey lust and the rise of branding

What’s in a name? The saving of an important cultural institution — journalism

Big J journalism and the great corporate elections of 2010

Mr. Speaker of the House, just who is an American?

Turning a jaundiced eye toward the revolution


Fairly recently I went to a dinner and met a retired member of the CIA (one wonders if they are ever really retired) and after nearly an hour of truly riveting conversation (in general terms of course … you know the old joke) I asked him if he thought they in the CIA had reacted to history or made history. Without hesitation, he said they had made it. 

In some respects, there is always so much going on in the world, conflict and resolution and conflict again because we are all “making history” all the time. There is no stasis because there is no objective construction team making the world or history in which we are simply playing within the structure, not having much effect overall. In fact, we are having great effect, big and small, all the time, I think.

The more one recognizes this — that we are making the world and all that entails: gluttony, starvation, technology advances, war and peace and currency exchange rates — the more frantic one can become about it because the next step is to realize that there are people out there making decisions that overwhelm any and all influences that I and perhaps you could ever wield.

 It can be scary and infuriating.

 One guy who was scary in his own right told me (different party) that he was getting really tired of voting for people and initiatives that never won. At some point, it seemed to me, he might just show up at a city council meeting or political rally with a cudgel in order to see his choices and decisions reflected in the greater world. Take someone who is crazier with access to assault weapons and … well, you can have a true tragedy.

 Get enough people together who are frustrated and motivated and you can have a revolution such as what we are seeing in Tunisia and Egypt and Yemen. 

 The American media, in love with the idea that these are liberation protests aimed at advancing social justice and democracy rooted in the always positive youth-driven blog-o-sphere so far have not revisited the Iranian revolution in 1979 and how that has all turned out. Instead, Iran is portrayed as an oppressive state that has more or less always been that way. The Western media view of the 1979 revolution was that it was a youth movement against a brutal regime seeking social justice, freedoms and democracy, and, except for the American hostages, laudable. Few would claim that now.

 I have been a card-carrying member of the “Blame America First Party” with a heavy indoctrination into the works of Noam Chomsky, and therefore I think it is worthwhile to challenge the bloggers’ and national medias’ barely covered giddy love-fest with revolutions in other countries. What if the Tea Party, a group that has grown very restless with the fact that their choices and decisions are not directing the country, were holding mass demonstrations calling for the ouster and arrest of President Obama? What if they were thousands strong in the streets burning government buildings, blocking commerce, fighting police and throwing rocks at all opposition?

 No doubt leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen deserve to be run out and the people fed, given rights and freedoms, but does that mean these protests are the path to this future? 

 I’m sure I’ll have all my liberal memberships revoked for questioning the current wisdom, and what we think in America probably isn’t top of mind for the people risking their lives in the streets of Egypt, but it is worth taking a step back and looking at all information with a jaundiced eye.

Jake Ellison worked in newspapers for 22 years, 10 at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer until it closed in 2009. He now works in marketing.



Egypt and Romania: Andrei Codrescu compares two revolutions


Democracy depends on the Internet, now that we have it

Monkey lust and the rise of branding

What’s in a name? The saving of an important cultural institution — journalism

Big J journalism and the great corporate elections of 2010

Mr. Speaker of the House, just who is an American?

Democracy depends on the Internet, now that we have it

Despite the flu, I got out of the house last Friday (cough suppressant malaise and glide) for a couple hours to hear UW Prof. Philip Howard at Town Hall on “The Internet and Muslim Democratization.” His lecture was based on his book, “The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy …”

At the end, I asked a question and it took the entire ride home before I could figure out whether Howard had actually answered the question or not. When I got back in bed, I decided it didn’t matter if he had because his response gave me a revolutionary new perspective on information and the Internet Age.

The gist of his lecture was (his Web site says it better than I can): “… having a comparatively active online civil society proves to be both a necessary and sufficient cause of transitions out of authoritarianism.” Turkey was one of the top performers in this regard.

Roughly, he said there is a parallel, possibly causal relationship, between the most “democratized” (you’ll have to read the book to get a definition) Muslim countries and the spread of digital connectivity. Through this connectivity, citizens can share information, learn from the outside world, arrange protests or meetings and spread information that can embarrass and frustrate the dictatorial elite. 

Having been to Turkey as part of the International Reporting Projects Gatekeepers series of trips, it was hard to miss the very active and vibrant and loud albeit fledgling free(ish) press there and even harder not to trot out this one bit of exotic travel I have pulled off so far in my life.

So, I asked if there couldn’t also be a parallel between democratization and an emerging free(ish) press in addition to the ability to share information from phone to phone. And he said …

I missed the first part because I was scrambling back to my chair to turn on my phone. But here’s the most of it: “… so, he made these torture videos, shared them with his friends and the videos went further, further, further along the social network until we got them in the West. This became a diplomatic issue with formally launched protests and embarrassed the regime. Again, it didn’t topple the regime and directly result in parliamentary elections the next day but significantly challenged the legitimacy (of the powerful) …” 

Someone else got to the microphone and I missed the rest of the dialogue because I was wondering if I should be mad he didn’t answer my question or simply put on the sanguine visage of bovine sagacity as if I had gathered his meaning and let it go. The formal part ended and I didn’t want to stand in line coughing and blowing my nose to follow up. So, I left. 

Then it struck me: Every time I think about the Internet Age and journalism, I break out in a rash because the implication is that the Internet has turned anyone with a phone/blog/etc. into a journalist. We are in the era of the Citizen Journalist and the Rise of a New Universal Journalism.

But Howard’s answer suggested something different: Most people who shoot torture and abuse videos/photos (here and here) that end up embarrassing “the regime” had no intention of collecting the images in order to embarrass or expose the corruption of the regime. They were not reporting. They were just fooling around or gathering “I was there” mementos. But once they shared those images, the new matrix of digital connectivity took over – like a new force in nature operating independent of human intention but having great impact on human relationships.

The genie is out of the bottle and we are all along for the ride. Howard argues that this new force has a democratizing effect. This new force is also more powerful than old-form journalism in this regard because it doesn’t rely on a gatekeeper deciding what to publish and then expending a tremendous amount of energy to do so. It is much more vast. Journalism is just a subroutine. 

Fascinating, as Spock would say. I’m not sure that new force, however, changes what journalism is. It just adds more opportunity for it.


Jake Ellison worked in newspapers for 22 years, 10 at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer until it closed in 2009. He now works in marketing.



What’s in a name? The saving of an important cultural institution — journalism


Chance encounter spawns look under the hood of story


‘Quick! Follow that mentally disabled child’ and other journalistic dilemmas

Monkey lust and the rise of branding

Can a (contrarian) journalist still make a living?

Big J journalism and the great corporate elections of 2010

Mr. Speaker of the House, just who is an American?



Chance encounter spawns look under the hood of story

Setting the scene:

The car was sputtering and shuttering. The “check engine” light was not only on, but it was flashing too. We’d just left the hotel in downtown Portland heading for breakfast in one of that town’s great breakfast joints with friends in the backseat.

It’s noon New Year’s Day Saturday and, after a hour of phone calls, there’s not a garage open in the country. Triple A sent out a battery-service car, but we were beyond that. They didn’t have a shop they could tow us to, either. The best they could do was getting us off the busy street till Monday.

We were, in the vernacular of the moment … Well, you know the words. Breakfast, what I tasted of it, was fine.

The options were limited to sending my wife home on the train so she could get ready for work, spend two more nights in a hotel, then Monday scramble to find a garage/mechanic and take a day or two off of work. This was already an expensive (for us) party weekend (one of the few we’ve had even since our kids have become adults), and you know the rest.

Breaking out the inner mechanic:

So, we ditched our friends at Powell’s where we had wandered into the decision to drive the car to a parts store, pop the hood and just see if an animal jumped out or a wire was dangling with a tag reading “Plug me in!”

I had just enough experience with motorcycles, cars, trucks and the like to know this was a gas motor and probably had spark plugs and they are a good place to start when a engine is misfiring. The problem is that when you look at a newish car, it’s hard to tell even which way the motor is pointing and, so, even where the spark plugs are located.

Long story short, I found them under a bunch of tubes and wires. Each one was also under an individual ignition coil that gave each one its bolt of electricity. I removed the coils and the plugs. The third one I removed was wet. This meant that it wasn’t firing. Why it wasn’t firing and thus running that cylinder wasn’t clear, but that I actually found something wrong was amazing.

Replaced the spark plugs, drove a few blocks and the car didn’t run any better. (I know you’re thinking about the coil … but for some reason I wasn’t.)

Back to Plan B:

Hands cold and dirty, thirsty now for a beer, we pulled into a parking lot to regroup. It was just one of a dozen acre-sized parking lots on this strip of highway/slash strip malls. She pulled her iPhone to find a hotel, buy a train ticket, etc.

Nearly dark and four parking slots away was a tow truck with a man sitting in it. Stare. Blink.

I actually thought, “This could be one of those moments, one of those chance encounters that change everything.”

I didn’t say anything. I just got out and walked over to the truck, veering slightly to make it possible to look like I wasn’t heading in his direction in case the man in the truck was in the middle of strangling someone or cleaning a gun or something.

He wasn’t, or not that I could see, and when I got to the window he rolled it down with that look.

“Hey, you wouldn’t happen to know a garage that is open or a mechanic that can look at my car?”

“No. Nothing is open that I know about.”

Pregnant pause.

“… what seems to be the problem?”

“Well …” I told him about the engine trouble and the wet spark plug.

“Does that car have a single coil or one for each spark plug?”

Right then I had the same idea that he would spell out — maybe the coil had gone bad. I practically ran back to the car. Called and the parts store had one for less than $30. It was easy, once I knew how to wend my way through the wires and tubes, to get to it. I replaced it and it worked! The car ran fine, and we drove home.

Story behind the story:

I couldn’t help but go back over the circumstances and the fact that that guy was right there when we “randomly” pulled in. I am not a “magical thinker,” though we have all been trained to be one by religion, television, novels and stories around the campfire. But clearly my subconscious was reaching its own conclusions about the structure of the universe and the potential for some higher energy, unmoved-mover, deity, joker-in-the-sky, what have you, orchestrating our meeting with the Man in the Tow Truck.

But did I really want to believe that his and my entire day, our whole lives had been orchestrated so that we’d meet in that parking lot? Like we’re just machines after all, puppets controlled by a mysterious power for a mysterious reason. If that is the case, then I have some bones to pick with whoever it is. There are plenty of bigger things in the world I wish would be correct by a chance encounter or, heck, directly.

But do I then think that there was NOTHING meaningful in that encounter. That, as Henri Bergson, would point out, even the feeling of “chance encounter” was an assumption about the world, since even the concept of “chance” is an assertion about the potential for intentionality in the world?

Was I even sure The Man in The Tow Truck was the climax of the story? Maybe the key decision was made when my subconscious noticed the Taco Bell sign and associated it with all the pleasant memories I had from when I was a kid and my mother would take us to the one on Grand Avenue in Billings, Mont., where she met her girlfriend and they talked fast and cheerfully for an hour and we had free rein. Maybe that’s why I picked that parking lot.

All I know for sure is that we make stories first and foremost about everything and never stop. Even “1 + 1 = 2” is a story and just as arbitrary (break a stick) as any, and just as easy to prove wrong (think of adding one drop of water to another) as it is to prove right. In fact, it is impossible to know for sure what version of any story is “right,” especially since every ending of every story is an arbitrary conclusion because no story is ever finally and fully over. We collectively just stop paying attention or grow satisfied with whatever ending has been tacked on.  

In conclusion, freshly boggled and safely home (for now), I feel almost giddy with employment prospects for all of us professional storytellers, because while anyone can tell a story – some are just better at it than others.

Happy New Year!

Monkey lust and the rise of branding

The disintegration of long-form journalism that, so far, has found its apex in Twitter feeds, didn’t start with the Web. Breaking up text with photos, graphics, pull quotes, white space, subheads, bullets and charts began before the Web popularized the Internet. And, I believe, had more to do with the urbanization of Americans and the rest of the world than the influence of the Internet, but that’s another story. 

 Whatever the reason, USA Today fired off its first outrageously cluttered edition in 1982. As a designer of news pages in the 1990s, I had use of a host of computer programs that were adopted earlier at smaller papers — Quark Express, Photoshop, Freehand and Illustrator — that made building newspaper pages a lot of fun. The Society for News Design fired up and started handing out awards for visually cool and provocative pages that conveyed information in a nontraditional format. Story telling through  full-page graphics became dream assignments for designers. Photos got bigger; text got broken; and stories got shorter. 


Cue the Monkeys 

 A 2005 study by researchers at Duke University was widely reported on as showing that male rhesus monkeys would “pay” to view pictures of female monkeys’ privates and the faces of high-status monkeys. You know, the newspapers kidded, “boys will be boys.”

 But like many stories done a disservice by mainstream media, the most important aspect of this study and one that provides a strong clue to the growing power of “branding” was ignored.

 While the study did say, “Male rhesus macaques sacrificed fluid for the opportunity to view female perinea and the faces of high-status monkeys but required fluid overpayment to view the faces of low-status monkeys.” The key words are “high-status” and “low-status.” Physical beauty (at least the anthropomorphized kind)  is an extension of lord-knows-what complex social human evaluation system (since beauty has no objective standard).

 The authors admitted that there may have been “facial cues” that aided in the monkeys’ desire to study certain peers over others but those facial cues (such as a willingness to stare down any other monkey) were indicative of social status. Primarily, they said, one monkey’s knowledge of another monkey’s social status played the key role in decisions to study, obsessively, and to click on the links that led to pictures and video of certain monkeys instead of the sustenance of food and drink.  

 “Our data demonstrate that monkeys value visual information according to its apparent utility for guiding adaptive social behavior in the wild. … Wild male macaques closely monitor the status and fighting ability of males in other groups, and both male and female primates appear to look more frequently at high-status animals. Our results indicate that primates engage in such monitoring because it yields social information of measurable value.”


Okay, now the yoga stretch

 As information becomes more fractured, more like 140 character lines of raw assertion, source credibility becomes more important. Credibility is a form of social status. The immediate association between a name/identifier and social status is branding. Badda Bing.

 All of us old-school journalists (most of whom are liberal) are constantly faced with the conundrum of Fox News. As in, Why the hell did Fox News become so popular? So absurdly powerful?

 The monkey study reasons that those monkeys that studied photos of high-status peers did so to learn how to become high-status themselves or simply function better in the wilds of their social world. Conservatives in America prior to Fox News were not getting the information and points of view they needed from status-strong sources to become more socially important among the people they wanted to gain status with … until Fox News. 

 The heart-breaker is that right and wrong, truth and falsity suffer in this realm. But the bright side is that they were probably delusions to begin with. Whatever the answer is, this disintegration of story will make those organizations and people with the strongest, most resilient brands the winners in the ultra-social fabric of Web 2.0.


Jake Ellison worked in newspapers for 22 years, 10 at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer until it closed in 2009. He now works in marketing.



‘Quick! Follow that mentally disabled child’ and other journalistic dilemmas

What’s in a name? The saving of an important cultural institution — journalism

Big J journalism and the great corporate elections of 2010

Mr. Speaker of the House, just who is an American?

The Crowd in the Cloud and other new realities

With the old economics destroyed, organizational forms perfected for industrial production have to be replaced with structures optimized for digital data. It makes increasingly less sense even to talk about a publishing industry, because the core problem publishing solves — the incredible difficulty, complexity, and expense of making something available to the public — has stopped being a problem. – Clay Shirky


  At the Minot Daily News something like 15 years ago, a major car dealer pulled his full-page ads because he didn’t like the way we were covering a story. The editor, Mike Burbach (who has been at several papers since and whom I tracked down via LinkedIn), and I couldn’t remember what the fight was about, but his response at the time is one I’ve kept in my treasure trove of kick-ass things to say: “They don’t advertise with us because they like us. They do it because it works.”

  So much has changed so radically that a post-modern deconstruction of that sentence would keep a soon-to-be unemployed journalism graduate student busy for at least a year.

 One thing that hasn’t changed is the will of journalists to stand up to this kind of pressure, though their will is being sorely tested by, for instance, mega do-gooders like the Gates Foundation. (See the great writing on this topic by Tom Paulson at Humanosphere, here.) Speaking of do-gooders, this navel-gazing has been brought to you by my good friends at the Post-Globe who could use a buck.

 But what got me to thinking about the complex matrix of ads, funding and journalism is this barely noted historical shift: For the first time in history, more money was spent buying ads online than in print — “Online Ad Spend Surpasses Newspapers.” In fact, the complete shift from print to Web is so thoroughly underway that only the end of civilization as we know it would reverse the trend. So journalists, after years of browbeating, are adjusting, see herehere (about halfway in), here and here.

 What will happen will happen, but I think the way this open season on information or “distributed journalism” gets talked about is poorly imagined: The model is talked about like a person just walks in and chips off pieces of chocolate from one bar. It keeps being divided until there isn’t anything meaningful left — a billion blogs just barely scratching the surface. But, I don’t actually think that’s what’s happening.

 Instead, the opportunity here is to understand that journalism is a limited resource, and the future of the crowd and the power of social media, new media, Web 2.0 etc. is to gather around trusted journalism. The authority of the crowd is its influence, its ability to empower journalism, to feed it material, insights and correction. But journalism itself will remain in the hands of those who give their professional lives to it; hell, their whole lives.

 Once journalists regain the confidence brought on by this new understanding, they will use social media, Web 2.0 to increase the reach and effectiveness of their work with glee. Once the crowd understands its role in that relationship, it will remember that it is okay to discriminate against junk and then loosen up its wallet and pay for subscriptions.

 We are all stumbling around in the social rubble brought about by the new disruptive technology, but this isn’t the end of the change or the “new norm.” We are only just beginning to see the effects of the change and it is a change in distribution and interaction, not a wholesale re-visioning of values.

 Happy Holidays.

Jake Ellison worked in newspapers for 22 years, 10 at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer until it closed in 2009. He now works in marketing.



‘Quick! Follow that mentally disabled child’ and other journalistic dilemmas

What’s in a name? The saving of an important cultural institution — journalism

Big J journalism and the great corporate elections of 2010

Mr. Speaker of the House, just who is an American?


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‘Quick! Follow that mentally disabled child,’ and other journalistic dilemmas

I imagine this sort of story will make no one happy. In some way, it is also self-aggrandizing — but I am aware of that and will now say that I am not enamored of myself or proud of my decision in this matter. It is simply a good example of the complexity of being a reporter and how the 24-hour news hysteria can be as compromising to reporters as to the legitimacy of journalism.

Here’s the story: He must have been about 16 years old. He had that look, simply, of a severally mentally disabled person, including the slight disfigurement and challenged motor function. He was loaded down with a backpack you’d see on a much younger child and was carrying a poster of a flower made from cut-out crepe paper pieces.

I was a 39-year-old father of three and professional journalist standing on the sidewalk just off school grounds in front of the Pasco High School in the Tri-Cities, Wash., with my notebook out and my pen twitching between my fingers like a cat’s tail.

It was February 2003 and I was one of a half-dozen reporters dispatched around the state from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer to track down information about a woman accused, along with her former husband, of espionage. The case involved “top-secret military documents, far-right militias and a potentially grave threat to national security.”

At the time of her arrest, the suspect was living in College Place near Walla Walla and was commuting to the high school in Pasco, where she was a special-education teacher.

I had talked to a dozen people in the town and then rushed to Pasco where I stood outside the high school to catch students, parents and teachers as they left the school property to get perspective, to get quotes and/or leads about her life, and I was striking out.

Then this young man walked out of the school and hit the sidewalk and was, undoubtedly, walking home to waiting parents whom I imagined waited everyday at this hour with a little bit of anxiety for him to walk in the door.

A lot of conflicting emotions were coursing through me as I started following him down the sidewalk. When I saw what house he walked into, I would wait a heartbeat or two and knock on the door. I was sure they would know her or at least know people who did. I was sure they would have plenty to say about their son being caught in that strange vortex of a nationally important story suddenly overlaying their lives.

It was a lucky break, frankly, the kind of break that can lead to great stories and the kind of real-life detail that makes for award-winning reporting.

Now, I had knocked on a lot of doors of people whose sons, daughters, fathers, mothers or relatives were dead, brutalized or perpetrators of heinous crimes. In my first year as a reporter, nearly 15 years before, in Cut Bank, Mont., where a pillar of the community and a leader in a local church had been charged with sexually molesting little girls at the church and in his home. I walked the several blocks from my home to his family home and knocked on the door to give him a chance to respond to the charges. I knew him well. I knew his wife. I knew a lot about their accomplished older children.

That was a hard door to knock on, but it was the right thing to do, I believed then and do still.

But about a block into my pursuit of this child, I stalled out. I just couldn’t stalk this kid to his home. I saw myself as a … well a profiler at the very least (“Hello. I’m a reporter and I followed your kid home because he is clearly mentally disabled and …”). I saw that I would have lost a little something in the hopes I had for my own parenting, my role as a person who wanted mostly to have a positive impact on society. Just remembering the internal turmoil I felt standing there watching him get away, with that damned colorful poster hanging from his clutching fingers bending in the wind, still makes my palms sweaty with anxiety.

I’m sure it was a failure journalistically, because of the dozens of doors I’d knocked on leading to the private lives of the dead, maimed and destroyed, the people who answered those doors almost invariably wanted to talk, wanted to share this suddenly and completely disorienting experience with a community, someone. It is what we do with pain and confusion — we talk about it and yell and try to find some understand of what has just happened to us.

But this was one door I just couldn’t knock on. I couldn’t hide from my conscience the fact that following this kid home was pure exploitation. So, I turned away and drove to a cafe and filed my quotes and details (used in the last few paragraphs of the story). … And I was protected from this scruple ending my career or forcing me into writing obituaries for a six-month probation or any kind of retribution at all because I was part of a professional newspaper dedicated to its reporters.

I worry that the panic to publish every second and every detail of any story would have ground up my scruples, would have pushed me to do something I would have regretted. I wonder what happens to civil society when personal ethics and scruples in journalists are seen as failures and only those willing to hunt anyone, cross any barrier, are the only journalists left.

Jake Ellison worked in newspapers for 22 years, 10 at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer until it closed in 2009. He now works in marketing.


What’s in a name? The saving of an important cultural institution — journalism

Big J journalism and the great corporate elections of 2010

Mr. Speaker of the House, just who is an American?


RELATED, sort of“So You Want to Be A Journalist” (video below)




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Thought experiment #2.0, related but not limited to parachutes

Let’s say it’s another time and place and mail is delivered to you personally by men and women who are “shot” from giant cannons with 100-yard-long tubes. They are “blasted” into the sky for a calculated distance and height and then they float down to your door hanging from parachutes of bright red, green and blue.

The mail has been delivered this way for a thousand years even though there have been some major innovations: such as bodysuits that no longer require compressed air (or, earlier, explosives) to accelerate the mail carrier. Now they are self-propelled. And, also technically unnecessary, the mail carriers still deploy large bright canopies as they descend in their silver suits.

 You can see them from a mile away as they come down over your neighborhood and, you hope, to your front door. They make a grand arrival and a formal display of delivering to you a single piece of mail. In this world, people love to write and send letters. In fact, the sky over one’s neighborhood can be dotted with thousands of brightly colored parachutes popping open like time-elapsed flowers.

 The Flying Mail Delivery Union is still strong and the pay is decent, but it is the romance of and social admiration for the job itself that attract long lines of applicants whenever there is a new class advertised for recruits. It is considered an adventurous and exciting job even though the danger has long since gone out of it.

 However, the practice is not universally applauded. There are a number of people who see this method of delivery as archaic and an absurd waste of resources, time and energy. They used to be a very small albeit vocal minority; but since the significant breakthroughs in gravity manipulation have resulted in an inexpensive technology that can be applied to any object as a spray and then used to elevate and guide that object to any location, calls for the elimination of this practice have grown in number as well as more convincing to those in charge of the funding and management of the delivery system.

 Resistors to change and those who speak in defense of the system say it is a culturally important aspect of community: people love it and ridding the world of it would result in consequences not immediately obvious.

 Letter writing in this world is a highly valued art form, they say. It would change the world negatively to eliminate the joy of watching the mail carriers blossom in the sky and then rushing home to see if one of them will be meeting you at your door, smiling and eyes glistening from the flight. All of your neighbors watching carefully and jealously as you carry the mystery into your home with a playful defiance (or a quick panic).

 The opposition says these claims are self-righteous delusions, that the delivery method means nothing or has no impact on people’s ability or desire to communicate openly and truthfully. Defenders want to protect the system because it gives them authority and jobs. “What you and I put into letters is not determined by that information being written down and delivered to your doorstep. That is simply insulting to us and the practice should be stopped immediately. There would be more communication from house to house and person to person with the new technology. No matter where you are, the letter will find you.”

 The center argues that the debate is pointless because people’s action will decide the matter — either they will continue to use the old system or switch to the new. “It’s evolution,” they’ve announced. “It’s time humans stopped trying to control their own destiny.”