Storytelling Lessons from the 2009 Tour de France

If you want great content, nothing beats a compelling story.

It’s the first rest day of the 2009 Tour de France cycling race and in the absence of having to follow live updates from the roads of Gaul today, let’s look at nine elements of great storytelling as illustrated by this year’s Tour.

  1. A rich backstory. This year’s iteration of the Tour has something that has been sorely lacking for the past few years: a compelling backstory. The backstory is one that’s as old as human civilization: the conflict between the power and vitality of youth versus the wisdom and experience of age.
  2. A young brash upstart. 2007 Tour de France champion Alberto Contador, known as “El Pistolero,” (The best cyclists get cool nicknames, unless they already have a Saturday matinee idol name, like Lance Armstrong.) was the heavy favorite coming in to the race. Not only was he riding for the strongest team, Astana, but he has proven himself to be one of the best climbers in cycling, winning the trifecta of cycling’s grand tours—Spain, Italy and France—already in his young career.
  3. The old lion, back for one more shot at the title. Seven-time Tour champion Lance Armstrong stunned the cycling world last fall when he announced he was returning to competitive racing and planned to compete in the Tour de France, cycling’s biggest race. Armstrong, who spent more time in the tabloids than on his bike in the past few years, said he was mainly coming back to draw attention to his Lance Armstrong Foundation , one of the premier cancer education and support resources, but most pundits speculated that if Armstrong was going to race, he was going to race to win.
  4. A grueling test. The Grande Boucle, as it’s known in France, is cycling’s most demanding test. Three weeks. Thousands of kilometers in the saddle. Tens of thousands of feet of climbing. Nowhere to hide. This year’s course is somewhat peculiar for several reasons.  The team time trial was back, but the individual time trials are short and technical. The race’s two forays into alpine territory feature only three summit finishes and one of the Tour’s legendary obstacles, the Col du Tourmalet, was placed in the middle of stage, reducing its race impact to nil.
  5. A shot across the bow. In the race’s only summit finish in the Pyrenees, into the ski station at Arcalis in Andorra, a select group of contenders rode together toward the summit until Contador, apparently not acting on team orders, attacked the field and rode away alone toward the finish. This show of strength added fuel to the fires of discord between Armstrong and Contador and indicated a possible split in the team.
  6. The French. Can you minimize the fact that this race is taking place in France? No way. The French love a good story and they love to be right in the middle of it. After a love/hate relationship with Armstrong while he was winning the Tour, the French have jumped on the Lance bandwagon this July. As Velo News editor-at-large John Wilcockson (@johnwilcockson) noted last week, “The French love an underdog—and old dogs.”
  7. An unwritten code of conduct. When Contador took off on the road to Arcalis, Armstrong was bound by the part of the cycling code that does not allow you to attack a teammate once he goes up the road alone.  Armstrong instead stayed back to mark the other contenders, none of whom tried to follow Contador. Contador is bound by the same code (of course, they are more like guidelines than actual rules) and has stated that he won’t follow an attacking Armstrong when the race hits the Alps later this week.
  8. A near insurmountable obstacle. What happens in the Alps may not even matter because of what stands in the way of riders on the penultimate day of the Tour. Two words that strike fear in the heart of every cyclist: Mont Ventoux. A summit finish on the “Giant of Provence” will likely decide who will ride into Paris the next day wearing the race leader’s yellow jersey.
  9. Wild cards. Armstrong and Contador are not the only world-class cyclists competing in the Tour this summer. In addition to two other potential podium finishers on the Astana team (Levi Leipheimer and Andreas Kloden), 2008 TdF winner Carlos Sastre, two-time runner up Cadel Evans and others lurk, waiting for an opening.

Can Lance Armstrong beat back Contador’s challenge and the sands of time to win an eighth Tour?  Coming back to “win one more” rarely succeeds, but Armstrong can look at one other great champion who made it happen: Pete Sampras. Sampras won his fourteenth and final major championship, the U.S. Open, two years after most pundits had written him off.

The 2009 Tour de France has all the makings of race for the ages and certainly has more intrigue than the last few iterations. When will we know the true quality of this year’s story? Not for a while yet.

A story only becomes truly great when it passes into legend and someday when that legend becomes myth.

— Jonathan

(@bentpiton)

Photo of Mt Ventoux Summit by Pereubu

Photo of Tom Simpson Memorial on Mt. Ventoux by Welland

Kodachrome: Another Digital Obituary for Photography

The digital revolution has driven another stake into the heart of the old world. And as a journalist who’s entry into the field was as a photographer, this one hurts.

Kodak announced on June 22 that it was ending the production of Kodachrome slide film, it’s oldest film product, and for many photographers, the gold standard for capturing life-like color.

This comes on the heels of other bad news in the photographic world.

Nikon, probably the world’s most famous manufacturer of cameras, now builds only two flim cameras, both SLRs, one pro model and one for amateurs. It makes no point and shoot film cameras. None. This contrasts with the nine digital SLRs it builds and the 17 digital point and shoot models it carries.

As a photography buff and a student of the art, this is a low moment indeed.

Sure, digital cameras make images instantly available, and I doubt the growing clamor for instant gratification in the United States will ever be slaked, but whatever happened to the good things that come to people who wait?

And yes, digital photos can be e-mailed around the world at the touch of a button, and yes, digital photos can be printed in the comfort of your own home, but hasn’t this level of convenience cheapened the value of a photograph? Are they still even worth a thousand words?

Of course, the quality of digital prints is still lower than what comes from 35 mm film. Even the best digital cameras only capture a fraction of the amount of information that’s enclosed in a single frame of 35 mm. That, coupled with most people trying to print digital photos on poor quality paper and using as low a resolution as possible, means that many, many digital photos barely qualify as snapshots.

But the worst thing about digital photography is that it kills the magical alchemy behind photography. It used to be an art, something that required skill, innate talent and time spent working in an apprenticeship role to someone who could pass on years of knowledge.

Photography classes must still teach composition and exposure, but with ever-more-automatic cameras and computer programs to fix nearly any photographic glitch, how long will it be before we are looking at nothing but perfectly composed, perfectly cropped and perfectly exposed — yet utterly lifeless and soulless — photographs?

Yes, I’m talking to you, Photoshop.

The days of students learning how to mix chemicals and how to work an enlarger in total darkness are long past, and the art is certainly poorer for it. Photography no longer requires a knowledge of chemistry, mathematics and physics. Everything is reduced to little ones and zeros, like so much else in the world.

I still yearn to have a darkroom in my home, a place filled with trays of acrid chemicals and kept in soothing darkness much of the time. A place where the right combination of science and artistry can still yield magic, magic in the deep blacks, the bright whites and the countless shades of gray of a real photograph.

—Jonathan

Photo by michelphoto53 en Rénovation

What’s on Your iPhone?

New iPhones hit the stores last week, and consumers—weak economy and two-year contract with AT&T be damned—went home with more than one million of the devices.

Despite the name, iPhones are not phones; they are powerful handheld computers. I own a first-generation iPhone and it can do things that early cell phones could never dream of; in fact, it can do things my first Apple product, a Macintosh SE purchased in 1990, never dreamed of.

Sure it can do all the standard smartphone tricks—texting, calendar, camera, maps with turn-by-turn directions, etc., but where the iPhone really excels is in it’s expandability through The App Store.

There are more than 36,000 apps available for the iPhone and those apps will do just about anything. Apple maintains tight control over the types of apps approved for distribution, but that has not stopped a flood of fart apps from spewing their effervescence throughout the App Store.

Without further ado, here’s a glance at the apps—good, bad and ugly—that grace the iPhones here at Eat Media:

Britta
My five favorite apps:
1.    Camera (Blackberry didn’t have one. Don’t know how I lived without it.)
2.    Maps
3.    Facebook
4.    YouTube (for playing Sesame Street clips to a cranky baby in the car)
5.    Amazon.com

The most disappointing app: Twitteriffic

The app that likely no one else in the office has: iPregnancy

Wendy
My five favorite apps:
1.    History Lite
2.    Wikipanion
3.    Facebook
4.    Pac Man
5.    NPR Mobile

The most disappointing app: UrbanSpoon is a great idea, but always recommends me to go to restaurants in St. Pete and Tampa. None of the suggestions are helpful, and Sarasota seems to be off the map.

The apps that likely no one else in the office has:
1.    The “Festivals” app, which lists every major religious festival this year and next, for eight major world religions.
2.    ”Snow,” which features snow falling across the screen while “Snow!” flashes. For some reason, I haven’t deleted it.

Jonathan
My five favorite apps:
1.    Oakley Surf Report: With a five-year-old obsessed with his Boogie Board, a good surf report is essential each weekend.
2.    Flashlight: Simple, but useful.
3.    YouTube: Time-kill central.
4.    Stars: I love the seasonal ballet in the sky and Stars helps me keep track.
5.    3banana: Note taking that syncs with my desktop computer at home.

The most disappointing app: Adventure. Thought this would be a fun trip down memory lane, but it was just sad to see what used to pass for quality entertainment.

The apps that likely no one else in the office has: Tracking the Eye. Hurricane season is on here in Florida.

—Jonathan (@bentpiton)

Journalists scatter like roaches in the daylight

Simon Dumenco has a great interview with David Carr of the New York Times on Advertising Age‘s Mediaworks blog. Carr talks about his new book (now out in paperback) and the rapid decline of media fortunes of late:

“I think one thing that people do not understand is, as recently as four or five years ago, to be a member of Manhattan media, you weren’t rich, but you lived as a rich person might. You went to the parties that a rich person would go to, you ate the food that a rich person would eat, you drank the vodka that a rich person would drink, and you’d end up in black cars, and you’d end up sometimes on boats and in helicopters. We lived as kings, and it convinced us, I think, that there was a significant underlying value to what we did. And I think we’re finding out now that the real, actual value of journalism in the current economy is not that high, and that what the dot-com bubble did and Tina Brown and others did to boost the value of journalism and writing to the point where some people were being paid $5 a word—well, I think there are a lot of people right now, really talented people, who are working for 50 cents or a dollar a word, and you know what? It’s pretty hard to make a living doing that.

So that’s one tier, and the other tier is I feel as if media has become a kind of reverse roach motel, in that once you’re out, you’re probably not coming back in.”

Read the rest here.

—Jonathan

Outsourcing Local Journalism

As unassuming column, hidden in the corner of this morning’s New York Times (A15), has incited a message board race riot.

The article, “Made in India But Published in New Haven,” by Peter Applebome, chronicles a recent experiment by the New Haven Advocate. For a single edition, the alternative weekly recruited Indian journalists and content writers to report on news, art, film, dining, music and sex. The idea wasn’t to cut costs (à la Orange County Register), but to find out what happens when local stories assigned to writers halfway around the world.

The articles aren’t bad. They’re appropriately and knowledgeably written for an alternative press audience. Cultural taboos aside, a sex advice column, is generic in its inherent question and answer format, and doesn’t require any firsthand reporting. Neighborhood restaurant reviews and local news, on the other hand, raise an eyebrow, because you know in advance that the writer has never set foot in said restaurant and, arguably has never set foot in New Haven, Connecticut.

In their editorial, the New Haven Advocate staff explained the outsourcing project to their readers. Ultimately, the experiment boils down to a “what if” on a global scale. In a cheeky voice the alternative media knows all too well, the Advocate staff present their experiment as a word of warning to the news industry—it’s not that hard to outsource local news.

I thought outsourcing local journalism was subject enough but, delving deeper into the Advocate’s message board, a new story became overwhelmingly apparent.

Comments from the community reflect a vastly different story than the one Advocate editors are telling. The first commenter on a thread of many denounces the project as journalistic “betrayal,” “ludicrous” and coins the term “Slumdog Journalism” that is used over and over again throughout the thread. One or two commenters praise the project as an interesting exercise, while another criticizes the editors’ lack of knowledge on the business of outsourcing. The majority of the commenters bypass the Advocate editors’ intentions, and turn the conversation into a pro- or anti-outsourcing argument. Fair trade is brought in, as well as China and fluctuating global currencies.

And no one even mentions the fact that “journalists” have been doing online, rather than in-person, research for years.

Maybe these commenters are angry because American jobs are being replaced overseas. Maybe workers who telecommute feel like they aren’t taken seriously enough. “Outsourcing” has an extremely negative connotation. “Outsourcing” is linked to the idea of more work for less money and less quality.

The Takeaway
How knowledgeable are your journalists and content writers? Are they the most knowledgeable and qualified writer for the job, do they have the capacity and flexibility to become the best writer for the job, or should you expand your contact list?

—Wendy Joan

Photo from the New Haven Advocate

Free Content… With Every Box of Corn Flakes

Content wants to be free.

We all want free content.

But somebody has to pay for it, and that somebody is you. And me.

What are we willing to pay to get our content for free? What costs are we willing to pay beyond the monetary?

How much of our privacy are we willing to have invaded to get the information and convenience we desire free of charge?

How good does the content need to be in order for us to part with our hard-earned bucks? I was certainly willing to pay for New York Times opinion articles when the Times Select program was in place, but apparently, there were not enough people like me as the program was discontinued.

Now, the Wall Street Journal is one of the few major content providers to charge for content, but it’s not content I’m willing to pay for. However, when an iPhone app recently appeared that allowed free access to WSJ content, I was all over it. Rupert Murdoch is, apparently, quite upset at the existence of the app, but the technology does not exist to charge iPhone users, yet.

Many sites exact a non-monetary toll, requiring you to create an account that collects personal data that, theoretically, can be used to market products to you. These sites do assume that you are faithful in reproducing your biographical information. I am not. I have signed up for many a site as Phil McCracken, Hugh Jass or Jacques Strappe. Age 104. Etc. (While this makes me feel better, I doubt this small-time deviancy really affects the value of the database.)

But there’s other information about yourself online that you can’t hide from the marketers.

If you have a Gmail account, as I do, you already agree to let Google read your email. Why do you think the ads you see are uncannily related to the content of the message you are reading?

Troubling? Yes. Worth giving up the convenience of my FREE Gmail account? Not yet.

(As an aside, it’s really wonderful when contextual advertising fails spectacularly. See this great juxtoposition between a swine flu story, an advertisement for White Castle’s new pulled pork sandwiches, and the cover of The Jerusalem Post. Kosher? No. Funny. Yes.)
Contextual advertising is just one of the tools the advertisers have to get their meat hooks into us when we’re partaking of the free content.

On a logical level, and this is coming from a former newspaperman, I know that there is a cost to producing content. I know that top-notch, unique content costs even more. For years, I readily paid a nominal fee every day to have that content delivered to my doorstep, but the internet changed the content landscape in a fundamental way.

(Interestingly, I pay more each day for internet service than I ever paid for a newspaper subscription; ironically, none of the money I pay my ISP goes to the content creators. It’s like if my newspaper subscription money just stayed with the paper carrier and never went to the New York Times.)

So I am conflicted. I know that advertising pays for content, but I am used to getting my content for free on the internet and there is a part of me that will do what it takes to make sure I don’t have to pay, monetarily or otherwise. However, there is exceptional content out there that I have paid for in the past and would pay for again rather than go without (Sunday just isn’t Sunday without The Times, printed or not.).

And I have resigned myself to the fact that Google reading my Gmail is probably just the beginning of the future of advertising that’s directed solely at me based on where I have been browsing and what I have been writing. Behavioral targeting is the next step, but that’s another post.

— Jonathan

Photo by Fagerjord

Looking for a Job in Journalism? You’re in Luck

If you are just graduating J-school or have recently left another industry and for some odd reason, have a hankering to parlay your writing skills into the field of journalism, you may have heard that this is not the greatest time to be entering the business.

In one sense, you would be right. The field has lost thousands of jobs in the past couple of years as several factors have come together to put a serious financial crimp on the industry.

So, the likelihood of you landing a job at a major daily newspaper or national magazine is low. Very low.

But if you swing over to JournalismJobs.com, you will see that there are hundred of jobs available in the field. They are just probably not the sort of job you’d have previously considered. And they are not in the sorts of places you think of as journalism hot spots.

Idaho Falls, Idaho. Sierra Vista, Arizona. Waynesville, North Carolina. Sharon, Pennsylvania. And many other spots that line the blue highways of America.

But these jobs, most of them at small community newspapers, offer an immense number of benefits.

1.    You get to hone your craft every day in close proximity to your subjects. This is both a blessing and a curse. I won’t elaborate further.
2.    You get to practice every facet of journalism. You will write news and features, editorials and columns, sports and business, you name it. You will take photos. You will shoot video. You will learn a whole host of computer programs. You will blog.
3.    You will learn humility. You will screw up and it will be in everyone’s hands the next day. Your office will likely be on Main St. People won’t be shy about pointing out your shortcomings.
4.    You will get to know a community better than you have ever known any place in your life.
5.    You will get to experience the upside and the downside of the sort of Mayberry-like living that’s still present in broad swaths of rural America.
6.    The public will get to know you better than you’d ever dreamed of. People you’ve never met will approach you in public places with “something that has to go in the paper.” Depending on your personality, you may or may not get used to being a local celebrity.
7.    You will get creative. The paper must go out every week and some weeks, especially around the holidays (and during the off-season if you are living in a tourist town), there will be NOTHING going on.
8.    You will become a better writer because you will be writing a lot. You will learn to edit your own work, quickly and ruthlessly.
9.    You will also learn to edit the work of the barely literate and the hardly coherent, AKA, letters to the editor.
10.    Finally, you will hone you web skills. Even the tiniest newspapers have a website these days and you will be maintaining it.

Full disclosure: I spent 10 years working at community newspapers in Colorado, Nevada and Georgia. And if you decide to take the plunge, read Jock Lauterer’s Community Journalism, Relentlessly Local.

— Jonathan
Photo by Marcin Wichary

Content Management Ethics Catch the Swine Flu

The swine flu outbreak has been hogging the headlines for a couple of days now. A quick survey this morning revealed 15 flu stories on the front page of WashingtonPost.com, nine on the front page of NYTimes.com, 14 on the front page of HuffingtonPost.com and 18 on the front page of DrudgeReport.com.

That is an awful lot of virus-laden porcine content.

And why? Thus far, only a small number of people have died, none of them in the U.S. The swine flu strain that’s behind all the headlines does not appear to be any more virulent than other strains of flu. Yes, swine flu (H1N1) does transmit easily from person to person, unlike the much more virulent bird flu (H5N1) that has been causing unease among epidemiologists for the last several years.

So where does the balance lie between informing and alarming? What are the ethical constraints of the content provider in a public health related situation?

Howard Kurtz, in his Media Notes column in today’s Washington Post, said that simply by virtue of the sheer volume of swine flu coverage, it would be reasonable to infer that there’s a real emergency.

Turn on your TV, hit one of the news networks and it’s “all flu, all the time.”

One commentator noted that the 24-hour news cycle necessitated bludgeoning viewers with the same information over and over. He also noted that scared people tuned in more often and for longer periods of time, so providing “context” for the news—i.e., running a story that goes beyond the headlines and that puts the risk of the swine flu in perspective—stood directly in the way of ratings.

So despite the sell-out that seems to be going on at every major news outlet, ethics still matter for content providers. Ethics matter because trust matters. Sensationalize at your peril. You may get a bump in traffic today, but it won’t be without cost.

—Jonathan

Photo by sarihuella

Content Slobberknocker: Dunkin’ Donuts vs. Starbucks

I went into a Dunkin’ Donuts Monday morning for the first time in I don’t know how long, and while I was initially annoyed that there was a long line, it gave me a few minutes to take a look around and see what had changed since I’d last been in…

First, and most importantly to me, I was able to see many trays of doughnuts glowing in a big rack behind the counter. And they had some Boston Creams left. Dunkin’ Donuts’ core content was not being neglected.

I looked at the dozen or so tables in the place and noticed something shocking: No one was eating doughnuts. Some people were tucking into breakfast sandwiches. Everyone was drinking coffee. And not just the 50-cents-a-cup black tar you associate with a doughnut shop, but fancy coffee drinks, the kind people pay $4.59 for at Starbucks without batting an eye.

I watched all five people in line in front of me order big, fancy coffees and not one single doughnut. Did I mention there was a six-car wait at the drive through and that all I saw being passed out the window was coffee?

The Dunkin’ Donuts content menu had been expanded, and at least in the very small sample I had (one data point), it appeared to be a resounding success.

The clerk seemed a little stunned when I order two doughnuts and no coffee, but someone else must have been eating them, because the two I had were fresh and delicious, just as I’d remembered.

Not a few blocks away at the nearest Starbucks, the same story was being told, albeit in reverse. The coffee was still headed out the drive-though window and people were still hanging out inside, mooching the bandwidth on the free Wi-Fi, but a quick look at the menu revealed new breakfast sandwiches and, wait for it, doughnuts. I had one of the doughnuts the other day, a cakey lemon-zest flavored ring that while good, was just a little too highbrow to work as a doughnut.

Starbucks had expanded its content offerings too, but success may prove elusive.

What’s interesting is that both Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks decided they could no longer survive as content specialists. Coffee wasn’t enough for Starbucks and doughnuts were not enough for Dunkin’. And it’s not that both brands’ signature products weren’t appealing. They just weren’t enough to sustain growth.

Which brings us to that content inventory you’ve been meaning to do. If  your focus is relatively narrow, are your customers being forced to look for elsewhere to fulfill some of their needs? You may be the recognized expert in your field, but do you need to offer a greater breadth of content to keep your customers happy? If so, choose the direction you expand with care. As both Dunkin’ Donuts and McDonalds (with the McCafe) have found out, its often easier to offer less expensive luxury goods than it is to go upscale with a humble product like Starbucks tried with its doughnut.

— Jonathan

The Limitations of Online Content

The virtual world’s approximation of the real world is getting more precise every day. Virtual pets have gone from the crude Tamigochi to the strangely lifeless Aibo and it’s possible to take an online video tour of nearly anywhere on earth, but we have a long way to go before we reach the level of Star Trek’s holodeck, and can actually be immersed in a virtual world.

As I compose this post, I am listening to Birdsong Radio on iTunes, and were I to close my eyes, I might believe I was in a distant, verdant grove, winged creatures darting through green clerestories above me.

But soothing as the chirping, tweeting (Damn you, Twitter, for corrupting that word.) and trilling may be, it leaves out the rest of the senses. I can even set my screensaver to “Tropical Forest” but since I’ve had deep drinks from nature’s wellspring, I’m not fooled. The soft loam beneath my boots, the warm embrace of tropical air, the scent of, well… life, are all missing.

What, you may ask, does this post even tangentially have to do with content?

The following headline came through my news feed yesterday: “Humans may be losers if technological nature replaces the real thing, psychologists warn.” The story, from the online magazine Science Daily, summarized a study from Current Directions in Psychological Science which indicated that not only will humans suffer on many levels from failing to get enough exposure to real nature, but that the natural world, reduced to sound bites and panoramas on computer screens will suffer as humans become more and more detached from the real-life issues that threaten wild spaces.

The rest of this blog post contains a set of instructions that will take you away from this screen, so jot them down on some scrap paper, or better yet, simply commit them to memory.

1.    Stop.

2.    Take your hand off the mouse and slowly back away from the computer.

3.    Go outside.

4.    Start walking away from the noise.

5.    Don’t stop until you reach something that passes for a natural landscape, be it a city park, a beach or the Grand Canyon.

6.    Find a quiet spot.

7.    Sit down.

8.    Be still.

9.    Feed your soul.

10.    Repeat daily.

— Jonathan

Photo by Clearly Ambiguous