How SoundCloud lost its way

Dani Deahl and Casey Newton, writing for The Verge:

SoundCloud experimented with a variety of business models, including content-related ads and charging the creators for premium accounts that host more audio. But much of the audio uploaded to its servers contained derivative copyrighted material: DJ sets, mashups, and unofficial remixes using songs the SoundCloud artists didn’t have rights to. As those tracks racked up millions of views, record labels pressured the company to crack down. While the company worked to develop its paid platform, the service began to fray around the edges. SoundCloud’s increasingly confusing system of paid tiers caused contention for creators and their teams: unwarranted song takedowns ruined PR for new releases, labels pulled music off SoundCloud against artists’ will, and those who had helped make SoundCloud a force from the beginning now found it had simply stopped paying attention to their needs.

What’s happening to SoundCloud is sad. What was once a great platform for discovery and creativity is a confusing mess to use and is in danger of shutting down. For my part, I am freaked and will be attempting to move my SoundCloud podcasts off the platform as soon as possible.

A Conversation with Aditi Natasha Kini about ‘The Big Sick’

The desire to see yourself represented onscreen can be a powerful one. I’ve felt it for most of my life, and I was sympathetic when Aditi Natasha Kini wrote a piece about it for Jezebel, as viewed through the lens of shows like Master of None and films like The Big Sick.

While many people in the comments and around the web supported Kini’s post, it also attracted criticism from liberals, conservatives, and film Twitter (and me, to some extent!). Kini had chosen an autobiographical film that many folks loved and seemed to be criticizing the details of the writer’s (Kumail Nanjiani) own life.

I reached out to Kini to see if she’d be willing to chat with me about the piece. She graciously agreed. What follows below is a transcription of parts of our conversation. It has been edited for clarity and brevity. This conversation contains some plot details from The Big Sick.

[Also: You can listen to my podcast review of The Big Sick over on the /Filmcast]

David: Before we begin, can you re-iterate again the main thrust of your article?

Aditi: The question that I’m asking is why liberals are lauding TV shows and movies like Master of None and The Big Sick for being a gold standard for progress despite the erasure and invisibility of believable women of color in them.

I think that the gist of my piece is we can still enjoy things and hold them to higher standards. And what the brown guys of Hollywood are doing is they’re othering women of color, especially women in their communities, by making this a platform for them to assimilate in white culture.

What motivated you to write this piece?

It’s been kind of a build-up, a cumulative frustration, but it started with Master of None. I had a lot of discussions with people who thought it was it was an amazing show. It’s a good show but I had some issues with it obviously, and I had to bear the emotional labor of explaining that to non-women of color. And then I saw The Big Sick at a preview screening in New York. I didn’t laugh at some parts that a lot of the audience members laughed at. For instance, in the trailer they show the Pakistani woman who says who makes that X-Files joke. It’s not a joke; she just says The X-Files tagline. But it’s with an accent, and people laugh. I liked the movie but I walked away feeling a little uneasy.

I started writing my thoughts down. It started out as a personal essay. Then I started talking about it in some Asian activist Facebook groups and with friends who are from similar backgrounds. They felt like I did. The impetus to write it became more of giving a voice to people who are being marginalized. After going through approximately 11 drafts, the essay became more grounded in race theory and the history of the US as time went on.

I’ve seen a lot of right wing blogs that have picked this piece up and have claimed that you are anti-interracial relationships. What’s your reaction to that?

It’s very curious that like white supremacists and centrist liberals are united in hatred of the piece. They’ve denounced me as racist. A lot of people took it very personally or took it to mean that I am this new face of the overly politically correct, progressive left, and that like white nationalists, we also don’t want mixing or whatever the phrase is.

There’s a whole vein of critique that is accusing me of being salty and ugly, and that this article just reeks of “intra-sexual competition.” That’s one of the reasons many women of color don’t write about these things or talk about it that much, because they can easily be written off as bitter. I have color and caste privilege in South Asian communities, so I was more empowered to write this essay.

When white women are the main characters, the meatiest roles, in these depictions, and you have women of color as foils—as anti-attractive foils—it simply furthers a deep history of colonization.

This is not a new thing. Media representation includes books that represent white women and POC relations, especially cishet men-of-color relations, through the ages. And theorists have reacted to these representations for decades, centuries because the white woman is still held as the pure ideal in the US.

When we work within the framework of white supremacy by saying, “Why can’t love be love?” and defending it as the artist’s “personal experience,” you have to question why they’re choosing to make fictional shows still working within that framework.

In my opinion, the right seized on your piece as a means of destroying liberals’ moral high ground. And liberals saw you taking a piece of art that was valuable and denigrating it.

I think movies and shows like The Big Sick and Master of None give liberals an opportunity to congratulate themselves on being liberal and progressive. So watching and liking these movies makes them feel like you’re in a world that is progressing and being more open. And if I call it out I sound like I’m being unnecessarily difficult. I have got a lot of hate mail and a lot of it’s coming from people in interracial relationships.

I’ve also gotten a lot of thank you’s. A lot women of color, even in interracial relationships, understand where the piece is coming from, a place of wanting to understand why Kumail Nanjiani and Aziz Ansari are doing the same things to women in their community that were done to them by the white person.

I think there is this idea that I’ve violated a perception of liberals, their perception that the world is improving. I’ve had people reach out asking “Why can’t we just have a good thing for once? Why do you have to make it so unfun?” I hope I haven’t ruined someone’s experience of the movie, because it is a fun movie. It’s possible to like something and still be critical of it.

I think one thing a lot of people have struggled with regarding your piece, and that I struggle with, is what exactly is the counterfactual in this case? Given that the movie was about Kumail Nanjiani’s life, what other movie would you have wanted him to make?

He didn’t have to make all these women of color the butt of every joke like he did. It’s highly unlikely that every scene with brown people was 100% autobiographical.

I don’t actually agree with you that they are all butts of jokes. Yes, there is that one woman who says the X-Files line. Agreed, that’s a bit of a joke. But there are several other women of color who he meets who are not portrayed as the butt of any joke whatsoever. There is one woman who he rejects, but that rejection makes Kumail look like kind of a jerk!

The phrase that I used to describe that specific woman in the film was pitiable spectacle. The woman you are talking about is heartbroken over someone she barely knows because her future happiness depended on him or something. The counter-factual is that this movie could’ve been one that didn’t “other” these woman and instead conceive of women as full-bodied characters in non-sister and non-mother roles.

What you’re describing is a problem that’s widespread in Hollywood films. I think part of the reason people are reacting poorly to your piece is that The Big Sick is a movie that does many progressive things really well, but there are thousands of other movies that have exactly the same problem that you’re describing. So why are you picking on this particular movie?

A lot of people asked, “Why aren’t you talking about The Mindy Project?” I did not watch most of The Mindy Project. I got tired after one episode. The reason that I’m holding The Big Sick and Master of None to these excessively high standards is because I like them and there’s potential in these artists to make a lot more. They’re trying. These are the role models that people are going to grow up watching. Second- and third- generation South Asian and Asian immigrants can aspire to this level of craft because there is quality there.

I see potential in Aziz Ansari who tells minoritized story so well, like the Thanksgiving episode and the New York episode of Master of None. Those are exceptional episodes.

And the same with The Big Sick.. I’m really impressed by how comedic it was. I was enthralled and I walked away feeling uneasy because I liked it, not because I didn’t like it.

Thanks so much for your time today, Aditi.

Absolutely.

“If you’re Asian, you’re less than human and people can treat you like trash.”

Heartbreaking story from The Guardian about a Dyne Suh, who was turned away from an AirBNB for being Asian:

An Airbnb host who canceled a woman’s reservation using a racist remark has been ordered to pay $5,000 in damages for racial discrimination and take a course in Asian American studies.

Dyne Suh, a 26-year-old law clerk, had booked Tami Barker’s mountain cabin in Big Bear, California, for a skiing weekend with friends in February, but Barker canceled the reservation by text message minutes before they arrived,stating: “I wouldn’t rent it to u if u were the last person on earth” and “One word says it all. Asian” […]

When Suh said she’d complain to Airbnb about the racist remark, Barker replied, “It’s why we have Trump … and I will not allow this country to be told what to do by foreigners.”

Another instance of how Trump’s careless rhetoric continues to embolden those who wish to use race to denigrate, discriminate, and separate.

The ‘Awaken’ trailer will melt your eyes with its beauty

Watch this 4K trailer for Tom Lowe’s Awaken on the largest screen you can:

This is the first time in my life where I’ve started crying from watching a trailer. The trailer itself is a beautiful work.

There are some insane, timelapse shots from the sky — shots that have never been attempted before. According to Engadget, this was done using “gimbal technology that allowed [Lowe] to shoot astrophotography scenes from a moving helicopter.” Incredible.

From the film’s website:

Shot over a 5-year period in more than 30 countries, the film pioneers new time-lapse, time-dilation, underwater, and aerial cinematography techniques to give audiences new eyes with which to see our world. Executive produced by Terrence Malick and Godfrey Reggio, AWAKEN is a celebration of the spirit of life, an exploration of the Earth, and an ode to the Cosmos.

This looks like a gorgeous exploration of technology and humanity in the vein of Samsara. I can’t wait to see it.

The Ghosts of Westeros Panel at Con of Thrones

I recently experienced one of the greatest joys of my life as a pop culture commentator: moderating the “Ghosts of Westeros” panel at Con of Thrones with my Cast of Kings co-host Joanna Robinson. It was a blast to spend time with these amazing actors, who been invaluable to building a show that has become such a huge success over the past 7 years.

As the event was about to begin and we walking onto the stage, looking upon thousands of fans in the audience, I acutely felt what an immense honor it has been to be part of people’s lives during the course of this show.

You can listen to the panel below. Subscribe to A Cast of Kings on Apple Podcasts here.

Here are a few write-ups of the Con worth checking out:

What it’s like to win a medal, eight years later

The New York Times has the story of Chaunté Lowe, who won a bronze model eight years after she competed in the Olympic high jump:

She read a news report: Three Olympians — two Russians and a Ukrainian — who had finished in front of her in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing failed retroactive doping tests. She had moved from sixth to third place.

She had become an Olympic bronze medalist. It was her first medal. She felt herself beginning to dance.

“I screamed like someone was in my house trying to take away my cookies,” she said. “I was excited and relieved at the same time. ‘Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, you are not a failure’!”

This podcast took me on an emotional journey

Recently, while browsing for new podcasts to listen to, I found a show called Pregnant Pause, in which journalist Zak Rosen and his wife Shira Heisler discuss whether or not they want to have children. I decided to subscribe because I was personally interested in exploring the same question.

The show is well produced and tackles a variety of aspects of child-bearing with thoughtfulness, honesty, and sensitivity. While I found the standard podcast bumpers to be a bit jarring when applied to this situation (e.g. “Stay tuned next week to hear what happened with my wife’s hospital visit!”), overall I’d highly recommend this show. Without spoiling anything, I can tell you that “Pregnant Pause” took me on an emotional roller coaster ride that I won’t soon forget. I’m grateful to Rosen and Heisler for their willingness to share themselves with the world in this way.

Listen to all 8 episodes here. They’re only about 30 minutes long each.

Listen to the Pierre Henry song that inspired Futurama’s theme song

The New York Times has published a short piece on musician Pierre Henry, whose song “Psyché Rock” inspired Futurama’s theme song:

The French composer Pierre Henry, who died on Thursday, was a pioneer of musique concrète, which records existing sounds and turns them into musical collages. His mechanical techniques were an analog precursor to the digital sampling that is widely used in music today […]

Mr. Henry’s “Psyché Rock” coupled rock with electronic tones, whirs, beeps and distortion to create a psychedelic sound. “Psyché Rock,” which has been remixed by Fatboy Slim and William Orbit, inspired the theme song for the animated television series “Futurama.”

The melody and sound effects that would become forever associated with Futurama are definitely audible in the original music. The Futurama theme song (which I believe was remixed by series composer Christopher Tyng) takes those elements and gives them a cohesion and robustness that would become associated with the show’s bold aesthetic and style of humor.

Here’s the Futurama theme, which is one of my favorite themes of all time:

What makes ‘Better Call Saul’ a successful prequel

Travis Lee Ratcliff has a nice video essay exploring what makes a prequel successful. In short: characters and events in the prequel need to have meaning beyond their original context. Many prequels forget this (including Better Call Saul, at times) but I think Saul has really cleared the bar for creating something new and satisfying out of an existing world.

[Thanks to Søren from the Slackfilmcast for bringing this essay to my attention]

 

On the desire to see yourself represented onscreen

Well, speaking of films being used as political lightning rods

Aditi Natasha Kini has written a piece for Jezebel entitled “I’m Tired of Watching Brown Men Fall in Love With White Women Onscreen.” In it, she not only conveys her personal dismay at watching recent shows and films like The Big Sick and Master of None, she also explains how race (and specifically, whiteness) has been operationalized in popular culture:

The Big Sick has been roundly lauded in the press lately, including here at Jezebel, and not without good reason: it’s a funny, heartwarming love story based on the true-life experiences of cowriters/married couple Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon. But as much as I liked it—and I did—I also found myself exhausted, yet again, by the onscreen depiction of a brown man wanting to date a white woman, while brown women are portrayed alternately as caricatures, stereotypes, inconsequential, and/or the butts of a joke.

I know, I know: isn’t it progress to see Asian men get the girl for once, instead of stand-in as a prop, token or joke? Sure, it’s great that Hollywood is putting its money behind narratives with brown men at the helm, as in The Big Sick and Master of None. But both also center white women as the love interest—a concept which, in the complex hierarchy of power and race in America, pays lip-service to the one notion that has shaped the history of South Asian and American culture alike: Whiteness as the ultimate desire, the highest goal in defining oneself as an American. Both of these works are part of a larger trend that’s common in films in media portraying the desi community, that the pursuit of white love is a mode of acceptance into American culture, and a way of “transcending” the confines of immigrant culture—the notion that white love is a gateway drug to the American dream.

There have been a lot of writers online attacking this piece, and I myself am quite torn on it.

On the one hand, Kini’s point is undercut by the fact that The Big Sick is largely autobiographical. The movie is a passion project by Nanjiani and his wife, Emily Gordon, and it’s difficult to understand the counterfactual that Kini is advocating for in this case. Should they have altered the film details (and thus, the details of their life) to conform to Kini’s concept of a film that’s more ethnically diverse and representative?

[I should also point out that the fact that The Big Sick exists at all and is receiving a major theatrical release is a bit of a miracle. I think the film will do a lot to expand people’s idea of what the American immigrant experience is.]

On the other hand, as an Asian-American immigrant, I can totally sympathize with where Kini is coming from. Americans who aren’t white spend decades of their lives watching films/TV shows in which white people are the romantic objects of affection, OR films/TV shows where white people get the romantic objects of affection by the end (often, the latter are of a different race).

Consider this: When was the last time you watched a film that had a Pakistani woman as the love interest? When was the last time you watched a film that had a white woman as the love interest? Imagine what it feels like to acutely perceive that imbalance every single day of your life.

The Big Sick is a great film. Kini’s concept of a similar film from the perspective of a Pakistani woman would also be something I’d want to see. I’m sad that we can’t watch both this year, but maybe they will coexist one day.

When it is time to leave film criticism

The other day, I saw a tweet from film writer Chris Webster that got me intrigued:

As someone who recently tried to direct a film, I felt like I understood what Webster was talking about. When you try to go through the process of making a film (even a tiny indie film), it changes your perception of movies altogether. It makes the great ones seem even more miraculous, and the terrible ones feel more tragic.

I contacted Webster to see if I could get him to talk more about his decision to leave film criticism. He agreed to answer a few questions via email. You can follow Chris on Twitter or at places like Screen Anarchy and Quiet Earth.

David: How long have you been reviewing movies (in print or on the internet)?

Chris: The first time I was paid to review a film was in 2005 when Sergio Leone’s Duck, You Sucker (aka. A Fistful of Dynamite) was re-released through the arthouse circuit. I was writing a film news column for a local weekly called SEE Magazine and lobbied to be allowed to review it as I was a big spaghetti western buff and was desperate to see the film on the big screen.

I remember the photo that was published along with the review was from a completely different film, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon as I recall, and for some reason I was crushed when I opened the paper the following Tuesday morning on my way to University, thoroughly convinced that readers would assume I was responsible for the gaff and my days as a cineaste would end prematurely.

That weekly paper folded two years later which is when I started investigating the online world, reading sites like Ain’t it Cool News, Twitch Film (now ScreenAnarchy), First Showing, Slashfilm, Bloody Disgusting and others. I was immediately impressed by the relentless pace and scope of the coverage that was possible when you assembled a team internationally and hit most of the major festivals. It was clear that you didn’t need to expend a lot of travel costs for instance, just ensure you made connections with contributors in crucial locations.

I threw myself in and joined the founder of Quiet Earth on a mission to emulate that model. And for a few years we did a decent job growing the team and readership as well as making some great friends in the community along the way. I also have the pleasure to be writing at many of those sites now.

Why did you decide to get into movie writing in the first place?

Look, everyone loves movies, but there’s a limit to how long your friends and family will sit and talk with you about them. I’m sure most of us who have gravitated to blogging about film have faced this and it’s pushed us to find other ways to keep the conversation going. Writing about movies, podcasting, that’s what we’re doing, keeping the conversation going ad infinitum.

Do you make money from writing reviews? What portion of your personal income does it contribute to? Do you have a full-time/day job?

The money I make from writing about movies fluctuates as it’s based on various revenue streams including affiliate partnerships, advertising and commission work. If you’re not staffed full time at a big site, the trick seems to be writing for multiple sites. Since the monthly figure is generally in the hundreds of dollars it doesn’t make up a significant portion of my income. For that I rely on a full-time job in marketing/communications.

Is there a movie review or a moment in your writing career you’re particularly proud of?

As you know, there’s nothing more important than being FIRST! in the online world, so I would say my firsts have been my some of my proudest moments.

For example, I had the opportunity to publish the first English review of Switzerland’s first science fiction film, Cargo. With my permission, Io9 ended up re-publishing the review, which was a nice surprise and I was glad to have been able to help that film get some exposure. It’s very ambitious and beautiful and the director is a really cool guy.

Reviews where I have been extremely positive on a film also seem to stand out as well. My review of Kevin Smith’s Red State for example sticks out because I was able to attend one of the director’s roadshow screenings and the film completely rocked the house. I was floored by that movie and that whole experience definitely helps the review I subsequently wrote stand out in my mind.

I could go on, but I’ll stop at two.

What made you decide to stop writing reviews?

In 2010 I made the choice to try writing a screenplay, just to see if I could. Finishing that 100 page script was incredibly challenging, but also insightful. I sent it around and managed to attract an established director and a producer of movie video game tie-ins. Development hell, as they say, ensued and that project eventually fell apart. But I had caught the bug, so I wrote another one which lead to some time working with an Australian producer, which in tern lead to working on another project with a well known Canadian director. Most recently, I’ve worked on the upcoming series, Dark/Web, from the producers of last year’s Circle.

Once I had gone through development on a number of feature film projects that experience started to warp my process of reviewing films until it became a totally unrecognizable endeavor.

Knowing how the sausage was made on a creative level alerted me to the fact that there was some investigation missing when it came to truly understanding the intention and considerations of a writer and his/her collaborators, which debilitated discussing a film completely. I began losing my ability to write about movies from an emotional perspective, while at the same time, I became frustrated by how I saw others writing about films.

Everywhere I looked, critics seemed willfully unwilling to explore how movies were made in any significant way to enhance their writing. And I started to think, ‘In a world where VICE will go live with terrorists in Iran, or whatever, to bring a level of authenticity to their reporting, I don’t see any movie critics really willing to gain a rich understanding of what it’s like to produce a film from script to screen.’

I believe if more film critics went down this investigative path, tried to write a film or work on a set, it would radically change the profession and the discourse. Because what I see in the space now are critics proclaiming reasons a film isn’t working with very little content to back it up. It’s not enough to say, “Oh, the script was terrible, some of that dialog was on the nose,” which you read all the time, because what are you even talking about exactly? Did you read the screenplay? A screenplay isn’t just the dialog; it’s everything from what we hear on the soundtrack to how the characters are costumed to the tone and pacing. It’s a thousand considerations, each of which will go on to be compromised in some small way by each person who comes along after it’s written to help bring it to the screen. Nobody sets out to make a bad film. For that reason, I think great films are miracles and the idea of reducing this rich and collaborative art form to 500 snarky words seems preposterous to me.

And look, what I am suggesting happens in the film industry as well. I just realized that watching a lot of movies doesn’t necessarily equip you with a robust enough understanding of how films work, or should work, and I realized I was likely doing more disservice to filmmakers than good by bringing more uninformed criticism into the world.

I’ve noticed that many of our critic colleagues who have gotten into producing have quietly moved away from reviewing films altogether. I won’t name names — people can do their research — but I suspect it’s because writing reviews began to feel like a strangely disingenuous exercise for them. Now that I’ve discussed my own decision here, I think I’ll ask them about it. And who knows, maybe they’re just too busy.

Which brings up another reason: it takes a lot of time to write about the work of others when I could be focusing on my own work. Ben Wheatley’s recent comments about not understanding the desire to criticize rather than create hit me right in the gut. It made me consider all the time I had invested in writing bout other people’s creativity and how I wished I had some of that time back to invest in my own endeavors. A very intelligent filmmaker friend of mine takes issue with Wheatley’s sentiments and has suggested that criticism is a critic’s art. After about a year of mulling his opinion, I have decided to respectfully disagree. It’s okay though, we’re still friends.

The final reason I’ve lost interest in reviewing films is that I believe criticism is moving in a very toxic direction where films are being used as political lightning rods to discuss identity politics by some people I would suggest have little interest in movies. I think the market has dictated this. Conflict has always generated clicks, but what this preoccupation with whether or not La La Land is racist [Editor’s note: Um…] has done is drown out those discussing the movie and movies. And I miss that.

On a recent episode of The Canon podcast, critics MTV’s Amy Nicholson and indie Wire’s David Ehrlich discussed the 1998 Academy Award winner Shakespeare in Love. Both of them marveled at how, when going back to read through criticism of it from the time of its release, there was barely any talk of how the film represents gender. They went on to imagine how the film would be put through the think-piece meat grinder if it were released today which struck me as incredibly sad. Gender is a topic worth considering in the film, no question, it’s not that, but it reminded me that we used to sit on films, let history do its thing before assessing their place and relevance in the culture, using context and perspective as an important ally. Now we sort of speed date with movies, savage them with judgment and move on to the next table.

What blogging hath wrought

John Biggs has written a reflection for TechCrunch on the impact that the internet, blogging, and social media has had on how we consume news:

Because my experience is a microcosm of what happened to media in the 21st century, it can begin to explain how we ended up in an era of intentional ignorance and with a truly broken media. The tools we perfected in those early days were some of the most pernicious and powerful tools in existence, honed to razor sharpness to cut off only the fattest parts of the truth, abandoning the nuance. We were not originally butchers – we had loftier goals – but when traffic (and traffic bonuses) became our driving impetus and when Google advertisers valued eyeballs over brains we had to provide content that fit a certain mindset and provide it at speed. It was as if we had invented a steam engine and set off across the landscape without inventing a brake. And we had limitless tons of coal.

The new 30 for 30 Podcast is great

ESPN has recently launched the “30 for 30” podcast, based on its 30 for 30 documentaries. Hosted by Jody Avirgan, each episode explores an untold side of a popular sports story.

The first episode chronicles the trials of Reebok’s once-ubiquitous “Dan and Dave” ads. As someone who was a kid when these first came out, I was fascinated by the backstory of Reebok’s bold marketing campaign, and the consequences that befell them when they put the cart before the horse.

I wasn’t as crazy about their second episode about the Yankess Suck phenomenon — not because the podcast wasn’t well made (it is) but because this particular story sums up a lot about what I dislike about American society and sports fandom in general.

Nevertheless, it’s a really strong start to what I hope will be a great podcast. I’m subscribed for the foreseeable future. [Apple Podcasts link]

“What if writing, full stop, isn’t a job anymore?”

Bryan Curtis over at The Ringer has some thoughtful reflections on last week’s MTV craziness:

Let’s imagine a pivot to video is genuine rather than just a scheme to give everyone a pink slip. Other than Vice and a few other shops, there’s almost no model for what a good web video job would be. Last week, Vanity Fair unveiled a profile of Serena Williams with beautiful photos from Annie Leibovitz and a story from Buzz Bissinger. But as The Awl’s Silvia Killingsworth wrote, a video that accompanied the article was just a collage of Leibovitz photos and pull quotes from the article. The article’s sentences were labored over; the pictures were composed; the video was an afterthought.

Some of this may just be timing. A decade ago, if a web publication said it was “pivoting to podcasting,” the news would have been greeted like the End Times. Now, getting tapped for a podcast is like earning a journalistic merit badge. In a few cases, writers have realized they could both write and pod. In others, writers realized that if a zippy conversation about the news of the week consumed the time they’d have otherwise spent crafting a memorable piece, well, that’s the price of success. It’s a lot easier to have the zippy conversation.

The culling of online publications will likely continue as viable business models for video sort themselves out. In the meantime, let the good times roll.

Meeting Joanna

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I’ve been podcasting with Joanna Robinson for about six years. This past weekend, we met in person for the very first time.

It was about six years ago that Joanna first pitched me the idea of doing a recap podcast about Game of Thrones. I was unsure whether this would be a good idea — I didn’t know that much about the world of the show and I’d never done a TV podcast before. But I trusted in Joanna to guide the way.

So we decided to give it a shot, and we launched A Cast Of Kings. We entered a crowded field that already had DOZENS of other Game of Thrones podcasts.

Fast forward to present day. A Cast of Kings is the most successful podcast I’ve ever had a part in, generating over 5 million downloads, with hundreds of thousands of fans from all around the world. Moreover, Joanna’s star has risen dramatically in the intervening years, as she’s become one of the most respected and widely read Game of Thrones writers on the internet. It’s been an honor to work with her during
this ascension.

Despite this, Joanna and I had never met in person before. But yesterday, at a Podcaster Meet And Greet at #ConOfThrones, surrounded by many fans of the show we created together, we finally had the chance. This photo commemorates the occasion (thanks to Jim from Bald Move for taking it).

The internet can be magic, if you will it to be. All it takes is the willingness to take chances with people and a passion for what you do.

And persistence. A lot of persistence.

GQ’s baffling investigative piece on fires in the Mission

Last week, I read a rather baffling piece in GQ by Jon Ronson (a writer I greatly look up to and author of books such as So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, as well as a screenwriter on Bong Joon-Ho’s Okja). Entitled “San Francisco Is Burning” and accompanied by a spectacular photo illustration of houses on fire, Ronson’s piece posed the question: “Are the city’s landlords using arson to drive out low-income tenants? And is this the deadly endgame of gentrification and tech-boom greed?”

These are good questions that bring up important issues, especially in an age where higher property costs are pushing out more and more middle-class folks. Problem is, the piece was a whole lot of smoke and not a lot of fire.

Ronson starts by interviewing an unnamed landlord — referred to as Gideon — who Ronson says “plotted to burn down the apartment building he owned.” But Ronson uncovers zero evidence that any such arsons actually occurred. Gideon only plotted to burn down his apartment building; he never actually went through with it. Ronson ends his piece with this wistful reflection:

I wonder how real estate agents are attracting buyers for all these new apartments. And so, posing as a prospective client, I arrange a viewing of a fancy condo. Not long ago, a real estate agent named Jennifer Rosdail blogged that the Mission should be re-christened as “The Quad, a newly defined meta-hood.” “Quadsters are young,” she wrote. “They like to hang in the sun with their friends. They work very hard—mostly in high tech—and make a lot of money.”

The man showing me the condo is less brash; in fact he’s very nice. So is the apartment, even if $2.6 million seems crazily excessive for 1,800 square feet. But it has a beautiful roof deck, which the two of us now stand on. It’s a lovely evening. A few streets away, I can see the empty space where Mauricio Orellana lost his life. I can also see Lazy Bear, a restaurant off Mission Street that does a 14-course tasting menu for $185, including foie gras and rabbit and sweet-pea custard.

“A new restaurant opens here every week,” the agent says. He pauses as we gaze out over the Mission’s rooftops. “It’s funny to think that a few years ago you wouldn’t be seen dead in this neighborhood.”

I wasn’t the only one who found the piece strange. San Francisco magazine’s Scott Lucas described this piece as a “massive troll with shoddy reporting.” (For some reason the site is down right now as I write this, but here’s the cached version). Firstly, Lucas quickly concludes that “Gideon” is actually a man named Richard Earl Singer, as many of Singer’s details match those of Gideons. But the apartment complex that Singer owned wasn’t even close to the Mission. It’s in Oakland.

Most damningly, Lucas drops some statistics and facts on us about some of these Mission fires:

Leaving Gideon—and Singer—aside, the article is marred by failing to take into account what Fire Department investigators have actually found regarding the Mission fires. Last year, in an article for Curbed, I put together a statistical analysis from public data that showed that, in fact, the Mission was burning at a slightly higher rate than would be expected from its population, but so were the Tenderloin, SoMA, the Financial District, and the Western Addition. Despite the popular narrative, there’s no fire cluster in the Mission.

What we do have in San Francisco, like many cities, is an unfortunate truth that older, poorly maintained buildings that often house poor people burn more often than others do. Arson just doesn’t seem to be the cause.

For example, KQED points out that the fire at the Graywood “was likely caused by a discarded cigarette or barbecue charcoals, according to a Fire Department investigation.” No evidence that the fire was deliberately set was found. A January 2015 fire that killed one person was found to be “unintentional.” When the dollar store at 2632 Mission Street went up in flames in April 2015, investigators found code violations—no smoke alarms or sprinklers—to be part of the problem, not arson. That was also the case in the March 2016 fire that killed two.

Ronson doesn’t cite any of that. Instead, he offers this: “As I stared at the charred walls, a passerby called out to me, ‘Was it arson or something? Then he shrugged and answered his own question: ‘I guess nobody knows.’”

Not good enough.

Really not sure what happened with Ronson’s piece but feels like he spent months trying to uncover something that never actually happened and had to crank something out to show for it.

The rise and fall of MTV News

Jordan Sargent has written what will probably be the definitive account of how MTV News’ experiment into serious journalism and commentary went awry. As I pointed out the other day, MTV News’ struggles are emblematic of deeper issues in online publishing.

Sargent’s piece tackles it as such, with a ton of choice quotes:

The dissolution of this micro-era of MTV News in just over a year and a half leaves us with several questions: Can a behemoth media company like MTV succeed in reinventing itself from within simply by creating a “prestige journalism” arm? Further, what kind of journalism does a company like Viacom—which is largely reliant on friendly artist relationships for its financial success—support and allow? And what even was the intended outcome? Fierman and Hopper both came to MTV News from publications—Grantland and Pitchfork’s longform print magazine, respectively—that had not been economically viable from the perspectives of various suits. Why would Viacom want to attempt it again? […]

Other issues faced by MTV News were also not particularly unique to the site. Hopper outlined a “dream world” in the press that may very well have been a fantasy, but editors overselling new sites in the hopes of drumming up excitement—and thus an audience—is part of the deal. Constant high-level turnover is also common across this tumultuous industry, with one executive hiring a group of editors and writers and then leaving them in the lap of another. New hires are often assured by their bosses that they will be given a certain period of time to see a new endeavor through, only to have it be cut short months early. Both Fierman and Hopper also came to MTV from places where prestige journalism projects were unable to be sustained—Fierman at Grantland, which was beloved and had readership in the millions, but was deemed no longer useful to ESPN once it jettisoned Bill Simmons; Hopper at Pitchfork, where she helmed the bulk of the issues of the Pitchfork Review, its boutique print magazine that stopped publishing soon after she left. In the context of MTV, too, this MTV News experiment met a routine and familiar death.

“There’s this cycle that happens, that I was a part of. Someone gets the idea that they want editorial, and then a couple editors who all know the other editors are like ‘Come here, the faucet is on’,” Suarez said of the state of the industry. “And everyone runs to that faucet and it attracts the attention of higher-ups who realize there’s too much money coming out and shut it down. Then somebody you bring to your faucet gets their own faucet, and so you run over there.”

Words can be forever

MTV News announced today that it would lay off a bunch of writing staff and freelancers, and pivot towards short-form video content. It joins many other media companies who’ve recently said they’d be doing the exact same thing, including Mashable, Vocativ, and Upworthy.

My heart goes out to those who’ve been laid off. But I’m also concerned about the state of online media, which seems to temporarily think video will bring in the CPM rates and revenues that it’s constantly in search of. The money behind online video is very frothy and enthusiastic right now, but that froth will give way to a couple of harsh realities: namely, that it’s costly to produce video at scale (arguably even more costly than writing), and that there aren’t enough people out there to consume all this video to make it worth it.

In a spectacular Twitter thread tonight, film critic Matt Zoller Seitz laid out an impassioned argument for the written word. Rather than embed all the tweets, I’m just going to reproduce the text here. It deserves to be read in its entirety in one flow (But Matt: if you’re reading this and want me to take this down in favor of the tweets, just hit me up):

I rarely watch videos instead of reading articles/summaries. Who is watching all the video that is supposedly such a gold mine? Every day I see a link that gets me interested, then I click over and see it’s video only, no text, and I don’t watch. I see how hard video teams work to produce sixty seconds of professional quality content. How are these economics going to create profit? I’ve written/edited/produced/narrated literally hundreds of hours of video content. That shit takes forever to do well. It’s really hard. Even when I’m partnered with an editor (usually @stevensantos) video is time consuming. And Steven works fast as hell. Hours to make 5 mins.

The new god video is a time suck. It’s as if we’ve been told that we should stop typing and start carving pictograms into stone tablets. Video content that is widely viewed and easily monetized tends to be shit somebody captured on their cell phone. Not slickly produced stuff. One of the reasons I’ve moved away from video and back toward the written word is, I reach more people and I get to have a life. People still quote/link to/argue about pieces I wrote 15, 20 years ago. With a few conspicuous exceptions, my videos have not endured.

That’s not to downplay the quality of the video essays. I know I did (or enabled) excellent work in that form. But there are other factors. Viewing software evolves. Platforms die off. Media outlets close without notification. Some of my best stuff won’t play anymore. Meanwhile, a PDF somebody made of my capsule review of SPHERE from 1998 has been read probably 100s of thousands of times.

All this is a big part of the reason I’ve focused so much on books. Whether they sell well or poorly, the books endure. They can be found. I’m thinking about writing some short chapbook-type paperbacks on various subjects, print-only. I don’t care how many copies they sell. I want to build an actual library of stuff that won’t be rendered unplayable/unlistenable/unlinkable by technological/economic shifts.

This is all the result of soul-searching, the upshot of which is, I’d rather be cherished by a few than skimmed/clicked by many. Fuck that. The digital-era iceberg is melting and eventually every critic, including me, will get pushed into the sea. Nobody can stop that, probably. At some point even legacy outlets might decide there’s no point paying writers. And I’ll be photocopying stuff at Staples and selling it.

My first publication was a comics newsletter that I edited and published myself, on my elementary school mimeograph machine. I know of at least 3 schoolmates who saved copies, plus copies of plays I wrote in 4th/5th grade that they acted it. This stuff MATTERS. If you are a writer you have stories like this. People save words that matter to them for whatever reason. Books. Printouts. Letters. Cards.

Obviously I am not an expert in the monetization of video content/branded content/sponsored etc, so take this with a grain of salt, but: It sickens me to see the entire online “content machine” treating words as they were nothing more than dirt accumulating on a video screen.

The word “content” sickens me. And “post.” Call your work articles, essays, reviews, stories. You are artists! Respect yourself. I’m about two Tweets away from wandering the neighborhood with a sandwich board ringing a bell, so that’s it for tonight. Peace.

I don’t agree with everything here (for instance, I don’t look down my nose at the concept/terminology of “content”) but I agree with the main thrust of Matt’s argument: “The digital-era iceberg is melting, and eventually every critic will get pushed into the sea.”

There is simply too much supply and not enough demand for media companies to be able to pay hundreds of people a living wage (plus benefits) to write movie reviews or TV recaps for a living. And when the economics stop making sense, how will your work endure? Seitz argues that physically printed books, or more longform material of some sort, are a good way to go. I’m inclined to agree.

I’d better get to work.