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Stephen Hackett's blog about things that light up and make noise. 512 Pixels is about Apple, technology, journalism and design.

On the Serial finale and journalism as entertainment

There's a lot of chatter today about the end of Serial, the podcast from This American Life that has followed the story of Adnan Syed, who is in prison after being found guilty for the murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee.

SPOILERS BELOW. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

Today's episode didn't end the way some people wanted. Adnan is still in prison, and the world is still unsure of his guilt.

Serial ends with lots of open questions; there's no clear next step, no immediate benefit to Adnan for taking part in the story. Serial may have unpacked his case — his very life — but it didn't put things back together in a way that has much closure for the audience.

Honestly though, even typing that makes me feel weird. It's hard to remember it's all true. Serial plays out like a television crime drama — and entertains like one — but it's not.

It's a news story.

It's well-edited and heavily polished, but under all of it, Serial's first season was just a news story.

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Serial's narrator and co-creator Sarah Koenig said this, looking forward to today's finale:

I’ll present what my reporting bears out, and that’s my responsibility. It’s not my responsibility to entertain you with some wonderful, perfect ending. I don’t mean that in a holier-than-thou way at all—it’s just—I’m a reporter.

On one hand, Koenig was clearly trying to set expectations for rabid fans, but on the other, her point about Serial being a result of reporting is important.

Her work on Serial wasn't traditional, hardcore journalism. Koenig freely shared her personal opinions and views in every episode, something that isn't smiled upon those in the industry who believe reporters should be objective, if not clinical, in their writing.

Serial wasn't created from that school of thought. It's a blend of entertainment and news reporting. It's a hybrid of fact and opinion.

That tension is why Serial is so popular, and at the same time, so weird — and, at times, oddly uncomfortable. It's why the ending — though rooted in reality — is disappointing to so many people.

Serial wasn't the first piece of work to blend entertainment and reporting, of course, but I do think Serial functions as journalism. Koenig and her team clearly spent lots of time investigating every angle of Adnan's story, no matter how obscure the detail or difficult to track down.

In many ways, Serial could only exist as a podcast. The episodes give the story a rhythm and give the audience a sense of excitement each week. It's a great medium for this type of blended reporting.

However, the old-school rules of objective journalism exist for a reason. They protect reporters, subjects and stories from being influenced by emotions. Breaking those rules is fine, as long as expectations are set correctly. The fact that people are upset at Serial's ending indicates they weren't.

While I still don't know what I think about him, I hope Adnan's case gets back in front of a judge. I hope his story is heard, and that Koenig's work can help straighten it all out.

Journalists can affect great change, but expecting it to happen in a neat 12-part story with an exciting ending is a little silly.

More on SugarString

T.C. Sottek at The Verge:

For now, it's easy to shrug off Sugarstring as just another hilariously dumb attempt to make a corporate brand look cool. Its format is somewhere between Digg, BuzzFeed, and Verizon's corporate blog. It appears to gather much of its content from Reddit. It's powered by Wordpress. It inexplicably has 74,000 Twitter followers. It publishes headlines like "Can you survive without chatting at work?" and "Three reasons Neil DeGrasse Tyson is wrong about innovation."

But in the broader context, Sugarstring is frightening. It resembles a future where enormous corporations that own the pipes through which speech travels also own that speech. Hell, that's not even a vision of the future; Comcast already owns NBC, and its promises for good behavior as a vertically integrated superpower have an expiration date.

So far we've been worried about the subtle effects of corporate control of the internet — stuff like data caps, and throttling, and "fast lanes." Sugarstring is something entirely different. It's brazen, disrespectful, and deeply cynical. There can only be two possibilities for its existence: Verizon thinks people aren't paying attention, or they're just too stupid to get it.

SugarString

Patrick Howell O’Neill:

Verizon is getting into the news business. What could go wrong?

The most-valuable, second-richest telecommunications company in the world is bankrolling a technology news site called SugarString.com. The publication, which is now hiring its first full-time editors and reporters, is meant to rival major tech websites like Wired and the Verge while bringing in a potentially giant mainstream audience to beat those competitors at their own game.

I have no problem whatsoever with publications having advertisers. If you’re reading this on my site, you’ll see both a graphic ad and a text ad. Once a week, I post sponsored content in my RSS feed.

The difference between what I — and countless others — do and what Verizon is doing with SugarString is a clear divide between content and advertising. SugarString screams Verizon, from the red colors to the bold text. Oh, and the Verizon logo. And the “PRESENTED BY VERIZON” graphic at the bottom of the page.

Then there’s this:

There’s just one catch: In exchange for the major corporate backing, tech reporters at SugarString are expressly forbidden from writing about American spying or net neutrality around the world, two of the biggest issues in tech and politics today.

Verizon is one of the worst offenders at trying to limit net neutrality and has taken a major hit in the press over this year’s shocking news about programs like the NSA’s Prism. To help counter this, SugarString editors are allowed to cover these issues outside the US, but not inside. Just check out this article on Hungary’s plan to tax Internet traffic:

It’s every government’s responsibility to keep internet charges as low as possible, so access to high-quality information isn’t limited to the rich. By artificially increasing the price of internet access, Hungary’s government would punish users who were trying to contribute to the world’s knowledge and economy. If they managed to force providers to bear the costs, they’d be punishing those companies any time they grew, discouraging them from increasing bandwidth or improving their services. An internet traffic tax is an innovation tax, and any such tax, no matter how small, would be philosophically devastating.

All that about advertising and content being intermixed is small in my eyes compared to this. SugarString is condemning Hungary for doing what its parent company Verizon has been lobbying for — sometimes in terrible ways — for years.

SugarString isn’t bad journalism; it’s not journalism at all. It’s just plain, old-fashioned PR bullshit that is brazen even for a company as tone deaf as Verizon.

More on The Magazine

Jim Dalrymple:

It’s very sad. Glenn is a great guy and friend, but I understand the issues of being an independent publisher on Apple’s Newsstand—it’s not fun. Apple should just admit that they don’t give a shit about digital magazines and be done with it.

I couldn't agree more; Newsstand should go away, and digital publications should be normal apps that can live right on the SpringBoard, not hidden behind a terrible icon and UI that only adds confusion.

The Magazine is closing

Glenn Fleishman:

My labor of love the last two years has been The Magazine, first as its hired hand and then, in May 2013, as its owner. The sad truth has been that, while profitable from week one, the publication has had a declining subscription base since February 2013. It started at such a high level that we could handle a decline for a long time, but despite every effort — including our first-year anthology crowdfunded a bit under a year ago — we couldn't replace departing subscribers with new ones fast enough. We're a general-interest magazine that appeals to people who like technology, and that makes it very hard to market. "Pivoting" to a different editorial focus would have lost subscribers even faster.

While I was sad when I first about this news, like Marco, I'm not surprised:

Many non-ideal factors and decisions I made up front probably contributed to The Magazine not being sustainable forever. But the biggest challenge was simply that running a magazine today is a really tough business. I thought making a high-quality app was the hard part that was keeping iPad magazines from being more successful, but the app turned out to be the easiest and least important part of the business.

Today's news is a blow to independent journalism. I was thrilled to be in the third issue; it's something that is still on my "hey let me do a freelance article for you" resume.

That said, I can't help but agree with Marco — publishing is a hard business. Growing an audience is difficult; keeping them may be even harder. We're reading less and less long-form material, and that is bad for everyone, publishers most of all.

There's a new Kickstarter project to fund a hardcover book of The Magazine's second year of essays. The first book was great, and I'm sure this one will be as well.

Jason Snell looks back at Macworld's print history

The Power Slider, over on The Verge:

Before there were tech web sites there were magazines. Once a month you'd get a new one and read it cover to cover, including all the ads, trying to glean as much information as you could. I remember scouring issues of MacUser before buying my first PowerBook, trying to decide which model was exactly right for me. I must've read that article fifty times.

Imagine that. Back then, Apple would announce a raft of new products and almost nobody would know for weeks or even months. Now we all know in seconds.

Don't miss the awesome collection of Macworld covers. Good stuff.

E.W. Scripps spinning off newspaper business

Dan Monk:

The deal calls for Milwaukee, Wisc. –based Journal Communications Inc. to merge its 13 television stations and 35 radio stations into Cincinnati-based Scripps. Both companies will spin off their newspaper assets into a new publicly-traded company, Journal Media Group.

The deal is subject to the approval of shareholders and regulators. It is expected to close in 2015.

Big news in the journalism world, but no one else will notice the re-arranged deck chairs.

On the Oxford Comma

Walt Hickey at FiveThirtyEight:

FiveThirtyEight and SurveyMonkey Audience ran a poll from June 3 to 5 asking 1,129 Americans which camp they fell into, and wouldn’t you believe it? We’re split on that comma.

We asked respondents which sentence was, in their opinion, more grammatically correct: “It’s important for a person to be honest, kind and loyal.” Or: “It’s important for a person to be honest, kind, and loyal.” The latter has an Oxford comma, the former none.

The result was pretty much down the middle, with pro-Oxford partisans commanding 57 percent of the vote and opponents to the tyranny of the extra comma grabbing 43 percent. Although those numbers might be enough to defeat Eric Cantor, it’s hardly a clear victory for the Oxfordians.

As a general rule, AP drops punctuation and spaces to preserve space. While newspapers are dying (and the guys who used to set type by hand are gone), I prefer the style. I learned AP style in high school and college and my brain barely registers that the punctuation exists, much to the chagrin of my wife and her fancy English degree.

via The Loop

Computerworld going digital-only

Scot Finnie:

On June 23, we will publish the last print issue of Computerworld.

It was 47 years ago, almost to the day, that Computerworld's very first issue rolled off the presses: June 21, 1967. The newspaper's first publisher was the late Patrick J. McGovern, who was the founder and chairman of International Data Group (IDG), Computerworld's parent company.

It's sad to lose anything that has endured so long. But we are merely taking part in the natural evolution of the media industry, like so many great publications before us. Trains, after all, were once powered by coal and steam; Computerworld is moving from paper to electrons.