Meaning in Media

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Want to learn about marketing?

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Lately I’ve been reading a lot of articles on marketing, sales and other related topics. I’m doing this not just to promote this little blog, but to possibly advance into a new career field.

During that time the website Hubspot was recommended to me. They have a bunch of free materials for anyone else interested in looking into improving their marketing chops. At the very least, a few tips here and there can certainly improve a person’s ability to market products, services or events at their own job.

I know what some of you may be thinking: Mr. Journalist is going to the dark side of media. Unfortunately, that line has been blurred long before me, and I see no way for it to ever be repaired; marketing techniques will only appear more and more frequently in journalism. Ever promote your work or the work of the newspaper? Ever get told to watch a YouTube clip of a newscast, or to check out a Twitter or Facebook page? Heck, even stories about businesses and events are essentially marketing material with an “un-biased” slant. Those are just the obvious examples. Headlines are often altered to be eye-catching, to get people to read them and invest in the story; that’s marketing. Stories about philanthropic causes, the minority and the repressed are often calls to action by definition. It is impossible to escape the sales and/or marketing slant that exists in journalism today.

Journalism is run like a business, and those who run it know how to market and believe they need it to recoup their investments. That’s the way it is and will be. But that doesn’t mean it should be dismissed. If a marketing technique gets a person to read a story that can inform them, can give them information on something important going on in the world they need to know about, then it is certainly a good thing. If an event planner can use marketing techniques to get more people to attend and participate in, for example, Relay for Life, that’s certainly a good thing too.

The world no longer tolerates most of the obvious attempts by corporations to attract consumers. People are too smart for that now. But using the more subtle, creative techniques being pioneered today, many of which involve the seller in the process, can be a very good thing. Even the line demarcating the dark side has blurred as a result.


Written by mlogli

March 27, 2014 at 3:26 pm

Football coach does push-ups with a walrus

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Let’s all take a moment to remember the simple things in life by watching this video of San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh doing push-ups with a walrus. Life is good.

Written by mlogli

March 17, 2014 at 10:36 pm

New portfolio!

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I decided to create an online portfolio of my past work. It’s not quite my own website, but for what I want, I think it works pretty well. Check it out!

Written by mlogli

March 15, 2014 at 7:27 pm

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Curious about those chemicals in your cupcakes?

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This past week, I was at a food conference. It was tasty and delicious, but it was much more than that. It was about food science, a very controversial topic around the world. Even if you’ve never heard the term before, you encounter some product of food science every day. The obvious examples: potato chips, processed foods, cake mixes, the list goes on. The less obvious examples: farmed foods such as fruits and veggies are “processed” in the sense that they can sometimes be sprayed with pesticides, colored, or packaged in such a way to preserve shelf life.

A professor at a short course I took for the conference told me that, unless you pick the fruit/veggie from your own backyard, unless you hunt and skin the meat you desire, all of your food is processed.

Is that sad/horrifying? That depends. This conference was very educational on many fronts. While I now understand the challenges food scientists face, I still feel they can have a bit of a “mad scientist” quality to them. Food science (in America at least) barely crosses over the line of too much meddling.


Typical food scientist, right?

Food scientists are people that can mix alcohols and sugars to create flavors that don’t exist in nature (blue raspberry anyone?). They can genetically engineer a wheat crop to be resistant to pesticides that, when crushed, produces oil that is low in saturated fats with minimal trans fats. They can combine whey protein and finely-milled flax seed into an egg substitute (this product was in fact an innovation award winner). They can ferment algae in growing tanks, grind it into finely-milled powder, combine it with proteins and fibers, and use it to partially or fully replace eggs and butter in baking and cooking applications, significantly reducing fat, cholesterol, and calorie levels. I believe this kind of processing, using organic chemistry, is beneficial and can even boost the positive qualities of foods, if not remove other qualities completely. These things are chemicals insomuch as blood is a chemical. Adding sugars and salts, though terrible for your health, are not “chemically processed” for the most part.

(For this record, since some of this does involve genetically modified foods, I feel I would tentatively support GMO. Targeting a single gene to make a crop pesticide resistant wouldn’t have an effect on the human body when consumed. On the ecosystem? That’s another issue, hence my apprehension…)

But there are other types of processing as well. The kind that turns metals,  non-table salts, and sulfites into food. I learned how Burger King makes their onion rings during my trip. To summarize the process, BK onion rings are big collections of tiny bits of onion smushed together with starches and sugars.  Then an alginate salt (sodium alginate in this case) is added to turn this into a goopy gel. The gel is thrown into calcium chloride to make it a ring shape paste thing. Then they batter and deep fry that ring.

Why go through this lengthy process where each additional chemical, including the calcium chloride at the end, would add calories, fat, salt, and other bad things? Why do that for any product? The reason: us, the consumers.

According to their polls and focus groups (which we participate in) consumers want consistency, flavor, texture, all the things that tend to immediately deteriorate shortly after processing. Hence preservatives (the non-natural ones) and packaging and food science. Real onion rings fall apart, and can be hard to eat while driving. Solution: algae chloride rings. If an orange has a bruise in the supermarket, or if an onion has a brown spot, it is probably still safe to eat. But would you? Would you use that in a recipe to give to other people? Would the thought of that scare you? It scares most people, especially in America, and food scientists know this. Hence the effort spent making sure every banana, every cracker, and every chocolate tastes and looks and feels exactly the same.

In Europe that’s not the case (so I’m told by those who live there). Trips to stores have to happen several times a week, since food goes bad so quickly over there, even if refrigerated. That kind of lifestyle is more active and supported than the current American lifestyle. I know I only go to the grocery store for major restock of the fridge once a month, with supplementary trips in between for bread or milk.

So this is as much our fault as it is theirs. We got exactly what we wanted: TV dinners and little-effort frozen foods and snacks so we can keep working and keep making money. But I don’t believe that is a route to stay on. Even as we (the consumers) ask for more healthy and “natural foods” (For the record, there is no official government definition for what is considered “Natural” in foods. If you see it on a label, it means whatever the company wants you to think it means), our foods remain high in calories and our lifestyles remain inert. The production of these better foods also increases the energy and water we must use to attain them. In the long run, lack of water may be the bigger issue here, and water conservation should be looked at too.

A food scientist may claim that processed foods are safer to eat. Examples of cross-contamination in foods (e.coli in spinach and salmonella in peanut butter anyone?) and the amount of bad stuff in foods prove otherwise. They sure do last longer than non-processed foods though. Ever keep a loaf of Wonder bread in the fridge for two months? Nothing  happens to it. That’s all the sugar put into the bread to preserve it. That fruit that looks perfect after two weeks? Possibly irradiated, possibly sprayed with a coating (petroleum-based or oil-based) that prevents oxidation.

There are many problems, many flavors, many healthy foods that food scientists can create. But they cannot make us grab that box of Chips Ahoy off the shelf. They are, like many companies, victims to the will of the populous. This is becoming more apparent lately, with the backlash against GMO (which, by the way, is in pretty much everything we eat as of 20+ years ago) and the desire for more organic foods. But then again, until somewhat recently, the (American) public didn’t know that, because it didn’t need or care to know that.

There’s a place for food science, as there is room on the shelf for both homemade bakery crackers and Wheat Thins. The issue becomes the belief that food science will help feed everyone in the world and solve every possible issue. But when a bakery has leftover food from the night’s work, they have to throw it away instead of use it to “feed the world” or even the bum on the street corner. There’s plenty of food in the world to feed everyone. The problem is economics, not supply. The problem is lack of information, or conflicting information, about what is in a food, how much food there is, what the label really means. The problem is the lifestyle of the consumer. The problem is human overconfidence and hubris. The problem, believe it or not, isn’t necessarily food science. The problem is how far we go with it.

Written by mlogli

July 18, 2013 at 6:14 pm

How quickly the quality drops

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Chicago Sun-Times cover on June 26.

Nice isn’t it? This is what a lack of photographers will get you: a blurry iPhone picture and a cover of red.

It’s amazing how quickly the quality of the Sun-Times’ visual journalism has fallen since laying off their photojournalism department a few weeks ago. The Tumblr SunTimes/DarkTimes has explored the descent into awful by comparing Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune covers back to back. They have also taken a look at a few webpage comparisons. It is absolutely embarrassing.

A friend of mine currently working in England told me recently that the state of media across the pond is in much better shape. While culture is a part of the reason, the fact is that many papers in England consistently produce high-quality journalism for an audience that is willing to pay for it. And while we can blame the advent of technology all we want, the fact remains that sometimes stupid people will make horrible decisions, sacrificing quality for cash flow.

Because media is treated as a for-profit business, it is run as such, which is why we see things like this happen. Deep down, I know the Sun-Times will realize their mistake. The problem is when they call back all those photographers they lost and try to rehire them, they will still try to hire them as freelancers first. If that happens, I hope those photographers know that they are much, much better than that, that those photographers don’t take those jobs, that those photographers don’t pull the Sun-Times out of the hole they dug for themselves.

There are a few lessons to be learned here about the media and its relationship to money. We deserve better.

Written by mlogli

June 30, 2013 at 12:54 am

Perspective is important in journalism

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I came across this story today discussing a journalism-related topic I hadn’t thought about before.

I too believed that unpaid internships were a necessary evil of the media world. Be it radio, newspaper, digital, whatever the outlet, it is almost impossible to get a job at a top-notch producer without some form of internship. Some of the entry level jobs pay so low it almost feels like an unpaid internship anyway, but that’s beside the point.

Those coming from low-income backgrounds simply cannot afford an unpaid internship, thereby being effectively priced out of a field they may excel in. By doing this, the business is losing this viewpoint in the workforce. This can lead to inaccurate, insensitive coverage, and in some cases it already has. And this viewpoint is sorely needed. 

Anyone who has spent time in the business has likely noticed that journalism is almost becoming a “gated community” in response to the growing influence of free articles online. To protect the product, and protect the writers from the increased frequency of errors, the business has become more inbred, elitist and defensive. And even for those that have a faster track than others, people just don’t want to have to kill a few years of their lives just to work in an industry that may decide one day to cut you loose with absolutely no warning.

The people taking these internships deserve more than what they receive for the hard work they put in. Will they ever get it again? It’s unlikely, unfortunately, but there has to be some way to give people from lower-class backgrounds the same opportunities others have, either by special exceptions, scholarships or otherwise.


Written by mlogli

June 10, 2013 at 1:54 am

Another bad day for journalism

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As I’m sure my Chicagoan readers are aware, the Chicago Sun-Times just did something very stupid today. They got the entire photography staff, including those from the suburbs, and laid off every single one. Counting some of the part-time staff and freelancers that may or may not have been affected, anywhere from 20-30 people just lost their jobs today.

The writers’ union (and yes, believe it or not there is one) has already begun to file a lawsuit against the media company. Even if it succeeds, I don’t know why one would want to work at a company that just laid off some of its greatest talents. The Sun-Times was always known for its sports coverage, including beautiful photography. Now a line of freelancers will take their place, and reporters will be expected to take their own photos with cell phone cameras, as well as relying on the video producers.

Protip: Video is not the same as photo.

In the short-term, this move saves a lot of money. Sun-Times probably cut a cool $1 million of expenditures out of their budget, including insurance costs since they won’t have to cover that for freelancers. Long-term…hoo boy.

This should be obvious to most people, but I’ll bring it up anyway: cell phone pictures cannot come even close to the quality created by an actual camera. This will be noticeable from the first issue after this layoff. And actually taking these photos, and using the right cameras, does take a specially trained person with an artistic eye, a knowledge of angles and lighting, and perhaps most importantly, a sense of when the action is going to happen. People who aren’t trained in this simply cannot do this job correctly, and they cannot do the job with tools ill-suited to the task at hand. Taking a high-quality journalistic photo, like this, or this or even this) is not something a person with a Nikon handheld can do.

I hope this does not become a trend for other newspapers. It is merely another step down as print products continue to deteriorate in quality. So long as consumers demand a “free news” product, this trend will continue to the point where news media will be bought out by entrepreneurs and companies and turned into propaganda…wait…

Or it could deteriorate to the point where a major news event will be simply missed because of understaffing and poorly-educated hires. I shudder to think of how, say, the Boston Marathon bombing would have been covered if a bunch of idiots were stuck trying to articulate the horror of that day, misleading the public at every turn with false leads and misinformation. You either get the New York Post, CNN, or Reddit.

At some point, I hope people are fed up enough to realize that good journalism requires some sort of cash flow behind it. I would rather a good newspaper be funded by the people than by Rupert Murdoch or the Koch family.

Written by mlogli

May 31, 2013 at 3:21 am