Can a Brand Be Viral?

Two events that epitomize the wonkiness of the media industry took place at The New York Times this month. First, the Times published a scathing two-piece series about the deplorable working conditions and health risks faced by those who work at nail salons. The story, about 2,000 total words of wonderful investigative journalism, went viral. Three days after the first nail salon story published, the Times announced it was going to let Facebook directly host its articles.

In the week these two events happened, the latter held more gravity for me as a media professional. An increasing share of news is consumed via mobile devices — more than half of the Times’ web traffic comes from mobile devices — and a lot of that traffic comes from Facebook, which has over a billion users.

At the simplest level, the Times’ partnership with Facebook is just another distribution channel, but one must consider how that distribution takes place. When a Facebook user clicks on a Times story, that story was presented to it either because a friend shared it or Facebook’s algorithms guessed that the user would be interested in it; neither of those processes entail any editorial judgment beyond the Times’ decision to publish the story.

Contrast that with a homepage or a print edition. Unlike on a Facebook feed, each story is ranked on a hierarchy of importance determined by an educated, news-savvy staff that has spent years, in many cases decades, determining what is important. If that decision is left to friends and Facebook algorithms, which are more closely tied to an advertising department than is any newspaper editorial staff, a consumer is more likely to get the news he or she wants to read, not what he or she should read.

Publishers — big, important publishers, mind you — were quoted in the Times article saying they were trying Facebook hosting out, in large part because they need the eyeballs to sell more ads. That outcome will surely take place, but at what expense to the brand?

Let’s look at how Time handles its Facebook posts. After the Facebook announcement, I followed many of the partnering publications. Time, a once-venerable newsweekly, has adopted a Buzzfeed-esque embrace of clickbait headlines and posts. For instance:

Screenshot 2015-05-31 at 8.45.33 PM

Or this:

Screenshot 2015-05-31 at 8.45.45 PM

I criticized Time‘s avoidance of newsworthy stories (and promptly unfollowed it), but can you blame the magazine for posting the stories that will elicit the most clicks? In an era where consumer stumble upon stories via social media rather than targeting the homepages of trusted brands, doesn’t a company have to throw a little clickbait in there to keep the lights on?

It’s easy to argue yes, but this is where the Times’ nail salon story comes into play. This was a story about nail salons in New York City, but the piece went viral nationwide. The reason? It was damn good, very well reported, and touched on a seemingly familiar aspect in many of our lives. Every person who read that story will now wonder about the treatment of the workers inside their local nail salon, even if they live outside New York.

Good journalism can still go viral. It doesn’t do so reliably, but it’s possible. Thus, the Times might not have to pander to Facebook’s algorithms quite like Time has, but that could change. If the brand has no weight, a publication’s success relies entirely on the one-off success of its stories, and letting social media like Facebook directly host stories hinders the gravity of a brand. More publications will surely partner with Facebook; what will be more interesting is to see if they stick with it.

Advertisements

Snow Making: The Recreationist’s Dilemma

My first ski day of the year was Christmas Eve; by far the latest I have ever begun a ski season. The reason was an abnormally slow start to the season. As of New Year’s Eve, Stevens Pass had received just 52 percent of its average snowfall for this time of year. Folks I’ve talked with on the hill say this is one of the slowest starts to the season in memory.

I had hoped to a better start to the winter for geographical and financial reasons. The Pacific Northwest is known for copious early-winter snowfall, and I plunked down $500 for a season pass to Stevens. I have endured dry Decembers in Utah, but resorts there deployed an increasingly popular weapon that mitigates the (perceived) effects of drought: snow makers.

Stevens Pass makes no artificial snow, making it a rarity among ski resorts even in the snowy West. Crystal Mountain, Stevens’ southerly competitor near Mount Rainier, opened early thanks to artificial snow. Each year, resorts in Colorado vie to be the first to open on snow that falls not from the sky, but metal tubes flanking a ski run.

As an avid resort skier, I want to hit the slopes in December, and often that’s only possible with the help of snow making. I spent four years skiing at Snowbird in Utah, which averages a whopping 455 inches of snow each season, yet every December in Salt Lake, I was skiing on artificial snow. This is nice as a paying customer; I paid $500 to ski, so I want to ski. It’s also nice to get into the mountains, to escape the traffic and pollution of the city to schuss for a few hours, even if it involves being pelted by a snow maker’s frozen bullets that sting like blowing sand and freeze to your goggles.

The skier in me appreciates snow making, but my environmental conscience hates it. Snow making is a resource-heavy endeavor. Fossil fuels must be burned to operate snow guns, and they suck up tremendous amounts of water from streams or lakes. Furthermore, snow making can hide the effects of global warming from the public conscience. The best way to make skiers understand and appreciate the effect of climate change is to make them wait until February for reliable snow, and then watch it all disappear by mid-April.

One thing is certain — snow making isn’t going away. Eastern resorts thrive on snow making, and resorts in the West soon won’t be the powder paradises they once were. In college, I wrote about the environmental bombshell that looms over Park City, Utah: By 2075, the town could warm by 9 degrees Fahrenheit, which would cost it $66 million in economic activity each year. Scientists project Park City could lose all its snowpack by 2100.

Ski resorts are invaluable assets. Despite the glitzy lodges and expensive food, they allow people to recreate in the mountains during winter without the fear of avalanches. They chop down swaths of trees and pollute watersheds, but they introduce people to the mountains who otherwise would stick to the cities. But you can’t have a ski resort without snow, and resort skiing as I’ve known it will likely die before I do.

I want to ski in December, hell, maybe November. I don’t care if the snow is crummy, manmade garbage: I want to slide downhill and pay too much for beer in the lodge and feel the cold air against my cheeks. By that logic, I want Stevens Pass to start making snow.

But that’s a selfish outlook. Topping my desire to ski early in winter is my desire for people to understand climate change. Ski towns and regions are typically filled with people who are environmentally and ecologically conscious. They are also filled with wealthy residents and tourists who wield influence over the systems of daily life. If they see brown slopes heading into January, then maybe they’ll better understand climate change. A ski chalet isn’t so romantic when it’s just a cabin in the mud.

Artificial snow lets us ski longer each winter. But it also hides the fact that winters are growing shorter. So I’ll continue to moan as Stevens Pass’ seasons continue to shorten, but beneath the whining, I’m glad that the resort’s lack of snow making is helping me better see the effect of climate change.

Shooting, normalized

A couple weeks back I received a phone call from my brother, a high school history teacher in Utah.

“You’ll never guess what happened to us today in school,” he said.

Only one guess popped into my mind, but I didn’t float it his way. I didn’t want to sound like a doomsayer who automatically assumes the worst in any situation. Plus, I was almost certainly wrong. So I kept my mouth shut and asked what happened, only to have my concerning presumption confirmed.

“There was a shooter today.”

My brother teaches at Fremont High School, where on Dec. 1 a student brought a loaded 9mm pistol to school, intending to shoot an ex-girlfriend and then open fire on whoever surrounded him. No shots were fired; the student was apprehended “without incident.”

A spooky moment indeed — it’s never enjoyable to hear a family member was in danger. But what surprised me most wasn’t the details of the day, or the fact that there was a shooter at all. What I remember most was my own reaction and that of my brother.

I was surprised by how calm he was when he called, even though he had a three-hour lockdown to process everything and responding officers said there was no reason to hide students. He sounded like he was describing any other day. His speech wasn’t hurried, and he wasn’t off to a comforting glass of whiskey. Our conversation ended when he arrived at the ski shop where his skis were being tuned.

He sounded like a bullfighter with a broken bone or a painter with a stained shirt: What had happened that day was just part of the job. With all of the recent shootings, he said, he figured it was just a matter of time before an unhappy kid with access to a gun decided to bring one into Fremont.

He might have felt differently had shots been fired, or had someone been hurt. But that’s beside the point. A student with fatal intentions and a weapon designed for the task entered a public school, and neither my brother nor myself were surprised. The two of us grew up in a rural town where I’d guess five percent of vehicles had firearms in them, so both of us understand how easily a firearm can be brought to a campus. But that could just as easily be an accident, a forgetful kid forgetting to remove a .22 after hunting coyotes. The Fremont student, though we’ll never know to what degree, was at intent on killing another person.

And that’s no longer shocking, both for those inside the school and those watching from the outside.

A Media Shift

Journalism is in a state of recovery (or rebirth, as some would put it) after advertisement and classifieds revenue evaporated with the advent of the Internet. When newspapers and magazines leapt to the Web, they threw expensive-to-create content to hordes of readers, free of charge. That mistake still haunts the industry, but a pair of recent media moves has me optimistic that journalism will once again be a prosperous business.

Last week, HBO announced it would offer a standalone streaming service beginning in 2015, meaning consumers will for the first time be able to enjoy the network’s premium content without a cable subscription. On another coast and in another medium, The California Sunday Magazine launched. It was, at least to folks on the West Coast, the highest-profile print media launch in quite some time, though it garnered far less attention than HBO’s move.

The two companies will operate in different spectrums of the media landscape, but both offer positive signs for journalism. HBO is setting a precedent for a business model journalism has for some reason avoided: producing great content, and making customers pay for it. California Sunday is also placing great emphasis on subscriptions, and is making a bet on regional content in the process.

HBO has for years created top-notch content without being beholden to advertisers. It’s a concept journalistic publications for some reason can’t fathom. Magazines and newspapers have traditionally made their money off the blank pages between the stories, not the stories themselves. The same goes for broadcast media and the blank air time between the content. Sure, more people used to subscribe to journalism, but there has never been a direct connection between a journalist’s product and a journalist’s revenue. Ads have always been in the middle.

But why can’t a publication generate revenue based solely off its content? This concept has been embodied by HBO, but there is a catch — a cable subscription. HBO has succeeded with a subscription model, but another subscription is needed before purchasing HBO is possible; no Comcast or Time Warner or Cox, no HBO. But with the announcement of its new streaming service, HBO kicked down that wall. Its business model is now incredibly simple — we make a product, you buy it.

If journalism adopted this model, it would directly tie the product to the revenue. News, contrary to the detrimental paradigm publications established online, is not free. It costs money to report, so it’s not crazy to think one should pay to consume that information. Sure, there’s a moral case to be made for free news, but folks in D.C. and elsewhere aren’t too keen on amply funding PBS and NPR. Thus, the private sector must present much of the news, and a business model like HBO’s would promote quality far better than the current revenue-stream mishmash of ads, subscriptions, and sponsorships.

Journalistic publications aren’t flocking to HBO’s model, but California Sunday is showing that the industry is becoming more savvy to the digital balance. The magazine is investing heavily in print — it is distributed in Sunday editions of California’s three largest newspapers — and ad revenue appears to be the economic driver, but California Sunday‘s online approach is a mature one. Rather than getting all the magazine stories for free, online readers must pay at least $40 a year to read beyond the three free stories allowed per month.

It’s a bold approach for a new magazine, but California Sunday has bold goals. It aims to cover California, the West, Asia, and Latin America for a national audience. The subject matter is deserving — the West is ripe with stories — but pitching a regional pub to a national audience might be challenging. I can see Westerners embracing the publication, but why would someone from Ohio subscribe to a magazine that will never mention Ohio? If California Sunday can find a harmony in its content and target audience, it could turn into a special publication.

So HBO is pioneering a subscription economy, and California Sunday could set the standard for the new wave of regional pubs. I’m anxious to see a hybrid of the two — a regional publication that is able to sustain itself with readers paying directly for the content, no ads required. Other revenue streams should be encouraged, but let the primary one be that which is most closely tied to the product itself. If that model can work, the next journalistic golden age might be upon us.

The Loss of Play

I was blessed enough to grow up near a river. The Smith’s Fork snaked right through my Wyoming hometown, coming within a hundred yards of my own home. From my earliest memories until about sixth grade, my summer routine was the same: wake up, eat breakfast, go play in the river. Repetitive, but certainly not monotonous.

The river was at the mercy of my imagination. One day it was the Amazon; the next, dinosaurs inhabited its shores. Along the river were cottonwoods and a vast network of small willow trees thick enough to provide seclusion from the nearby park, roads, and backyards. Throughout them were crisscrossing channels, some created by deer, some created by me and kids before me. It was a place I could take friends or be alone, often alone. From the minute my parents let me go to the river unaccompanied, the Smith’s Fork became my reliable best friend.

As I aged I outgrew the river. I graduated from playing in the water to riding bikes to driving cars to drinking beer to eating out at restaurants. My imagination waned, and videogames and alcohol became the choice method of altering reality. I thought nothing of this progression until two weeks ago, when I played for the first time in about a decade.

It was a Wednesday morning, raining, and Seward Park was empty. It was my first time in the park, one of Seattle’s too-few remaining stands of old-growth trees. My goal was to get some exercise. A very mature goal indeed.

That’s not what happened, though. My shoes were slipping in the mud, causing me to stumble down hills. I was wet. I was dirty. And I was having a blast. This wasn’t exercise; exercise is painful, tiring, awful. This was play.

For some period of time — maybe a couple hours — I was a boy again. I was running because it was fun, not because magazines tell me it’s fun. I was looking to the top of magnificent trees and thinking how cool it would be to climb one. I wondered what lurked beneath the ferns, and stopped whenever a branch moved to decipher the cause. As the rain dripped on me from branches more than a hundred feet above, I felt connected to the water and appreciated its presence, a sentiment paralleled years ago by Smith’s Fork water wrapping around my 9-year-old knees.

As we age, this feeling becomes rarer. When we play as children, it’s so simple. My recipe for fun was water and imagination. Many attribute our enjoyment as youths to the lack of responsibilities. Yes, it’s easier to be carefree when we don’t have utilities, rent and tuition bills to worry about. But there’s another missing ingredient that many forget, an aspect that was prominent in my childhood and the childhood of many others: playing outside.

It has become acceptable and predictable that people play outdoors when they’re young but stick to indoor pursuits as they age; and with the advent of smartphones and tablets, more and more children are looking to technology rather than nature for stimulation. 

Spending time looking at a screen rather than outside has been proven to have adverse mental and physical effects. Some call it nature deficit disorder, but it can all be traced to our outgrowing of play.

Why is it that adults stop playing? Sure, we ski, bike and surf, but those are activities that are inherently too expensive for many people. Play has become a rare pursuit — especially for the poor and racial minorities who don’t have access to parks, clean rivers, or natural vegetation — that is all too often afforded by sacrificing time outdoors for time in the office.

If the opportunity presents itself, find an excuse to get outside. Wade in a river. Hike or jog, but don’t worry about your speed or destination. Play in the mud. When you do this, the concerns of life melt away, and you feel like a 9-year-old working his way up a river.

A Hazy Return to Salt Lake City

Salt Lake's smog in February, 2013. The downtown buildings are somewhere in the haze.
Salt Lake’s smog in February 2013. Though it seems like evening, this picture was taken around 3 p.m. The downtown buildings are somewhere in the haze.

Candace and I returned to Salt Lake City over the holidays, and we were quite nervous for the trip. It wasn’t the usual holiday-induced, family-oriented stress that had us worried. Instead, we were scared of missing our former hometown, of feeling like we had made a mistake moving to the Northwest.

There is plenty to miss about Salt Lake, and we were worried about being homesick. Then we saw the smog.

Our concerns weren’t irrational. Salt Lake is a fantastic city, the urban and cultural center of a region dotted with incredible mountain ranges, red rock terrain, and some damn good skiing. As for the city itself, it’s a great town that will eventually challenge Denver as the top U.S. city in the Rockies. And Salt Lake, even more so than Seattle, enjoys ridiculous proximity to top-notch outdoor recreation.

Salt Lake is a scenic wonder, has a good beer and dining scene, and is fairly diverse for a Western city. But what does it matter if you can’t see the town or smell the fresh air?

For those of you who have never experienced it, Salt Lake’s smog is the worst in the country. When you combine 2 million people, their cars, and a mountainous geography that traps cold air, it’s a recipe for downright unhealthy breathing. When a high-pressure system sits over Salt Lake in the winter, the result is disgusting air that is only bested (worsted?) by China’s industry-heavy metropolitan areas.

The soup hovering over Salt Lake on winter days is a dangerous substance. It’s made up of PM 2.5 particles, which are less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter — too small for your natural filters to pick up. Thus, every inhale deposits a swarm of fine particles on the lining of your lungs.

And it’s especially thick. The EPA’s threshold for PM 2.5 is 35 micrograms per cubic meter. During January 2013, my last winter in Utah, areas of the Wasatch Front hit 190 micrograms per cubic meter, prompting comparisons to China’s oft-discussed smog. When the air gets this bad, the temperature at the valley floor (roughly 4,500 feet) can be 40 degrees colder than at 7,000 feet — something that happened last January. Furthermore, pregnant women are advised to stay indoors as the simple act of breathing Salt Lake’s air can harm a fetus.

As you can imagine, this dangerous cloud isn’t aesthetically pleasing. At its worst, the gray is so thick that it hides the 9,000-foot peaks of the Wasatch range and reduces Salt Lake’s downtown buildings to a silhouette. The air smells like pennies and leaves your lungs questioning their natural function.

Pregnant women are advised to stay indoors as the simple act of breathing Salt Lake’s air can harm a fetus.

This toxic state is Salt Lake’s defining characteristic four months out of the year, and this is what I realized on my trip back. Of course I recognized the smog when I lived there, but it was just an inconvenience of the locality, not something that locals seemed offended by. Sure, there are Salt Lakers mobilizing against the smog, but by and large, people view it as the price you pay to live in Salt Lake.

Now that I’ve moved away, I view it as the price that keeps someone (or a company) from the valley. Salt Lake is a thriving business center, but company managers who value the health of their employees can’t be impressed when they visit Salt Lake for a ski trip and can’t see the mountains.

On a more personal level, the smog tarnished my visit. Seeing Mt. Olympus erupt to the east of Salt Lake is as visually stunning as seeing the Olympic mountains across the Puget Sound from Seattle. But I couldn’t see Olympus, nor could I make out Salt Lake’s prominent buildings until I was beneath them.

Salt Lake is a wonderful area that has an incomparable urban-outdoor balance. But until one can breathe clean air year-round, it can’t crack the rank of the West’s top cities.

We were worried about missing the snow and sunny weather of Utah. But if one can’t see the sun, I’d rather it be Seattle’s clouds than Salt Lake’s car emissions blocking its rays.

On Travel and Vehicles

I crossed the 100,000-mile threshold on the interchange between state Route 16 and Interstate 5 in Tacoma. It was about 11:15 p.m. I was commuting home from work.

Saying this feels as though I’ve admitted lying on a resume or reading somebody else’s mail. Surely nobody would give me flak for crossing 100,000 miles while commuting — that very event probably happened to scores of people this week.

But it feels wrong. I’ve taken an automobile, a piece of machinery that has changed the way humankind lives, and abused it, belittling its importance and astounding capabilities.

The beauty of vehicles is they allow us to overcome the limits of our own muscles. We can move incredibly heavy objects across incredibly long distances by doing little more than flexing our ankle enough to depress a gas pedal. This miraculous technology should be used for tasks of grandeur, but instead we use vehicles for mundane accomplishments that would disappoint the machine just as a physicist would be disappointed with rehearsing multiplication tables. Instead of transporting a half-cord of wood or shuttling a family 500 miles in a day, we use our vehicles for tasks that could easily be accomplished using our own legs.

I fancy myself a traveler, though in reality I’m not skilled at adventure. I’ve been out of the U.S. just twice — both times to Canada — and I’m the person who forgets matches on a camping trip more often than I’d like to admit. That being said, I feel I’ve used my car well. Since my parents gave me the Hyundai Sonata in 2009, it’s visited the red rocks of Zion and Arches national parks, climbed its way to a variety of Utah ski hills countless times, and delivered a newly engaged couple to the Pacific coast. Its four cylinders have conquered grunt work — the car hauled a moving trailer from Salt Lake City to Seattle, and it handled itself well on Wyoming’s dirt roads.

Some of my greatest memories involve the car, and I, like many motorists, hoped Mile 100,000 would be a memorable one. I wanted to eclipse the milestone on a journey to the car’s eighth national park, or through a snowstorm to an unknown ski area, or chasing a story that could change the direction of my young career.

Instead, my trusty Hyundai and I hit 100,000 beneath an overpass at the beginning of a drowsy drive I make five days a week.

I could easily convince myself to not feel so downtrodden about passing the milestone while commuting. My trip to work is just shy of 60 miles round trip — much too far for me to walk or bike. And with a shift that usually ends at 11 p.m., returning home via transit would be an eight-hour affair. Furthermore, my job is satisfying and provides for my family, so driving to work could be construed as a source of pride.

But accepting these excuses would allow me to justify further misuse of my car, which I already do. Rather than shopping nearby and purchasing just enough food for the day’s meals, I drive my car to Costco and buy almost a month’s worth of food. My rationale: I’m buying too much food to carry, even though I choose to buy that much food and drive a few miles to do so.

Few mechanisms have a greater impact on U.S. life than the car, but many lasting effects of vehicles are results of our abuse of them. The presence of automobiles virtually ended dense, walkable development in the U.S.; only now are we beginning to return to those core tenets of urban planning. We tear apart pristine land to provide fuel for our gas tanks, and the byproduct of that fuel sullies the air we breathe and the water we drink. Our nation is crisscrossed with highways that connect but also homogenize us. Because of our dependence, nearly every American family is forced to purchase an object that is often worth more than half of the household income. Cars are great and wonderful machines that can be used for immense good, but their misuse is far more dominant in the U.S. landscape.

So rather than brush aside my 100,000-mile disappointment, I choose to use it as motivation to live closer to where I work and shop; to reserve use of my car for events that require effort beyond my physical means, not events for which a car will simply make things more convenient; and to make any travel that requires a car a memorable road trip, one that produces photos and memories that provide great happiness and change the way I look at the world.

Vehicles are not substitutes for legs. If we walk and bike when it’s feasible and save driving for those instances that require the power of an internal combustion engine, we’ll enjoy gratifying road trips, smaller gasoline bills, and healthier lifestyles. Furthermore, we’ll likely be far more satisfied when the odometer hits 100,000.