What Journalists Can Learn From In-N-Out Burger.

When I was in sixth grade, I went to California for the first time. We were visiting our cousins, and Blair had just bought a new car with a GPS system. At the time, this was fairly revolutionary; the year before, we’d just gotten dial-up internet at my house, and we weren’t the most tech savvy family. So the idea that your car could tell you where to go was almost Jetsonian. That it didn’t require an overture of that annoying AOL dial-up noise made it even better.

Blair wanted to show off the new GPS by using it to find us an In-N-Out Burger. We’d heard about In-N-Out for years; it was Blair’s favorite restaurant in California, and we assumed that he ate about 95 percent of his meals there (with all other meals consumed at Jamba Juice). By sixth grade, In-N-Out had reached mythical status. We simply had to try it, and Blair was more than happy to show us the way.

The GPS system, though, wasn’t. It said the restaurant was a mile away, but when we arrived at the address, the In-N-Out wasn’t there. So we persisted, and some twenty minutes of misdirections later, we arrived. I still remember that first burger; I haven’t made a trip to California that didn’t involve In-N-Out since.

What we discovered that trip was that Blair wasn’t the only one obsessed with In-N-Out. Everybody in California wanted those burgers, and people were willing to deal with long drives or broken GPS systems to get their hands on a double-double.

The truth is, In-N-Out is not just a burger place; it’s a lifestyle. I don’t think I’m going too far when I say that, to Californians, it’s essential.

So with the news industry’s best interests in mind, I’d like to suggest three things that journalists can learn from In-N-Out Burger.

1. Transparency and trust go hand-in-hand.
The In-N-Out kitchen is open, which means that customers can look and see potatoes being sliced and burgers being flipped. It’s easy to trust a company that lets you backstage.

2. Do one thing, and do it well.
That was founder Harry Snyder’s motto. If you’re in news, don’t lose sight of your mission: telling great stories.

3. Your brand is a promise. That’s what Warren Buffett said last month, but it sticks with In-N-Out’s motto. There’s a reason why people go out of their way for those In-N-Out burgers. People love the brand, and they love what the brand stands for: fresh food, cooked when you order it, and for cheap. If people trust your brand, they will continue to seek it out.


H/T to Stacy Perman’s excellent new book on In-N-Out, and to jasonlam and nattokun for the images.

My Beijing Experience, Wordleized.

Through the power of Wordle, I’ve created a text-based visualization of my time writing for The Rocky Mountain News’ Olympics blog last summer in Beijing.

The thing I like about Wordle is that it can take an entire site, break it down by the frequency of certain words, and display them based on importance. Weirdly, I’m not surprised that words “toilet” or “pop-a-shot” are almost as large as “Beijing” in the above visualization.

The full thing, in Flash form, is available here.

I Have a Dream. I’m Just Not Sure They’ll Be Up To It.

Above, a TED talk that’s absolutely worthy of your time.

But the real reason I’m linking to it is because I’d like to mention a few things that the TED.com site does that I love.

Okay, so go open the site in a new window. On the right sidebar, next to “About this talk,” click on “Open interactive transcript.” Here’s the genius of the feature: you can click on any sentence in the transcript, and the video will automatically scroll to that part of the talk.

Then, below the video, click on the red button that says “Rate.” Instead of a YouTube style one-to-five rating system, you’ll have the option of clicking on words like “jaw-dropping” or “informative” or “longwinded,” so that you end up with a rating system not unlike The New York Times’ word train. It’s the man-on-the-street perspective, but for online video.

And one more thing: below the video, there are five options. You can download the audio or the video directly to your desktop. You can download the audio or video as a podcast through iTunes. Or you can watch it online in high resolution.

The lesson for those in the news industry: you should package your original content in as many ways as is possible and sensible.

Narcissim Aside, a Few Words About the Job Search.

My Dad asked a pretty simple question yesterday, and I gave a pretty simple answer.

The question: So, are there actually jobs out there for you?

The answer: Yes.

Simple stuff, right?

What I didn’t explain then — and what I’d like to explain here — is that while there are jobs out there, the one I’m really looking for doesn’t actually exist yet.

Any job I’m applying for is asking for a fragment of my skills. Nobody’s asking for the full package. And when I explain what I can really do, people get scared off, partially because they don’t seem to understand what I’m saying 1., and partially because they’re convinced that I’m about to take everyone’s job 2..

The problem is, up until a few years ago, nobody had ever thought to train a journalist in the manner that I’ve been trained. So it stands to reason that nobody would really expect a kid like me to be ready to do everything I need to be ready to do.

That explains why my portfolio page is such a mess. I mean, I can write. I’ve been published in The Boston Globe, The Rocky Mountain News, and The Washington Examiner, among others.

I can shoot and edit video — in both Final Cut and Avid — and I’ve done it for organizations like The Rocky and Newsy.com.

I know how to capture audio, and I can edit it in any program on the market (though I’m particularly fond of Audacity and Audition). I spent one summer producing radio stories for CBS News.

I know how to shoot photos, both sports and otherwise, with both Canon and Nikon equipment.

I can pull the entire story together with multimedia tools like Flash or Photoshop, or I can use my CSS and HTML skills to build an entire site in Dreamweaver. And I’m experienced with content management systems and web-based tools like VuVox.

As for social media: I tweet. I blog. I LinkIn.

But there’s no job for someone who can do all of that. There are reporting jobs, and there are producing jobs. There are jobs for people who want to work behind a desk, and there are jobs for freelancers.

But I’ve yet to find a job for me, a job in which I can teach media organizations how to tell better stories.

I suppose I’ll have to keep looking. Though, you know, it’d be a lot easier if people would just find me.


UPDATE: Gannett is hosting a conference today about community journalism. Cedar Rapids (IA) Gazette Richard Pratt, tweeting via @richpria, posted this “Old model: Reporter, editor, photographer, page designer, more, producing a single story. New model: One can do it all. Asking a lot.” This is what I’m up against. The concept of the “new model” is there. News outlets just haven’t realized that there are already people ready to fill those roles.

1.) Newspaper people have no idea what a VO/SOT is, for example. Radio people don’t know why newspaper people write a “-30-” at the end of stories. TV people aren’t versed with Flash keyframes. Designers don’t know what an f-stop is. No one knows what CPM is. Everyone speaks a different language, because that’s the easiest way to know who’s in the know (and, conversely, who isn’t). But nobody ever thought that somebody would become multi-lingual across journalistic platforms. >back to article

2.) I’m not. I’d actually like to help rebuild news organizations and create more jobs. I’d also like to improve the way we tell stories. But I wouldn’t mind becoming gainfully employed first. >back to article

H/T to The Wall Street Journal’s excellent photo blog for the graduation shot. The photo was actually taken by Matt Rourke of the Associated Press.

On: Facebook, and Hypothetically Speaking.

Facebook is worth $10 billion. At least, that’s what it’s worth if you believe today’s news reports about the site’s $200 million investment from a Russian firm.

But here’s the catch: the $200 million is real. The $10 billion is not.

It’s simply hypothetical.

It’s what Russian-based Digital Sky Technologies believes the social networking site could be worth, assuming that Facebook can cash in on its millions of users. But it’s all just theory. Two years ago, when Microsoft invested $240 million in Facebook, the site was valued at 15 billion hypothetical dollars.

So how did a site that’s watched its core metrics — users and page views — soar over the last two years become $5 billion less valuable?

I could give you a theory 1.. But it’d be just that: a hypothetical.

Hypotheticals are the reason why Cubs fans get excited every Spring, why “Dewey Defeats Truman” didn’t look that absurd, why “The Godfather III” seemed like a good idea. Sometimes, you want things to be true. Sometimes, you need things to be true. Sometimes, you’re willing to deny all logic to make it so.

Hypothetically, nothing is impossible. Hypothetically, all men are created equal. Hypothetically, the American Dream lives on.

Dreams are great. Action is even better. But if there’s anything I learned in a high school science classroom, it’s that proof trumps all.

Facebook — the site — is the real deal. Millions of people are using it to connect and share and live, and that’s undeniable.

But any dollar amount attached to the site is more than just hypothetical.

It’s hype.


1.) That theory: Facebook’s real value is in that it has access to data about millions of people. Facebook knows if you like the Goo Goo Dolls or horror films; you’ve posted it right there in your profile. Hypothetically, Facebook could convince users that it should be able to take that data and sell it to advertisers — say, concert venues that might be hosting your favorite band, or movie studios. In turn, those advertisers would provide microtarged ads to Facebook users, and the site would be worth beyond its $10 billion valuation. But they tried that in 2007, and users balked, partially because Facebook wasn’t even doing a very good job of delivering these microtargeted ads. I think a Facebook that’s — and this is key — non-intrusively gathering data for advertisers would be worth $15 billion. A Facebook that can’t do that — by which I mean to say, the Facebook you use today — is worth considerably less. Of course, they could always make actual dollars by doing as Google did in 2004 and putting out an IPO. >back to article

H/T to nobihaya for the photo of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg introducing Facebook in Japan last year.

Job Submission FAIL.

So I’m applying for a job this morning through a company’s online submission site, when I come across this unusual “yes/no” question:

Can you perform the duties of this job?

At first, I think it’s a trick question. Maybe it’s a Freudian statement of sort: the id says yes, but the super ego says no. Or maybe it’s just a lonely Proustian questionnaire.

And then I look at the next line: “If no, please state the reason.” And it occurs to me: they’re not asking for existential analysis. They actually want to know if you’re capable of doing the job that you’ve just spent the last 20 minutes applying for.

Which makes me wonder: has anyone — after a third of an hour and seven pages of tedious résumé reentry — ever looked at that question and realized, “Oh, hell, I’m not qualified for this job at all”?

Heineken’s "Let a Stranger Drive You Home" Ad is Causing Spontaneous Karaoke Displays.

So I’m sitting at a bar in D.C. on Thursday. The Lakers-Nuggets game is on half the TVs. The Canes-Pens game is on almost all of the rest, except for one lone screen in the far corner, which is showing the Orioles game 1.. The basketball game goes to commercial, and suddenly, the booth next to ours breaks out into song. There is no karaoke machine nearby, and they’re not singing along to the music playing in the bar.

And just when I’m about to give up, I look up at the TV hanging over their booth. A taxi driver wearing massively oversized glasses is singing on screen.

It’s at that moment that I realize the booth next to ours is singing along to a Heineken commercial, even though the TV is muted.

Sure, Budweiser might’ve blown a few million on ads during the Super Bowl, and Miller might’ve generated some buzz with their one second ad, but it’s Heineken — in, of all things, a PSA for designated driving — that has the best new beer ad of 2009 2..

When an ad campaign can vault a song from 1990 3. into the iTunes top ten — hell, when bar patrons are compelled to sing along to a television on mute — then it’s doing something right.

I’m just not sure what that something is yet.


1.) A trick question: The Washington Nationals are playing a game that’s broadcast on television. A sports bar in Washington, D.C., has over 50 televisions. What is the likelihood that a single television at the bar will be showing the game? (Actual answer on Thursday night: zero). >return to article

2.) Dos Equis’ “The Most Interesting Man in the World” ad — which also broke out this year, thanks to a few quotable lines — actually launched in 2007. >return to article

3.) It’s been a big month for Biz Markie. He’s also gotten involved in former Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe’s Virginia gubernatorial campaign. >return to article

For some background about the ad, click here.

Off the Air.

I never did learn how to work the phone line. I must’ve said the number a thousand times — five seven three, eight eight two, eight two, six two — but I never did figure out how to work it.

Sometimes, the phone rang. Sometimes, it just flashed red digits. Sometimes, it didn’t do anything at all.

So in four years as a DJ at KCOU 88.1 FM — the Mizzou college radio station — I can’t say that I ever took a call on the air. But I’ll take solace in other discoveries. I learned exactly why Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter you’ve never heard of. I discovered the ways of the blues legends — Memphis Slim and Big Bill Broonzy and Lightning Hopkins come to mind — and nodded along to the Piedmont rhythms of Cephas & Wiggins. And I found out that if your band had a name as weird as The Butthole Surfers’, you’d probably get airtime on college radio.

Last Monday, I hosted my very last show on KCOU. For posterity, I’ve embedded the final hours below. If you’ve got two hours to waste with me, The Black Keys, The National, and Big Smith, then by all means, enjoy.

And if you’re over at KCOU right now reading this, I’d stop and look over at the phone line. It might be ringing, and you might not even know it.


The photo, of KCOU’s Pershing studios, by me.

Why No One Seems to Be Mourning the Death of MySpace

You might not have noticed — maybe because it didn’t come across your Facebook news feed — but MySpace is dying. They’re losing activity by half a percent a week, which is a remarkable rate of atrophy.

And it’s not too hard to figure out why they’re losing users. For one, their interface isn’t easy to use or modify. For another, users don’t trust the site, partially because MySpace became synonymous with online stalkers. And then there’s a third reason, one that Warren Buffett spelled out at the Berkshire Hathaway meeting last month when talking about another dying industry:

“Newspapers were the ultimate businesses in every city with pricing power. They were essential with advertisers and customers. They’ve lost their essential nature.”

Even the one demographic that really needed MySpace — the music industry — has moved on. A site like Virb has a simpler design and more upside. (Proof? Check out the MySpace page of one of my new favorite artists, Joe Purdy, and then see his Virb page.)

What’s remarkable is how fast MySpace has fallen apart. A year ago, they were second in social networking, behind only Facebook. This year, they’re a year away from extinction.

Which got my thinking about something that I’m titling “Things That Were Once Unavoidable, But If They Disappeared Today, I Probably Wouldn’t Even Notice That They’re Gone.”

The list, so far:

Sideline reporters
Ronco infomercials
Male pattern baldness
Local phone calls
Collect phone calls
Organ music at sporting events
Speed bumps
The Windows operating system
The U.S. Postal Service
Yahoo!’s search engine
Wrist watches
The AOL “You’ve got mail” voice
Jenna Elfman

What’d I miss?


H/T to bimurch for the photo.