“Gigasteve Gawks…!” I’m on Ain’t It Cool News!

Wow, its been a busy weekend and this caps it all off. Last night I finally got to see the early screening of The Amateurs here at Penn State. I'm obviously a pretty big movie fan, so getting to see a movie in advance was pretty exciting. It was also an oppertunity to do some reporting for my favorite movie spy site – Ain't It Cool News. For those of you who aren't complete geeks, AICN is an independent entertainment news site with movie and television rumors that come through studio spys or just excited fans. Put me in the latter. Anyway, I was looking through my Bloglines and sure enough my story is right there "Gigasteve Gawks At THE AMATEURS!!" You can read my read my review and their amusing intro here (It is amazing that William Fichtner has work after Ultraviolet, but he was good in this and I thought he was the best part of Ultraviolet, though that doesn't say much).

Gigasteve on Ain't It Cool News

Anyway, back to how a lowly reader like myself got his story posted on the king of geek movie sites. After the screening I wrote up my review and sent it along to their editor: Harry Knowles. I got an error when sending the mbessage, so I tried sending it to another contributor's e-mail and a few hours later I was famous. I'm not sure about my choice of nicknames (mostly everyone on the site has some sort of alias), but I could have done worse. Anyway I am on Cloud 9 today and very excited. I wonder if I should put this on the press section of my portfolio?

Tripped Out

MIBDrug references, aren't I hilarious. Actually, I am really talking about my trip to Washington DC on Friday (which is no longer yesterday). IST (my major and college) runs a trip to some metropolitan area for a day to see technology companies in action, but its really just as much about promoting our students and college to potential employers. I enjoyed my first trip freshman year and had a great time when I went on another trip in the fall, so I didn't pass this one up. Our day started at 3:30am when we boarded our bus in State College and didn't end till close to 10pm. Over the course of the day we saw VeriSign, CSC, and Blackboard. Here are some thoughts and lessons learned:

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Technological Determinism

Technological determinism is an interesting concept I picked up in class this semester. Simply put, it is the belief that technology can change society and, generally, improve it. It is this belief which inspires people to put a laptop in the hands of every child in the developing world in the hopes economic development. It is this belief that pushes corporations spend millions on improving their infrastructure to increase productivity. It is this belief that motivates student like me to enter the field of information technology and we certainly stand to benefit from it. But it is only half the story.

I still believe that technology can empower people, but only when used properly.
It needs to be a means to an end and not just a means. I have seen the failures of technology determinism firsthand with my work at the Collegian this year. After studying the issues facing the paper, we decided to push forward with development of a dynamic content management system. Their systems had not been updated much in the last 7 years, so an upgrade made sense. By making it easier to update the website, we assumed that the rest would follow. A year later, though, we still are not finished and we have realized we still have a lot more issues to address. For example, if we build it who will come and who will use it?

My realization comes on the heels of a series of meetings with the editors and advisers about the status of our project. A new editor was elected this month and she wanted to share her ideas for the web with us. This was not surprising. What was surprising was that when we got down to it, we could do a number of the things she was proposing right now without a major systems change. We’ve been waiting for the technology to improve the content, when in fact we need new content if we want a better website. We need to help guide the content creators, the editors and writers, towards using the web as a medium for journalism. That is more than just sticking print stories on a web page. And the truth is a database will make little difference there.

So this post is my Jerry Maguire moment of clarity. Technology alone does not solve problems and expecting it to do so is unfair. The laptop program won’t be successful unless its backers can find a way to integrate them into these societies and their educational systems. And business productivity will come as a result of people using the technology better, not just having faster technology. So by the end of this semester we will have a road map for upgrading the website by the fall and the database will likely not be part of the initial release. We will be delivering news to the Penn State community in a whole new way though and at the end of the day that is all that matters.

Sorry Ladies

I read this op-ed in the Times today and it really got me thinking, so I thought I’d share it. Jennifer Delahunty Britz, dean of admissions at Kenyon College, explained how so many qualified women applying to college has flooded the pool and made it more difficult for women to get into top schools. The result is less qualified men can get into top schools easier than their counterparts. We saw this in my family this year as my sister managed to get rejected from the honors college I am in, despite having significantly higher grades than I did.

Still as a guy I got a little ticked off at the notion that getting accepted into colleges was easier for us. I got rejected from good schools as did my friends and I never noticed any visible difference between the schools guys and girls got into. The whole thing raised a lot of questions for me, so I am going to just throw these out there for discussion:

  • If young women are better students and are outnumbering men on campuses, why have we not seen this translate into more women in leadership positions? Is this just old fashioned sexism or are there other issues in play?
  • If talented candidates are being rejected purely because of lesser performance in metrics such as SATs and GPA, what good are these statistics? I found that very interesting, because I have heard that standardized testing and grading models typically favor girls’ learning styles.
  • Do they have the same problems at MIT and CalTech? Or is this a phenomena exclusive to liberal arts schools like Kenyon? Note I am not arguing that women cannot succeed in math or science. Fewer women study technical fields though, so perhaps the problem is all these strong applicants are interested in the same fields. Women in the sciences and technology is an important social challenge that we need to fix.
  • Likewise, who is to say that the girls who are rejected from Kenyon and other schools can’t succeed elsewhere? I go to a large state-affiliated public school and am getting a first-class education. So I’m not crying a river for the girls who are stuck at a Big Ten school after getting the thin envelope from the Ivys.
  • Back to over-qualified applicants, isn’t it kind of ridiculous how much “experience” some of these high school students have? I kind of find all these trips and councils and things that have been invented to bolster college applications ridiculous. They also favor people have the time and money to participate.
  • Isn’t it just as alarming that young men are often weaker applicants, can we do anything to fix that? I don’t believe gender equity is a zero sum game and I think that there’s plenty that can be done to encourage academic achievement among boys that would keep them at least on a par with their counterparts.

I think those questions sum up my thoughts and I’d love to hear some answers if someone wants to comment. Higher education is one of the strengths of our country, but I think we could do an even better job. However, the one point I think we can all agree with Ms. Britz on is that getting the thin envelope sucks.

Reporting Reflections

Tonight I went down the Collegian to do some work and got roped into attending their semi-annual “Meet the Staff” night. They get a bunch of current staff members to go up and talk to the new reporters about life at the Collegian. It’s actually a pretty well run thing, as the news coordinator is a former journalist and manages to ask interesting questions that keep the discussion going. Among topics covered were how to handle tough interviews (like the parents of dead students) or the difference between being a football fan and a football writer. We got a moment to plug our web project and share our advice with the candidates.

The event got me thinking back to my own experience as a writer with the Collegian. I started as a sports writer, focusing on women’s tennis for a semester. I think I enjoyed the work environment of the Collegian a lot, but I didn’t like being a reporter as much. I probably blamed the subject matter a lot, but truth be told I was a bad reporter. Hindsight is 20/20 and I can see a lot of the mistakes I made back then. I ended up quitting before the start of the following fall, only to come back later that year to start the web project.

The surprising theme of the night was that a lot of the staffers all had similar feelings when they’re started. Sure its tough being new in any organization, but I think being a reporter takes extra getting used to. It seems kind of unnatural to walk up to strangers and ask lots of questions, but that’s what needs to be done. It’s also difficult to take an event a part and tell it as an interesting story while being accurate. I ended up advising those who struggled with reporting to consider trying other things such as copy editing, design, or even web.

The other thing I noticed was how much of an impact being there really is in an organization. Chris and I did a lot of development outside of the Collegian’s offices last semester and struggled, but this semester we stayed on site and got a lot more done. There were other factors, but I think being there and having people to talk to helped keep us motivated. Interestingly, they mentioned that the photo staff was cut off from the rest of news up until this year. The reason was the photo people had their own corner and stayed away from the newsroom. This year they started bringing photographers into staff meetings and suddenly everyone started working better together.

Anyway, I find the night to be much more worthwhile than I thought it would. Hearing people talk about their experiences also reminded me that there’s still I would like to do with our project and that time is running out. So that will keep me motivated towards getting something done sooner.

Trashing Crash

They said it was the most boring Oscars ever, but there’s still plenty of talk about Crash winning the Best Picture award. This week Annie Proulx, author of the original Brokeback Mountain short story, wrote a scathing editorial about the loss in The Guardian.

The people connected with Brokeback Mountain, including me, hoped that… it would get Best Picture… We should have known conservative heffalump academy voters would have rather different ideas of what was stirring contemporary culture. Roughly 6,000 film industry voters, most in the Los Angeles area, many living cloistered lives behind wrought-iron gates or in deluxe rest-homes, out of touch not only with the shifting larger culture and the yeasty ferment that is America these days, but also out of touch with their own segregated city, decide which films are good… Rumour has it that Lions Gate inundated the academy voters with DVD copies of Trash – excuse me – Crash a few weeks before the ballot deadline.

I can understand her anger, but her argument seems self-defeating. She seems angry that L.A. is a “segregated city” and yet criticizes Hollywood for awarding a film that does acknowledge this. In the wake of the devastation of the Katrina hurricanes, I have to think that people as concerned with racial disparities as they are with gay rights. I can’t help but wonder if Brokeback got support from writers and critics, yet lost the Best Picture because actors (many of whom were once working class citizens) identified more with Crash. Incidentally, I enjoyed Proulx’s story even more than the movie. I can’t agree with her editorial though. I agree that Brokeback is an important movie, but I (and many in Hollywood) felt Crash was the better film.

All the complaining reminds me of an Oscar snub of the past. In 1989 Spike Lee’s racial drama Do the Right Thing didn’t even get a Best Picture nomination. Roger Ebert recalls with irony the fact that Driving Miss Daisy ultimately won that award.

Do the Right Thing was the finest, the most controversial, most discussed and most important film of 1989. Of course, it was not nominated for an Academy Award as Best Picture (that award went to Driving Miss Daisy, which has a view of race in America that is rotated just 180 degrees from Lee’s). To an extent, I think some viewers have trouble seeing the film; it is blurred by their deep-seated ideas and emotions about race in America, which they project onto Lee, assuming he is angry or bitter. On the basis of this film it would be more accurate to call him sad, observant, realistic-or empathetic.

Do the Right Thing is one of my all-time favorites and there are many similarities between it and Crash. Both movies address race as a much more complicated issue than black and white, and neither offer easy answers. So perhaps the Academy is making up for a mistake 17 years ago. For the Brokeback supporters out there, you can take some solace in the fact that the Hollywood is moving in the direction of progress, abiet very slowly.

Knight Ridder, Philly Newspapers Sold

Since I’m interested in newspapers these days, I’ve been following the fate of Knight Ridder with anticipation. Knight Ridder is a large company that owns dozens of local papers across the country, including the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News. Tonight the NY Times is saying that a smaller group, McClatchy Company, is buying them out for $4.5 billion. The whole deal has been seen as a sign of weakness for the newspaper industry, as it feels the threat of readers and advertisers moving online.

It is expected that the new owners will make a lot of cost cutting measures, including shutting down the Philadelphia Daily News. I think this would be a big mistake, since the “People Paper” has a style and an audience that the Inquirer does not. If it does happen, hopefully the Inquirer will have the sense to scoop up some of their talent and breathe some life into their publication. The Philadelphia Inquirer certainly has a proud tradition, but lately has become a poor local newspaper that wastes space with international wire stories. I’d also like to see the new owners try new things with Philly.com and the rest of the Real Cities network, since the Internet is going to be the future for these papers.

The real reason I am writing about this though is that my family has been discussing the impending sale a lot this weekend. We have a friend who is an editor at the Daily News and is really feeling nervous about the future of his career – even before the sale was announced. Apparently many people in both newsrooms are nervous and a lot of the veteran writers have been retiring just to save jobs for younger ones. It’s a tough time for the industry and I hope that new management will have the sense to try to do new things and adapt to the changing market.

Update: No sooner is Knight Ridder sold, does new owner McClatchy put the Inquirer and Daily News up for sale. We’ll see what happens next.