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There are a few niggling issues on the Apple approval side, which I hope to have sorted for a July release. I’d have liked to have seen it out now, but getting it right is important.

I’ll keep you posted…

newsmike

No, it isn’t. Just wanted to get your attention.

News is a mug’s game…always has been. As a product itself, it makes no money and despite the shit salary, good journalism is expensive, dangerous and highly speculative. If you’re a journalist, it’s a physically-demanding pursuit that requires some sociopathic tendencies to succeed at either the coal-face or managerial levels. All traditional outlets face the same problem: a failure to offset the cost-center demands of good journalism with any kind of revenue.

In the olden days, if you had the medium, be it a big-ass printing press or broadcast license, you commoditized it by adding a news service and game shows, because that’s what an audience wanted.

So I’ve been wondering this for a while now: why haven’t the new gatekeepers –Facebook, Google, Amazon etc.–established their own news gathering capabilities? Maybe I’m missing some very important piece of this puzzle so I’m really just thinking aloud. I’m aware the news product is evolving and it will continue to do so. But the principles of supply and demand are more time-honored. Here are some assumptions underlying (but not answering) my question:

They have the platform…

This is pretty straightforward. They saw the opening, they developed the technology and they made it grow. Now they reach such large chunks of the earth’s population that the traditional new outlets have become totally dependent on them for distribution.

…but they don’t have the brand

These guys have perhaps serendipitously found a new role as a news platform but they haven’t been able to create a reputation for news gathering and reliability. Yes, traditional news outlets are flawed and have an awful reputation ethically – but most people would still prefer to have a third-party voice that is dedicated to reporting than have to rely on the sole voices of interested parties, those being governments and big corporations. There are a million and one aggregators out there…none of which would exist if it weren’t for traditional news outlets.

Could Facebook et al. draw on the talent and resources of our dying news institutions (or just buyout AP, Reuters or some struggling newswire) and let the synergy do the rest?

They already sit on a great steaming pile of data

Data is news. Scary, I know. Traditional news outlets can only dream of having the sorts of bird’s-eye-views of what is moving thematically and semantically that the new gatekeepers have. And that doesn’t even take into account the granular and intimate detail to which the new gatekeepers have access. If editors could make decisions about what to report based on a deep analysis on how the masses were behaving (and not just in terms of reader traffic), content would look quite different. Bloomberg already has something resembling this approach, albeit with financial market activity and controversially data on their own clients’ actions. Bloomberg, incidentally, is one of the few major outlets that is still adding headcount.

A mountain of data equals a mountain of ethical questions. I’m not saying a merger between new technology and news reporting is a good or bad thing. But it’s not a question of “do I trust Facebook with my data?” rather, “do I trust the reportage of an outlet with access to such quantities of data?”

It wouldn’t hurt…but they don’t have to

News reporting is not their core business, so why would they?

The new players have a captive market already. While traditional news outlets do have their own internet portals (websites and apps), they are dependent on a native and derivative presence within the new digital ecosystems whether it’s iOS, Twitter, Facebook or being curated by the likes of Google.

But if the old school news gatherers continue to thin out wouldn’t it create some competitive advantage for those with the upper hand digitally to start creating highly-prized news content, not just be a big fat agnostic platform?

On a relative scale, the outlay would not be tremendous. The incentive may not be for a new player to buy an old player, rather for an old player to sell itself to a new player: in other words, it would be up to traditional news to make the case for someone else to buy them.

Tech companies have tried the news game before : MSNBC, Yahoo! The former is resting in peace and the latter has struggled to make much of an impact as that platform’s brand has floundered (though Marissa Mayer’s renewed focus on content could change this.)

News organizations aren’t built overnight but with the old guard in a sunset phase, building from a standing start with the expertise of dying empires may be a bit easier than it once was. It may also be the only way for the traditional craft of journalism to survive.

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So…almost five months since I quit my job I have the first real evidence that I haven’t just been drinking coffee and playing my PS3 (which is flashing the Yellow Light of Death, sadly.)

Here it is: an illustrated/interactive version of The Great Gatsby for the iPad (should be in the store soon, pending usual Apple hoops.) And if you didn’t guess it, you can now see where the name of my company comes from.

I’m very proud of this product and especially the artwork, which is original and was done by Michigan-based artist Mike Schwartz (his stuff above and below.) He is a very talented and efficient artist who instinctively understands the text, its characters and the scenes depicted. I hope this app can really help drive his profile and look forward to seeing more of his stuff.

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So what’s this all about?

We know about Baz Luhrmann’s movie (I’m yet to actually see it.) You may have even read the novel at some point. On the surface, this product includes a bunch of value-adds through the illustrations, maps, my own research of this text and the other interactive features. Things that may have made sense when the book was first published in 1925 but are lost in the wash of historical context more than eight decades later are explained in convenient and unobtrusive pop-up notes. There are also maps of the story’s geography, which are designed to address a major gripe from e-book readers about how inaccessible in-story maps are on reading devices. With a little more work and investment, something like this is a good product for the education market. Sure enough that’s where I’m headed (wish me luck.)

But it’s more than that.

Here’s the bet: good narratives and storytelling are the new frontiers for the digital economy, the railroads upon which new cities and trading posts will spring. Content is everywhere, so are social networks. Good content–well-crafted and well-curated–is less ubiquitous. Storytelling, be it through narratives old or new, can take us to a lot of new places. I don’t believe digital technology or Silicon Valley has worked out the best possible way(s) to take us there just yet. I know for a fact that big, dirty digital utilities companies are looking very closely at how storycraft can create new digital on-ramps for them. I don’t pretend that my Gatsby adaptation comes close to this dream, but it’s a baby step.

If this sounds conceptual, wanky and meaningless, then I’ll let the future do the talking. In the meantime, watch for more products like this. I’ll be blogging shamelessly about them and what they mean for my livelihood.

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New York is indeed the best city in the world. I don’t care what it throws at me: psychotic subway vagrants, violent bouncers, a nasty blizzard or a 36 hour door-to-door journey…yes I had fun with all that but I still love the fast moving brilliance of its creatives, the lack of haughtiness that pervades Old World global cities and that feeling that, despite everything that’s taken place in the past decade, this is still the most important place to be on this planet.
I was in this great city for O’Reilly’s Tools of Change digital publishing conference. I might sound like a doe-eyed publishing newb but it was fantastic to be able to see and hear so many of the great pundits and professionals in this industry whose blogs I read every day.

I recommend checking out conference videos from Inkling’s Matt MacInnis, Tim O’Reilly from his eponymous publishing company, Maria Popova from the awesome blog Brain Pickings and comic creator Mark Waid to get a sense of what’s happening in this space.

For all that’s said about the rise of Asia, there is still nothing in my own hemisphere that compares with this gathering. There maybe something I missed but I don’t think I saw a single delegate or speaker from Asia Pacific, though there were a few from the Middle East interested in developing Arabic- and Farsi-script e-books.
The biggest takeaway for me from this shindig is the sobering fact that whatever brilliant ideas I had about what I could achieve in the world of digital publishing, there is already a host of brilliant minds that are about 5-years ahead of me in these innovations. In some ways, that’s a lovely validation but it also means this race has already started and I just happened to land myself on the back of the second wave of runners.
The most salient highlight was the official launch of Inkling’s Habitat platform, which basically empowers any writer who wants to use the full functionality of HTML5 to build their product. Speaking of which, it was also encouraging to see industry moving to some degree of format harmonization at a much faster pace than was the case with digital formats  back in the 1980s. Not surprisingly, the Kindle’s tardiness in moving toward using HTML5 has come under close scrutiny and many people see great opportunities to fill the void that sits tantalizingly  gaping: humanity needs a solid e-reader (not just a browser) that can turn HTML5 into brain candy the for the 21st century bookworm. That said, there is another camp that awaits ePub3 to come good and deliver pretty much everything HTML5 can, which could also prove a game changer when that moment arrives.
A computer science still searching for a problem to solve is the bookish language around indexing and metadata. There was much chatter on this for people from Laura Dawson from Bowker and Hugh Maguire but both concede monetization remains elusive but that’s encouraging as it means it will just take some kind of visionary to make it happen.
There seems to be some kind of consensus that digital reading is currently in the “early mainstream” phase of the commercial and technological cycle, by Geoffrey Moore’s measurement of these movements.

So I have a bad feeling that whatever I’ve written in the real-estate above will be either gobbledygook to my nearest and dearest or just stupidly obvious to those who might actually take a professional interest in this technology. One interesting thing I had the providence to discover was what is taking place in the world of Bible publishing. Whatever you make of Christianity, religion or the Bible, there is no escaping the historical fact that the good book’s development as a published text has at all points been matched by broader changes in human history…from its transition from oral to written to printed media to the revolutions that challenged the supremacy of Latin as the authoritative language of the book.

I chatted to a couple of guys from Biblica, which publishes the New International Version of the Bible, who have published a version of their text that strips out chapter and verse numbers to restore the narrative that once existed but in its raw form. Little do many Bible readers realize that these numbers, which have been a great navigational device over the centuries, were not part of the original text. Digital technology now opens the way for alternative and much more effective navigational mechanisms however I do honestly wonder how much political and conservative nonsense these innovators of Bible reading may face as they seek to open up this book to much wider acceptance. I have lots of ideas about how innovators can make this ancient text a much more dynamic one so  it was good to get out and see what’s happening already. I will post more on this in the future but again, it was exciting to see people have already been giving this some thought.
I also want to say that in all honesty this trip would not have been possible but for one person who believes in what I’m doing and that’s my wife. It’s pretty difficult for a man who’s left his full-time paying  job to make the case for a conference trip half way across the globe leaving his wife and infant all alone for almost two weeks. But my wife not only gave me permission, she encouraged me to go.

One other great thing about this trip was the chance to see my brother who lives in beautiful upstate New York, the first time in almost  three years that I’ve been able to see him and his wife in person. We saw some good biff at the local ice-hockey match and beautiful snow-covered countryside in the hills near where he lives…more on that another time.

Saturday was my turn to look after my daughter for the day while the wife went out and did some other stuff. It’s usually better to get your kid out of the house on such days; even if an outdoor adventure flying solo with the one-year-old is harder work, we both get more out of the day than we would if I was trying to pass the time with a DVD and keep Elsa entertained at the same time.

So I headed to the ArtScience Museum with Elsa to check out their traveling exhibits. I have to admit, I’ve become quite fond of this museum in the couple of years since it opened, despite earlier misgivings about it being a minor monument to everything wrong with modern Singapore (the much larger Marina Bay Sands behind it being the major monument). Yes, it’s expensive to get in but I have seen some pretty good displays there such as the Tang dynasty treasures uncovered from the Beilitung shipwreck and the Salvador Dali and the Andy Warhol exhibits.

The Art of the Brick is the main one showing at the moment and features a bunch of sculptures made out of Lego by artist Nathan Sawaya.

I’ve never been overly impressed with elaborate Lego constructions, even as a kid: there’s no texture and no real depth of colour. The characters all look the same and the whole thing just has this one-dimensionality about it. The worlds you could build were always going to have this rigidness about them with little room for surprise or twists and turns.

It’s a great product to play with but always more of an engineer’s toy than an artist’s toy. Sawaya challenged this prejudice of mine. He actually does what the best artists and innovators do: create enduring solutions by working within the box.

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ImageHis works are both deep and fun. At a minimum, they might resemble the kind of postmodern sculptures you’d see in sterile corporate parks around the world: Atlas-like figures breaking through barriers, carrying large objects, co-operating with eachother, that sort of thing. The most impressive thing about Sawaya’s sculptures to me is the way he’s been able to use a medium primarily designed to express architectural or mechanical visions and reshape it speak to the human experience. It’s a reminder of how something that has been used in a specific way for generations can find new life through new expressions.

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 This one is legit – I placed Elsa in the seat and she just struck this pose. What can I say?

hobbit

Call me simple but The Hobbit is my favourite book – more than Lord of the Rings, more than any other book. I read it at the age of 12 and for some weird reason knew then and there that every other fantasy novel that had been published since was mere derivative.
Thus I went into Peter Jackson’s adaptation today with low expectations and the best I can say is I wasn’t disappointed. Forget box-office success – the movie will work financially and deserves to do so. My main quibble is how encumbered this adaptation is with the trappings of Jackson’s LOTR trilogy and feels more like an embellished prequel than a rendering of the fantastic children’s story Tolkien published in 1937.
My 1975 Allen and Unwin reset edition of The Hobbit has 253 pages. Three hours of the first part of this new file trilogy and we’re up to page 99. Much has been written about the unwieldiness of piping The Hobbit into three new movies. I suspect Jackson feels that by plugging into the universe he created more than a decade ago, he is obliged to further populate the forests and mountains with characters that ought not be there and add some dense backstory. Hence we find a flirtatious Galadriel, odious Saruman and bunny-sledding Radagast. Mercifully Jackson has spared us Tom Bombadil. It’s all a bit too much for a story that was originally a much more nimble read than the fat tome that followed in the 1950s.
Could The Hobbit have benefited from being rebuilt from the ground up by a fresh creative mind? It would be hard to better Sir Ian McKellen’s Gandalf, true enough, but I can’t help but feel this could have been someone else’s baby. Here are some suggestions, some wackier than others:

Joe Wright (Atonement, Pride and Prejudice)
An eye for English period splendour and grim subterranean scenes, Wright sets up an awesome long take. His narratives take you from the gentleness of the countryside to the terrors of the battlefield.

Alfonso Cuarón (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Children of Men)
Also a master of long shot, Curarón knows how to tell a tight story and create elaborate sets. His fantasy-derived characters also have a depth and realism often lacking in other films of the genre.

Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away, Ponyo, Howl’s Moving Castle)
The Hobbit as a narrative might be slightly too linear to be squeezed into the anime genre, but if you want to recreate Middle Earth, you could do worse than Miyazaki whose dreamscapes are the stuff of visceral burn.

Jerry Bruckheimer (The Rock, Top Gun)
Maybe not. But one thing that always struck me was the way The Rock was a modern-day take on The Hobbit: a gormless boffin (Nicholas Cage) is reluctantly dragged into a mission by a pack of battle-hardened soldiers led by a sage old man with a white beard (Sean Connery). It also involved lots of wriggling around tunnels.

Short answer, not much right now. Just counting down to my final day at work (January 9) and putting in place a whole lot of empty shells that I hope will one day overflow with profit-making business, new media realities or at the very least a launchpad to something bigger. That of course is one big-ass pie-in-the-sky and I guess some of my friends and family want some sort of an explanation.

I had a promising career with the Wall Street Journal here in Singapore during an otherwise very disruptive time for the publication and the traditional news industry in general. My managers were quite disappointed at my decision to leave but ultimately respected my move to go it alone perhaps more than they would a decision to join a competitor. Behind the decision was a bit of push: my hours were starting to get very family unfriendly with no sign of relief for anyone contemplating progression.

Bigger than this, however, was the pull: a chance to try and execute those ideas that have been swirling in my head for decades. Most importantly, I’ve been given the green light and means to go ahead and try it by the person whose opinion matters more than any bank, government authority or employer: my wife.

So that probably does nothing to answer the question. I’ve given a whole lot of different answers to different folks who’ve asked what I’m doing. I’m not being inconsistent, just offering different bits of the puzzle to different inquirers. I’ll be more forthcoming in the months ahead but all I can say for now is if you want to find out more, keep posted!

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