Thursday, May 23, 2013

Returning to the Old Days of the News Media

An unfortunate evolution in the modern news media has been the character change from providing truthful information with little to no bias to providing information that the public is willing to watch, regardless of quality, in effort to acquire the highest ratings in order to attract the most advertising dollars. The evolution of the Internet to easily conduct information has catalyzed this devolution by increasing the number of competitors. Unfortunately the zest to compete with the Internet and other less reputable news sources as well as the glut of new opinions and information has created an environment of niche radicalization leading to segregated demographics, greater polarization of the population and the hastened demise of quality in these very news organizations.

One missing element that could staunch the speed of the characteristic conversion of news reporting is the existence of popular, authoritative and trustworthy anchors. In the past major news organizations had anchors like Walter Cronkite, Edward Murrow, Dan Rather, etc. that the viewing public respected and received quality and professional performances from. There was still bias at some levels in the news media in the past, but the existence of these strong and professional anchor personalities were able to mitigate significant elements of that bias. Reintroducing high quality distributors of information on a general level over the sea of specificity that currently exists should go a long way in addressing the radicalization of the public through the elimination of ideas that cannot be substantiated in reality. Basically there are not enough effective mediators of existing information and most of the public appears too invested or lazy to conduct the evaluation themselves. Restoring these mediators should be an important step for news organizations to revitalize their decaying role in society.

General Concept Idea:

To find prospective new young anchor talent to hasten an increased rate of credibility and movement away from the polarized sniping that currently exists on television and the Internet. The search will be conducted through the administration of a television show. The show will have a reality feel in part because it will document and demonstrate what actually goes into producing news broadcasts and training anchors on a legitimate level, not a Hollywood-derived way, which could help people understand the work that goes into producing the news leading to the public giving it a new respect for the news media itself.

Network to Air the Show:

All major networks would be appropriate for such a show with the exception of Fox due to their corruption of news reporting replacing it with propaganda that is obviously not concerned with an accurate presentation of facts over a presentation of a specific ideology.


Judgment will be split into two different formats – 1. A 3-judge panel (first choice selections – David Brooks/Shepard Smith, Dan Rather and Keith Olbermann) will critique performance; 2. A randomly selected panel of 20 individuals will watch performances and rate each candidate on a score of 1-5 with elimination of the two lowest and two highest scores. The candidate with the lowest combined score will be eliminated with the three judges breaking any ties. The show will be taped so each “episode” will have a new randomized panel of 20 individuals; the point of the “focus group judgment” is that one of the central premises of the show is to have a news anchor that people want to watch and trust versus simply reading faceless Associated Press or opinion columns on the Internet, a characteristic that cannot be fully deducted from the intuition of the judges alone. However, to those who would instead favor an open vote, similar to most reality shows where the viewing public votes on who should stay and who should go, such an idea is not appropriate. Opening the decision making to the entire public may seem like the right idea, but another central premise of this show is to develop an individual(s) that will return credibility to the news media. An open public vote has too much potential to digress to a simple popularity and/or ideology contest, which would sully this aspect of the show defeating its purpose.

Initial Candidate Screening:

The reality portion of this show is a component of its production, not the show itself thus casting will not utilize abstract personality elements or “hero/villain” dynamics. The general age demographic will be college junior at the floor to post-doctoral student at the ceiling (20-26) with either a degree in journalism or broadcasting or a desire for a career in the news media as an on-air talent as a requirement. Candidate selection can proceed one of two ways:

1. One central place of audition somewhere in the country (probably LA) where candidates are interviewed and the 50 top selections move on to the final elimination selection sequence (not broadcast, but could be shown in a DVD-like extra);

2. Various interviews are held on college campuses and a select quota taken from each campus (say 10 different campuses with 5 individuals from each campus); some could argue that such a quota system is not fair to certain candidates that may be 7th best at Northwestern, but 3rd best at Columbia and such an argument would be valid. However, another point of contention is what is the probability that the 7th best at Northwestern would end up winning the show? Overall one could execute a multiple venue tryout session without quotas to address this concern.

Candidates will be reduced from 50 to 20 in an elimination round that will require a live-camera interview of an individual (an actor) after introducing the story pertaining to the interview. Candidates will be segregated from shoot until after completion. Judges will then decide on which candidates demonstrate sufficient potential to achieve the goals of the show who will move on to the televised portion of the show.

Show Format:

While on-air communication ability is a critical element to restoring credibility and popularity to media organizations, there are other important elements that occur off-camera. Most reality competition based programs are divided into two competition elements. The first element is a quiz or small task format where the competition is small scale and the winner receives an advantage for the second element, the elimination challenge; upon the conclusion of the elimination challenge some evaluation criteria is used to remove some number of competitors from the competition. That initial part of that methodology will be applied to this show as well.

The first portion of the competition will involve testing a candidate’s off-camera skill such as fact-checking stories, proposing different angles in which to present the story, editing a written copy of the on-air story, etc. As long as at least 10 candidates remain in the competition then based on the performance the judges will divide the candidates into three tiers: 1st tier will be the best performers with the remaining competitors divided into 2nd and 3rd tiers. The 1st tier will have the option of performing three different attempts during the elimination competition, the 2nd tier individuals will get the option of performing two different attempts and the 3rd tier individuals will be allowed one attempt. When the number of candidates drop below 10 then the division will consist of only two tiers with those in the better tier allowed to make a second attempt versus only one attempt made by those in the lower tier. Tier division is yet to be determined, but it stands to reason that the higher the tier the fewer individuals will be placed in it. For example when placing 20 candidates after the first challenge 4 would reside in the 1st tier, 6 in the 2nd tier and 10 in the 3rd tier.

This tiered structure is appropriate because it makes sense to include some small form of reward for doing well in the smaller challenge, but including some crass reward such as immunity or cash prizes for the completion of sub-challenges during the course of the show belittles the idea of show and allows unqualified individuals the opportunity to continue to progress at the expense of more worthy candidates. However, one lingering issue is whether or not individuals will be able to select their best performance or will have to utilize their most recent performance as the material that will be judged by the focus group. Basically will a candidate in the 1st tier be allowed to perform the task three times and select from the best or if the task is performed three times will the 3rd performance be the one seen by the focus group regardless of how the candidate performed?

Challenge Topics:

The topics addressed during the competition must reflect the diversity of topics facing not only a seasoned anchor, but one that will capture the nation’s attention. Each challenge will consist of an overall topic broken down into two structures: a written or preparation section, which will act as the “miniature” challenge and an on-air or conference section, which will act as the elimination challenge. The topics that will be addressed include, but are not limited to:

- Investigative Journalism;
- Reporting an Emergency Situation/Event;
- General News Summary;
- Arranging Interviews;
- Conducting Exclusive Interviews in a non-softball manner;
- Appropriate story telling and narration for sustained delivery;
- Identifying inaccurate elements in a given position and effective presentation of those inaccuracies;
- Fact checking and following up with appropriate sources;
- Editorializing;
- Experience the relationship between the legal system and journalism (unfortunately necessary given the current existing relationship between government and the 4th estate);

The state of television journalism, as well as print journalism, is a cause for concern. While an argument could be made that some existing anchors are effective and passionate, the public fervor to acknowledge these traits is lacking. In addition of all of the anchors one would theorize fitting the above classification none of them are young, thus their time as anchors is drawing to a close. Conducting the above competition should not only provide a new medium to create talent that can be better prepared to produce high quality news pieces, but also will hopefully reestablish positive sentiment in the public for the professionalism that proper journalism demands.

Eliminating the flash and glitter that has overwhelmed the substance of presenting and analyzing important events in the public domain is one of the most important steps to creating the appropriate respect for reporting and establishing a trusted mouthpiece. One could make the argument that attempting to eliminate flash and glitter through a reality show medium is hypocritical, but that is why such a program must focus on the elements of reporting not on manufactured drama between the contestants. Overall if the United States is to have a chance at maintaining its 1st tier position in the global community, journalism must become more effective at reporting the news and establishing accurate and appropriate positions in the public forum and to do this it must have new and impressive talent able to effectively articulate these characteristics; otherwise the continued polarization and maintenance of untenable positions in politics and other areas of discourse will erode the foundation of the United States resulting in a steady fall from that 1st tier.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Solar and Wind Need to Step up to the Plate

Over the last few years there has been a steady back and forth between various individuals and groups about the viability of wind and solar power to account for a vast majority of the future energy infrastructure. Despite legitimate concerns with the potential effectiveness and consistency of such a system, wind and solar proponents continue to place their faith in its viability with no scale evidence validating this faith. In addition proponents of these technologies believe that the public must be made more aware of the “adaptability” of solar and wind versus fossil fuel generators. However, why does the solar and wind manufacturing and deployment community allow this uncertainty to linger instead opting for its new plan of engaging in a new more aggressive marketing plan to “sell” the public on the idea of solar and wind? Providing evidence to support one position or the other is quite possible; at least it must be for numerous wind and solar power supporters continue to claim that the limiting factor to “greening” the energy infrastructure is the deployment rate for wind and solar plants over existing technology.

Note that this experiment must exceed the testing irrelevancies of electricity aggregation or renewable energy credits (RECs), which do nothing significant to demonstrate the reliability of wind and solar energy providers. Wind and solar proponents envision an energy infrastructure that incorporates wind and solar into comprising at least 70%+ of the entire electricity providing system (maybe even 70%+ of all energy at some point eventually), thus that number seems to be a good threshold point. However, this dream should only be pursued if these technologies are actually able accomplish this goal; therefore, as stated above the current legitimacy of this system must be tested and its strengths and weaknesses must be adjudicated. So how would such an experiment be conducted?

A simple starting methodology must include, but not be limited to, the following boundary conditions/rules:

- Approach a small city (approximately 10,000-15,000 population) and receive permission to change the electricity provision infrastructure from the current existing mix to 70% solar/wind with a 30% other;

- At no time could the electricity provided to the city from non-solar or wind sources exceed 30% or the test would be considered a failure of the experiment (note this condition includes all electricity derived from storage sources like batteries); note that this condition could be modified based on how many brownouts/blackouts the selected city was willing to accept;

- All participating companies will have a year to prepare for the switch from existing mix to solar/wind dominated mix; a good idea would be for a coalition of solar/wind companies to select a city by July 31, 2013 and then start the experiment on July 31, 2014.

- An independent auditor will track electricity use and costs associated with that use and any addition construction related to that electricity infrastructure;

- The above point must consider net electricity use not gross electricity production. For example suppose 1000 MW are produced, but only 500 MW are used due to a lack of storage, the produced count must be 500 MW not 1000 MW in percentage calculations in order to not overstate the used production rate of renewable sources; i.e. utilized reserves is what matters not name plate capacity.

- Note that the city does not have to remain static once the test has begun, it can still add or subtract electricity infrastructure features; however, these changes must be incorporated into the evaluation metric for the efficiency and validity of the renewable sources tested;

If the simplicity and viability of the above methodology is to be believed then what is stopping one (or more through a coalition) of the various solar and wind companies from administering it? Realistically there seem to be only two reasons. First, wind and solar proponents are not accurate in their assessment that these energy technologies are advanced enough to effectively substitute for fossil fuel technologies and wind and solar companies know it, but don’t want to admit it. Second, solar and wind companies are not sure whether or not such an experiment will be successful and are afraid that if it is implemented and fails the negative publicity surrounding such a failure will produce a significant handicap to their future growth.

This potential “fear of failure” attitude is interesting because most intelligent people realize that failure is an integral part of technological growth, so why pass up an opportunity to explore the strengths and weaknesses of what numerous people hope is the future energy infrastructure in a real experimental environment over the worthless rooftop-like piecemeal “experiments” that are currently conducted? One possibility is that these companies believe that a failure in the above type of experiment will be regarded by society not as a learning experience, but as an inherent flaw in the technology itself, thus a higher probability of possible abandonment and lose of millions. This is a fear that solar and wind companies need to get over if they want to better serve society both now and in the future because if the technology does have flaws that are not corrected for before their application then society loses more than just money.

Despite the above concerns the apparent trepidation by solar and wind energy companies when it comes to this type of experiment is disconcerting. If they were confident in the maturity of the technology and its ability to provide consistent electricity to a populous then such an experiment should have already been conducted. Success would produce a valuable and powerful point of evidence that would support the rapid expansion and deployment of solar and wind energy technology and further demonstrate what strengths would benefit society from such a system and what weaknesses exist, which could be improved upon over time.

Two final notes, first some may point out that the city of Lancaster, California has recently spearheaded a large growth of solar power, but understand that it is no where near the capacity necessary to power the city and is probable too large a city for this initial test (population 157,000+).

Second, some may argue that Portugal’s 2013 1st quarter success of 70% power generation from renewables demonstrates its validity as the future energy infrastructure. However, when looking at the details of the renewable breakdown this success becomes less and less impressive and repeatable in the short-term. For example while Portugal is an above average producer of energy from non fossil fuel sources, favorable weather is more of a reason for the higher renewable percentage than anything else. A large spike in existing hydroelectric efficiency (312% increase) drove most of the change with no significant new project builds. In fact Portugal solar photovoltaic penetration only made up approximately 0.7% of energy use (in 2012), which is in direct contrast to most plans put forth by solar enthusiasts regarding massive solar deployment and is counter to the challenge presented in this blog. Therefore, Portugal’s success proves nothing about the validity of a solar/wind energy infrastructure, just the usefulness of hydroelectric power.

Overall if the benefit of success is a significant increase in growth rate of the industry, why has no one in the solar/wind industry attempted such an experiment? This lack of experimentation reminds one of the blind faith that some have in electrical vehicles acting as mobile storage batteries to augment solar and wind power, yet no one has ever demonstrated the viability of such a strategy in a community of 5,000 people let alone a country of 300+ million. If the solar and wind industry want their technology to be taken seriously as a substitute for existing fossil fuels by all parties then they have to demonstrate the ability to do the heavy lifting with minimal assistance from other energy providers. Otherwise why waste time playing with expensive toys in lieu of proven fossil fuel substitutes like nuclear and geothermal?