The Burden of Genius

Extremely moved by the death of Malik Bendjelloul – he of Searching for Sugarman fame and Oscar.

Let’s discuss this elephant in the room: we are losing some of our brightest and best storytellers – film makers, writers, photographers, musicians – to suicide. Mental illness is killing our artists. And here is the crux: failure could have kept them safe. But they did not fail.
Look, I don’t know the first thing about Bendjelloul’s mindset or his death. I am referencing a trend here. And his facts fit: passionate creative perseveres, overcoming all the odds to be a surprise phenomenon. Success on a significant scale. Widely lauded, he has the world at his feet, and then he chooses to end it all. (Some go directly, others through a tortuous masochism of drugs or booze.)
This is not logical. There is something more. There is the weight of our expectations. Of our perceived impending criticism. There is the weight of the genius mantle. The fear of failure may initially hold the artist back. But, post-success, comes the fear of being found wanting. Or worse: the fear of being found out, so much worse than not being found at all. The inner Calvinist critic-cum-torturer: “It wasn’t me that achieved that success. I don’t deserve the spoils. Soon they will find me out. I will be exposed as a fraud.”
This is a stress – no, a trauma – the less successful are spared.
So, dear writer, filmmaker, photographer, musician… Get real. Get off that artist pedestal. Find a pragmatic framework. I can recommend one, in fact. And, if you think you are too good for it, perhaps it’s the very medicine you need? You’re too good for the author of something as easy and mainstream as Eat Pray Love? You’re above such popular entertainment as TED? Fine. But if you have talent and have found some success, please watch this.
Or work out your own framework – the details don’t matter; the resolution does. And please talk about it. We have lost too many already.

The God of Amazonia

“Amazon are undoubtedly the most important player in the book world today. Whether print books or e-books. They really are the central platform around which the whole publishing industry is operating these days. Publishers think about Jeff Bezos kind of like how they might think about God – as a very distant, inaccessible figure who is all powerful and all knowing.”

That was Michael Bhaskar, digital publishing director at Profile Books, being interviewed on “Amazon’s Retail Revolution“, part of the Business Boomers series, which aired last night (21st April) on BBC Two in the UK and quoted in The Bookseller.

A key statistic that the documentary highlighted: More than half of Britain’s online retail spend goes to Amazon, working out at £70 for every man, woman and child in the country.

I am nearly finished reading (okay, listening to) The Everything Store – Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon  and, though author Brad Stone doesn’t paint Bezos as a Mr Nice Guy, he does reflect a brilliant one. Eminently unlikable much of the time, by the sound of things, and prone to nasty outbursts known as “nutters”, but certainly not one whose success has fallen into his lap. Not by any stretch of the imagination.

The book “shows Bezos to be a sponge for information, and a fearless inquisitor, approaching even seasoned competitors to soak up knowledge from them, explains Adam Lashinsky in his CCN Money article ‘The Uncomfortable Truth about Brad Stone’s Amazon Book’, adding as an aside that “This is one of the many qualities Bezos shares with Jobs, and reading this book is another opportunity to lament that Jobs isn’t still around so that we could watch these two gladiators go after each other.”

All of this and more – especially as I am labouring to help establish a new startup in the book world – is why Jeff Bezos is on my #unlikeablementors list. “If you aren’t up to speed on the Bezos playbook, then you aren’t current with what it takes to start or run or a business,” as Lashinsky puts it.

The Reporting Crisis: Validation


“As language barriers break down and cell towers rise, there will be no end to the number of new voices, potential sources, citizen journalists and amateur photographers looking to contribute. This is good… The effect of having so many new actors involved, connected through a range of online platforms into the great, diffuse media system, is that major media outlets will report less and validate more… The role of the mainstream media will become primarily one of an aggregator, custodian and verifier, a credibility filter…” — Eric Schmidt & Jared Cohen in The New Digital Age (John Murray)

Will video games give documentary photography a shot in the arm?

Very interesting to read about some new video games being developed (and there’s the thing: this is still at development stage and we have not seen the market response) that tell important stories using real documentary footage.

In ‘Are Video Games the Future of Storytelling’, Meghan Ahearn references Marcus Bleasdale and his work to create a video game about the impact of mining conflict minerals in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Bleasdale cites his teenage niece and nephew, and the realization that they would likely never see the work he shot on assignment, because it’s placed in media that don’t reach them. “If we [want] to educate them and get them to understand places like DRC, we have to take the issues that we are concerned about to them on the platforms they want to engage in.”
Bleasdale’s video game, called Blood Minerals Congo, highlights an irony to me: some of the very minerals that are being mined in DRC are intended for the gaming devices, tablets  and computers that will keep teenagers and the pre-30-something market away from the original means of reaching them with photojournalism: newspapers.
What a potent way to tell the important stories of the day. To bring good old-fashioned photo journ across the technological divide and into the hands, hearts and minds of the generation who will feel its impact most, and can make the most change.
Ahearn’s article also highlighted a Dutch cowboy outfit, Butch & Sundance, who are using NGO funding primarily, by the looks of it, to develop other games and some really innovative storytelling techniques. I’m interested in one particularly: “The Web-based On the Ground Reporter games are told from the viewpoint of a journalist covering a conflict area; Uganda, Sudan and Afghanistan have already been used as locations in the series. The games exist in a purely photographic world: the images and videos shot on location are used to show the people and places the player interacts with. The games’ stories are based on research or ‘the journalistic stories of others,’ Hekman explains, citing as an example On the Ground Reporter: Uganda, which was based ‘partly on the stories of Josh Kron of The New York Times‘.”
Launch dates are unclear and English availability is not looking like an option but, based on what I’ve seen, saying I am impressed is an understatement. (And yes, yes, naysayers, I know: it’s seriously costly and labour intensive. But so was putting journalists on ships and planes and sending them to war zones in the pre-email days.)
Let’s see where the future goes with this.
Bottom line: #journalismisnotdead!

What price quality?


The Washington Post, one of the most influential publications in the world with a track record of quality journalism and 47 Pulitzer Prizes, is worth $250 million. Tumblr, the microblogging site on which users republish other people’s mildly amusing pictures and vast amounts of pornography, went for $1.1 billion. Price is not the same as value.

Simon Allison in his Daily Maverick ‘First Thing‘ newsletter.

Crabby. Snarky. Hero-less.

I feel winded by the force of the venom (see below for links) directed at a 28-year-old Brooklyn-living Bulgarian who could or should be held up as a role model and pioneer. A woman leading a simple life, working damned hard at something she dearly loves. A woman who gives away the refreshingly-positive and deeply-detailed result freely, but yet dares to ask for donations, and who has made a few crucial mistakes for which she will apparently never be forgiven. (Chief of which, of course, is being successful.) Of course, that woman is Maria Popova — she of the yellow-and-black, Milton Glaser-inspired, love-infused Brain Pickings.

Sent out every Sunday, the newsletter of the blog’s weekly highlights is a tome, a rabbit hole. Press on that link, and I’m lost in Wonderland for hours. I don’t have the time to read more than a fraction of the heavily-linked content, and so always wondered where the author found the time to create it. And there’s the rub: Maria Popova claims to have no other life, but her tally of hours for the creation of this product are certainly a tad exaggerated. And she’s supposedly vehemently anti-advertising (or at least highlights the ‘ad-free’ nature of her product), though had neglected to mention the Amazon Affiliate program she benefits from until her detractors made a song and dance about it. Rightly so, certainly, but such an emotional reaction!

The snarkiness. The irritation with her success. The sheer crabs-in-a-bucket nature of it all. At a time when we desperately need fresh media business models, why are we so quick to pull down the success stories? (I’ve written with frustration about this before, and the sordid outcome of that event didn’t change my mind about the principles I was flailing to articulate.) Dan Pallotta’s TED Talk, ‘The Way We Think About Charity is Dead Wrong’, highlights many of those same double standards and hypocrisies. Our confused equation of frugality with morality… Our irrational thoughts on who should be hailed for profiting and who should be slandered… On when we should talk about money and when we shouldn’t…

Yes, crabs. In a bucket. Tall Poppy Syndrome all over again: we can’t get out of this, but we sure as hell won’t let her.

Crabs. Lice. It was all so sexy to begin with. Then they feed on your blood. They cause you to itch. They’re contagious…

It doesn’t have to be like that: passion-based knee-jerk responses reeking of sloth, avarice and envy. Surely we can find a more nuanced point of view in which we acknowledge that our heroes make mistakes. That a saint is also a sinner? That role models should be lauded while yet noting where they could do better? That pointing out their failings does not make us any more successful?

I believe criticism is very important. But it should be done with the aim of taking the discussion forward; it should reveal the critic’s interest in the subject, and should suggest further application of the knowledge. To use two very over-traded analogies: this is not about pulling a fellow crab down, but being the giant who lends their shoulder for others to stand on. Two writers have impressed me with their abilities to do so on this story. Felix Salmon of Reuters, and Tom Bleymaier of On Advertising. Salmon outlines the entire story and its issues from a fact-based and rational point of view while yet divulging his personal thoughts. His journalistic integrity, despite this being clearly branded an opinion piece, stands strong. Tom Bleymaier, whose tone still undermines his argument slightly,  makes a detailed and transparent commentary that achieves the dual task of stopping me hitting Popov’s ‘donate’ button, and inspires me to analyze the nuts and bolts more carefully.

Now I’d like to see both Salmon and Bleymaier’s heroes. To be inspired by those they hold in high regard. To find those giants on whose shoulders they stand. And I look forward to seeing those who will come after, and the heights they will reach.

Dominique’s Reminders to Self:

  • Don’t tear down the role models; learn from them.
  • Criticism is important and exciting, but channel the energy towards creativity rather than destruction and disease.
  • Fight the haters by focussing on what can be, rather than on what should have been.


My trail: Google, Wikipedia, then follow the ‘criticism’ citation. That’s how I quickly found this post by a person who’d put effort and negativity in criticism. Who chooses to focus on what they dislike. Who does it all without the courage to reveal their own name. Sad, don’t you think? Sad to me because I think the anonymous writer makes some important points, especially with regards to highlighting the Federal Trade Commission’s ‘truth in advertising’ principles. (“If there’s a connection between the endorser and the marketer of the product that would affect how people evaluate the endorsement, it should be disclosed.”)

A simple, fairly superficial Q&A with Popova in The Observer which lead to an outpouring of negative responses.

An article in The New York Times on Popova.

Popova’s talk at Tools of Change in Feb 2013.

On Stoicism and Journalism

Stoicism. Journalists need more of it. That was my Pop Idols epiphany last week. (Thanks to Derek Sivers and his great reading list that catalyzed my further exploration of this subject.)

Let me backtrack and explain.

The Pop Idols: 
On Saturday I was part of a four-person jury evaluating the final project submissions of 11 Asian students completing a Diploma in Multimedia Journalism at Konrad Adenauer Asian Center for Journalism at Ateneo de Manila University, Philippines. Working journalists all, from as far afield as Tibet, Japan, Myanmar, Bangladesh and India, who had tackled the course in modules over the past year while continuing their day jobs. (Great kudos to them. And to  the ACFJ, which is providing such a much-needed course.) Each person would introduce their project in person, presented on some sort of digital page with text, audio, video, illustrations, etc. Then they would sit upfront nervously while we jury members each pulled on our headphones and explored their stories on our individual laptops, before returning our focus to them for somewhat of a cross-examination. It was brutal from the outset, and it rarely wavered from that critical tone. The focus was always on how each could be improved, with (in retrospect) far too little commendation on what was good. (I need to learn from the Toastmasters’ evaluation methodology to improve my own performance in this regard.)

The Stoicism: 
We tend to think of stoic calm. I’d always imagined this meant suppressing the emotions. Being less of a fully rounded human being. I certainly would not have thought it applied to somebody who was adept at Maslowian self-actualisation. But the Stoics of old regarded passion in a different light to that of today. As I am beginning to understand it now, they weren’t against feelings; it was simply the destructive emotions that result from errors in judgement that they wanted to be free of. (No more “abandoning ourselves to the lure and pull of ‘externals’, over which we have no control, held to ransom by feelings and emotions that the world at large stirs up in us,” explains Dr Keith Seddon in his summary Stoics on the Passions.

We too want our journalists to be free of those destructive emotions. But we also want journalists who actually give a shit. There were (fortunately only) one or two on Saturday who really seemed to have done the least work they could to get by. Their stories were thin, and they didn’t seem that concerned. No embarrassment. More of an arrogance: they just obviously didn’t feel that this was that important. I felt galled by this attitude. (Now there’s my passion getting in the way again!)

Grit, on the other hand. Now there’s a thing. (In her TED Talk last month, Angela Duckworth pointed to this as a better indicator of success than factors such as IQ, family income, or pretty much any other variable.) It was inspiring on Saturday to see so many journalists who had thrown heart and soul into their projects. We were shown beautiful, bold, courageous and surprising stories, angles and treatments. There were certainly more positively passionate storytellers in evidence than slackers.

But the passion… When the (to my mind) most brilliant person on the day received criticism from our jury, he seemed to crack. I felt for him. I took his side. But I worry. We need stoic journalists. Those who will invest a great deal of work and enthusiasm in a story, and then will not give up too easily, or be too overcome by anger and frustration when it’s not immediately appreciated or they’re not given the credit they think they deserve. Journalists with self-control and fortitude.

That journalist was telling an important story. And telling it beautifully, lyrically, and with complexity. There are so many stories in the future that require his delicate, detailed and nuanced touch. His emotional approach must be sustainable.

THE KEY CONCEPTS. The drums I kept on beating. 
The concepts I found myself coming back to over and over again in these 11 assessments all pertained to Stoicism. To rationality. To logic. To determination.

1. Ask the hard questions. I saw a delightful and much-needed enthusiasm for telling the untold stories. Many of the projects focussed on little-known people groups. But invariably I got the impression that the journalist had become so enamoured with the interviewees and so compassionate about their situations, that they had lost any sense of objectivity. I suspect that many had used outward forms of friendship to get their subjects to relax and to speak, but were then reluctant to compromise that new-found ‘friendship’ by asking the difficult questions or those that might seem impolite.

2. What is the context? Individual stories need to be put into context, often with facts and figures for substantiation. Is this one interviewee or people group representative of broader political, religious or economic issues? Are they typical or are they outliers? How? Why?

3. Are we so focussed on storytelling that we’ve lost the essence of journalism?  The “five Ws” often seemed in short supply, both at micro and macro levels. Often an entire story didn’t answer two or more of these important questions. But little things like missing photo captions could also mean that more questions were left unanswered. Why is this picture here? Why is it relevant? 

4. Does the form fit? Some stories were necessarily told in linear fashion. A scrolling format is perfect for this. With the New York Times gravitating towards more of its Snow Fall design, this was the preferred mode of presentation. But it was not always appropriate. Some stories simply are web-like, and need to be presented in that type of format. Or at least have lateral links that allow one to have access to further information on a subject, without losing the overall story.

To my mind, only THEN, after all of the above, do we get to issues of technical quality. (Of which more really deserves to be said. It is impressive that this course and these students have achieved the levels of mastery that they have in such a short time. Much respect.)

It’s form and function all over again.

Multimedia: The State of the Industry

The short answer: all change.

The short term: no money.

Key insight: Good journalism has always been subsidized.

That’s my quick-and-dirty summary of a report into the state of the multimedia and visual storytelling industry recently released. But don’t let that put you off. What’s also clear is that there is some hope for the visual storyteller. The way ahead might be murky, but some will find a route through it.

In his hour-long presentation to a World Press Photo gathering in April, report author Dr David Cambell summarized the key findings. Listening to the podcast of that presentation, I found Campbell’s clear, measured presentation of the information primarily pragmatic, yet imbued with elements of hope — both for the future of journalism and for the ability of news gatherers and individual practitioners to earn a living from their craft.

Visual Storytelling in the Age of Post Industrial Journalism: download the full research report.


Love. And letting it be known. And finding the gold.

Bangladeshi photographer Taslima Akhter's haunting image of the final embrace, as featured in Time magazine Lightbox.

Bangladeshi photographer Taslima Akhter’s haunting image of the final embrace, as featured in Time magazine Lightbox.

There’s something brewing in my head. A triumvirate of ideas that speak into passion, people and the power of media.

It starts with this image, now embossed on my heart. Two people embracing. Two factory workers. Bangladesh.

In a far-off shopping mall, destruction is lighter: my trousers are torn from use and my shirt has a coffee stain. I justify a shopping spree. I am delighted by the fashions. And then I see the label: “Made in Bangladesh”. I go cold.

But, but, but! I walked past Mango and Top Shop! Sanctimoniously! I had wanted nothing to do with brands that employ workers in the kind of appalling conditions that lead to that building collapse. This is Zara. Surely this is safe?

Google to the rescue. Answer: apparently not safe.

And so I leave the garments, turn on my heel and head home to do some research. The results appal me. There is report after report of death and destruction in the likes of Bangladesh. Many fires and tragedies. Many international brands initially claiming non involvement until their labels are found at the scene of the crime. Look at those brands’ websites, and they inevitably trumpet their work on behalf of the worker.

So how do I know what I can buy with a clean conscience? And what is the reward for the brand that does invest in its workers? The answers are surely one and the same. How about a ranking that is easily accessed: a fashionista’s fishms or Standard and Poor’s? An at-a-glance reference that gives me the green light (or not) about a store, a brand, a line of clothing. Info that I can act on and that gives credit  to the brand.

And winning that green light, surely, brings kudos to the brand? Literally gives them credit too, we would hope and assume. If we, the media, make their good rankings known, will it not bring them more business? We play our role: we give them editorial; we serve our readers’ interest and we maintain integrity. All that’s left to chance is whether the consumer will act with responsibility.

Surely a love for fashion and a love for people are not mutually exclusive? Surely there’s good business in businesses doing the right thing? And surely there’s an important role for media in bringing these together?

Now all we need is that organization that will do the research and, with integrity, authority and transparency, make it available in a simple format.