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Posted by Shannon

The hazard of being on the trend-spotting beat is that my editors often cast a skeptical eye my way. 

"Artisanal toast at $5 a slice? Really?" one of them asked in January, when I filed my prediction that Toast Will Be the New Cupcake. Browning gourmet bread is all the range in San Francisco, so it was a safe bet that soon Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver would be embracing the carbs. 

This week I'm delighted to report that it really is a thing. Matchsticks Coffee Roaster on East Georgia launched a new cafe with a menu featuring a toast bar. Their own naturally leavened organic bread will be turned into classic cinnamon toast, or slathered with seasonal preserves and walnut butter. 

Ah, the sweet taste of vindication and the right to say, "I told you so." 

I emailed an editor that we should add a tagline to The Tyee: "Now with prognostication." 

So far, no word back. But now maybe they'll take me and my crystal ball seriously. 

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Nostalgia & Moonshine

10 Feb 2014
Posted by Shannon

Are we reliving the 1920s and '30s all over again? I suspect so, and I wrote a think piece -- Awash in Nostalgia and Moonshine -- about our weird society-wide fetish for that era, at Swerve magazine last week.  

I've long had vintage tastes, and at 20 I could quote Cole Porter lyrics along with the Clash, but I thought it was odd when the rest of the world began to share my enthusiasm. Oh sure, the period from roughly 1912 to 1940 delivered innovative dance, brilliant literature, and stylish clothes. Not to mention a roster of great films and ukulele tunes. 

And no one in journalism could fail to see the parallels between the explosion of broadcast radio in the 1920s and the growth of the Internet. Even the complaints are the same, as artists grouse about how the new tech gives away their old art form free. (Not so. It's called advertising. And it also began as an industry in the 1920s.)

But I think it's fair to say that we feel just as overwhelmed by technology as our great grandparents who coped with cars, phones, movie palaces, and mass media in the space of a few short years. And I suspect there's also a secret, nagging question at the back of our collective unconscious: given all this technical disruption can another Depression and Nazis be far behind....

No wonder we all have the urge to bring on the moonshine. 

By the way, that fabulous illustration for the piece was done by Toronto artist Blair Kelly and you'll find his website here. 

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Posted by Shannon

I was amused to see Salon magazine harden-up my views on the slick marketing of engagement rings and call the sparkly things "barbaric." That's not quite what I said.

I love sparkly things, and just to be clear here: I will turn down no gifts of jewellery, as long as the terms under which the baubles are given are entirely clear. 

And that's the rub, as Shakespeare would say. He also suggested that there's nothing in a name, and that's where he and I part company. Call a diamond ring an "engagement ring" and it comes with decades of social and legal baggage, courtesy of its social origins and the twaddle marketers are peddling. That just turns us all into potential litigants. 

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Bring on Bezos!

31 Aug 2013
Posted by Shannon

There's no way for the current crop of mismanaged newspapers to change how they do business unless someone new buys them, which is why my Salon piece is cheering on Amazon's Jeff Bezos snagging the Washington Post.

The people currently running newspapers don't seem to have the skills to profit outside of the monopoly environment they once enjoyed, which until recently was giving them 20 to 40 per cent profit margins. All they know how to do is cut the quality of the product, which is absolutely the wrong strategy in a competitive market. Even worse they're erecting paywalls while reducing the quality of their newspapers, trying to squeeze a few more pennies out of their ever-dwindling pool of loyal customers. That's just cheating them. In a monopoly market that kind of thinking is safe and in some circles might even be advisable. But exploiting and abusing customers who have options outside of such cynical environs isn't just stupid -- it's suicide.

Bezos, on the other hand, knows how to compete. So I think he will do what I would do if I had $250 million to spend on a journalism experiment.  I'm betting he will launch a variation on the old-fashioned newspaper model of selling eyeballs-to-advertisers, using good journalism as the bait. Only he'll replace display ads with online shopping, which Amazon does so well. 

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Posted by Shannon

I was gobsmacked earlier this month to see the British papers all trumpeting the fact that Andy Murray was the first Brit to win Wimbledon in 77 years. And I was even more astounded to see other media merely repeating them. As a New York-based blogger Chloe Angyal noted on Twitter, “Murray is indeed the first Brit to win Wimbledon in 77 years, unless you think women are people.”

Virginia Wade took the prize in 1977, which ought to have been general knowledge for sports reporters. But it speaks to a sort of contempt they show for their readers (and their craft) all the while trying to persuade us that we really want to pay for what’s behind their digital walls. 

As I point out in Salon, this is why the readers that advertisers have always wanted most – well-educated women – have been running, screaming for the last 30 years. 

So the next time some newspaper CEO blames the Internet for killing newspapers, someone might just want to point out that that for anyone who has been paying attention, it looks more like a case of suicide.

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Posted by Shannon

Well who knew that a piece in praise of philosophy would be such a hit? 

My piece for Salon magazine, "Be Employable, Study Philosophy," just went viral with more than 24,000 social media pick-ups and a surprising number of interview requests from all over, including American Public Radio. It’s my warning to would-be journos to stay out of the J-skools and get themselves a proper education in a real discipline. 

It’s a highly contrarian view in this age of universities selling credentials in all sorts of trendy subjects. And philosophy is often dismissed as a useless degree by the sort of people who think the business of education is to train tomorrow’s workers for yesterday’s jobs.  But as one of my former instructors noted, if you teach people to think first they can do whatever else they want.

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I find it hugely reassuring that so many people seem to be in favour of our universities delivering real education instead of certificates in nonsense. 


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Posted by Shannon

About two years ago, I was trying to explain a humble-brag -- and how to avoid it -- to a friend making her first foray into social media. That's when it dawned on me that Mr. Collins from Pride and Prejudice was the perfect example. 

We’re both Jane Austen fans, and we’ve often discussed what an astute judge of people she was. Her books are populated with characters we all know. Reading her I’ve often been struck by how technology changes while humanity doesn't. She shows us everything from psychopaths to fools and her comic romps are nothing but snapshots of villages behaving badly. 

So I'm drawing on Austen's insights to teach generations of city dwellers about the etiquette and social skills necessary for getting along in a village. Which is really what social media platforms have done – turned us into a huge village. 

Social media novices often ask how to avoid putting a digital-foot-in-mouth, so now I tell nervous tweeters that before they post they should pause and ask themselves, “What would Jane say to that?”

I expanded the idea into a think piece for Calgary’s Swerve magazine: "Jane Austen’s Guide to Social Media." Which published on time, Thursday, despite the flood. 

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Don’t be lame

16 Jun 2013
Posted by Shannon

Don’t be lame is probably the best motto I’ve ever heard for doing any sort of communications aimed at a general audience, from journalism to PR to a TV series. 

It was the official policy of Barack Obama’s digital campaign run by a low-key strategist named Teddy Goff, who does some of the best thinking around when it comes to online communications. 

The folks over at Big Think got him to talk about how they persuaded 1.5 million people to read about Mitt Romney’s tax policy. And no, they didn’t insert porn videos. They combined a sense of humour with some chutzpah – they claimed the URL – and they spoke to their audience in a way that recognized them as real people concerned with how they are being governed. 

“It was very kind of the Romney folks not to steal that domain before we got it,” he deadpans.   

 His primary point – that it doesn’t matter how important a message is if it’s dull – is one that any organization embarking on DIY communications should note. 

“It’s funny: when you talk to corporate marketers, when you talk to people who have been doing PR for a long time, they will acknowledge that `not being lame’ has never been their M.O.,” Goff says. “They’re well versed in `risk mitigation’ or how not to annoy `stakeholders’ or create problems. But they’ve never had to actually deal with consumers who can click away as soon as they don’t like what they’re seeing.” 

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Posted by Shannon

Don't tweet from that seat
My old pal Mark Leiren-Young and I debate the issue of tweet seats in theatres over at the Tyee this month -- he's for it, I'm against -- and it highlights how we're all still figuring out how to use the new technology. 
"But I got the idea for doing tweet seats from YOU!" Mark said, after I protested against him inviting the Twitterati into a mainstream Vancouver theatre. The stage incarnation of his Leacock winning book Never Shoot a Stampede Queen is a conventional one-man show.  
Sure enough, I checked my blog and there it was, a year ago: me noting that tweet seats are a form of free advertising, and the performing arts should just get with the program.
Clearly the many artistic directors protesting the latest trend had thought it through better than I. Sure, Twitterati offer a form of free publicity, but it's one that robs audiences of the unique experience of theatre. There's something warm, human, and intimate about the shared experience of seeing a play in a darkened room with other people. 
The energy is shaped and shifted by the work on the stage and the audience's reaction to it. We know what others are thinking by the feeling in the room. The alert silence. The chuckles. Sometimes, the snoring. 
The distracted Twitterati also put out an energy that is disruptive to both the performers and the audience. 
We know people are longing for the sort of shared experienced that comes with theatre because of the way in which Twitter has created a newfound enthusiasm for watching TV in real time. No one has done that since sometime in the 1980s before we all learned how to program our VCRs and timeshift. 
Don't get me wrong. I'm a technophile and as our tweet-seat debate notes, I'm all for tweet-walls in the lobby. Twitpics of the beautiful people at intermission and digital chatter about the first act seem like a natural extension of what we already do. 
And in the era a disappearing journalism anything that raises awareness of what's going on in our communities strikes me as a public service. Just keep'em out of the performance.  

My old pal Mark Leiren-Young and I debate the issue of tweet seats in theatres over at the Tyee this month -- he's for it, I'm against -- and it highlights how we're all still figuring out how to use the new technology. 

"But I got the idea for doing tweet-seats from YOU!" Mark said, after I protested against him inviting the Twitterati into a mainstream Vancouver theatre.

Sure enough, I checked my blog and there it was, a year ago: me noting that tweet seats are a form of free advertising, and the performing arts should just get with the program.

Clearly the many artistic directors protesting the latest trend had thought it through better than I.

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Paywall woes

30 Apr 2013
Posted by Shannon

This month the world’s most celebrated paywall announced it is coming down slowly and discreetly. Now, the New York Times will tell you it is just the videos that will be available to hoi polloi, but anyone reading the research knows what they’re really admitting. Paywalls don’t work beyond squeezing a few more cents out of your existing print subscribers. Even worse, they kill your online traffic. 

Last week, Digital First’s Steve Buttry made a persuasive case for how newspapers need to find new ways of generating revenue. He points out that using paywalls to squeeze more money out of print subscribers is a temporary solution at best. No one likes to put it so bluntly but just like theatre audiences, newspaper readers are greying and dying faster than millennials can replace them.

I take no pleasure in being Cassandra – okay, I take a little pleasure when my crystal ball proves right  – but I wrote about Paywall Woes over at in March. NYT’s financial reports made it obvious that even though their existing print audience loves them enough to pay a little bit more, they’re not attracting new (and younger) readers – which is crucial to any enterprise. 

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