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Jan. 9, 2009, 7:14 a.m.

Q&A: TPM’s Ben Craw, on a new video voice for media crit online

On the third floor of a nondescript building along Sixth Avenue in Manhattan, a gaggle of twenty-somethings sits with headphones plugged into flatscreen televisions, dutifully following the words of Joe Scarborough, Steve Doocy, Wolf Blitzer, and the other talking heads of 24-hour television news. It’s the nerve center of Talking Points Memo’s video operation, TPMtv, which produces two daily episodes packed with political news and commentary. (I wrote about TPM’s video advertising plans last month.) Their newest feature, “The Day in 100 Seconds,” summarizes the day in politics with tightly edited and often surrealist clips from cable news shows. It was a hit during the presidential campaign, and it continues to inform and entertain as a new Congress and president take over Washington.

The man behind TPMtv is Ben Craw. Curious about how the “Day in 100 seconds” videos are constructed, I sent Craw a set of questions over email, and he graciously provided the lengthy and insightful responses below. Read on to find out why Fox & Friends is his favorite morning show, how many TVs are in his office, what he thinks about information overload, and what insight Vin Diesel holds for the future of media.

Nieman Journalism Lab: The “Day in 100 Seconds” videos construct a narrative of each day in politics with a mix of news summary, comedy, and subtle media criticism. Is that what you’re going for?

Ben Craw: Matter of fact, that’s pretty much exactly what I’m going for. Thanks! I would say the overall goal of the thing is to present an impressionistic representation of the sum of all the cable news of that day, focusing on political news but not exclusively. So I try to touch on at least the two or three biggest actual news moments of the day — an interview or press conference or hearing or the like — and then fill the rest of the time up with the “coverage” of that news. I’m sure there’s probably some excellent study out there that I haven’t read that measures the precise time breakdown of actual news vs. the commentary packaged around that news in the average day of a given cable news network, but it’s clearly weighted pretty heavily toward the commentary. So the 100 seconds tries to hew to that proportion.

As far as media criticism, I would actually offer the word “trivialization” as a slightly more accurate term to describe my goal. I think serious media criticism is very noble and necessary in this day and age, but I personally would probably be very depressed and seriously no fun to be around if I engaged in it earnestly. There may have been a time when I felt “critical,” but then almost instantly reached exasperation, then resignation, and have now arrived at a blissful state of guilt-free celebration of the silliness. And I feel like the focus on the silliest moments plus the silliness of the whole notion of cramming a day of news into just 100 seconds together serve to trivialize and sort of blithely dismiss the whole enterprise of 24/7 television news, which is really the only treatment I feel it deserves. Or at least that’s the only way I can deal with it on a daily basis and maintain a healthy level of sanity.

If silly-ifying and trivializing cable news has a similar effect as serious criticism — convincing people that cable news actually isn’t the most reliable source upon which to base their opinions and cast their votes — then I suppose that makes me feel like I’m doing a small, good deed. But mostly I’m just trying to entertain myself.

Q: Particularly during the campaign, you were condensing an enormous amount of material into 100 seconds. How do you identify clips for inclusion in each day’s video? Are you watching all the cable networks non-stop?

A: I watch as much of the cable networks as non-stop as I can, and I get a lot of help from a trusty team of interns and co-workers who help me monitor stuff. It’s tough to describe how I identify clips. I can definitely say that whatever news sense I may have at one time had has by now evolved/devolved into a bizarro “100 seconds sense,” which is sort of like news sense but even more fixated on the simple, crystalline, short-as-possible sound bite. Salty puns and bewildering metaphors/analogies are a 100 seconds’ two best friends in the world. With so much airtime to fill across so many networks and shows, the same things are repeated to a downright anesthetizing degree. So I just look for anything out of the ordinary. And over time you come to know which politicians and news personalities are the most fertile sources for 100 seconds material. See Exhibit A: Smith, Shepard.

Q: What does your office look like? A lot of televisions?

A: Our office has three flatscreen TVs mounted on the wall that are on all day, though we only have the volume on one at a time with the others listened to via headphone by trusty interns. Otherwise our office is pretty cluttered with computers. One time some guy who was looking for a different room in our building accidentally poked his head in and said something like, “What is this, an Internet cave?” It was funny and kind of sad.

Q: What’s your workflow like for each video? How are the clips collected and edited? How long does the whole thing take?

A: We have 3 Tivos plus a DVR that together allow us to monitor and record pretty much every station and random news program that we would want to concern ourselves with. Then we have this program that allows me to “capture” or record any video stored on those Tivos onto my computer, where I can then put it into Final Cut and start cutting it into tiny bits.

As far as workflow goes, it was a lot more random and haphazard at first, but by now I’ve worked my way into a pretty consistent routine. I get to work around 8:15 every morning and immediately rewind one of our Tivos to 6 a.m. and start capturing Morning Joe off MSNBC. Fast-forwarding through commercials, weather, and sports updates, and worthless (not worthless as human beings, I’m sure, just exceedingly boring for my purposes) recurring guests like Time magazine’s Richard Stengel, I get through Morning Joe‘s three hours in about an hour. Then I do the same thing with Fox & Friends. I don’t watch CNN’s American Morning, as it is the cable news program equivalent of Richard Stengel. Except if it has a big interview or something. Anyway, then I burn through ABC’s Good Morning America, CBS’s Early Show, and NBC’s Today Show, which each contain about 10-15 minutes of relevant news/discussion.

The morning shows are without question the meat and potatoes of the day in 100 seconds. (I lean especially heavily on Fox & Friends. I love that show, and I feel not the slightest whit of shame in saying it.) So once I’m done harvesting those, I start editing the clips in Final Cut Pro and then capturing and editing other random clips as they occur throughout the day. Stuff like a pre-announced press conference or a congressional hearing you know in advance to look out for, but many of the random clips I use are caught and flagged by the interns and coworkers I’ve strenuously conditioned and hopefully infected with the aforementioned bizarro “100 seconds sense.”

The more TV I watch, the more little clips I’ll have at my disposal, so I watch as much as I have time for. And editing as tightly as I need to to squeeze as much as I can into 100 seconds takes time. The aspirational deadline for having the thing done and posted on the site is 5 p.m. Beginning at 8:15 and working pretty much non-stop (excluding the hour or two I sometimes need to spend producing one of our non-100 seconds TPMtv videos), 5 p.m. is a deadline I very often exceed, at which point my boss David Kurtz gets angry with me and sends me distressing emoticons over Skype.

Q: Why 100 seconds?

A: It’s a nice round number. We’re big on catchy and consistent branding at TPM. If it were the day in roughly two minutes, it just wouldn’t have the same hook. Also, I think the length of time itself is just about right for what we’re trying to do. Shorter than that, what’s really the point? And while I often yearn for more time as I close my eyes and force myself to cut out some choice snippet I just can’t find a place for, I think if it were longer, it wouldn’t have the same sort of absurdist feel of fitting an entire day into just 100 seconds. Didn’t someone once say the medium is the message? Pretty sure someone smart once said something like that.

Q: Do you think the “Day in 100 Seconds” model is sustainable now that the presidential campaign is over? Do you plan to keep it going? And are you planning other types of videos?

A: At first, the idea was to just do them up until the election, but we decided to keep them going afterwards, and I do think it’s sustainable. The initial concept was largely inspired by the craziness and tension of the final days of the campaign. But post-election, the 24/7 news media culture is still there, cranking out silliness at an ever-reliable clip. So I don’t foresee a future 100 seconds left wanting for material.

As far as other types of videos, we actually do a separate daily video show Monday through Thursday called TPMtv, which sometimes is Josh Marshall doing a little talking-head deal, sometimes interviews, sometimes longer-form highlight reels, though the long reels were far more common during the campaign. These days the 100 seconds videos are my main preoccupation. But we do have long-term plans to expand the overall video arm of TPM to produce more video content of all types.

Q: How’d you get your current job? What were you doing before TPM?

A: I interned at TPM in 2006, from February until the midterm elections in November. At the time I had a day job on the trading floor of the New York Mercantile Exchange. I stopped interning after the elections and not long after that got laid off from my day job. In early 2007 I was actually in the process of training for a new job — ironically enough one that also entailed massive amounts of television consumption, for a company called IAG Research that measures the effectiveness of TV advertising and product placement — when I got a call from Josh Marshall saying he had a job idea he wanted to talk about.

At the time, TPM hadn’t yet undergone its big makeover that added the front page news section, nor had it started doing any video stuff. As I had no experience doing anything video- or editing-related, I was initially hired for the job of front page news section editor and then ostensibly would help with the conception/writing of the new videos Josh wanted to start making, but which would actually be edited by a freelance editor who would just come in for a few hours every morning. We started doing the video stuff before the front page got its overhaul, so I was able to spend pretty much all my time working on the videos and learning how to edit in Final Cut from the very nice and instructive freelance guy, whose name was Sherng-Lee. After about a month of working with him, there wasn’t really a need for him to come in anymore. So by the time the news section got up and running, I had become the full-time video guy, and Josh needed to find himself a new news section editor. It was all very romantically DIY and organic, including the part where I collected unemployment for two weeks while between jobs. That part was awesome.

Q: How much TV do you watch outside of work?

A: Not a lot. And predictably, what TV I do watch tends to be as apolitical, and preferably even a-current, as possible. Recently, I made a decision to get into Magnum, P.I., so I was enjoying the first season of that on DVD until I unfortunately read on IMDB that Tom Selleck is a big-time conservative, proud NRA member, etc., which reminded me of work. I was about to buy all eight seasons before I read that. Now I’m stalled about two-thirds through season one. Who am I kidding, I really don’t dislike conservatives enough to deny myself a good show like “Magnum, P.I.” I’ll probably pick it up again soon.

But, yeah, one major drawback of my job is that it has nearly destroyed my ability to enjoy shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. I still watch them occasionally, and they’re definitely really good, but there’s always that feeling that I need to exercise some non-TV-news areas of my brain/body when I’m outside of the office.

Q: Chuck Klosterman wrote an essay this year charting the rest of the 21st century. My favorite prediction was this:

JUNE 11, 2041: In a matter of weeks, the entire Internet is replaced by “news blow,” a granular microbe that allows information to be snorted, injected, or smoked. Data can now be synthesized into a water-soluble powder and absorbed directly into the cranial bloodstream, providing users with an instantaneous visual portrait of whatever information they are interested in consuming. (Sadly, this tends to be slow-motion images of minor celebrities going to the bathroom.) Now irrelevant, an ocean of Web pioneers lament the evolution. “What about the craft?” they ask no one in particular. “What about the inherent human pleasure of moving one’s mouse across a hyperlink, not knowing what a simple click might teach you? Whatever happened to ironic thirty-word capsule reviews about marginally popular TV shows? Have we lost this forever?” “You just don’t get new media,” respond the news-blowers. “You just don’t get it.”

Do you feel him? Would you snort news blow if you could?

A: Mmmmm… [stroking chin, twirling imaginary mustache]. I do feel him on a few different levels. The quest for omniscience is something I told myself to give up on a long time ago but which I still can’t quite 100% kick. So if news blow facilitated this, I’d probably be pretty heavily into it. But then, of course, everyone would be doing it, so I suppose omniscience wouldn’t have quite the same appeal, and in fact a new backlash premium would probably be placed on ignorance. Incurious simpletons would be the only ones not addicted to news blow and, with their relative sanity and single-mindedness, would with utter ease rise to create a new ruling class. The news-blowers would consume more and more knowledge of the crimes and mistakes of their rulers and would attempt to organize but would be perpetually paralyzed by indecision as they continued to consume more sides and perspectives on each issue, thereby ensuring the eternal dominance of the ignorant ruling class. Hm. I’m gonna go play some Super Nintendo. Be right back.

That aside, I certainly see Chuck’s point that news blow could be the mathematical limit that everything is approaching, with our ever-shrinking attention spans, convergence of news and entertainment, blah blah blah. Twitter is something I like making fun of. Like, Twitter? Because blogging is too long-form and editing-intensive? If I could, I’d invent “Twitcher,” which would allow its users to send and receive neuromuscular electrical impulses.

To be honest, I feel totally clueless about this whole explosion of information and communication and where it’s all going and what it all means. Sometimes it hurts my brain a little to think about. I would say I’m neither as terrified by it nor as excited about it as some people are, probably because I am a little of both. I guess at the end of the day I’m just like Vin Diesel in The Fast and the Furious: “I live my life a quarter mile at a time.” I don’t know what that means, but it feels like the right way to wrap things up here.

POSTED     Jan. 9, 2009, 7:14 a.m.
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