Friday, February 26, 2010

Privacy and cameras — they're not what you think

In class the other week, my Entrepreneurial Journalism professor Adam Penenberg was discussing the notion of "privacy" today, and how, essentially, having an expectation of privacy is almost absurd nowadays. One example he gave is that New Yorkers are caught on camera 30 to 40 times per day. There are hundreds of cameras within a 1-mile radius of any one place in New York City — traffic/red-light cameras, banks surveillance, police surveillance, ATM camera, convenience store/corner market cameras. They're everywhere, he said.

Surprisingly, this notion hadn't crossed my mind since I moved to New York. I was very aware of cameras in other places I've lived because the communities are so small, cameras seem to stand out more. But in N.Y.C.? In my neighborhood? Hmm.

I decided to start digging to see what I could find about my neighborhood. After doing some research, I found that several different groups had compiled reports, data and maps of all the surveillance cameras around New York City. The New York Civil Liberties Union completed a survey (see the PDF here) that I found to be the most comprehensive.

It reported that, in my area — SoHo and Greenwich Village — in 1998, there were 142 reported cameras. But just a few years later, in 2005, there were a reported 2227 cameras. That's almost 16X the amount in just seven years. And I'd venture to say there are even more today, five years later. (I couldn't find any updated numbers, but if you do, please share!)

And, surprisingly, the other day, I was looking out my window that overlooks Prince Street, as I have hundreds of other times, but this time I noticed a surveillance camera in plain sight. It's visible from ground level, mounted to the side of a brick building on the second floor. The building is actually a friary — yes, as in friars live there (I'm always asked that question when I mention the word 'friary').

I also saw the New York Daily News wrote an article about this issue last year, and I liked how it divided it into the good, the bad and the funny.

It's bad, they said, when someone learns they're being filmed in their own apartments by an NYPD traffic camera, for instance. It's funny when a celebrity is caught in an incriminating act. And it's good when a camera phone captures a lewd act, for example, which is what happened to Thao Nguyen when she saw a man masturbating while staring at her in the subway last year. Nguyen's camera phone caught the act, and her photo made the front page of the Daily News — and it got the man, 43-year-old Daniel Hoyt, arrested.

Nguyen is a prime example of how this kind of technology can help. And her Web site,, collects similar photos, videos and written accounts to "empowers New Yorkers to Holla Back at street harassers." But my favorite part of their objective? "You have the right to feel safe, confident, and sexy, without being the object of some turd's fantasy." Agreed.

The question my professor posed to us at the end of this discussion is the same questions I'm left wondering: What is privacy? Do we have privacy on the phone or Internet anymore? I think not. Did we ever really? The Supreme Court argues the only time you can expect to have privacy is in your home. And sadly, I think that's true. But, as the Daily News reported, even in our own homes we might not have as much privacy as we think (and certainly not if we're using the Internet).

I think this issue poses a lot of questions as it relates to journalism — and citizen journalism, specifically — but that I think I'll tackle another time.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Details, details, details

Last week, I had the pleasure of meeting Dave Warner, my professor's former editor at the Philadelphia Daily News. He's one of those hardcore editors, a newspaperman who has been in the business for many years. He's worked at so many different publications in so many different cities, and he's still doing it today. It was refreshing to connect with someone like that again. The old-schoolers are some of my favorite people — they're journalists through and through.

One of the things Dave told us really stuck with me. He said it was a quote he had heard from a colleague and always kept it in mind:

“A good reporter is someone who is constantly astounded by the perfectly obvious.”

When I heard it, I immediately understood exactly what it means. The way I see it, it means there are stories, details, fascinating things all around us at all times. A true reporter is always be on look-out for these minute details that most people overlook.

When I asked Dave about some ways he comes up with story ideas, I realized I already knew. It's about being aware of your surroundings, questioning everything and simply being "astounded by the perfectly obvious."

It's part of my nature to be detail-oriented and to wonder what every little thing is and how it all works. Even on some of my worst days — dark days when I question whether I even want to be a journalist anymore — I know this is what I'm meant to do. It's what I'm good at. It's just how I'm built.

Monday, February 22, 2010

NYTimes and NYU collaboration

Today it was finally announced: The NYU j-school will be partnering with to produce a hyperlocal news site covering the East Village. For now, it's been dubbed EV Local, and it will be hosted on

I'm excited to work on this project. I've heard great things about Rich Jones, who is the NYTimes editor who will oversee the project. I'm also eager to be working in a "newsroom" environment again. The project will be structured as two classes that will operate as newsrooms — and working in newsrooms is what I truly love. (I've been working in some kind of "newsroom" since I was 10, but I've been reporting to legitimate, daily-newspaper newsrooms since I was 16.) It's like home to me.

The Studio 20 program is planning the beginning stages and launch of the project, while Reporting New York, primarily, (along with a few other stragglers) will be contributing content and running the site in the fall.

I'll make sure to keep you posted!

Journalists' involvement in stories they cover

It must be hard having two professions — or two callings or two conflicting views — and being caught up during a time when both are of tremendous value. This has been the case with many journalists in the past, though they often weigh between the principles of being a journalist and simply being a human being. But for Dr. Sanjay Gupta, who is both a CNN anchor and medical doctor, his dilemma was much more complex during his recent trip to Haiti.

Gupta assisted with many medical procedures, volunteering his time to help so many of the terribly injured Haitians suffering on the streets of Port-au-Prince. I'm not in any way suggesting the need for medical assistance was not great — it obviously was. What I'm saying it perhaps Gupta, and the others who were similarly involved — relinquish their journalist duties if the need for these services is so great.

In an earlier post, I discussed the general ethics of reporting in Haiti and some of the scrutiny surrounding the issue. Certainly it's very complicated, but I maintained that journalists need to avoid becoming part of the stories they cover. I've found this view to be increasingly less popular, as my colleagues have expressed the opposite view in class discussions. They say they're human first, journalist second, and if need be, they would step in. I can't say I disagree with that statement, but it was their follow-up to that I found troubling.

OK, so you step in if you have to, but then what? Most responded: nothing. They would go about reporting and covering the story as if nothing happened. But is that really possible? Is it possible to, say, carry a wounded child out of harm's way one second, and the next second stare at the lens of a camera and objectively report on the incident without any emotional investment or other similar reaction?

But recently, during a visit to NYU's Reporting New York class, USA Today reporter Marisol Bello, who covered the Haiti disaster for USA Today, expressed the very same view I have on this matter. He point of reference was to Anderson Cooper and Sanjay Gupta, who has garnered a lot of attention and praise for their efforts in both reporting on and helping in Haiti. “I just feel like we should never be part of the story,” she said. “In this way I can be old-school. If you want to be an actor in that, and if you need to be an advocate or aid worker, do that so then you get interviewed.”

Anderson Cooper even won January's Sidney Award for his efforts in Haiti (an award my partner Katy Bolger won for her story and my photos in October for our Navajo coverage). This award is extremely prestigious, and it almost irks me that he was awarded it considering the circumstances.

An article in the LA Times quoted someone who echoes my opinion to the T: But some media ethicists said medical correspondents should consider forgoing their journalistic roles if they're going to participate in the relief effort. While reporters should help when they can save a life or prevent profound harm, "I think it's very hard for an individual who is professionally and emotionally engaged in saving lives to be able to simultaneously step back from the medical work and practice independent journalistic truth-telling," said Bob Steele, journalism values scholar at the Poynter Institute and journalism professor at DePauw University.

What do you think?

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Q&A with entrepreneur Peg Samuel

For my second interview with an entrepreneur, I chose to speak with Peg Samuel. Peg Samuel is an accomplished entrepreneur, author and PR/marketing/advertising expert. She has worked in the interactive media industry for more than 10 years and from that launched Social Diva, a lifestyle and entertainment Web site.

Peg was very helpful and quick to respond to my query. I enjoyed speaking with her and learned a lot from her responses. I hope you do, too! Here they are:

Rachel Wise: Why specifically do you think you are considered an entrepreneur?

Peg Samuel: I work solely on a business that I created myself from scratch. I am self supporting with my business and I create new projects, opportunities and partnerships. I also feel that being an entrepreneur is a boundless energy and spirit that I embrace.

RW: Please briefly describe Social Diva Media.

PS: Social Diva ( is the premium digital brand speaking to a community of powerful, trendsetting woman; the influencer set. They look at our newsletters as the go-to resource for all of their lifestyle needs.

RW: Is Social Diva your first start-up/business?

PS: Yes.

RW: How did you come up with the idea for it?

PS: I was working in online advertising sales, I founded the Atlanta Interactive Marketing Association with a group of other Internet marketing pioneers and I was the social chairperson, someone nicknamed me Social Diva it stuck. When I was looking to go out on my own it only seemed natural to create a business around the brand.

RW: How did you turn your idea for Social Diva into a business plan? How long did it take?

PS: I started making money immediately, I wrote a formal business plan when I changed my business model and wanted more clarity and focus around my plans. It was probably 3 years in.

RW: How long did it take to become profitable after officially launching Social Diva?

PS: I launched Social Diva in 2000, as my sole income. I went back to work for a “day job” when I moved to NYC in 2004. Since 2007 I have been running Social Diva Media full time and we are profitable.

RW: How did you initially fund your idea? What eventually became your revenue model?

PS: We are self-funded though an advertising model and sponsorship. Which is my background I have 15 years of ad sales experience.

RW: How did you get the word out about Social Diva?

PS: Grass roots, virally.

RW: What was one of the biggest challenges you faced in launching your idea? In keeping it alive?

PS: One big challenge is the overall workload and finding strategic balance of which role to be focusing on at any given point. Also, evaluating the company as a whole to make sure everything in alignment with the business goals, my personal goal and ultimately the marketplace.

RW: How many people went into creating and maintaining Social Diva? Do you now have a consistent staff?

PS: I am the sole proprietor; I utilize my outside services to get many things accomplished with the business.

RW: Who was your competition, and how did you manage to stay ahead?

PS: Email marketing is a very competitive space; there are a lot of other great newsletters out there. We focus on ourselves by giving our reader exactly what they come to us for, the best content to suit their social needs. Additionally, we host our own created events, something they can’t get anywhere else.

RW: Is Social Diva continuing to grow? If so, by how much?

PS: Yes we see month over month growth.

RW: Where is Social Diva today? Do you still maintain it?

PS: Yes, we are in a massive growth phase which I own and operate the business.

RW: What are you most proud of?

PS: When my readers tell me how much they love Social Diva.

RW: How much of your success would you attribute to your education, and how much would you attribute to trial and error and hands-on experience?

PS: Most of mine is hands on experience. My education is though mentors and consultants.

RW: What advice would you give to emerging entrepreneurs?

PS: Have passion about what you believe in, find a need and fill it.

RW: Is there anything else you think would be helpful to know?

PS: Our main business is email marketing most of our revenue comes from ad sales, we host events and revenue comes in from sponsorships. We are one of the few online companies that embrace online/offline and social media to market brands in one media buy. We have a book “How to be a Social Diva” published by Easton Studio Press. We are currently producing dance music compilations with the top dance label in the world entitled Strictly Social Diva.

Photo credit:

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Alaska House: Part 2

Native people pursue dreams in New York City


It took Andrei Jacobs five months and 8,200 miles to realize he wanted to move from Alaska to New York City.

In 2008, Jacobs, 34, participated in a walk put on by Native American activism organization the American Indian Movement. AIM organized a walk from California to Washington, D.C., to commemorate the 30th anniversary of The Longest Walk in 1978. The group’s goal for both walks was to bring to light issues affecting Native Americans.

“(The walk was for) American Indians, Alaska Natives and indigenous people around the world who felt corporate and government interests were more powerful and were desecrating places that native people found holy,” said Jacobs, an Alaska Native, who is a quarter Yup’ik Eskimo and a quarter Inupiaq Eskimo.

Jacobs accompanied his brother on the trip, which he described as a life-changing experience. One month after he returned from Washington, D.C., Jacobs said he knew it was time for him to leave Alaska for good.

“After having met thousands and thousands of people and having experienced all the different types of emotions, I wanted to continue that and not return to my status quo … especially living in such a remote area,” Jacobs said. “New York was the logical choice for me.”

He packed his things and left for New York to pursue what he perceived to be a life full of opportunity.

And Jacobs is not alone. According to the American Indian Community House, a non-profit organization serving New York City’s Native American population, that’s the same reason many native people move to the City.

“I think it’s an economic opportunity like (it is for) any people. I don’t think Native Americans are any special group in that way,” Jacobs said. “There’s a dream that people have — making it on Broadway, making it as an artist … making it as a banker. … I’m nothing different than normal folks. It’s just the same basic story.”

With an estimated population of about 30,000, the Native American community in New York City is not insignificant, as many are surprised to learn.

“I can understand the surprise because I’m surprised myself. (But), I think it is hard for many of us to meet because … we’re a bit disconnected,” Jacobs said. “We’re not mobilized … politically, socially, governmentally, the way that we should be.”

While Jacobs admits he doesn’t know many of other Native Americans living in New York, he’s doing what he can to keep his culture alive in this urban setting.

Jacobs works as gallery associate at Alaska House, 109 Mercer St., a nonprofit organization that represents Alaska through art, education and special events. Alaska House is the only organization in New York City dedicated to promoting Alaska’s history and culture.

“As an ambassador, we have events that focus on Alaskan politics, government, our economy, our environment, cultures throughout Alaska (and) music,” he said. “If there’s any question that a person has about Alaska, somebody here’s going to be able to answer it.”

The Alaska House is a vibrant, two-floor gallery in SoHo. It celebrates the uniqueness of Alaska and Alaska Natives, and helps educate and entertain residents and tourists alike.

But for Jacobs, life isn’t only about focusing on his heritage.

“My great-grandfather was the first Eskimo Episcopal minister, and he helped to abolish Eskimo dancing and art in one community on Nunivak Island … I’m not really too happy about that idea,” he said. “I want to perpetuate culture and help to create it versus thinking about my past.”

For the 18 months Jacobs has lived in New York, he’s grown to appreciate city living and the many available opportunities.

“I wanted to see what perhaps I could get into (by moving to New York City). And I’m still in search of that idea, that vision I had,” Jacobs said. “I’m getting there — inch-by-inch, day-by-day.”

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Alaska House: Native Culture in N.Y.C.

Alaska House cultural hub for native people  
With a population of about 30,000, the Native American community in New York City relies on a handful of institutions to keep their native culture alive. One such place is the Alaska House. 

The Alaska House, 109 Mercer St., is a nonprofit organization that represents Alaska through art, education and special events. It focuses on a unique community of people and has been open since September 2008.
“As an ambassador, we have events that focus on Alaskan politics, government, our economy, our environment, cultures throughout Alaska (and) music,” said Andrei Jacobs, 34, gallery associate and Alaska Native. “If there’s any question that a person has about Alaska, somebody here’s going to be able to answer it.”
When visiting the Alaska House, it’s easy to focus on the predominate collection of art. The current installation is called “Dry Ice,” which centers on artists’ interpretations of Alaska’s land and resources. And all the contributing artists are Alaska Natives.
While Alaska Natives are considered part of the Native American community, Jacobs claims there are many things that differentiate them.
“ ‘(Alaska Native)’ is a lawful word. That’s all about the federal government. That’s The Man telling me what I am,” said Jacobs, who is a quarter Yup’ik Eskimo and a quarter Inupiaq Eskimo. “The difference by law … is our treaties. Our treaties were signed in a very different way back in 1971. So I’m a tribal member, I guess, but I’m also a shareholder in a corporation.”
In 1971, President Nixon signed the Alaska Natives Claim Settlement Act to resolve the long-standing issues involving indigenous land claims and to stimulate economic development in Alaska.
“The federal government gave tribes … billions of dollars to get started with these corporations,” Jacobs said. “They could get into whatever they wanted to — oil, building hotels, owning security companies, working with technology firms.”
Another unique privilege of Alaska Natives is their usage of marine mammals parts. The Marine Mammal Protection Act enacted in 1972 prohibits the import, export or sale of any marine mammal part or product in the U.S. But Alaska Natives are partially exempt from this rule.
“You cannot sell a raw piece of marine mammal in North America unless it’s been rendered into art by a Native American or Alaska Native,” Jacobs said, as he pointed to 14-foot baleen resting against the wall. “And the reason for that is they have a traditional and customary use … and they are therefore protected.”
One traditional view that is a significant theme at the Alaska House is the focus on subsistence. A nine-line quotation by Inupiat elder Willie Hensley dominates the wall space at the gallery. It reads, in part: “Subsistence describes a way of life practiced by Alaska Native peoples for ten thousand years. Our lives are intertwined with nature and revolve around the seasons … Through it all, the arbiter of success is in the hands of nature and the skill of the hunter.”
Jacobs said this idea is central to Native Alaskans.
“When I think of subsistence, I think of my identity through language, food and culture,” he said. “If you don’t have food, then you can’t have an identity, then you can’t have language, then you can’t have art, culture.”

Sunday, February 14, 2010

My journey from HTML basics to my new Web site

Last weekend, I attended a two-day workshop on HTML/CSS taught by David Tristman. We went over the basics and tested out our skills by building very primitive test sites. But when the workshop was over, I wanted to keep at it.

I've had my domain for quite some time now, after my brother thankfully purchased it years ago, assuming it'd eventually come in handy. I've wanted to have my own online portfolio/professional Web site but never knew what route to go. Fortunately, the skills David taught us were enough for me to build upon to launch my very own site.

I'm happy to announce is now functional and online! It's definitely still a work in progress — and there's a lot I want to do to it — but I'm just glad my domain is finally being put to good use.

And I'm also pretty pleased I can now put those HTML skills on my resume, and hopefully keep working at it. Feedback is always appreciated!

Friday, February 12, 2010

Blogging about blogging: Part 2

Despite my feelings about blogging, and the fact that I don't quite understand it in terms of being grouped in the category of journalism, I do find it fascinating. I've been learning a lot about blogging and online media and the technical side of things, for which I see endless possibilities.

One post I came upon I found particularly interesting. Blogger Darren Rowse posted a blog called 29 Debates Bloggers Have about Blogging. He explores some of the key characteristics about blogging, from commenting to design to length to topic. He highlights everything from the most basic to the most advanced features.

I'm not going to list all 29 because if you want to read it, the link is above. Instead, I want to select a few points from his list and weigh in on what I think.

3.  Post Frequency – Post More vs Post Less:

I think it's essential to keep a blog updates as often as possible. Obviously, for people who blog for a living or have a lot invested in a blog, up to several times per day is ideal. But for someone who maintains a personal blog, a couple times a week is enough to keep the content fresh and interesting.

11. Links to External Sources – Should Open in a New Page vs Should Open in the Same Page:

With all I've heard about Web traffic lately, I'd have to say it'd be a better option for links to open in new pages. That means the reader won't just forget about your blog and jump from link to link. Instead, your page remains open so he/she can come back after exploring the links you've posted.

14. Topic – Niche vs Broad Topics:

Either can work. I see a lot of value in focusing a blog on a particular subject because it will certainly draw a specific audience who can contribute to the conversation. But I also think having a somewhat broader topic allows for more freedom, i.e. how my blog is about journalism and media, but not something so specific. But what I don't think works is a personal blog that has no focus at all, i.e. My Opinion on Anything and Everything in the World ... Ever. Unless someone is an established "character" who is really funny or entertaining, it probably won't work.

19. Personal Blogging – Sticking to Topic vs Injecting Personality and Personal details:

In personal blogging, it only makes sense to write in first person. And by referring to oneself, that alone makes the blogger a character in the blog. Therefore it seems fitting for the blogger to offer personal anecdotes, refer to his/her opinion and embrace the ability to be part of it all. But there has to be a balance between the two — too much of topic only would be too impersonal and too much of personal details could seem a bit self-involved.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Blogging about blogging: Part 1

Blogging, trending, SEO, tags, topics, niche, monetizing, content, posts, RSS, domains, hosts and ... does it ever end? 

For the majority of this semester, blogging has been at the forefront of the conversation in 2/3 of my classes. We've talked basics — sites and topics and how to write a blog — and we've gone in depth — how to use keywords for SEO, how to take advantage of trending and topics/niches on which to focus. Most of this is stuff I never thought I'd need to know, and stuff I never thought I'd want to know. And, to be honest, I'm not sure yet whether it is stuff I want to know.

I guess I don't exactly get why people blog. I don't get who reads them and why. For me, I'd rather stick to journalism — and, frankly, I don't see blogging as journalism. I understand the industry is changing. I'm only reminded of that 100 times a day, on average. But that, to me, doesn't necessarily mean blogging is the answer. Why can't journalists write for an online platform, in the form of online articles? 

I see blogging as online journals, most of the time. People can take to the Internet, write about whatever it is interests them, spout off about their opinions and call it a day. Some people might find what someone says to be interesting or humorous or informational, and maybe they like to read that blog. But what is it about this that is journalism? Can anyone help explain this?

Don't get me wrong: I'm not against blogging. Obviously, I myself am a blogger (though, admittedly, not entirely by choice). And I understand it has merit. It's a great platform for people to express themselves and share ideas, and I really see the value in that. My question is: Why can't we draw the line there?

Mostly, this curiosity comes at the heels of a panel of bloggers in my Entrepreneuial Journalism class today. They are really savvy individuals who have worked on some incredible Web sites and launched some cool ideas. But the whole blogging aspect of their jobs is what leaves me baffled.

So, if anyone has the answer to my question, I'd really love to hear it. Maybe I'm just missing something.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Save the Children benefit concert

Musicians including 2010 Rock-n-Roll Hall Of Fame nominee Darlene Love, The Bacon Brothers, Patty Smyth, The Bev Leslies, Tabitha Fair and Pete Francis (of Dispatch) performed a benefit concert put on by Save the Children at the Canal Room in SoHo on Feb. 4, 2010.

Hope for Haiti benefit concert


After Haiti was ravaged by a historic earthquake on Jan. 12, donations starting pouring in. While some chose to send money or texts to contribute, Deana Concilio-Lenz thought of a different way: host a star-studded benefit concert.

“Instead of writing a check, I thought it’d be better to get a bunch of local musicians together to help raise money for Haiti,” she said.

Concilio-Lenz, founder and president of production company DCL Media, partnered with the non-profit charity organization Save the Children to arrange the Hope for Haiti benefit concert held Feb. 5. The idea was born spur-of-the-moment, so the event organizers had only a week and a half to put everything together.

“It was basically me contacting every Sony client I’ve ever had,” Concilio-Lenz said. “And it was Grammys week, so it was really difficult for us. Everyone was in L.A.”

Concilio-Lenz wound up securing some big-name musicians to perform at the Hope for Haiti concert: Bacon Brothers, featuring Kevin Bacon as front-man; 2010 Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame nominee Darlene Love; Tabitha Fair, who performed at President Obama’s inauguration; Patty Smyth, former lead singer of ‘80s rock band Scandal; Pete Francis; and the Bev Leslies.

The artists donated their time and the Canal Room, a club in Tribeca, donated the space. With ticket prices starting at $20 and a table set up for additional donations, and attendance at an estimated 250, event organizers agreed it was “a success.”

“The energy in the room was amazing. They had so much fun,” Concilio-Lenz said. “There were accountants, doctors, younger people … It was a great cross-section of New York who came to show their support.”

Laura Zotian, 54, of Floral Park, N.Y., was one of the New Yorkers contributing to the positive energy in the room. Zotian snapped photos and whistled loudly when her favorite musicians came on stage.

“The music is great. What’s better than this?” Zotian said. “The musicians are amazing. As talented as they all are, they have such big hearts, too.”

Zotian said she planned to donate “whatever’s left in my wallet” at the end of the night.

“Great music. Great people. They pulled off a great, great thing tonight,” she said.

Emily Pesa, 35, of Astoria, came out after reading about the event on a church Web site.

“I wanted to support Haiti and felt this was a really fun way to do that,” Pesa said. “I thought it was great. The bands were amazing. And I was pleasantly surprised to see Darlene Love on the bill — I’ve always been a big fan of hers.”

Pesa donated $20, the ticket price, but said she planned to give more “very soon.”

But despite the fun aspect of the night, the event made sure to keep the focus on Haiti. Artists thanked attendees for their support and asked everyone to donate as much as they could.

When the Bacon Brothers were onstage, Kevin Bacon raised his arm and pointed to his blue wristband — a wristband everyone was given after making a donation— and reminded the audience to remember what it symbolizes.

Save the Children displayed photos of Haitian children continuously playing on TV screens around the club. They also videotaped the event and plan to produce a video to post on their Web site in hopes of attracting more donations.

“It’s more about awareness. And it’s also important to realize we have so much, (so) we have to give back,” Concilio-Lenz said. “It’s not just about a check. It’s figuring out how we can help these people on a long-term basis.”

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Q&A with entrepreneur Phil Garfinkle

This semester, I'm taking a class called Entrepreneurial Journalism at NYU, taught by Adam Penenberg. We're learning a lot about entrepreneurship and doing a lot of brainstorming about new ideas. To help us with this goal of eventually starting our own new ventures, we are interviewing successful entrepreneurs to hear their stories.

I decided to interview Phil Garfinkle, a highly successful entrepreneur who, in the interest of full disclosure, is also my uncle. According to his LinkedIn page, he is a "technology visionary, ... entrepreneur, inventor, CEO, and investor, with a focus on emerging technologies. He is a four-time successful entrepreneur, held a number of senior management and engineering positions, is an active angel investor, and holds many patents." Needless to say, he knows his stuff and had a knack for creativity and innovation.

Here is the Q&A exchange between me and Phil Garfinkle.

Rachel Wise: Why specifically do you think you are considered an entrepreneur?

Phil Garfinkle: Different people are considered entrepreneurs for different reasons.  Some because they enjoy taking chances in order to find success.  My focus is more about taking ideas and dreams and executing in a very pragmatic approach.  If something works, I keep doing it.  If something does not work I am quick to stop it.

What was your very first start-up/entrepreneurial venture?

My first “start-up / entrepreneurial venture was starting a sand and plant terrarium business when I was 12.  I would design and build custom design terrariums and sell them on contract or I would sell them on a street side stand.  I personally invested in all the materials and then entered into an arrangement with a popular gas station near a lot of business buildings.  But…. Based on the questions below, I will “discuss” my first venture backed start up, PictureVision.

How did you come up with the idea for it?

: As Chief Technology Officer of a public company, I was very focused on building new technology for Document Imaging or to address the goal of the “paperless office.”  I was mostly focused large-scale system design to deal with large paper flow applications.  I saw the likelihood that it made eventual sense for digital cameras to replace film based cameras for consumer photography.  I also saw the opportunity for networks to eventually come into people’s homes instead of just military and business applications.  I wanted to lead the development and execution of this transformation.  It started with the concept of kiosks because I did not think PC’s and networks would make it to the home quick enough for business success.  We ultimately did both home and kiosk solution.

How did you turn your idea into a business plan? How long did it take?

: The Company I was with was not interested in “consumer” imaging applications.  Their focus was completely on business-to-business applications.  So, I moved forward and built my business plan on my own time.  I decided to go off to determine market interest in my idea.  The business plan and concept developed over a 9-month period.  As I did more research, we become more clear that the home consumer market could be successful and most effort went to pursue that path.

How long did it take to become profitable after officially launching your venture?

: Like most start up companies, execution provided education.  I learned quickly that we needed to build various technology pieces so that the company could be successful.  This required substantial capital to drive monster success.  In addition, we were pursuing mass consumer markets so reinvestment was key to success.  PictureVision was extremely successful in gaining market share and putting the investments in place to form the various online photography markets.  After a little over 3 years we merged with Kodak.  Prior to sale, we were never profitable, nor did we plan to be at that stage of the company’s development.

How did you initially fund your idea? What eventually became your revenue model?

We were initially funded out of our own pockets.  Shortly there after, we raised “Angel” financing.  Our revenue model started with the goal of transactions but quickly evolved in to both transactions and “digital processing systems” for the photography business. 

How did you get the word out/publicize it?

Even at an early stage we used a Public Relations company to help us get the word out.  We participated in industry trade shows and I did a lot of interviews with magazines, newspapers, and TV.  We did very limited advertising.  We aligned with very large partners that did a lot of the advertising for us.  Sony, AOL, Microsoft, Canon, Adobe, and others embedded our product with theirs.  This was my key strategy to launching and sustaining a revenue stream with the least amount of expended capital.

: What was one of the biggest challenges you faced in launching your idea? In keeping it alive?

: There were many challenges to deal with in our environment.  We were building new technology to make sure our pictures were as good as traditional film pictures.  Digital printers were not really good enough at the time, so we had to work with these technology challenges.  As we found success many attempts from copycat companies would threaten our market position.  We had to constantly balance what we spent with what we could achieve.  
All in all the biggest challenge was the consumer shift from traditional snapshots to digital photography.  Getting consumers to boot up their photo album was a pretty big shift from opening up a scrap books of photos.

RW: How many people went into creating and maintaining your venture/business?

: We started with 3 people.  After 4 years we were in the hundreds.  We had operations in Israel, Germany, and Japan, with affiliates all over the world.

: Who was your competition, and how did you manage to stay ahead?

: Everyone.  We were disrupting the entire eco-system of the photography market.  Once we achieved traction, everyone wanted to compete.  Our biggest competitor eventually merged with us…. Kodak

RW: Where is your idea/business today? Do you still maintain it?

: My idea and business represents a large portion of Kodak and its operations today.  It has been re-branded to fit into the Kodak infrastructure.  I have not been involved since 2001.

: What are you most proud of?

PG: Our approach and idea is ubiquitous in the market.  It is the market and the way everyone shares digital photos.  The patents that I created are the standard in how people share digital photography.  It is great to see people share their photos on their cell phones and be able to put their photos on other products from coffee mugs to calendars so conveniently.

: How much of your success would you attribute to your college education, and how much would you attribute to trial and error and hands-on experience?

: College taught me how to deal with juggling a lot of issues and how to think independently.  There may not be any direct correlation but taking a start up from inception to exit is about juggling many balls.  It is about making tough decisions and adjusting those decisions based on their impact and reality in practice.   Everything is “trial and adjustment.”  I think passion and “desire to win” trumps “hands-on experience.”

: How did your idea change the industry?

: Most of professional and consumer photography leverages our original concepts today and the foreseeable future.

: What advice would you give to emerging entrepreneurs?

: You really have to believe and have passion in your product.  Make decisions and be willing to adjust quickly.  Surround yourself with people that you can trust and share your passion.

RW: Is there anything else you think would be helpful to know?

: Family is very important to drive success.  Entrepreneurs need a strong support system to do the crazy things we do.

Think out of the box.  The way things work today does not dictate the ways things work in the future. 

Entrepreneurialism is not about taking risks.  It is about taking your ideas and making them reality.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Haiti photos: gruesome, sensational — or just plain truthful?

I’m sure you’ve seen it by now — images of devastation-stricken Haiti. Turn on a TV, visit a news Web site or open a newspaper and you’re certain to find photos and videos of a crumbling city and struggling citizens.
In my last post, I brought to light a recent article about the ethical considerations of reporting in Haiti. But even more apparent and striking are the photos that have come from photojournalists in Haiti.

Aside from ethics, something else I'm very passionate about is photojournalism. I recognize the raw power photographs have and their ability to express so much in such a simple way.
Almost immediately after Haiti was ravaged by the worst earthquake it has seen in more than 200 years, hundreds of journalists fled to Haiti with their cameras in tow. Most hoped to capture images that would help give outsiders an understanding of the widespread devastation the small Caribbean nation faces. 

And almost as soon as many of these images were broadcast, they were met with harsh criticism. Many critics argue it is unethical, exploitative or simply in bad taste to publish photos of such blatant human suffering. But what surprised me were those who defended the images, including the ombudsmen/public editors at the New York Times and Washington Post.
Clark Hoyt, public editor of the New York Times, examined the issue in his Jan. 23 article Face to Face With Tragedy. Hoyt quoted some of the readers' reactions, that the photos were gruesome, sensationalistic and exploitative. The specific photo he pointed to were indeed gruesome: One photo depicted a father mourning the death of his 10-month-old daughter who lay atop a massive pile of dead bodies; another photo shows "a man covered in gray dust, lying alone, dead, statue-like, on a stretcher made from a piece of tattered cardboard."
I felt the explanation of the photojournalist himself summed up the exact issue at hand: Damon Winter, after being begged by Haitians to come to their homes to photograph the dead bodies of their loved ones, had to turn people down. He said it was heart-breaking because "they so desperately want people to know what has happened to them, what tremendous pain they are in, and that they desperately need help."
Washington Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander discussed the same issue is his Jan. 24 column Horrible images of death in Haiti. One of the Post's most striking photos depicts a man crawling through rubble beside a girl who had been crushed to death by debris. 
Post readers had similar complaints: The photos were too graphic, sensational and didn't belong on the front page, where one reader said he had "no choice but to look." 
Ultimately, both men agreed with their publications' choices to run the photos. Alexander said, "Journalism is about truth, and the horrific images convey reality." And this, I believe, is what it's all about.  
Sure, it might be hard for some to stomach the images, but for the vast majority of others, it is a wake-up call — a chance for them to step outside of themselves. The visual coverage has pushed the issue to the forefront of the conversation — from Twitter to TV — and has allowed people, especially those who otherwise don’t follow the news, to see a genuine representation of what’s happening in Haiti. 

(Embedded photos courtesy of the United Nations Development Programme's Flickr page at