Archive for October, 2008

Now What?

By , 31 October, 2008, No Comment

It may be speaking way too soon, but I’m betting that the panic phase of this financial crisis is over. It will get worse before it gets better, but at least most of the experts and analysts I’ve called are starting to agree upon how long it might be (a year-ish downward, then a slow recovery into 2011 is the prediction I’m hearing). So imperfect as it was, the enormous infusion of cash into the banks across the world has addressed the immediate doom.

Now the real challenge. With Alan Greenspan of all people saying uber-deregulation might have had “a flaw” (or two or three hundred?), it’s time to rethink the long-term system. I’ve suggested before some reflections on how to fix the public sector regulators and recruit smarter people to those roles. But what about a financial industry that equates “innovation” with unsustainable assets (those mortgage bundles) and irresponsible risks?

Interestingly, the best reflections on that problem aren’t coming from financial experts (who remain stunned by it all) but from design blogger Bruce Nussbaum (full disclosure: He’s a former boss of mine). Nussbaum says the future of capitalism will be a lot like the ZipCar–based on bottom-up, collaborative growth instead of top-down, proprietary models. His BusinessWeek colleagues make the point that even Web 2.0 (collaborative and bottom-up by default) will have to change in the ZipCar world–the techies too have been hooked on “irrational exuberance” before.
Link
I’ve got my usual bones to pick with the collaboration theory–how is it capitalism if you aren’t motivated by ownership; how do you incentivize sharing–but overall, I think Bruce is right. So, as a Halloween gift, no long diatribes. Just an encouragement to read Bruce’s blog.Link

In case you didn’t believe me

By , 30 October, 2008, 1 Comment

I wrote on Monday that blogs will add to, not subtract from or replace, existing media forms like the narrative or the investigation because people still want to know facts and tend to process facts best in narrative form.

Today, I listened to a great NPR session with Nick Lemann (Dean of Columbia’s J-school, and my professor in a class on journalistic methods and ethics this fall), Andrew Sullivan (Atlantic writer and blogger extraordinaire) and Tina Brown (former editor of Vanity Fair and a newcomer to the blogosphere). Here’s what this trio of media giants thought:

Even on the blogosphere, people aren’t giving up on the need for information and analysis, for Linkdefinitive answers in the way Jeff Jarvis et al contend. They just verify information in different ways. Lemann reminds us that the biggest web traffic still goes to the “established” sites. Sullivan says that among amateur blogs, the winners are still people with expertise in some niche, people you can “trust and verify” because they give you the links to their sources and encourage readers to correct them. If print professionals get you to trust that they tell the truth because of their personal intelligence, bloggers earn trust by transparency and humility.

Yet Sullivan just wrote in the Atlantic that blogs are a bit postmodern, based on cultivating a back-and-forth of opinions that might in a theoretical aggregate contain the objective truth, but not in any one place you can hold in your hand or read from start-to-finish. But, he says, just as postmodern criticism has failed to swallow up all of academia, blogs cannot and should not swallow up all of news production: for some things, people still like and need the fixed narrative.

Sullivan, Lemann and Brown make the same point in the NPR spot–newspapers shouldn’t mimic blogs by getting more vitriolic, going all-digital or cutting stories to 150 word blurbs. They should worry about finding better ways to finance the kind of in-depth, objective-fact reporting blogs don’t do.

I often talk about media convergence. What I mean by this is not that one form will win out and everyone will go there, but that news organizations will learn to produce some combination of old and new media so that individual journalists can work across platforms. Sullivan is a great example of that–a magazine man who is also a full-time blogger and understands the difference between the two forms. Lemann is getting there–he used to think blogs were the end of journalism, now (in this NPR spot at least) he thinks they are the “golden age” for free discourse and commentary, but should not and cannot replace old school investigations.

At the individual level, then, convergence is moving along fine. Even at the institutional level, many newsrooms are learning to strike a cross-platform balance. The issue is one of financing that balance and that’s the one area where I thought this NPR dialogue covered new and controversial ground: late in the session, the group discussed the possibility of more public financing for print media, akin to the funding streams for NPR and PBS. I hadn’t really thought about that, since newspapers in America have never had state aid.

But is there any inherent reason why public financing for print should be unacceptable when we already do as much for broadcasters? I’m still not sure what to make of the proposal, whether it’s feasible and whether it would help the situation. What do you think?

From the talking heads to the echo chamber?

By , 27 October, 2008, 4 Comments

I consider myself something of a Web 2.0 moderate. Though I’m bullish about the prospects for technology to expand the reach of news to those who might not otherwise join in public discourse, I don’t believe that populist outcome makes bloggers and tweeters as individuals inherently superior to their New Yorker foes. I find the moralistic tone of netroots commentators decrying the “establishment” pretty repulsive, just as I find the conspiratorial fears among print journos about the insurgent techies to be silly and exaggerated.

Yes, people are tired of a he-said-she-said model of media that often involves going back and forth between talking heads of various ideological poles and winding up with no answers at all. But bloggers are swinging in two equally dangerous directions.

Some, like Jeff Jarvis, have gone postmodern on us: forget answers, they say. Jarvis foresees a digital echo chamber where there aren’t any narratives or accounts or collections of data. Instead, there will just be the “web” in its entirety, with any one blog post having value solely in its connections to every single item out there on the web on a given topic. I’m a big believer in the importance of links, and I see those as one of the web’s main assets, but I see links as helping to deepen a reader’s understanding on any one article or blog post. Just as I have never bought the litcrit argument that it’s impossible to hold and analyze one aspect of a text when it’s the “process of making meaning that matters”, I don’t really buy Jarvis’ argument that Web 2.0 readers will be so wrapped up in the process of following the links that they will no longer want some conclusions about their world. Narrative–and thus some single unit like a story or a blog post–will still matter.

Other techevangelists, like Larry Smith, think the web is going to get more more fractured, more opinionated, with people embracing the spin of the single subset of definitive answers they choose to read, caring as much about the identity of the journalists as they do about the news. As people embrace what Larry calls the “Fifth Estate,” the old media will become irrelevant and slip away. I don’t buy this picture either: just as people still want to walk away from their daily media digest with some coherent narrative, they also still want that narrative to tell some facts. The human impulse for information is as real and enduring as the impulse for interpretation.

People have been predicting since the the 1840s that technologies which allow for the blurring of fact, fiction and opinion would somehow debase the public’s ability to differentiate between these categories. 19th century public intellectuals angsted that readers would be so committed to factual objectivity that they would no longer value worldviews and social institutions. 19th century sociologists worried that readers would be so entranced with the fictional subjectivity of serialized novels that they would cease to care about real events–elections, wars, urban crime on their own street corners. Neither prediction came through; it turned out people wanted both information and interpretation, and the same print technology had to meet these two needs in separate ways. Newspapers, novels and magazine essays each found their place.

Similarly, the narrative/story–with its interpretative value–, the blog post–with its ability to make bias transparent, and the article–with its emphasis on data and figures all have a role in the 21st century. Web journalists will add the narrative and the article to their arsenal of forms, while print writers and analog broadcasters will learn from the web how to be more transparent about bias in their opinion-driven work. Overtime, as every journalist learns the skills of each platform, this dichotomy of established vs. netroots journo communities will evaporate, but not (as Jarvis says) by eliminating the differences between the content and purpose of these various media forms.

In other words, calm down. There will be change, but the sky is not falling.

Thank God for David Letterman

By , 24 October, 2008, 3 Comments

I am a cliche. I’m a New York liberal who spent years regarding John McCain as a Republican I could swallow. He was a compromise-maker and a man of principle (this was before the word “maverick” came into vogue). He accepted the reality¬†of climate-change, believed in granting paths to citizenship for illegal immigrants and opposed some of the worst Bush administration policies, like the first of the top-bracket tax cuts. Like most New York liberals, then, I have been appalled and disappointed to see that McCain squashed by the robotic knee-jerk conservative the GOP has engineered in the the last three months of this campaign.

Though I support Obama, I have not been able to forget the old McCain, because I still think he was the real thing. The new McCain reminds me of a character in a sci-fi novel who is being controlled by machines but occasionally, when the power goes out, is able to force his true self through. One such moment was his long-overdue interview with David Letterman last week.

This McCain is personable, relaxed, and rational, hardly the angry old man we’ve been seeing in debates. Thank God for David Letterman for bringing him out, because if (as predicted) he loses this election, the country will need McCain-the-Senator back in Washington to produce the kind of compromises I used to love him for.

Experience Does Matter

By , 23 October, 2008, 1 Comment

The people want change, yes, but not for its own sake. Knowing how to make change rationally? Well, that comes with experience. No, I’m not resurrecting the Democratic primary. I’m talking about Yahoo! and Facebook.

The Facebookers made it big by showing up straight from Harvard with a lot of intuitive genius about marketing, but little-to-no experience with the nitty-gritty of graphic design. When they started out, they had so few features that it didn’t matter where and how they placed them. The page was sleek and clean because it had to be. As they’ve added more and more elements, however, Facebook has grown cluttered and this is not the first time I’ve complained about it.

In an attempt to deal with clutter, Facebook issued a major redesign this summer but it’s not going over well. From their business/product-oriented perspective, the new page makes sense–it effectively merges all the features [new friends acquired, new wall posts, new photos] into one information flow and therefore should make everyone happy. But it doesn’t look very appealing, and doesn’t recognize that most users don’t see all Facebook activity as equal. The Facebookers, it turns out, are very smart marketers and managers, but they’re not great designers because they have zero experience with design.

By contrast, the folks at Yahoo! have been running and designing websites for eons. So when it came time to spruce up the Yahoo! homepage, they knew how to implement a design:

Apocalypse 8: How Dare They?

By , 20 October, 2008, 2 Comments

That’s the reaction, apparently, of many newspaper editors to the AP these days. It seems some mid-size papers are opting out of the wire service, aiming to fill their pages exclusively with their own content and cut their costs.

It makes sense: when a smaller paper uses an AP story about a major international event, most of its readers are likely to turn to a major international outlet–print or online–for that information anyway. The city papers of America would be well-served to focus on local content, and they can report that without the AP.

More interesting, however, is the fact that the AP can now get on without these papers: it puts its stories on its own website, where it can monetize them directly through advertising. Really minute-by-minute breaking news often stays there while items that develop into clear cut narratives get picked up by the member newspapers, creating a second revenue stream. Indeed, the AP is, financially, lot more than the sum of its (newspaper) parts:

TV Still Matters

By , 19 October, 2008, 1 Comment

If the 1990s taught us anything, it was that video did not kill the radio star: despite their unappealing physical demeanors, Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh did just fine. Radio survived the loss of the family dinnertime market by targeting a niche audience of political extremists at either end of the spectrum.

In a similar vein, if the financial crisis has taught me anything, it’s that the Internet has not killed TV news. On corporate hallways in the middle of the afternoon, TVs are still running. And while websites carry stock tickers and financial news stories, only 24-hour news channels carry live speeches by government regulators or live Congressional negotiations (they sometimes show up YouTube! several hours later).

Those speeches are the news behind the stock ticker: for example, the day Ben Bernanke announced his plan to buy commercial paper, the Dow tumbled several hundred points. DURING his speech. Which means traders were watching it live, on TV. Similar trends apply to the market response during the Congressional bailout bill hearings.

Then there’s the case of Jim Cramer, who spends weekday afternoons telling viewers how to make “Mad Money” on stocks. Not only did his ratings soar this past month with so much financial turmoil, but he learned (the hard way) that viewers really do care what he says. Many have gone as far as to blame him for some of the crisis: he was bullish on Bear Stearns when the company was about to go under; now he’s telling people to stuff their mattresses when many experts say a little less caution might help us loosen a stuck financial system.

We like to think of Wall Streeters and their fans as high tech high rollers. Ironic then that the financial sector is turning out to be the niche audience for the media stepchild that is daytime television news.

The mob is coming for you

By , 18 October, 2008, 1 Comment

It’s a pyrrhic victory when I find a cool new tech tool: more fun to be had but also more ways to procrastinate. Still, that doesn’t stop me from adding new sites to my diet:

Mobdub.com is a new (beta) startup where users add live captions to videos. You click on the video while it’s playing (say 39 seconds in) to add a caption, a relevant factoid or link and the next user sees your caption as a cartoon speech bubble embedded in the video, 39 seconds into the clip. For now, the clips on the site are all election related, but eventually–the founder tells me–there will be more diverse content. Other plans include sharing the software with other video sites, so that videos on YouTube! or hulu.com will have “dubbing” too.

When I showed MobDub to my sister, she thought it was a cool cross between Wikipedia and YouTube!. But when I saw it, the first thing I thought of was VH1′s PopUp Video. And anything that recalls ’80s music is in my good books.

One Last Debate Post

By , 15 October, 2008, No Comment

Is it bad that I’m bored of this election? I know who I’m voting for, I have my hunches about the outcome and I don’t hear the candidates telling me (or those mythical undecideds) anything new. Gail Collins, who gets PAID to cover this stuff, says she’s a bit bored too.

That said, despite the big argument about Ayers, Lewis and attack politics in the middle of the debate, I thought tonight was overall more interesting to watch than previous ones have been. Bob Scheiffer did a really commendable job of getting candidates to actually talk to one another, plus, I think, the swivel chairs helped.

I think Gail and I just have news overload. My friend Steve who is super well-read but doesn’t spend his time tied to the news tickers with an IV drip like I do was much better able to evaluate this evening in eloquent terms. So instead of offering my own take, I’m offering his:
Obama made some mistakes: “The last remark he made about sex is sacred was kinda bizzare, and could be misinterpreted to promote abstinence rather than comprehensive education, and I thought he stumbled a bit on the ’100% of McCain’s ads are negative’ line, because he’s done pretty well avoiding that kind of half-truth thus far and meticulously taking apart all of the ones that McCain has used.”

But McCain made more: “When he tossed out ‘class warfare’ in his first answer, it screamed desperation.”

On Ayers, Lewis and the personal attacks: “The Lewis thing overstepped a line, sure, because McCain is not a racist. And is not telling these people to think that Obama is a terrorist, and I know that he was quick to grab the mic back and correct that retarded woman who said she can’t trust Obama because he’s an ‘a-rab,’ but he is tacitly permitting them to think like that by saying ‘Obama associates with terrorists,’ and the air of fanaticism with people shouting ‘terrorist!’ at McCain’s rallies is troubling in the way that Lewis indicated.”

On why McCain’s long history as a maverick/moderate/negotiator doesn’t count anymore: “At this point, that guy is not running for this office. The Republican Party is running for President in the figure of John McCain.”

The One Eyed Man is King Among the Blind

By , 13 October, 2008, 1 Comment

Gordon Brown may have saved the world economy. Whether he can save his own career is still an unknown:

Last week, Brown unveiled his plan to combat the credit crisis: a transfusion of capital into UK banks in exchange for stakeholding rights, new requirements on lending practices, and government guarantees on inter-bank loans. Watch him explain the plan here. After a month of US and European governments waffling over the correct measures to take, after an American bailout package that passed but remains unpopular and unimplemented, Brown’s plan just made sense. As of today, those same European and US leaders are signing on to follow Brown’s lead.

Given how disastrous Brown’s run as PM has been thus far, it’s hard to understand where this stroke of genius came from. Until you take the longer view. As new Nobel winner Paul Krugman reminds us today, Brown is the economic brains behind the British revival that Tony Blair so often took credit for. While Blair travelled the world winning new political allies for Britain with his charm, the man behind the New Labour economy was the old curmudgeon from the University of Edinburgh, a former Blair rival who was blind in one eye. Blair was the better politician, but his Chancellor of the Exchequer, Brown, was the policy wonk.

So when the uncharismatic Brown took over for Blair last summer, and had to face political–as well as financial–responsibilities, he self-destructed. Despite valiant attempts to rebrand himself, his poll numbers have gotten worse every month since he took office…until now. That he might turn those numbers around with a policy that effectively nationalizes the banking sector suggests the final undoing of the free-market Thatcherite proposals that Brown and Blair were elected to reverse in 1997.

The question now is whether these nationalization policies can have their real economic effect (can “trickle down,” to borrow a phrase,) in time for the next elections.