Archive for December, 2008

I Love Trashy Magazine Quizzes

By , 31 December, 2008, 1 Comment

Pathetic, I know. I don’t even like trashy magazines, but if one happens to be lying around, I happily flip to the page that says “Which Disney character are you?” and start circling. Maybe that’s why my heart leaps on December 31st of each year when William Safire offers us his quiz of predictions for the coming year. This year I’m spreading the love–here are the [link-enhanced!] questions, with my answers and comments in bold. Post your own picks (one, all or none), and we can come back here in a year to see how we fared:

Getting Meta

By , 30 December, 2008, No Comment

I’m a guest today at literature/academia blog “Fierce Warres and Faithfull Loves.” I’ve been asked to share some thoughts on Nadeem Aslam’s essay in the NYT magazine a few weeks back. Frankly, I didn’t much like the piece. Here’s why:
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“Aslam treats nonfiction as a fiction-style narrative that just happens to be true; in this, he follows a growing trend among nonfiction writers that I frankly find despicable. The fact that all the social purposes I can conjecture for this piece are so politically unpleasant only makes me dislike it more.

For my full take on Aslam, check out the symposium.

Journalism and Democracy

By , 29 December, 2008, No Comment

Fear not, cyberfriends. I have surfaced from Christmas-induced hibernation with many cultural reflections to throw at you before ’08 fades into ’09. To start with, this belated announcement:

Najaam Sethi, the editor of Pakistan’s Daily Times–has recently won the Golden Pen journo award, meant for reporters and editors who use their pulpit to promote and support free institutions and good governance.

Sethi has done much of that in his career, notably going to jail in 1999 for his criticisms of then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. He’s taken plenty of flack from the religious right for his hard line on terrorism. And though an initial supporter of General Musharraf as an antidote to both the corruption and the growing fundamentalism of the Sharif era, he was among the harder hitters when time came to expose Musharraf for the fraud he was. In a country where the press has historically not been free, Sethi certainly deserves recognition.

But it’s not a cut-and-dry case. First of all, Sethi’s more recent work in defense of the free press came at a time when Pakistani media in general was rising to new levels of bravery in response to new levels of suppression, especially after the imposition of martial law last November. Watch Kiran Khalid’s excellent documentary on this struggle and you’ll realize that Sethi has been honored to recognize, symbolically, the long way that Pakistani journalists, as a group, have come.

At the same time, Pakistani media has a long way to go. The most striking thing about the way Sethi’s own paper covered the award is the power given to the government to determine the interpretation. The story was titled “Award for Najam Sethi an honor for Pakistan.” The article focused on Minister of Information Sherry Rehman’s remarks following the Golden Pen announcement, where she presented his work as protecting the government from “regressive elements.” Given that the prize was given in part to honor Sethi’s “independence” and his willingness to be “at odds with Pakistani authorities,” this warm fuzzy treatment from the government, and the appropriation of that warm fuzziness by the press, is a bit uneasy.

It has me worrying that the zeal among Pakistani journos to really crusade for press freedom was particular to the struggle against Musharraf, but the check of public opinion on authority matters just as much, if not more, in democracies as in dictatorships: in democracies, exposing official sins has a clear impact of changing voter behavior. I hope Sethi and company know this.

Insult to Injury

By , 23 December, 2008, No Comment

…is how the recession feels to many in media. The industry was hard hit even when the U.S. economy was booming, barely scraping together enough ads to keep the lights on, so the current collapse is a serious kick when we’re already down.

A telling sign: in trying to devise a forecast for media in 2009, I went out in search of the full range of experts, but there was no diversity in their views. The most bullish and bearish of analysts agreed that there’s aways to fall. Read the story here.

One interesting trend that emerged in those interviews is what Paul Krugman calls depression economics: there’s a moment (a tipping point, to borrow another economist’s phrase) on the way down where all the basic structures atrophy and what used to be prudent policy suddenly becomes dangerously stupid. ex: In boom times, saving is good, but in depression economics you want everyone to spend above their income to jumpstart growth.

In media, the conventional wisdom is that moving towards an advertising-based revenue structure from a subscription-based revenue structure represents progress. On the web, advertising is the only viable revenue structure, since consumers have demonstrated again and again that they aren’t willing to pay for content. But even in print, the explosion of media and the expansion of media companies happened when they were able to bring their newstand cost down to a mass-accessible price, and cover their own production costs through advertising. So this is longstanding conventional wisdom. In depression economics, however, when everyone else is so hard hit they stop buying ads, it’s the entities with subscription streams that do best. Fuddy-duddies like The Discovery Channel are apparently poised to make the big gains while big names like Disney will lose out.

It’s a compelling example of why we need more experimentation around media business models–the best practice is far from set in stone.

New Media = Back to Basics

By , 19 December, 2008, 1 Comment

Another interesting debate in class today, where I got a bit heated and yelled at some fellow classmates who were trashing news executives for “failing” to find a way to pay for what they see as the one true journalism–i.e. objective, general-interest and long-form. I tried to remind them that this model was a 20th century anomaly; for most of its history, journalism has been short, snappy, niche and opinionated. Why are we all hung up on mourning a fluke?

I don’t rejoice when old media companies go down; I think longtime professionals have a level of expertise that is more, not less, valuable in the emerging niche media world and I want them to stay in the field and on the airwaves. To do so, I believe we in media have to take the long view and recognize that the place media is headed looks an awful lot like the places we’ve been in the past, so we can calm down and drop this obsession with 1970s style reporting.

To that end, in addition to yelling at my classmates, I’m researching and writing about older media models that might serve as more relevant precedents: one model is the Victorian radical press, which I’ve described in today’s Columbia Journalism Review. This winter, I’ll be combing the 1830′s French press for another option. Where and when else should I be looking?

Not-so-apocalyptic after all, or, I told you so

By , 17 December, 2008, No Comment

I’ve been saying for ages that the future of media is in a rapprochement between the best and biggest old media companies and the best and leanest of the new media startups. Another example to add to my trend list: Reuters and Politico announced a content-sharing deal this week.

This is especially good news because Reuters is a wire. On the one hand, the wires are having a hard time rejigging their revenue structure for the digital world. On the other hand, because they already specialize in being fast and scrappy, and in putting out raw content for others to reuse, wires are already suited to the content of web-style reporting.

Instead of supplying newspapers–who need to move away from trying to break headlines that readers can get online on Reuters’ own site–Reuters can supply blogs. Blogs like Politico DO need to be fast news-breakers but since the best ones are specialized they need content outside their focus area that Reuters can provide. Meanwhile Reuters drives a new generation of readers to its site (so it can monetize its own content directly, instead of just through subscribers). And it gets to outsource some of its political reporting to Politico’s staff.

I wish I could say ‘I rest my case’ about this but I think ’09 will see even more of these partnerships. And shamelessly enough, I am compelled to toot my horn when I’m proven right.

Some insights on the apocalypse

By , 14 December, 2008, 1 Comment

There’s no shortage of handwringing about the future of the newspaper industry these days and this blog has definitely contributed its fair share. But this item by John Gapper at the FT seems far more balanced than most of what I’ve read. Gapper’s argument is similar to the one I’ve made on this site:

1. We don’t need more than a few major news organizations covering national and international news. If the Miami Herald loses it’s D.C. bureau, it’s no big deal, because Floridians can get the WaPo online or the Herald can content-share with the WaPo on its own site.
2. Some things like weather and sports scores (ie pure information) can be done by any number of web start-ups and newspapers really don’t need to have staffs for this anymore.
3. City papers outside the national news hubs should stick to local news, and most of them are slowly going this way.

The innovation in Gapper’s article is the way he explains the current financial troubles of news media: no one should wring their hands for the NYTimes, even if they are starved for revenue right now, because AS the other city papers go more local, the market share of the NYT in national news will increase. The big guys will be just fine. It’s a nice silver lining in a dire newspaper economy and a well-written item I thought I should pass along.

The prodigal son returns

By , 13 December, 2008, No Comment

Larry Lessig, whose work I’ve written about before, is packing his bags for a cross country schelp. He’s leaving his post at Stanford Law to chair an ethics center at Harvard.

For some time, Lessig has been synonymous with the West Coast attitude to IP law. As the home of Silicon Valley, the engineers whose inventions are rewriting our economy, and with its laid back libertarian social ideals, California made a natural base for the free culture movement Lessig championed.

But Lessig didn’t start there; he started among the more moderate academe in Cambridge, and even did a stint amongst the uber-capitalists at U-Chicago. Since he left, Harvard has been working overtime to cultivate its own IP department and the big coup came in 2007, when they picked up Yochai Benkler from Yale.

Benkler is the anti-Lessig: just as committed to open source culture, but in the sense of free markets, not free lunch. To Benkler, a decentralized, deregulated web creates new opportunities for competition and new sources of profit. [Note that his book is called the Wealth of Networks after Adam Smith.] To Lessig, an open web is pure collaboration, a system with the power to undermine profit motive itself. At least that’s how his early work reads, though he recently tried to back down from this position in an interview on Charlie Rose (maybe this was initiation for his new job). Over the years, then, Benkler’s view came to symbolize the East Coast approach to IP law as much as Lessig was the California hippie.

Now Harvard wants to be innovative, so they’re trying to collect all the lights of IP law. Is this the new link economy at work, forcing opponents to collaborate? It’s likely that copyright law (which really sucks right now) will be rewritten in the next few years. And Lessig and Benkler are surely the people who will be called in to help pols draft new laws. Will working side by side affect the legal ideas these two develop?

In any case, I’ll be curious to see how the two of them interact at faculty lunches.

Apocalypse 10: What Tribune Did Wrong

By , 8 December, 2008, 2 Comments

LinkSo in case you haven’t heard, the Tribune is filing for bankruptcy. Now before all the shrill new media evangelists start celebrating, let’s take a moment to realize that this is the failure of bad management not bad journalism. Many of the Tribune papers–the Chicago Trib, the Baltimore Sun–were hallmarks of top notch reporting. And if they’d been properly run, we might have more of that top notch reporting around for longer.

But the Tribune was also the hallmark of managerial failure. As the WSJ explains, long before Sam Zell took the papers over, the Trib was in the financial hole. And while Zell undertook some smart redesigns and tried to cultivate the local focus, the community-curation, of the Web 2.0 age, he was half-hearted about it. The LA Times in particular never came to terms with the fact that it couldn’t really be a national or international news when LA readers can get that news from elsewhere. Not to mention the personality clashes among its top execs.

Meanwhile, at the Chicago Trib, Zell refused to merge an understanding of the new era’s culture with an actual embrace of the new technologies. He told reporters not to post juicy stuff online, and at least to this reader, the Trib’s website and blogs always seemed like a second class citizen to the print edition.
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The message isn’t the medium, but you can’t have one without the other. Sam Zell never got all the pieces in place at the same time, but frankly, neither have most of the new media evangelists. So instead of seeing the fall of Tribune as a death sentence for print, let’s spend time trying to find a little common ground.

Apocalypse 9: Glocalism

By , 5 December, 2008, No Comment

Been having some passionate debates at Columbia about the future of media, and particularly investigative journalism. In class the other day, I suggested that the best use of investigative journalism is on a local level–where you can actually get on the streets, gumshoe-style–and that most papers should focus on reporting what happens in their backyard. If local outlets don’t do that, no one else will, and communities will suffer.

I’m persona non grata in class now, because what I said smacks of New Yorker snobbery, as though I were claiming national news as the exclusive prerogative of my city’s papers (the Times, the WSJ) and those in other big media markets (the Washington Post). But I don’t consider the Times and the WSJ to be New York papers. These are international titles, and even when international news happens here (ie at the Stock Exchange or the UN), I don’t look at that as New York news. Real New York papers–the Post and the Daily News–report just on New York, and that’s as it should be.

An example: the Daily News won a Pulitzer last year for its coverage of the medical fallout 9/11 had on the emergency workers who spent time doing rescue work at Ground Zero. They’d have missed that one if they’d been busy with a national or international story. In other words, I’d be just as incensed if the Daily News got themselves a Pentagon reporter as I am when I hear about a Washington bureau for a local paper from the Midwest or the South.

The problem, as one of my classmates pointed out last night, is that very few people consume as much news as I do (most people have lives). So while I can read the WSJ, the WaPo and the Times for national and international information and then get local headlines from the NY1 TV station, many Americans want everything together. Going too local will reinforce the parochialism many foreigners find irksome about Americans.

It’s not that readers in cities outside New York and D.C. don’t deserve to hear about national news; it’s that their papers should not squander resources looking for it at the expense of local beats. That’s what wire services are for.

I’m not alone in looking for a news universe that is geographically segmented. Take a look at these readership figures for the top 5 visited news websites:

New York Times 707 764 000

USATODAY.com — 186,178,000

Washingtonpost.com — 163,844,000
Wall Street Journal Online — 107,333,000

Boston.com — 77,536,000

No local outlet is level with the nationals. But the one that comes closest is Boston.com, the website of the Boston Globe, because the Globe has smartly zeroed in on exclusively local coverage: Massachusetts stories and local sports scores. Today, there’s only one national story on the whole front page; it’s way at the bottom and it’s coming from the AP.

The real crisis, then, is what to do about wire-style reporting as the Associated Press hurdles towards collapse. Someone needs to devise a system for national and international news to be fed to papers for whom it’s not, and should not be, the primary bread and butter. CNN is starting its own wire service, and there’s ProPublica, but there’s no guarantee these business models will work any better than the AP’s. I’d like to see more activity and experimentation in this field–are there projects out there I don’t know about?