Archive for February, 2009

Apocalypse 18: Is journalism a real job?

By , 28 February, 2009, 9 Comments

There was much talk during the stimulus debate about what constituted a real job, and therefore, how many jobs the Obama folks could take credit for “creating or saving.” Journalists, who may have their own bailout bill on the Hill soon, have been grappling with this question for some time.

Good Riddance to Tired Biz Memes

By , 23 February, 2009, No Comment

If there’s one thing that really raises my blood pressure, it’s people misusing the word “innovation” to describe any and all kinds of newfangled change. In the business journo world, that usually applies to PR representatives who call to tell me that their client’s new product/venture is innovative just by virtue of being new. There’s a subcategory of these people who think anything that uses the Internet is innovative by definition. But innovation is more than just a new way of conceptualizing; it’s that new concept applied, successfully, in the real world. A new idea that is unworkable, or turns into a bad idea on contact with reality, is not innovation.

BusinessWeek’s Innovation expert Bruce Nussbaum is normally pretty sound on this point. He called President Obama out early in the transition for conflating technology investments with “innovation.” But then he misapplied the innovation label to praise Secretary Hank Paulson when Paulson began flip-flopping between his initial plan to create a “bad bank” for bad assets and the British strategy to take big stakes in existing banks to help them deal with bad assets. Yes, Bruce is right to argue that innovators must have the freedom to change their minds and optimize their ideas as they learn more information; that is Design Strategy 101. But that’s not what was happening at Treasury: what had Paulson changing his mind was not new economic data, but the changing office politics of his department. Calling pillar-to-post behavior innovative cheapens the term.

No surprise then that Nussbaum now feels innovation is a dead concept, killed by its misapplication and “overuse.” His proposal for a new concept? “Transformation.” I like it because I think it carries the practical side of new ideas on its sleeve. Innovate is an intransitive verb, but transform is a transitive verb. You innovate, period but you transform something, which means the USE of the new idea is baked into the concept.

Meme cleanup may be the new meme these days: TechCrunch says it’s time to stop calling everything digital “Web 2.0.” I’m guilty of misuing that label; consider this post my promise to stop.

Partisanship Changes, but it doesn’t go away

By , 18 February, 2009, 3 Comments

I’ve been blogging that I think post-partisanship is a sham. To the extent that the stimulus process was meant to be the test of Obama’s “post-partisan” vision, I’m relieved to report that it didn’t quite work out his way. Partisanship does not, cannot and should not go away. But the nature of the debate reminds us that partisanship is not static, because the parties themselves shift and redefine over time. And THAT kind of change has surely arrived.

Start with the stimulus: what’s the divide between the three Republicans who voted for the bill and all the rest who didn’t? The simple answer is that the three—Collins, Snowe and Specter—are “moderates,” that they fall in the center of the current partisan spectrum. But the Republican party has fiscal, social and defense types, and you can be moderate on one axis and conservative on the other. The divide in this case was on fiscal issues, between fiscal conservatives who think government is more problem than solution and should be shrunk by spending cuts, and fiscal moderates who think government is one kind of solution and should be strengthened by (responsibly financed) expansion.

At its highest minded, this disagreement is a conflict between those who believe in the power of the individual and the decentralized and those who believe in the power of the central institution or community. But being anti-institution is not at all part of the current, about-to-be-old conservatism. On the social axis, for example, it’s the far right that believes in the institution (the nuclear heterosexual family, the Church) and the libertarian-right that leaves such things to individual choice. Meanwhile, it’s the far right (the neocons) that advocates for U.S. military interests and the moderate realists who say no often on grounds of national sovereignty and opposition to global governance. That the institution vs. individual fault line has suddenly become the chief fault line on the right is a new development.

Apocalypse 17.5: Brownie Points only go so far

By , 17 February, 2009, No Comment

My reaction to Jim McDermott:
NPR and PBS are great because they provide access to consumers who cant pay for fancy digital cable to get their MSNBC but the reason it works is that in terms of keeping content independent, and the wages they pay to keep top talent, NPR and PBS still have to compete with MSNBC and CNN et al. If ALL media were publicly financed, ie if you had a state controlled news media, that would be not so great: You’d get into sticky situations like the one that ensnared the BBC over Gaza. [To his credit, Rep. McDermott acknowledged this danger when we spoke.]

The other “nonprofit” model that I’ve heard bandied about is the one used at educational institutions, ie funding journalism by contributions to an endowment. News flash, folks: endowments are a big part of how universities stay alive, yes, but they also CHARGE FOR the end product.

The question is, are you as a consumer more likely to be persuaded that yes, you ARE actually okay clicking through an ad or more likely to be persuaded that yes, you ARE actually okay paying to read the site. I think in the end consumers will have to give ground on one of the two, unless we decide that journalism is a non-profession and shouldn’t be self-sustaining financially at all, but instead a pet project people do on the side for free while paying their bills with something else. Even if I weren’t a journo myself, I’d be unenthused by this option–I WANT to read/watch/listen to coverage of an issue from someone who spends 16 out of every 24 hours on that issue, not someone who has a day job doing something else entirely.

Apocalypse 17: Brownie points for experimentation

By , 15 February, 2009, 3 Comments

I posted earlier this week that one of the few upsides of this economy is the cover it provides for newsrooms to make a bunch of necessary changes that everyone has known about, and postponed, for the last decade or so. Why does a media holding company need to pay for a White House correspondent or a film reviewer for each of its papers or magazines, instead of just funding one such reporter whose content can appear in all their outlets? Why does a small town paper need to bother with national or global news at all, since readers the world over can now get access to international and national information online, and even without the web, since the local paper can get that content from the wires? In the digital economy, it makes even more sense for news outlets to focus niches of expertise and aggregate the rest from other sites. But it means a permanent downsizing of newsrooms and that’s hard to do when the rest of the economy is growing. Still, even now that editors and publishers are ready to make these cuts, no one has figured out quite how the smaller newsroom will make money. Which brings us to the second upside of a recession for media–the willingness to take risks that comes when there’s really nothing left to lose. There’ve been a few recent stories highlighting directions the media could take:

–Walter Isaacson says we could charge iTunes-style for individual digital articles, but Mike Kinsley says no one would pay for that (Note that he doesn’t have an alternative, really)
–the NYT says it might try charging for select and archived content again
–Fox has a new ad model that charges buyers more per ad, but reduces the number of ads sold in total so viewers will have less incentive to forward through the shorter commercial breaks
None of these is perfect, but I applaud anyone who is willing to head scratch a bit about devising a solution. That’s why I was so thrilled to speak a few days ago with Seattle Congressman Jim McDermott. His hometown paper is on its last legs too, and Rep. McDermott has been inspired to try to save the American newspaper industry. His solution is the out-of-the-box idea no one IN media  really likes–that news just shouldn’t be a private sector enterprise to begin with, but a nonprofit venture funded either by the state or by charitable donations, or some combination of the two. McDermott is researching a bill for the House that would set up funds, akin to those that back NPR and PBS, to support nonprofit newspapers in American communities. Here’s what he had to say:

on newspapers as a public good: “I worry that we’re losing our democracy. I don’t know whether this is just generational, but if we lose newspapers [and] everyone is gonna get the news off the internet, then a whole slug of people is just off the game. If Jefferson was right and an educated electorate[is key], then you can’t have vast numbers of people without access. [Even if we expand access to broadband], you have to be more devoted to go in search of news on the web.”

on the downsides to digitization: “It used to be that Congress had roll call voting, and it took hours, and then they made it an electronic scoreboard, and now we can pass amendment in 15 minutes. Therefore we’re no longer inconveniencing people with new amendments, [which led to an] expansion of the number of those amendements that people insert. Now [there's a] movement to vote from their offices. This isn’t a Congress, because Congress is a coming together. You can’t influence the opinion of others if you’re not in the same room. If I thought that investigative journalism was being preserved and just print costs were being cut, that would be fine. But the decision [about what to run online] is being made by accountants not professional editors.”

How much does news reporting really influence politics day-to-day?: “Without investigative reporting, I’m gonna get away with stuff. Gotta have somebody poking me in the eye with a sharp stick to find out what’s going on. Moreover, how are we gonna communicate with constituents? [The way things are going,] It’s all gonna be done by the president in uplifting (or not so uplifting) speeches? I just want to alert people to the change taking place—are we sure this is where we wanna be going?”

Is it the message or the medium?: “I get more engagement from constituents in web community meetings than I do in live ones, but I come from the city where every software maker has an office, the city which has highest reading and movie-going numbers per capita. I guess the way everybody twenty years younger than me is zipping things around on email, [it might be okay] if there was investigative journalism available on the web. “I myself read papers from Lebanon and India online, and I do my own winnowing process, and I have people that do it for me. Managing information has become such a process and many people have just given up or can’t afford to do it.”

I have a few bones to pick with Rep. McDermott’s argument, but I’ll save them for tomorrow. I’d like to hear your takes first: is the notion of the news media as a private sector, for-profit enterprise fundamentally flawed or eternally doomed? are there downsides to state-subsidized media? could the NPR model ever translate to print? is it more logical to bankroll transitions to digitization or prop up the older technologies? If there’s any way to test the value of new media, it’s by sounding out some of these tough questions right here.

Apocalypse 16: What Recessions are good for

By , 10 February, 2009, 5 Comments

There’s been no shortage of hand-wringing and prognosticating about the fate of the news media in recent months, and I have certainly contributed by fair share of commentaries. But this last week I’ve seen more stories than usual.

I have maintained for some time that, conventional wisdom about the internet notwithstanding, the future actually bodes well for the big news brands, if they can buy up or successfully build niche-oriented digital subsidiaries. There have been many signs of that model emerging since I started this blog, but this week, almost all the media stories follow that trend:

1. Newsweek is finally giving up the hoax of pretending to break news, and adapting to its rightful role as an upmarket journal of center-left opinion. This fits well within the broader strategy of Newsweek’s parent company, the Washington Post Group, which can gradually turn Newsweek into the Sunday companion to the WaPo, which will become the daily pennant to/aggregator of content from the niche websites: Slate, The Big Money, The Root. Look through the bylines at these publications and you will already see signs of such staff consolidation.

2. The New York Times is doing better than Michael Hirschorn accuses them of, in part, because it is investing in such a model. Look at what is happening in the convergence with the Herald Tribune, now the Times’ international arm. Streamlining this way allows the Times to maintain its competitive advantage in the niche international political coverage while cutting costs to match the smaller revenue stream of web adverts.

3. Editor and Publisher, a trade mag that tracks these sorts of things, lays out precisely this model of the niche-specialized, cross-platform journalist (and thus implicitly of media companies set up to give specialists access to multiple platforms for their expertise). It’s certainly the most pragmatic, measured answer to the hand-wringing I have seen so far. E&P; differs from me in assuming that all the platforms are digital ones–I think print will survive as a sort of collectible that accompanies a core online model, but it’s a small point in comparison to the core issue of what kind of stories are produced and by whom.

Here’s what stands out about these stories. Amidst the very real fact of newspaper failures, these are stories about making new investments in forward-looking strategies. That makes them stories of risk-taking in the current economy but also hopeful. And that’s what recessions are good for–sometimes, a little creative destruction flushes the system and makes room, or provides cover, for companies to make positive changes. In media, for my own sake, I hope that’s right.

Friday Night Stimulation

By , 6 February, 2009, No Comment

The Senate finally reached a compromise on the stimulus package and we should see it passed by both houses at some point in the coming week. I can’t resist the urge to have an I-told-you-so moment about the politics here: the final bill will probably pass without any Republican support, and it will emerge from aggressive back and forth on the Senate floor today, NOT from the “postpartisan” charm offensive President Obama was so psyched about last week. Obama gets points for fast learning, though: his tone was full of red meat today.

Obama’s leadership style was a topic of discussion at a panel I attended last night about the economic challenges we face. Common criticisms were
–Obama does not yet recognize that the rest of his domestic agenda is never going to happen because all political (and real) capital for his first term will get spent on the stim
–Obama trumps the previous crowd in the quality of the experts he’s got BUT he has a problem actually making decisions that use their expertise effectively because the experts are all competing prima donnas. We should thus expect a lot of waffling on his economic policy.

The panel was overall pretty impressive:
BusinessWeek’s Steve Adler
CNBC’s Steve Liesman
NYTimes’ Floyd Norris
Credit Suisse’s Neil Soss
and author Bill Holstein
and they made some good points:

Note to English teachers: Get Real

By , 3 February, 2009, 3 Comments

I have been contemplating posting these reflections for many months, but a post over at FWFL reminded me how I got on this subject to begin with. The author of that blog, Colin Clout, is a literature graduate student with a broadly postmodernist approach to the study of culture, an approach that pervades much of the academy these days. I crassly summarize this approach as

1. It’s impossible to know, 100%, what Shakespeare was thinking when he wrote Hamlet or why Napoleon invaded Russia. Even if these men kept diaries, they might have lied. Therefore it’s intellectually unconscionable to ask such questions.
2. You and I may today find many patterns in this writing that Shakespeare did not intend or could never have thought of especially since words in the English language, or any other language, have changed over time, and since language is imperfect and manmade anyway. Indeed, an old book can be about some newfangled concept if I, reading it today, am reminded of a newfangled concept. Heck, it could be about anything so long as somebody thinks so.
3. It is intellectually admirable to constantly expand the set of interpretations, even if some of them have seemingly weak ties to the historical or social context in which books were written, paintings painted or political speeches delivered, or even to the social context in which those books, paintings or speeches were read, seen or heard. It is sinful to attempt to establish which meanings matter most at any particular time. The more subversion you contribute to the debate, the better you have performed. To quote Mr. Clout directly, “What is the relevance, the importance of humanities? What is the functionality of the academy?…[It is] in questioning the need for functionality.”
In conversations with Mr. Clout, I have said that my problem with this school of thought is not only that I disagree with its main tenets but also that I find it socially pernicious. I think a good researcher of culture can often determine beyond a reasonable doubt what people intended to accomplish and what others perceived. More importantly, however, I think it’s AS windows into such motivations and societal implications that culture, or history, or really most branches of the humanities, matter to begin with.

Once upon a time, indeed until after World War II, most university education was in the humanities: young propertied men went off to prestigious Ivy-covered halls to read Chaucer and Cicero, and their professors helped them understand, specifically, how those texts might inform their future decisions as businessmen or statesmen or generals.

That very functional approach to the study of culture was undone during the Cold War, by academics who wanted to make sure that smart people did not choose to help the government or the corporation, since (these thinkers determined), those were more or less corrupted institutions from which the academy was meant to offer a retreat. They argued that they were preserving young minds from a dehumanizing bureaucracy, but I wonder if there isn’t something dehumanizing about the separation of the mind, of academic intellectual endeavor, from the person, a social being embedded in the political and economic contingencies of a specific historical moment.

The moment academics in the humanities rejected the social for the psychological is, coincidentally or not, the moment public education grants shifted from the right brain field to the left. If Mr. Clout and his peers are worried about financing their profession, they might start by reconsidering their ideology.

Not everyone can be Google

By , 1 February, 2009, 1 Comment

You’d think the above was a fairly simple statement, but apparently Jeff Jarvis, big shot of media commentators, does not understand it. He’s written a book called “What Would Google Do?” in which he takes Google’s business model and suggests that since they have been successful with it, everyone should run their companies–in all industries–this way. I haven’t read the book, but I know this is the argument, because Jarvis has taken his own advice and generated much of the book through suggestions from his blog readers this past year. You can watch him explain the idea here:

I’ve been whining that I find Jarvis’s argument about media unsatisfying for some time.