Archive for March, 2009

Write what you know

By , 31 March, 2009, 1 Comment

Media pundits who build a reputation for expertise in one field have a tendency to make dangerous forays into other fields and eventually wind up writing gibberish. That’s especially true on the NYT opinion page, where my three favorite columnists are now playing musical chairs:

Tom Friedman=foreign policy wonk turned economic wannabe
Paul Krugman=professional economist turned political ideologue
David Brooks=political critic turned foreign policy poser
Brooks and Friedman can perhaps be forgiven but Krugman, an expert in the economics of trade, really ought to know enough about comparative advantage to stick to his field. The stakes for his musical-chairing are much higher too: I went to see him speak last night and found that his new celebrity has gone to his head, and that he talks more politics than policy. The result is that his audience no longer takes his policy prescriptions seriously, even when they are right.

Apocalypse 20: Some ruccus in the new media ranks

By , 29 March, 2009, No Comment

As a silver lining to the recessionary cloud, I’ve been trumpeting the boisterous and robust debates taking place among newshounds over new business models for media.

Among the internet evangelists, these debates are usually taken as signs of professional media’s last breaths before the dictatorship of the proletariat (aka a citizen-driven “gift” economy) comes to save us. So of course, the internet evangelists yippee’ed at the announcement from the HuffPo that they are creating a fund to finance investigative reporting that will then be gifted to anyone who wants to run ads against it on their own site. They yippee’ed again at the new bill in Congress to make it easier for news outfits to claim nonprofit status.

Now all of these ventures, while helping to take down the existing structures of professional media, take their cues from the same value system that professional media folk claim–that journalism has a civic role to play, as a watchdog on those in power, as a forum for debate and a cultivator of public opinion, etc.

Yet the project of dismantling the mainstream media and claiming the legal rights of journalists on behalf of a citizen-activist runs directly counter to that value system. The civic function of journalism is enshrined in constitutional laws that, with the rise of computers, have lost their clarity: is a blog free Speech or free Press? There are ways to untangle that mystery, but most of them, as I’ve angsted before, seem to lead us into anarchist terrain. My angst seems justified in light of this essay in Slate–the author thumbs his nose at any democratic use for journalism and bemoans the journalism-as-civil-society theory as an old media meme.

The real battle, it seems, is not old media vs. new media but, as I continue to argue, institutionalism vs. individualism. If you think (as I do) that journalism has a civic value, then your solutions to the industry’s current struggles might turn towards to redefining journalism for the digital age in a way that separates those who report (ie journalists) from those who just make noise. If you think the journalism-as-public-service argument is maudlin junk, you might simply hail the demise of journalism as an organizational category.

While these two camps of new media thinkers duke it out, there’s room for old media organizations to experiment–I’ve blogged before that I think the NY Times is onto something in its merger with the Herald Tribune. That merger takes another small step today–the Times rebranded the IHT’s website as the “Global Edition of the New York Times” months ago; now they have rebranded the international pages of the Times’ own site with the IHT logo.

Obviously, a website redesign does little for the Times’ bigger problems, but the merger yields a reporting structure that any future model should take into account.

Google is not God

By , 25 March, 2009, 3 Comments

I have been vocal on this blog about my Google-agnosticism. I don’t think Googleization is the solution to all business models though I do think the Internet represents more opportunity than cost to many industries. And though I do worry about digital privacy, I don’t think the firm’s digitization of our lives has to be fascist in its outcomes.

I’m usually sanguine about the new digital order, because I believe in the basic legal structures of a functioning market economy: the checks placed on any one company by the requirement to compete with others and the checks placed on all companies by government should, in theory, protect us from total Googleization and the violation of our privacy rights.
Here’s the problem: Google has become a monopoly and the entity entrusted to crack down on monopolies–the State–is dependent on various forms of digital data mining, at which Google excels. Now government has colluded with trusts and cartels before, but usually there is a body of journalists and consumers who pressure them to right the wrong. The real problem with the Google is how much civil society has cheerled monopolization:
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The Generation Gap

By , 24 March, 2009, No Comment

Now that it all appears to have blown over, I want to say a few more words about the AIG bonuses, and the media role in stirring the pot of fury. We had a long discussion about this in my core business journalism seminar last night.

Here’s where I come down: it was and is good journalism to comb through the government’s agreements with AIG and the company’s SEC filings, to try to find out who was getting paid for what and to probe the possibility of backscratching when it came to Goldman Sachs. [Though, as we determined in my seminar, there isn't actually any backscratching involved. GS, it seems, really was smarter than the others.] Anyway, it was good journalism to ask these questions. Once. And report the answers. Once.

It was and is bad journalism to report, on the top right hand column of the A1 page of every major newspaper over two weeks, what various regulatory and elected officials had to say about these bonuses as though it were ACTUALLY the most important event of each day’s news cycle, when any number of other items needed that space. This is info-tainment at work.

Such poor editorial judgment is pernicious. The bonus rage not only derailed politicians from doing the important work of sorting out a real bank plan and a budget; it squandered the political will to have a real bank plan. Now that everyone in the country is out with their pitchforks for the bankers, how is the administration going to sell spending more money on this industry?

If the press had been doing its job, the last two weeks might have produced stories explaining that Wall Street funds Main Street, that even venal AIG insurers are worth your tax dollar right now. Or we might have read on page A1 about the strange phenomenon of Americans ranting against the pursuit of profit and how absurd that is. Such circumspect and constructive items appeared, but only on the inside pages of our newspapers, and in elite pockets of the wonkosphere.

I have a hunch as to why it wound up this way: it’s generational. (Note: Dan Drezner is talking the generations meme today too) The bulk of voters are over 50, close enough to retirement that even a superhero’s bank plan won’t bring back their 401K’s. The bulk of editors are the same age. Most of the time, such people are capable of putting enormous national emergencies above their own interests when the national emergency is framed as securing the future for their children.

This weekend, my mother, generally the type to lie down before moving buses for my sister and myself, said leaving her children to careers in a depressed, deflated, Japan’s-Lost-Decade economy might be worth it to get a pound of flesh from those who destroyed her retirement. I post this not as an indictment of her per se but as an example of the level the rage has reached and an explanation for why young people I know, even soak-the-rich liberals, are far less incensed by the whole bonus question than their parents. Unfortunately, elected officials won’t take any real steps on the banks until such policy polls well among our parents’ generation.

Apocalypse 19: The Bright Side

By , 19 March, 2009, No Comment

Not a week goes by these days without some casualty of the journalism apocalypse. Unlike so-called media pundits who simply make money celebrating the demise of media, I am generally saddened to see good papers die. Not because I have any attachment to dead trees, but because I believe the future of news media–digital and collaborative as it will no doubt be–has to involve the expertise of the people in those newsrooms.

Startups should lead old-timers in the right direction (more opinion, more interactivity, more transparency) but not disparage them. A scalable replacement for the social function of print will come from an organization with some scale that merges with some smaller newbies or a newbie that acquires scale by harnessing the expertise and resources released by the old organizations. The assets and talent underneath the managerial fat at many of these papers cannot be allowed to go gently into the night, and laughing at newspaper folk does not exactly build a base for future collaboration.

Some new media evangelists are better than others at being modest. Clay Shirky’s poignant, stunningly written indictment of poor managers and how they got us to this point gets my approval because he stops short of the self-congratulation that seems to accompany others’ writings on this topic. He admits he doesn’t have a better solution, yet.

Some print outfits are better than others at making the transition. The FT’s decision to launch its own content aggregator for businesspeople is a good experiment, though it’s not entirely original–BusinessWeek did the same months ago. The policy journals–the Atlantic, Foreign Policy–are doing a great job turning their websites into a collection of blogs to which the print ‘zine can be a collector’s bonus. A handful of daily papers–the Boston Globe, the SF Chronicle, the Portland Oregonian–are building websites that can become standalone hyperlocal offerings, if only they could take the leap and make these sites the primary offering. Unfortunately, the papers that are actually forced by their finances to make the leap to killing their print product don’t have such developed web products to fall back on, and they often just close up shop.

That makes the demise of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and its replacement by the all-online SeattlePI.com, especially notable. Seattle’s Congressman, Jim McDermott, was here on Cappuccino some weeks back brainstorming funding models to keep papers like his afloat in print, because, at the time, he seemed quite convinced that the Internet just couldn’t fill the same role. Now, he’s a blogger who says the changing times have all the progressive potential of the 1960s. Whoa. Commenters are beating up on him for taking a job writing for the PI site, since the old paper was fairly sympathetic to him and it seems like backscratching but I’ll come to his defense: give credit to a Boomer who can get his head around change this quickly. And give credit the new SeattlePI.com for being exactly the kind of expert-audience collaboration we want to see online.

Of course, making a website like this pay for itself is still a challenge. The Pew Project’s most recent “State of the News Media” report says we’re spending too much time on models that won’t work (micropayments) and not enough exploring options that might. The Pew folks suggest: giving news organizations a cut of the fees we pay ISPs, like we do with TV broadcasters; turn mass news websites into portals for commercial activity (example: an Amazon widget on the Book Review page that lets you buy the book right there); the Newsweek model I’ve discussed before, of subscriber offerings for elite niche audiences.  All three suggestions have potential, though I wonder if the first isn’t just a proxy for state supported media, since we’re eventually headed towards free public broadband access in most markets.

Also, the Pew crowd say there was more news content produced about politics with increasing frequency in 2008 than in previous elections but that it was more reactive, passive and less investigatory than in year’s past. That’s quite a rebuttal to those who see citizen-media as somehow replacing the Fourth Estate. Some of these citizen/professional partnerships, however, might just do it; here’s to hoping the recession brings on some more of those.

The Only Cure for Populism is Prosperity

By , 18 March, 2009, 2 Comments

I know you’re all fed up with my approving quotes of right-wing critics but this one is too spot-on. David Frum said the above in a conversation with Daniel Drezner on Monday and I was listening to the dialogue while trying to formulate my thoughts on AIG’s bonuses, Cramer vs. Stewart and the administration’s financial plan; his quip tied it all together. Joe Scarborough (another rightwinger whom I generally deplore) pointed out the other day that the anger over each of these issues is grounded in a knee-jerk populism.

I am a populist. Not in the sense the word is often (mis)used, as a synonym for political pandering, but in its actual sense of being concerned with the needs of the masses. And I believe the only way to fulfill those needs is to increase growth for all. I’m not a supply-sider: I think government should use Keynesian spending models to spur that growth, and I think we need to heavily tax-adjust growth on the way up to make sure it’s broadly shared. But there’s just no way to have economic growth without benefitting some people at the top. Get over it.

Nobody will get out of their present economic rutt unless we bail out the banks and as the TARP legislation was written, the Treasury doesn’t have strong powers over how banks spend that money. For the record, I think that’s too bad, and that we probably should have included some clause on compensation when we passed this bill in the fall. But we didn’t. Those who are really riled up about this are whining over bonuses as a focal point for their general angst over bailing out banks.

Here’s the problem: neither Obama nor Geithner, nor Bush nor Paulson before them, has been able to explain how the financial system works or why it matters. Obama’s town hall today is a good example; he was spot on for the first 45 minutes or so, speaking about schools and health care (even I was sold), but when he tried to address the banks, he stopped making sense, even to the biz journos I was watching with, who spend all their time on this stuff. The people on the audience all had glazed expressions–it was clear he wasn’t communicating; it even seemed to me he didn’t understand the math himself–he kept confusing securities with derivatives. Before you crow that such matters are too complicated for the attention spans of ordinary political audiences, listen to the speech FDR gave before bailing out the banks of his day. The only contemporary policymaker who I think has spoken with such clarity is Ben Bernanke, both in his October speech and his 60 Minutes interview this past Sunday. Unfortunately, explaining policy is NOT Bernanke’s job; it’s the job of elected officials and the press. The only person in media I’ll credit with getting this one right is my friend Vikas Bajaj at the NYT.

It’s because elected officials and the mainstream media are doing such a lousy job that Americans are turning to info-tainment outlets like Jim Cramer for investment advice and Jon Stewart for political analysis. Jim Cramer has been wrong-wrong-wrong on many stock calls, but it was never the proposition of his show to be right all the time; it always depicted itself as bullish market propoganda for enthusiasts. By the same token, business journalists defending Cramer should watch their words: the only reason Jon Stewart had to take him on is because professional reporters beyond the elite/expert outlets, like the government, did not do a proper job explaining the financial markets to Cramer’s middle America audience.

The result is that firms like AIG have us in their palms. I’m reminded of the moment in Richard III, when Richard, self-described as “deformed, unfin ish’d” woos Anne, a woman whose first husband he actually killed. First, he tells her he wants her, so bad that’s why he killed her hubby and no one else will love her as he does. She’s flattered, but she hates his guts. So he hands her a spear and dares her to kill him in revenge; the moment she fails to do so, she admits she’s his. We have already failed to kill these banks, but it means all our whining about bonuses is wasted breath and they know it. Like Richard, they take the opportunity to adorn themselves with fineries and enjoy the license we have given.

The reality is that we do need the banks, but that we’ll have to regualte them more aggressively as we give them more aid. I for one would much rather our elected officials devoted their attentions to devising a plan for such aid, and explaining it, in real detail, than to righteous indignation. I am hoping that my peers in the media and I will then focus on dissecting and analyzing such a plan, rather than taking pot shots at one another. Until that happens, I suppose I’ll just curl up with Lawrence Olivier.

Spring Cleaning Post

By , 15 March, 2009, 1 Comment

Thank God Ban Ki-Moon hasn’t heard of me, because I know I’d be on his list of deadbeats for the appalling lapse of Cappuccino-making I’ve been doing of late. I have a handful of weak excuses:

Excuse 1. It was crunch time on the Forbes Billionaires report, for which we’ll be continuing to roll out content all this week and next on our website. Right now, the big focus of reader feedback has been the controversial listing of a Mexican drug baron–how does Forbes know where he got his money? How come criminal activity gets Allen Stanford knocked off the list but not El Chapo? My personal opinion is that there’s real money in the black market, and covering ugly realities is part of journalism, but I do think we ought to be critical, not adulatory in our description of what he does. My own story for the report (link to come) is on two Nigerian billionaires, and I’ve tried to take my own advice. [Updated: My story's up now]
Excuse 2. It was midterm season at Columbia and I’ve been swamped with work. One assignment may be of interest to readers: for my computers and the law class, which I blogged about before, I wrote about the shield bill now floating in Congress, that would protect journalists’ anonymous sources. I blogged my basic take on the bill a while back and got some useful feedback in the comment section; in my essay, I took up one suggestion, to define journalism as reporting, and combined with my desire to maintain journalism as a profession, to try to block out a 21st century interpretation of the 1st amendment. Any thoughts on the essay would be much appreciated, since I’ll be rewriting it in the coming weeks.
One thing that I’ve been thinking about while writing that essay, and indeed, over the last few weeks, is where I actually fall on the political spectrum. Many lefty friends who usually regard me as an ally have been writing to me asking why I keep linking to conservative thinkers, praising centralized power and waxing nostalgic for old values. Have I, one commenter wrote in an email, gone over to the dark side? No, I haven’t, but the concern suggests my hunch about partisan sea change was correct: as the left goes liberaltarian, I’m falling out of it. As the center goes Hamiltonian, I’m falling into it. And as the right goes silly, I’m shedding not a tear at all.
It’s not yet a perfect shift: David Brooks, who has been rejoicing alongside me about the rise of Hamiltonianism, still hasn’t made his break from the traditional right–he has high praise for Alexander Hamilton (duh) and Teddy Roosevelt, but also David Cameron. News flash, Mr. Brooks: David Cameron is the opposite of an institutionalist; his first move will be the evisceration of Britain’s health care system. But it’s a real shift: witness the hiring of Ross Douthat to the NYT opinion page this week, consolidating Brooks and Douthat as pro-government conservatives (who like social spending) and putting them in the same room with pro-government liberals like Krugman (who likes markets, but wants them aggressively regulated) and liberal hawks like Friedman who likes big geostrategic initiatives. This is the institutionalist, Hamiltonian coalition. Conveniently, I already have a subscription.

I have drunk the Pimms

By , 6 March, 2009, 5 Comments

Larry Smith, one of my favorite political bloggers, has held my interest this year because he’s a liberal who has refused to drink the Obama Kool-Aid, and as a Brit, has risen above ideology by being able to critique his own Labour Party. But he has a ghastly post this week detailing all the reasons he’s ga-ga over President Obama’s first month in office, for which I took him to task in his comments section.

To be honest, I’m not in a great place to point fingers. Because while I am still pretty irked by President Obama, I have gone ga-ga for Gordon Brown. It’s been coming on for some time–for a while I was able to separate my admiration for his intelligence and his principles from his lack of political savvy and charisma. That division shattered when he addressed Congress on Wednesday–it was a personal, eloquent and yet forceful policy address the likes of which, as the British papers were quick to point out, Brown has never made in Westminister.

So in part, I just swooned to see Brown succeed on both political and policy fronts. But I was also bowled over by the content of his argument:

Note to Readers: Experimentation Ahead

By , 4 March, 2009, No Comment

If you’re here on the blog page, you’ll notice right away some tweaks in the layout. I am experimenting with my Google Reader again. I’ve been reading all my blogs through Google for a little over a year now, but I haven’t really taken advantage of the sharing feature until now. There are some good reasons for this:

1. As a blogger with a Google-hosted blog, I can see the same updates from my blogger homepage, the site I log-in to when I want to write posts, read comments or monitor traffic.

Reading my feeds here is not only more efficient than going through reader directly, I find the Blogger Dashboard more user-friendly and aesthetically pleasing as an interface.
2. I actually don’t want to send all the stories I enjoy to all my friends–I tend to send occasional group emails to categories of people or individuals. I email a funny story about New York to friends I know in the city. I send a geeky economics item to fellow bizjournos. I send a mention of Brown to friends from college. I send an essay about moms to my mom. Etc. So the premise of Google Reader–reading as exhibitionism–doesn’t really match my habits of reading as relationship-deepening.
3. Many of the items I want to share with these friends aren’t in my RSS feeds because there are some publications I prefer to read in print than online. I read the NYTimes in print, or at least the front section, but with the exception of a few blogs I subscribe to directly (Krugman, Bruni), I don’t want every minute’s update from the site. Same for BusinessWeek, Fortune, the WSJ, the New Yorker, and the Atlantic Monthly. Google Reader doesn’t allow me to add individual URLs, from things I’ve already read in print and searched for online afterwards, to my shared items if the source isn’t in my feed subscription.
BUT since I occasionally do blog posts that are just digests of things I’ve read, and since I want to do more original reporting and informed opinion, I have opted for Google Reader just to outsource the aggregation component of blogging. Note to any friends who are checking my Reader-shared stories on a regular basis: the stories I’m sharing aren’t ALL my favorites from the web, but JUST the ones I want to feed to the digest box because I think they have some links to the “Revolution in Culture” I’m blogging about. The personalized emails will not stop.
This still doesn’t solve problem 3–wanting to add stuff to the digest that isn’t in my RSS feed. For now, I’ll have to include those in actual posts: today, I encourage you to read David Brooks on Hamiltonianism (I TOLD you so) and Tom Friedman on the bank bailouts.
If I find a new way to update that solves this issue, and is more pleasing to use than the Reader, I may tweak the site again, so any suggestions as to what you like are welcome.