Archive for May, 2009

On a Roll

By , 31 May, 2009, No Comment

I am feeling very smug about my predictive track record when it comes to the “revolution in culture” that is this blog’s subtitle.

Exhibit A: After recommending that news organizations negotiate an ad-share with Google, I was thrilled to discover that the New York Times was exploring it, and amused to find, yesterday, that Jeff Jarvis is now touting the idea as though he came up with it AND apparently without knowledge that the Times is already doing it. Since I have many bones to pick with Jarvis, this pleases me.

Exhibit B: After cautioning against the takeover of politics, media, etc by individualists over institutionalists, I am overjoyed to see the Fast Talker–a citizen-media enthusiast and individualist liberal-tarian at times–taking my side. What woke him up? A glimpse at the individualist Right in David Cameron, and the damage the Tory bashing of MP’s expenses has done to his party–Labour–in the lead-up to this week’s local elections. Here is the thing: To turn the tide for Labour, British lefties have to develop a defense of institutions, and that includes many institutions that the individualist Left likes to rail against. Liberal-tarians whining about corporate bonuses sets up a conservative critique of big government. Both kinds of whining need to be given up, but the cultural tide towards individualism in both left- and right- leaning circles makes that unlikely.

Another option, it seems to me, is for institutionalists of both left- and right- flavors to band together against both kinds of individualism. The question for the Fast Talker is whether he is willing to defend the corporation and the Church to protect the National Health System. If he’s not, I think he should prepare for bad news in Thursday’s polls.

China’s Strategy

By , 26 May, 2009, 1 Comment

Despite being a business writer, a sports fan and a devotee of Michael Lewis, I have yet to blend sports and business on this blog, until now. This article on Chinese investments in U.S. sports franchises got me thinking:

One of the patterns of history is that empires usually extend their culture and values along with their political/military/economic might. Rome, according to Vergil, spread “peace and war.” Spain spread Christianity. Britain spread the English language. America spread McDonald’s. But even as policy wonks and strategists come to terms with the reality of China’s impending dominance, there’s skepticism about a world in which we all speak Mandarin; Beijing doesn’t seem to care about that either.

That is because they are planning to achieve their might by profiting from the spread of American influence, by investing enough in both the dollar and Cleveland Cavaliers that the popularity of McDonald’s, basketball, or McDonalds-eaten-at-basketball-games is more their gain than ours. In other words, they’re trying to transition the world from America’s empire to China’s without anyone noticing.

Letting the growth of the opposing system lay the groundwork for yours? How perfectly Marxist.

David Cameron’s Cowboy Justice

By , 25 May, 2009, 1 Comment

Although today’s a U.S. holiday, I’m taking my time off to worry about the political winds across the pond in the U.K. Not only because I lived there a while and have friends with vested interests in how the next election pans out, but also because the core issue in that election is the same as the one I’ve been ranting about in our politics: the battle between institutionalists and individualists.

In Britain, however, it’s the individualist right, rather than the individualist left, that is ascendant over a Labour party that, so long as it’s led by Gordon Brown, will be all about big institutions tackling big social problems. The latest missive is Conservative leader David Cameron’s op-ed on the uproar over MPs’ expenses in the Guardian. Cameron begins with an assault on government abuse that reminds me of the individualist left’s assault on corporate bonuses a while back. His core argument: this is why institutions, all of them, are bad, and we should devolve more power to the people

“The anger, the suspicion, and the cynicism – yes, with politics and politicans, but with so much else – are the result of people’s slow but sure realisation that they have very little control over the world around them, and over much that determines whether of not they’ll live happy and fulfilling lives…So I believe the central objective of the new politics we need should be a massive, sweeping, radical redistribution of power: form the state to citizens; from the government to parliament; from Whitehall to communities; from the EU to Britain; from judges to the people; from bureaucracy to democracy. Through decentralisation, transparency and accountability we must take power from the elite and hand it to the man and woman in the street…We should start by pushing political power down as far as possible…With every decision government makes, it should ask a series of simple questions: does this give power to people or take it away? Could we let individuals, neighbourhoods and communities take control? How far can we push power down?”

Part of me is glad Cameron wrote this item, because it should finally kill the delusions of those who are trying to cast him in an institutionalist light. The scariest claim is the push for replacing “judges”–the rule of law–with “the people.”–as in cowboy justice. The most absurd claim is the argument that the purpose of government should be to determine how much power it can give away. This is the great paradox of the individualist right: why run for state office if, ultimately, you don’t believe in the writ of the state? One hopes that the “people” in whom Cameron places so much faith will see through this circular logic, but that would require Labour to offer something coherent in response.

Apocalypse 26: Lights at the End of the Tunnel

By , 22 May, 2009, No Comment

On Wednesday, I graduated from Columbia’s Business and Economics Journalism master’s program, which I’ve been blogging about a bit this year. As you might imagine, the two day Commencement was full of speeches about the value of journalism, and laden with allusions to the crisis we face now.

One surprise was that at the University-wide Commencement, Columbia President Lee Bollinger focused his address to the undergrad class primarily on the future of news, even though there are no undergraduate journalism students at the University. Bollinger seemed to be making some of the First Amendment arguments I’ve been making on this blog and elsewhere.

a crisis of journalism is a crisis of democracy. No one should assume that the institutions committed to a professional culture of journalism or scholarship can be replaced by thousands of individual, citizen-journalists, just as you cannot replace our great universities with multiple individual websites each offering specialized knowledge in an atomized way. Sometimes you need big, strong news organizations to challenge the vast powers of government, corporations and other large institutions

As I’ve been articulating similar notions, however, I have become more convinced that this idealist argument for media is unlikely to stick with the vast majority of the public.

What the public wants and needs is tangible evidence of why professional media matters. They need more hardhitting investigative reporting at precisely the moment when that kind of reporting is becoming impossible to finance. So another highlight of our Commencement cermony was when the J-school’s Commencement Speaker, Mexico’s newspaper revolutionary Alejandro Junco de la Vega, proposed his model for how to make media profitable. To paraphrase: Put down the phone and go back to basic, gumshoe-on-the-streets reporting; then cede the horse race to the Internet and become experts (his papers are partnering with academic institutions to research policy ideas and implications in a broad, sociological way). Advertisers, online or off, will never pay for this kind of Gonzo journalism, but that was Junco’s point–if you walk amongst your readers, showing them that you can identify trends in THEIR lives that they themselves cannot see or make sense of, that you can offer solutions to THEIR problems that they themselves cannot devise, if you do this in person, it is readers who will pay for content. My instinct is that this is a model for a media economy that is still mostly in print, and therefore for a developing, rather than a developed nation. I don’t know if it would work here, but I thought it was new and bold of him to suggest it. The speech, which was beautiful and intelligent on many other points, is here.

Our other Commencement Speaker was Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall, most recently of Dowd-plagiarism fame. Marshall is certainly a cause journalist but unlike other web evangelists, he did not spend his time on the stand chastising “old” media or pooh-poohing the value of professionalism. His tone–staid and respectful–suggested that the realignment has begun, with the forces of reporting marshalling against the forces of spam. Josh Marshall realizes, as do we at the J-school, that he has more in common with us than any of us does with A. Maureen Dowd or B. Gawker.

Apocalypse 25: It’s Nicer to Be Right Twice

By , 20 May, 2009, 1 Comment

On Monday, we saw more evidence that the content model of the future will involve vertically integrated news organizations that will allow their audiences to engage at multiple levels for multiple prices. Today, we got a taste of what the ad model to support that might look like–the NYT’s Bill Keller told the NY Observer that the Times would seek some sort of ad share deal with Google rather than going after them aggressively as a monopoly the way others seem bent on:

The solution? He said that the Times is looking at a “carrot approach,” in which, along with the collaboration with Google, The Times would embed ads in its copy, and those ads would stay with the copy wherever it is reproduced.

Despite my own antitrust misgivings re: Google, this is exactly what I recommended for the news industry a while ago. And, I’ve also pointed out, the NYT is already a vertically integrated news org that has grown multiple layers of expertise in-house. It is nice to be right two days running. It’s even nicer to think that the future model of journalism is coming to focus.

Apocalypse 24: It’s Nice to Be Right

By , 18 May, 2009, No Comment

With Newsweek’s website re-launch, I’m more certain than ever that the WaPo company has the future content model down even if they are no further along than the rest of us in figuring out how to fix the ad model. On the content side, the WaPo group is moving to a single vertically-integrated newsroom with one expert reporter on each subject who is capable of covering that subject in all forms–newspaper article, blog post, magazine opinion essay, magazine narrative.

Once upon a time, EACH of the group’s properties did all of these things in different proportions, but now each of them will stick to its turf. The Post itself will give us news reports and opinion blogs but not narrative or long essays. The new Newsweek will give us opinion essays and narratives and even blogs, but not, for the most part, hard news. Foreign Policy will give us mostly blogged opinion that expands, occasionally, into longer articles. And Slate (and its children The Big Money and Double X) will give us magazine essays and news articles. There’s some overlap, but that is intentional: some of the content will run in multiple places in tweaked forms. A great blog post on one of the sites can grow into a longer article or essay for another, depending (and this is the key) on what format best fits the story’s content. Sound familiar?

The Newsweek redesign itself fits the magazine’s role within the group as a journal of lay opinion: the new page reminds me most of other opinion mags, especially The New Republic, which is superficially fitting since Newsweek plans to stay left-of-center too. Note also that the font on the new page is more or less the same as that on its academic opinion sister site Foreign Policy, perhaps a subtle way to reinforce brand.

Note finally that it is possible to get this kind of vertical structure without buying one of each kind of outlet: the NYT has managed to grow a newspaper, a blog network, a magazine and a collection of opinion essays in-house; the BBC has done the broadcast equivalent with its marriage of short- and long- form TV and radio.

If the ad model can be fixed to take the lead in revenue generation, while synching staff across platforms increases content expertise and reduces the costs of each story, then I think the media equation-at least at the national and international level-might be solved.

Pop Quiz: How is Postmodernism like the Web?

By , 13 May, 2009, 2 Comments

They’re both subjects I blog about.


No, but seriously. My previous complaints about postmodernism have centered on the impact that the ideology has over the social and civic use-value of the humanities. Basically, postmodernist scholars say they should teach young people to question the whole notion of usefulness. The idea probably has some internal coherence that is above my pay grade, but to an average eighteen year old in English 101 at an average school, it’s an education in apathy.


When making this critique, I have been accused of being eerily nostalgic for the distant past when humanities teaching was about using the great books to impart immutable moral mantras to a leadership class of white young men. But what seems to rile my critics most is the idea that education should be socially or civic-ly useful at all. In other words, what’s with my institutionalism?


In my posts about media, I frequently express skepticism about the contemporary shift away from professionalism,  factual rigor, and respect for intellectual property. I do so because I believe professional reporting (which must be financed on the basis of intellectual property) is better for the functioning of the political and social system than the citizen-driven alternatives.


The counter-argument from new media evangelists is deeply postmodernist: just like the postmodernists discourage attempts to decipher meaning because the words on the page CAN mean any number of things to any number of people, the web evangelists discourage a focus on objectivity because links CAN be made to show any connections we’d like. Just like the postmodernists discourage attempts to link authors to their work, the web evangelists discourage respect for intellectual property. When a critic of their views expresses a desire to make academia and journalism socially and civically useful, the web evangelists join the postmodernists in asking “what’s with that institutionalism?”


It gets worse. As Susan Blum shows in her new book, young web evangelists are now using postmodern arguments–authorship is socially constructed and should be ignored, the words belong to whomever is interpreting them at that moment–to justify plagiarizing from the web as “pastiche.” If I had any lingering doubts about the educational use-value of postmodernism, they are gone now.

Apocalypse 23: One door closes…

By , 8 May, 2009, No Comment

Seems about time I step in with some thoughts on the demise of Portfolio. Truthfully, I have precious little in original thoughts to offer. While other print publications were clinging to their life vests by cutting costs and trying to transition to the web, CondeNast decided to invest in a product that would be even more print-y–longer form, glossier, costlier pages–than the incumbents in the business media market. Even though they had many smart writers, Portfolio was set up to fail.

At the other extreme, perhaps, are the media evangelists who seem a bit too excited by Portfolio’s collapse. It will all be fine, they tell us, because the citizen-activists are here to save the day. I will believe it when I see it.

But there is another reason to be sanguine about Portfolio. The collapse of the old media models, accelerated by this crisis, is beginning to spur some real innovation INSIDE old media on ways to merge with and absorb the best ideas from the newbies. Indeed, Sarah Lacy at TechCrunch says that’s the way to save Portfolio’s erstwhile competitors in the biz space: she proposes turning those organizations into full-time professional blogs, with the magazine as a weekly or monthly digest of the blog’s choice items, expanded out to article length, accompanied by the occasional long investigation or narrative. Is it just me, or is this the vertical structure I’ve been touting all along?

One of the benefits of such a structure would be the ability to use technology to add value to stories, instead of just for kicks or clicks. In other words, a professional blogger-journalist would ask themselves, “How does this story work best? As a blog post? As a slide show? As a video? As a long form piece? As a Flash animation? As a podcast?” and then be able to draw on all those technologies to deliver the best content possible. We’d have no more slideshows accompanying stories just to bump page-views, and no more long articles to convey quick info that fits best in a blog post. We’d also be able to nullify a major argument made by citizen-media activists–that they have a role to play because the old folks are incapable of, or unwilling to experiment with, harnessing new technology.

For a great example of how it might work, check out this slideshow from the BBC’s Robert Peston, noting that the Beeb is an old media institution with an integrated structure that now includes TV, Radio, online narrative/articles and blogs.

What To Do In Pakistan

By , 2 May, 2009, 1 Comment

As the war in Pakistan rages, there have been many pundits offering ways forward. Each of them gets us halfway to a solution, but in the end, none of them has an adequate plan. In this rather long post (advance apologies), I’ll try to cobble together the best of each school.


To begin with, let me summarize the situation. In Afghanistan, groups with Iranian/Persian roots make up almost 80% of the population, with the others each having 2% or 5% shares. The ethnic power balance is clear. It’s governed, ineptly, by an unpopular U.S. puppet and being challenged/revolted against by a more popular insurgency of tribal leaders, i.e. the erstwhile Taliban government. Over the years, many of those leaders have moved over the border into western Pakistan. In Pakistan, the ethnic situation is more complex, with all the major provinces corresponding, roughly, to a different ethnic group and language. In the area bordering Afghanistan, the majority of the population belongs to the same ethnic group–the Pashtuns–who dominate Afghanistan. Indeed, many in the 1940s thought that region should have been part of Afghanistan anyway. Instead, Pakistan negotiated for the territory but agreed to give the Pashtuns there some semi-autonomy, continuing the borders laid out by the Brits in the 1890s. So over the years, as the Taliban and other Pashtun refugees have come over the border, they have some semi-autonomy when it came to organizing and recruiting: the result is a copycat movement, the Pakistan-Taliban, affiliated but not officially tied to the guys we are fighting in Kabul.

For many years, Pakistan hands and Pakistani political elites assumed that the unofficial alliance meant that any radicals trained in this lawless border region had their eye on Kabul anyway. So long as their enemies were Russians or Americans in Afghanistan, Islamabad did not care. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s military/intelligence units were quite happy to have these radicals training in their backyard in the hope of turning some of them east to fight India. It never occurred to authorities, or they chose to block out the possibility, that the Pakistan-Taliban was also a class movement of the disenfranchised and downtrodden who would turn on social elites in Islamabad directly. Instead, they insisted that if the US had not bungled the first and second Afghan wars (which we did), there would be no Pakistan-Taliban, and that if the US withdrew, the Pakistan-Taliban would just go back to being harmless country bumpkins that Islamabad could ignore. What Pakistani elites have learned, the hard way, these last few years is that the Pakistan-Taliban have it out for them too, that this is not just America’s war but Pakistan’s war too. So long as vast class inequities and social injustices exist, not only in the tribal regions but across the country, the Pakistan-Taliban will be able to expand eastwards.
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