Archive for June, 2009

Me.gov: Blogging the Personal Democracy Forum

By , 30 June, 2009, No Comment

I’ve spent part of the last two days at the annual conference of the Personal Democracy Forum, attending a few panels and talks about how technology is changing politics and where new online media and news models fit into that new political universe. A few selected highlights:

What Michael Meant to Me

By , 26 June, 2009, 4 Comments


When I was growing up, the television sat across from the bed in my parents’ room, and they controlled what I watched. They made time for Sesame Street, Lamb Chops and Mr. Rogers, but for the most part, I just sat alongside them while they watched hour upon hour of news, broken occasionally by cooking shows. In other words, all we saw was public television. All commercial channels except Disney and CNN were strictly verboten, and MTV was the epitome of the consumerist culture from which I was sheltered.

In the summers, we often visited family friends who had a house, a pool, horses and a few acres of land in Long Island. Their daughter was exactly my age (we actually wound up together at college) but much more independent. She played tough single-shooter video games, wasn’t afraid of bees, and had her own basement to watch–I marveled–anything she wanted. It was there that I first turned on MTV.

All the News that’s Safe to Print

By , 24 June, 2009, 2 Comments

You may have missed it in the hubbub over the journos lost in Iran, but two journalists recently escaped from their kidnappers further east on the AfPak border. The New York Times triumphantly announced that it had covered up the kidnapping of David Rohde and his Afghan colleague for seven months in order to reduce their value to the kidnappers and increase likelihood of their release. Other media outfits quickly owned up to having cooperated in keeping the secret.

The bloggers were quick to jump on the Times with cries of hypocrisy—namely, the paper is supposed to report “all the news that’s fit to print,” meaning all verifiable information of material significance to public debate. Having authoritative, first-hand knowledge that a journalist from a major international title has been kidnapped in a war zone certainly qualifies. Moreover, the Times reports extensively on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or on our government’s homeland security policies–doesn’t that give information to the enemy in the same way the editors claim publishing the Rohde story would have?

It would be possible—and indeed reasonable—to construct a code of professional conduct that drew a line between the ethics of reporting on oneself and the ethics of reporting on the government, but the Times would have to come out and disclose such a code and it would have to be water-tight and consistent with industry norms and standards.

One option would be to define “oneself” as the media writ large: journalists are obligated to report on diplomats and soldiers in danger, but are allowed to protect those who go out to do that reporting. Under this code, all media outlets would be expected to participate in the information blackout, as they did in the Rohde case. But this wouldn’t get the Times off the hook for hypocrisy since they routinely report on lost journalists who work for their rivals. The Times could also get away with a code that allowed them keep secret ONLY their own staffers lost, but that would mean letting other papers do the same. Since the Times asked other papers to help protect ITS staffers, it would be guilty of hypocrisy by this measure of ethics too.

The Times’ hypocrisy, it seems to me, lies not in the way they cover national security but in the way they view their media confreres. David Shuster, are you reading this?

How to Handle Health Care

By , 20 June, 2009, 7 Comments

Here’s how insurance works. You sign up for a plan, and based on how likely to be sick you are, you get a quote for your monthly premium. If a particular insurer has a roster of clients who are 90% sick folk and 10% healthy folk, the base premiums they use will be higher than if the balance were 50-50, because they will need to pay out more funds to cover their clients and need more revenue from premiums to do it. But the people who have an incentive to buy health insurance are A. old or B. sick, precisely the demographics that drive premiums up. Now factor in that we have two insurance companies that are state-run, Medicare and Medicaid, populated ENTIRELY by the elderly and ill. The cost to the taxpayer of maintaining those is even higher.

Meanwhile young people elect not to buy insurance because they are cavalier about their health; by the time they want coverage, they are old or sick, so the cost of a plan is high. Some of them wind up being poor enough that Medicaid covers them, but that only adds to high cost and inefficiency of Medicaid as an insurance plan populated only by the most expensive clients. (Proposals to make Medicaid open to all would only make this worse.) Some of them wind up being wealthy enough that they can pay the high premiums of the private insurers. The rest are our 50 million uninsured.

Why can’t these consumers bid down the cost of private sector insurance? Once reason is that regulatory oddities prevent them from voting with their wallets–if I, a New York resident, see a plan in California that suits me better (maybe it covers more of what I want and less of what I don’t), I should be able to buy it, sending a signal to New York area firms that they should lower their prices to compete. The HMOs have successfully lobbied state and federal governments to prevent that from happening. Certainly lifting such odd regulations would bring private sector costs down, but it wouldn’t solve the tax-dollar-drain that is Medicare/Medicaid, nor would it guarantee costs falling enough to insure everyone.

Why are the costs of insuring the sick so high anyway? Other countries–most of the EU–pay for ALL their citizens out of tax money and still spend less than we do. One reason is that they make sure their state-run insurers don’t cover the silly things some of our private ones do (Viagra) and that they do cover smart preventative care (testing people with the right risk factors for chronic diseases like diabetes, then following through with them on diet and exercise). Granted, preventative care can be done wrong or wastefully, but this is more a matter of improving medical education than one of insurance pricing.

Another reason is that they ration care by buying just one brand of everything in bulk: you don’t get to choose between Prozac and Zoloft. Getting rid of coverage for discretionary things like Viagra and improving preventative care would be smart things to steal from them. Getting rid of drug diversity probably isn’t, because our population is larger and more diverse than theirs and the effectiveness of these drugs has a lot to do with genes. So copying the European model wholesale (ie going for single-payer) is a bad idea.

Moreover, we need a robust drug development sector in this country because it’s one of the few areas where America can still lead innovation and create jobs. Manufacturing is dying, IT is migrating, clean-tech is light-years away from maturity and services (hoteliers, accountants) can only take you so far. We have to make stuff, and this is one thing we’re still relatively good at. So economically, crippling pharma by going for single-payer doesn’t make much sense.

Here’s a better system:

Apocalypse 28: Lessons from the film industry

By , 18 June, 2009, No Comment

My friend and indie filmmaker Michael Morgenstern has a blog where he covers, among other things, the shakedown that is taking place in the film industry. It sounds a lot like the one we’re experiencing in journalism–to quote Mike, the challenges are as follow:

“financing its films when the distribution model is defunct, monetizing the Internet where users expect to pay nothing, and conquering the crowd logic of moviegoers and the advertising budgets of the big players.”

In a three part series that you absolutely must read, Mike has laid out how indie film landed in its current quagmire and how he believes it might emerge. Key to his vision are two ideas that have also been touted by new media activists (journalism’s equivalent of indie directors) as models for news. One is micropayments; the other is using a central web portal as the launch and landing pad for non-digital offerings of the most popular content. I have two essential bones to pick with this vision–firstly, that the central web portal for journalism, film and maybe one day music will be Google and there are serious anti-trust issues there, and secondly, that the micropayments system assumes users will set up a digital credit card account accessible at all websites and there are serious privacy issues there. While Mike gets points from this business writer for being more economically savvy than most filmmakers I know, he brushes over both of these issues.

Furthermore, there is a problem in journalism that film doesn’t have–while news consumers will surely benefit from the new opportunities given to small players, news consumers will also lose if the old players are allowed to go under. Serious film aficionados aren’t really worried that there’s a social cost to seeing fewer summer blockbusters from big studios, while they are understandably bullish about the growing capacity of small producers to do high quality storytelling. Not only do the “big boys” in the news industry have good content to offer, the particular kind of good content they have to offer–expensive, investigative reporting–isn’t being replaced by the small producers as the distribution costs drop. That’s because the cost of that reporting isn’t on the distribution side; it’s on the production side, in the form of reporters’ beat expertise, time and travel. Micropayments won’t cover that.

I don’t know enough about film to know if Mike’s vision will work for them. But I know enough about journalism to know it won’t work for us.

Tweeting in Tehran

By , 16 June, 2009, No Comment

The fascinating thing about the media wars is that all sides see reality as supporting their cause. Take the election/protest story coming out of Iran this week. New media activists are overjoyed to see Twitter playing such a key role in mobilizing people and getting words and images from the protests out to the rest of the world. But, as a BBC reporter pointed out to me this week, the protesters are most concerned with making sure their efforts get on big outfits like the Beeb.


Here’s an obvious question no one is asking: how many new media startups actually HAVE staff reporters out there covering this? As far as I can tell, zero. Yet instead of admitting that they don’t have the institutional strength required to operate in places like Tehran, the bloggers are harping on the MSM for THEIR lack of coverage. It’s been thin, admittedly, but so far the outfits doing seriously awesome work on this–the NYTimes and the Atlantic–are seriously mainstream, despite Andrew Sullivan’s attempts to cast himself as an upstart. Sullivan, to his credit, has backed down from his rage.

Unfortunately, as Megan McArdle admits, the further we go into the media apocalypse, the harder it will get for even big institutions to support foreign bureaus. Increasingly, “there are too few journalists in too few places to cover a big story like this.” If we can’t be on the ground to cover stories like this, haven’t we failed at our most essential mission?

Apocalypse 27: The Gift that Keeps on Taking

By , 15 June, 2009, No Comment

The nonprofitization of journalism continued this weekend with the decision by the AP, a nonprofit that serves for-profit papers, to get its content from other nonprofits and gift it to papers for free. This is a break from the AP’s old practice of effectively selling content to its members by charging them membership fees.

The only people now willing to fund reporting, it seems, are niche nonprofits and most have an ideological agenda. This is fine when you are consuming their content on its own terms: I know when I read The Nation that I am getting a liberal take on life. But when cause journalism is aggregated by the AP and then passed off as ideologically neutral to the country’s mainstream papers, I worry.

Moreover, as I’ve outlined before, these small cause outfits usually fund the hard costs of reporting but not the careers of full-time reporters, which means all of us take up jobs in non-journalistic fields to pay our bills, slowly eroding our journalistic expertise. 

Faced with the challenge of financing their own reporting OR EVEN financing the AP membership rate, it makes short-term economic sense for newspapers to rely on free content from nonprofit newsrooms. But in the long-term, it does nothing to solve the core problems. To the extent that local papers–the AP’s members–are supposed to revive themselves by focusing on what they know best (their local communities and their relationships to readers)–outsourcing MORE of their content to people with national agendas hardly seems helpful. Most importantly, how can newspapers tell the reading or advertising public that their content has value when they themselves are willing to pay exactly $0 to fund it?

Like many things now touted out as solutions to the media conundrum, the decentralized gift economy strikes me as a gift that keeps on taking.

GM Gets Burned on YouTube, Again

By , 13 June, 2009, No Comment

As you’ve perhaps seen, if you watch any television, GM is running some ads to acquaint us with the friendly face of its bankruptcy filing. You can watch the whole slew of ads on the campaign’s website. Bloggers have been snarking about this website, but I think it’s pretty sleek and is designed to signal, among other things, that GM understands the new media world and the new media/young consumer. That’s why the campaign is called “Re:Invention” and each page has a title that begins with “Re:” like an email.

A few years ago, GM was internet-incompetent. It knew the web was out there, and important, but it didn’t know how to harness the web’s power for its brand. Like many companies, it tried to access user-generated content by hosting a contest to have users design its next Chevy ad. The ads that came back were spoofs and assaults on the company for its gas-guzzling contributions to global warming. Oops.

There are some similar spoof ads emerging on YouTube! to mock the “Re:Invention” campaign. But as I’ve been researching all year for my Columbia thesis, GM has actually come a long way technologically since 2006: internally, company engineers, designers etc. have learned to use the web to chat to bloggers and car enthusiasts about their work and follow the tech sector’s lead in taking user suggestions about products. They are incorporating viral media, but WAY before the product launch/advertising stage, so most of us don’t know it’s happening. I can’t share details–unless I find a way to turn my thesis into a real life magazine article–so you’ll have to take my word for it.

That doesn’t mean I’m any more optimistic about the bankruptcy itself, or what kind of GM will emerge at summer’s end, but I wanted to correct the record. And also to ask, what do you think of the “Re:Invention” site?

Round in Circles

By , 12 June, 2009, 2 Comments

My first story as a Fortune reporter is up, and predictably, it’s about social networks. In particular it’s about Facebook’s new offer to give users custom urls/usernames the way other networks do. I wrote a little about social media during my time at Forbes, but not nearly as much as I did at BusinessWeek or as an undergraduate newspaper columnist, so this is a bit of a homecoming. Plus ca change…

Is there life after the Apocalypse?

By , 9 June, 2009, No Comment

For almost a year, I’ve been writing about the transformation of the news industry in a running series called the Apocalypse. But for several recent posts, that series has been more about the good than the bad–is it possible that we’ve now turned the corner from the death of the old to the birth of the new?

To recap, my vision of the new is of the melding of establishment and startup media into vertically integrated but streamlined wholes. And there are ever-increasing signs that this model is emerging. BusinessWeek’s new project to get its blogs into more serious journalistic shape is one good move. But the big news is this: Ezra Klein, perhaps the poster boy for citizen-media and partisan blogging, has joined the establishment, migrating from the American Prospect to the Washington Post. This supports another of my hunches that the WaPo company would be the first to arrive at the new content structure.

Here’s the killer punch: Klein rejects the knee jerk “citizens are better” ideology of many of his old confreres and admits that he’s doing better service to the public as a WaPo reporter than he ever could have done in TAP. Working at the Post, he says, “adds on a different level of responsibility.”

All of this, however, doesn’t take away the core problem, which is funding this mess. For that, all we have to rely on is humor: