Posts by Maha Rafi Atal

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.

The End of Forgetting

By , 29 January, 2009, 3 Comments

I’m back at school at Columbia, and one of my electives this spring is a seminar on “Computers, Privacy and the Constitution” with noted intellectual property lawyer and free software, copyleft advocate Eben Moglen. I have my qualms about the politics of the open source crowd but I will admit that Moglen is sharp as nails and I’m psyched to be studying with him. This course actually focuses on the aspect of the open web question that brings me closest to Prof. Moglen: the issue of privacy. Free access to information may sound like a plus when its free mp3s we’re debating, but not such a plus when it’s unrestricted government access to your phone lines.

Eben Moglen is the first person in the free software movement I’ve heard admit and take ownership for the link between the two, and for this he gets major points. To paraphrase his introductory lecture for the course [I was taking notes, not tape-recording], “We who promoted these technologies to trick capitalism into undermining itself and to empower those at the bottom who could not afford to pay for knowledge enabled the surveillance society we live in today.” And of course, it’s big corporations who are teamed up with big government to operate that surveillance. Whether you’re a hippie anti-capitalist or a libertarian wingnut, you have much to fear from that collaboration.

At the worst extreme, there’s the Moglen paranoia scenario in which the Internet brings us free culture fascism. As Moglen sees it, (and there’s some logic to this), the fundamental ideological front in America’s war on 20th century totalitarianism was not the question of its violence, nor of state control of private sector institutions [though we spoke a lot about those]. Our problem, our fear, was the state’s control of individual minds, the ability to police dreams and ambitions. Data-mining our internet searches and Facebook walls does just that.

Now, Moglen continues, what eventually brings down any regime is “the destruction of its instruction sets.” [He's really a poet in lawyer's clothing] Totalitarianism, to extend the example, failed because its machinery started to creak under its own weight. Moglen’s fear about any contemporary state is not that it is evil but that if it turns out to be, it will be impossible to challenge because the government has purchased all our data and that data can never be destroyed or changed. Everything that is uttered or sent in what we perceive as a transitory medium–the phone, the web–is actually recorded and made permanent. This is what Moglen calls “The End of Forgetting.” It’s a tragically beautiful concept, but it’s one I somewhat differ with: sometimes, the ability to Always Remember can be good. But by and large, I’ll admit Moglen is right to be alarmed about our privacy.

If nothing else, his concerns are topical. A few relevant stories from this week alone:

–the British government is going to release a new plan to help internet service providers police privacy. How? By the creation of a new agency which “will decide what level of illegal activity is required before an internet user can be spied upon.” In an Orwellian twist, the agency [to be funded by the telecom firms] is called the Rights Agency. How big brotherly.

–to Moglen’s point about the overlap of free culture with surveillance culture, the British government is also announcing an expansion of its open government policies, shortening the statute of limitations after which journalists can get access to classified documents

–Swiss cops used Google Earth to find a marijuana farm. These kinds of collaborations bring into question any government attempts to regulate these companies. Sometimes, I think the government doesn’t realize how much it is dependent on these firms–last week, the Obama administration signed its staffers up for Gmail when the White House email system crashed, calling the arrangement temporary. Do they not realize they’ve just given a bunch of engineers in California PERMANENT access to what, in the analog age, would have been highly classified correspondence? Do they not know that Google datamines email? Can’t be, because they often buy such data. Do they honestly think Google deletes any info the government doesn’t use? Ha.

–As Moglen concedes, free software has at least thus far failed to undermine capitalism. But capitalism might be the last weapon in the battle to undermine digital surveillance: it’s other companies’ fear of Google’s power that will motivate them to join with civil libertarians in defending privacy. That’s the gist of this article in WIRED, and the case made by the author in the video interview below.

Newspaper Futures

By , 28 January, 2009, No Comment

As readers of this blog will know, I am ambivalent about the emerging M.O. of online journalism. I think original reporting available to more people at lower cost is great news. I think editorializing from informed but partisan experts is a good thing in so much as it engages people to be active citizens even as it educates them. I think the trend of taking the link—the ability to connect disparate ideas—and using it as a license to eschew logic and connect anything you please is bad. I think the claim by link-evangelists that their denial of verifiable truth is more intellectually honest than the imperfect, but well-intentioned, search for objectivity that characterizes traditional print is the worst of all.

I feel compelled to summarize the above stances again in light of a recent article by Michael Hirschorn in the Atlantic Monthly. Hirschorn makes the case that the current financial crisis will speed up the (he says) inevitable bankruptcies of various print organizations, and takes up the NYT as an example.

Women and the political transition

By , 22 January, 2009, 1 Comment




Now-official Secretary of State Clinton: when watching the inaugural, I noticed that the procession grouped dignitaries by professional designation–first the legislators walked down the Capitol steps, then the Obama cabinet designees, then the first family, then former Presidents and Vice-Presidents, accompanied by their spouses, and finally Biden and Obama. Hillary Clinton fit several of those categories: as of Tuesday, she was the junior Senator from New York, the Secretary of State designee and the wife of a former President. I found it telling that she did not walk out with her Senate colleagues or her fellow Cabinet appointees but as Mrs. Clinton on Bill’s arm. As an HRC supporter during the primary, I consider much of her time as First Lady relevant experience (part of the campaign’s core argument). BUT just like you list your most recent job at the top of your CV, it seems to me that on Tuesday Jan 20th, as the administration in which she is about to serve takes over, Hillary Clinton’s primary identity should have been as a member of the Obama cabinet. That it didn’t work out that way reminds us of the many glass ceilings that are still unbroken.

That is not to say that any woman who wants a job should be promoted to it. Or that family ties are irrelevant. My enthusiasm for Secretary Clinton is grounded in the fact that she was working towards a career in public service BEFORE she became a political spouse, BEFORE she had the dynastic ties. Caroline Kennedy, who thankfully withdrew her name from the race to fill Clinton’s Senate seat, is the opposite: someone who has never shown an interest in electoral politics, except for a few weeks this winter when she thought it might come with her name. The same women voters won over by Hillary Clinton are the kind of people irked by Caroline Kennedy because it seems she has never, and never could, put career first.
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Moreover, politically, she never made much sense. New York Democrats already have a big name, downstate (ie New York City) voice in Sen. Chuck Schumer, who gets plenty of press. As a Senator, Clinton’s value was that she ran from an upstate district as a moderate and thereby allowed Democrats to make a case for themselves to the more conservative voters of rural northern New York. That’s how the Dems finally managed to take control of New York State government in Albany. From Governor Paterson’s perspective, ensuring that electoral constituency as a base for his party, and his own reelection, is paramount. Which is why I’m thrilled that he escaped the Kennedy trap.Link
Women were one reason that trap was so effective. So long as it makes sense in our national psychology to see Hillary Clinton as Bill’s wife first, Senator and Secretary of State second, so long as the dynasty is seen as the most important thing on HER C.V., it is possible to make the case that anyone with such a dynasty on THEIR C.V. can also be the glass ceiling-breaking women’s pol.

Because there were many women whose support of HRC during the presidential primaries was driven mostly by her gender; I wasn’t one of them, but I was sympathetic to the gendered part of her appeal. And those people were clamoring for a woman to fill her seat, but it needed to be a woman who, like Clinton as her supporters saw her, had a professional identity independent of any hereditary or marital ties. I had my eye on Carolyn Maloney, who’s sharp as nails, a career politician, but also a downstate liberal. Paterson gave us one hell of a pleasant surprise today by inviting moderate, upstate Congresswoman Kristen Gillibrand to his mansion to discuss her taking the job. Indeed, given the upsate vs. downstate nature of NYPolitics, someone of Gillibrand’s moderate make up is just what NYDemocrats need.

Some Thoughts on Obama’s Big Day

By , 20 January, 2009, 6 Comments


For a man known for his soaring rhetoric, I thought the speech was comparitively flat, disjointed in rhetoric, and plagued by mixed metaphors.

From a vision perspective, he dropped a lot of his “change” rhetoric for an emphasis on the “era of responsibility,” but that’s a pretty innocuous and vague vision that has been used before. What does it mean? Let’s ask Gordon Stewart:
Like so much about the astonishingly gifted, directed, disciplined and composed Barack Obama — we don’t know. And my honest reaction listening to his inaugural address is that he doesn’t know either. Whether history comes to regard President Obama’s remarks today as a great speech will depend upon how it comes to regard his presidency. And that will now, for the first time in his career, depend more on the actions he takes than the words he speaks.

Refreshingly, unlike most of Obama’s campaign speeches, this one did have some actual suggestions about policy in it, and policies I rather liked. First off, he offered up a centrist economic agenda—a medium-sized, efficiency-oriented government that will cut failed programs. I’m with Mickey Kaus on this: it’s a pie-crust promise, but if he pulls it off, it’ll be a massive coup.

Secondly, he offered up a progressive foreign policy, in what was the only real killer line:
To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.
As Howard Fineman reminds us in Newsweek, Barack Obama’s career started with this idea of dialogic foreign policy and the core merit of his election is the image, the brand, of America he presents abroad. The woolliness of “change” is perfectly suited to the figurehead component of the Presidency.

It is not so suited to domestic policy, though what I call woolliness President Obama calls post-partisanship. And my biggest problem with the speech was that moment where he, again, called anyone who doesn’t buy the post-partisan thing a “cynic.” Let me explain this again: a cynic is someone who has ideal A, but opts for action B because it seems achievable. In the case of President Obama’s vision, a cynic would say “post-partisanship sounds great, but I don’t think it can happen.” I am not that person. I paraphrase Gail Collins: “God forbid we ever have post-partisanship. I would hate that. Partisanship IS my ideal.”
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I believe great policies are often crafted in the ideological center. But they emerge from principled back-and-forth between two sides. Ex: Even if President Johnson could have passed the Great Society laws without threatening Republican Senators and fighting partisan battles I would not want him to have done so. By alienating and angering some on the Right, he ensured that they would spend a generation trying to find private sector alternatives to his policies. Which meant that when the 1990s rolled around and some of his policies were proven roaring successes [Medicare, education and arts funding], while others started to falter [ex: the urban renewal projects], ideas developed by Johnson’s wounded enemies were ready to fill in gaps. The result was welfare reform, the appropriation of some right-wing ideas by a liberal President [Clinton], without any claims to share a universal set of ideals. Clintonian “triangulation” had a sort of Hegelian dialectic logic to it; Obama’s post-partisan vision is different, and in my mind, worse.
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President Obama and his supporters have every right to disagree with me, or with Hegel, or with anyone else, but to dismiss my ideals as nonexistent, or to assume that I share THEIR ideals and am cynically settling for something lesser is presumptuous.

That brings me to the last point about this speech: there’s a lot of hubris in President Obama’s claim that the end trajectory of history is to some middle point where binary conflicts end and that he represents that path. He claims to speak for all of us, and expects us all to fall in line and march towards his professed goals. It’s a bit groupthink-oriented for my tastes. Mickey Kaus and George Will concur. Worse still, he claims that all past history was marching this way even if we didn’t know it. That bit about slaves and pioneers suffering “for us” was borderline offensive, especially since he brushed aside the very real history of racial struggle in one sentence.

It’s paradoxical in a way. President Obama professes to be all about bottom-up politics, but really he’s very top-down: he has a great man theory of history, in which he is one of the great men, along with all the former presidents [and a token reference to MLK] whose words were quoted in his speech. The rest of us matter so long as you believe, as he does, that everyone is—in their hearts—a believer in his postpartisan ideals. If you actively reject those ideals in favor of conflict-as-an-ideal, you don’t fit his worldview. The notion that processes drive history and that individuals emerge FROM those processes, conditioned by impersonal forces, and able to exercise agency within existing balances of power, is out of sync with Mr. Obama’s rather audacious sense of self.

Pompous, hyperbolic, and intelligent, however, is a welcome relief from pompous, hyberbolic and inept. Good riddance, good night and good luck.