Archive for ‘Business’

Obama Plays Institutionalist?

By , 9 October, 2009, No Comment

Two weeks ago, I mentioned that I was frustrated with Obama’s approach to big international issues like climate change, because it followed his preference for decentralized consensus governance over the institutions and realpolitik of great power diplomacy. (Worse still is the extent to which others seem to buy into his vision.)

On the environment, the opportunity to throw some real institutionalist punches and ram climate legislation through the Senate passed us by in June, when the House passed the bill and the health care debate hadn’t taken over everyone’s attention spans. Being individualists, the Obama-ites failed to think about the institutional structure of the Senate and the fact that it doesn’t take on more than one big bill at a time, as well as about the institutions of other governments who would not, despite their general admiration for Obama, be duped into taking a handshake from him in December instead of real policy commitments to reduce emissions.

That said, there are occasional fleeting moments where it seems that Obama has grown savvy to these problems with his radical individualism. That’s why, as I reported in Fortune today, he’s using the institutions he still has power over (the executive agencies) to regulate individual industries in lieu of getting a comprehensive bill. In some ways, discretionary regulation beats Congressional oversight–career bureaucrats tend to be less beholden to lobbyists. On the other hand, discretionary regulation tends to be less economically efficient in the policies it produces, because industries are considered piecemeal and without proper attention to the way they interact in the macroeconomy. Furthermore, discretionary regulation is, well, discretionary, and doesn’t have any value once power changes hands. Congressional policies, on the other hand, are very hard to undo once they’re in place. Still, is this better than nothing? Hell, yeah.

Washington’s Cognitive Dissonance

By , 5 October, 2009, No Comment

I wrote a news item for Fortune today on the FTC’s new guidelines for advertising and consumer endorsements on the web. Basically, the guidelines require disclosure of any material connections–money changing hands–between companies and bloggers.


 

“The issue here,” says Cleland, “is whether, if the consumer knew of the relationship between the advertisers and the blogger, would it affect the credibility of the blogger’s statements?” If so, the new guidelines would permit the FTC to demand that the blogger disclose the connection, with failure to comply resulting in fines as high as $11,000.

The problem, critics contend, is the lack of clarity in the FTC Guides on what will constitute a violation. Beyond direct payments from companies to reviewers in exchange for specific coverage, the guidelines seem to extend to consumer and personal websites where advertising content and editorial content overlap.

Read the rest here.

One thing that came up in my reporting that I didn’t get a chance to address in the piece is the question of whether blogs are a publishing medium where conflicts of interest are a form of commercial corruption, or just equivalent to individual speech, in which case the government can’t regulate them at all. In this case, the FTC is treating blogs as a publishing medium, at the expense of the many individuals who use the platform simply to carry on personal conversations.

Meanwhile, the FCC seems to be approaching the internet as a form of speech and therefore pushing net neutrality on the grounds that all speech must be treated equal. That approach takes away all the specific protections that commercial content is premised upon (like intellectual property rights), even as that publishing is about to move online.

Meanwhile, Congress, which oversees both agencies, is trying to draw a line in the middle of the blogosphere between those who use blogs as a publishing form–and get special rights but also stricter rules as a result–and those who are just speaking. The Congressional shield bill may be doomed now that it’s lost White House support, but I think in principle, some way of distinguishing commercial from non-commercial content online is going to be necessary.

What frustrates me most, however, is how easy it is for the two agencies to put into law two conflicting definitions of the same space–the net–without anyone raising questions about the inherent contradictions between their approaches. It’s a clear case where some regulatory consolidation is needed.

Vikram Pandit needs PR 101

By , 21 September, 2009, No Comment

The other night I attended a Q&A; between BusinessWeek editor Steve Adler and Citigroup CEO Vikram Pandit. It was part of a series called “Captains of Industry” and I’ve been to some talks with other business leaders in the past. Usually Adler focuses on their personal story and character, rather than on the specifics of the business they run. This can work in interviewees’ interest: they BENEFIT from being candid/controversial/self-deprecating to counter popular perceptions of business leaders as cold and calculating and give wise-older-person guidance to the mostly young professionals who seem to populate the audience.

Now in Pandit’s case, the setup for personal storytelling seems ideal–his unpopularity is stunning, there are tons of young confused would-be financiers in New York hungry for advice, and he’s got a great narrative: an Indian immigrant running an American giant at a time when India is on the rise.

But instead, Pandit flat-out refused to answer questions about himself as a person, almost as though he didn’t understand that it was to answer those questions that he was there. Even Adler seemed flummoxed–I’ve never seen him or anyone actually admit mid-interview that the chat wasn’t going to plan. It didn’t diminish my already considerable esteem for him as a reporter: after all, the questions he asked were much tougher than the drivel Charlie Rose put to Pandit in the fall. Indeed, it somewhat comforted me as a young reporter that even veteran aces get phased sometime by their sources.

Here’s the thing: Pandit had a few decent and interesting things to say about Citi itself, successfully avoiding the ugly truth about the company without outright lying. That made me think he was operating in the persona required of him at a CEO conference call, where hedging is key and ‘no comment’ is sometimes appropriate. He seemed to simply not understand that what this event called for was precisely the opposite. Is that Pandit’s stupidity, or a massive PR fail at Citigroup where someone forgot to brief the boss about what to do? (I’ve seen this problem before–there are many executives who seem not to understand how much they benefit from taking a side, even if its risky, in their answers to questions, and how much more cynical and hostile press coverage gets when they try to please.)

Watch the video and let me know what you think. It’s about an hour long, so if you’re rushed, these are some highlights (not verbatim, I don’t type that fast):

Read More →

You Win Some, You Lose Some

By , 16 September, 2009, No Comment

Mixed results today of my recent bets on the future of media.

1. BusinessWeek’s potential buyers have turned in their bids, and BW’s own media writer Jon Fine is on the story. It looks like vanity buyers (aka Wasserstein) have pulled out, and real media companies (aka Bloomberg) are back in the lead, but the LBO firms are hanging on. When I blogged about this earlier in the summer, I said I was rooting for Bloomberg over the LBO folks, so, so far, I’m winning.

BW staffers appear to be grieving for Wasserstein because they believe a vanity buyer would be a more patient investor than even a media firm; I disagree–the example of Sam Zell suggests that vanity buyers behave more like LBO firms in trying to squeeze fast profits, not because they need the money, but because the vanity buyer psychology works something like “Oooh I want a shiny media gem to wear in my crown. If I buy a rusted media gem I must make it shiny.” Wasserstein figured out BW wouldn’t be shiny (ie a gold mine) anytime soon, and walked away.

BW staffers also appear weary of Bloomberg in particular because they think he will be unfriendly to BW’s newer ventures into social media, basically creating networks for managers to discuss their industry and trends. While I think this a cool feature, I think the best thing BW has to offer isn’t that; it’s their investigative unit and wide angle coverage; Bloomberg is a luxury outfit that has shown willingness to spend a lot of money on reporting. That can only be to BW’s benefit. Moreover, BW’s focus on news managers can use will serve as a complement, not a competitor, to Bloomberg’s focus on use investors can use.

Fingers crossed that this works out.

2. Mark Zuckerberg blogs that Facebook now has positive free cash flow. That means it’s taking in more cash than it’s paying out, but it doesn’t mean the company is profitable yet, since there are lots of non-cash expenses like debt that FCF won’t reflect. That doesn’t quite erase my suspicions about their Ponzi-ness (Ponzi schemes, by definition, have lots of positive FCF when they are growing), but it does give me pause about writing off their potential to develop a real business. I’ll think this one over again and be back.

3. Google announces FastFlip, a platform that basically lets you read media pages in their designed form. That makes it easier for publications to give you the user experience of reading an old fashioned glossy mag, and yes, the feature looks pretty damn cool, but it also means that Google can sell ads not only against content on its pages, or on the pages of its partners, but over, above and outside whole websites that may have their own ads. It’s meta-advertising, and supports my long-standing conviction that Google’s macromarket strategy precludes any publishers’ attempts to figure out an ad strategy for content sites.

It’s Getting Better All the Time

By , 15 September, 2009, 1 Comment

Before turning in for the night, I feel I ought to join the voices toasting the anniversary of Lehman’s collapse. I’ll leave serious analysis of where we are, and how much remains to be solved, to other bloggers and other days. My thoughts are more mundane.

Yesterday, when the President delivered Wall Street hotshots a lunchtime lecture about the need for regulatory and compensation reform, I noticed one thing: I was watching CNBC, and the market didn’t blink once during his address. In fact, it seemed to perk up during that half-hour (noon to 12:30), and stay up throughout the afternoon.

This morning, Ben Bernanke had a similar result when he addressed econo-wonks during the first half hour of trading.

Why does this matter? This time last year, every time any government official–Bush, Paulson, Bernanke–got on camera with the intention to restore calm, investors panicked. On days when there was no other economic news, regulators opening their mouths were singlehandedly making the situation worse.
That is not to say that Bernanke and Obama going on the conference circuit now has any real economic value, but simply to point out that the non-effects of their speeches show that we are all a lot less jittery, and that’s a good thing.

Google-opoly: A New Twist

By , 8 September, 2009, No Comment

I spent the weekend engaged in an interesting snark-fest with Jeff Jarvis in the comments section of his blog. Jarvis was complaining about the many requests he gets from journalists working on ‘anti-Google’ stories looking for a quote. It’s not surprising that he gets the requests, since he’s written a book advocating Google’s business model as a blueprint for all companies. Indeed, I reached out to Jarvis for my own Google story a few weeks ago, but he was understandably busy.

Jarvis’ accusation was that journos are fabricating news stories out of scant fact in order to exorcise our own curmudgeonly demons when it comes to living in a digital world. I’d admit that bias plays a role in the tone of coverage of Google, but since most of the queries he referenced are about ANTITRUST stories, I’m not sure bias actually drives the decision TO cover Google in the first place or that the facts behind those stories are as thin as Jarvis suggests. Those stories only arise AFTER the government somewhere decides to investigate Google; then we report on the investigation. And as far as I know, no journalist has reported on a non-existent lawsuit yet. So I’m really not sure what Jarvis was ‘kvetching about, despite trying to get some clarity from him multiple times.

To the contrary, I’m even more convinced that the regulators have a real case to make against Google than I was when I first got into my tussle with Jarvis a few days ago.

Read More →

I Told Ya So

By , 31 August, 2009, No Comment

Virginia Heffernan’s column in the New York Times Magazine is one of the highlights of my weekend. It might be because she writes so wittily; it might be because I read the magazine on the treadmill and her column, which appears within the first ten pages, is often the last thing I read before I become too sweaty and tired to think straight.

But I digress.

Her column this week is about the Facebook Exodus, the impending backlash of users fleeing the site because they are frustrated with its increased busy-ness and diminished privacy. On the one hand, I think she nailed the trend. On the other hand, I’m a wee bit bitter since I’ve been saying as much on this blog and elsewhere for awhile, and I’m not alone.

What do you think? Can the Facebook bubble burst?

Apocalypse 30: Bellyaching in Britain

By , 30 August, 2009, 1 Comment

This past week saw the International Television Conference in Edinburgh, where various stars of British screen life pontificated on, what else, the future of media. The show stopper was a keynote lecture by James Murdoch where he railed against the BBC, Ofcom and government’s role in media more generally. His language was inflammatory and his politics insufferable, but I found myself agreeing with him about the economics of the emerging media model.

Here’s the core of his argument: we live in a world where there is no longer radio journalism and TV journalism and print journalism and web journalism, but simply journalism. Stories–whether told in words, pictures or sound–are all going to be transmitted the same way, as a combinations of 1s and 0s to be read on laptops and mobile phones. Murdoch calls this the “all-media market,” and the people who provide it “branded mediators.” Clumsy phrases, but they do the job.

Read More →

Conspiracy Theory Monday

By , 24 August, 2009, No Comment

While others were beaching it up, I spent my weekend poring over the responses from Apple, Google and AT&T; to the FCC over the iPhone-GoogleVoice snafu. AT&T; essentially repeated its earlier statement, with more umph—it takes no responsibility for what happened and says Apple was acting alone.

Apple tried to hedge it, first claiming that the GoogleVoice application hasn’t been rejected but is ‘still under review’ then listing reasons why it might deserve to be rejected. A host of tech commenters, led by Michael Arrington, called the first claim a bald-faced lie, and I’m inclined to agree. The FCC wouldn’t be investigating this if the application-rejection hadn’t provided the smoking gun. The FCC would not launch an investigation if Google’s complaint was simply that the process was just taking too long.

On the second point, however, I’m inclined to think Apple has a point. Not a legal case, to be sure (on legal grounds, I fully support them getting an FCC walloping), but a business one.

Read More →

Notes from the Googleplex

By , 21 August, 2009, No Comment

I’ll admit, I feel a wee bit smug today. After musing about Google for many many months on this blog, I’ve managed to report out some of my ideas about data-as-a-commodity in a cover story for the UK’s New Statesman. If you’re going to read it, I suggest you also read WIRED’s take on the subject. I was less than floored by the WIRED piece, but I am curious as to how you think they compare.

Beyond the satisfaction of getting this analysis out there, I found this project fascinating, not least because I learned that Google’s PR officer reads this blog and follows tech reporters on Twitter. That’s PR101, of course, but it’s notable that Google, for all its exceptionalist rhetoric, works just like any other firm of its size.

Finally, because my colleagues were in London, I was in New York and Google was in California, this piece was reported, written and edited at odd hours of day and night, with snippets of text sent between us over a veritable menagerie of technologies. We each took raw notes in Word, then posted them to a shared Google Document (for the uninitiated, this is a service that allows you to host a document on the web so multiple authors can see it). We outlined and drafted the piece on Adobe’s BuzzWord (a similar service that also allows to share comments on the document), and sometimes used GChat (Google’s instant messaging service) to tweak individual sentences or paragraphs before updating the central file. Then we fine tuned it with our editors in old fashioned Word attachments.

In the process, I learned what each of these software programs is best for: GoogleDocs is great for sharing big chunks of raw text, but useless for organization. Adobe is the best for comments and in that sense, the best collaborative tool, but it’s Flash-based and unsuited to older computers.  Word is the easiest place to get a holistic picture of whatever you’re working on without getting sucked into the minute-by-minute changes.

None of these programs offers you everything you need. For most of the last ten days, I had Word, Google Mail/Chat, Google Docs, and BuzzWord open at once. Usually, I was on the phone too. The frenzy was a reminder that there are limits on the world-flattening capacity of computers. In the end, the best writing happened when we were on the phone with one another, writing each sentence together instead of dividing the work, and with one of us taking centralized control for typing. In other words, we wrote best when we slowed down instead of using technology to speed us up. A sobering thought for tech-evangelists.

Updated: Memes travel fast. The BBC ‘s Maggie Shiels makes similar points about BookSearch.