Archive for ‘Business’

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?

How to Deal with Google

By , 17 April, 2009, 5 Comments

When I posted my concerns about the market power of Google a few weeks ago, I got the following arguments in response:

–what Google offers the ordinary computer user is the opposite of a monopolized experience: free innovate products. Let’s call this argument “Google is not evil.”
–what Google offers the buyers of ad space and data is also the opposite of a monopolized experience: innovative services that cost less than their competitors. Let’s call this argument “Google is not greedy.”
–Google has achieved its dominance of search-based advertising and data-aggregation on the merits of its algorithms. Let’s call this argument “Google is not cheating”
–Google plays in many fields but doesn’t own any of them, since there’s still all that TV, radio and yes, print advertising still out there that Google hasn’t yet taken over. Let’s call this argument “Google is not that big.”

Read More →

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:

Read More →

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.

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.

Good Riddance to Tired Biz Memes

By , 23 February, 2009, No Comment

If there’s one thing that really raises my blood pressure, it’s people misusing the word “innovation” to describe any and all kinds of newfangled change. In the business journo world, that usually applies to PR representatives who call to tell me that their client’s new product/venture is innovative just by virtue of being new. There’s a subcategory of these people who think anything that uses the Internet is innovative by definition. But innovation is more than just a new way of conceptualizing; it’s that new concept applied, successfully, in the real world. A new idea that is unworkable, or turns into a bad idea on contact with reality, is not innovation.

BusinessWeek’s Innovation expert Bruce Nussbaum is normally pretty sound on this point. He called President Obama out early in the transition for conflating technology investments with “innovation.” But then he misapplied the innovation label to praise Secretary Hank Paulson when Paulson began flip-flopping between his initial plan to create a “bad bank” for bad assets and the British strategy to take big stakes in existing banks to help them deal with bad assets. Yes, Bruce is right to argue that innovators must have the freedom to change their minds and optimize their ideas as they learn more information; that is Design Strategy 101. But that’s not what was happening at Treasury: what had Paulson changing his mind was not new economic data, but the changing office politics of his department. Calling pillar-to-post behavior innovative cheapens the term.

No surprise then that Nussbaum now feels innovation is a dead concept, killed by its misapplication and “overuse.” His proposal for a new concept? “Transformation.” I like it because I think it carries the practical side of new ideas on its sleeve. Innovate is an intransitive verb, but transform is a transitive verb. You innovate, period but you transform something, which means the USE of the new idea is baked into the concept.

Meme cleanup may be the new meme these days: TechCrunch says it’s time to stop calling everything digital “Web 2.0.” I’m guilty of misuing that label; consider this post my promise to stop.

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.

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.

Read More →

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.