Archive for ‘Journalism’

We’ve Launched

By , 17 April, 2011, No Comment

Wednesday night was the launch of the nonprofit I’ve mentioned before, Public Business. There were some short planned speeches from myself and our board co-chair Anya Schiffrin, but the highlight for me was the discussion that followed, in which audience members got up, open mic style, and riffed on the idea of public interest business reporting. I was gratified, stimulated and moved and would like to see that style of free discussion as a regular feature of our events. Check it out yourself. H/t Mike for the video.

Public Business Launch Event, New York from Maha Atal on Vimeo.

Raymond Davis and the Media

By , 5 March, 2011, 2 Comments

The Raymond Davis saga in Pakistan is far from over, and I’ll have a piece sooner or later on the implications, broadly, for US-Pak relations. But there’s a meta-story that’s worth taking note of now: the coverage of the story in the Pakistani and international press. Essentially, Davis’ CIA status was being floated in the Pakistani press for several weeks before it ‘broke’ in the Guardian. It turned out that the New York Times and other American news organizations had deliberately held back the information at the request of U.S. authorities. Though a similar request was made of the Guardian, the paper’s editors and reporters refused.

As a reader of the Pakistani press, I’d seen the CIA claim, but in part because of the easy way in which the CIA is used as a bogeyman in Pakistani political discourse, I must admit I was skeptical of the claim until the Guardian verified it. As a critic of the Times’ inconsistent policy about withholding information for ‘the safety of the subject,’ I’m disappointed, but unsurprised, by their call on this one. Points to the Guardian for getting it right. For more on the details, this video from Al Jazeera’s media-watch show, Listening Post, is good:

The story is amusing coming on the heels of Hillary Clinton’s takedown of the American media at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this week. Clinton asserted that the U.S. is losing the global information war because of the frivolity in American journalism: you don’t feel when watching American news stations, she says, that you are getting real news.

Problematically, one reason American news outlets don’t deliver enough ‘real news’ is because they comply too readily with the intelligence agencies trying to win that information war. Yet another example of misaligned agendas coming from the State Department and the CIA.

Apocalypse 41: AOL Buys Huffington Post

By , 7 February, 2011, 3 Comments

Tim Armstrong’s game to make AOL a content company continues today with his $315 million acquisition of the Huffington Post. Deal details are here, but the key points are: the new Huffington Post Media Group will include HuffPo as well as AOL’s content sites, and Arianna Huffington will be its editor-in-chief.

I’ve been reasonably patient and benefit-of-the-doubt-giving about the new AOL, but this strikes me as a terrible idea. First, there’s the gap between how the two companies see ‘content.’ For all the heat it takes on the grounds that it doesn’t pay its writers (and that heat is deserved), the HuffPo is very much a place that believes there’s value to a publisher in originalreporting. The front page may still read like the liberal answer to Drudge that its founders had in mind, but of late, the site has made major expansions into more serious coverage, and I increasingly run into HuffPo reporters who are doing gumshoe work. It is much more than an aggregator with great SEO managers, though it is that too.

AOL when Tim Armstrong first took it over promised to be that, hiring a number of high-profile journalists from collapsing newspapers to work on a number of smart blogs, and even recruiting stringers as foreign correspondents. But in the last few months, the strategy has shifted. This presentation of AOL’s new metrics for success is pessimistic and unimaginative, a vision of digital media seems stuck in the noisy, SEO-obsessed world of five years ago. It’s certainly not a vision that’s compatible with the kind of place that HuffPo has grown up to be, nor with some of the more interesting elements of AOL’s current content stable. No surprise, then, that those elements are the first to be thrown overboard.

Second, the new ‘AOL way’ is all about mass appeal, and, as everyone knows, the Huffington Post is partisan project. I am not sure what is harder to imagine: that all of AOL’s platforms could conform to Ariana Huffington’s worldview, or that the Huffington Post could suddenly shift center, in the way that Armstrong and Huffington promised when talking about the deal to AllThingsD’s Kara Swisher.

Actually, the whole Swisher interview is worth watching, because it highlights these two culture clashes–on politics and on reporting–that make me skeptical of the deal: listening to Ariana and then Armstrong, it seems as though they are talking about separate mergers. AOL. has been down the dangerous route of a merger with a very different culture before, and it had disastrous consequences. It’s a shame it seems to be making the same mistake twice.

Assorted Questions on Egypt

By , 3 February, 2011, 2 Comments

A quick post at Foreign Exchange laying out what I see as outstanding questions as we head into the wee hours, Cairo-time. Here’s hoping one of the intrepid reporters there right now takes some of these on:

…for the last few years, the key value of Egypt’s relationship to Israel has been economic: some $500 million worth of total trade in oil, food crops, consumer products, growing at a remarkable rate-roughly doubled since 2007 alone. If the political peace holds, but relations are frostier post-Mubarak, as Israeli representatives say they will be, and if the borders around Gaza tighten as a result, what happens to that trade? Or, will the dependency of populations in both countries on that trade prevent a political regression?

The reporters themselves seem to have become the story in the last 36 hours in a way that reminds me somewhat of the press crackdown in Pakistan in the waning hours of the Musharraf regime, but even more of the press evangelism of the 1830 revolution in Paris which old readers will know I spent some time mulling over many moons ago. Actually, what we’re witnessing across North Africa and the Middle East is somewhere in between the two, and I’m still working out how they fit together. Stay tuned.

Covering the Wikileaks

By , 29 November, 2010, No Comment

The latest at Foreign Exchange on the way news organizations are handling the Wikileaks:

as we come to see Wikileaks as just a source, news organizations are having to decide whether to cover them at all, and–as we often do with delicate subject matter–how to balance the scoop against the risk to those implicated. I have very minimal sympathy with Wikileaks’ overall agenda, which seems increasingly to be about embarrassing the US government for the sake of it rather than to advance any particular cause, but I do think that news organizations have an obligation to cover these leaks in some fashion once they’ve occurred. They can pick and choose what to include on the basis of what’s really significant, and they can avoid reprinting the actual documents if they see a risk to someone’s life, but they can’t just choose to ignore the whole development.  That’s why I think it’s deplorable that two major news organizations–the Wall Street Journal and CNN–chose to turn down access to the documents altogether, because, in essence, they were afraid of being compromised. National security reporting is inevitably compromised and risky, and to run from that challenge is unjournalistic, and wrong.

Go read the whole thing.

Too Little Too Late

By , 19 November, 2010, No Comment

Regulators in the US, UK, Spain, Italy, Germany, Canada and the European Commission are finally getting serious about privacy. First, there’s the bevy of cases and crackdowns recently introduced against Google’s Street View. Secondly, there’s the EC’s new privacy proposal, mandating that in the future companies ask such consent for all the data they take, and (more radically) make it possible for users to have it deleted at any time. They’re calling this the ‘right to be forgotten.’ [A direct response to Eben Moglen, perhaps?]

This is comforting news for those of us who have been talking about data and digital rights for some time, to be sure. But I am wondering it’s ultimately too little too late.

See, most of the major holders of user data online are–or are close to becoming–monopolies within their niche: Google in search and advertising, Facebook in social, etc. And it seems to me that the history of monopolies is that once they get in place, it’s very difficult, legally, to break them up and almost impossible to muster the political will for radically restricting their business practices when a massive majority of the populace are their customers. [Can you see I’ve been reading Tim Wu?] That’s one reason that I’ve been arguing for two years that the way to best Google on privacy was to take it to task on antitrust issues early on, before it became unbeatable.

But given we haven’t done that, it now seems to me that the best possible scenario is [and I can’t believe I’m saying this] NOT to sue Google’s more offensive services out of existence, or to try and take it apart, but to essentially acknowledge it as a legitimate monopoly, and then slap it with a huge list of monopolist’s burdens: forbid it from further M&A activity, say, forbid them from collecting things like payload data, and mandate that all data-collecting services become voluntary, not at the individual level, because that’s now untenable, but at the municipal level. If the majority of a town’s population votes to be mapped, Google can photograph in the town. I think the municipal level is basically the smallest level that is still feasible, and the largest level that is still democratic. Is this a crazy idea?

As for the right to be forgotten, I regard it as pretty sound when I think of individuals and companies like Google or Facebook, but I am less convinced about how it might extend to other types of websites. Jeff Jarvis has correctly pointed out that a very broad reading of such a clause could lead to the idea that people can demand takedowns of news stories about them. Which is something that doesn’t make any sense to me, not least because news coverage is NOT something you consent to have written about you. It is not data YOU give away (and therefore own) but data which we as a society have decided can be collected involuntarily so long as you have the right to correct the record, and to extract a pound of flesh when the journalist is wrong. I’m inclined to say that the right to be forgotten should apply to everything except IRS and other federally mandated disclosures, and stories about you in the press. But I must admit that my sense of surety about these issues has declined the more I learn about them, so, please, sound off.

More on the Rally

By , 16 November, 2010, No Comment

via the voracious media-consumer bjkeefe, I’m watching this video now, Jon Stewart and Rachel Maddow on the Rally. I won’t make any comments, as you already know my take on the event.

Apocalypse 40: Fees and Disclosures

By , 13 November, 2010, 1 Comment

Two very different publications with very similar names–the Times of London and the New York Times–have been leading the charge within establishment media to try and take more revenue out of subscribers than out of advertisers.

The Times of London’s paywall, which blocks non-subscribers from reading anything except headlines–came down in July, and this month, News Corp announced that it 105,000 people have paid to access the site since then. Here’s the problem: we have no idea what kind of access they paid for. How many paid for desktop access vs. applications on the Kindle or the iPad? How many paid for a promotional subscription at a lower rate during the first few weeks? How many paid for single articles vs. for the whole site? Without answers to those questions, it’s impossible to know if the paywall is worth the dramatic crash in traffic that the Times has suffered. PaidContent did their best to sound cheerful in the rough calculations they published, but even they admit, the numbers look “a little meagre.” The FT, MediaGuardian and Clay Shirky were much less charitable.

It’s a pity because the Times’ redesigned site is a pretty sleek affair. But it’s a shame for another reason too: the Times paywall was not just an experiment for the Times but an experiment for the industry. And even those of us who agree with the Murdochs about next-to-nothing were curious about how it would work. Because we can’t get ahold of the details, the paywall can’t serve as a teaching moment. We know it probably didn’t work, but we don’t know exactly why, or where the failings were. Shame on James Murdoch for that.

Meanwhile, here in New York, the New York Times metered system is about to launch. I’m already a full print-and-web subscriber, so it won’t affect me, but one thing that is nice is to know that the meter–unlike Murdoch’s paywall–doesn’t shut out search, or traffic from blogs and other websites, which means I can keep linking to the Grey Lady from here. In that, it’s going to be a bit like the FT’s model (which I like). There’s more info on the meter and other things the NYT is thinking about in the most recent earnings call. [Worth noting: yes, profits are down for this quarter, but year to date, 2010 is looking to be a more profitable year than 2009.]

But here’s the interesting thing: despite all the hype surrounding it, the Times management seems to have already conceded that the meter is too soft an approach to radically change its digital revenue stream. CEO Janet Robinson told Robb Montgomery that she think the real paid content winner is apps. Assistant Managing Editor Gerry Marzorati told a conference in New York that the Times can stay afloat for awhile by hiking up rates on its print subscribers, and scandalized many-a-blogger by noting that many subscribers don’t know what they pay. I’m not sure, exactly, how the meter helps either of those strategies along, or why so much time an effort went into it if the head honchos don’t expect it to make a splash. Thoughts?

Really, it’s not funny

By , 12 November, 2010, 9 Comments

Two weeks ago, I joined much of the young American Left at the “Rally to Restore Sanity.” I didn’t travel down to Washington for the occasion; I’m not that much of a Daily Show devotee. I had meetings with various sources, a very good college friend to stay with, and my sister to see in Philly on the way back. The timing and location were convenient.

The rally was, to be honest, boring, certainly not as funny or as compelling as the two television shows from which it derived. Given how little effort I put into getting there, that’s fine. But when I think about how many young folks actually traveled to be there, it’s infuriating. It’s infuriating that the ideas around which young liberals rally en masse are so unsubstantial.

I was not the only person who felt that way. Mark Ames had a screed at The Exiled on the rally, and it’s definitely got a lot of problems [basically, skip the second half], but I think there’s a kernel of truth in the piece that is worth excerpting at some length.

Read More →

A Very Quick Thought on Robert Kaplan

By , 12 November, 2010, No Comment

Crossposted from Foreign Exchange.

Robert Kaplan is a journalist and author whose work has had a huge influence on me, as someone with a background in history, and a particular passion for stories about Asia and Eastern Europe. But there is always a sense, at the end of his books, that something is missing.

He spins a great and colorful yarn and stuffs readers full of facts and anecdotes, but when he begins to articulate strategy, I often find myself raising my eyebrows. I know that Kaplan is widely regarded as a strategic thinker first and foremost, and so I’ve struggled to figure out why I dissent from that view.

While reading his latest offering, Monsoon, and some of the reviews of it, I’ve come to the following conclusion: the thing that makes Kaplan so compelling as a historian and journalist is his geographical determinism. Geography is a mostly fixed lens, a constant that lets you trace seamless stories across time. Kaplan’s approach allows him to cut through layers of information and show us The Way Things Are.

His fans like to think that this is also what makes him a great strategist: that geography can determine the way things will or should be. But the whole notion of strategic thinking is about choices, and options, and maneuvers; it is the opposite of determinism.

The result is that Kaplan’s ‘strategic’ conclusions are often too broad to be really useful, and one often feels as though the strategy has been stretched over what would otherwise be excellent travel writing. Shashi Tharoor makes this point best:

Shoehorning his travels into the book makes for an uneven effect, with some surprising inclusions and omissions, and one can’t help feeling that a country has been deemed to be important because he traveled there.

Ouch. That said, for a great story, you could do a lot worse.