Archive for ‘Journalism’

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.

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.

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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.

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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.

Belated Thoughts on the Dear Leader

By , 19 August, 2009, No Comment

I’ve been thinking for a few days that I wanted to say something about Bill Clinton’s 11th hour trip to North Korea to negotiate the release of two American journalists held hostage by Kim Jong Il’s honchos.

While everyone’s thrilled that the journos are back safe, there has been much handwringing about whether it was acceptable to have a former President meet with a brutal dictator who routinely calls for this country’s demise, to have the two sit for joint photos and a meal, and whether, as some sources said, Clinton had given any sort of ‘apology,’ on behalf of the United States for the two women having entered NK to begin with. (It seems like he gave some verbal apology but did not bring any message on behalf of the government).

Personally, my relief at seeing the two journos come home rather outweighed any cringe reaction I had to the photographs. Moreover, when it comes to the actual fact of Clinton’s going there and answering Il’s request for the backchannel, I was pleased. See, by throwing a tantrum that effectively said “I want attention from a popular ex-leader,” Kim Jong Il acknowledged that he wants access to things of value in the international community, ie the status conferred by a meeting with Bill, and that his power domestically is in some way contingent on having that access. That means he can be bought.

That is, in essence, what Hillary Clinton meant when she compared NK to a petulant child begging for attention and suggested that it needed to be dealt with forcefully. Granted, force is the opposite of what Bill brought them last week, but the point is this: a regime that wants something from the United States is one that can be bargained with. The purpose of force, if it needs to be used, or Hillary’s strong language, is to push that regime to the point where the price at which it can be bought in bargaining is something we can stomach. Dinner with an ex-President, especially if it keeps that ex-President out of other people’s bedrooms, is a perfectly fine price for me.

Is Goldman Evil?

By , 7 August, 2009, 2 Comments

Some weeks ago, I read a mediocre rant about the alleged “evils” of Goldman Sachs. I rolled my eyes at yet another knee-jerk-populist, unproductive reaction to the recession. The next day at the gym, Chris Matthews had the author, Matt Taibbi, on, and began drooling all over him as some kind of investigative tour de force. The meme caught on. Not only has Taibbi been on TV nonstop, but friends who usually scrunch their noses in confusion at my business-journo world have been chatting me up constantly about the Goldman conspiracy and crediting Taibbi with discovering it. Allow me to correct the record.

According to Taibbi, Goldman Sachs deliberately inflates speculative bubbles by finding or manufacturing securities out of worthless assets and selling them to the public as secure; then they  get themselves out before it crashes; or, they rely on high-placed alumni to to save them. Moreover, they’ve done so in “every major market manipulation” of the last century. His case studies: The Great Depression, the DotCom Boom, the Housing Boom, the Commodities Boom (ie high gas prices), The Bailout, and (coming soon to a theater near you), Cap and Trade. This argument, which I’ve summarized in one paragraph, takes Taibbi  (get this!) 10,000 words. I’m going to explain why he’s a hack in 1/10 the space. Still a long post, for which I apologize.

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Still Thinking about Google

By , 27 July, 2009, 1 Comment

According to a new libel ruling from the UK courts, Google can’t be sued/fined for malicious falsehoods that appear on its news and blog pages (like this one). That makes legal sense, since no one employed by Google produces the content on the sites.

But here’s the problem: it’d be awfully hard to sue/fine some of the folk with Google blogs for their output either, since most of them consider what they do to be not-quite-published, and more akin to the kind of speech covered under slander law than the kind of published text covered under libel law. Clearly, the web has erased the most obvious divide between slander and libel, but it doesn’t really erase the qualitative one. A falsehood on my friend’s travelog about her summer in Equador is just not the same as a falsehood from Robert Reich.

Moreover, the underlying logic of libel law is based on private profit. You sue the people who make/write/print the falsehoods and if you win, you take back the profits they earned by spreading the lies.

The problem with private blogs on Google’s server is not only that they don’t aspire or try to uphold fact standards that are libel-proof but also that there’s an imperfect overlap between the person who produces the content (and thus might be morally responsible for it) and the person (AKA Google) who profits from that content (and thus might be fined to avenge a wrong).

The UK ruling thus underscores the argument I have been making about Google all along–they aren’t necessarily in open defiance of the laws, but their existence, their business model demonstrates the gap between the structure of our laws and reality of the internet economy. And try as I might, I can’t think of a way to solve this without in some way cutting Google down to size.

The Problem with WIRED

By , 19 July, 2009, No Comment

The August issue of WIRED has an interesting article on the growing antitrust pressure on Google, a pet cause of mine. It’s well reported, and well-written, as WIRED usually is. It more or less lays out the case against Google that I would make: that the individual markets in which it has x or y share are irrelevant, because Google is building a macro-market by aggregating data over all web content. Then it lays out the most common  counter-argument: that regulators shouldn’t be trying to stop companies the public likes/benefits from to protect the fluidity of the market. I disagree with this counter-argument. Other regulatory provisions–like consumer fraud laws–respond to public opinion, but antitrust laws exist explicitly to protect and promote competition.

What struck me about the WIRED piece, however, was its attempt at neutrality and its muted tone. [If you’re skeptical, go to the library, find a copy, and see for yourself.] WIRED never does that. It has an opinion about ever tech-related debate, usually an opinion that reflects the views of its editor, Chris Anderson, which I’ve discussed before. Elsewhere in the same issue is an article advising readers to embrace illegal downloads as a form of civil disobedience. [I’ve got plenty of free music on my computer that shouldn’t strictly speaking be there, but I’d never be so presumptuous as to pretend it was anything more than miserliness that landed it there.]

The tone of the Google piece suggests to me the major problem with WIRED. It’s a magazine about the modern technology industry written by people who helped create the modern technology industry, by people who moved out to the Valley before it was cool. Their natural instinct is to explain tech companies to the rest of us, and defend those companies from the big bad economy back East. The folks at WIRED still they think they are writing about scrappy endearing startups, even though those companies aren’t scrappy or small anymore.

Yes, this piece is an improvement over a February article that painted the attack on Google as an evil conspiracy of big bad telecom companies. But even where their own reporting suggests there’s a real antitrust case to be made against Google, their personal sympathy for the GOOG prevents them from giving the piece the kind of umph they give to everything else.

It’s all pretty ironic, since as magazine writers who work for Conde Nast, everyone at WIRED is part of the ‘old’ economy. And while they advocate that everyone else give up their content for free and celebrate that Google will own it, their own website is pretty closely protected. That’s why this blog post has no links to the current issue–it’s been mailed to subscribers in print, but it’s not yet available online.

Apocalypse 29: In Search of Patient Investors

By , 14 July, 2009, 4 Comments

BusinessWeek, my one-time employer, is on the sales block as of today with potential buyers being Bloomberg, Pearson or a private equity fund of some kind. My first reaction is just sadness for all my friends there, a group of sharp-as-nails writers and editors. My second reaction is to pray that a media company beats the LBO boys for the buyout. Here’s why:

The brutal reality of news media is that there’s no business model right now. Our output is divided between ‘old’ and ‘new’ platforms at one ratio, while our revenue is divided at a different ratio. It will stabilize as we create a business model for monetizing online, whether by premium subscriptions, better more expensive advertising, or both. I wouldn’t be entering this business now if I didn’t think so. But I’m betting it will take at least five years.

A media conglomerate ultimately wants to be in whatever new media form emerges in five years. So they will invest—not recklessly, but liberally—in a magazine or newspaper as the industry gets to its future state.

An LBO firm, by definition, buys distressed assets to get profits out of them fast, and then exits the business to try something else. Trying to cost-cut your way into profitability at a time when sustainable profits are years out is a fool’s errand. That’s the lesson Sam Zell learned at the Tribune. I sure hope we don’t have to watch BW go through the same.

David Cameron’s Favorite Journalists

By , 10 July, 2009, 2 Comments

British newspapers have long had a reputation for poor news judgment, but for the last few months, they have really made the cliché come true. Firstly, there’s the way papers on both left and right jumped on to a witch hunt over parliamentary expenses, playing right into David Cameron’s hand as he worked to convince voters that only Labour ministers were abusing their expense accounts. In reality, there was abuse on both sides, but no massive fraud as was sometimes claimed by politicians.

Secondly, there’s the way the News of the World has started paying hackers to get access to the personal voicemails of public figures it wants to expose. This is especially intriguing since one of David Cameron’s cronies, Andy Coulson, is the News’ ex-editor. After Cameron condemned the News’ behavior (“It’s wrong for newspapers to breach people’s privacy with no justification”) but insisted he had forgiven Coulson, lefty commentators jumped on him as a hypocrite who only stands by journos running exposes on his opponents in good times.

This particular critique falls flat because it equates the journalism in the expenses scandal with that of the News. The Guardian, Telegraph and other papers who made a big deal about expenses were following standard journalistic practice by getting access to public documents about public sector agency finances. They made an error of judgment in choosing to publish that information instead of devoting that space to other more important stories, but once they settled on this story, their process was still one of basic newsgathering. By contrast, the News used illegal means to gain access to private-sector information about non-public finances and published that. EVEN WHERE the stories it was obtained for were of real importance, this is a violation of basic newsgathering norms, as well as of the law. Both incidents should be condemned, but not for the same reasons.

I have no special love for David Cameron, as readers of this blog will know, but I think his critics are letting their hatred of Toryism overwhelm their logic.