Round in Circles

By , 12 June, 2009, 2 Comments

My first story as a Fortune reporter is up, and predictably, it’s about social networks. In particular it’s about Facebook’s new offer to give users custom urls/usernames the way other networks do. I wrote a little about social media during my time at Forbes, but not nearly as much as I did at BusinessWeek or as an undergraduate newspaper columnist, so this is a bit of a homecoming. Plus ca change…

Is there life after the Apocalypse?

By , 9 June, 2009, No Comment

For almost a year, I’ve been writing about the transformation of the news industry in a running series called the Apocalypse. But for several recent posts, that series has been more about the good than the bad–is it possible that we’ve now turned the corner from the death of the old to the birth of the new?

To recap, my vision of the new is of the melding of establishment and startup media into vertically integrated but streamlined wholes. And there are ever-increasing signs that this model is emerging. BusinessWeek’s new project to get its blogs into more serious journalistic shape is one good move. But the big news is this: Ezra Klein, perhaps the poster boy for citizen-media and partisan blogging, has joined the establishment, migrating from the American Prospect to the Washington Post. This supports another of my hunches that the WaPo company would be the first to arrive at the new content structure.

Here’s the killer punch: Klein rejects the knee jerk “citizens are better” ideology of many of his old confreres and admits that he’s doing better service to the public as a WaPo reporter than he ever could have done in TAP. Working at the Post, he says, “adds on a different level of responsibility.”

All of this, however, doesn’t take away the core problem, which is funding this mess. For that, all we have to rely on is humor:

New Beginnings

By , 9 June, 2009, 1 Comment

As you may know, I’ve migrated from Forbes to Fortune, for a time. As expected, this newsroom is also full of smart, friendly, eccentric, coffee-loving folk, but beyond that, I have little to share. Not because it’s been boring, but because Time Inc. is pretty cautious about social media. At new hire orientation, we were officially asked not to post “any matters that are work-related” to our personal blogs. That’s company policy. Unfortunately that means the outtakes from my reporting to which you might have gotten accustomed will have to stop. But have no fear, Cappuccino-ers, I have plenty of non-Fortune axes to grind on these pages.

Another One Bites the Dust

By , 5 June, 2009, 1 Comment

It is technically premature to call Gordon Brown a dust-biter, but the dismal results from yesterday’s local elections suggest Labour’s days are numbered. Indeed, David Cameron made a good point, for once noting that everyone gathered around their tellies looking for election results couldn’t even get them because the only news story was the flood of cabinet resignations and calls for Brown’s ouster. So far, Brown is hiding behind the loyalty of Darling and Mandelson, but I don’t think it will carry him past mid-summer, if that.

I’ll leave the horse race analysis of how the coup will unfold and who will replace Brown to others, but there’s one point relevant to the paradigm shifts Cappuccino follows. The nail in the coffin for Labour seems to have been the populist uproar over MP’s expenses and the rhetorical space that created for other anti-institutionalist arguments including the Tory rants against European integration and government welfare programs.

The election results thus support my longstanding belief that the real divide in society is between individualists and institutionalists and my hunch that institutionalists are losing that battle so badly and on so many fronts (from the referendum on Europe to Obama’s “new politics” to the collapse of organized media) that we might not rise to fight again.

Changing of the Guard

By , 3 June, 2009, No Comment

I have watched the first two episodes of the new Conan-hosted Tonight Show. I always liked Late Night, and this felt more like watching that show at a new time than watching the Tonight Show with a new host. The pilot’s opening montage–of Conan running across the country to reach his new studio in LA–was classic Late Night, and Late Night regular Andy Richter was there to greet him when he arrived. I loved it.

But I was talking to some older co-workers and they were unimpressed. They were born in the ’70s, they graduated college in the 1990s, and Leno’s is the only Tonight Show they were ever really old enough to enjoy. Does anyone at NBC expect them to become Conan-o-philes? Of course not. Instead, NBC is betting that Conan’s core Millenial audience has grown up and mellowed out enough that we’re climbing into bed for our last laugh before midnight rather than at 1 am.

That demographic transition matters because NBC isn’t the only place we see the shift. As a Gen-Xer who appeals to Millenials; Conan lines up perfectly with President Obama. A conversation between Gen X-ers (Conan, the Pres) and Millenials (Conan’s viewers, Obama’s voters) is the new mainstream. The conversation between Boomers (Leno) and X-ers (Leno’s audience) plays second fiddle as a 10 pm lead-in, while the conversation amongst Boomers (Letterman and his audience) faded into oblivion ages ago.

If nothing else, the changing of the Tonight Show guard marks the passage of the Boomers from the center to the sidelines of American life. It’s an odd passage, since the Boomers still make up a third of the population and have two or three decades ahead of them. How could the generation that promised to reinvent politics and culture get such short shelf life on the political and cultural stage? And what are the Boomers to do for the next three decades now that no one is listening?

The lame ones will continue to chant old chants to limited success. Jim Jarmusch’s new movie, The Limits of Control, falls flat in part because its “villain” is “the nameless corporation,” a 1960s motif that doesn’t resonate with Millenial audiences. Though Boomer women (Second Wave Feminists) and X-er women (Third Wave Feminists) continue to do battle on websites like Slate’s new Double X, most Millenials have accepted a middle ground and moved on. And of course, there’s the political collapse of John McCain and Gordon Brown at the hands of X-ers Obama and Cameron.

What’s a Boomer to do when faced with this? The ones with staying power learn to make fun of themselves:

On a Roll

By , 31 May, 2009, No Comment

I am feeling very smug about my predictive track record when it comes to the “revolution in culture” that is this blog’s subtitle.

Exhibit A: After recommending that news organizations negotiate an ad-share with Google, I was thrilled to discover that the New York Times was exploring it, and amused to find, yesterday, that Jeff Jarvis is now touting the idea as though he came up with it AND apparently without knowledge that the Times is already doing it. Since I have many bones to pick with Jarvis, this pleases me.

Exhibit B: After cautioning against the takeover of politics, media, etc by individualists over institutionalists, I am overjoyed to see the Fast Talker–a citizen-media enthusiast and individualist liberal-tarian at times–taking my side. What woke him up? A glimpse at the individualist Right in David Cameron, and the damage the Tory bashing of MP’s expenses has done to his party–Labour–in the lead-up to this week’s local elections. Here is the thing: To turn the tide for Labour, British lefties have to develop a defense of institutions, and that includes many institutions that the individualist Left likes to rail against. Liberal-tarians whining about corporate bonuses sets up a conservative critique of big government. Both kinds of whining need to be given up, but the cultural tide towards individualism in both left- and right- leaning circles makes that unlikely.

Another option, it seems to me, is for institutionalists of both left- and right- flavors to band together against both kinds of individualism. The question for the Fast Talker is whether he is willing to defend the corporation and the Church to protect the National Health System. If he’s not, I think he should prepare for bad news in Thursday’s polls.

China’s Strategy

By , 26 May, 2009, 1 Comment

Despite being a business writer, a sports fan and a devotee of Michael Lewis, I have yet to blend sports and business on this blog, until now. This article on Chinese investments in U.S. sports franchises got me thinking:

One of the patterns of history is that empires usually extend their culture and values along with their political/military/economic might. Rome, according to Vergil, spread “peace and war.” Spain spread Christianity. Britain spread the English language. America spread McDonald’s. But even as policy wonks and strategists come to terms with the reality of China’s impending dominance, there’s skepticism about a world in which we all speak Mandarin; Beijing doesn’t seem to care about that either.

That is because they are planning to achieve their might by profiting from the spread of American influence, by investing enough in both the dollar and Cleveland Cavaliers that the popularity of McDonald’s, basketball, or McDonalds-eaten-at-basketball-games is more their gain than ours. In other words, they’re trying to transition the world from America’s empire to China’s without anyone noticing.

Letting the growth of the opposing system lay the groundwork for yours? How perfectly Marxist.

David Cameron’s Cowboy Justice

By , 25 May, 2009, 1 Comment

Although today’s a U.S. holiday, I’m taking my time off to worry about the political winds across the pond in the U.K. Not only because I lived there a while and have friends with vested interests in how the next election pans out, but also because the core issue in that election is the same as the one I’ve been ranting about in our politics: the battle between institutionalists and individualists.

In Britain, however, it’s the individualist right, rather than the individualist left, that is ascendant over a Labour party that, so long as it’s led by Gordon Brown, will be all about big institutions tackling big social problems. The latest missive is Conservative leader David Cameron’s op-ed on the uproar over MPs’ expenses in the Guardian. Cameron begins with an assault on government abuse that reminds me of the individualist left’s assault on corporate bonuses a while back. His core argument: this is why institutions, all of them, are bad, and we should devolve more power to the people

“The anger, the suspicion, and the cynicism – yes, with politics and politicans, but with so much else – are the result of people’s slow but sure realisation that they have very little control over the world around them, and over much that determines whether of not they’ll live happy and fulfilling lives…So I believe the central objective of the new politics we need should be a massive, sweeping, radical redistribution of power: form the state to citizens; from the government to parliament; from Whitehall to communities; from the EU to Britain; from judges to the people; from bureaucracy to democracy. Through decentralisation, transparency and accountability we must take power from the elite and hand it to the man and woman in the street…We should start by pushing political power down as far as possible…With every decision government makes, it should ask a series of simple questions: does this give power to people or take it away? Could we let individuals, neighbourhoods and communities take control? How far can we push power down?”

Part of me is glad Cameron wrote this item, because it should finally kill the delusions of those who are trying to cast him in an institutionalist light. The scariest claim is the push for replacing “judges”–the rule of law–with “the people.”–as in cowboy justice. The most absurd claim is the argument that the purpose of government should be to determine how much power it can give away. This is the great paradox of the individualist right: why run for state office if, ultimately, you don’t believe in the writ of the state? One hopes that the “people” in whom Cameron places so much faith will see through this circular logic, but that would require Labour to offer something coherent in response.

Apocalypse 26: Lights at the End of the Tunnel

By , 22 May, 2009, No Comment

On Wednesday, I graduated from Columbia’s Business and Economics Journalism master’s program, which I’ve been blogging about a bit this year. As you might imagine, the two day Commencement was full of speeches about the value of journalism, and laden with allusions to the crisis we face now.

One surprise was that at the University-wide Commencement, Columbia President Lee Bollinger focused his address to the undergrad class primarily on the future of news, even though there are no undergraduate journalism students at the University. Bollinger seemed to be making some of the First Amendment arguments I’ve been making on this blog and elsewhere.

a crisis of journalism is a crisis of democracy. No one should assume that the institutions committed to a professional culture of journalism or scholarship can be replaced by thousands of individual, citizen-journalists, just as you cannot replace our great universities with multiple individual websites each offering specialized knowledge in an atomized way. Sometimes you need big, strong news organizations to challenge the vast powers of government, corporations and other large institutions

As I’ve been articulating similar notions, however, I have become more convinced that this idealist argument for media is unlikely to stick with the vast majority of the public.

What the public wants and needs is tangible evidence of why professional media matters. They need more hardhitting investigative reporting at precisely the moment when that kind of reporting is becoming impossible to finance. So another highlight of our Commencement cermony was when the J-school’s Commencement Speaker, Mexico’s newspaper revolutionary Alejandro Junco de la Vega, proposed his model for how to make media profitable. To paraphrase: Put down the phone and go back to basic, gumshoe-on-the-streets reporting; then cede the horse race to the Internet and become experts (his papers are partnering with academic institutions to research policy ideas and implications in a broad, sociological way). Advertisers, online or off, will never pay for this kind of Gonzo journalism, but that was Junco’s point–if you walk amongst your readers, showing them that you can identify trends in THEIR lives that they themselves cannot see or make sense of, that you can offer solutions to THEIR problems that they themselves cannot devise, if you do this in person, it is readers who will pay for content. My instinct is that this is a model for a media economy that is still mostly in print, and therefore for a developing, rather than a developed nation. I don’t know if it would work here, but I thought it was new and bold of him to suggest it. The speech, which was beautiful and intelligent on many other points, is here.

Our other Commencement Speaker was Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall, most recently of Dowd-plagiarism fame. Marshall is certainly a cause journalist but unlike other web evangelists, he did not spend his time on the stand chastising “old” media or pooh-poohing the value of professionalism. His tone–staid and respectful–suggested that the realignment has begun, with the forces of reporting marshalling against the forces of spam. Josh Marshall realizes, as do we at the J-school, that he has more in common with us than any of us does with A. Maureen Dowd or B. Gawker.

Apocalypse 25: It’s Nicer to Be Right Twice

By , 20 May, 2009, 1 Comment

On Monday, we saw more evidence that the content model of the future will involve vertically integrated news organizations that will allow their audiences to engage at multiple levels for multiple prices. Today, we got a taste of what the ad model to support that might look like–the NYT’s Bill Keller told the NY Observer that the Times would seek some sort of ad share deal with Google rather than going after them aggressively as a monopoly the way others seem bent on:

The solution? He said that the Times is looking at a “carrot approach,” in which, along with the collaboration with Google, The Times would embed ads in its copy, and those ads would stay with the copy wherever it is reproduced.

Despite my own antitrust misgivings re: Google, this is exactly what I recommended for the news industry a while ago. And, I’ve also pointed out, the NYT is already a vertically integrated news org that has grown multiple layers of expertise in-house. It is nice to be right two days running. It’s even nicer to think that the future model of journalism is coming to focus.