Apocalypse 24: It’s Nice to Be Right

By , 18 May, 2009, No Comment

With Newsweek’s website re-launch, I’m more certain than ever that the WaPo company has the future content model down even if they are no further along than the rest of us in figuring out how to fix the ad model. On the content side, the WaPo group is moving to a single vertically-integrated newsroom with one expert reporter on each subject who is capable of covering that subject in all forms–newspaper article, blog post, magazine opinion essay, magazine narrative.

Once upon a time, EACH of the group’s properties did all of these things in different proportions, but now each of them will stick to its turf. The Post itself will give us news reports and opinion blogs but not narrative or long essays. The new Newsweek will give us opinion essays and narratives and even blogs, but not, for the most part, hard news. Foreign Policy will give us mostly blogged opinion that expands, occasionally, into longer articles. And Slate (and its children The Big Money and Double X) will give us magazine essays and news articles. There’s some overlap, but that is intentional: some of the content will run in multiple places in tweaked forms. A great blog post on one of the sites can grow into a longer article or essay for another, depending (and this is the key) on what format best fits the story’s content. Sound familiar?

The Newsweek redesign itself fits the magazine’s role within the group as a journal of lay opinion: the new page reminds me most of other opinion mags, especially The New Republic, which is superficially fitting since Newsweek plans to stay left-of-center too. Note also that the font on the new page is more or less the same as that on its academic opinion sister site Foreign Policy, perhaps a subtle way to reinforce brand.

Note finally that it is possible to get this kind of vertical structure without buying one of each kind of outlet: the NYT has managed to grow a newspaper, a blog network, a magazine and a collection of opinion essays in-house; the BBC has done the broadcast equivalent with its marriage of short- and long- form TV and radio.

If the ad model can be fixed to take the lead in revenue generation, while synching staff across platforms increases content expertise and reduces the costs of each story, then I think the media equation-at least at the national and international level-might be solved.

Pop Quiz: How is Postmodernism like the Web?

By , 13 May, 2009, 2 Comments

They’re both subjects I blog about.

No, but seriously. My previous complaints about postmodernism have centered on the impact that the ideology has over the social and civic use-value of the humanities. Basically, postmodernist scholars say they should teach young people to question the whole notion of usefulness. The idea probably has some internal coherence that is above my pay grade, but to an average eighteen year old in English 101 at an average school, it’s an education in apathy.

When making this critique, I have been accused of being eerily nostalgic for the distant past when humanities teaching was about using the great books to impart immutable moral mantras to a leadership class of white young men. But what seems to rile my critics most is the idea that education should be socially or civic-ly useful at all. In other words, what’s with my institutionalism?

In my posts about media, I frequently express skepticism about the contemporary shift away from professionalism,  factual rigor, and respect for intellectual property. I do so because I believe professional reporting (which must be financed on the basis of intellectual property) is better for the functioning of the political and social system than the citizen-driven alternatives.

The counter-argument from new media evangelists is deeply postmodernist: just like the postmodernists discourage attempts to decipher meaning because the words on the page CAN mean any number of things to any number of people, the web evangelists discourage a focus on objectivity because links CAN be made to show any connections we’d like. Just like the postmodernists discourage attempts to link authors to their work, the web evangelists discourage respect for intellectual property. When a critic of their views expresses a desire to make academia and journalism socially and civically useful, the web evangelists join the postmodernists in asking “what’s with that institutionalism?”

It gets worse. As Susan Blum shows in her new book, young web evangelists are now using postmodern arguments–authorship is socially constructed and should be ignored, the words belong to whomever is interpreting them at that moment–to justify plagiarizing from the web as “pastiche.” If I had any lingering doubts about the educational use-value of postmodernism, they are gone now.

Apocalypse 23: One door closes…

By , 8 May, 2009, No Comment

Seems about time I step in with some thoughts on the demise of Portfolio. Truthfully, I have precious little in original thoughts to offer. While other print publications were clinging to their life vests by cutting costs and trying to transition to the web, CondeNast decided to invest in a product that would be even more print-y–longer form, glossier, costlier pages–than the incumbents in the business media market. Even though they had many smart writers, Portfolio was set up to fail.

At the other extreme, perhaps, are the media evangelists who seem a bit too excited by Portfolio’s collapse. It will all be fine, they tell us, because the citizen-activists are here to save the day. I will believe it when I see it.

But there is another reason to be sanguine about Portfolio. The collapse of the old media models, accelerated by this crisis, is beginning to spur some real innovation INSIDE old media on ways to merge with and absorb the best ideas from the newbies. Indeed, Sarah Lacy at TechCrunch says that’s the way to save Portfolio’s erstwhile competitors in the biz space: she proposes turning those organizations into full-time professional blogs, with the magazine as a weekly or monthly digest of the blog’s choice items, expanded out to article length, accompanied by the occasional long investigation or narrative. Is it just me, or is this the vertical structure I’ve been touting all along?

One of the benefits of such a structure would be the ability to use technology to add value to stories, instead of just for kicks or clicks. In other words, a professional blogger-journalist would ask themselves, “How does this story work best? As a blog post? As a slide show? As a video? As a long form piece? As a Flash animation? As a podcast?” and then be able to draw on all those technologies to deliver the best content possible. We’d have no more slideshows accompanying stories just to bump page-views, and no more long articles to convey quick info that fits best in a blog post. We’d also be able to nullify a major argument made by citizen-media activists–that they have a role to play because the old folks are incapable of, or unwilling to experiment with, harnessing new technology.

For a great example of how it might work, check out this slideshow from the BBC’s Robert Peston, noting that the Beeb is an old media institution with an integrated structure that now includes TV, Radio, online narrative/articles and blogs.

What To Do In Pakistan

By , 2 May, 2009, 1 Comment

As the war in Pakistan rages, there have been many pundits offering ways forward. Each of them gets us halfway to a solution, but in the end, none of them has an adequate plan. In this rather long post (advance apologies), I’ll try to cobble together the best of each school.

To begin with, let me summarize the situation. In Afghanistan, groups with Iranian/Persian roots make up almost 80% of the population, with the others each having 2% or 5% shares. The ethnic power balance is clear. It’s governed, ineptly, by an unpopular U.S. puppet and being challenged/revolted against by a more popular insurgency of tribal leaders, i.e. the erstwhile Taliban government. Over the years, many of those leaders have moved over the border into western Pakistan. In Pakistan, the ethnic situation is more complex, with all the major provinces corresponding, roughly, to a different ethnic group and language. In the area bordering Afghanistan, the majority of the population belongs to the same ethnic group–the Pashtuns–who dominate Afghanistan. Indeed, many in the 1940s thought that region should have been part of Afghanistan anyway. Instead, Pakistan negotiated for the territory but agreed to give the Pashtuns there some semi-autonomy, continuing the borders laid out by the Brits in the 1890s. So over the years, as the Taliban and other Pashtun refugees have come over the border, they have some semi-autonomy when it came to organizing and recruiting: the result is a copycat movement, the Pakistan-Taliban, affiliated but not officially tied to the guys we are fighting in Kabul.

For many years, Pakistan hands and Pakistani political elites assumed that the unofficial alliance meant that any radicals trained in this lawless border region had their eye on Kabul anyway. So long as their enemies were Russians or Americans in Afghanistan, Islamabad did not care. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s military/intelligence units were quite happy to have these radicals training in their backyard in the hope of turning some of them east to fight India. It never occurred to authorities, or they chose to block out the possibility, that the Pakistan-Taliban was also a class movement of the disenfranchised and downtrodden who would turn on social elites in Islamabad directly. Instead, they insisted that if the US had not bungled the first and second Afghan wars (which we did), there would be no Pakistan-Taliban, and that if the US withdrew, the Pakistan-Taliban would just go back to being harmless country bumpkins that Islamabad could ignore. What Pakistani elites have learned, the hard way, these last few years is that the Pakistan-Taliban have it out for them too, that this is not just America’s war but Pakistan’s war too. So long as vast class inequities and social injustices exist, not only in the tribal regions but across the country, the Pakistan-Taliban will be able to expand eastwards.

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In Praise of Television

By , 30 April, 2009, No Comment

I am not to going to fall into the trap of taking stock of the President at his hundred day mark because that is silly. The 100th day was defining for Napoleon and FDR, but for few others. George Bush’s first hundred days were uneventful; he was defined by the two years between 9/11 and the entry into Iraq. The tone for the Clinton presidency was set over the health care contraversy and the breakdown of relations with Congress, in other words, the period between summer 1994 and winter 2005.

I am going to take stock of the President’s press conference, however, and the press that covered it. In the introduction to their liveblog on the event, the Times’ Adam Nagourney and Peter Baker posed an interesting question–would more journos ask silly questions about the 100-day mark, or use the opportunity to ask substantive questions to fuel policy stories? As it turned out, the one totally stupid 100-day question came from the Times’ own Jeff Zeleny: what had “surprised, troubled, humbled and enchanted” Obama about the office. It reminded me of the stereotypical shrink in movies whose only line is “and how does that make you feel?”

Obama’s answer did not inspire confidence. Basically, he was surprised that the economy is such a mess, even though it’s been that way since before he was elected. He was troubled that Washington didn’t go postpartisan at his command, even though that’s a silly goal he should really give up. He was humbled to discover that he’s not the center of the “tapestry of American life” after all, a suggestion that he has a wee bit of an ego. And he was enchanted to find out that our servicemen and women are really lovely people, something he surely should have known before.

The questions for the rest of the session were better, with the prizes for hardest hitting going to CBS’ Mark Knoller asking about the torture memos (has Obama read the memos Cheney keeps referencing which show that torture works, and is Cheney right in describing what the memos say) and NBC’s Chuck Todd asking about Pakistan (would the US invade to secure the country’s nukes if it feared them falling into Taliban hands).

The takeaway: for all the snide remarks print journalists like to make about their superior rigor compared to the alleged talking points hackery of broadcast, it’s the TV guys who had their priorities straight last night. As I’ve said before, TV still matters.

ANNIVERSARY POST: The Medium is [Still] not the Message

By , 28 April, 2009, 2 Comments

Believe it or not, Cappuccino-ers, this digital coffeehouse turns one year old today, and it’s instructive to think how much has happened in the realms of technology, politics, business, and media that are our daily grist:

1. The Democratic primaries finally ended. Sarah Palin helped Tiny Fey find her life’s calling. John McCain sputtered his way to irrelevance leaving President Barack Obama to usher in, among other things, the rise of the individualist left. In Britain, David Cameron gave us a sneak peak of what individualism looks like on the right: war with the NHS. Arlen Specter left the Republican Party, marking, among other things, the breaking of the coalition between institutionalist rightists like Specter and individualist rightists like the party chiefs.
2. Obama’s campaign also highlighted the political power of social media technologies, though the President was not the only practitioner. At various points, Hillary Clinton, John McCain, Paris Hilton, Gordon Brown and Hu Jintao, the Swedish police force, and Pakistani legal activists all made forays into interactivity.
3. Despite Robert Wright’s promises to the contrary, many parts of the world continued to grow more violent. Russia went to war in Georgia, Israel went to war in Gaza, Bombay was held hostage, the drug cartels upped the ante on the Mexican border, some IRA hands and Tamil Tigers were up to their old ways. The situation in Pakistan went from optimistic to disastrous, with the military finally deciding a Taliban takeover of the country was worth fighting against today. The Obama administration, meanwhile, turned Pakistan into a counterweight to its Iraq and Iran strategies, continuing and expanding irrationally (and perhaps illegally) hawkish courses of action to balance its dovish stance re: Baghdad and Tehran.
4. The global economy collapsed, taking down Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, and a whole host of economic experts, sending the rest of the financial sector and the auto giants to the government for handouts and raising tons of populist rage against Wall Street. One silver lining, perhaps, is a new IMF+Free Trade approach to development that emerged from the London Conference, a dramatic improvement over the Doha disaster.
5. The next big paradigm shift in the web began as the first wave pioneers, like Bill Gates, left the scene, second wave leaders, like Google, started to face criticism, and second wave memes started to lose their luster. Web 3.0, though still in its nascent changes, showed signs of being more oriented towards globalism than its predecessors.
6. The media apocalypse picked up its pace, taking down the Christian Science Monitor (in print), the Rocky Mountain News, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Tribune Company, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and most recently, Portfolio. The madness of those on both extremes expanded. Jeff Jarvis called for us all to become Google [who want to help newspapers, promise], while the Associated Press hammered all the aggregator startups for linking fees. But the beginnings of a cross-platform future began to emerge in the ashes of the recession, with the battle on between individualists and institutionalists to structure of that future model.
7. The downsizing of our over-leveraged ambitions brought a downsizing of technology trends, favoring the rise of the netbook over the laptop and desktop and most significantly, the rise of Twitter as a challenger to Facebook. In a sign of the media apocalypse, see above, commentators hailed Twitter not only as a useful social tool, but as some form of alternative journalism. Not only does this violate the speech/press divide (a victory for radical individualists), but confuses what Twitter offers users. Yours truly joined several weeks ago to test the service out, and I’m finding it to be more like Facebook before the applications: Indeed, as one who misses old Facebook, I’m glad to have it as a tool. It is all conversation with people I know that resembles the early days of social networking, lots of aspirational expressions “Maha wishes she could get more sleep.” or “Maha is mysterious,” and very little by way of information content. Indeed, when falsehoods appear on Twitter, there’s no effort by the company to shut them down and a certain flippancy from its founders about what goes on the site. That’s okay, because so long Twitter is just a social platform, it’s not legally or economically accountable for facts.  It’s just people talking, and people lie. That’s why the best “journalistic” use of Twitter I’ve seen is the same as the journalistic use of people in the analog world–quote them saying their piece, go out and verify or debunk what they say and put the raw facts in your words. Twitter, Facebook et al are a beautifully efficient way for reporters to get the views of the man on the street that have peppered our stories for years.
Thanks to everyone who’s kept the conversation fiesty on these pages–here’s to another year of digital caffeination.

About Those Memos

By , 27 April, 2009, No Comment

I’ve waited on the sidelines a few days, but I now feel it’s time to dive into the torture memos debate. Here’s what stands out to me: as Newsweek’s Michael Isikoff reports, there was a divide within Obama-land about how much info to release and what to do with it. Ultimately, as Eric Holder explained to the President, there was no choice, since the ACLU Freedom of Info Act suit forced the release, but in the lead-up, CIA director Leon Panetta was arguing the other side, asking the President not to expose the agency to public censure and if he did, to promise not to investigate those who “followed” orders.

Why would Panetta be so worried about this? Because, as Isikoff argued on MSNBC’s Hardball, he is a newbie to the agency who does not have credibility with the career employees who were involved in, but not politically committed to, the Bush agenda. In other words, someone from WITHIN the CIA might have been more able to lead the agency through public scrutiny with grace, counterintuitive as that sounds. This is precisely the kind of problem I had in mind when I critiqued his appointment to the post.

President Obama listened to the law, but I have some qualms with his decision to “look forward,” not backward when it comes to investigating those involved in the torturous practices. Not only because I agree with Keith Olbermann that un-investigated practices could remain as precedent, but also because I don’t completely buy into the assumptions that drive Obama’s decision. Basically, the Obama administration reflects a rising tide in 21st century liberal thought that idealizes the power of transparency. So long as the government comes clean, this argument runs, these practices can’t ever happen again, because the public won’t let them. Implicit in this argument is the notion that somehow the public did not know, and therefore could not protest, what was happening before.

That’s naïve: we didn’t have confirmation before, but you’d have to have been living under a rock not to have seen or heard discussion of these practices over the last 7 years. Moreover, full awareness of government misconduct never worked as a powerful enough check before. The law (an institution) exists to achieve the kind of justice that public opinion, even at its moral best, cannot enforce. Once again, the faith in public opinion (the morality of individuals) is just insufficient.

The institutionalist triumph

By , 23 April, 2009, 1 Comment

The last few weeks have seen an explosion of positive activity on the issue of gay marriage. To sum up, after a really nasty set back in the form of Proposition 8 last fall, we’ve seen gay marriage legalized in Iowa, Vermont and Connecticut, and a powerful move from Governor David Paterson to do the same in New York.

Here is what stands out about these decisions: Iowa is a longtime “red” state, Vermont was too until the 1990s, and NY and Connecticut, though they vote “blue” in national elections have rather conservative rural populations who play meaningful roles in state policy. Therefore, some changing of minds on the right is at play in the tidal wave of decisions this month.

Now, there are two ways to make the case for gay marriage and they reflect the ideological dichotomy I have been describing on this site, between institutionalism and individualism. The individualist case, the one that dominated the gay marriage movement until this year, is about railing against the oppressive social norms of a heterocentric definition of marriage, defending the rights of all of us to love as we please, and including marriage as one form of love we should all have access to. This is a mostly left-wing argument that is related in its tone and its values to 1960s feminism and “free love.” It made it very easy for the right-wing to counter that same-sex marriage would undermine heterosexual families, in much the same way they critiqued the sexual revolution of the 1960s.

The institutionalist argument for same-sex marriages is different: it claims that all marriages are better than all non-marriages, that society should actively privilege people (of all orientations) who make monogamous commitments over those (of all orientations) who don’t. So, by this line of argument, all marriages are and should be equal, but married love is morally superior to unmarried love and should be a. legalized and b. socially encouraged.

By arguing against free love, the institutionalists take away the right-wing’s main argument against marriage equality: their fear that it dilutes heterosexual marriage. I have a hunch that what made the tide turn in Iowa, Vermont, Connecticut and New York is that conservatives are beginning to think of gay marriage in these institutionalist terms. David Brooks has been saying it for ages, but no one has listened. Steve Schmidt (McCain’s campaign aide) said it this week and his comments were repeated all over the news.

As Schmidt pointed out in his speech, what has changed since Brooks first voiced this idea is the opinions of young people and the increased interaction between young people of different political ideologies and sexual identities permitted by social media. People who may never interact in the physical world are increasingly finding each other online. Young social conservatives, who may spend their physical lives in communities where homosexuality is  derided and policed, are interacting online with young gay Americans–liberal and conservative–and finding out that the interaction doesn’t dilute their value system after all. Schmidt urged his partisans to accept and embrace this fact if they want to be electorally viable in the future.

This blog is subtitled “Reflections on the Revolution in Culture.” This shift on the right, the change in ideals and, slowly, in policy, driven by the coffeehouse-like minglings of the digital age, is precisely the revolution I had in mind.

Apocalypse 22: Fiddling while Rome burns

By , 22 April, 2009, No Comment

The Pulitzer Prizes were announced earlier this week, to little fanfare, as perhaps befits a set of awards for such a troubled industry. I’m really pleased with the choice of WaPo’s Gene Robinson for Commentary; his columns on the presidential campaign were insightful but respectful, something rare in political opinion. I’m also happy to see the NYT (esp Jane Perlez and Carlotta Gall) get the nod for their AfPak coverage.

I’m less pleased with the lack of ANY awards for reporting on the financial crisis. Gretchen Morgenson and Vikas Bajaj both probably deserved to be recognized, as the did the WaPo’s series on AIG (nominated) and the WSJ’s series on the End of Wall Street (nominated).

But the real killer was this: In the category of breaking news, the NYT won a prize for its coverage of the Spitzer scandal. The NYT wins my prize for breaking news this year, but I’d have given it for the superior coverage the paper did of the election eclipsing, IMHO, both the WaPo and CNN (the usual dominators in horse race coverage) with its impressive use of multimedia features like live blogs of campaign events, district-by-district maps and polling data, and all manner of unique ways of calibrating and comparing the candidates. Breaking news in the digital age is not just about getting information out there–anybody with a cell phone can do that; it’s about providing depth and insight in real time. That’s where the journalism happens.

Nominating the Times for the Spitzer story (which was just info-dissemination) was shortsighted and backward-looking. Coupled with the lack of acknowledgement for financial reporting in a year dominated by financial news, the choice reflects, to my mind, the problem with groups like the Pulitzer board. Instead of using their considerable brand power and influence to lead reporters to a brave new digital future, they are rewarding increasingly irrelevant forms of content and ceding the public discourse to amateurs.

The amateurs will have no problem disseminating information, and may beat the journalists at this function, but there are no amateurs so far replicating the analytical depth of the big papers’ reporting on credit defaults. By trying to compete at a disadvantage in the info-breaking space, the professional media will only put itself out of business and we will all be the worse off for it. If organizations like the Pulitzer don’t incentivize a change of direction, it won’t happen.

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.”

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