Posts tagged ‘newspapers’

Where the "Right Not to Be Offended" Will Lead Us

From Reason: (emphasis added)

Actress Veena Malik was sentenced this week to 26 years in prison by a Pakistani court for reenacting her wedding with her husband on a morning TV show. Her husband, Asad Khattak, as well as Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman, the owner of Geo TV, which aired the program, and Shaista Whidi, who hosted it, all received 26 year sentences as well.

The program caused controversy when it first aired several months ago, leading the TV station to run apologies in Pakistani newspapers. The court primarily objected to the use of religious music in the mock wedding. "The malicious acts of the proclaimed offenders ignited the sentiments of all the Muslims of the country and hurt the feelings, which cannot be taken lightly and there is need to strictly curb such tendency," the court ruling said.

How Newspapers May Survive

Local blogger Greg Patterson writes:

The Wall Street Journal is reporting that Gannett will soon be adding USA Today to it's local papers.

With this change, the Republic and USA Today are essentially a hybrid.  As print revenue continues to slide the USA Today side will grow and the Republic side will shrink.  Eventually, your morning Republic will consist of a copy of USA Today with enhanced local coverage.

This is a change I have expected for a long time.  The wire services have always existed as an attempt by local papers to share costs in national and international news gathering, but I would have expected this next step of national consolidation some time ago.  The internet allows not just the text, but the entire layout of newspapers to be transmitted instantly across the country.

The whole situation reminds me of television broadcasting, where local affiliates exist mainly as a byproduct of past technological limitations in signal transmission.  Satellite and cable have eliminated these restrictions, but still local affiliates exist, in part because there is some demand for local content but in part because of the fact that the government protects their existence (by law, cable and satellite operators must give you the local affiliate, they cannot give you the national feed).

This is what I wrote back in 2009

I actually think the problem with newspapers like the Washington Post is the "Washington" part.  Local business models dominated for decades in fields where technology made national distribution difficult or where technology did not allow for anything but a very local economy of scale.  Newspapers, delivery of television programming, auto sales, beverage bottling and distribution, book selling, etc. were all mainly local businesses.  But you can see with this list that technology is changing everything.  TV can now be delivered via sattelite and does not require local re-distribution via line of sight broadcast towers or cable systems.  Amazon dominated book selling via the Internet.  Many of these businesses (e.g. liquor, auto dealers, TV broadcasting) would have de-localized faster if it had not been for politicians in the pocket of a few powerful companies passing laws to lock in outdated business or technological models.

Newspapers are ripe for a restructuring.  How can one support a great Science page or Book Review section or International Bureau on local circulation?  How much effort do the NY Times, Washington Post, LA Times, SF Chronicle, etc. duplicate every day?  People tell me, "that's what the wire services are for."  Bah.  The AP is 160 years old!  It is a pre-Civil War solution to this problem.  Can it really be that technology and changing markets have not facilitated a better solution?

The future is almost certainly a number of national papers (ala the WSJ and USA Today) printed locally with perhaps local offices to provide some local customization or special local section.  Paradoxically, such a massive consolidation from hundreds of local papers to a few national papers would actually increase competition.  While we might get a few less stories about cats being saved from trees in the local paper, we could well end up not with one paper selection (as we have today in most cities) but five or six different papers to choose from  (just look at Britain).  Some of these papers might choose to sell political neutrality while some might compete on political affiliation.

Harvard Business School and Women

The New York Times has a long article on  Harvard Business School's effort to change its culture around women.  Given that both my wife and I attended, albeit 25 years ago, I have a few thoughts.

  • I thought the article was remarkably fair given that it came from the NYT.  Men who are skeptical of the program actually are allowed to voice intelligent objections, rather than just be painted as Neanderthals
  • I would have abhorred the forced gender indoctrination program, as much for being boring as for being tangential.  I am fortunate I grew up when I did, before such college group-think sessions were made a part of the process everywhere.  I would presume most of these young folks are now used to such sessions from their undergrad days.   I would not have a problem having an honest and nuanced discussion about these issues with smart people of different backgrounds, but I thought the young man they quoted in the article said it really well -- there is just no payoff to voicing a dissenting opinion in such sessions where it is clear there is a single right answer and huge social and even administrative penalties for saying the wrong thing.
  • I went to HBS specifically because I loved the confrontational free-for-all of the classes.   It was tailor-made to my personality and frankly I have never been as successful at anything before or since as I was at HBS.   I say this only to make it clear that I have a bias in favor of the HBS teaching process.   I do think there is an issue that this process does not fit well with certain groups.  These folks who do not thrive in the process are not all women (foreign students can really struggle as well) but they are probably disproportionately women.  So I was happy to see that rather than dumb down the process, they are working to help women be more successful and confident in it.
  • It is interesting to see that the school still struggles to get good women professors.  When I was there, the gap between the quality of men and women professors was staggering.  The men were often older guys who had been successful in the business and finance world and now were teaching.  The women were often young and just out of grad school.  The couple of women professors I had my first year were weak, probably the two weakest professors I had.  In one extreme case our female professor got so jumbled up in the numbers that the class demanded I go down and sort it out, which I finally did.  I thought it was fun at the time, but now I realize how humiliating it was.
  • To some extent, the school described in the article seems a different place than when I was there.  They describe a school awash in alcohol and dominated by social concerns.  This may be a false impression -- newspapers have a history of exaggerating college bacchanalia.   At the time I was there, Harvard did not admit many students who did not have at least 2 years of work experience, such that the youngest students were 24 and many were in their 30's and 40's.  A number were married and some even had children.   To be there, they not only were paying a lot of money but they were quitting paying jobs.  The school was full of professionals who were there for a purpose.  I had heard that HBS had started to admit more students right out of college -- perhaps that is a mistake.
  • The fear by the women running the school that women would show up on Halloween wearing "sexy pirate" costumes represents, in my mind, one of the more insidious aspects of this new feminist paternalism (maternalism?) aimed at fellow women.  Feminism used to be about empowering women to make whatever choices they want for their lives.   Now it is increasingly about requiring women to make only the feminist-approved choices.
  • I actually wrote a novel where the protagonist was a confident successful female at HBS.   So I guess I was years ahead of the curve.

Postscript:  Below the fold is an excerpt from my novel.  In it, the protagonist Susan describes how an HBS class works and shares my advice for being successful at HBS.

Continue reading ‘Harvard Business School and Women’ »

End Sports Cronyism

Florida editorial via the Crony Chronicles

The problem with [the theory that sports subsidies help the economy] is that there is scant evidence that such economic benefits actually occur. Numerous studies done over the last 25 years have found that professional sport teams have little, if any, positive effect on a city’s economy. Usually, a new team or a new stadium location doesn’t increase the amount of consumer spending, it merely shifts it away from other, already existing sources. Entertainment dollars will be spent one way or another whether a stadium exists or not. Plus, the increase in jobs is often modest at best — nowhere near enough to offset the millions invested in the projects.

It's amazing they got the local paper to print this.  Most local papers would be defunct without a sports page.  As a result, local newspapers generally bring to bear tremendous pressure in favor of subsidies to attract and keep new professional sports teams.   Our local paper the AZ Republic tends credulously publish every crazy, stupid benefit study of sports teams on the road to promoting more local subsidies for them.

Those European Hotbeds of Civil Liberties

I am happy to vociferously criticize the many shortcomings in US civil liberties.  But one are where I can't agree with other civil libertarians is their frequent homage to Europe as the home of civil liberties enlightenment.  Kudos, of course, to countries like Holland and more recently Portugal for reasonable drug laws.  But Europeans have many problems we do not share, particularly in protecting, or not protecting free speech.  Here is another example, from Sweden.  Just because they have a reputation for sexual freedom does not make them a civil liberties paradise:

One of the prime arguments I have always made about the Assange asylum case is that his particular fear of being extradited to Sweden is grounded in that country's very unusual and quite oppressive pre-trial detention powers: ones that permit the state to act with anextreme degree of secrecy and which can even prohibit the accused from any communication with the outside world.....

Svartholm is now being held under exactly the pretrial conditions that I've long argued (based on condemnations from human rights groups) prevail in Sweden:

"Gottfrid Svartholm will be kept in detention for at least two more weeks on suspicion ofhacking into a Swedish IT company connected to the country's tax authorities. According to Prosecutor Henry Olin the extended detention is needed 'to prevent him from having contact with other people.' The Pirate Bay co-founder is not allowed to have visitors and is even being denied access to newspapers and television. . . .

"Since he hasn't been charged officially in the Logica case the Pirate Bay co-founder could only be detained for a few days.

"But, after a request from Prosecutor Henry Olin this term was extended for another two weeks mid-September, and last Friday the District Court decided that Gottfrid could be detained for another two weeks.

"To prevent Gottfrid from interfering with the investigation the Prosecutor believes it's justified to detain him for more than a month without being charged....

Unlike in the British system, in which all proceedings, including extradition proceedings, relating to Assange would be publicly scrutinized and almost certainly conducted in open court, the unusual secrecy of Sweden's pre-trial judicial process, particularly the ability to hold the accused incommunicado, poses a real danger that whatever happened to Assange could be effectuated without any public notice....

By the way, the whole sexual freedom thing?  Uh-uh.  Which is another reason Assange is worried, since women can pretty much retroactively any sex they later regret as a sexual assault.

The Media's Role in Promoting the Corporate State

I found this article in the Arizona Republic, our local rag, almost criminal.  As far as it goes, I think the facts are correct.  What is amazing is what it leaves out.  First, the article:

Glendale administrators propose cutting nearly a quarter of the city's employees, or 249 positions, if voters approve a ballot measure in November to repeal a sales-tax hike.

Repeal of the 0.7 percentage-point tax hike that took effect last month would mean the loss of $11 million this year and $25 million annually through 2017, according to city estimates.

The City Council had approved the temporary increase to shore up its deficit-ridden general fund after laying off 49 employees and cutting $10 million from departments at the start of this fiscal year....

Proposed cuts include shuttering two of the three city libraries, one of its two aquatic centers, the TV station and all city festivals, including Glendale Glitters.

The article continues with the usual panic about cuts in police and firefighters and libraries and parks,  etc. etc.  What the article does not mention except in passing in paragraph 12 is the reason for the tax increase and the budget problems in the first place.  Over heated opposition in the community, the City Council, which has enjoyed pretending to be big shot Donald Trumps over the last few years with taxpayer money, handed a private individual $25 million a year to keep the ice hockey team in town, an ice hockey team that has the lowest attendance in the league despite doing fairly well the last few years.  This is on top of years of other subsidies and the taxpayer-funded $300 million stadium.   The numbers line up exactly -- a new $25 million a year subsidy and a new $25 million a year tax, and the paper cannot even connect these dots, even when they were directly connected in real time (ie the tax was specifically justified to pay for the subsidy).

What the article entirely fails to mention is that, given no voice in these corporatist extravagances in Glendale (the tiny town of 250,000 has also subsidized an NFL franchise and a couple of MLB teams), the only way the citizens of this town have any way to exercise accountability is to vote down the tax that enables this corporate handout.  They were not allowed to vote on the deal itself.  This is not a bunch of wacky red-staters voting to decimate the parks departments, as the city and the paper would like you to believe, but a citizenship that is tired of the idiotic corporate cronyism in the Glendale city council and are looking for some way, any way, to enforce some accountability.

This is the media and the state in bed together promoting the larger state.  Glendale's problems are entirely self-imposed, spending huge amounts of tax money on subsidizing sports teams and real estate ventures.  When these all failed like so many Solyndras, they are trying to make this out to be a tax shortfall, when in fact it is spending idiocy.

The media always seems to participate as a cheerleader in this statism, but local papers have a special interest in promoting this sort of sports corporatism.  Just about the only thing that sells dead-tree newspapers any more is the sports section.  I would love to see what would happen to circulation rates if they cut the sports section.  So any state actions that add professional sports franchises or keeps them in town contribute directly to the newspapers' survival.

Journalistic Ethics

This is an interesting story on the AP and journalistic ethics

The Associated Press purchased an advanced copy of the book. It is set for release on Nov. 15.

Let's start with the second paragraph.  It's a lie, pure and simple--and the papers that reprinted the stories know it.  Giffords didn't sell any "advanced copy" of the book.  The book is strictly embargoed so that she can control the timing of the media stories that surround it.  Bookstores, however, have copies locked up in storage rooms so the copies can all be put on the shelves at the same time.  Someone stole one of those copies...or perhaps stole a proof text from the publisher...and then sold it to the Associated Press.

Rather than admit that they illegally purchased and then printed excerpts from a stolen copy, the Associated Press lied and said that they "purchased an advanced copy of the book."  That would be a big story by itself, but the newspapers that have contracts with the AP didn't want to blow a good story, so that meekly reprinted the lie.

What's worse is that the AP not only stole Giffords' book and disrupted the timing of her planned roll out...they botched the story and made Giffords issue a denial. ...

...faced with an ambiguous quote in a stolen book and no chance to verify it, the AP did just what they teach you in the ethics classes in Journalism school...they ran with the most tantalizing, headline grabbing interpretation and then made Gabby deny it.  Nice.

Creating the American Pravda

It is a beautiful day here, so I really don't have the time or desire right now to summarize the absolute mess that is the FTC discussion draft for the "reinvention of journalism," reinvention being a synonym apparently for government takeover.  Almost every proposal is fraught with unintended (or perhaps intended but hidden) consequences, faulty economics, and unprecedented attacks of the first amendment.  If you don't have the time to read it, I will try to summarize it next week, but just open it and scroll the bold headers with the proposals.  Its really outrageous.  Here are just some quick highlights:

  • Substantial narrowing of fair use, with particular focus on how search engines and other online sites (e.g. blogs) use and/or have to pay for access to news sites
  • Expansion of news copyrights on breaking news - ie certain papers will own the copyrights to certain news events if they are the first mover on it
  • Increased government funding of news organizations along multiple vectors, from subsidies to guaranteed loans to income tax checkoffs to lower postal rates to Americorps programs for for journalists.
  • Simultaneously reduce private funding of journalism through taxes, including a tax on advertisers
  • Shift the organizational model of journalism from profit corporations (which rely on satisfying individuals to get their revenue) to non-profit organizations dependent on the government for funding
  • New taxes on and licensing of the Internet.   New taxes on broadcast spectrum to subsidize print media (shifting money from media that are more hostile to the administration to print media and non-profits that are more sympathetic to the administration).

Here is the intro that was missing from the report:  "The New York Times and Newsweek can't figure out a profitable business model in the Internet age.  We propose the government step in with all means at its disposal to limit competition to these print media companies and create new government subsidies for their business.  Once their companies' profitability is absolutely dependent on these government mandates and subsidies, the Federal government will have a powerful source of leverage to protect itself from criticism in these outlets.  Once we have this situation in place, we will have a strong inventive to quash more independent outlets and maximize the market share of media companies beholden to the government.  In a large sense, our recommendations build off the success of the tobacco settlement experiment, where a few large companies agreed to pay the government large percentages of their future profits, and then the government worked diligently to quash new tobacco competitors to maximize the market share of those companies paying it settlement money."

Update: South Bend Seven makes an interesting comparison to campus newspapers.

The Copenhagen Income Redistribution Conference

One of the great appeals of catastrophic anthropogenic global warming theory in certain sectors is the fact that what it takes to fight the imagined threat  (reduced trade, reduced economic growth, government controls on the economy, populist hammering of energy companies, micro-controls on individual decision-making) are exactly the things the socialists wanted to do before their schtick became tired.  Global warming has become the back-door to state control, combining some exaggerated science with a lot of folks' uninformed desire to "do the right thing", to create a new vector for old objectives.

Today, 56 newspapers  are all allowing some global warming activist to take over their newspapers to run the same panicky plea.   Bruce McQuain picks up the story:

In reality, I've come to understand this isn't about "climate change", this is about the politics of income redistribution. I've spoken of it in the past. This has been a goal of the third-world debating club, also known as the UN, since it has come into existence. The IPCC is just a convenient vehicle on which to base their claims and put them forward to the industrialized countries for fulfillment. The underlying "science", like a wet paper box, is coming apart at the seams. And not a single mention in the editorial. But it becomes clear, the further you get into it, that it is about what I contend it is about:

Social justice demands that the industrialised world digs deep into its pockets and pledges cash to help poorer countries adapt to climate change, and clean technologies to enable them to grow economically without growing their emissions. The architecture of a future treaty must also be pinned down "“ with rigorous multilateral monitoring, fair rewards for protecting forests, and the credible assessment of "exported emissions" so that the burden can eventually be more equitably shared between those who produce polluting products and those who consume them. And fairness requires that the burden placed on individual developed countries should take into account their ability to bear it; for instance newer EU members, often much poorer than "old Europe", must not suffer more than their richer partners.

If you were playing buzz word bingo with this paragraph you'd be at the prize table right now picking one out. It hits all of the favorite themes of income redistributionists. And its blatancy should scare you. This is about your wallet, your money and the rest of the world making a claim on it. This is the third world's dream come true.

I have to object somewhat to his last line.  This is the third world leader's dream come true, as I think most adults understand from past experience that aid like this gets siphoned off by the ruling regime.  What the Third World's people really need is what Southeast Asia and India and China have - real private investment making for real economic growth (to be fair, I think Bruce would accept this correction).

I thought this bit was hilarious:

It is in that spirit that 56 newspapers from around the world have united behind this editorial. If we, with such different national and political perspectives, can agree on what must be done then surely our leaders can too.

Apparently we are supposed to be dazzled that 56 institutions that all, in unison, blindly cling to the same 150-year-old failed business model, hoping that some other group can be prevailed upon to bail them out, would actually think alike about some issue.  Amazing!

The Future of Newspapers

I couldn't really get up enough energy to post about the whole Van Jones kerfuffle.  Apparently, as one of Obama's 129 czars, this guy whose job it is to redistribute billions of dollars from one group of individuals to another and issue diktats to be followed by private citizens and businesses, is *gasp* a communist.  Well, no sh*t.  All of these various czars have communist roles so why is it surprising Obama might have picked a communist to hold one of them.  The only surprise was that Van Jones was dumb enough to admit it in print rather than hiding it in leftish double-speak like most of the rest of the administration.

Anyway, all that aside, you gotta love the NY Post, which has no problem dropping any pretense of statesmanship and is perfectly willing to skewer its cross town rival.  This editorial is pretty dang funny.  An excerpt:

Newspaper of record? The Times isn't so much a newspaper as a clique of high school girls sending IMs to like-minded friends about their feuds and faves and raves and rants. OMFG you guys! It's no more objective than Beck is....

The Times continues to treat communism as a cute campus peccadillo like pot smoking or nude streaking. A Times think piece (Sept. 9) worried that Jones' fall was "swift and personal." Being a communist is personal but being the pregnant teen daughter of a vice presidential candidate is public business?

In a quasi-related post, Virginia Postrel says the Washington Post lost $1.10 per copy of their newspaper last quarter.  Wow!

I have to disagree with Ed Driscoll, though.  He like many conservatives argues that this economic problem of newspapers is somehow because the Times has dropped its objectivity.  I am not sure anyone has evidence that is true.  One could make, I think, an equally strong case that the Times should be less objective and go openly partisan.  After all, this notion of politically neutral newspapers is a pretty recent phenomenon in the US.

I actually think the problem with newspapers like the Washington Post is the "Washington" part.  Local business models dominated for decades in fields where technology made national distribution difficult or where technology did not allow for anything but a very local economy of scale.  Newspapers, delivery of television programming, auto sales, beverage bottling and distribution, book selling, etc. were all mainly local businesses.  But you can see with this list that technology is changing everything.  TV can now be delivered via sattelite and does not require local re-distribution via line of sight broadcast towers or cable systems.  Amazon dominated book selling via the Internet.  Many of these businesses (e.g. liquor, auto dealers, TV broadcasting) would have de-localized faster if it had not been for politicians in the pocket of a few powerful companies passing laws to lock in outdated business or technological models.

Newspapers are ripe for a restructuring.  How can one support a great Science page or Book Review section or International Bureau on local circulation?  How much effort do the NY Times, Washington Post, LA Times, SF Chronicle, etc. duplicate every day?  People tell me, "that's what the wire services are for."  Bah.  The AP is 160 years old!  It is a pre-Civil War solution to this problem.  Can it really be that technology and changing markets have not facilitated a better solution?

The future is almost certainly a number of national papers (ala the WSJ and USA Today) printed locally with perhaps local offices to provide some local customization or special local section.  Paradoxically, such a massive consolidation from hundreds of local papers to a few national papers would actually increase competition.  While we might get a few less stories about cats being saved from trees in the local paper, we could well end up not with one paper selection (as we have today in most cities) but five or six different papers to choose from  (just look at Britain).  Some of these papers might choose to sell political neutrality while some might compete on political affiliation.

If I were running the Washington Post, I would think very seriously about creating a national news offering, a USA Today with substance.   If you offered me a Washington Post re-branded as a national paper, with some strong side offerings like the NY Times Science section and a good local sports section and a local news section, I'd toss my Arizona Republic in a second.  Its going to take some good thought as to how to weave together the national offering with locally customized content and to manage local vs. national advertising accounts, but with technology this is doable -- Clear Channel does something similar in radio.

I wonder, in fact, why no one has done this yet -- when you look at the circulation numbers, only the USA Today and WSJ, the two papers pursuing this path, are seeing growth.  My only thought is that news is one of those businesses dominated by passionate people who are tied deeply, emotionally into the industry in a way that makes it impossible to envision or consider new models (aviation is another such business, in my opinion, and the US auto business is probably another).  What we need is for the Post and a few other major papers to fail and then let some really bright, right people from outside the business come and shake it up.  This is, by the way, one of the unsung benefits of bankruptcy, is that it takes assets out of the hands of the people who got the company in the mess to begin with -- a benefit we short-circuited when we spent billions of taxpayer dollars in the auto industry to keep GM and Chrysler assets out of new and potentially more innovative hands.

The Inevitable Result of Government Bailout of Newspapers

A great morality play is running in southern California that gives a pretty clear view into where government funding of newspapers will lead.  Unfortunately, the article I have (via Glen Reynolds) is not written very clearly.  Here are the key facts:

  1. New ownership buys San Diego Union-Tribune, apparently the city's largest newspaper
  2. The new ownership group is funded in part by investments from public pension funds
  3. Public officials argue that since the paper is owned in part with some of their money, the newspaper should no longer be allowed to criticize public officials

Here is their demand:

As [police union] League President Paul M. Weber views it, that makes the League part owner in the flagging Tribune and League officials are none to happy with the paper's consistent position that San Diego lawmakers should cut back on salaries and benefits for public employees in order to help close gaping budget deficits.

"Since the very public employees they continually criticize are now their owners, we strongly believe that those who currently run the editorial pages should be replaced," Weber wrote in a March 26 letter to Platinum CEO Tom Gores.

Seems pretty plain to me.  And I see no reason why government officials, who always long to avoid criticism, wouldn't use investments of public funds to exercise the same leverage.  By the way, I loved this line:

"It's just these people on the opinion side. There is not even an attempt to be even-handed. They're one step away from saying, "˜these public employees are parasites,' " Weber said.

OK, if they won't say it, I will: "Those public employees are parasites."

Newspapers are Under-Scale

I am sure I could rattle off a myriad of problems at newspapers - changing lifestyles, the explosion of free content over the Internet, competition from cable TV, etc.  Built into these trends are some structural problems that newspapers probably cannot overcome.  At some point, there comes a time of survival when you have to stop fighting trends and start figuring out how to make money in the new regime.

Here is one thing I can say with certainty:  Every single newspaper in this country, with the possible exceptions of the WSJ and USAToday, but including the NY Times, are under-scale.

How do I know?  Just listen to the situation.  If they cut costs, they fear the quality of the product will fall and they will lose readership.  But the readership is already not covering costs and is in fact already falling.  This is a classic death-spiral of an under-scale entity.  It almost does not matter what caused the company to suddenly be under-scale when it previously was fairing OK -- technology change, new competition, shifts in customer expectations in habits, or all of the above.

There is no tweaking one can do in an underscale business.  One either needs to get much bigger, or find a defensible niche.  The latter is hard in the newspaper business, since these publications have essentially focused on just one metropolitan area or city, its hard to find a tighter niche that both has a customer following and would allow massive cost cutting.   Community newspapers are one example.  The only forward-looking idea I can come up with is a metropolitan sports-only daily.  Could such a thing sell in New York?  Possibly -- one can argue that is what the Dallas Morning News is, a sports daily with some news sections attached.

This scale problem should not be a particularly surprising finding.  The local newspaper business has always known it had a scale problem.   With thousands of newspapers across the country all reporting many of the same stories, there has always been a huge issue of duplication of effort.  Newspapers took a swipe at this problem with the formation of the Associated Press, which effectively acts as a shared reporting resource.

But it has been decades since this model has even been tweaked.  In that time, sophisticated new readers expect more than just bland 5-paragraph AP stories, and newspapers who rely on such content find most of their stories online for free, if not in their own paper, then in others.  And most large papers have been progressively tempted, for a variety of reasons, to have their own writers on national stories.  Ever seen the press pool for a Superbowl game?  The staff and talent they have built that could serve a whole country is only serving one city.

Many other local distribution models are dying or dead.  Local TV network affiliates were created when local re-broadcast was the only technologically feasible approach to getting TV signals to homes.  They survive today only through constant lobbying which has produced must-carry rules on cable and TV operators, or most of us would be just fine getting the network feed without local content (after all, how many folks watch CNN and FOX and MSNBC?).  Local auto distributorships and beverage wholesalers similarly fight rear-guard actions in the legislature against new national channels.

I think the time has come for publications like the NY Times to give up its city-centric model and go to full-bore national distribution.  My Arizona Republic has 4-5 standard sections plus an additional section (e.g. "Scottsdale") customized to my neighborhood.  I don't see why such a model would not work nationally  (the WSJ does something a bit similar but it is only customized regionally).  I would love a Washington Post delivered here that had an Arizona/Phoenix section and possibly a local sports section.

I can hear the cries now - but what about competition?  We will see thousands of newspapers collapse to 7 or 8 national brands.  But this is a false view of competition here.  Right now I have one newspaper choice.  Even having two or three national offerings with an Arizona section would increase my choice substantially.

Newspapers and Government

I don't have time right now to editorialize in depth, but I found many of the links in this Reason piece on newspaper bailout proposals to be really creepy.  Nothing could be worse for the First Amendment than making news organizations dependent on government largess.   This bit from the Nation is not only totally misguided, but it demonstrates an utter lack of understanding of history, to the point of demonstrating contempt for hist0rical accuracy:

Only government can implement policies and subsidies to provide an institutional framework for quality journalism. [...]

Fortunately, the rude calculus that says government intervention equals government control is inaccurate and does not reflect our past or present, or what enlightened policies and subsidies could entail.

Our founders never thought that freedom of the press would belong only to those who could afford a press. They would have been horrified at the notion that journalism should be regarded as the private preserve of the Rupert Murdochs and John Malones. The founders would not have entertained, let alone accepted, the current equation that seems to say that if rich people determine there is no good money to be made in the news, then society cannot have news.

I find the arguments that such intervention is needed because publishing is too expensive and effectively excludes all but the largest players to be hilarious in the Internet age.  The real problem of newspapers is in fact that it has become so cheap to publish, and competition is rampant.  The problem papers are struggling with is not monopoly, but just the opposite -- that their historic monopoly is gone.   (Take yours truly, for example.  With a $10 a month hosting fee and some of my free time, I have a circulation of almost 5,000 per day).

This appears to me to be yet another veiled attempt by current incumbents to use the government to give them a boost against competition.  Murdoch's empire is utterly assailable -- all you have to do is a better job.   The only thing that makes a business position unassailable is government protection or political advantage aimed at selected players.

Which reminds me of an interesting story.  Ben Franklin  (you know, one of those founders that the Nation refers to as horrified by domination of journalism by moneyed interests) is pretty famous for being among the country's first postmasters.  Before the Revolution, he was postmaster of Philadelphia and later one of the lead postmasters for all the colonies.  We all read in school how he did all kinds of innovative things, because Franklin was a freaking smart guy**.

What you may not know is why he sought out the postmaster job.  Ben Franklin was a printer, and a large source of income for him was running a periodical in Philadelphia  (the names changed over time but among them were the Philadelphia Gazette).  At the time, there were no wire services  (and no wires!)  News came via mail.  Franklin actively sought the postmaster job as a way to get special, privileged access to the mail, which he monitized via his publications.   He had fresher news, and he used the mails to deliver his own publication to customers for free  (a right competitors were not granted)  In a strategy that he did not invent (it was fairly common at the time, and in fact he took the Philadelphia job from his main journalistic competitor who had pursued the same strategy) the surest route to success in the newspaper business was to secure an advantaged position via the government, specifically in a postmaster role.

I am perfectly happy not to go back to this model.

** Postscript:  Franklin seldom gets credit in popular literature for the real areas he contributed to science.  Everyone knows the kite in the thunderstorm story, but I always thought this kind of made him look like a goof, rather than a real scientist.  But Franklin did some real theoretical science, for example by describing what was really going on in a Leyden jar, and substantially advancing how scientists thought about electrical charge and capacitance.

Don't Dance on the Times' Grave

Recent circulation numbers showing continued, substantial declines of traditional newspapers give me an excuse to make a point I have wanted to make for some time. 

I am a frequent critic of newspapers.  I think they have lost focus on the hard-hitting investigative journalism which used to be their highest and best calling, instead considering reiteration of an activist's press release sufficient to check the journalism box on some particular issue.  When investigative reporting does occur, it almost always is focused to support the dominant or politically correct outcome, rather than to really challenge conventional wisdom.   Media coverage of any technical issue involving science or statistics or economics is often awful, in large part because journalism is too often the default educational path of folks who want to avoid numbers.  Any time I have been on the inside of some issue receiving coverage, I have generally been astounded by how little the print descriptions matched reality.  Now that I am interviewed more as a source for articles, I never think my views are well-quoted (though that may be my fault for not talking in sound bites).  And, like many, I get irritated that the media's arrogance and self-referential reporting seems to increase in direct proportion to their drop in circulation.

All that being said, the world without healthy newspapers is a bad thing. 

First, we bloggers can blather on all day about being the new media, but with the exception of a few folks like Radley Balko, we're all editorial writers, not reporters  (I consider my role at Climate-Skeptic.com to be more like journalism, but only because there is such a glaring hole on that topic in traditional media).  I couldn't do what I do here, at least on this particular blog, without the New York Times and the Washington Post.  I'm a remora feeding on their scraps.  I can't bring down the big fish by myself, I can only feed on the bits they miss.

Second, and perhaps more important in this world of proposed reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine, print media is the mode of speech best protected by the First Ammendment.  This isn't the way it should be -- all speech should be equal -- but in reality goofy regulatory regimes for radio, TV, and even the Internet all offer the government leverage points for speech control they don't have with the print media.  It's why half the dystopic sci fi novels out there have a world dominated by TV -- because that is where government has the most control of speech.

So here's hoping you guys at the NY Times get your act together.

Local Papers and the Growth of Government

In some sort of synergistic relationship I haven't fully figured out, local newspapers love to cheerlead the expansion of government programs.  Here is a great example, via Rick Perry.  The headline in the Detroit Free Press web site reads:

State venture capital funds starting to pay off

But then we go on to read:

Michigan's two venture capital investment funds are starting to generate results, state economic  officials said Monday.

Since their formation in 2006, the $95-million Venture Michigan Fund
and the $109-million Michigan 21st Century Investment Fund have
invested in six venture capital firms with either a headquarters or an office
in the state. These firms have used the money and other capital to
invest in 11 fledgling Michigan companies that have added 40 workers in
recent years.

The two funds have made investment commitments of $116.3 million, or slightly more than half of their total capital.

So out of $204 million in taxpayer funds (why the state has entered the venture capital business with state funds is anybody's guess) the state has invested $116 million to create 40 jobs.  Given that the notion of the government venture fund was to create state jobs, its not clear how $3 million per job is a really good return.  Further, there is no mention of the government has gotten any kind of financial return from this investment, so I will presume it has not. So how can the paper possibly with a straight face say that the funds are "starting to pay off?" 

Eleven companies with an average of 3 employees each somehow each got $10 million in state funds.  I bet it would be fascinating to see just who these 11 companies are, and how their owners are connected into the political power structure. 

Just Reward

John McCain put his name to the campaign finance bill that, in effect, allows only the media, not other private citizens, unlimited free speech in the run-up to the election.  So I think it is hilarious that the media seems to be lined up against McCain in the next election. 

There is nothing in any law book that says the media has to be unbiased.  In fact, today's notion of an unbiased media is a relatively new concept.  Most newspapers of the 19thy century had a clear political orientation, something that is still the case to some extent in Britain today.  It was absurd to give such a limited group a monopoly on political speech close to an election.  I have opposed this law from day 1, but I do find it funny that McCain himself maybe its first victim. 

Canada on Free Speech Death Spiral

The list of topics banned from criticism is increasing in Canada.  First it was Islam, and then it was homosexuality.  Now, it is making activist professors at public universities immune from criticism.  By order of the Canadian government:

That Mr. Boissoin and The Concerned Christian Coalition Inc. shall
cease publishing in newspapers, by email, on the radio, in public
speeches, or on the internet, in future, disparaging remarks about gays
and homosexuals. Further, they shall not and are prohibited from making
disparaging remarks in the future about Dr. Lund or Dr. Lund's
witnesses relating to their involvement in this complaint. Further, all
disparaging remarks versus homosexuals are directed to be removed from
current web sites and publications of Mr. Boissoin and The Concerned
Christian Coalition Inc.

That fact that I vociferously disagree with Mr. Boissoin (I am in fact thrilled, for example, that gays will be able to marry soon in California), I whole-heartedly support his right to publicly voice his opinions, even if it makes some people feel bad.  Dr. Lund, as I understand it, as a professor at a state university, is a government employee, and a vociferous one at that.  All limitations on speech are bad, but this decision has crossed that critical line of protecting government employees from criticism, what we would think as the absolute solid heart of the First Amendment (while simultaneously restricting religious beliefs, just for extra credit).

The State Protects Itself

Dibor Roberts was convicted, somehow, for being attacked by a police officer.

The jury in the Dibor Roberts case returned a verdict that I can only describe as contemptible, finding her guilty
of resisting arrest and felony flight from a law officer as a result of
a brutal attack upon her by Sgt. Jeff Newnum of the Yavapai County
Sheriff's Department.

Greg Nix of Larson newspapers has an interesting insight,
suggesting that the trial could have come down to the prosecution
painting a picture for the jury of "'angry black woman' v. 'respectable
white officer.'" He adds, "I grew up in the South so running the 'angry
black woman' strategy is nothing new and generally works for getting
convictions."

Perhaps he's right, and the decision was
essentially racist. Or maybe the prosecution succeeded in picking
jurors who bow down and bang their heads on the floor every time they
see a uniformed government employee. Or the result could have resulted
from a little bit of both factors.

News Stories You Really Don't Want to See

I know there are people who take the position that all PR is good PR, but really, do you really want newspapers running a photo spread entitled "Hookers Made Famous by [Fill In Your Name]"?

Self-Aggrandizement at Public Expense

A while back, I complained about County Attorney Andrew Thomas's self-promoting billboard campaign to impose extra-legal additional punishment on convicted drunk drivers.  Thomas, by the way, teamed with Sheriff Joe Arpaio in a shameful government legal attack on a newspaper that had been critical of him in the past  (fortunately, that case has since been dropped).

Well, now it appears that Thomas has used public funds to send out thinly-veiled advertising for his re-election.

Maricopa County supervisors are questioning County Attorney Andrew
Thomas' use of public money to produce and distribute hundreds of
thousands of slick booklets that feature his name and smiling portrait.

County administrators on Tuesday said the 45-page pamphlets,
distributed in local newspapers, were paid for through the county's
general fund.

They believe more than 500,000 copies were produced. Most supervisors
said they were astonished to see that Thomas spent the money on
booklets that they said were "self-serving" and "self-promoting."

The only other comment I would make is that, knowing out board of supervisors, they are probably mad only because they did not think of this approach for their own re-election.

Seriously Useful Privacy Tool

Many free websites (like newspapers and forums) require an email address to sign up.  To make sure you give them a real one, they send you a password or activation code, usually within 60 seconds, by email.

Guerrilla Mail will issue you an email address that is good for 15 minutes.  You don't even have to leave the web site, just hit refresh and any emails you receive show up there on the screen and can even be replied to.  The only problem is that this will leave you with an impossible list of user ID's, but it is great for, say, forums where I only need to post one time (say with a customer support question).

Via this list, via Tom Kirkendall

Larry Craig

OK, I have resisted commenting on Larry Craig.  My reactions are:

  1. We are so off topic here it is unbelievable.  For Congress, exercising arbitrary powers over individuals in violation of the intent, if not the letter, of the Constitution:  OK.  Playing footsie in the bathroom: Not OK
  2. Are we really going to have a Congressman resign for tapping his foot in a public bathroom while a man who had $100,000 in cash bribe money found in his freezer still sits in office?
  3. Why is it that Democrats, against their political beliefs, feel the need to criticize Republicans for being gay while Republicans feel the need to criticize Democrats for having large homes and SUVs?
  4. Do we really pay police officers to sit on the toilet for hours and try to catch men who are soliciting consensual sex?  And if so, do they also pay female officers to patrol for the same thing among women?  This is a real threat to us?

David Bernstein has more.  Via TJIC.

Update:  A reader pointed out to me I had a fairly relevant passage in my novel BMOC, when the Senator is confronted with his $50,000 earmark nominally for a "women's consulting company" turned out to be directed at a house of prostitution [edited to remove the more raunchy terminology]:

Taking a deep
breath, [the Senator's aid] said, "Senator, there is a reason that this one is not going
away. I will spell it out: S-E-X. The press doesn't give a shit about a few billion dollars of waste. No one tunes in to the evening news if the
teaser is "˜Government pays too much for a bridge, news at eleven.' The Today Show doesn't interview the
contractors benefiting from a useless bridge."

"However, everybody and his dog will tune in if
the teaser is "˜Your tax dollars are funding call girls, film at eleven'. Jesus, do you really think the CBS Evening
News is going to turn down a chance to put hookers on the evening news? Not just tonight but day after day? Just watch "“ Dan Rather will be interviewing
hookers and Chris Mathews will be interviewing hookers and for God's sakes
Barbara Walters will probably have a weepy interview with a hooker."

"And you know
what?" Givens continued, his voice rising. "The whole act makes me sick. All
these media types are going to be piously turning up their nose at you and
those women, while at the same time making more money for themselves off those
prostitutes than those women ever made for themselves on their back. It's rank
hypocrisy but it's the facts of life in Washington,
and I shouldn't have to be explaining this to you."

"You guys in the
Senate can get away with a lot, as long as long as a) you don't get caught or
b) the scandal is so boring or complex that it won't sell newspapers. Hell, I saw a poll the other day that a
substantial percentage of Americans to this day don't understand or even
believe what Richard Nixon did wrong. But if you polled those same people, every freaking one of them would
say that they knew and believed that Bill Clinton [fooled around with] an intern. What's the difference? Sex. Bill Clinton was impeached and lost his law license, not because he did
or did not commit fraud with Whitewater Development Corp., but because he lied
about [sex with] a young girl."

Out on your ass, Jane Austen

Some frustrated writer apparently submitted a Jane Austin novel to a publisher and had it rejected.  The point being, I guess, that publishers are all screwed up and therefore the author in question can now whine a little louder about his work being rejected.  John Scalzi makes short work of this:

Honestly, you'd think newspapers would be bored of reporting this genre
of stunt by now.
You know, as an aside to this foolishness: If I were an editor today,
and Jane Austen had not previously existed, and someone submitted Pride and Prejudice as a mainstream novel, I'd probably reject it. Because it's the 21st goddamn century,
that's why, and the style is all wrong to sell a whole bunch of them
(even if it were pitched as a mainstream historical novel). In point of
fact, I'd probably reject anything written in a 19th century manner,
with the possible exception of Mark Twain's work; for my money he's
probably the only 19th century author whose writing style doesn't make
me feel like I'm slogging through a morass of commas and odd language
structure....

So, yes. Out on your
ass, Jane Austen, until you can write in a contemporary way.

Yes, its a major pain to get published by a top house, and in fact I have yet to be successful, though I honestly think the current book I am writing has a good shot.  But there are lots of reasons a publishing house might reject a perfectly good book:  It may not fit the types of books they publish (you don't send a period piece to a sci-fi house); the publisher's pipeline might be full;  the author's synopsis or the first 30 pages might not be catchy enough (publishers cannot read every word of every submission they get); or the publisher could be missing an opportunity; or the book might, gasp, not be as good as the author thinks it is.

Jane Galt on Immigration

Jane Galt takes on some of the more common anti-immigration talking points.  Just for example:

5. There were ethnic newspapers, but nothing like today's ethnic media.

This is just ridiculous. Immigrants in 1900 could get all the
entertainment that was then available in their own language; for
example, by 1918, New York City boasted 20 Yiddish theaters.
The idea that Latin American immigrants are somehow uniquely unable to
assimilate because they can now watch soap operas and the Venezuelan
version of Eurovision in their very own language seems to me
self-evidently absurd; an immigrant at home watching television in
Spanish is immersed in her own culture no more thoroughly than was the
typical resident of an ethnic neighbourhood who shopped, worked, went
to services, and partied entirely with their compatriots.

I am working on some research right now -- immigration opponents are claiming that "yes, immigration may have been OK in the past, but its different now."  I am in the process of putting together anti-immigration quotes from the late 19th and early 20th century that cover all of the same ground -- they're lazy, they breed too fast, they have disease, they don't integrate, they have divided loyalties -- but aimed at Irish and Italians.

The Joy of Blogging

I guess it's become de riguer to take a shot at Joseph Rago's editorial in the WSJ the other day, saying in part:

Some critics reproach the blogs
for the coarsening and increasing volatility of political life. Blogs,
they say, tend to disinhibit. Maybe so. But politics weren't much
rarefied when Andrew Jackson was president, either. The larger problem
with blogs, it seems to me, is quality. Most of them are pretty awful.
Many, even some with large followings, are downright appalling.

Every conceivable belief is on the
scene, but the collective prose, by and large, is homogeneous: A tone
of careless informality prevails; posts oscillate between the uselessly
brief and the uselessly logorrheic; complexity and complication are
eschewed; the humor is cringe-making, with irony present only in its
conspicuous absence; arguments are solipsistic; writers traffic more in
pronouncement than persuasion . . .

I haven't really posted on this editorial any more than I have posted on the commercials I hear every day for FM radio telling me how bad satellite radio is, and how much I should enjoy hearing 15 minutes of commercials an hour rather than paying $30 a month in fees.  There is a consistent human behavior which tends not just to be threatened but to be outraged by upstart competitors.  Remember this story on the milk cartel  -- entrenched interests are flabbergasted that anyone would even attempt to compete with them in a new way.  New competitors are not just bad and unworthy, they are portrayed as threatening all the good things that already exist.

Now that I am started, though, here are a few other random thoughts:

  • It is inappropriate to compare single blogs to individual newspapers.  The WSJ has hundreds of reporters, while most blogs have one.  In making such a comparison, one is comparing a brain on one hand with a single brain cell on the other.  Blogs have much of their value as a network or swarm, in how the individual "cells" interact with each other and complement each other.  We might read one or two iterations of the daily fishwrap each day, but I read at least 30 blogs, all aggregated together for me in a convenient form by Google Reader.  And these thirty are augmented by links that I follow to as many as a hundred other blogs each week to learn more about individual issues.
  • I don't particularly disagree with this statement:

The blogs are not as significant
as their self-endeared curators would like to think. Journalism
requires journalists, who are at least fitfully confronting the digital
age. The bloggers, for their part, produce minimal reportage. Instead,
they ride along with the MSM like remora fish on the bellies of sharks,
picking at the scraps.

Few bloggers would disagree with this view that we depend on the reporting of the MSM for a starting point of much of what we do.  However, I would probably argue that some of the scraps we are picking up are larger than Rago would concede.  By the way, if you leave out a few papers like the NY Times, I could make the same accusation against 99% of the papers in this country, arguing that they are riding on the backs of the wire services, only doing a small percentage of their own reporting.  What's the difference?

  • One of the reasons there are so many scraps left for us blogger-remoras is that newspapers load up on people whose education and entire professional career is in writing and journalism, rather than in economics or business or law or science whatever they are writing about.  You can just see the institutional hubris in Rago's complaint quoted above about the quality of the prose and the humor, longing for real journalists who can use logorrheic and solipsistic in the same sentence (not to mention four commas, five semi-colons, one colon, and one set of ellipses).   So while newspapers load up on journalism and English majors who write lovely and witty prose, blogs are written by leading economists, legal practitioners and professors, successful business people, technology experts of every stripe, etc. etc.  No newspaper, for example, has even one tenth the economic firepower the combination of Cafe Hayek, Marginal Revolution, the Knowledge Problem, and the Mises Blog, among many others, bring to my desktop.  Ditto for Volokh / Scotusblog / Instapundit / Overlawyered / Tom Kirkendall on legal issues. [Update:  Oh, and a lot of those other bloggers are, uh, journalists]

  • One of the mistakes newspaper-types make in comparing newspapers to blogs is that they compare the reality of blogs with the ideals of newspapers, particularly on things like sourcing and fact-checking.  However, it's becoming clear that this comparison is increasingly unfair, because the reality of newspapers is diverging a fair amount from their ideals.  Of course, we all tend to fall short of our ideals.  But what is worrying about newspapers is that those who purport to be gaurdians and watchdogs of these ideals are increasingly becoming appologists for their violation.  How many times are we going to hear the "fake but accurate" response to blogger accusations of problems in MSM sourcing?
  • I will concede that the Mr. Rago's employer the WSJ is one of the few newspapers that really understand how they create value, or at least are consistent in their value story and their pricing policy.  If, as Rago and others argue, it is the reportage that is of value and editorializing is just the remora, then shouldn't it be the reporting behind the firewall and the editorials out front?  This is how the WSJ does it, but for some odd reason the NY Times does it just the opposite:  They let everyone have access for free to the output of their uniquely large and talented reporter pool, but put the confused economic rantings of Paul Krugman and Maureen Dowd behind a paid firewall.  Huh?