Jim

Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Journalism for those who can afford it?

In Biz, editor, innovation, News, newspaper, Politics, publish, publisher, Publishing, smartnews, startup, venture on May 4, 2009 at 6:32 pm

I’ve been wondering whether we’re headed for tiered journalism — quality news and information available only to those who can afford it, and who have a deep enough interest to bother; bloviation, press releases, gossip, trivia, poorly researched crap for everyone else.

I don’t see a conspiracy, I suspect a pattern. Public interest journalism has been on the wane for a long time. The reality is, more people are interested in the cast of Twilight than in what happened to that $700 billion we gave to the banks. And even those of us who are interested in following the money are liable to get their information from people they feel represent their interests, whether that be Fox and Friends or Paul Krugman.

Even if that tribal dynamic weren’t in play, the bottom has just flat dropped out of the “content” business. If it can be digitized, it can and will be shared, for free. Almost all efforts to build walls around general-interest news or entertainment have failed. Readers won’t pay for stuff they can get somewhere else for free, even if it’s not as high quality.

And you’ve got ad buyers abandoning media. So general interest and public interest news are shrinking, maybe toward a singularity. Newspapers, TV stations, magazines just can’t afford their staffs anymore.

So you’ve got a deepening sea of news and info out there, but less and less of it, proportionally, is what we think of as traditional, paid, professional, supervised, vetted, edited journalism. Even though everything’s digital, there’s a low signal-to-noise factor, kinda like those cheap cassette tapes you may have bought as a kid (if you’re a geezer like me.) Lotta hiss, distortion, pops and breakages.

Meanwhile, some mad scientists are tinkering with noise reduction schemes and boutique operations that produce (presumably) crystal clear news for specialty markets — but only for elite customers who can afford it. Who would that be? Big corporations, mainly. Government agencies, maybe. Well-heeled nonprofits, I suppose.

Here are a couple of examples:

My cousin, a Washington technocrat, turned me on to Stratfor several years ago. Basically, it started as a newsletter founded by author and futurist George Friedman. He looks at world events through the lens of “intelligence” (you know, CIA stuff) rather than journalism. So Stratfor treats the same stuff as the New York Times or Wall Street Journal, but in a way that’s of particular interest not so much to the many, but to those who have lots at stake. And it costs $399 a year to subscribe.

Now, $399 might not sound that atrocious, but keep in mind, with Stratfor you get geopolitics: analyses “without bias,” breaking geopolitical news, and monographs and assessments “which offer rigorous forecasts of future world developments.” No art reviews, no comics, no gardening section. No local crime or City Hall. (By the way, Stratfor is looking for an online direct-marketing copywriter.)

Here’s another example, a startup I just found out about today. Psydex, a company that searches and analyzes news sources “in real time” just launched Psyng, a “portal that scours newswires, Internet feeds, TV closed captions, blogs and other sources of ‘chatter.'” Psyng claims to cut through the noise to reveal “statistical patterns and trends in social networks, human behavior and financial markets.” Then they plan to sell access to that to media and corporate interests.

The example they cite: “When US Airways Flight 1549 landed in the Hudson River in January, Psydex’s algorithms detected—within seconds of the incident—unusual chatter levels well before the news was broadly disseminated.”

So if you really want up-to-the-second info — ahead of your competitors, Psydex would say — you should buy it from Psyng. “Whether your Topic of interest is Oil Refinery Explosions, Apple Computer or Mergers & Acquisitions, Psyng can instantly alert you to key news events, delivering correlations and projected impacts as the news happens,” the site boasts.

Apparently, there’s a network journalists may join, but I’m not sure how that works or what, if any, remuneration there might be for “professional journalists, editors and other intelligent observers.”

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Would news by any other name still smell as … inky?

In editor, innovation, News, newspaper, Politics, publish, publisher, Publishing, smartnews, startup, venture on April 28, 2009 at 3:50 am

I got an interesting comment on my LinkedIn status line, which is “Jim would like to collaborate (or just brainstorm) with you on putting laid-off newspaper journalists back to work.”

The respondent said “Create a Truth Syndicate. The day is coming when when consumers will pay for vetted information.” The comment sparked a minor mudslide of questions that I thought I’d allow to spill into this blog.

I wonder in what way would a “truth syndicate” be different from what we now refer to as news. Not that news or journalism has ever had the truth market cornered. One thing I’ve learned for sure in my time in the biz: Facts are slippery little bastards. And truth is bloody vaporous.

Even well-intentioned sources get things wrong. Even diligent reporters screw up, miss a crucial detail, misunderstand the context. And there’s the vast ocean of disagreement. Not just on politics. Hell, it might be disagreement on what happened during that shootout. Or whether the refs are biased (as a long-suffering N.C. State fan, I can attest that they are. Grossly. In favor of Kerliner.)

Meanwhile, we’ve all learned to suspect that the news media harbor serious political biases. What those biases appear to be may depend on your politics, of course. But it’s common wisdom that Fox News is in the pocket of the GOP and MSNBC is not-so-secretly Team Obama. An awful lot of the “news” comes to us through the distorting filter of pundits. It’s hard to find a story that touches on national politics that isn’t infected with talking points that originated in the DNC or the RNC.

So how would a truth syndicate operate? Would it fact-check the news of the day as reported by other outlets? Or would it break news like any news organ? Would it be strictly enterprise and investigation, or is there room for sports and that jumble of everything else we call “features?” Would it just be a news wiki?

I have heard tell of corporations hiring journalists; perhaps they are performing a similar function privately, helping the bosses slog through the mire of he said-she said to find the meaningful gobbets in the day’s news. (Or maybe they’re just hacking out lame internal newsletters, I really have no idea.)

I would love to read your thoughts on what a truth syndicate might look like. What would the market be? On which media would it thrive? What’s the truth syndicate’s business model?

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Here’s my white paper for Barack

In Politics, Smartness, Unfettered stupidity on November 19, 2008 at 1:43 am

I wrote this in response to a friend’s rant about weak-kneed Democrats threatening to bring precious little actual change to Washington. This screed manifesto dissertation document has been, as you may well imagine, vetted by a panel of internationally recognized drunks lay-abouts experts.

Here’s a thought. Eliminate the Department of Homeland Security. We didn’t need it then, we don’t need it now.

Here’s another cost-saver: Combine NSA with CIA or State. Exactly how many spy agencies do we need working at cross-purposes, anyway? No more than three or four, I’d think ….

If all that feels too “soft on terrorism” (though I’d argue less bureaucracy squatting on our spy and police networks would be tougher on terrorists), throw the conservatives a bone and eliminate the Department of Education. What have federal bureaucrats done for our kids, lately? Make them take tests? Guess what — American kids were dumb as sacks full of hammers 20 years ago, they’re dumb as sacks full of hammers today. Not all of em; but the average hasn’t improved. Time to burn down the school and start over.

These things are drops in the bucket compared to a war without end or Social Security without a future or the stay-out-of-jail-free cards we keep giving to the kleptomaniacs of Wall Street, but they’d at least make me feel like someone was doing something.

Change, motherfucker!

So you can’t afford to buy your own home

In Biz, Politics, Unfettered stupidity on November 18, 2008 at 12:55 am

Turns out, it’s not that great of an investment, after all.

Suppose you had put $100,000 into the U.S. property market back in the first quarter of 1987. According to the Case-Shiller national home-price index, you would have nearly tripled your money by the first quarter of 2007, to $299,000. On the other hand, if you had put the same money into the S&P 500, and had continued to re-invest the dividend income in that index, you would have ended up with $772,000 to play with—more than double what you would have made on bricks and mortar.

The linked article’s really about the collapse of the whole system of finance. Every once in a rare while, I say something smart. The other day, I had one of those moments: “Money is entirely too important to leave in the hands of bankers.”

Some more tidbits from the linked article, if you don’t feel like plowing through the whole thing:

• The financial history of the past 800 years is a litany of debt defaults, banking crises, currency crises, and inflationary spikes. Moreover, financial crises seldom happen without inflicting pain on the wider economy.

• In 1980, bank indebtedness was equivalent to 21 percent of U.S. gross domestic product. In 2007 the figure was 116 percent.

• The motto “In God we trust” was added to the dollar bill in 1957. Since then its purchasing power, relative to the consumer price index, has declined by a staggering 87 percent.

• (Upon signing S&L deregulation) President Reagan declared, “All in all, I think we hit the jackpot.” … When the ensuing bubble burst, nearly 300 S&Ls collapsed, while another 747 were closed or reorganized …. The final cost of the crisis was $153 billion (around 3 percent of the 1989 G.D.P.), of which taxpayers had to pay $124 billion.

• One might assume that, after the catastrophic failure of L.T.C.M., quantitative hedge funds would have vanished from the financial scene, and derivatives such as options would be sold a good deal more circumspectly. Yet the very reverse happened. Far from declining, in the past 10 years hedge funds of every type have exploded in number and in the volume of assets they manage ….

• But what about the rest of us, the rank-and-file members of the deluded crowd? Well, we shall now have to question some of our most deeply rooted assumptions—not only about the benefits of paper money but also about the rationale of the property-owning democracy itself.

Thanks to Kristin Lenz of the Washington Post for posting the link on Facebook.

What’s wrong with this bailout picture?

In Politics, Unfettered stupidity on October 10, 2008 at 12:31 am

Sen. John McCain, the conservative. free-market-worshipping Republican, is proposing a government subsidy to homeowners who face foreclosure.

Democrats and liberal media, such as MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann, are tearing his proposal a new one. 

Uh. What? 

Honestly, if we must bail people out, I’d love to end up with help on my mortgage, as opposed to only bailing out the rich scumfuckers who bet the firm — and national prosperity — on really bad paper. After all, I had at least some reason to believe my mortgage was a good bet, and the main reason it went sour has to do with others’ machinations. And I (ooh, so clever) didn’t sign up for one of these ridiculous ARMs with a huge balloon payment after a year or two — the little guy’s derivative. (Yeah, that’s a shitty analogy.) 

What’s surprising, even to me, is this through-the-looking-glass moment. 

Here’s what a whiplash-inducing move this is for McCain. Seven months ago, he said “It is not the duty of government to bail out and reward those who act irresponsibly, whether they are big banks or small borrowers.”

That was right after Hillary Clinton had proposed a $30 billion bailout for homeowners. Now, McCain is talking about a $300 billion bailout.

Fake fireworks in China?

In Culture, Politics, Sports, The news biz, Unfettered stupidity on August 13, 2008 at 5:45 pm

So now it’s being reported that some of the exceptional Olympic opening ceremonies, which really were impressive, were faked. When I watch the Olympics, I realize some of the stuff I see isn’t going to be live — NBC, et al., show the popular stuff during prime time, regardless of when it really took place halfway ’round the world. I understand about the scheduling. 

But I don’t expect computer-generated fireworks. WTF, NBC? You don’t have your own cameras? You just blandly let the Chinese pop a tape in the machine? Those overhead shots really brought to us by the Politburo, not Goodyear, as advertised? It’ll be interesting to see how this happened; haven’t seen the reporting on that. 

Now, the little girl lip-synching, I can understand. The networks have no control over that. But it does seem like they’d have control over their video feeds. Makes you wonder about some of the other cool visuals. Were those thousands of tai chi practitioners really in sync that closely? Or did they use the same CGI software that movie directors use to create huge battle scenes? 

What’s next: CGI balloons at the Democratic convention, inserted by special agreement with the networks? Will we be able to see unretouched coverage on C-SPAN?

Update: Better reporting here from Bloomberg.

“You’re looking at a cinematic device employed by Zhang Yimou here. This is actually almost animation. A footstep a second, 29 in all, to signify the 29 Olympiads,” (Matt) Lauer said, according to a transcript ….

(Bob) Costas replied: “We said earlier that aspects of this opening ceremony are almost like cinema in real time. Well this is quite literally cinematic.”

I missed that part of the broadcast. Did Lauer and Costas admit that some of the broadcast was faked?

Memo: Blackwater fudged numbers to win fat contracts (and other items of interest)

In Biz, Fayetteville, Fort Bragg, N.C., Politics on August 1, 2008 at 6:00 pm

I try to keep an eye on news items related to Blackwater Worldwide, a North Carolina-based company that supplies mercenaries private security in hellholes like Iraq, Afghanistan, New Orleans. Partly because the privatization of the U.S. military is fascinating, partly because the Fayetteville area, home of so many elite, special ops guys, is a fertile recruiting ground. Lately, there’s been another flurry of stories.

Federal investigators are raising new questions about whether an affiliate of the controversial security firm Blackwater Worldwide should have received more than $100 million in federal contracts set aside for small businesses.

In a memorandum made public Monday, internal investigators for the Small Business Administration said the agency “did not adequately explain” how it concluded that Blackwater falls within size limits for small-business contracts.

Meanwhile, Blackwater’s getting into the private eye biz:

“Blackwater started a private intelligence company,” (Jeremy Scahill, author of Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army) explained, “a private CIA essentially, called Total Intelligence Solutions. And the man running Total Intelligence Solutions is J. Cofer Black. He’s a thirty-year veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency. He also was the guy who ran the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program, the government-sanctioned kidnap-and-torture program.”

And here’s an interesting backgrounder on Blackwater:

Critics see Blackwater as a company that recklessly abuses the gears of war to make a buck. (Founder Erik) Prince and his devoted team view themselves as a military support staff that helps the government save a buck through an obsessive commitment to identifying and fixing inefficiencies in operations and training.

Music notes from the Coachella festival 2008

In Culture, Politics on April 30, 2008 at 3:22 am

I cut out a few days over the weekend to zip across country to attend the Coachella Music and Arts Festival. Today, I jotted down some impressions from the numerous artists who performed. Now, there’s no freakin’ way to see everyone — there were five stages going continuously for three days, so you’re bound to miss the majority of performances. I’ve noted those I missed that meant anything to me.

Friday

Caught:
The Breeders — out of tune singing. Sounded like they were still rehearsing. Maybe they’re always like that, though.

Múm — oddballs from Iceland. Talented, but not loud enough to compete with the dance tent next door.

The National — just a few songs from them. Competent but unspectacular.

The Raconteurs — wasn’t sure who we were going to see and they didn’t announce themselves, so I didn’t realize this was Jack White’s band. I thought “that guy reminds me of Jack White a little, but they’re better than the White Stripes.” Really good show that at moments reminded me of Zep with the heavy riffs and wailing solos.

The Verve — are these guys a Christian rock band or what? They were OK, but weren’t doing it for Dave, so we bailed after a few songs. As we walked away, they started some trippy guitar stuff that was actually pretty cool, but it was too late. Dumbasses.

Datarock — a fun bunch of wackos who’re happily stuck in 80s pogostick mode. They wore matching red Adidas track suits and bounced around a lot.

Sharon Jones and The Dap Kings — funk and old school r&b done right. Lots of energy and soul. Very hot, and highly recommended.

Fatboy Slim — took forever to get started and the dance tent was packed by the time he took the stage. I’m not a big techno customer, but there’s a major difference between hearing it in the car or even your local discotheque and hearing it ULTRA FUCKING LOUD AND CLEAR in a huge tent. Wore me the hell out with bouncing around with these damned kids half my age.

Missed:

Serj Tankian — we didnt have the schedule on paper with us, so I forgot when he was on. Would’ve liked to have seen him, probably a pretty good show. It would have meant missing The Dap Kings, though, who were the finds of the night.

Jack Johnson — Jack is actually pretty cool, and I caught him at Coachella back in 2003. But to me it’s date music. I didn’t have a date, so who gives a fuck?

Dan Deacon — He’s a real weirdo, basically plays Casiotone loops and stuff. My buddy Ernie’s really into him, so I would have liked to have been able to report back on his set, but I’m glad we spent time in Joshua Tree instead.

Saturday

Caught:

Minus the Bear — Didn’t really mean to see them, and in fact had never heard of them. They were pretty good in a Seattle-indie rock guitar sorta way.

Cafe Tacvba — Not as good as I remembered them from Coachella ’03. Too poppy. Very popular with the Hispanic folks, who were singing along with every word of some of the songs. I bailed early to make sure I got over to see Dwight.

Dwight Yoakam — I’m in no way an expert on country, but I do recognize Dwight as one who plays actual country and not dance pop with a hokey twang. And his set was, in fact, the real thing. Would’ve gone over great in a smokey bar. He paid tribute to Buck Owens and covered Johnny Cash, Ricky Nelson and The Eagles.

Kraftwerk — Unless you’re just really deeply into German industrial whatever, you’d never pick up on these freaks. But they’ve been around forever, four guys and their Moogs or whatever. They literally just stand there motionless and manipulate their consoles while huge, primitive-looking computer graphics and silhouette them. For all you know, they just hit the play button and pretend to look busy. For one song, they are literally replaced by robots on stage. But you crank the knob up to 11 and it’s fucking impressive as hell.

Portishead — Portishead was the headliner for Saturday until Prince signed on. I could see why. The next day, the lead singer for My Morning Jacket said he was glad to see Portishead back together. “Whenever I listen to them, it’s like a nightmare jungle where demons are trying to get me. But Beth’s voice somehow guides me through like an angelic symbol.” Or words to that effect. I hated to leave early, but I really wanted to see Flogging Molly.

Flogging Molly — My legs were beat to death before; after FM, they were in tatters. You just can’t not bounce around to that blaring, drunken, belligerent Irish shit. some shirtless fucker tried to goad me into shoving him or taking a swing by crowding my space, but I wouldn’t take the bait. I’m thinking, ‘if you’re man enough to fight, there’s a whole fucking mosh pit not 10 people away from us who’d gladly take you up on the offer. Why fuck with a fat dude who’s twice your age, you pussy?” He eventually gave up on me. The sound was loud and clear, but the lead guitar drowned out the banjo and fiddle — my only complaint about the sound for the whole festival.

Prince — Prince is one of those guys I respect more than I like. But I can’t deny he puts on a fuckin’ show. It started with Morris Day and The Time doing their two hits from back in the Purple Rain days, which was pretty cool, because it’s actual funk. Sheila E got a song and a timbale solo. Funniest moment: Prince covers Radiohead’s “Creep.” Best parts were the funky parts and the blazing guitar solos — lil dude can wail on a Strat.

Missed:

Half of Portishead’s set.

Death Cab for Cutie — Interested mainly cos I’ve heard of them and because we used “Death cab for cutie” as a headline about a chick who drives an old hearse.

Sunday

Caught:

Gogol Bordello — Rocked out Ukrainian folk, basically. Another band where you can’t NOT dance. Didn’t hurt that there were three possibly Ukrainian, definitely cute chicks also bouncing around me. I’m not sure where they were from, but they spoke with Cyrillic accents.

Metric — only caught a couple songs. I think with more time I could get into it, but it didn’t grab me by the balls right away. Super cute chick fronting the band, though.

My Morning Jacket — Another unannounced band, so I had no idea what I was getting into. Fortunately, they turned out really good with some heavy, psychedelic moments.

Roger Waters — Holy fucking shit, man. Roger’s band plays Pink Floyd note for note, the phrasing, everything, is dead on. Except the sound is huger, louder than you ever got from your headphones. A couple guys behind me were whining they’d prefer to hear the musicians put their own spin on it. Fuck ’em, the show was monumental. Two and a half hours, including the entirety of “Dark Side of the Moon.” And an encore.

Missed:

Love and Rockets — I remember ’em from the late ’80s. Woulda been interesting. Glad I “discovered” My Morning Jacket instead.

Sean Penn — From a distance, I could hear the pugnacious Mr. Penn ranting about whatever political. Roger said it better. And louder.

Higher car tax AND higher bus fare. Everybody wins!

In Fayetteville, N.C., Politics, Unfettered stupidity on April 8, 2008 at 6:15 am

City Council members voted Monday night to raise bus fares and vehicle taxes to fund extending bus routes and expanding the fleet.

So I get to pay a little more in taxes so that people who can no longer afford to ride the bus can not ride them on more routes. Rawk. 

Hey, anyone want a tax hike?

In Fayetteville, N.C., Politics, Unfettered stupidity on April 7, 2008 at 5:34 am

This should go over well with gas at $4 a gallon.