Archives for January 2005
In my years as a working theater critic, one of the things I occasionally did to amuse myself, in those desperate hours between an 11 p.m. curtain and a 2 a.m. deadline, was to write my review in the style of the artist whose work I was covering: a kind of critical Stockholm Syndrome, you might say. For instance, I recall, in one fit of near-insanity, writing a bunch of paragraphs of a review of a John Cage festival, then printing them out, cutting them up with scissors, and scattering them on the floor. The random reordering worked nicely, as it turned out. But I took the increasing frequency with which this impulse arose as a sign that it was time for me to move on to something else.
I still enjoy reading a nice turn in this vein, though. Here’s one: Brian Dear’s review of a Laurie Anderson show, told in that performance artist’s detached-chant voice.
The Social Security debate continues to be infuriating. Pardon me while I release some smoke from the top of my pate.
There are a number of strange arguments floating around out there as part of the desperate effort to try to get the American people to buy President Bush’s Social Security pig-in-a-fiscal-poke. Something happens when you put these arguments side by side: They undermine one another.
Consider, if you will, this comment from someone named Craig on my most recent Social Security post. As far as I can tell, Craig has cut-and-pasted big chunks of long quotes from two different Washington Times columns into his comment, one by Thomas Sowell and another by John Palffy. (I’ll write off the failure to attribute these quotes to oversight since the commenter does say “Please read the following info.”)
Sowell argues that the Social Security Trust Fund is a mere “legal and accounting fiction” because one arm of the government is putting its excess cash into the hands of another, in the form of the IOUs known as Treasury bonds. As I and others keep noting, the idea that Treasury bonds are mere fictions is one that would be news to the vast number of institutions and individuals around the world who consider them the bluest of blue chip investments. What this argument really says is that the government doesn’t have to make good on those bonds — they’re just a “fiction” — when they’re purchased with our Social Security taxes, set aside to handle the future shortfalls of the system, and held in trust for the retirements of America’s working people. The U.S. government would never default on the bonds purchased by another country’s central bank — but hey, if the American people put their retirement money in such a form, the government is sure to renege on the debt. We’re so sure it’s going to renege that we’re getting ready to ditch the most successful and beloved U.S. government program in history.
Why will the government default? Apparently, we’re to believe, because it can. “Liberals are desperate to keep Social Security as it is, because that would mean they can continue spending your money as they see fit,” Sowell writes. Funny, though; the money was fine until Bush’s conservatives started cutting taxes four years ago. “Our money” was frittered away not by “liberals” but by the current administration — on dividend tax cuts, estate tax cuts, wars of choice and other elective policies. Those policies could be reversed as easily, maybe more easily, than privatizing Social Security.
But this all gets more interesting in the second half of Craig’s post, where he moves from Sowell’s argument to Palffy’s. Palffy wants us to put aside the silly notion that privatization means our retirement funds will be at risk. How foolish to imagine that there is any reason to worry about placing Social Security money in private markets rather than in the government’s hands! But since the pesky AARP is stirring up those excitable seniors again, Palffy has a plan to soothe our graying hairs: Why, we can require that all those private (excuse me, “personal”) accounts invest their money in one safe place. That ultra-reliable investment? Inflation-protected Treasury bonds!
So much for the idea that private accounts restore free-market choice. Under this plan, Social Security pretty much remains exactly the same, except that there are little chunks of money in Treasury bonds that have our names on them instead of one big chunk of bonds with Social Security’s name on it. The government is still holding all that money for us, and if we’re to believe Sowell and his ilk, the government can’t resist getting its greedy Big Government paws on any money in sight, so there’s just as much reason under the new plan as under the existing one to expect the perfidious liberals in Congress (despite their minority status!) to default on its obligations.
This round-trip doesn’t get us very far at all, does it? The spinning is desperate, contradictory, ultimately inane. That’s what happens when your stated plans of “reform” don’t match your actual goal (eliminating Social Security). Or maybe the Washington Times’ columnists, and their advocates among the population of blog commenters, need new marching orders from the White House: They did such a good job on the “private/personal” switcheroo.
In the end, there’s one thing I can agree with the conservatives on: Social Security is only as safe as the lawmakers in Washington allow it to be. Sowell & co. say we must fear because we can’t trust the government to keep Social Security afloat. But the government he is telling us will betray Social Security isn’t in the hands of the “liberals” upon whom his finger points. It is the Bush administration that has endangered Social Security, and it is the Bush administration that now wishes to end Social Security as we know it. It may get its way. But let’s make sure the American people understand who’s responsible for the ensuing debacle.
What I imagined was something similar to the way open-source software development projects manage bug reports. When people file bugs against such a project, they go to a publicly available online resource and enter a form that says “Here’s a problem I encountered,” and provide details. Different projects follow different organizational structures, but generally speaking, other developers will review the bug and try to classify it: Sometimes they’ll say it’s a duplicate and point to previous entries in the database that dealt with it; sometimes they’ll say it’s a simple problem and go fix it right away and close it out; sometimes they’ll say it’s a big one and leave it open to be dealt with in the future; sometimes they’ll say it’s a “known bug” that for one reason or another is never going to be fixed; sometimes they’ll say it’s not a bug at all.
For a newsroom, the idea is to provide a structure and a channel for reader dissatisfaction. You wouldn’t have to follow the software model detail for detail, but the general outline could be valuable: Provide a form for readers to enter complaints, one that requires them to present details. Post the complaint publicly as soon as it’s entered, and record the publication’s response in a reasonably prompt fashion — anything from “Thanks, we fixed the spelling on that name” to “we chose the phrase ‘private accounts’ because it is an accurate description of the president’s proposal, and the label was in wide use by supporters of the idea until very recently, so we do not plan to stop using the term.” The explanation is on record, and if other readers keep filing the same complaint they can simply be pointed back to the original answer. Spam? Just delete it. Letters to the editor that don’t have a specific complaint? Re-route them to the letters box.
The most common objection seems to be, forget it — this will become another free-for-all for political partisans to work out their agendas, another wide-open Internet forum that will degenerate into circular debate. Such forums already exist, to be sure; the point of a bug tracker is to avoid that outcome by choosing a narrower environment for the feedback that allows you to quickly aggregate and dispose of duplicate complaints, and that provides a public record of responsiveness and accountability. If 500 people all holler that you shouldn’t say “private accounts,” you can answer them once and be done with it — but you can point each individual complaint back to your explanation, so those people understand that you actually heard them and offered some sort of response. There’s a big difference between the silence of no response and “no, we’re not doing that, here’s why.” The latter won’t satisfy everyone, but it at least acknowledges that there’s been an exchange on the subject.
Ross Karchner proposed a somewhat different model based on wiki practices: “1) A publically viewable changelog, where you can see, in detail, the changes made to an article. 2) A place where the author(s) and editor(s) can discuss the changes needed and made. This is also in public view…” I’m not sure whether Ross means the changelog and the writer/editor dialogue to commence from the first time the writer composed a draft, or only upon publication. The former is, I think, too wide open — even a blogger has the right to compose a posting and revise it in private before choosing to push the “publish” button. The latter is fine — but since most reputable publications rarely change articles once they’re published, and note the changes as corrections if they do, then it’s just codifying an existing practice in slightly different ways.
As for the idea of trying all this out at Salon: Who knows, I might well advocate it, though my current on-leave status doesn’t put me in a good spot to work on it. But Salon has been dealing with the back-and-forth of online criticism of our work for 9 years plus. Whatever problems we may suffer from, a failure of responsiveness to online feedback is not, I think, one of them, and we have a pretty sturdy process for reviewing complaints fast and correcting them where needed.
I think this approach would pay off best for a newsroom that is having difficulty convincing readers that the publication is actually listening to them. If you showed the public that you were recording and responding to the issues they raised — whether you end up publishing a correction or simply saying, “We don’t think that needs correcting, and here’s why” — I think you’d start to bank some confidence and trust pretty quickly.
I’m not suggesting that this idea is the single, one-fix-solves-all-problems answer to the ills of journalism today. It’s a pragmatic, you-could-do-it-real-soon suggestion for beginning to deal with professional journalism’s biggest problem: the public’s loss of trust, which begins with the sense that media companies are big institutions that pay no attention to their own mistakes.
It’s clear that a lot of editors and news execs got their minds opened a little wider, and some number of bloggers got to see that the monolith of the so-called MSM is made up of real, dedicated people. There’s no war here, except when an occasional provocateur decides to stir things up (inaccurately, says Rosen).
As my five-year-old son Matthew likes to say: “Whatever.”
But there is still, I think, a gulf in understanding between journalistic professionals and blogging amateurs. Professionals have been conditioned for life into thinking that “reach” equals value and that news and information that is not commercial is news and information that is not significant. Amateurs typically don’t care as long as they get to do what they love. (Some amateurs do care, but they are not true amateurs — they are simply aspiring professionals, pros who just haven’t yet been hired.) So pros fail to understand the significance of the vast reaches of the blogosphere that do not compete with pro journalism and don’t wish to. These multitudes may have tiny followings; they may desire slightly larger followings — who doesn’t want to be heard? — but they don’t dream of stardom or of quitting their day jobs. (Not, at least, in order to blog.)
When a New York Times Magazine writer declared last fall that “nobody reads” most blogs, he casually flattened the space between “mass or niche market” and “nobody.” This formulation shoves everything that falls below the threshold of media significance into the null void.
Pros — stuck on the understandable but by now, one hopes, discredited idea that blogging aims to replace journalism as we know it — often can’t kick the habit of valuing blogging purely as a business proposition. Some quotes from Rosen’s roundup illustrate this.
Here’s Jim Kennedy, vice president and director of strategic planning for The Associated Press: “The real ‘ecosystem’ of news — with reporters, editors, bloggers and wikipedians — won’t truly flourish until we figure out how to support it. Can we provide services to each other, form business partnerships, generate mutual traffic benefits?”
(But the ecosystem is flourishing now — just have a look!)
Here’s Alex Jones, director of the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard: “…I think that the brand and distribution power of the mainstream media will be even more important in an increasingly crowded blogosphere.”
(Yes, if your aim is to corral eyeballs. But there are other standards.)
Here’s Faye M. Anderson, , former national correspondent for PoliticallyBlack.com, former vice chairman of the Republican National Committee’s New Majority Council: “Bloggers’ credibility will be established by the market. If readers find us credible, they will come. If not, we’ll be left with a community of fifteen people.”
(Millions of blogs, each with a community of fifteen people? That adds up to a rather large sphere of communication.)
Ethan Zuckerman seemed to get what I’m talking about: “This conference reminded me that both camps [bloggers and Wikipedians] are firmly in the ‘amateur’ camp — where ‘amateur’ doesn’t mean ‘unprofessional’, but ‘motivated by love, not by financial remuneration.'”
Blogs are superficially similar enough to newspapers, magazines and commercial Web sites that professional journalists can talk about them while hanging onto their old yardsticks and habits of thinking. To a lot of editors, a blogger just looks like a byline in search of a paycheck. But the Wikipedia‘s nameless, recompense-less multitudes can’t be dismissed as easily.
That’s why, I think, the Wikipedia seems to have blown so many pros’ minds at the conference. Gee — maybe this stuff really is, you know, new. And different. And worthy of, if not outright preening, then close attention.
Dan Gillmor offers a plea to newspapers to open up their for-pay archives. He’s got logic on his side but business inertia against it. Newspapers are used to getting revenue from their old content because third parties like Lexis/Nexis pay them for it and then charge whopping fees to their own customers to access the material. Those same papers are seeing classified ad revenue drain away to the Web; I just don’t see their corporate leaders choosing to abandon this real revenue for the intangible possibility of long-term grown in keyword advertising on open Web archives.
Is this short-sighted? You bet. Is that Lexis/Nexis revenue going to vanish eventually anyway, as the open Web displaces it and reduces demand for the old for-pay stuff? You bet. Will the newspapers then lose out, long-term, as other institutions step into the vacuum on the Web and become the “publications of record”? You bet.
This is, I think, inevitable, given the pattern in American business that makes it nearly impossible for existing institutions to sacrifice this quarter’s revenue for riskier, long-term goals. Newspapers as businesses are hugely conservative; they change slowly if at all. It seems almost certain to me that over the next 30-40 years local newspapers will vanish. We’ll be left with two or three national institutions like the Times and the Journal — they’ve got their own upscale market of people willing to pay for in-depth coverage, and they’ll figure out a path to deliver it in whatever format their readers want. For local news and information, it will be cheaper, more efficient and more profitable to serve the public electronically.
The economic structure that supported local newspapers is going to migrate, is already beginning to migrate, online. And I don’t think most newspapers are nimble enough to follow. New players will pick up that business — and take on the mantle of providing local news. In the course of this change we’ll gain some speed and variety and all the new possibilities of a many-to-many information world; we’ll also lose some valuable traditions. Our recycling bins, at least, will thank us.
The Social Security debate has devolved into a language-police action, in which the White House desperately tries to stop anyone from calling its proposal “privatization” — even though, until recently, that was exactly what its supporters actually called it. Apparently, the “p” word didn’t poll well, since it had some vague relationship to the reality of the plan to ditch Social Security, so out it goes. And now it’s verboten not only to advocates for the plan, but also for those in the media who want to avoid being accused of taking sides.
Here’s Josh Marshall’s reprint of the transcript of a Washington Post interview with Bush, in which he complains that a questioner who used the “p” word was “editorializing.” The reporter then points out that Bush himself used the word just a couple months ago. (Here’s the full Post transcript.)
The administration is trying to play the same game with the AARP. When the senior citizens’ lobby produced a poll that showed wide opposition to Bush’s plans to begin dismantling of Social Security as we know it, the GOP complained that the poll was “skewed by politics.” Why? The poll dared to use the “p” word. (More on this from Marshall and Matthew Yglesias.)
This desperate effort to hide the truth by renaming it is as futile as it is comical: It’s a perfect instance of “Don’t think of an elephant” (or, for Fawlty Towers fans, John Cleese’s classic “Don’t mention the war!” routine). The more pressure the White House puts on Americans to stop thinking of the proposal as “privatizing,” the more opportunity they give opponents to point out that that’s exactly what it is — and to ask why the Republicans are running from an accurate description of their idea.
Any time you hear a Bush supporter protest that “No one is talking about dismantling Social Security, just reforming it!,” you can show them this quotation from a prominent advocate for the president’s plan (from Sunday’s Times Week in Review):
|“Social Security is the soft underbelly of the welfare state,” said Stephen Moore, the former president of Club for Growth, an antitax group. “If you can jab your spear through that, you can undermine the whole welfare state.”|
That doesn’t sound like “reform,” now, does it? It sounds like the violent release of 70 years of conservative Republican hatred of Social Security and resentment at its success and popularity. In this view, Social Security is not part of a “safety net,” at all; Moore wants us to associate the retirement program to which we’ve all been contributing all our working lives instead with “welfare,” a word so unpopular we banished it from the political vocabulary in the mid-’90s. If you want your Social Security, Moore’s saying, you’re a freeloader! You just want a handout! You’re a welfare queen!
Somehow I don’t think that message will be very popular. Unlike welfare, Social Security is a program that most middle-class Americans have personal experience with, either themselves or through members of their families. This is one part of the far-right agenda that even Bush and Rove may not be able to re-frame, re-label, re-brand and sell.
The original user of the “soft underbelly” metaphor, of course, was Winston Churchill, who was talking about trying to get at Hitler by invading Italy. Putting aside the Godwin’s Law implication here (Moore equating Social Security with Nazism?), it’s worth noting that the “soft underbelly of Europe” turned out to be a lot tougher to jab than the Allies imagined. Social Security may similarly prove to have a tougher hide than its enemies think.
This morning’s Romenesko brought this link to a Sacramento Bee column about how some newspapers have begun to use databases to track errors and corrections. Reasonable enough, but maybe not far enough, and it got me thinking.
Software development teams have used bug tracking software for ages now — why not journalists? But keeping it in-house, as the papers the Bee cites seem to do, limits the value of the approach.
I’m spending a lot of time these days around open-source software developers, and they take the logic of this approach one step further: Major open source projects maintain public bug databases. Anyone can come along and post a bug report. It’s like opening a trouble ticket: developers will have a look, see if your complaint is new or duplicates an existing problem; over time the database provide a permanent record of the resolution (or non-resolution) of the issue.
The model doesn’t map perfectly onto journalism, but it’s not too far off: Let people file “bug reports” if they believe your publication has published something in need of correcting. The publication can respond however it seems appropriate: If the complaint is frivolous, you point that out; if it’s a minor error of spelling or detail, you fix it; if it’s a major error, you deal with it however you traditionally deal with major errors — but you’ve left a trail that shows what happened. However you respond, you’ve opened a channel of communication, so that people who feel you’ve goofed don’t just go off to their corners (or their blogs!) feeling that you’re unresponsive and irresponsible.
I know this idea will horrify a lot of editors and reporters, but I think an adventurous newsroom could benefit from the transparency and the accountability. Maybe someone’s already doing this out there — if so, it would be great to see what we can learn.
Jon Udell has been pioneering what he calls “screencasting,” an unusual sort of online journalism that involves taking over your browser screen with screengrabs and animations while he narrates via the audio track. It always seemed mildly interesting to me as a way to do technology demos and product walkthroughs and the like; but with this piece, Udell has taken the form to a higher level, and shown us that it’s something weird and wonderful — and unique to our new Web world.
Plus we get a full technical education in the difficulty of producing an umlauted “n” on screen, an investigation into an act of drive-by wiki vandalism, and an anthropological chronicle of the behavior of Wikipedia contributors. Bravo!
I’ve been following some of the coverage of the Blog Credibility Conference at Harvard (from, Weinberger, Jarvis and Winer, among others). It continues to amaze me how much of this debate is a retread of the mid-’90s, when journalists first moved online and discovered that the Web moved really fast, had different norms, gave their readers new voices and made their own voices sound stuffy and institutional. First I think, “Come on already!”; then I think, “Oh, it’s okay.” Lessons that change one’s professional habits need to be learned from experience, and a much wider population of journalists is being exposed to these changes now that blogging software has drastically expanded the universe of personal media.
This post by David Weinberger puts some of this in a smart perspective — focusing, as I and many others often will, on the critical fact that the vast majority of blogs (like the vast majority of the Web itself) represents stuff created not to “aggregate eyeballs,” build traffic, produce revenue, compete with the pros or otherwise challenge or replace the existing order of the media. People are building something fundamentally new, something that had no opportunity to exist before, and that will — as all such new developments in media do — end up changing but not replacing what’s already here.
There’s another disconnection between the “we’re-changing-everything” bloggers and those newsroom veterans who don’t understand what the fuss is about, and it has to do with scales of time. If you run a newspaper or a TV news operation you have spent your whole professional life in a stable structure, one whose supporting beams of business and technology have never fundamentally shaken or broken under you. The world of professional media has experienced such changes only across the span of a century. But the world of the technology business experiences big changes on a scale of decades — an order of ten faster. Dominant companies rise and fall, new technologies change the rules of the game, and habits of doing business get tossed in the trash every 10-20 years instead of every 100-200 years.
As a lifelong professional journalist who jumped headfirst into the tech-industry world a decade ago, I’ve made my choice. I don’t see getting anywhere by putting one’s money on the idea that change in this field is going to slow down rather than speed up. Which means that, if I were sitting in a newsroom today, I might think it prudent to listen a little less to the voice that says, “Who are these upstarts telling me what’s wrong with my work?” — and a little more to the one that says, “Wouldn’t it be fun to do things differently?”