The state of journalism and Professor Pangloss

Matthew Yglesias of Slate wrote a provocative and widely circulated post last week urging media consumers to ignore “the doomsayers” worrying about the state of journalism and enjoy the incredible profusion of content the Web makes available to readers with even the most arcane interests.

The doom-saying to which Yglesias referred was the annual Pew report on the state of the media – a gloomy document that chronicled continuing revenue and job losses in the nation’s newsrooms, concomitant reductions in coverage and the reader defections those losses have caused. Grim stuff.

Nevertheless, “American news media has never been in better shape,” proclaims Yglesias. “That’s just common sense.”

Putting aside the Panglossian naiveté of Yglesias’ point of view – it is clear even as he celebrates this alleged high point in American journalism that he has little idea how journalism is funded – he makes a critical logical error and then compounds it by confining his analysis to the area of journalism that bests proves his point. Meanwhile he completely ignores another, equally important, if not more important, area of the business.

In attacking the Pew report, Yglesias calls it “a blinkered outlook that confuses the interests of producers with those of consumers, confuses inputs with outputs, and neglects the single most important driver of human welfare—productivity. Just as a tiny number of farmers now produce an agricultural bounty that would have amazed our ancestors, today’s readers have access to far more high-quality coverage than they have time to read.”

Let me count the ways in which Yglesias errs in this single paragraph.

First, he accuses Pew of focusing entirely on the producer side of journalism rather than the consumer side – which is true enough. But then he proceeds to do exactly the opposite, celebrating the diversity of news on the web from the consumer perspective without giving much if any thought to how that news is produced, and what the impact of declining financial support for that mechanism means for the bounty he is celebrating.

And, by the way, we’re not just talking about declining support for old media. Freelance blogger Nate Thayer – presumably one of those contributing to Yglesias’s marvelous cornucopia of content, recently wrote bitterly about being asked by to repurpose a blog post he’d done so the site could run it for free. Notwithstanding Thayer’s complaint, this happens all the time. If this is the business model for Yglesias’ American journalistic renaissance, he should enjoy it while it lasts.

Then Yglesias says the Pew study fails to sufficiently celebrate productivity. I wonder why? Could it because it is all too familiar with assessments of this new productivity similar to Allyson Bird’s?

“You get called out of a sound sleep to drive out to a crime scene and try to talk with surviving relatives. You wake up at 3 a.m. in a cold sweat, realizing you’ve misspelled a city councilman’s name. You spend nights and weekends chipping away at the enterprise stories that you never have time to write on the clock…
I quit my newspaper job at 28, making less money than earned when I was 22.”

Yglesias then backs up his productivity argument with a simile about the small number of farmers producing more food than anyone ever thought possible. Except he fails to mention two things: These farmers get paid, and paid well, for what they produce – the average family farm had average annual income of nearly $82,000 in 2004, a salary most bloggers and reporters would kill for — and many are subsidized by the government itself.

But Yglesias’ biggest gaffe may be what he fails to address at all. In breathlessly describing the bounty of web news, he fails to mention a single instance of what we might call local news. Surely we can read broadly and deeply about the Cypriot banking crisis, as Yglesias suggests. But what about the crisis of corruption at city hall? What about the scandal at the local bank? Not so much, especially as local, old-media operations shrink and their would-be hyper-local successors struggle to find a workable business model.

In Candide, the title character rejects the mindless optimism of his mentor, Professor Pangloss and comes to the conclusion that “we must cultivate our garden.”
Yglesias’ celebration of the Web’s current news bounty is akin to the farmers he mentions eating their seed corn and mistaking it for a banquet. It’s not enough to be optimistic. Those of us who care about journalism and especially local news must cultivate our gardens.


Broken bones … and business models

Please help me!

A few weeks ago, I broke my ankle in two places after fall on some black ice in a parking lot. From the moment I heard the snap of bones breaking as I landed on the joint, it was clear that my world had changed. Always inclined to go it alone, I would now be dependent on others – my wife, my friends and colleagues, my doctors – to help me as I crutched, hopped and wheeled my way through a recovery that could take months.

I can’t stress how hard accepting help is for me. But I have no choice – I just can’t do this by myself.

My situation came to mind recently when I was contemplating the case of an important mid-career journalism educator whose world has changed in a similar way. Tuitions are way off because of trouble in the industry. Its other traditional means of support are tanking. And unless something is done quickly, the future looks grim.

What’s the difference between it and me? It’s this: When another journalism educator in another region of the country approached it with a proposition for a partnership – a plan that would have helped both institutions, the mid-career educator scarcely even wanted to talk about it. Like me, its world had changed and it needed help. Unlike me, it declined a potential source of it.


I can’t say, really, apart from a vague explanation that the institution was too wrapped up in its own problems to contemplate the proposal. As ridiculous as it sounds for a business to be too wrapped up in its problems to consider a way of solving them, I can tell you as a management-level veteran of several large news organizations that it’s sadly familiar.

Based on that experience, here are three reasons why troubled institutions decline help when they badly need it:

Arrogance: A variation on the too-big-to-fail fallacy, this factor causes leaders to believe heir institution is too important to the audience to succumb to the laws of business. The names of some news organizations so afflicted can now be found on the rolls of the closed and the bankrupt.

Denial: Few successful leaders are so clueless as to not see the handwriting on the wall but many refuse to heed it all the same, believing that the crisis is not as bad as it appears, or will somehow pass, or that somebody somewhere will come up with a solution. The final destination is usually the same as in the case of arrogance above.

Inertia: Sometimes, as in the case of the mid-career journalism education institution, companies are so busy worrying about their problems that they forget that the idea is to do something about them – and that requires an open mind and a bias toward action. This is a variation on both the frog in the pot parable and Clayton Christensen’s idea of the Innovator’s Dilemma: By the time institutions start responding to the trouble, their flailing about actually intensifies it.

It seemed ironic and sad to me that an institution that has spent so much time training managers to avoid these pitfalls would itself succumb to the one of the simplest and most common: failing to accept help.

Now, could I ask you to please roll my wheelchair over to the water fountain?


In defense of Marissa Mayer and woman managers everywhere…

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer can’t win for losing these days, it seems. She’s taken hits in the press for ending telecommuting at her company while building a private nursery next to her office, and more lately for deciding to review all new hires in the company.

Let me tell you something: If I were the CEO at a company that was tanking as severely as Yahoo, I’d be doing the exact same thing. In fact, I’d doing a lot more than that – as I’m sure Mayer is.

Of course, if I were the CEO of Yahoo, nobody would be writing about me and the heartless things I was doing to my employees. Why? The answer, I hope, is obvious: because I’m male, and it’s not news when male bosses piss workers off. It’s accepted, expected even. Dog bites man.

Let a woman do the same, though, and the best she can expect is for her management style to be called “unorthodox” by the Washington Post. (Exactly what is unorthodox about giving a failing organization a few swift kicks in the ass is beyond me.) What’s the worst she can expect? Well, if you’ve been following the story, you’ve already seen it.

How did this come to be? Some of it, of course, is good old-fashioned sexism. Some of it is same-sex sour grapes – many professional women have noted that some of the cruelest behavior toward women is inflicted by other women (Are you listening, Maureen Dowd?). And some of it is the backlash from promises women have made about how much different the world would be once they were in charge.

There is no doubt that women as a whole are superior at team play then men, no doubt that they operate better in groups, no doubt that they see workers more as individuals than as cogs in a big machine. This is all to the good, a boon to the workplace and fair enough.

But just because women possess these attributes doesn’t mean that the mere appointment of a woman to the top job will – or should — transform a company into a workers’ paradise. And especially not if the enterprise is failing, as Yahoo is. Sometimes the sicker a patient is, the stronger the medicine required – whether the physician is male or female.

In her new book, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg writes that part of the reason women aren’t getting ahead faster in corporate America is because too many want to be liked. It appears that this is not a problem for Marissa Mayer. And I say good for her.

James Bond, Entrepreneur

As Commander James Bond celebrates 50 years on Her Majesty’s Secret Service at the movies — and cable stations across the grid provide the fireworks with wall-to-wall 007 orgies — it’s a good time to celebrate the lessons Bond can teach entrepreneurs.

Even though Bond drew a paycheck — undoubtedly funneled through some nondescript entity — from MI6, he was in fact an entrepreneur.

Dispatched to some dangerous — and predictably warm and coastal — foreign clime with little more than some gruff orders from M and a few gadgets from Q (the latest Bonds have been notably gadget-shy, as befits Daniel Craig’s brutally lean take on the character) he was expected to figure out the situation on the ground and improvise a
response on his own.

Hence his “license to kill.” When he needed to liquidate a bad guy, he couldn’t wait around for the home office to clear it.

Herewith, then, are seven lessons entrepreneurs can learn from the legendary secret agent:

1. Fail fast: The producers of the Bond franchise themselves provided this lesson. When George Lazenby quit the role as his wooden portrayal of Bond in 1969’s “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” bombed with critics, they moved swiftly on to Roger Moore. Whatever you think of Moore’s fizzy Bond Lite — and I thought it stunk — he played the role seven times, just as many as Connery did. A big flop led to a big success.

2. Embrace new technology: This is practically the unspoken philosophy of the entire series up until Craig, Examples abound, but who can forget Bond escaping an assassin via then-nascent jetpack tech in the pre-title sequence of 1965’s “Thunderball”?

3. But sometimes old technology can do the job: In last year’s “Skyfall,” Craig’s Bond lures villain Raoul Silva to his family’s abandoned estate (the Skyfall of the title) on the moors in Scotland, there to greet him with improvised booby traps and vintage shotguns. When Albert Finney’s gamekeeper empties both barrels into a Silva flunky while saying “Welcome to Scotland” it provides one of the film’s few applause lines. Though he is badly outweaponed, Bond prevails (not so Skyfall, though).

4. Fake it ’til you make it: Pierce Brosnan’s Bond obviously has no idea how to pilot the T-55 tank he steals in “Goldeneye” (1995) — an apt metaphor for first-time entrepreneurs contending with unfamiliar forces and technologies. But he sticks with it, acts like he knows what he’s doing, and in time he’s flattened half of St. Petersburg and nailed a few stooges in the process.

5. Sometimes you have to destroy what you love to win: In “Skyfall,” Bond leaves his beloved — and priceless — Aston-Martin DB5 outside his childhood home as bait for Silva. Bond loses the car (happily for car nuts like me, the film version was made by a 3D printer) but wins the skirmish. Lesson: Don’t get so attached to a business model or anything else that you can’t pivot if circumstances require.

6. Choose you partners well: Bond’s friend CIA agent Felix Leiter is one of the film series’ most enduring characters, having been played by eight different actors. He’s always had Bond’s back. Make sure your partners have yours.

7. Whatever happens, maintain your sense of humor: Bond’s wisecracks as a laser beam inches toward his crotch so rattles the villain Goldfinger in the 1964 film of the same name that he sputters: “Choose your next witticism wisely, Mr. Bond. It may be your last!” Bond stayed cool. Guess who lived to have a Martini, shaken not stirred, later that night?

A massive opportunity for universities in the era of the MOOC …and one danger.

As the world of higher ed buzzes about the explosive growth of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) with equal parts fascination and terror, it’s important to cast a hard eye on what MOOC’s have accomplished so far, what they haven’t accomplished, and what they may never accomplish. And what opportunities that may provide for brick-and-mortar universities in the age of online education.

It’s true that MOOCs have enrolled hundreds of thousands of students for college-level courses lasting as long as a semester. Notice I said enrolled. Because counterbalancing all the crowing about enrollment sizes is the vast, rarely-mentioned-in-the-same-breath number of dropouts, approaching 80 to 85 percent in some cases.

(Size may not be all that it’s cracked up to be — in terms of MOOC’s, anyway. Coursera had to call off its MOOC on — wait for it — “Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application.” last weekend when the demands of the 41,000 students participating crashed the course platform.)

Even allowing for the low barriers to enrollment in MOOCs and the concomitantly low level of commitment to a course in which the student has no financial investment — most MOOC’s are being offered for free at this point — this is the kind of dropout rate that would drive your average university president to mount the campanile for a swan dive.

The low level of commitment endemic to today’s online courses raises an important question, and that is one of outcomes. Surely there are many students who learn, and learn well, for the simple intellectual pleasure of it. Others require incentives of various kinds, ranging from “Dad’s gonna kill me if I flunk this course,” to “I paid a lot to come here and I’m going to get my money’s worth,” to learn effectively. Even when students satisfy MOOC course requirements — and we’ll get to that issue in a moment — it’s certainly worth asking whether their outcomes are equivalent to those of their peers in conventional classrooms.

The fact that most MOOCs are free undoubtedly drives their massiveness. But, as every first-week entrepreneurial-journalism student knows, free is not a business model over the long run –someone always pays. And this raises two more questions: What happens to enrollments when or if this someone winds up being the student? (Less-than-massive, not-so-open online courses, anyone?) And which MOOC platforms of the many now in operation will survive the shakeout?

Finally, the issue of accreditation and certification looms large for MOOCs. Who, precisely, is going to certify to schools, employers and other evaluators that the online coursework has been rigorous to an agreed-upon standard, and that it has been completed legitimately and satisfactorily? Who has the credibility and the standing to accomplish this? Coursera? Open Badges? Pathbrite? Not at this point, certainly.

The point of the argument isn’t to deny the importance and inevitability of widespread online learning — that would be like the newspaper executives who kept debating the potential impact of the web until it disrupted them right into the unemployment line. Obviously, large-scale online learning is here to stay — and that’s a good thing.

The point is the stunning opportunity this provides for universities, especially specialty schools such as CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism. They don’t have to reinvent the wheel when it comes to student motivation. They already retain the tech savvy necessary to make the platform work. Unlike most MOOC platforms, grad schools actually create educational content — they’ve already hired the talent necessary to produce it. They already have infrastructure for marketing, billing, recruitment and the like in place. And who better to certify and accredit online learning achievement than a school whose business is already based on it?

In other words, who are you going to trust: the City University of New York … or Coursera?

The danger for universities in all of this, of course, is the same one always faced by businesses staring down the barrel of disruption: That they’ll fail to see that the new medium requires a new paradigm. That merely shoveling the old educational tools of syllabi and office hours and lectures and recitations onto the web won’t do the job over the long run, no more than newspapers’ early shovelware forestalled their day of reckoning with digital.

The era of the MOOC provides a lot of opportunity for existing educational institutions. But, as in most things, the best opportunities will go to those unafraid to be bold.

Bad news for Poynter and API but good news for…?

News of a $3.8-million annual loss at the Poynter Foundation — which runs the venerable journalism-training outfit the Poynter Institute — was bad news indeed for those vested in providing continuing education for journalists.

And coming as it did on the heels of the demise of the once-storied American Press Institute — which fired its staff and closed its offices last March while touting an alleged “merger” with the National Newspaper Association — it felt like more of the chronic vertigo brought on by the death spiral of old media.

And maybe it is. API — which when I was coming up in the ’70s and ’80s was regarded as the gold standard of mid-career training for journalists — was largely dependent on the hefty course fees paid by news organizations on behalf of reporters and editors whose work was deemed worthy of investing in or rewarding. At the Poynter Foundation, the old-media dependency is even more direct: It relies not only on tuition fees, grants and fund-raisers, but on regular support from the newspaper it owns, the Tampa Bay Times.

Apparently, 2011 was no better for the Tampa Bay Times than it was for most mid-market papers. According to, the newspaper provided no funding to the foundation during that year, the last for which records are available. Thus, at least in part, the loss.

And bear in mind that all of this has occurred at a time when the impact of the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) — which bids to disrupt education as dramatically as digital has disrupted old media — has only barely begun to be felt.

But, as the emergence of thousands of small news startups shows, one sector’s crisis is another’s opportunity. Could the crisis that killed API and wounded Poynter prove a boon for a lean startup, unencumbered by legacy costs or institutional infrastructure, providing mid-career training for journalists?

Or could the same circumstances afford an opportunity for a graduate school of journalism — independent of legacy-media funding and able to leverage an existing educational infrastructure — to move into the void?

Mutantur omnia nos et mutamur in illis (All things change, and we change with them)

The readings thus far for EJ13 constantly remind me how much — and how quickly — things have changed in our industry. I was working in it both when newspapers reached their peak historical circulation (1993) and their revenue peak (2005). As we now stand knee-deep in the wreckage of what remains, it’s mind-bending to consider that both of these peaks occurred within the last 20 years — and the revenue peak a mere eight years ago.

Of course, even in 1993 the popping of corks had a hollow sound in our Potemkin village. We all knew newspapers had been losing younger readers for decades — barely thumbed industry reports on that problem lined the walls of every editor’s office — and the more clear-eyed among us knew that our gains merely served to hide the fact that newspaper circulation had failed to keep pace with population growth since the introduction of television.

Still, by the time the peak revenue year of 2005 arrived, concerns about falling circulation, an aging readership and competition from the Web (It’s hard to believe now, I know, but conversations were continuing at that point about how vigorously papers needed to adapt to the rise of the Internet) were obscured both by the blizzard of greenbacks and a kind of group myopia about the hangover that follows every party.

It’s also important to note that by this time, church-and-state mentality that always characterized relations between editorial and the business side had hardened into a kind of a blind and willful arrogance about newspaper finances. (The arrogance wasn’t limited to finances, but that’s another story.) It wasn’t just someone else’s job to worry about funding the news operation — it was beneath us to even think about it. Let the bean counters worry about the books — we were busy serving the public interest!

Well, as the great songwriter (and proud New York City resident) Steve Earle once wrote: You know the rest.

So, the EJ13 readings remind us that in the entrepreneurial news universe it’s everybody’s job to worry about funding. In fact, if funding the business isn’t Job 1, to paraphrase the old Ford commercial, it’s Job 1.5. Financing the news business can’t be viewed as a necessary evil, as in the old days, or even as the price we pay to create journalism in the new news ecosystem. It is a task we must embrace as quickly and as heartily as we do the tasks of reporting, writing and editing.