Sunday, December 21, 2008

Farewell, Sweet Prince

We don’t get many mentors. There are parents, sure, and for some the parents we wish we had. A fortunate few get a great teacher who just keeps on teaching long after you have parted company. In our professional life, it is even less likely that someone will have the generosity and temperament to take in interest in a pup without any house training in whom they somehow see some promise.

I am among the luckiest. My mentor was a man named Arthur Spiegelman. Art’s importance to journalism, and to the world he made a better place with his fearless, righteous and unfailingly accurate reporting, is legendary to those of us who worked with him and not nearly well known enough to everyone else.

Arthur died on Saturday after a long bout with lung cancer. Illness made it impossible for him to speak, depriving those around him of his incredible conversation and infectious laugh. But Arthur was receiving calls, made to a cell phone of a close friend at his bedside, who would hold it up to his ear. To his last breath, Arthur was doing what made him a journalist’s journalist. He was listening.

Unspeakable talent surrounded me during my years at Reuters, by reporters who calmly reported from battlefields, jungles and board rooms. Nobody had anything on Arthur, and everybody knew it. Nobody did it better. Arthur was known as “Dr. Lede” – if you were stuck, one call to the doctor would yield a passage of the exact story in 50 words or less, and the doctor was always in. Arthur’s leads would prompt professionals who saw his stories first to just stop reading, to go over those first few perfect words again and again.

Still, great instincts and abilities (and his renowned inability to spell or touch type) are not what set Arthur apart. He had a childlike quality that freed an apprentice of self-consciousness along with a visceral intolerance for bad writing and insufficient reporting.

Arthur took an interest in a certain young aspiring reporter and it is fair to say whatever I do manage to bring to the game is because of him. He allowed me to write for the wire when I had no right to, pushed me into greater challenges than I cared to face, gave me assignments he knew, in the right hands, would be plums.

Arthur gave me a high-profile assignment during the contentious 1992 New Hampshire primary: the improbable and nearly king-toppling candidacy of Pat Buchanan. Irwin Arieff covered Clinton. Both candidates came in second, declared victory of a sort and set the tone for the rest of the campaign of Clinton as the “Comeback Kid” and Bush as a tragically weak incumbent, waiting to be blown over. Our coverage won considerable kudos. Arthur, the chief political correspondent, took the wholly unglamorous assignment of desking our copy from a small hotel room.

A few years earlier, I pitched an idea about Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses,” the novel that earned the author a cleric’s death sentence. How was it selling, I wondered? Among other things Arthur, who ran the New York City bureau at the time, was Reuters’ unofficial book critic and literary maven, so he freed me from boring desk duties to wander the city’s book haunts, big and small. I discovered that the best-selling book “was nowhere to be seen in this book-buying Mecca.” I was very proud of the story -- and lede I hoped would make Dr. Lede proud. The look Arthur gave me from across the room, leaning back in his chair with wide eyes, head tilted and a small, hopeful grin told me I had nailed it. No feedback from anyone, before or since, has meant more to me.

I saw Arthur for the last time about a year ago, during an visit he made to New York from Los Angeles, his base for many years, that served as an impromptu farewell to a man who was not at all dead and not even retiring. I traveled from DC but others came from the UK and even Australia. The private room we hired at a mid-town bar was packed, and a cadre of Reuters’ luminaries paid him tribute.

As I got ready to leave Arthur and I did our personal schtick one last time. “Boss! Chief!” I would always greet him in the worst Boris and Natasha accent imaginable. “Youth!” he would reply, this time no longer appropriate for me at 50.

As we embraced I told him that the tributes were all very nice but that all those people had no idea how important he was, how important he was to me.

"Somebody did it for me,” he said. “Now you do it for somebody else."

That won’t be possible. There will only ever be one Spiegs.

See also:

Monday, December 8, 2008

What’s The Story, Pulitzer Folks?

The Pulitzer Board has decided to open up qualifying publications to include some web sites, which is a step in the right direction. But it continues to exclude magazines, broadcasters and their respective websites -- which seems painfully quaint.

The Pulitzer Prizes are meant to celebrate journalism — well, U.S. journalism, but that’s another story. When they were created newspapers were arguably the best gene pool of quality journalism. They were also a major source of slipshod, opinionated, careless writing — which does nothing to explain the Pulitzer Board's current Two Internets policy. The term "Yellow Journalism" was coined during Joseph Pulitzer's New York City newspaper war with William Randolf Hearst, for heaven's sake, an era which saw tabloidy excess that would make today's least conscientious blogger shudder.

But — and it seems almost ludicrous to argue what seems so obvious — newspapers are no longer the exclusive or even main conduit for quality journalism anymore. Corporations that own them describe themselves as media companies which happen to own newspapers. Many long ago began buying up broadcasters — to subsidize their bleeding newspapers.

At the same time magazines — The New Yorker and Time and Newsweek and many others — routinely do impactful journalism (which may or may not originate on their respective websites), as do broadcasters. And, in the main, they remain considerably more viable as businesses. They will be around to do journalism when there aren't any newspapers (or whatever they decide to call themselves) anymore.

Any remaining divide in the definition of who does journalism is plain silly. Will newspapers have to be completely in their death throes until the Pulitzer people decide to embrace journalism, wherever it is done?

That day of reckoning seems to be approaching. The New York Times is worth only a little bit more than $1 billion (almost half the price at which some people thought Google would have been brilliant to pick it up) and is doing a re-fi on its new headquarters to get through 2009. The Christian Science Monitor is abandoning print. And, on the day the Pulitzer Board announced its changes, the Tribune Co. -- publisher of the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times — said it was applying for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

I have the appearance of conflict, so disclosures are in order: remains ineligible for a Pulitzer, as does sister Condé Nast publication The New Yorker. While I have no illusions about ever doing or supervising Pulitzer-caliber work (no offense, team) the continued ineligibility of my extremely talented colleagues seems absurd.

How absurd? Seymour Hersh won a Pulitzer for exposing the My Lai Massacre on the pages of the New York Times. A quarter-century later he again "set the political agenda," according to the New York Times, by reporting about the mistreatment of Iraqis at Abu Ghraib — on the pages of The New Yorker.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Sunday in the Perk with MSNBC

NBC, Third Floor
Originally uploaded by John C Abell

Apparently all is forgiven at MSNBC even though I won't soon be forgetting my embarrasing faux pas with Contessa Brewer.

I got a call Saturday afternoon from a producer for an 8:30 a.m. Sunday hit. The call went straight to voicemail. So did the followup call from the publicist, on vacation in Florida. I was not playing hard to get. I was in a matinee performance of "Equus" with the family on my daughter's (day after) birthday.

When I finally powered up my mobile they were still interested in having me on and, since I have become increasingly enamored of the sound of my own voice (and maybe enjoy the application of professional makeup just a little bit too much, though not to a Sarah Palin degree) I was glad this opportunity had not passed me by as I tried to process Harry Potter as a sexually confused teen.

I gratefully accepted the car both ways and, since we had just been in town all day and my daughter had lready spent nearly every last cent to her name at Urban Outfitters, Anthropologie and H&M, the family would not be coming with me this time. It was going to be a quick round trip: out of the house at 7:15 and back three hours later.

When an MSNBC booking producer asks if you are available for an interview they put it in the most genteel way: "We were hoping you could join us ..." is the phrase. That, the limo, the lovely hair & makeup people (always very conversational and informed on my topics; why they just don't book the sylists is beyond me) conspire to make even the lowliest of talking heads such as myself feel a little, well, important.

And since my arc at MSNBC is having a definite upward trajectory I admit I am becoming a bit adicted to the commentary dodge: My first appearances on MSNBC were from a secure but undisclosed location in Washington where I had a disembodied interaction with the anchor in New York. Pros know how to do this so that the viewing public is uaware of the slight audio delays which convey either what seem like awkward pauses or a strangely aggressive cross-conversation.

My second appearance was in the New York studio, not on the stage itself but off to the side at a pedestal table where you also face a lens and talk to it as if that were the most natural thing there was. At the MSNBC studio the so-called flash cam is at the anchor's 5 o'clock and about 20 feet away, so the interviewee has an excellent view to the left of the back of the anchor's head, and she does not have to look at you at all.

This time, though, I got "face to face" -- at the desk, actually speaking to the anchor, at her 11 o'clock and only three feet away. Alas, it was Ms. Brewer's (extremely well deserved, I must say) morning off so I could not attempt to make further amends, but I was delighted to chat with Alex Witt.

At first, however, I convinced myself that my boorish reputation has preceded me. When I was ushered on to the set during a taped segment Ms. Witt did not look even in my general direction. Uh-oh, I told myself: Contessa told her not to bother about niceties with that one. I waited patiently through the piece and then a live interview which preceded mine in which an AU professor (in that secure and undisclosed location) explained why these hard times were like and unlike those FDR faced.

Then, with no warning, I was up: Ms. Witt and I bantered amiably about iPods and the recession. I think I elicited a genuine chuckle when I made some remark that possibly reduced sales figures would nevertheless not be a sign of the Apocalypse. As we spoke I imagined that her friendly demeanor was for the audience's benefit and not mine, my penchant for poor social graces now being legendary in the halls of Rockefeller Center.

After the segment, though, Ms. Witt smiled broadly and reached across the desk to shake hands, and she even apologized for not welcoming me when I first sat down. I didn't miss a beat this time. "Not at all!" I said, in my best imitation of courtly manners. "It was a pleasure to meet you!"

Yes, I am enjoying my upward mobility, I must confess. Maybe next time I get a weekday hit to which I can actually walk from my office -- not that I am complaining, lovely people of MSNBC. And please do send my regards to Ms. Brewer.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Perfect for Whom?

Mad Men is one of my favorite shows, so much so that I don't even trust it to the perfect television nanny that is TiVo. The series is an iPhone obsession I treat myself to for my Metro North commute, which runs parallel to the Ossining-to-Grand Central Terminal route Don Draper take when he bothers to go home (which isn't often, as it happens).

I don't need to explain the obsession to people in the know. But I have some personal reasons, too: It takes place at a time in my native New York City that was a Golden Age, during the afterglow of World War II when the Greatest Generation was giving way to a bunch of Boomers who would shepard this nation to a period of great prosperity and fairness.

It was the Boomers who decided that Gays were not "perverts" -- as described by one Mad Man -- and who changed the world just enough so that a black man who's greatest realistic aspiration might have been to operate an elevator at Sterling Cooper could now imagine becoming president of the United States, and make it so.

Alas -- I gush a little. I wasn't even in grade school yet during the Mad Men era, but I was a sentient being during the turbulent '60s when, among other things, feminism stopped being a dirty word.

In those days newspaper want ads still listed positions by gender, as in "Help Wanted - Male" and "Help Wanted - Female." I don't recall specifically what the different jobs were, but I am sure that in the main men were being offered executive positions and women to be their secretaries. This is the caste system in Mad Men -- which is another reason to cheer for Peggy Olson, who earns a spot at the copywriters table and one of the best offices in the place on talent alone.

So, how much has changed in the four generations which have transpired? Fair warning -- I'll make too much of what is to follow.

I was checking my iPhone account at AT&T wireless and noticed they were having a sale. There is one ad which says, "Perfect for Him," and another which said "Perfect for Her." For the life of me, it's difficult to see what features these two phones have which are gender specific, or which could be.

The "her" phone is narrower, but features text and email and all the things everyone (and the other phone) does. Neither Blackberry nor Apple, which dominate the Smartphone phone business, see the need to offer manly and girlie versions of their products.

So what gives? You be the judge:

Monday, November 24, 2008

Watching Obama

President-elect Barack Obama is announcing his economic team, and taking questions, as I write. He is doing his very best to maintain the fiction that there is only one President of the United States at one time, and that he is not it.

It is difficult not to see the night-and-day difference in this appearance and those in similar situations by many past and current holders of the office. It's easy to still be wowed by the man; he will be handled with kid gloves for a while, especially until he is actually president in fact. When Keith Olbermann and especially Chris Matthews lose their youthful crushes on Obama then we'll see the sparks that are necessary to keep everyone honest and working hard.

But, watching Obama's first press conference as whatever he is, I had a thought: As well as he worked the room to get elected, and to achieve all the pre-conditional things that positioned him to vie for that office, Obama has been the recipent of some incredibly good luck.

When he was running in 2004 for the Senate seat that put him in the (mostly) gentleman's presidential prep school his opponent, Jack Ryan, was forced to drop out race over a sex scandal. They were vying for a seat being vacated by a Republican, and the state had been tending Democratic. It could very well have been the case that Obama would have won the seat in any event in time to seek the presidency 304 or 734 or 768 days later. But Ryan's ignominious departure pretty much sealed the deal.

And then, there was the Republican White House office holder. He was there, watching his popularity steadily deteriorate and with it the chances of his party, because of a contested 2000 election and a squandered 2004 election, either of which could have been won by the Democratic nominee (with a little luck).

With a Democrat in the White House Obama would have remained an intriquing question mark for years to come. At 47, he is a kid by political standards and his day may yet have come.

But anything can happen. This might have been his only moment. And how that moment materialized is a bit amazing.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Wired-o-Nomics: Too Big to Succeed?

It seems like forever but it has actually been only been 52 days since Congress thought the better of providing any bailout money to financial institutions to stave off global economic ruin. They heard the arguments for and against, checked the election calendar, and voted down a $750 billion package.

The market immediately tanked. The Dow Jones Industrial Average shed more than 600 points the next day to close at 10,365 (which frankly seems pretty bullish these days).

So lawmakers took another look at it. They heard the arguments for and against, checked the election calendar, watched with as much amusement as the rest of us I hope when John McCain "suspended" his campaign to take charge of things, and voted up a $750 billion package.

The market immediately tanked. On Thursday the Dow was down 33% from the day the original bailout plan was rejected a mere seven weeks earlier.

This is called, in polite company, the law of unintended consequences. It’s called less pleasant things in less genteel circles.

Read the full post on's Epicenter blog.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Wired-o-Nomics: Wall Street Bonuses and Abortions

Ever since Congress threw $700 billion at financial institutions to help prop up the economy there have been a handful of reports about idiotic corporate expenditures, like $500,000 off-sites. These incidents speak to a massive disconnect with reality and create a public relations challenge but, like congressional earmarks, the money involved is relatively insignificant.

More serious is the question of whether Wall Street Masters of the Universe should get bonuses this year, at least at those institutions receiving taxpayer money. These year-end bonuses involve staggering amounts: in 2006, USA Today estimated that the collective pool was just a hair under $24 billion, which "works out to an average bonus of $137,580 for every person employed in the financial services industry."

In ordinary times we mere mortals may merely be disgusted by this sort of excess. This year, it isn't just about other people's money. Now, it’s ours. And our representatives have a compelling interest to make sure on our behalf that it isn’t spent on $6,000 shower curtains.

But the laws of economics are not suspended even in challenging times. Retaining top talent always requires what the market will bear, not what a politician thinks is fair. Still, the giver (or in this case, conveyer) of largesse ought to have some say in how money can or can’t be spent, right?

(Read the entire post on's Epicenter blog)

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Hits & Misses on MSNBC

Contessa Brewer on set, MSNBC
Originally uploaded by John C Abell

On Saturday I made two appearances on MSNBC, subject Barack Obama -- the tech president. I gratefully accepted the Town Car for the 30-mile trip and brought the fam to along for a day in the Big City, punctuated by my two brief appearances on the TV.

It was a quiet day in the studio: We had the green room to ourselves (though a page told us that Beyonce was in the building for her SNL gig later that day) and the halls were mostly empty, except for several tours ambling by perhaps disappointed there wasn't anyone famous in the green room.

I try to be casual about these things, the better to suppress the nerves. But this was only my second time around as a talking head and I may have come off as a wee bit too casual.

In makeup, a woman who clearly worked there and was going to be on the air sometime soon graciously walked over and introduced herself as I was about to be layered with foundation.
"Hi! I'm Contessa."
"Without makeup."
Me: "Oh! Yes! Hello!"
(and then -- wait for it -- the capper)
"The last time we did this I was in Washington!"
I feel compelled to reveal at this point that I watch MSNBC incessantly. I know MSNBC Anchor Contessa Brewer's work very well. So it was not hubris but nerves which prompted me to think she was not being gracious to a stranger but saying something akin to "Nice to see you again." Consummate professional she may be, but it did not dawn on me soon enough how unlikely it was she'd recall me from the three-minute hit I did last July. That and the fact that she didn't say, "Nice to see you again."

Ms. Brewer even tried, I think, to excuse my faux pas by casually saying, "Yes, the bare-faced Contessa," as she strode back to her chair. Then she began chatting amiably with Bertha Coombs of CNBC, who does know how to have a polite conversation and actually needs no introduction.

Things deteriorated a bit from there.

After being mic'd (it's like getting tagged for an EKG with your shirt on) and tested and re-tested by the control booth for sound, I missed my cue when the on-air the moment arrived because I couldn't hear a thing in my earpiece. I knew what was going on (too late) because I could see myself on split screen out of the corner of my eye. They cut to news and when it all got sorted out, my time was cut in half. Lucky viewing public.

Two hours later, on my second hit, more audio troubles. The sound check from the booth was, "Can you hear me Bertha?" -- Ms. Coombs was doing the hit before me, and she was already at the desk with Ms. Brewer. I had the wrong pod. Sound man fumbles around and sorts it out seemingly with seconds to spare. If only.

The California wildfires were getting much worse and coverage of the disaster was extended, as it should have been, so the very thought of talking happily about what a techno-geeky-web-social-network-savvy guy the president-elect is seemed ... out of place.

And -- oh yeah -- the G20 summit was in progress and at the exact moment I was supposed to go on President Bush decided to give an update -- cut to the prez live. By the time he was done I had been in the flashcam seat for about 30 minutes, straining not to move a muscle lest some kind of John Edwards moment be captured.

I did some doodling on post-it notes left on the table. I took out my iPhone and sent some Tweets. About two minutes before I actually did go on my daughter called me, and I had to tell her I it wasn't a good time to talk. Surreal.

No clips of either hit online yet. My money's on there won't be. But if Wired ever sends me back out to do media I'll be doing a lot this: "Hi there! I'm John Abell from Wired!" So, watch out pages and security people and candy stand guy.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A Tribute to Greatness

“Great” is one of those words that we simply use too often. Like the phrases some Oxford people think we have all heard enough, loose usage has devalued it into a pejorative, turning "great" into a lesser compliment than the equally diluted "awesome."

I have a soft spot for greatness. It is the genuine weakness that a parent has for a child or any one of us for a savior. I will spare myself further humiliation by mentioning no objects of my admiration. Except for one.

A few months ago a great man, friend and colleague died. David Mitchell and I collaborated in a world that had yet to coin the phrase “virtual meeting." In my 26 years at Reuters, I never met him or even saw a picture of him.

That is, until someone else I have never met and do not even know provided me with a happy snap of Mitchell in 1976, three years before our first encounter.

Last June I wrote a remembrance of Mitchell on a Reuters alumni site, and repost it here in a slightly different form (with apologies to Fred Gray, mentor and another great man) and the image, which helps to complete the picture.

David Mitchell, who with Tom Guinan and Fred Gray created, deployed and maintained the desktop editing system still in use in Reuters America and elsewhere, has died. Word from a mutual colleague is that Mitchell passed away a few weeks ago. I have no other details, but would welcome hearing anything about this great man.

Mitchell and his cohorts were the Reuters equivalents of the Internet Gray Beards: they practically invented everything that US journalists use to write and edit stories, and they decided on concepts and workflows and interfaces that seem to this day as the only way to do it.

David was one of the first technical people I encountered as a young pre-journalist; when I was a news dictationist, entering copy phoned in live from correspondents, there were endless formatting questions (agate, anyone?) as vexing then as even in more recent days. Mitchell had tremendous patience and a sense of humor which made it possible to for me to battle through one pain barrier after another.

Later on, when I needed detailed system information to create third-party applications that leveraged our quirky editorial mainframe and user interface it was Mitchell again who unlocked secrets and affirmed crazy ideas that just might work. In failing health even 15 years ago, he was always available and always utterly fluent in every matter, however obscure and unintuitive, that I presented to him.

It is not an exaggeration to say the crucial early successes Reuters New Media had creating programmatic desktop publishing solutions -- the core functionalities that powered real-time multimedia Internet news years ahead of the competition -- was possible only because neophyte dreamers were able to stand on his shoulders.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008


Voting Machine
Originally uploaded by John C Abell

Voting today was the easiest experience I've ever had: no lines, no poll watchers, lots of friendly volunteers. (Also, no free coffee or "I voted!" stickers, but you can't have it all.)

Our district is sparsely populated; we are told that there are 800 registered voters here in the 11th district of Westchester County, where we have lived for only a few weeks. About 500 is the most any have ever turned out to vote, they tell us; I ask if they expect to break that record today, and I get forceful, pronounced, silent nods.

Another reason why it was so easy? The voting machine was a fine beast of a thing, a relic from a simpler time when machines did the work that circuit and main boards are expected to now, with disputable success. Some solutions are better mechanical than electronic, I believe, and this is one of those areas (also, try digging a ditch with a computer).

The machine's caretaker was delighted to explain exactly how it worked. After his proud recitation I asked I could use a butterfly ballot instead. He declared his polling place a hanging-chad-free zone, and laughed.

The picture on this post shows the clearly-marked rows of levers, an at-a-glance view of one's entire voting intentions, leaving nothing to doubt. I have used touch screens, punch cards and ballots that had to be marked with a pencil -- never a paper ballot, though, as we still see in some showy Third World photo ops.

This majestic machine, complete with lever-controlled curtain, filled me with a confidence I have never had before as a voter. It was sturdy, most becoming for the enormous civic duty it enables.

I am going to brag on myself, as a certain Chappaqua neighbor has been known to say: the picture on this post got plucked for use on the flickr blog in a piece about election day.

And for a great read on the enthusiasm we should all have when we vote, read this essay by Nicole Spiridakis.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Now Would Be a Good Time to Rob the Place

Through a series of events -- some personal, some professional, some opportunistic -- the bureau will be empty tommorow, with all of us scattered about takin' care of business remotely.

It's no big deal; our brosephs over at Ars Technica don't even have an office. Their newsroom is an IRC channel, which is much cooler than we will ever be. We do all have iPhones now, however, and there is serious talk about all us having beards, too, which would be tough on Meghan.

It sort of all started with that video by CEOs telling people not to work for an hour and vote. I passed on doing a story about it because most states (or all) require employers to give their workers time off to vote, so, thanks for nothing. And why give Trump more air time.

More to the point, most people don't live near where they work, so having an hour off to vote only makes sense if you come to work late or leave early. And Chris said he'd need six hours to vote, and that pretty much kills the day.

So we will work and vote and get'r done away from base camp. Btw, there isn't much worth stealing, though the reddit bobble heads are pretty nifty.

Shred for the Lord

We don't do a lot of gadget-type stuff out of the bureau in New York. Lately it's starting to show.

Eliot Van Buskirk, who edits our music blog, Listening Post, has had a toy on his desk for weeks. "Guitar Praise" promises to let you "Strap on the guitar and play along with your favorite bands -- tobyMac, Skillet, Stellar Kart, Newsboys -- and more."

Yes, this is "Guitar Hero" for the devote. We can't wait (appearances to the contrary notwithstanding) to fire it up and experience the "Unparalleled Game Play" which includes:
  • Onscreen lyrics emphasize Christian themes (which makes perfect sense), and
  • Power duel mode sends surprises to mess with your opponent's play (which sounds downright unChristian to me)
This thing has become the Christmas gift you don't want but can't bring yourself to tell mom you'll never play with ever and would die if your friends found out you had one. But the truth is that, er, more pressing news has prevented Eliot from making much progress on this story which will probably write itself (no offense, dude).

Eliot finally got around to opening "Guitar Praise" about two weeks after it arrived and, a week after that, finally found a free moment last Friday to start shredding for the lord.

Thing needs batteries. Battery compartment held down by screws. We don't have a screwdriver. Yes, we are pathetic.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

I Couldn't Be Less Proud

A couple of years before I was axed at Reuters in a reorganization putsch our very savvy Editor in Chief was asked a long question at one of those town-hall-like meetings with the staff I can't imagine any senior manager looks forward to. The gist was, what do we have to be happy about, what with all the cuts and lack of optimism. His answer was brief: "Be happy you have a job."

The questioner (one of my direct reports) and I, and our four other colleagues didn't appreciate how much we should have taken that particular advice to heart. After all, we were the golden children whose product had unbelievable margins well after the internet news contraction: we were the innovators, the go-to trusted team.

It can happen to anybody.

It's happening now, again, in Silicon V/Alley, as VCs keep their powder dry in an industry where nurturing the possible is still a lengthy and expensive proposition.

We are keeping track of this, in a horse-race sort of way, with the tech layoff tracker. It's mainly by the numbers but I'm hoping the comments give us all a sense of what is going on out there in startup land, rather than just tossing numbers around. Let me tell you -- that never tells the whole story.

Hello, I Must Be Going

The careful reader (you two know who you are) have probably noticed a couple of things: this blog looks a little different, and I haven't been posting much lately.

Let's tackle the easy one first: I meant to change the look, but did not do so an orderly fashion by, you know, saving templates and boring stuff like that. So there are design elements in this off-the-shelf template which I will probably change, because I can't leave well enough alone. But the idea is to get back to basics and shake off all the load-heavy eye candy crap.

The tougher one: I used to tease my good friend Katie King about not blogging. I thought it was especially funny that she didn't blog because she a) taught her GWU journalism students that they had an obligation to blog, and b) because she was also a corporate consultant whose mission was to evangelize to her clients on the need to ... blog.

My goads were unfair (the best ones are). She was working, hard, and I wasn't, at all. I needed to to keep my name out there and my "skills" sharp but, more importantly, I had the time.

Free time is shorter these days as I am no longer a burden on society, so blogging takes a back seat to nearly everything. But something else has changed too, in this age of Twitter: we have rediscovered that short can be more compelling as long, that brevity breeds clarity, and that if you want to be heard, whisper.

I should have known this, as a old hand at various wire-service positions which required short, concise and accurate headlines, alerts and summaries. But that was the dog wagging the tail: technology mostly dictated that this content had to be small. With micro-blogging, the tail is now in charge, and correct on the merits.

Do I believe that blogging has become passe? Too simple. New media seldom if never kills the old. But new media do fill unexpected demands. Twitter won't die simply because we need it, even though we didn't have it even a couple of years ago, and even if they don't have one of them fancy business models.

I read blogs, too many for business, and too few for pleasure. My two friends (there's that number again, Sherlock) are among my must reads: Nicole Spridakis has been blogging for years and never fails to transport me -- armed with a recipe, a keen eye, and a way with words -- to some place I'd like to be. Now, she is apparently trying to kill herself by taking part in NaBloPoMo, which is all about getting people to blog more. I say, in her case, you can't have too much of a good thing.

Samer Farha has take up blogging, a development for which I can't take credit but which I thought was way overdue. The spark was a 61-day trip which began with work at the Bejing Olympics -- but who cares what it took: He's back in the game.

My blog won't be much about politics and media anymore, I suppose, or at least so exclusively about those things which still endlessly fascinate me (that's why God invented Twitter). And there will be less to love.

But, my friends, do as I say -- not as I do. I still have lots of time to read on my loooong commute, and I am counting on you.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Print's Advantage Over Digital (Really -- It Has One)

I was on a panel the other day, subject of "The Future of Journalism" (yeah, I know, that narrows it down to about 72 panel discussions in New York City this week alone) and the conversation drifted as it almost certainly did at the other 71 to why there will always be a demand for magazines, books and even newspapers, when all are available digitally.

Read the entire Epicenter Blog post here.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Yahoo Give Carl Icahn +2 Invite: Your Table is Ready

Carl Icahn doesn't have to storm the gate after all -- he's been invited into the big house. Is Yahoo letting a fox into the chicken coop? Is this all about keeping your friends close and your enemies closer?

Or ... has Yahoo effectively inoculated itself against unpredictable sturm und drang by throwing Icahn and his 5% stake a bone?

Read the entire Epicenter Blog post here.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Yahoo: We Want You, We Want You Not

Alot of propaganda is thrown around in ugly proxy wars, most of which can be safely ignored. Some of us can't afford to avert our eyes, and every once in a while we see some genuine comedy in them thar missives, like today's SEC filing by Yahoo.

Read the entire Epicenter Blog post here.

Monday, July 14, 2008

My Excellent MSNBC Adventure

I did a couple of appearances on MSNBC Saturday morning -- I was meant to do three, but the car they sent for me (I love saying that) was late. The subject was Friday's release of the iPhone 3G, which required me getting an iPhone 3G, which took more than six hours and which I chronicled on Twitter.

The talking head thing was all new to me, but the experience is not unfamiliar to the smallish crowd of local regulars: you are well dressed only from the waist up (one woman actually wore shorts) and you sit in the green room chatting amiably with each other, including your on-air adversary if you have one.

Every once in a while somebody comes in and says, "You're up" and you are led to a sound-proof room with a chair and a table and a light in your face (think: film noir police station interrogations). There is a camera pointed at your face, you are told by the control room the name of the person whom you will greet in the next few seconds as if you are old buds and then you answer questions posed by her as she anchors in the New York studio.

In the Green Room before and after the "hits" I talked politics (and the iPhone) with Peter Fenn, who had an intriguing, off-the-record theory on why Jim Webb took himself out of the Obama Veepstakes. Fenn also said, for the record and with a laugh, that he thought he and Pat Buchanan, his on-air foil for the day, were the only two people in the country who still believed Hillary had a shot at that gig.

I got a quick peek at Buchanan, who showed up with his wife, which is just plain lovely (they live in the nearby power center of McClean). I didn't get even a quick chance to re-introduce myself: I covered Buchanan in his 1992 New Hampshire primary upset for Reuters, which was one of the best reporting experiences I ever had.

For me, it was all very serendipitous, in a Tom Wolfe kind of way. But for the regular hands I'm sure it is all a big bore.

Farewell, Fake Steve, We Hardly Knew Yee

It could just be the latest prank within a prank that Fake Steve Jobs specialized in but this has the ring of truth: Fake Steve Jobs -- aka, Dan Lyons -- is "sailing away."

Read the entire Epicenter Blog post here.

Media Death March: Piling on the Nupes

The depressed newspaper industry is old news of course but Alan Mutter, who blogs at Reflections of a Newsosaur, noticed a depressing pattern in the last report of "short" market activity: there were some pretty big bets that newspaper stocks would go down.

Read the entire Epicenter Blog post here.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Farewell to Norm -- er, Jack

I finally understand -- in a visceral way -- why the Bush administration has been so intent on preventing the public from seeing any military funerals. I just attended my first one, and though it was brief, it was easily one of the most moving ceremonies I have ever witnessed.

We bade farewell to my father-in-law the other day and, as a veteran, he was entitled to a committal ceremony and internment at a military site. Two non-coms and an officer officiated, Army Rangers all.

We watched as they moved in the precise, small steps of this respectful ritual to whispered orders they have uttered and obeyed hundreds of times, as they saluted the remains for what seemed an eternity, then slowly unfurled a US flag, presented it and just as slowly folded it into a tight isosceles triangle; as they rotated it three times to methodically crease its vertical edge with white-gloved hands; as they smoothed the surface of six framed white stars on blue; as seven rifles fired three times overhead, each volley followed by the clink of brass on pavement; as a sergeant-major knelt before my mother-in-law to offer the condolences of the President of the United States and the thanks of a grateful nation to a soldier who served his country 63 years earlier; as they saluted the widow and her family when the ceremony was over and we walked back to our cars.

It would be easy to ascribe the behavior of these people who didn't know Jack Didion to their profession: they are trained to be disciplined, or to die. I'm sure this plays a part. But training and demeanor cannot always overcome a human frailty, as I was reminded earlier on this same day by someone who was called to grace.

Before the military ceremony, Jack's wish to be included in a Roman Catholic mass upon his passing was realized. He had not been a regular church goer in his later years; poor health prevented much of anything for him. So since he was of no parish his daughter found a church near the military facility where he was to be interred, and whose priest was happy to oblige.

Trouble was, he got Jack's name wrong. About 15 times. "Norm" or "Norman" is what he said. Jack's given name was "Nolan," and since so many of the arrangements were done on the phone and through third parties this is an understandable mistake.

But it was a mistake, magnified by the circumstances, and many members of the grieving family were very upset: Jack's one and final mass was for some guy named Norm.

When told, through tears, that he had made this mistake, the priest became immediately annoyed and defensive. Nothing was his mistake, and it didn't matter anyway because we had prayed for everybody. Who is Norm anyway, he asked us (?). We don't use nicknames (Jack) in mass. You aren't of this parish anyway.

Nancy couldn't take it anymore and when she looked to me I said "We should leave now" and as we did he said "Oy!" "Oy!" "Oy!"

I returned to fetch my mother-in-law and other members who were, in my view, pointlessly conversing with this flawed mortal who seemed incapable of taking any personal responsibility. As I ignored him and directed the rest of my in-laws to their cars he said something defensive again -- I do not recall what -- to which I replied: "Thank you for that, and for the apology that I am sure was in there somewhere," to which he replied: "Don't be an ass," three times (something about saying something three times must be significant.) After the third "don't be an ass" I repeated to my relatives that we should leave, especially since we had been reminded "we are not of this parish."

I mention this to kvetch, of course, but also to contrast. This shepherd was incapable of seeing the rectifiable error of his ways and resorted immediately to bullying. No apology to the widow, no self-deprecation, no sense of personal responsibility. I wonder how long he would have lasted in the unit that officiated over my father's military ceremony later that morning?

Postscript: The priest, as pre-arranged, also made brief remarks at the military cemetery. His words and sentiments were, in the main, correct -- though he did allow as he wasn't sure Jack was going to heaven (none among the faithful can know this, I guess, but mentioning that "fact" seemed odd) and that he wasn't sure his sermon earlier in the day had resonated with everyone (true enough for the atheists in my posse). And in a bit of overcompensating overkill he used both "Nolan" and "Jack" several times, and a few times referred to him as "Nolan Jack."

As they say, when a pig flies, you don't blame him for not staying up too long.

Of course, we now have a new family joke. What would Norm think, we ask? And we also know that Jack would have dined out on the story of the priest who called him Norm for years, loudly and again and again to anyone who would listen, no matter how many times you have already heard it.

God bless him.

When it was over I went out of my way to thank the priest for his "lovely" words and to shake his hand. He offered me his condolences, and said he "would pray for me."

Heaven help me.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Memo to Bill:

Dude, you did your best.

Nobody can accuse you of throttling back or showing any hesitation about muscling Hillary into the White House. Hell -- if anything, your occasional over-the-top jabs at Barack are all the evidence anyone could need that you have met your poli-marital obligations. Setting yourself up for "that man crazy!" from time to time is a great way to prove this ain't no half-hearted debate society resolution for you.

But now it's time to reveal that secret I think I guessed at last January. You're off to a sloppy start: I know there is thunder not to be stolen from the Hillary & Barack show later this week, but don't do this through a spokesman anymore. Also, don't use words like "obviously," which everybody knows is a way of boasting about not concealing a grudging admission.

It's been a tough year. It'll probably get worse before it gets better, before you can continue your dream retirement of going wherever you want, talking about philanthropy and theoretical politics to swooning, silent audiences and calling up world leaders for late suppers.

But first, you have to get over it. You have shake off the game face you even convinced yourself was real.

It's time to start imagining a world without Hillary.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

NBC Plays It Safe By Tapping Brokaw for "Meet The Press"

In a bid for stability over reinvention NBC has tapped former nightly news anchor Tom Brokaw to take over hosting duties for "Meet the Press," the Sunday public affairs program whose long-time moderator, Tim Russert, died unexpectedly 10 days ago.

NBC said Brokaw would moderate MTP through the 2008 presidential election.

The choice of gravitas over what might otherwise be seen as an attempt to attract another -- or at least an additional -- demographic is significant because NBC has an unusually deep bench of seasoned on-air political interviewers and commentators who ply their chair-bound trade nightly on MSNBC -- unlike any of the other networks, who do not have cable counterparts.

Continue reading on's Epicenter blog.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Oh Hai! Icahn Haz a Blog? LOLWUT??

You know you wish you could quit Yahoo.

But how can you put your feelings into words in a way that would make Stewart Butterfield proud?

You can't. But Wired contributor Mat Honan -- the man behind Barack Obama is your new bicycle -- is here to help with the "Yahoo Resigner." 

Continue reading on's Epicenter blog

Icahn Blogs Generalities, Silent on Yahoo

The long-awaited blog by Carl Icahn went live sometime yesterday, but there isn't a single word about Yahoo from the man who would control it.


Continue reading on's Epicenter blog

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Obama Opts Out of Public Funding

The knee jerk reaction is to see this as anti-populist, sleazy, business-as-usual. Only someone who doesn't need $80 million turns down $80 million.

And there is the matter of Obama's agreement to accept public funding (and forgo private money), posited by John McCain. McCain, a genuine campaign-finance reformer (for which he is reviled by many fellow Republicans) pushed that pawn at a time when his fortunes were not good and Obama's were unpredictable.

So, the old pol is a man of the people, and the change agent is just another politician who does what suits him, like those Republicans who got elected on a term-limits platform but decided, after their two terms, that their work was not yet done.

But as Frank Rich keeps telling us, these are not times in which the old prism works. Obama is a shockingly viable candidate -- his viability is shocking -- to a degree that belies even the recent history of this nation. Among the other things he has already done is this: prove that in the post-Watergate, full-bore-Internet era, the reason for public financing has been rendered (nearly) irrelevant.

What public financing was meant to sweep away were giant donations from a small number of people who then had hooks into the candidate and who often even cast candidates to serve their needs.

But while Obama has raised record amounts, he has done it a dollar at a time from a vast swath of contributers. In so doing -- building on the remarkable groundwork of Howard Dean in 2004 and alongside the resilient Ron Paul in this cycle -- he has helped us realize the promise of the original intent of campaign finance reform by muting the influence of special interest money.

While it was always possible that nearly the entire adult population of the United States wanted to contribute to presidential candidates, it was the frictionless facilitation of the internet which has made this happen, and the Obama camp's dexterity in separating people from their money which has led us here.

Where is here? A world where the only disadvantage a candidate has in fund raising is being a lousy prospect. It certainly doesn't seem to be a disadvantage to be a 44-year-old black man with a name like Barack Hussein Obama.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

AP vs. The Bloggers: A Portentous Sideshow

The AP probably had no idea it would create such a firestorm in the blogging community by telling the (aptly named) Drudge Retort to remove seven headlines and story briefs from its site.

Media commentator Jeff Jarvis tried to mediate, and then lost his temper. Michael Arrington urged a boycott of the AP (wonder how that went over at AP member the Washington Post). The AP says it plans to meet with the Media Bloggers Association this week to find a way through this thicket.

I'm sure this skirmish over links and intellectual property will sort itself out after the requisite level of shouting, breast-beating, and expressions of indignation. And nothing important will have been resolved.

Let's turn this flame war into a teaching moment.

Continue reading on's Epicenter blog

Sunday, June 1, 2008

We Don't Need No Stinking Numbers

Jay Rosen and many other press critics have long decried (terrible word, but very handy in journalism) reporting about elections as a horse race -- the obsession with numbers and what the numbers mean and what other numbers would mean.

Part of the criticism is that it is lazy. And it is. I'm neither proud nor ashamed of admitting that, very often, the stories I enjoyed writing most were based on clear facts from a printed page that I could attempt to explain in prose poetry. And there are no clearer facts than those expressed by numbers. Ask any math teacher.

The other criticism is that it squeezes out reporting on "things that matter." We talk about how well candidate Jones has done in the latest poll, so we don't report about candidate Jones's position on health care. Health care is hard. Have pity.

I've been modestly sympathetic to the view that horse race coverage ill serves the electorate but, as with anyone who has a mild addiction to politics, I do enjoy the numbers and intelligent talk about them.

But given where the Democratic nomination race is, this must stop now. The numbers no longer matter. They haven't mattered since it became a mathematical impossibility for either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton to get the nomination based on votes by voters.

On this subject, Hillary has this exactly right: any credible candidate in an election that will be decided by party insiders not only should stay in the race, but has an obligation to.

Her arguments may ultimately not resonate with the super delegates. The choice of either candidate by this elite voting block may be determined by the negative consequences of the alternative rather than by a compelling positive.

But it is what it is. The fight now is among a few hundred "wise" people, whether we or the cable analysts like it or not. And, unless we can do 24/7 brain scans on these folks, there is nothing for us to talk about.

The numbers don't matter anymore. Let the debate begin.

Great Scott! Why Wasn't I Informed Immediately!

What's fascinating about the Scott McClellan stuff? I'm not sure. After about a week of digestion I'm left with the impression that he's a pitiable child who has come to the embarrassing realization that he was the last to know what was going on at home.

Of course this is no trite family matter since his home was a White House which intimidated press, pundits and most nay-sayers into believing (or at least not questioning) the premise that going to war with Iraq was a strategic necessity.

This is not to say that I agree with any of the hand-wringing Republicans who are "puzzled" and say don't recognize the Scott they know. These non-denials are trivial truths, since they tell us nothing. Of course they are puzzled. Of course they don't recognize him. Scott was a puppy, happy to be petted and fed and stroked as and when master so deigned. That he's now trying to be Cujo -- or at least Underdog -- is puzzling and not like him at all.

McClellan was a professional liar, in a profession where the most integrity you can possibly muster to not address a subject at all, as Mike McCurry did when he was relentlessly questioned about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. McCurry went out of his way to say he had gone out of his way not to talk to his boss at all about this subject. Maybe that wasn't true, but it at least allowed him not to pass along propaganda as fact.

Scott, however, was happy to present the company line and denigrate the inquisitive. One is left with the impression that he simply didn't have what it takes to do otherwise: another feckless, powerless minion whose role was to do no harm as the powerful A-Team did as much as possible. Even the strongest among the inside-outsiders -- Colin Powell, Paul O'Neill -- were expected to sit quietly and nod when they were pushed before the cameras to defend the manhood of others.

So, what about Scott? It's always helpful when someone in the know confirms what critics have asserted, what logic requires us to conclude, and what the country seems to largely believe, given the Nixon-esque polling numbers Bush gets. When a messenger changes sides, his secrets are valuable -- even if he isn't.

But it does lack the impact of a confession from someone who actually does matter. It isn't William Casey (or even Ollie North) outing Ronald Reagan. It isn't John Dean spilling the beans about Richard Nixon. It is a tardy confirmation from a water carrier who came to Jesus, he says, only after reporters made it all clear to him two years later. Hallelujah.

I welcome Scott to our side, but he shouldn't get his hopes up about getting picked to play.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

[Fill in Time Period Here] is An Eternity in Politics

Nobody has a monopoly on the use of convenient wisdom -- political or biblical -- but it sure seems like everybody has forgotten a very important truism: "[fill in time period here] is an eternity in politics."

Yes, it would be nice to have a clear Democratic field, so the nominee can focus fire on John McCain who, for all of his prowess and charm, seems to be a target-indicator machine. Yes, the longer the intramural games wear on the wearier the victor will be for the nationals, and the greater chance that more weaknesses will be exposed for the competitor to exploit in big game.

But we are being treated to one of the greatest experiences of this nation's democratic process that anyone alive has ever seen. Books (good ones) will be written about campaign 2008. And we, the people, are the winners.

The system is working exactly as it was meant to: it is empowering voters in states that hold primaries and caucuses months after Iowa and New Hampshire and forcing candidates to make friends and influence people in places that have become accustomed to being afterthoughts, or worse.

Is it coincidental that voter registration and turnout is at historical highs? Or is it a matter of giving the people what they want?

It's a simple proposition. There are many, many more Democrats now. They will net plus this cycle, taking Independents and half-hearted Republicans. Don't mess with this, Democratic insiders. Stay inside. Never say anything in public that sounds like elections are great except for the pesky voting: that is what got us into this mess.

Remember that the process is more important than any of the players, and that the process is working just fine. Remember that legitimacy is enhanced by longevity.

True, the elongated nominating process has prolonged the illumination (and provoked the worst examples) of the Clintons' least attractive attributes: an overbearing sense of entitlement, an imperious self-righteousness, the all-to-easy reflex to bully and release the hounds. These faults are their fault, of course, and they may not redound to their benefit this time around.

But this is part of their nature, and I, for one, and not shocked shocked to discover it. I've long accepted to take the very good with the bad, and I have no desire to see her hounded out now for the sake of an untestable proposition that it will "help."

It isn't necessarily a bad thing to have all this attention heaped on the Democratic field -- even as McCain gaffes on Iraq, Iran and the economy -- as two attractive candidates dominate the headlines. Nobody will be talking about how long it took to get a Democratic nominee the day after there is one, just as nobody is talking about Mike Huckabee or Mitt Romney. Better to have a McCain eruption closer to November, because it will get lost in the haze now -- an eternity from then.

And the worst mud slinging in the general campaign will not be inspired from a notion offered up by the loose lips of a losing Democratic nominee during this period of pre-decision. It will come from the usual place: a lie someone has already made up.

So, party on, Hillary. All that I ask of you and Barack is that when you do go, you go with some class. That, after all is said and done, is the only thing anyone will remember about this eternity.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Geraldine and Barack, By the Numbers

I wonder if Geraldine Ferraro thinks she was the most qualified Democratic vice-presidential prospect in 1984 even after, as Maureen Dowd puts it, "she helped Walter Mondale lose 49 states."

Or maybe she's right and Black is the new black. Maybe the stars have aligned so much so quickly that running for president as a Black man finally is an advantage.

But then ... here's how Ferraro doesn't hedge her bets:

She told (Dianne) Sawyer (on GMA) she was trying to say it's a good thing that Obama was where he was. Ferraro said she was saying that "the black community came out with ... pride in [Obama's] candidacy. You would think he would say 'thank you' for doing that, instead, I'm charged with being a racist."
Hmmmm ... wouldn't that be the same black community that has given every Democratic presidential candidate the same 90% backing it is giving Obama? His getting it in the primaries before the Democratic nominee gets it in the general is ... unlikely?

Sounds to me like Obama's race brings absolutely nothing to the table -- except increased turnout. That must be what Ferraro is talking about -- he's getting 90% of a greater share of black voters!

So let's see ... 13% of the US population is African-American and Democratic primary and caucus turnout is shattering records, including a 86% cycle-over-cycle increase in Iowa, black population 2.5%.

I'm no expert, but ...

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Brothers & Sisters, Unite!

As a fan of Barack Obama I must say I'm not offended by Hillary Clinton's offer to share a ticket with her rival. It struck me as just plain, old good politics -- and a tactical error Obama should exploit by saying exactly the same thing.

Here's why: the backlash to Clinton has been because of previous trash talk about Obama. How can she consider a running mate who lacks even her manly bona fides -- and even worse, she says, those of evil Republican John McCain?

But, if Obama holds Clinton to her offer to consider teaming up it makes it virtually impossible for her to go negative.

The latest tortured explanation as to how Obama might after all be ready to be commander in chief on day one (as he'd need to be as VP, a heartbeat away from the presidency) came from Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson on Morning Joe: there's a lot of time between now and the nominating convention in August. Joe Scarborough later wondered out loud if that meant they'd be sending Obama to Fort Dix for a few months.

Obama's instinct to react sarcastically for the crowd's benefit was the correct one. But he also has to be just as careful as she not to offend the nearly half of Democrats who favor the other candidate.

Obama needs to to quickly pivot and get a buzz going that the Brother/Sister ticket (In that order. Just sounds better) would be unbeatable.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Washington Post Ombud Rips 'Women are Stupid' Piece

A lot of people thought the Washington Post opinion piece by Charlotte Allen – you remember, the one where she riffed on how women are weak and stupid after all -- was outrageous. Well, so does the Post ombud. (Committee of Concerned Journalists)

When is a Citizen Journalist not a Citizen Journalist?

There are plenty of people who really don’t like the term “citizen journalism,” but Todd Wolfson has a pretty interesting reason of his own for his displeasure with that appellation: plenty of the people he is training to make video reports for the Internet aren’t citizens at all -- at least of the United States. (Committee of Concerned Journalists)

Anonymous Sources Ruling 'Draconian and Perhaps Unprecedented'

In a ruling USA Today describes as “draconian and perhaps unprecedented,” a judge has ordered one of its reporters to reveal the names of confidential sources or pay more than $45,000 out of her own pocket – without help from others, including her own newspaper – and to do so immediately, even pending appeal. (Committee of Concerned Journalists)

Friday, March 7, 2008

Scotsman Reporter Stands By 'Monster' Quote Decision

Gerri Peev, the Scotsman reporter who quoted Samantha Power as calling Hillary Clinton 'a monster,' said she could not 'in good conscience' have agreed to keep the remark off the record. (Committee of Concerned Journalists)

Newspaper Cartoonists a Dying Breed

Newspaper editorial cartoonists are a dying breed and those few who are still around are no longer expected to be in the forefront of pointed political debates and crusades (Committee of Concerned Journalists)

Reporting the Truth May Cost Florida Paper $18 Million

Florida’s Pensacola News Journal is fighting an $18 million jury award won by a man who alleged that its reference to an unflattering but true incident in his past violated the legal concept of “false light.” (Committee of Concerned Journalists)

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Bank Drops Lawsuit

The Swiss bank which obtained an injunction that 'shut down' – before the judge reversed himself for probably violating the First Amendment – has now withdrawn the case. (Committee of Concerned Journalists)

Memory Sticks Revolutionize Cuba

The New York Times is reporting that despite heavy-handed attempts by the Cuban government to put an air gap between the Internet and its citizens – the better to cripple the crowd – technological disruption is winning again. (Committee of Concerned Journalists)

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Take Me Out of the Ballgame

Like a modern-day land grab, news organizations and professional sports leagues are fighting over who gets to do what online with the sights and sounds captured by reporters covering games. While this may appear to be a crass battle over money, it does affect freedom of the press in a meaningful way. (Committee of Concerned Journalists)

Monday, March 3, 2008

Medill Professor See Double Standard in Quotes Incident

An investigation by Medill’s provost may have cleared Dead John Lavine of a breach of ethics in the use of anonymous quotes, but not everyone thinks the matter should be closed. (Committee of Concerned Journalists)

Fight! Fight!

You think the press is biased? You’re right. But it isn’t for Barack Obama or John McCain. No, what the media won’t tolerate is peace and quiet. (Committee of Concerned Journalists)

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Medill Dean Cleared of Ethics Breach

Medill Dean John Lavine has been cleared of any wrongdoing for the use of anonymous quotes in an alumni newsletter. The announcement was made in a letter to the Medill community on Friday from Provost Dean Linzer, who said in effect that he considered the matter closed. (Committee of Concerned Journalists)

Saturday, March 1, 2008

I'm a Blogger. I'm a Journalist. Blogger. Journalist.

What’s the difference between a blogger and journalist? Ask that in the wrong company and you’re likely to get your head handed to you. Same was true years ago but now the reason is diametrically opposed: there is more than a general consensus that the distinction is somewhere between trivial and non-existent.(Committee of Concerned Journalists)

The Trouble With Harry

The professional British media organization which crafted and policed a nation-wide wide agreement not to report about Prince Harry’s deployment to Afghanistan tells the story behind the story today in the Guardian. (Committee of Concerned Journalists)

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Linda Greenhouse to Leave the Times

At the risk of gushing, Linda Greenhouse's decision to leave the New York Times has left me very depressed. Her departure is not a death in the family but it is always a passing of note when a writer who has defined her beat in the best traditions of writing and reporting decides to get off the bus.

Greenhouse, who has worked at the paper for 30 years and is the dean of the Supreme Court press corps, is an appointment read for me. I like the law anyway and the Supreme Court especially -- of course I read "Becoming Justice Blackmun" and am reading "The Nine" right now -- but her abilities transcend the subject matter.

Her prose is consistently clear and diligent and spare, at any length. She eschews the soft lead so common elsewhere in the paper (and elsewhere) but does not rigidly adhere to the 5Ws. Great writers can pull that off, but she is a professional driver on a closed track: do not try this at home.

As a reporter, Greenhouse leave no relevant stone unturned and all the irrelevant ones untouched. Her use of non-linear references are always en pointe: If she makes a historical reference it is only to explain the otherwise obscure significance of a phrase or the cadences in a decision, or of the "Survivor"-like alliances in the largely secret society that is the Court.

I presume she is a pleasure to edit since to edit her is probably just to read her.

Yes, I am a fanboy, and not ashamed to admit it.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Puppies, Iraq and Fuck You

Yeah, I love this debate. I wrote at the Committee of Concerned Journalists on the naughty word controversy (What the $%*&#! Did He Say) and how newspapers perpetuate a silly standard of keeping foul language off their pages even if the foul language is the story (btw,the clip doesn't make clear what prompted Sam Zell to curse; it was the reporter who asked the question walking off before he had finished talking).

But the merit of the question is fundamental. And I don't think there is an easy answer. Unlike, say, the Big Three automakers it is too easy to blame newspaper executives for failed strategies that have left their businesses struggling; while Detroit is similarly saddled with legacy issues that new players were fortunate to be able to avoid, it is also true that US carmakers missed and dissed trends that invited nimble competitors to flourish.

But people still buy cars, so at least the automakers don’t have to start making bicycles, gyrocopters -- or frozen pizzas.

Newspapers were also not quick to pick up on the revolution in their business. But even if they had, they would have still have been confronted with a different reality: people don’t still buy newspapers. So newspaper companies do have to find out if people want the equivalent of bicycles, gyrocopters or frozen pizzas.

And they have to hope their customers won’t be mesmerized by the next shiny thing and abandon the gyrocopter for a jet pack (or they have to position themselves to be gyrocopter/jet pack agnostic).

And they have to figure out how to make money on a gyrocopter or get by with less by selling non-strategic assets, cutting back on coverage, requiring more of their employees, etc.

Is it any wonder that there are basic questions about what business newspapers really need to be in to survive? If GM can be described as a pharmaceutical company that also sells cars is it a shock to the system that newspapers regard both their delivery systems and news editing philosophies as malleable?

The important question, I think, isn’t so much if covering puppies (or local theater or high school football or weddings) isn’t real journalism. It is that, when we loosen the definition of what is news, we don’t also loosen the definition of what is good journalism. And, in an emotional sense, that newspapers still can do journalism no matter what else they have to do.

I mean, it wouldn’t really be GM anymore if all they were was the world’s largest private purchaser of Viagra.

100% Buyer, 0% Seller

Jeff Jarvis asks a provocative question (imagine the odds): What will the "distributed university look like?"

Start here: Why should my son or daughter have to pick a single college and with it only the teachers and courses offered there? Online, they should be able to take most any course anywhere. Indeed, schools from MIT to Stanford are now offering their curricula the internet.

Similarly, why should a professor pick just from the students accepted at his or her school? Online, the best can pick from the best, cutting out the middleman of university admissions.

Looking way out into the future (but, hey, Sam Zell is saying that nupes will be OK — in 30 years!), I wonder if we are rubbing up against forces that will expose the limitations of the free market as it relates to supply.

  • If aggregators become the dominant publishers but do not participate in news gathering, what happens to reporting?
  • If it is a practical truth that any movie or book can be obtained easily and at no additional cost to ownership of the pipe, who will make them?

I don’t think Google is destroying the news business, nor to I completely agree with Michael Eisner’s oft-repeated rant that discounting DVDs ruins that business because it gets people used to low prices. And it's also very true that the ability to pirate software hasn't destroyed Microsoft.

But the market forces Jeff describes in this piece are real and they will have a real disturbing effect, even if some entrenched interests can postpone them.

When the smoke clears we will all still be consumers, but how many of us will be creators? What will the creator eco-system even look like?

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

You, Sir, Are the National Enquirer Of ...

when you really, really want to insult a news organization you accuse them of being no better than the National Enquirer, it seems. But it looks like we set some kind of record for this invective in the past few days. (Committee of Concerned Journalists)

I Know You Are, But What Am I?

when a story isn't a story but it generates a lot of stories, nobody looks particularly good. (Committee of Concerned Journalists)

Monday, February 25, 2008

NYT Ombud Chides Paper Over McCain Story

New York Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt takes his paper to task for its original John McCain story as well as the Friday follow-up.

Hoyt concludes that the newspaper didn’t have enough to report that top McCain aides had become “convinced” the senator’s was having an intimate relationship with a lobbyist, that they story did need that angle to make its points and that including it had invited distraction from what was otherwise “a good story.” (Committee of Concerned Journalists)

Friday, February 22, 2008

McCain Times II: The Story Shifts

The New York Times insides its second-day McCain story, writes around the romance angle and offers no new reporting about the bombshell affair allegation which caused a substantial reaction from media critics and thousands of New York Times’ readers. (Committee of Concerned Journalists)

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Medill Dean Apologizes for 'Poor Judgment'

Embattled Medill Dean John Lavine has apologized to faculty and students for "exercising poor judgment" but says he did not make up the anonymous quotes in an incident which has brought criticism from his colleagues and unwelcome press scrutiny. (Committee of Concerned Journalists)

Should Newspapers Endorse Candidates?

Newspapers have long endorsed candidates. Has the time come for this practice to end? (Committee of Concerned Journalists)

McCain Article Makes the New York Times the Story

The New York Times is the story after running a front-page article in which anonymous sources allege some top advisers to John McCain "became convinced" during his 2000 presidential campaign that the candidate’s relationship with a much younger female lobbyist "had become romantic." Do they "have it?" (Committee of Concerned Journalists)

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Yeah -- This is Important

Silly enough that 'bad' language is deemed unsuitable for most daily newspapers. Now the Chicago Tribune's Public Editor has taken owner Sam Zell to task for cursing -- in the newsroom. (Committee of Concerned Journalists)

Get Me Re-Write! What -- We Don't Have One?

How many editors is too many editors? How many is two few? Is there a 'Just Right?' In a time of cutbacks and Internet-inspired casualness are editors expendable -- or are they needed more than ever before? (Committee of Concerned Journalists)

Multimedia Literacy is Not Optional

The method you use to tell a story tells a story of its own: about your fears and your strengths and your comfort level using unfamiliar tools. It’s a small wonder that newsrooms may be eager to take refuge in the familiar, but that has to change. (Committee of Concerned Journalists)

Reinvent Journalism in 10 Easy Steps

  1. We love lists.
  2. Lists are good.
  3. List provide a nifty, economical way to provide words to live by or talking points for further discussion.

So here are the Top 10 ways you can reinvent journalism. (Committee of Concerned Journalists)

Medill Faculty Criticize Dean Over Anonymous Quotes

Some tenured faculty have now openly criticized Medill Dean John Lavine over his use of anonymous quotes. They assert that the incident has become a 'crisis' for the prestigious j-school and that Lavine's explanations are 'at best inadequate.' (Committee of Concerned Journalists)

Monday, February 18, 2008

Angry Journalists. Who Knew? may not solve your problems, but it's better than keeping it all bottled up inside -- or taking a baseball bat to the next person who smilingly tells you that you didn't get into journalism for the money. (Committee of Concerned Journalists)

To TV or Not To TV

On demand TV is eating into television viewership. Are local TV stations starting to feel the same pain of an online migration that newspapers have been enduring for years? (Committee of Concerned Journalists)

Dumbing Down, or Reaching Out?

Telling a story on a whiteboard may not sound like great TV. But CBS News may be onto something. (Committee of Concerned Journalists)

Friday, February 15, 2008

Voting Ethics, Continued

Chris Cillizza, blogger of's "The Fix," wades into the 'should journalists vote' by asking his readers what they think. Their reply: Vote -- and get over yourselves. (Committee of Concerned Journalists)

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Anonymous Quotes Make Medill Dean A Story

In a letter to the alumni magazine Medill's dean quotes a couple of students, anonymously. A student journalist tracks down every student who could have been one of the quoted, and they all say it wasn't me. Will anything good come of this? (Committee of Concerned Journalists)

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Crime, and Punishment

MSNBC's suspension of David Shuster raises issues about the role of campaigns in election coverage and, more broadly, how news organizations should react when a subject goes beyond expressing indignation about a transgression to try to influence how the offending reporter will be punished (Committee of Concerned Journalists)

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Be Careful What You Wish For, John

The snarky Romney sore losers -- did anybody with a brain think he ever had a chance, really? -- who dissed a winner for thrashing their boy may have been on to a little something: Mike Huckabee was much more appealing than Mitt among Republicans, so, it follows that if he had never been born more conservatives would have voted for the born-again Mormon.

McCain, the reasoning went, was able to run up an unprotected middle while Mitt and Mike blocked (both on the ... right? ... time to retire the metaphors).

But now there is a new reason to beat up on Mike: by continuing to strongly challenge McCain he is embarrassing the presumptive Republican nominee, showing him to be a weakling even among the people most likely to identify with him. Collegial Mike's presence had given McCain undeserved cover and now the ingrate doesn't have the decency to just step aside. Instead, he is busting another myth by proving that McCain really doesn't have wide and deep support -- Hey! Just like the Romniacs said!

But here's another view: McCain still needs to win, and it shouldn't look like it's taking its toll. But if there wasn't a competitive race on the GOP side would anybody be talking about him at all? Would there be any McCain news during a competitive Democratic primary season that still has at least several weeks to go before anything can be resolved, in a campaign season where the Republican presidential candidate is regarded as mere cannon fodder?

McCain has been doubly blessed by Huckabee, and he needs to look at the big picture. McCain's dilemma reminds me of an Eastern European Cold War story about spycraft I once heard.
A bird with a broken wing is on cold, city street in the dead of winter. He's hungry, can't get to his nest and is in danger of being stepped on by one of the bustling passers-by.A person notices the bird, stops, picks him up and puts him in a fresh pile of dog shit.

The bird is a bit shaken and confused and, angry. But it dawns on him he is now safe; nobody is going to step in the shit. And it is warm. Things are looking up. He starts to sing.

Another person, hearing the bird, comes over, picks him up, breaks his neck and takes him home to stretch the soup.
There are three morals:
  1. Not everybody who puts you in the shit is your enemy.
  2. Not everybody who takes you out of the shit is your friend.
  3. When you are in the shit, keep your mouth shut.
McCain needs to play this out and think long term, no matter what happens. His detractors, and Huckabee, are just looking for a little respect. A big man will be able to do the magnanimous thing when the time comes, and look no less diminished.

Go, Hillary?

Not that she seems to have any choice in the matter, but Hillary's mantra that she'll show us who's boss March 4 -- wait for it -- is beginning to seem more Giuliani-esque with each passing day. How can she lose here, there and everywhere for a month and not seem like a loser?

If Obama does as well in Virginia, Maryland and DC today as it seems he will, has won more states and takes the pledged delegate lead, won't that have a demoralizing effect on Hillary's numbers in Ohio and Texas?

If you can win, you try. Rudy didn't make losing, and not competing, sexy in Florida. Hillary won't want to bring that sexy back.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

You Be the Judge

The Fed cut, as reported this morning (emphasis added):

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Stocks headed for a slide at the open on Tuesday as fear of a recession gripped investors, prompting the Federal Reserve to slash benchmark U.S. interest rates by 75 basis points in a surprise intermeeting decision.

NEW YORK (AP) - ...
The Fed's move was unsurprising, given that world stock markets were falling precipitously the past two days, and that U.S. stocks had tumbled last week amid growing fears of a recession in the United States.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Explaining Away Polling Failure

Originally uploaded by

Lots of humility today from pundits and pollsters about how wrong the New Hampshire polls were on the Democratic side -- from Chris Matthews soulfully telling Clinton's communications director "I will never underestimate Hillary Clinton again" to John Zogby's instant analysis that "We seem to have missed the huge turnout of older women that apparently put Clinton over the top."

In an interesting little item on the Huffington Post a commenter observes:
"No one is talking about how the polls actually nailed Obama's number. Obama didn't lose this election. He stayed steady and Hillary surged ahead."
Many narratives will be challenged in the coming days and will be replaced by other convenient narratives. Among the most curious, and none-too-subtle, is that the bulk of spot reporting appears to assert that Clinton's victory was a "surprise." This, even though there is no evidence that Clinton was ever behind in New Hampshire -- except from now discredited polls.

Fiction can't support a news angle, so nobody should be reporting "surprise" as fact, or as anything other than something which confounded the pollsters, or some such construction.

Matthews blames the polled -- garbage in, garbage out, he says -- and is part of a chorus singing "Bradley Effect," a theory which holds that white people lie on the upside to pollsters about their support for black candidates.

But if Obama's poll numbers were correct -- if just his relative finish was wrong -- then this isn't what happened: it was Clinton's support that was incorrectly gauged. There is no fancy theory about anybody lying to pollsters on the downside about their support for women candidates. As Zogby suggests, chances are they just weren't counted.

Whatever the pollsters say about their New Hampshire failures, the better to increase confidence in their work for the rest of the campaign, I think there are a couple of safe conclusions we can already draw:
  • The only story coming out if Iowa was that Edwards' support dwindled
  • Democratic voters who peel away from their first choice won't necessarily break to "anyone but Hillary"