Why Media Can’t Keep The Wolff From Their Door

Howlsnow.jpgCheap advertising is really what is killing old-model media businesses not  “free content on the Internet” as so many claim.  Media maven Michael Wolff understands that the best way to track the industry is to follow the money.

“Advertising Is Dead, It's Not Coming Back...” was the subject line in an email from Linked -in Pulse that pulled me into the Wolff pack.  “Ya and pigs fly,” I thought as I (predictably) took the bait.  What I found was Wolff’s more innocuously titled but powerful article: The End of Advertising As We Know It.

Wolff been everywhere recently, feeding click bait and sound bites to hungry reporters and commentators.  He has made himself 

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News Start-ups Flaming Out; The Business of Moving Minds

“1 of 4 news start-ups flamed out” was the subject line of one my three daily emails from Bo Sacks, which turned out to be a Newsosaur blog by Alan Mutter.  Mutter found that one of every four of the 141 news ventures listed in an online directory published by the Columbia Journalism Review since 2010 appear to have failed.  He searched for every site listed in the CJR list and counted the number that either were defunct or had not posted any new content since 2014.  

The failure count looks low, given the utter naïveté of many of these enterprises.  Even the ones that are touted as “successful" such as the Texas Tribune look like a very modest factor or passing stage in the evolution of civic media, although they offer important lessons.

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Who Is a Scientist?

Benjamin_Franklin_1767.jpg“I am not a scientist.” is the inane refrain of politicians who want to dodge evidence of human influence on global warming.  But how do we tell who is a scientist?  Those who claim to be scientists and get their papers published in Science aren’t necessarily any more scientific than our pandering politicians, as the case of Micheal LaCour and his published research on gay marriage opinion seems to indicate.  The case became a national story when the New York Times put it on the front page and stirred up a discussion about the making a splash in academia, also reported as front page news by the NYT.

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The Billion Dollar Question: Is the Answer Nextdoor?

Nextdoor-App-Store.pngThe Civic Info Sector took a leap forward this month with the announcement of $110 million in new funding assembled by Nextdoor, a local networking site founded by three experienced, well connected former Epinion/Shopping.com executives in 2010. Nextdoor has now raised a total of $210.2 Million from a long (and not entirely consistent among stories) list of investors reported by Techcrunch and their Crunchbase site.

The latest round implies a $1.1 Billion valuation according to the NYT story picked up by Mashable.  That ain’t bad considering that, according Nextdoor’s website, “Nextdoor does not currently generate revenue… Long term, our goal is to figure out a way to generate revenue that provides value to our users as well as to Nextdoor.” 

 

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Now What? Lessons from the Texas Tribune

Do we think the future of civic journalism is in non-profit, non-partisan, internet-based media enterprises?   There seems to be a fair amount of money going in this direction from foundations and other big donors.  Texas Tribune has been a much-touted beneficiary.

Monday, on the eve of voting day, the Nieman Lab eNewsletter emanating from the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard, ran a subject line: “The Texas Tribune is 5 years old and sustainable. Now what?”   This same day David Carr opined in the New York Times that The Texas Tribune “serves as proof that a local site can combine news, data and events into a three-legged stool that stands on its own.” (The Texas Tribune part is buried below a rant about a Verizon subterfuge called SugarString).   The “self-sustaining” story-line that the Tribune is pushing in their fifth anniversary PR campaign is finding friendly coverage.

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Transformative Power

arrows-w-words.pngThe NYT reported today that James McGregor Burns has died at the age of 95.  Civic Decisions owes its existence in part to Professor Burns, who influenced your humble blogger with his teaching and his 1978 book, Leadership.

Burns liked power.  He was a fan of powerful people running big government because he believed that big government in the right hands produces big benefits.  He saw our American system in many respects as an impediment to good people trying to exercise power.

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For Upset Victory, Go Where They Ain't?

Christensen_027_-250.jpgPolitics as we know it, is ripe for disruptive innovation.  The major parties and other major players look a lot like a lot like industry giants, lucratively lumbering along, good at what they do, but vulnerable to something better.  The parties are obviously not good at producing great outcomes in government but they are good enough to dominate, like the lumbering big three automakers in 1970.  The Chevrolet Impala was quite a machine back then – and very hard to compete with head-on.

“Innovation guru” Clayton Christensen, a Business Professor at Harvard, interviewed in the July-August Harvard Magazine believes the way for innovative challengers to win is not to compete head-on.  Christensen’s theories are based on historic patterns in economics, not the broader field of political economics, but your humble blogger believes the lesson is worth a look.

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Why You Need Practical Visionaries on Your Team

Passion is key in public campaigns.  However, there is a big difference between ideological passion and visionary passion.  Visionaries can be practical.

I encountered the term “practical visionary” while investigating the history of the Middlesex Fells Reservation recently in preparation for a local meeting involving public lands and open space.  The Middlesex Fells is a plot of 2,575 acres of public land only 5 miles from Boston.  It is a Mecca for mountain bikers, runners and hikers, cross country skiers, dog owners, picnickers and people just looking to enjoy nature close to home.

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Putting Tribalism to Work in Your Campaign

ezheadshothersman250.jpgWe all have homophilic tendencies according to Ethan Zuckerman, Director of the Center for Civic Media, at the MIT Media Lab and author of the book, Rewired.  “We are tribal,” he explains.  Homophily, in sociologic usage, is the tendency of people to maintain relationships with people who are similar to themselves.

I recently heard Zuckerman make the case that our growing reliance on internet tools for civic information is narrowing our knowledge.  International coverage, for instance, has declined in print and broadcast news outlets and has not developed on major internet outlets like the Huffington Post according to Zuckerman.

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Opportunities for Innovation in Those Last Three Feet

Edward_R._Murrow_-_still.jpgA speaker at Tuft University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy graduation ceremonies, which I recently attended, quoted journalist Edward R. Murrow about the critical link in international relations of “the last three feet,” taken up in direct personal exchange, face-to-face.  Apparently, Murrow who died in 1965, was fond of the phrase as several versions of the quote come up in a quick Google.

A sourced quote comes up in Edward R. Murrow: Journalism At Its Best (Washington DC: Department of State, 2006),

“ It has always seemed to me the real art in this business is not so much moving information or guidance or policy five or 10,000 miles. That is an electronic problem. The real art is to move it the last three feet in face to face conversation.”

— Edward R. Murrow, ABC TV’s “Issues and Answers,” August 4, 1963

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Your Political-Economic Lesson from “The Politics of Income Inequality”

arrows-w-words.png“Basic models of political economy hold that inequality self corrects.  As income concentrates among a smaller group of voters, majorities will vote for more redistribution.” according to Eduardo Porter of the New York Times in a recent Economic Scene column, “But this isn’t quite how the world works.”

Porter goes on to explain that rich people vote more than poor people.  He states that poor people don’t vote according to their economic interests (as Porter may suppose them) but according to beliefs such as mistrust in government, support of free markets, etc.  He explains that rich people bring their wealth to bear on the political process, reinforcing, with government power, the trends toward greater income inequality.  He draws a parallel between our own age and that of the progressive era when schism broke out between the “upper middle class” and the wealthiest.  He darkly suggestions that only an existential threat such as World War II can force the public to demand and the super-wealthy to accept substantive redistribution of wealth.

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Big Boom Theory: The Next Episode

Joseph_Coughlin.jpg
We don’t use the F-words enough,” according to Joseph Coughlin, Director of the MIT Age Lab, who spoke at a Washington Post Live event, Booming Tech recently.  “F stands for fun, friends, and fashion,” explained Coughlin.  If Coughlin is right about products for Boomers, the same probably applies to politics.

Coughlin, a showman in blue pants and bow tie, paced the stage while talking about Boomers and technology.  He reminded your humble blogger, ironically, of another showman, Ken Dychtwald, author of Age Wave,and founder of a company by the same name, who spoke  at an Inc. 500 Conference back in 1988.

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Breaking News: There is Bunk on the Internet!

globe_front_page.jpgFacebook falsehoods made the front page of the Sunday Boston Globe, May 4th.  A Globe reporter discovered that Facebook linked an AP wire story from the Globe to scurrilous stories from downtrend.com, theuspatriot.com and nokiamessages.com.  The former two are political sites with a rabid style and a slant typically labelled “conservative.”  The later appears to be some kind of sex site.  The story was about Michelle Obama getting a resume from a girl whose father is jobless.

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The Authority of Algorithms; Opinion Polling Redux

gillespie2.jpgListening to Tarleton Gillespie’s recent talk, “Algorithms, and the Production of Calculated Publics” got your humble blogger thinking about alternatives to phone-based opinion polling.

Gillespie had a valuable point to make about the ill-placed faith we have in information created by proprietary algorithms and derived from proprietary internet use information.  He rattled off all sorts of ways the providers of algorithmically produced information routinely manipulate inputs and formulas to influence the results, especially to suppress pornographic and suggestive material.  

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Don't be Fooled by Big Changes in Media Technology

Back when pundits were gushing about the “Arab Spring” as a “social media” phenomenon, your humble blogger thought troops, tanks, and TV coverage probably had more to do with the unfolding events than Twitter.  So I was happy to see that someone who does factual research in media economics, Matthew Gentzkow, received the Annual Clark Medal from the American Economic Association last month.

gentzkow3.jpgGentzkow is a professor at my alma mater, the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago.  The Clark Award  is intended to honor an "American economist under the age of forty who is judged to have made the most significant contribution to economic thought and knowledge."

Gentzkow was credited by the Association with “fundamental contributions to our understanding of the economic forces driving the creation of media products, the changing nature and role of media in the digital environment, and the effect of media on education and civic engagement.” 

His media research across platforms and over historical periods challenges conventional assertions that the internet has changed everything about the news and journalism.  An interview with Caroline O’Donovan published on the Nieman Journalism Lab site provides the flavor of his findings. “The Internet,” he says “is not all that different from any other medium.”

The ways we all create, communicate, and consume information have changed more rapidly and more profoundly than any other aspect of our lives.  Politics is transforming as a result.  But the laws of political-economics have not changed.  Scientific research like that performed by Gentzkow reveals that “old media” and “new media” have a lot in common.  The same holds for “old politics” and “new politics.”

 

Portrait of Matthew Gentzkow, Richard O. Ryan Professor of Economics and Neubauer Family Faculty Fellow at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business on August 4, 2013. (Photo by Dustin Whitehead) used with permission.

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Will Boston Ever Get Strong in the Economic Development Game?

Your humble blogger peddled down Beacon Street in Somerville this morning, in a solid line of cyclists under the warm spring sun.  It was easy to feel optimistic about the future of our urban Hub.

I was on my way to hear a panel discussion on “Ending the Zero Sum Game: Regionalizing Economic Development.”   The panel consisted of Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone, Boston Economic Development Cabinet Chief John Barros, and Harvard Economics Professor Edward GlaeserGlaeser is also the Director, Rappaport Institute and Taubman Center for State and Local Government, cosponsors of the event along with the Collins Center for Public Management at UMass Boston.

After listening to this trio, my optimism tripled.  The takeaway for me was that these leaders need more support in order to get more good things done sooner.

They spoke about how they could work as a team to gain economic growth and improve the quality of life in the Boston region.  Barros and Curtatone emphasized the opportunity to work informally, situation by situation rather than create a structure that, in the wrong hands, might do more harm than good.  Both also cited the need to develop grassroots neighborhood backing for a regional vision of economic development.  Curtatone mentioned his ”SomerVision” effort as a model.

The chief issues they discussed were transportation, affordable housing and coordinated use of tax incentives.  Curtatone lamented that only the communities directly affected had advocated extension of the Green Line.  Glaeser adamantly asserted that the region must address average housing costs in the market, not simply the costs of units available through affordable housing programs.  Barros hypothesized about how competing localities could still work together on the long-term shared interests of the region as a whole.  One of the panelists suggested developing a code of ethics to help balance parochial and broader interests.

The biggest audience response was on the current hot issue of a casino in Everett.  Curtatone vowed to fight it.  The audience and other panelists applauded his stand.  Glaeser facetiously suggested slot parlors should be located in high-income communities like Weston.

Clearly, new players in Boston City Hall are already changing the game.  Their different beliefs and deployment of resources will shift the regional political-economic dynamic.  But again, my takeaway was that they lack the means to garner necessary elite and mass support across the region.  My optimism is based on my belief that the means are available.

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