Opinion

Felix Salmon

Adventures with e-books, Kindle single edition

Felix Salmon
Sep 13, 2011 19:53 UTC

Ryan Avent’s 90-page Kindle single, The Gated City, is a bargain at $1.99. It was produced in close consultation with the Kindle Singles editor, David Blum — the gatekeeper who determines what gets chosen to be a Kindle Single, and what gets relegated to the long tail of Kindle Direct Publishing.

We’re running a great excerpt of Ryan’s book here at Reuters — it’s headlined “How home prices helped kill the first tech boom”. Basically, soaring home prices in Silicon Valley discouraged entrepreneurship, encouraged the flight of qualified workers to other locales, and meant that during the dot-com boom, Silicon Valley actually created fewer companies, per capita, than the country as a whole. With any luck, reading it (or other excerpts, here) will encourage you to buy the whole thing.

Meanwhile, last week Gothamist published its own debut 72-page feature story, in the same format — a 72-page e-book. After putting out a call for pitches in July, Gothamist publisher Jake Dobkin decided that the first $5,000 commission would go to Patrick Kirkland — one of the jurors in the infamous New York “rape cop” trial. He’s not a professional writer, and the story is a bit clunky at first, but he becomes very fluent during the crucial central part of the book, where he explains exactly why and how the jury managed to unanimously acquit both police officers of rape. As someone who found the verdict quite shocking, I can say that he convinced me, too, that the jury made the right decision.

Interestingly, Amazon’s Blum rejected Kirkland’s story as a Kindle Single, calling it “an interesting piece”, but not “right for Singles”. What difference does the rejection make? Well, the Amazon business model is that Amazon takes 30% of the proceeds of e-books, while the author/publisher gets 70%. That’s the deal Avent got. But if you just upload your book to the Kindle store, as Gothamist did, then you only get 70% of the proceeds if you’re charging $2.99 or more. If you stick to the $1.99 price point, then Amazon takes 70% 65%, and you’re left with just 30% 35%.

This is a serious incentive to get past David Blum’s velvet rope — not only will he help you with promotion, cover design, and the like, but he can also give you a much greater share of the proceeds for books sold for less than $2.99.

So when Gothamist published the book, it was $1.99 on iBooks, and $1.99 for the direct PDF download — but $2.99 on Kindle. And then things went exactly according to plan. Apple featured the book on the front page of the iBooks store, and Amazon — as it’s allowed to do — unilaterally cut the price of the book by 33%, to match Apple’s pricing. But it’s still governed by the initial pricing plan, so Gothamist gets 70%, rather than 30% of the current $1.99 price. (So, buy it!)

We’re still in the very early days of micropayments for books, but my gut feeling is that people are increasingly willing to pay small sums for shorter pieces in the 5,000 to 30,000 word range — much as they’re increasingly willing to pay small sums for apps. And the pricing models are, of course, still very much in flux. But if Amazon’s willing to give their Kindle Single authors 70% of the proceeds even after helping them with design and marketing, they should also offer the same deal to publishers who do all that work themselves.

COMMENT

Well, yes, those are the Amazon costs. The point of this brave new paperless digital world was supposed to be that the end user wouldn’t have to pay to kill the trees. So I’d like to not pay for the stuff I’m no longer buying, thank you.

You say “If you want Kindle format books…” Well, if they cost more than the paper version, then I really don’t want them and won’t be buying them.

I doubt that it’s going to be just me: digital books have disadvantages, too: formatting infelicities, photos and color charts look terrible (although other readers do better), getting around is more awkward. So I’d think that people for whom the advantages aren’t overwhelming (e.g. travelling light with lots of reading) will be passing as well.

Posted by David239 | Report as abusive

What does Google want with Zagat?

Felix Salmon
Sep 8, 2011 16:38 UTC

Why is Google buying Zagat, a company which has failed miserably online, rather than, say, Yelp or Tripadvisor? I suspect a lot of the reason has to do with its pseudoscientific ratings, on a 30-point scale: Google loves being able to quantify stuff. But those ratings are silly: they’re not at all comparable between markets (try a sushi joint in Long Island and then compare it to one in New York City with an identical food rating), and they suffer from enormous inflation.

On top of that, the one concrete datapoint that Zagat does provide — the cost estimate — is simply dreadful. Steve Cuozzo exposed this five years ago, and nothing has improved since then — you will basically never get out of a restaurant for the ridiculously low price that Zagat purports to think that a meal costs.

Zagat is mainly useful as a source of phone numbers and opening hours — information Google Places already has. Yes, it has a trusted reputation — but Google has that, too. And it has a massive global print-publishing business; I can’t for the life of me imagine why that’s something that Google wants to get into.

Most puzzlingly of all, Google’s Marissa Mayer refers twice in her short official announcement to Zagat’s “insight” — it’s “impressive” at first mention, and “tremendous” at second. Does anybody have a clue what she’s talking about? Zagat doesn’t do insight — that’s simply not the business it’s in.

So color me very confused at this weird entry into what looks very much like Old Media — something which was very useful before the mobile internet came along, but which has already been comprehensively disrupted by Google itself. Google is the future of information; Zagat is the messy and conflicted past.

Ethical questions about the Zagat guide abound — about the way that restaurants game their ratings, the things that diners will do for a free guide, and the way that Tim and Nina Zagat themselves are extremely chummy with the restaurateurs they’re judging in a supposedly objective manner. I hope Mayer and Google know what they’re doing, here. But it makes no sense to me.

COMMENT

It is simple housekeeping…Google just bought an old house in Beverly Hills with a famous history that they are going to remodel to beat the latest hottest competition in that neighborhood. Google eats micro and spits out macro. Personally, I think they should rethink their strategy. People are totally overwhelmed by the macro chaos of social media and the internet. They want and need micro to stand on and calm the storm. When I hear GOOGLE now I can not even think through all they have and do. When I think Facebook, I think friendly neighborhood. When I think Yelp, I think livable neighborhood. When I hear GOOGLE, I think BLACK HOLE in the universe.

Posted by SocialSweetSpot | Report as abusive

When digital ads pay for local news

Felix Salmon
Sep 7, 2011 15:59 UTC

In the world of regional newspapers, Journal Register Company and MediaNews Group are very big fish; they’re now merging, and the merged entity to be called Digital First Media, will be run by John Paton. Who writes that already he’s reaching an important milestone:

If our dailies continue on the trend they are on right now, by the end of the year they will have brought in more digital revenue than the costs of running their newsrooms.

Digital revenues can pay for newspaper newsrooms.

It seems to me that Digital First is much more likely to solve the problem of building strong — and profitable — web-based local media than is AOL’s Patch.

The first and most important reason is that local newspapers are, and always have been, the first best source of local ad-sales talent. They know their towns, they know their advertisers, they know their readers. Local advertising relationships are valuable and expensive things to build, and AOL doesn’t have any.

On the other side of the editorial divide, local newspapers are also the first best source of local news, and are generally much more respected and trusted in local communities than any cookie-cutter Patch site is likely to become. On an individual, case-by-case basis, it’s possible to find hyperlocal websites which are better than the local print rag. And of course it’s trivially true that wherever there isn’t a local print newspaper, any Patch site would be an improvement on nothing. But if you’re looking for a national-scale business with trust and local content in the community, Digital First is an obvious place to start. More than Patch, and indeed more than Groupon, too.

Finally there’s the opportunity for economies of scale. In theory, this is common to both Digital First and Patch: they both share hosting, design, development and other expenses across a large network of sites. But even here I think that Digital First has the edge: they’re far more advanced in terms of being able to share content, too. Local newspapers aren’t all local news, after all. Things like features, reviews, columns, comic strips — anything which can be syndicated, basically — can be shared.

Because Patch is web-native, syndicated content feels weirder there: this is an area where the old-fashioned aura of newsprint can help a website do things that a brand-new website would find much harder to get away with. But print ads should be easily capable of covering the marginal cost of printing and distributing a local paper, which means that print editions are not going to go away any time soon. So Digital First will, for the foreseeable future, be able to continue to have that hard-to-replicate feel of an old-fashioned newspaper, even as it embraces reader-generated content, new-media workflows, and the rest. The simple existence of a print product, found on the front shelf of the local grocery store, makes a very big difference.

None of which is to say that Paton’s job is an easy one. It’s not — in fact, it’s very hard. But I’d much rather be in Paton’s shoes right now than whomever has been put in charge of running Patch this week.

COMMENT

I agree with everything you say here, and understand the importance of this company i’ve never heard about. The presumption with AOL’s current cicrumstance was that people would migrate over to patch to regain local notoriety. Of course, it’s much easier to do it through local online newspapers, especially when the only way to make money off patch is by directing people to your local blog.

The question for every person online now is what do we give away for free, what should corporations crowdsource, and what will people pay for other than magazines?

Posted by theinfamoush6 | Report as abusive

When journalists encounter statistics, music-downloading edition

Felix Salmon
Sep 6, 2011 20:00 UTC

The NYT’s Janet Morrissey, this weekend, had a long profile of a music-download service which as far as I can else no one else has even so much as thought about for about three years. The story itself is not particularly noteworthy, but there’s one paragraph near the beginning which encapsulates very neatly a lot of what can go wrong when journalists encounter statistics. Here it is:

About 95 percent of music downloads in 2010 were unlicensed and illegal, with no money flowing back to artists, songwriters or record producers, according to Alex Jacob, a spokesman for the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry. So riches could await a company that persuades some of these Internet scofflaws to change their ways.

This paragraph is structured in a standard journalistic manner: start with a fact, then say what your source was for that fact, and then draw a conclusion from that fact. Except that in this case, the standard journalistic formula is twisted inside out.

First of all, the central assertion is almost certainly wrong. I feel comfortable in saying that it’s simply not true that 95% of music downloads in 2010 were illegal. That number was, literally, incredible in January 2009, when the IFPI first trotted it out as a number averaged over a three-year period. And since then, the iTunes music store and other legal services have grown very fast. What’s more, even the IFPI seems to have backed away from the figure: it appears nowhere in its 2011 Digital Music Report. The highest such number there is the claim that “in the UK, for example, 76 per cent of the music obtained online in 2010 was unlicensed”.

In any case, the last people you’d trust to come up with a reliable figure for such things would be the industry group devoted to demonizing and exaggerating the threat of illegal downloading. Morrissey doesn’t seem to understand, here, that you can’t just quote the IFPI and be done: the fact that the number is coming from the IFPI, far from being a reason to believe it, is a reason not to believe it. At the very least Morrissey should have asked whether the number was based on any kind of empirical research; instead, she felt comfortable simply parroting the nonsense being put out by the paid flack for a pressure group, and reporting it as fact.

And what’s more, the statistic isn’t even relevant. Let’s say I download 361 albums one night over Bittorrent, and I have 19 friends who each download and pay for a single album on iTunes. Then it would be true to say that among me and my friends, 95% of the music downloads were unlicensed and illegal. But it would also be true to say that 95% of us are downloading music legally and paying for it. Would riches await a company that persuaded the scofflaws to change their ways? No, because there’s only one of me. And if I start paying for the music I download, you can be sure I won’t be downloading 361 albums in one night.

Before you start quoting statistics, then, it’s always worth (a) knowing where exactly they come from; (b) verifying them independently if you were fed them by some pressure group; and (c) making sure that they say what you say that they say. Otherwise, you just end up looking credulous and silly.

Update: IFPI’s Alex Jacob responds in the comments, saying that his 95% figure is “based on independent research in a series of markets around the world”.

COMMENT

Great catch Felix! There is one other journalistic trait that should be pilloried here. It goes like this:
1) There are two types of people A and B
2) Type A people have this behavior (on average) that Type B people don’t
3) Therefore, if we turn these Type A people into Type B, or breed more Type B people, or somehow eliminate some Type A people, we will get more of the (desirable) Type B behavior.

This may be true in an engineering setting in which you can move the columns of a building back and forth to change the center of gravity. However, this is almost always false in social science problems, that you can cause Type A people to become Type B people. In this example, it is implausible that these illegal downloaders can be made to change their ways; if Bittorrent disappeared tomorrow, I bet that a lot of these people would not be buying tons of music legally. This is exactly David239′s point above.

Posted by junkcharts | Report as abusive

Paul Smalera on spinning off Slate: the video IMterview

Felix Salmon
Sep 2, 2011 19:30 UTC

Felix Salmon Paul Smalera, you’re the king of all media!

Paul Smalera Well yes, I suppose I am.

Felix Salmon First you post a piece about how Slate should spin itself off to some VCs

And now we’ve gone and done a video too!

So, I threw lots of very sensible objections at you

Paul Smalera Indeed you did.

Felix Salmon And at the end of the whole thing, I assume that you inwardly conceded that I was right

You’re really just trolling, right? You’re not actually serious.

Paul Smalera Ha! You assume incorrectly!

This is no Swiftian Modest Proposal, Felix.

I really do think Slate needs to tap into the cash, talent and ambitions of the tech economy in order to have a shot at making it another 15 years.

Felix Salmon And you honestly think that someone out there thinks that they can make VC-type returns by investing in Slate?

Paul Smalera I think if the Washington Post co. can spin Slate off with the right leader at the helm, the angel investors of Silicon Valley and Alley can be convinced there are less bad options than Slate out there for their money.

Arrington should do it!

He’s got $20 million in the CrunchFund and no editorial control over a media platform.

Felix Salmon Perfect!

I can just imagine David Plotz working for Mike Arrington. A match made in heaven!

Paul Smalera Ok, maybe I’m being a little Swiftian with that one.

Felix Salmon It’s creative destruction, baby

COMMENT

I think it’s attractive to think of Slate in the terms that Smalera is thinking about but Slate doesn’t lack for authentic/interesting/thought provoking writers. In fact, they just laid off a bunch of them!

I’m unconvinced of Smalera’s assertion that Slate would be better off with $1.5MM of some rich guy’s (or combination of rich guys’) money. Even the guy that he wants to run this newly spun off Slate is probably making, on his own, close to half of that $1.5MM budget. So then where’s the money to hire interesting writers?

Posted by GregHao | Report as abusive

AOL loses its top journalist

Felix Salmon
Sep 2, 2011 05:52 UTC

I like the headline that the WSJ has put on the Michael Arrington story: “TechCrunch Editor Resigns”. While there’s an understandable amount of interest in the fact that Arrington is now officially a venture capitalist, the fact is that his $20 million CrunchFund is tiny, and the news has yet to be reported on TechCrunch itself. (For his part, Arrington has said little more than a short and snarky tweet.)

In many ways, then, the bigger story here is the fact that AOL has lost its highest-profile journalist — the biggest brand name in the company, with the single exception of Arianna Huffington herself. Arrington’s TechCrunch has tweaked AOL many times since its acquisition; to take just the most recent of many examples, Arrington unloaded a few weeks ago on AOL’s insane expenses-reimbursement bureaucracy.

I’ve said this before, but working at AOL is my first experience working at a “big” company. I’ve watched, mostly with amusement, as a Dilbert cartoon has come to life around me…

I have an envelope I keep business expenses in. There was a hotel bill for a trip when my AOL issued credit card was turned off for the day. Some taxi expenses and a restaurant bill. I looked at them, thought about the process for turning those expenses in… I did the rational thing. I shredded those receipts – around $1,500 – because it wasn’t worth the pain.

So I can imagine that senior executives are not entirely unhappy that Arrington will no longer have any editorial oversight at the site. But at the same time, his departure from the editorial side of things only serves to underscore how talent-unfriendly AOL really is. Can you name a single journalist who works there? I can name a couple of high-profile editors poached from the NYT, but neither of them actually writes* — by all accounts they’re swamped with management duties, and are spending most of their time working on the ill-starred Patch.

When AOL bought HuffPo and discarded the notorious AOL way, there was hope that the combination of Tim Armstrong’s millions with Arianna’s journalistic vision would usher in an era of journalistic greatness. But it hasn’t worked out that way. Instead, the money seems to have bought little more than bureaucracy and a steady stream of departures, especially from Engadget. People aren’t leaving because they can make more money elsewhere; they’re leaving because they hate the work they’re being asked to do, and they see no respect in their future if they continue working for AOL.

Arrington, I think it’s fair to assume, was not being told what to do editorially, by Arianna or by anybody else. But he still clearly hated working for the company he’d sold himself to, and he’s now managed to find a way to exit. He won’t be the last to leave. And at this point, unless HuffPo has an absolutely spectacular 2012 election, it seems as though Tim Armstrong’s dreams of turning an old dialup ISP into a journalistic powerhouse are going to wither fast. Financially speaking, the best course of action is pretty clear. Sell the content sites to someone who wants them, and extract as much money as possible from the dialup business before it dies. That’s got to make more sense than the Sisyphean task of trying to attract journalistic talent to a company where the existing talent is desperate to leave.

Update: Arianna confirms to Henry Blodget that Arrington no longer works for TechCrunch, or for her.

*Update 2: In the case of Peter Goodman, let me take that back: he’s actually upping his game on the writing front, and has posted four pieces in the past week. Here’s hoping he keeps it up.

COMMENT

He threw away $1500 in receipts? As someone who travels for his profession, a $1500 expense report usually takes me about 15 minutes to do. maybe AOL’s reports are ten times as complicated as my firm’s, which means it would take him two and a half hours. Is his time so valuable that taking two and a half hours for $1500 (an hourly rate of $600) isn’t worth it? What a jerk.

Posted by kyle_s | Report as abusive

Do companies pay their CEOs more than they pay in taxes?

Felix Salmon
Aug 31, 2011 18:28 UTC

You might well have seen, this morning, the news that 25 of the 100 highest paid US CEOs earned more last year than their companies paid in federal income tax. The Reuters version of the story was linked to by the WSJ and retweeted by David Leonhardt; the NYT version already has 120 comments. Both versions, it seems, were based on embargoed copies of this report from the Institute for Policy Studies; because the reporters were given a copy of the report before it went up online, they were unable to link to it from their stories.

But if you do manage to find the IPS website and follow the links to download the full 46-page report, you’ll see that there’s less to it than meets the eye. Certainly it doesn’t come close to demonstrating that its title — “The Massive CEO Rewards for Tax Dodging” is justified. Yes, CEOs get paid vast sums of money. And yes, a lot of corporations pay very little in taxes. But what the report doesn’t do is demonstrate that CEOs who reduce their corporate tax rates get paid more. This kind of thing, from the NYT story, notwithstanding:

The authors of the study, which examined the regulatory filings of the 100 companies with the best-paid chief executives, said that their findings suggested that current United States policy was rewarding tax avoidance rather than innovation.

There are lots of ways that the authors of the study could have tried to back up that assertion. For instance, they could have taken a set of CEOs and split them into two groups: those who are paid more than their companies pay in taxes in Group A, and those who are paid less than their companies pay in taxes in Group B. Then they could have compared whether CEO salaries in Group A were higher than CEO salaries in Group B.

But they didn’t do that.

Instead, they did this:

Of last year’s 100 highest-paid corporate chief executives in the United States, 25 took home more in CEO pay than their company paid in 2010 federal income taxes.

These 25 CEOs averaged $16.7 million, well above last year’s $10.8 million average for S&P 500 CEOs.

Do you see what they did there? The initial set of CEO was the 100 highest-paid CEOs in the country. They then took 25 of those CEOs, and instead of comparing their pay to the pay of the other 75 CEOs in the group, they compared their pay to the average pay for a CEO in the S&P 500. This proves nothing: any subset of the 100 highest-paid CEOs in the country is going to have higher average pay than S&P 500 CEOs in general.

As for the central conceit of the paper — the one which made the Reuters and NYT headlines — that’s pretty silly too. 25 CEOs make more than their companies pay in taxes? Wow! Except, it turns out that only five of those 25 companies are paying any taxes at all, by IPS methodology. The lowest-paid janitor, at those 25 companies, makes more than the company pays in taxes. The driving force behind the IPS result is entirely a function of how IPS calculates the corporate effective tax rate, and the ease with which that can go negative. It has nothing at all to do with CEO pay. (The IPS ignores deferred taxes, which is justifiable; it ignores taxes paid to foreign governments, which is less so, in an era of global corporations operating in dozens or even hundreds of tax jurisdictions.)

This is one good reason, then, for every news organization to link to reports they’re writing about — doing so gives their readers the opportunity to see for themselves whether the report stands up to scrutiny. After all, the world of embargoed reports is clever that way. If you’re a think tank, you send them out to lots of journalists. Some will look at them and see little news there; they will ignore the report. Others will buy it, and write the report up. So the only stories you see about the report are from journalists who buy into its thesis. That’s a bias right there. And always linking to the report is one good way of helping readers and news organizations overcome that bias.

COMMENT

hsvkitty, it is called an annual report. Of course if you had more than two brain cells to rub together you’d already know that.

Posted by Danny_Black | Report as abusive

In praise of DealBook

Felix Salmon
Aug 29, 2011 17:24 UTC

Every so often, Andrew Ross Sorkin will ask me when I’m going to write something nice about him. It doesn’t happen very often, because I’m more likely to feel the need to disagree with someone on the internet than I am to feel the need to agree with them. It’s called Siwoti syndrome, and it’s endemic to the blogosphere.

And so it’s fitting that the impetus for me saying nice things about Sorkin’s baby, DealBook, is the ridiculous column from the NYT’s ombudsman public editor, Arthur Brisbane, this week. It begins thusly:

WILL readers of The New York Times in print get less because The Times must invest to compete for readers and advertisers in the digital medium?

The DealBook business news product may offer an early indication. DealBook, which was greatly expanded last fall, is a prominent presence on NYTimes.com, offering up-to-the-minute news and trivia about Wall Street deals, regulatory issues, venture capital and personalities. In print, meanwhile, it owns a half-page inside Business Day four days a week — a much lower profile than online.

This is utterly bizarre. DealBook, one of the highest-profile expansions of the NYT in recent years, is indeed a digitally-native project. It would be pretty idiotic if most of the NYT’s new sections weren’t digitally native. But as Brisbane notes, DealBook exists in print as well, taking up two full pages per week. Therefore, thanks to DealBook, readers of the NYT in print are getting more than they were before — not less.

Much more importantly, DealBook content isn’t confined to the half-page DealBook ghetto; many of DealBook’s best stories have appeared on the front page of the newspaper. When you hire reporters like Sue Craig, you run her stories big — and that’s exactly what the NYT is doing.

Different types of news work best in different formats. The Sunday magazine is better in print than it is online; DealBook is better online than it is in print. This is cause for celebration: the NYT is proving that it’s nimble enough to use whatever format works best for given content. It has dozens of blogs; I haven’t seen Brisbane complaining that they’re not available in print, or referring to their contents as “trivia.”

But Brisbane has his mind made up.

DealBook has a strangely precrash feel to it.

We can all remember what things were like before 2008: Wall Street was king, New York was the center of the financial universe, the titans of finance were gods. DealBook’s offerings remain closely aligned with that paradigm, even though the titans have lost their shine, markets have been shifting away from New York, and the postcrash world is determined far more than before by China and the broader global economy.

Despite this shift, DealBook’s reporting is about deals, hedge fund news and the doings of people on the Street.

It’s worth following Brisbane’s links, and not only because the first one goes to Reuters. His datapoints proving that Wall Street is irrelevant are (a) the fact that Lloyd Blankfein has hired a criminal defense lawyer; and (b) the megamerger between Deutsche Börse and the NYSE. Both stories, of course, have been extensively covered by DealBook; they’re right in its wheelhouse. And neither of them shows what Brisbane seems to think they show — that DealBook is an anachronistic throwback because Wall Street is less relevant than it used to be. Wall Street has always had lawyers and mergers; they’re what it’s built on.

Brisbane seems to think of Wall Street, and/or DealBook, as some kind of recondite island, insulated from bigger economic forces:

When the world economic system shuddered and stock markets dropped, I was left wondering whether The Times should have spent its money not on expanding DealBook but on enlarging its stable of journalists aimed at the wider subjects of international banks and sovereign debt.

This is just bizarre. For one thing, there’s no conceivable sense in which this is an either/or choice — Brisbane adduces no evidence whatsoever that absent extra DealBook reporters, the NYT could or would have hired more experts on the international-banks-and-sovereign-debt beat. And he ignores the screamingly obvious fact that DealBook’s new recruits know substantially more about international banks and sovereign debt than the overwhelming majority of existing NYT journalists, and therefore add to and improve the NYT’s coverage of such matters.

As Larry Ingrassia says, DealBook journalists have indeed been covering the big global and national issues in the world of finance.

Brisbane, by contrast, wants to see “in-depth investigating of a complex ecosystem” in Europe, and wants the NYT to help its readers “understand deep crises like European debt” by having journalists “step up and look at things systemically.” Brisbane reckons that DealBook is doing none of these things; that’s a matter of opinion. But he goes further than that: he says that the NYT’s investment in DealBook “meant forgoing an opportunity to strengthen reporting elsewhere.” And by “elsewhere”, Brisbane clearly means “elsewhere on the international-business-and-economics beat.”

Brisbane offers no evidence whatsoever that this might be the case. And common sense says that the opposite is true. If the NYT is pouring money into deep analysis of international finance, that’s surely an indication of resources going in the right direction, not the wrong direction. Meanwhile, if you want to point to wasted resources, DealBook stories on George Soros’s girlfriend pale in relation to the kind of things regularly called out by the @NYTOnIt Twitter stream. Is DealBook setting up email addresses dedicated to reporting the names of bodega cats? It is not. Is DealBook breathlessly reporting that Facebook makes it easy to wish your friends a happy birthday? It is not. Has DealBook uncovered the astonishing fact that women wear dresses in the summer? It hasn’t, sorry. But Brisbane points to none of these things as evidence of resources being wasted on frivolity rather than being put to good use in serious investigations of Europe’s financial woes.

More to the point, DealBook is being funded generously precisely because it represents an opportunity to bring new advertisers and new money to the NYT. Brisbane, far from disdaining the DealBook party featuring “charter advertisers like Goldman Sachs and Barclays Capital,” should be celebrating the fact that “in today’s straitened circumstances” — his words, not mine — the NYT has managed to identify a deep-pocketed source of new revenues. If Brisbane wants to fund in-depth investigations of the possible global spillovers from a European collapse, then using new revenues from DealBook might be an obvious way of doing that, no?

In any event, as an assignment editor, Brisbane is pretty weak:

Just as the 2008 crisis was largely explained after the fact by The Times and other publications, the current situation feels like a replay in which we may learn only later how the tumbling dominoes were arrayed. Perhaps most important to Times readers, little is being written about the consequences that a catastrophic event in Europe could have on the United States and the world economy.

Perhaps The Times will yet jump in and expose the linkages between Europe’s institutions and the American economy and markets — before the other shoe drops.

Well, yes, Arthur, that’s the way that events in the news get explained — after they happen. You can’t explain the consequences of a catastrophic event before that catastrophic event happens, because we live in a highly complex and interconnected world which is inherently unpredictable. Was there any way of predicting, before the subprime bubble burst, what a collapse of the US housing market would do to international markets and economies? No, there was not. For instance: it caused massive losses in obscure German state-owned banks, it caused a strengthening of the dollar, and it also caused a flight out of alternative markets like Brazil. In hindsight, it’s possible to explain all of these things. But you need to see how the tumbling dominoes fell in order to be able to explain how they were arrayed.

Markets aren’t all-knowing, and they can be spectacularly wrong at times. But journalists are certainly worse at predicting the future than markets are.

Arthur Brisbane might be right about the cause of the next global crisis, but even if he is, there’s no good reason to believe that an investigative piece at this point would prove to be remotely prescient or useful for the NYT’s readership. That’s why journalists much prefer to do what they’re best at, which is reporting and analyzing the news — stuff which is happening now, or which has already happened. DealBook does that in a fast and readable and webby way, making smart tactical inroads onto a field being slowly abandoned by Rupert Murdoch’s WSJ. What’s more, DealBook — in contrast to the rest of the NYT website — is completely free.

So let’s celebrate the fact that DealBook is doing something successful and new under the auspices of the NYT. Criticisms of the form “you wrote A, but I think that B is more important and germane, so you should have written B instead” are always silly and demeaning. If Brisbane is forced to resort to that argument when criticizing DealBook, the inevitable result is that he just ends up looking particularly off-target himself.

COMMENT

maynardGkeynes, yeah I got the scoop on how the ECB was going to let banks post their liabilities as collateral for loans from FT Alphaville. No one else thinking out the box like that.

Posted by Danny_Black | Report as abusive

Why I’m talking about Tim Cook’s sexuality

Felix Salmon
Aug 26, 2011 17:30 UTC

Every so often I put a blog post up, start getting feedback on it, and realize I’ve got things horribly wrong. And then sometimes, very rarely, the opposite happens: I put up a post and discover that I was more right than I ever suspected. My post yesterday on Tim Cook’s sexuality is one of those times.

Which is not to say that it’s uncontroversial. I’ve had significant pushback on it, and on the video above, from both inside and outside Reuters. The negative responses fall into a few broad categories:

Haven’t we moved on?

This is rarely accompanied by an elucidation of exactly what it is we’re meant to have moved on from. If it’s the kind of world where people are scared to come out at work, then, first, I’m sorry, but we haven’t. There are, obviously, no reliable statistics on how many LGBT people are out at their work, partly because “out” isn’t the nice, binary concept that a lot of journalists would seem to like it to be. (More on that later.) But I can tell you that I’ve had a lot of private feedback from gay professionals thanking me for my post, saying that it’s still hard for them to come out in the workplace, and that more open discussion and open acceptance of executives’ homosexuality is something we’re only beginning to work towards.

It’s still not normal, in most workplaces, to have an open and accepting culture where all gay employees feel comfortable being open about who they are and who they love. Apple, by all accounts, is very good on that front, and Steve Jobs’s other billion-dollar startup, Pixar, is even better. But the very fact that neither Apple nor Tim Cook has ever said anything about this aspect of his identity is a clear indication that people are still worried about it. The closet is an institution designed to protect LGBT individuals from scorn and hatred; without that scorn and hatred, it would not exist. It exists. And, lest we forget, neither the federal government nor most states gives equal rights to gay couples; in most states, including California, it’s still entirely legal for a company to fire someone just for being gay.

More generally, it’s still the exception rather than the rule for successful gay people in the public eye to be out. Some gay people who achieve success feel a responsibility to serve as role models and advocate for equality and public acceptance. That’s great. But what we see very little of is the people who simply don’t hide who they are, and who don’t make a big deal of it — the non-political gays. And the reason we see so little of it is because it’s a very tricky act to pull off. Instead, we have the institution of the “glass closet”. Which is clearly just a stepping stone on the path to full acceptance. So I think it’s reasonable to say that we’re a very long way from having “moved on”.

Why should shareholders care?

The number of things that shareholders care about, with respect to any given company, is as varied as the number of shareholders itself. But certainly there’s no particular or obvious reason why Tim Cook’s homosexuality is relevant to Apple’s shareholders, qua shareholders. As journalists, however, the media has a responsibility to more than just a company’s shareholders: its responsibility lies to the public as a whole. Including millions of gay professionals, their friends, their families, and people who aspire to being gay professionals. For these people, seeing Tim Cook rise to a position of such prominence and power is something to celebrate. If the media keeps that news on the down low, we’re therefore doing a disservice to that large and important part of our readership. Meanwhile, if shareholders don’t care, that’s fine. Most news is of no interest to most people. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be published.

What business is it of mine what Tim Cook does with his genitals?

This isn’t an issue of sex, it’s an issue of sexuality — a central part of who all of us are. It’s about attraction, and identity. Not genitals.

Now admittedly Tim Cook’s sexual identity isn’t any business of yours either. But it’s worth asking who exactly we’re protecting here. Tim Cook hasn’t complained about coverage of his sexuality, but a lot of straight people who don’t know him seem to be very upset about it. It seems a bit like the old attitude of “I don’t care what consenting adults do in private, just so long as they don’t stick it in my face.”

All too often, secrecy surrounding someone’s sexuality is imposed upon that person by the straight society surrounding them. It’s the “I don’t want to hear about it” attitude which reached its nadir in the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy. Many gay professionals — I’m tempted to say most gay professionals, at least outside the creative industries — act very much in line with an implicit policy of don’t-ask-don’t-tell; coming out to co-workers is done individually, on a case-by-case basis, and acts as a sign of deeper friendship and outside-of-work socialization. And it contrasts quite sharply with the overt displays of straight employees who happily plaster their cubicles with photos of their spouses and children or unselfconsciously talk about the attractiveness of members of the opposite sex.

This is irrelevant, so we should ignore it.

Not when ignoring it is the problem. As commenter Hamranhansenetc said on my original post, “what you mean by ‘ignoring Time Cook’s sexuality’ is ‘pretending he is straight.’” It’s rude to do that. And skirting the issue of Cook’s sexuality only encourages and exacerbates that problem. As Hamran continues (you should really read the whole comment, it’s great), “In the larger sense, it does not matter that Tim Cook is gay and not straight. However, it does matter when the media pretend Tim Cook is straight and not gay. And that is what we are talking about here.”

Another commenter, RaidV92C, reacted a rather different way, but just as accurately: “This is not newsworthy, it’s west coast, liberal media, hollywood forcing homosexuality as NORMAL on the general public.” Yes. Exactly. Homosexuality is normal. And people who object to stories which cover an executive’s homosexuality as being as unexceptional as another executive’s wife and children are exactly the people who are winning if no mention is made of Cook’s sexuality.

Do we report that executives are straight?

Yes, all the time, especially when we talk about their families. And more generally straight is the default option — people are assumed to be straight unless we’re told otherwise. No LGBT person likes it when they’re assumed to be straight, but it happens every day.

Isn’t this a salacious invasion of Tim Cook’s privacy?

There is nothing salacious about someone being straight, or being gay. Insofar as you think it’s salacious, that’s because you think that being gay is somehow naughty, or shameful. Is this an invasion of privacy? To a certain extent, yes. More people know more things about Tim Cook now than they did a few weeks ago. That’s what happens when you become the CEO of Apple.

In any public corporation, there’s a small number of people whose jobs are outward-facing, and at the top of the list is always the CEO. He’s the public face of the company; if you see a corporate profile on the cover of a glossy magazine, chances are it will be illustrated with a big picture of the CEO. If you don’t want your face splashed across the world’s media, then you shouldn’t be CEO of a massively valuable company which touches millions of people. Sometimes, as in the case of Mark Zuckerberg, entire movies — and not particularly accurate ones, either — are made about you and your personal life. Reporting that Tim Cook is gay is absolutely nothing, in the invasion-of-privacy stakes, compared to The Social Network. But CEOs, especially CEOs of public companies, are public figures. Their salaries are a matter of public knowledge. When you’re a public figure, you lose a certain amount of privacy. And the higher your profile rises, the more privacy you lose. Tim Cook knows that; he knows that it’s silly to expect to be the CEO of Apple without the world knowing that he’s gay. So let’s stop pretending that we’re not talking about this subject for his sake.

Finally, one critical note I got went so far as to say that “I would think people who are gay don’t care” that Cook is gay. Which is almost hilariously, completely wrong. All the feedback I’ve got indicates, unsurprisingly, that LGBT people really care about this — they care about it a lot, and they want to see it celebrated as widely as possible. It’s perfectly natural to feel pride and joy when a member of your community rises to a position of great success and prominence.

I’ve been incredibly heartened by the thanks I’ve got from gay friends, gay acquaintances, and gay people I’ve never run across before, all saying that they wish there were many more people pushing this line of argument. And I was also heartened, when I talked to John Abell about this yesterday for the video above, that he thinks the same way: not only should the media cover Cook’s sexuality in a more matter-of-fact way, but that they will, as well. Cook himself need do nothing.

At the same time, though, I agree with Nicholas Jackson that it would be great if Cook was more open about his sexuality. The glass closet is not an unpleasant place to be. The more transparent the glass, the less likely you are to have people making you uncomfortable by assuming that you’re straight. And at the same time, by never “officially” coming out, you get to avoid having to talk about your sexuality in public — something very few people like to do.

It’s sad and rather silly that gays have to make some kind of formal and official statement about these matters; certainly straights don’t. But without such a statement, as we’ve seen, the media gets cold feet talking about sexuality, and perpetuates the stigma associated with homosexuality. A very common response to my piece from journalists was to question my sourcing: how did I know that Cook is gay? Do I have first-hand knowledge? (No, and if I did, I would never have written my post.) Do I have reliable sources? (No, I’m simply passing on information which is in the public realm, just as I do with dozens of other pieces of information every day.) And isn’t it unethical to talk about something unless you know for sure that it’s true?

What’s unethical, I think, is perpetuating the false idea that Tim Cook is straight — an idea which, it turns out, many people had. One person said it was “disappointing” that I disabused her of that notion. Why she should be disappointed to learn this news I can only guess, I haven’t asked. But honest journalism has to be honest. If I allow you to continue to believe a falsehood, that’s a form of dishonesty. And I, for one, am not comfortable with that.

COMMENT

MrMath.

You challenge people to posit why they are ‘against gay’ lamenting they would have no argument – and then you say imply that to be anti gay must mean that one is a ‘closet gay’.

Your upside down premise (‘Mr Math’???, really???) of asking people to provide ‘valid arguments’ and then spewing something such stupid and childish positions that don’t deserve a reasonable response – in fact only validates how you and the ‘gay agenda’ are miserably ideological.

I’m not making an anti-gay statement.

I’m making an anti-gay supporter statement.

You losers claim ‘morality’ and then go on to make absurd claims.

Homosexuality is a disease. It is the misalignment of gender, and sexual orientation. Just as most complex forms of behavior are learned – they can be unlearned. We are in fact biological machines – and we will one day have the ability to create an adaptive environment that creates outcomes we desire – including sexual orientation.

That we don’t yet have the ability to correct homosexuality, and that gays can live otherwise healthy and normal lives, does not change the fact that it is a medical condition that would otherwise be cured.

100 years ago, were someone to have discovered a cure, or therapy for ‘gay’ that worked – gay simply would not exist for the most part, certainly not the extent that we have a disproportionate minority of bit&es in the media raving about it all day.

Posted by jammer11 | Report as abusive
  •