Opinion

Jack Shafer

Is this story less than the Summly of its parts?

Jack Shafer
Mar 26, 2013 22:58 UTC

Like children at bedtime, news consumers love nothing more than to be told the same story again and again. Oh sure, they need the names of the principals to change, the location to vary, and the supporting cast of characters to shift. But the closer the popular press can come to retelling a vital and engaging Ur-tale as opposed to building a new one from scratch, the happier readers tend to be.

If today’s coverage of Yahoo’s $30 million acquisition of Summly — maker of a  news-condensing app developed by  London schoolboy Nick D’Aloisio — fit the tech-acquisition news template any more snuggly, it would be the first layer of news epidermis. The company’s founder  is all of 17 years old, a fact that earns prominent mention in the opening sentences of the accounts in the New York Times (Page One), the Washington Post, Bloomberg News, Reuters, the Wall Street Journal, and practically everywhere else.

The story of the child prodigy excelling in any field is sucker-bait for readers. No matter how many times they’ve been told the story, they still thrill to the exploits of an extraordinarily gifted young person writing brilliant poetry, solving complex mathematical theorems, destroying chess grandmasters, composing symphonies … and writing successful software. D’Aloisio is so young, the Times marvels, that he “wasn’t even born when Yahoo was founded in 1994.” He was building apps at 12, Bloomberg reports.

That a tech entrepreneur might be on the youngish side of the age divide is not something that should come as a surprise to anyone, especially at this late date in tech history. Consider how many famous tech entrepreneurs made their marks at an early age. Bill Gates co-founded Microsoft at the age of 19. Steve Jobs co-founded Apple at 21. Mark Zuckerberg created an early version of Facebook at 19, while still a student. At 22, Marc Andreessen lead the team that wrote the Mosaic browser. Shawn Fanning released a version of Napster at 19. And so on. Even two generations ago, it was common for tech founders to be relatively young, with William Hewlett and David Packard starting their company, HP , in 1939 at the ages of 26 and 27, respectively. Kudos to the Guardian for acknowledging that tech prodigies aren’t rare in its “Other web youth sensations” in  today’s Summly piece.

Without taking anything away from what D’Aloisio has accomplished, Summly is not just about a 17-year-old scribbling code in his bedroom that will reduce long articles to 400 characters digestible on a mobile phone. There’s plenty of adult supervision at his company: Summly’s chairman, we learn on the company’s corporate Web site, has been in the Internet racket at least 15 years, including a  stint at Amazon. Its CTO and head of R&D are similarly long-toothed with experience, as are other members of its executive team —  something the news stories cited above (except the Guardian) don’t divulge. Instead of mentioning all the adult supervision D’Aloisio’s has been getting, many in the press dote on his investors, who are reported to include Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing, Yoko Ono, Ashton Kutcher, Wendi Murdoch, and Stephen Fry. Again, the Guardiannotes that the investors brought in “a savvy team of directors, engineers, business managers and PR professionals.” The Journal also does well on this score, noting that Summly raised money from Zynga’s CEO, and that it got technology assistance from Silicon Valley’s SRI International.

Hey! You! Get off of Google’s cloud!

Jack Shafer
Mar 21, 2013 22:11 UTC

I’ve yet to meet anybody who used Google’s RSS Reader more, or pushed it harder than I have over the  last eight years. I consult its aggregations on my desktop the first thing in the morning, even before retrieving my four daily newspapers from the curb. Later, like a donkey following a carrot on a stick, I nibble  on my iPhone feed as I walk to the subway. At work, I keep Reader open to follow blogs and news and , to the neglect of my children, it has  been my steady bedtime companion for some time.

So when Google announced last week that it was sending Reader to the software slaughterhouse on July 1, I took to Twitter to object. Knowing that Google was unlikely to give the service a reprieve, the next thing I did was export my Reader settings and shop the alternatives.

One thing I didn’t do was to write a column accusing Google of betraying my trust, as Om Malik, James Fallows, Ezra Klein, Alex Hern of the New Statesman, The Week, and others did. Nor did I vow not to use Google’s new product, an Evernote substitute called Google Keep, ‘lest the company yank the rug out from under me again. I never trusted Google in the first place. I never thought it would support its products forever. As Slate’s Google graveyard attests, the company has routinely created and abruptly killed off software services, often tossing out the minimum viable product and watching to see if it caught on before putting any further effort into developing it.

Beat sweetener: The Benjamin J. Rhodes edition

Jack Shafer
Mar 18, 2013 21:23 UTC

If you’ve ever wanted to see a White House staffer dressed in frosting and candy sprinkles like a gourmet cupcake, pull your Saturday, March 16, New York Times out of the recycling pile and read Mark Landler’s adulating “beat sweetener” about Deputy National Security Adviser Benjamin J. Rhodes, “Worldly at 35, and Shaping Obama’s Voice.”

A beat sweetener, as press-watchers know, is an over-the-top slab of journalistic flattery of a potential source calculated to earn a reporter access or continued access. They’re most frequently composed on the White House beat when a new administration arrives in Washington and every Executive Office job turns over, but they can appear any time a reporter is prepared to demean himself by toadying up to a source in exchange for material.

As a beat sweetener, the Rhodes piece excels on so many levels that I’ll bet the subject’s parents have framed and hung the clipping over the family mantel. Landler portrays Rhodes as a young fella with “old man” wisdom; as possessing a “soft voice” that delivers “strong opinions”; as one whose “influence extends beyond what either his title or speechwriting duties suggest”; and as someone who “cares” to the point of “anguish” but is “very realistic.”

The long, slow decline of alt-weeklies

Jack Shafer
Mar 15, 2013 23:41 UTC

Alternative weekly colossus Boston Phoenix cracked and fell yesterday, ceasing publication after 47 years. According to a Phoenix executive quoted in the obituary in today’s Boston Globe, the alternative weekly was losing more than $1 million a year, and a format switch last fall from newsprint to glossy had failed to attract the sort of national advertising it desired.

Once one of the leading alt-weeklies in the nation, the dead paper leaves behind $1.2 million in debt and roughly $500,000 in assets. The fact that its owner didn’t — or couldn’t — sell the publication to cover some of its debt signals the illness of the greater alternative weekly market.

Like its daily newspaper counterpart, the alt-weekly has enjoyed a terrible half-decade of plummeting revenues, circulation and page counts in the 100-plus markets currently served. One large chain that owned papers in Chicago, Washington, Atlanta, Charlotte and elsewhere filed for bankruptcy in 2008 and was eventually spun apart, but that financial disaster was as much about clueless proprietors overleveraging themselves as it was the decay of the alt-weekly business model.

And now, a word against our sponsor

Jack Shafer
Mar 8, 2013 21:36 UTC

The Washington Post‘s website joined the sponsored-content stampede early this week with the introduction of its BrandConnect Web product, making it the first major U.S. newspaper to embrace sponsored content, according to Digiday. Other high-profile Web publishers selling sponsored content include Gawker, Huffington Post, Business Insider, Forbes, BuzzFeed, Slate, Cheezburger, Techmeme and The Atlantic. Meanwhile, Fortune magazine is creating Fortune-branded content “for marketers to distribute on their own platforms,” AdWeek reports.

Also known as native advertising, the current wave of sponsored content on the Web can resemble the advertorial sections you’re familiar with — the ponderous Russia Beyond the Headlines Today and China Daily pages in the print editions of the Post and the New York Times, which nobody reads, and those sections in glossy magazines you automatically skip. Or, it can look remarkably like the content the site already produces. BuzzFeed has created pages for Virgin Mobile, Pillsbury, Coca-Cola, Dell, the Nevada Commission on Tourism and General Electric that could pass for its standard pages as they use jokes to “subtly weave in the values of the brand,” as the Wall Street Journal reported last October. BuzzFeed sponsored content costs about $20,000 for five or six “articles,” reports Digiday.

If, as George Orwell once put it, “The public are swine; advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill-bucket,” then sponsored content is the meal so wretched that even pigs will reject unless sugar-frosted. The average sponsored-content page pits the advertiser against the publisher; the former attempts to make his copy and art look as much like conventional news or feature copy as powerfully as the latter pushes back as hard as he can to preserve “editorial integrity” without forfeiting the maximum fee. It’s common for both sides to come away from the transaction feeling soiled and swindled, but, hey, that’s the nature of most advertising.

Does anyone care about newspaper ombudsmen?

Jack Shafer
Mar 4, 2013 23:54 UTC

Last week, Washington Post Publisher Katharine Weymouth discontinued the ombudsman position, replacing it with an ambiguously defined “reader representative” to whom readers will be able to address their “concerns and questions,” as soon as the paper gets around to appointing one.

This “ombudsman lite” slot is a radical dilution of the old position. As conceived back in 1970, the ombudsman’s job was, in former Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee’s words, “to monitor the paper for fairness, accuracy, and relevance and to represent the public in whatever strains might arise from time to time between the newspaper and its readers.” (Emphasis added.) The Post ombudsman was “resolutely autonomous,” Bradlee wrote. Working on contract rather than staff, the ombudsman was given the independence to write about whatever he wanted to write about. He couldn’t be assigned. He couldn’t be edited. And he couldn’t be fired, Bradlee continued.

On paper, the power to write such a weekly column and dispatch internal memos of rebuke to the newsroom sounds like a job fit for a hanging judge. But the occupants of this perch have generally shied away from using their power to inflict public punishment or embarrassment on the Post. On some occasions the paper has filled the job with experienced government functionaries, such as Joseph Laitin, Bill Green, Sam Zagoria and Robert J. McCloskey, but usually the job has gone to journalistic veterans, such as Geneva Overholser, Andrew Alexander, Richard Harwood, E.R. Shipp, Michael Getler, Deborah Howell, Joann Byrd, Robert C. Maynard, Charles B. Seib, Patrick Pexton (who just completed a two-year tour of duty) and others. No matter what the ombudsman’s background, the tendency has been to pull punches whenever the Post erred. Instead of roasting the paper for its transgressions, the ombudsman could be relied on to sympathize with the hard job of newspapering and gently explain the newsroom’s mistakes to readers. Worse yet, some ombudsmen have played Monday morning quarterback with their columns, detailing from the safe remove from deadline pressure how they would have assigned, reported, written and edited a flawed story had they been in charge.

Goodbye Globe, hello global New York Times

Jack Shafer
Mar 1, 2013 01:13 UTC

The New York Times Co. has been shedding its non-core assets, smoothing its cost structure, strengthening its balance sheet and rebalancing its portfolio with such haste over the past two years that only a cruel and unusual press critic would urge it to quadruple those efforts.

I am that cruel and unusual press critic.

The company was a diversified media outfit 10 years ago, owning eight television stations; two radio stations; 16 newspapers in addition to the New York Times, the Boston Globe and the International Herald Tribune; and a slew of websites. It had a market cap of about $7 billion. Today, the emaciated operation is worth a notch over $1 billion on a good day.

The television stations were liquidated in 2006, but the most aggressive dismantling began 20 months ago, as piece by piece the Times Co. steadily broke off chunks of itself and put them up for sale. To Barry Diller’s IAC/InterActiveCorp went the About Group for $300 million and to Halifax Media Holdings its Regional Media group of newspapers for about $145 million. The company shed its stake in the Fenway Sport Group (Boston Red Sox) in two installments for a total of $180 million and sold off its share in the job-search engine Indeed.com for $164 million. The stripping of the old media conglomerate to its Times-ian essence—the Times itself and the rebranded International Herald Tribune as the International New York Times—will be complete when it finds a buyer for the Boston Globe and its allied properties. One research analyst predicts the Globe could go for $175 million provided the Times Co. covers the pension liabilities.

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