Opinion

Jack Shafer

Taking a trash-talking Murdoch lieutenant to task

Jack Shafer
Apr 1, 2014 22:41 UTC

 

A journalist hasn’t performed a full day’s work unless at some point he deprecates a competitor, either in print, in a public speech, or idly while exiting the building for lunch. News Corp chief executive Robert Thomson (Wall Street Journal; Times of London; New York Post; Australian; et al.) more than earned his pay Monday, when he rabbit-punched the Washington Post at an Advertising Week Europe conference in London. He castigated Post staffers, most of whom regard themselves as “high priests” of journalism, he said. Their self-worship has prevented them from making the necessary transformative digital switch, Thomson alleged.

As if commissioned by the Post‘s guardian angel, the Financial Times answered (registration required) Thomson’s sass with a glowing story about all the digital initiatives at the Jeff Bezos-era Post. The newsroom is adding three dozen new faces, including data journalists and mobile designers, and has struck a deal with six outland newspapers that will allow their subscribers to bypass the Post pay wall and read all they like there. The paper has established a new online contributor network, drawing on the talent at the Volokh Conspiracy blog, and it has swung (and missed) with its Post TV venture.

Financial Times reporter Emily Steel was dazzled by some of the skunkworks projects that digital wizard Cory Haik showed her, which included prototypes built on Google Glass, Snapchat, the Secret app, and smartwatches. So allow me to correct Robert Thomson: If any future-blocking high priests of journalism remain at the Post, they must be directing their masses off the premises.

I slag Thomson not only to fill my own daily quota of deprecation, but as a device to revisit the journalistic debate that has smoldered like an underground coal fire since the commercial Web got going 20 years ago. The debate pits the platformists against the contentists, to pinch the terminology of my friend Michael Schaffer of the New Republic.

Platformists, who speak excitedly and are prone to writing in italics, insist that technology changes everything! Function must follow form! Digital first! Innovate or die! Everybody must learn how to write code! Data rules! We must build an Uber for news! A GarageBand for news! A Candy Crush for news!

The landslide of news

Jack Shafer
Mar 26, 2014 21:52 UTC

Of the many ways nature can kill you, the landslide must be the most cruel. Not as cosmically spectacular as the tectonic tantrum of the earthquake or as catastrophic as pure weather-borne calamities (floods, hurricanes, tornados), the mudslide lies in wait like a heart attack, springing its localized force without much, if any, warning. It’s filthy, it’s bone-crushing, and it’s suffocating. Any trust you have in terra firma will promptly be upended.

The press coverage of Saturday’s landslide in Oso, Wash., which as of this writing has claimed 24 dead and confirmed missing, has expressed this horror with hours of broadcast and thousands of column inches of newsprint — and continues. Today’s New York Times makes the Oso landslide its top story, complete with slideshow and interactive map of the disaster.

Landslides produce more terror than other disasters whose death counts go much higher — plane crashes, earthquakes, fires, freak weather, et al. — because they are so rare. Thanks to television news, our minds have become socialized to the damage done by hurricanes and tornados. But landslides introduce us to the unfamiliar. “It feels like you are in not a junkyard, but in a landfill,” said the sister of one of the Oso victims as she surveyed the site. “You’ve got sewer pipes. You’ve got dirty diapers.”

The jumbo coverage of Malaysia flight MH370

Jack Shafer
Mar 17, 2014 21:33 UTC

When a big story breaks, my news digestion knows no satiety. Earthquake, assassination, invasion, bank run, political campaign, celebrity court case, sport scandal or a drunk stubs his toe on the Lower East Side — I can handle anything the press swarm sends at me.

So unlike Fox News press reporter Howard Kurtz (“It’s too much with too few facts,” he said last week of the saturation reporting by his former network, CNN, about Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370), I can handle any “over”-coverage the news machine chooses to throw my way. By handle, I usually mean avoid, but on a story like MH370, I desire the sort of coverage that could fill the Indian Ocean, which I did not know until last week had an average depth of 2.5 miles.

That fact was only one of the scores of news nuggets I’ve chewed and swallowed since the airliner was reported missing on March 8. While I’m aware that the flight’s fate, its back story, and repercussions will have no impact on my life, and that there aren’t enough degrees of Kevin Bacon to connect me to 95 percent of the missing passengers, I have clawed my way through stories and even stayed up at night to learn about transponders, the different kinds of radars, the stolen passport business, the number of air strips within MH370′s flight range that could have accommodated a landing, general Malaysian political incompetence, Southeast Asian geography, satellite telemetry, international relations, black boxes, the workings of the Malaysian criminal justice system, the Andaman Islands, life raft locator radios, search technologies, air navigation and more. One measure of my devotion to this story is that I even watched an oceanographer talk on Charlie Rose about the missing aircraft.

It’s an ad, ad, ad, ad world

Jack Shafer
Mar 13, 2014 20:10 UTC

The last place you’d expect to discover a map to navigate the future of the content-advertising landscape would be a book about the golden age of radio. But damn it all to hell, there it is on the concluding 12 pages of Cynthia B. Meyers’ new book, A Word From Our Sponsor: Admen, Advertising, and the Golden Age of Radio.

Not to discourage you from reading Meyers’ first 281 pages about the co-evolution of broadcasting and advertising before excavating her new media insights, but this is one of those books that demands to be read backwards — conclusion first, historical arguments and research later. In Meyers’ view, advertising is not something appended to radio and TV broadcasts or shimmied into the pages of newspapers and magazines. Advertising has been both the dog wagging the tail and the tail wagging the dog, sometimes occupying points in between, its symbiotic relationship with popular media forever ebbing and cresting. And while the past never predicts the future, this book gives readers a peak around the media future’s corner.

The commercial Web that permeates our culture today was revolutionary because it allowed news and entertainment content to migrate from the lockdown of the radio and TV networks, as well as from print. But that migration was already in progress when the first banner ad (for AT&T) ran on Hotwire.com in late 1994. A decade before, cable had given advertisers new venues to place their TV bets, and VCRs (and later DVRs) gave viewers the power to time-shift and edit ads out of their consumption. The advent of videotape and discs further liberated audiences from advertising’s hold.

Beware the old nostalgic journalist

Jack Shafer
Mar 3, 2014 23:29 UTC

No sadder sack exists than the journalist in the twilight of his career. After decades of scrutinizing other individuals and their institutions, the soon-to-be-retired journo predictably looks inward and, if his editor indulges him, pens a heartfelt goodbye essay to his readers.

Robert G. Kaiser, former managing editor of the Washington Post, contributed such a note to his paper yesterday. To his credit, Kaiser doesn’t bawl with nostalgia for his paper’s salad days, like so many other recent writers of goodbye notes to their publications. Nor does he take aim at penny-pinching publishers and greedy chief executive officers, the standard suspect in the who-killed-the-newspaper-and-put-me-out-to-pasture sage. Nor does he slag the Web on his way out. Kaiser is too smart for that. In 1992, he wrote a persuasive memo (pdf) about the coming triumph of digital news and advertising, a memo that the Post tried and failed to translate into a business model.

Instead of giving his publication and readers a nostalgic goodbye with his final contribution — as is usually the case when a journalist departs — Kaiser opens the choke to spray a melancholic farewell to the federal city of Washington, which he’s called home for most of his 70 years. “[T]he political circus that enthralled me for so long,” he writes, has lost its spell on him. Having recently relocated to New York, Kaiser adds, “I don’t miss Washington, and I don’t expect that to change anytime soon.”

Who deserves a hatchet job?

Jack Shafer
Feb 27, 2014 23:36 UTC

The New York Times dinged the New York Observer today in an absolute fair and responsible fashion, documenting the weekly’s great efforts to pillory Eric T. Schneiderman, the attorney general of New York, the results of which the Observer published on Tuesday (“The Politics and Power of A.G. Schneiderman: Will Righteous Eric bag big prey? Or Will Reckless Eric come undone?”).

Both the Times piece and a BuzzFeed article, published earlier in the week, build the circumstantial case that the Observer story was a hatchet job designed to retaliate against Schneiderman. Why should the Observer want to hurt the attorney general? Well, he filed a $40 million lawsuit against Donald J. Trump last year. Trump is the father-in-law of Jared Kushner, who owns the Observer, and Kushner bosses the paper’s editor, Ken Kurson. Kurson originally assigned the Schneiderman story to an inexperienced writer and allegedly encouraged him with comments (Schneiderman is a “bad guy” and a “phony”) as well as plying him with negative articles about Schneiderman. How hard did Kurson push? The young writer bailed because he believed Kurson was prodding him into writing a “smear piece,” and a new writer was enlisted.

Obviously, the Trump-Kushner-Kurson axis has motives to scuttle Schneiderman with a newspaper article. But neither the Times nor BuzzFeed cite any inaccuracies in the Observer piece. The Times calls it a “searing, 7,000-word indictment of Mr. Schneiderman, portraying him as vindictive and politically opportunistic” and as a “robust defense” of Trump. In an editorial note, the Observer offers some transparency about its conflicts of interest, and presents a genesis of the article.

Supermarket tabloid gets hoodwinked by imposter!!!

Jack Shafer
Feb 26, 2014 23:51 UTC

The National Enquirer got its nosey-parker proboscis bloodied this month after its big Philip Seymour Hoffman “scoop” was promptly revealed to be a hoax.

Only three days after Hoffman died, the tabloid reported that playwright David Bar Katz — the friend who discovered Hoffman’s dead body — and Hoffman were lovers. It also alleged that Katz watched Hoffman freebase cocaine the evening before his death and had repeatedly witnessed his friend’s use of heroin.

The source for the Enquirer‘s piece? Katz himself, according to the tabloid. But when Katz immediately stepped forward, denied any such interview took place, denied being Hoffman’s lover, denied having watched him do cocaine or heroin, and sued the Enquirer for $50 million, the newspaper retracted the story and apologized. It has now settled with Katz and will fund a foundation that will make annual grants of $45,000 to unproduced playwrights to honor Hoffman. The Enquirer also took out a full-page ad in today’s New York Times to state that it had been fooled by an imposter who “falsely and convincingly claimed to be Mr. Katz.” The tabloid apologized and has pledged continued support of the playwright prize.

Who’s afraid of Comcast?

Jack Shafer
Feb 19, 2014 23:35 UTC

Set aside for a moment everything you’ve read about the $45 billion bid Comcast made for Time Warner Cable last week. Blank from your mind Paul Krugman‘s prediction that the deal will result in a Comcast monopoly. Pretend you didn’t read the New York Times piece about the acquisition presaging further consolidation in the cable market, with Charter Communications picking off Cox Communications. Thump yourself with a neuralyzer, if you can, and remove from your memory the protest against the transaction by Michael Copps, former Federal Communications Commission commissioner.

Finally, purge from your bile ducts the seething hatred you hold for Comcast and Time Warner Cable, those hurtful memories of rising bills, rotten service, and phone-tree purgatory and allow me to persuade you that we’re having the wrong telecom argument when we quarrel about mergers and acquisitions. Instead of blocking mergers or beating concessions out of the telecom giants, let’s give them the treatment they really fear: Policies that encourage the entry of competitors, which are the bane of every monopolist.

If you hate your cable television company — to simplify a half-century of history — blame it on the government. In the founding days of the industry, local municipalities mistakenly insisted that cable TV was a “natural monopoly” that must be regulated like telephone service. In nearly every case, the selection of a cable operator was a political one, with the most flattering supplicant winning the right from city councils to string wire on utility poles and cross right-of-ways to sell cable service. The municipalities collected franchise fees from the cable companies, shook them down for sweeteners like municipal channels and public access studios, regulated their rates, and required the operators to wire all if not most of their jurisdiction.

The new Medicis funding journalism

Jack Shafer
Feb 12, 2014 23:39 UTC

 

Neil Barsky, a former Wall Street money manager, became the latest Medici of journalism this week when he hired Bill Keller, former executive editor of the New York Times, to head his new non-profit journalism enterprise, the Marshall Project.

The Marshall Project, which will scrutinize the criminal justice system, joins a busy flotilla of non-profit journalism organizations already patrolling the news beat. Everywhere you look, a rich patron has founded, funded or seeded a substantial non-profit journalism outfit in the last half-decade: Herbert Sandler and ProPublica, John Thornton and the Texas Tribune, Pete Peterson and Fiscal Times, the Koch brothers and the Franklin Center, John Arnold and WNET, scores of other local and regional operations funded by minor Medicis, and well-established enterprises, such as the Center for Investigative Reporting and the Center for Public Integrity.

If you expand the definition of non-profit journalism to include for-profit outlets that aren’t making any but depend on a reservoir of money earned elsewhere to keep them afloat, you’d factor in Jeff Bezos and his Washington Post, John Henry and his Boston Globe, the Scott Trust and the Guardian, Pierre Omidyar and the $50 million he has pledged to First Look, and Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani and Al-Jazeera. Widening the definition to include state-sponsored or licensed outlets such as the BBC and NPR, both of which walk the investigative beat, and the pool of cash grows larger still.

The 20-year-old Microsoft memo that came true

Jack Shafer
Feb 6, 2014 23:00 UTC

About 20 years ago, Nathan Myhrvold, then Microsoft’s chief technology officer, composed a 20,000-word piece of prophesy titled “Road Kill on the Information Highway” that reads as fresh today as it did then.

One of many memos the polymath was churning out for Microsoft bossman Bill Gates at the time, “Road Kill” deserves our renewed attention for at least three reasons: 1) many of the market, media and tech dislocations Myhrvold predicted have come true, so he’s owed credit for his sharpness; 2) the tech forces Myhrvold identified have continued their romp, making some of his come-true predictions even truer as time has passed; and 3) though Microsoft embraced much of his futurology at the time, it still missed the market in many places where companies like Google, Apple and Amazon hit.

Rereading the memo, you feel a pang of sympathy for outgoing Microsoft chief executive officer Steve Ballmer, who has been criticized for not overtaking Google, for not inventing the iPhone, not creating Facebook, and other transgressions. You also feel 10 tons of trepidation for incoming CEO Satya Nadella, who faces the same tech market realities that blunted Ballmer. Myhrvold’s memo, dated Sept. 8, 1993, repeatedly warns that computer speed and computer storage were to grow exponentially for decades, making the computers of the near future a million times fast and then a trillion times faster.

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