Opinion

Stories I’d like to see

Ad technolology that may threaten newspapers; winners and losers of the fiscal cliff

Steven Brill
Nov 20, 2012 12:51 UTC

1. Another threat to newspapers’ business models?

This article in the New York Times last Friday and this one in the National Journal pinpoint two important developments in the media business that could collide to pose yet another threat to the financial viability of journalism.

The Times article describes the rise of “programmatic advertising,” in which new online tracking technologies allow an advertiser to follow a consumer whose profile fits the advertiser’s targeted demographics wherever the consumer goes online rather than just make an educated guess about the websites that consumer is most likely to visit.

Before programmatic advertising, if an upscale restaurant chain decided that its best prospects were well-to-do men who live in major metropolitan areas and travel a lot, it might buy ads in the business sections of high-end newspapers or on business travel sites. Now the restaurant chain can follow those targeted people to any website they visit. It doesn’t have to buy ads on the sites where the target is most likely to be found but can instead simply bid on an electronic ad exchange to buy the cheapest ad that will reach someone with those demographics no matter where he or she goes (a gossip site, for example).

This erodes the premium  upscale newspaper sites can charge. The individual consumer is what’s important and now identifiable, not the place where he sees the ad.

Thus, the Times reports in this article, “The shift is punishing traditional online publishers,” and that online advertising revenue at its own newspaper actually fell 2.2 percent in the last quarter as a result of a decline in the rates the Times is able to charge for Web advertising. That’s a trend reflected lately in the results of most other major newspapers.

The clown-show economics of storm-hit utilities, and in search of open primaries

Steven Brill
Nov 13, 2012 12:42 UTC

1.   My Alaska-Hawaii electricity repair team:

It’s 10 o’clock and the lights are out. Do you know where your local utility actually lives?

I have already written that New York State Electric and Gas — the incompetent, uncaring electric company that services our home in northern Westchester County, New York ‑- is not exactly a community utility. It is part of a Spanish energy conglomerate. Nonetheless, when a repair crew finally arrived six days after Hurricane Sandy hit and I chatted up the guys who were about to climb our poles, I was amazed to hear that one was from Hawaii and the other two from Alaska. That they had come that far seemed so absurd that I asked to see their driver’s licenses.

Adding to this theater of the absurd was the fact that the truck they were driving was owned by something called Michels Company and had come from Syracuse, New York. That’s about 250 miles from our house. And they had been commuting all week on that truck to the repair jobs in our neighborhood from a motel in Kingston, New York – which is 72 miles away.

Keeping tabs on the Red Cross; Romney’s transition plans; Obama’s next book

Steven Brill
Nov 5, 2012 20:53 UTC

Red Cross donations: Remember September 11

I hope we soon see a lot of coverage of how the Red Cross is using its Hurricane Sandy contributions.

For everyone from Mitt Romney to President Obama to the good-hearted people who raised $23 million through NBC’s telethon last Friday, the Red Cross has become the charity of choice for victims of Sandy – just as it was the default charity after 9/11. But if New York’s last mass disaster is any indication, how the Red Cross uses the money is worth a lot of reporters’ attention.

In the months after 9/11, the Red Cross demonstrated that it was great at providing immediate relief such as blankets, food and short-term shelter, but it really wasn’t in the business of providing costlier long-term aid, such as help for people to rebuild homes and businesses. Thus, after $850 million in 9/11 contributions had poured into the organization, far surpassing what it could spend handing out blankets and sandwiches and setting up shelters, a mini-scandal unfolded when it was revealed that much of the money people thought they were donating to victims of the terror attacks was in fact being socked away to provide that same kind of short-term relief for victims of future fires or floods.

Hurricanes and utilities, keeping Time, and delving into the bureaucracy

Steven Brill
Oct 29, 2012 23:48 UTC

1.   Hurricanes and the utilities

Memo to local newspaper editors and television news producers in today’s hurricane zone: Assuming your community loses its power, find out which of the CEOs responsible for the utilities in your area have generators at their homes. If your reporter can’t get on the CEO’s property to look for one, just have him or her show up outside after it gets dark and see if the lights are on.

The only catch is that the CEO has to live in your region, meaning that the company responsible for the cutbacks in repair crews that could result in the lights staying out across parts of the Northeast for days isn’t yet part of some far-flung conglomerate. As I pointed out here about a year ago, the guy responsible for the prolonged power outages last fall in my area of northern Westchester in New York sits atop a company based in Spain.

2. What’s the story at Time?

With the imminent demise of the print version of Newsweek, I’d like to know what’s happening at Time.

from The Great Debate:

New election economy; voter fraud billboards, N.Y. skyscrapers 2.0

Steven Brill
Oct 23, 2012 07:38 UTC

Scoping out the new election economy:

No matter what you think about the court decisions, including Citizens United, that have unraveled campaign-finance restrictions, it’s clear that the resulting gusher of contributions has created an industry of breathtaking scale.

Estimates now put overall federal campaign spending for 2012 at about $6 billion - more than half of Hollywood’s entire box-office gross last year. And that’s only for presidential and congressional campaigns.

So it’s time for a comprehensive report, perhaps from the Wall Street Journal or Reuters or BloombergBusinessweek, on Elections Inc.

Electoral legal minefields, baseball contracts, and airline woes

Steven Brill
Oct 16, 2012 10:26 UTC

1. The Election Day legal battlefield:

We need all kinds of coverage of the legal Armageddon that we may face on Election Day and the morning after.

Assuming the election stays close, there could be multiple swing states in play, with voter identification and provisional balloting rules so much in flux that the multi-court, multi-issue legal war we suffered through in Florida in 2000 will look simple by comparison.

For example, voting in Ohio in 2008 was marred by all kinds of confusion and fights over thousands of ballots, but the battle ended on election night because President Obama pulled ahead of Senator McCain in the state by such a wide margin that the contested ballots would not have been decisive. This time, Ohio is likely to be much closer, and even with a federal judge having thus far enjoined implementation of new, Republican-sponsored early voting restrictions, confusion persists and the state’s election machinery seems no less subject to breakdowns and disputes than it was in 2008.

Hiding the debate rules, a tin cup for wounded vets, and the Bear Stearns legacy

Steven Brill
Oct 9, 2012 18:31 UTC

1.  The remaining debates: Tell us the rules

Two weeks ago there was an interesting story in the Huffington Post about how the rules set by the Commission on Presidential Debates are likely to be highly detailed, down to the permissible lighting and camera shots, how the moderators are supposed to ensure a balance in each candidate’s allotted time during any back-and-forth, and even a provision for the screening of notepaper the combatants could bring to the podium (to make sure it was blank).

The HuffPo report drew on a leaked 31-page contract the commission executed with the campaigns of President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry in 2004, and noted that “eighteen good-governance and media watchdog groups” have now demanded that this year’s contract be publicly disclosed.

But why is the press waiting for the commission and the campaigns to disclose what they obviously want to keep under wraps? Why hasn’t some reporter pried loose the text or at least the highlights of the 2012 contract? There must be a half-dozen or more operatives in each camp, plus at least as many debate commission officials, who know.

Tales of a TARP built to benefit bankers, and waiting for CEOs to pay the price

Steven Brill
Oct 2, 2012 11:33 UTC

1.  The Obama TARP fiasco Romney can’t use:

If the dynamics of the presidential campaign were different, a book called Bailout by Neil Barofsky would be getting a lot more attention. Barofsky left a post in late 2008 as a top federal financial fraud prosecutor in New York to become the special inspector general overseeing the $700 billion TARP bailout program. He’s written a Mr. Smith-Goes-to-Washington-like account of how even after TARP was turned over to a Democratic administration – in fact more so after the Democrats took over – TARP money was dispensed and TARP rules were written almost completely for the benefit of the bankers who drove America into a ditch.

For example, there’s Barofsky’s blow-by-blow description of how the rules written by the Obama administration for its much-heralded $50 billion program to help homeowners whose mortgages were underwater were so tilted in favor of the banks and against homeowners actually being able to get relief that only $1.4 billion of the $50 billion was dispensed, with few homeowners getting any help. And Barofsky is not writing about compromises the Obama administration had to make with banker-sympathetic Republicans in Congress; this is all about internal decisions that unfailingly seemed to put the needs and mindset of Wall Street above those of Main Street consumers.

A presidential campaign that wanted to call out the Obama administration for being too friendly to Wall Street and the banks at the expense of Main Street would be using Bailout as the cheat sheet that keeps on giving. But with the Romney campaign’s attack coming from the opposite direction – that the president and his team have killed the economy by shackling Wall Street – and with Romney on record in favor of allowing the mortgage crisis to “bottom out” with no government intervention, the former Massachusetts governor and his team have no use for Bailout.

ProPublica’s prize-winning ways, and more questions about Ryan’s role

Steven Brill
Sep 25, 2012 11:25 UTC

1.  How does ProPublica do it? Can it scale?

I received an intriguing email alert last week from ProPublica – the non-profit organization that, according to its mission statement, does “journalism in the public interest.” The email announced that ProPublica’s “nursing home inspection” tool now has a completely searchable database of “140,000-plus” reports from government inspections of these facilities for seniors, many of which have been plagued by charges of poor or even abusive care.

That reminded me that as its fifth anniversary approaches, ProPublica deserves full-blown feature treatment.

The small, New York-based organization, which has already won two Pulitzer Prizes, has done a slew of amazing reporting projects that have combined old-fashioned shoe leather with ingenious use of modern technology to gather and present compelling stories and provide ongoing resource materials. It has tackled  subjects ranging from political ad spending to doctors getting payments from drug companies to presidential pardons to this nursing home project. And that’s all in addition to an array of killer one-off stories, such as its report on speaking fees paid to Chicago Tribune editorial board member and syndicated columnist Clarence Page by a group lobbying to be removed from a State Department terrorist list, or the story about Magnetar, the secretive financial firm.

The beef against ABC, and Romney as a debater

Steven Brill
Sep 18, 2012 10:32 UTC

1. The beef against ABC:

Most of us remember seeing or hearing about the multiple ABC news broadcasts beginning last March about how meat packers were adulterating the meat we buy in grocery stores and restaurants with a filler called “pink slime.” Other news outlets picked up on the controversy over the filler, which in fact had been reported on before, but which ABC took on as a crusade. Leading with Diane Sawyer’s flagship evening newscast, on which  she touted her team’s “startling investigation,” ABC did eleven separate broadcasts about “pink slime” over about four weeks. This culminated in cheerleading and self-congratulatory coverage of consumer groups responding to the ABC reports with campaigns to demand that the major grocery store chains boycott products containing “pink slime.”  It was as if Upton Sinclair and his epic novel “The Jungle” that took readers inside the gruesome meat packing plants of the early twentieth century had been reborn in the person of Sawyer and lead on-air reporter Jim Avila.

These multiple reports — hyped by online and social media reports from ABC producers and on-air people, along with promotions on its local news outlets — and the resulting consumer boycott campaigns had such a broad impact that the companies that produce “pink slime” saw their business plummet within a few weeks.

Last week, the leading “pink slime” purveyor, Beef Products, Inc., whose primary operations are in South Dakota, sued ABC. According to its complaint Beef Products quickly lost 60% of its business as a result of the ABC broadcasts and had to lay off 700 of 1,300 employees.

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