Curious capitalist

My long-awaited (by me at least) conversion of my occasional fortune.com contributions into a regular blog is set to begin on Wednesday. It’s going to be called “The Curious Capitalist,” a name coined by Brian O’Keefe. It had been threatened that if I didn’t come up with something better, it would be called “The Justin Fox Files.” So thanks, Brian.

I’m not entirely sure where that leaves this blog. Posts about the book belong here, of course, but I have to figure out what else. More news soon on this same channel.

That journalism prof again (last time, I promise)

There’s a fascinating post (and exchange of comments) in Nicholas Carr’s blog in which Jay Rosen plays a key role. (Matt McAlister’s blog tipped me off.) Carr (a former editor at the Harvard Business Review who attained semi-guru status a couple years back with the publication of an article called “IT Doesn’t Matter“) was making the point that the blogosphere is evolving into a hierarchy, with the elite displaying some of the same characteristics of, well, just about any other elite you can think of.

One of his examples was a q&a at a conference he had attended recently where Rosen was a speaker:

a woman in the audience expressed frustration about getting bloggers like Rosen to link to her site. She asked the professor if he had any suggestions. Rosen said that the best way to get a link from him is to write a post about one of his posts. He carefully monitors mentions of his work in other blogs, he said, and he frequently provides links back to them, at least when they have some substance.

Carr’s take: The blogosphere “has turned into a grand system of patronage operated – with the best of intentions, mind you – by a tiny, self-perpetuating elite.” Which was fine, except that it didn’t seem to square with Rosen’s persistent advocacy of a more democratic media.

Rosen responded (this is well down in the comments to the post; it doesn’t appear possible to link to individual comments in Carr’s blog) with an actual transcript of the question and his answer. The transcript more or less backed up what Carr had written, although both the question and Rosen’s actual answer were a bit more nuanced than Carr made them out to be. (Sound familiar?) Rosen went on to say that “I haven’t claimed the blogosphere is egalitarian” and then, in an apparent attempt to disavow any claim to be an elite blogger, he mentioned that his blog had only just cracked the Technorati Top 1000.

Carr responded to thank Rosen for the fact-checking, but reiterated his assertion that what Rosen and other top bloggers did amounted a “patronage system.” Things got a little snippier after that. Wrote Rosen: “To me, personally, he who debunks attitudes and ideas to which no people and quotations or links are attached is cheating, intellectually speaking. Most debunkers do this constantly.” In Rosen’s estimation, Carr’s contention that inhabitants of the blogosphere think it’s more democratic than traditional mass media amounted to “cheating.” Carr responded with several quotations from Rosen and other bloggers making exactly that claim. Rosen complained that Carr’s use of one of his posts was “very crude,” and so on.

This was all somewhat reassuring to me, in that it’s clear that the way I started my essay on newspaper ownership simply rubbed an existing raw nerve of Rosen’s. He really hates it when people characterize something as a widely held view and then don’t provide examples and links. Academics have always backed up such assertions through the use of footnotes; opinion journalists have traditionally been very lax about it. I still think the important test is whether your characterization is accurate, not whether you provide links. (And I think Carr’s assertion and mine both pass that test.)

As to whether the blogosphere is in fact elitist, two observations:

First, I’m entirely in agreement with Rosen’s assertion (in his initial response to Carr’s piece) that the blogosphere is “more open than the access system controlled by professional gatekeepers, and in that way more democratic.” It’s not utopia, either, but Rosen never claims that it is.

Second, Rosen himself is totally an elitist. His original critique of my piece and his response to my response both drip with condescension for this poor journalist he’s never heard of who doesn’t know how to link. (He’s much nicer to famous journalists he happens to know.) Then, most tellingly, he brags in an update to his original post about having “learned to link” from blogosphere pioneers Doc Searls and Dave Winer. Gee, I learned to link by using the text editor that comes with my TypePad account. Does that make what I have to say less valid?

When journalism professors attack

Ever since getting broadsided by NYU journalism prof Jay Rosen’s 2,243-word July 14 lambasting of an 830-word piece I wrote for fortune.com, I’ve been thinking I need to write about it here. But I figured I should wait until I could be more thoughtful about than I was in the somewhat snotty response I posted on Rosen’s blog. I’ve also been on vacation, if that’s any excuse.

I did get lots of reassurances from colleagues that it was all nonsense, Rosen’s a jerk, I should ignore it, etc., etc. But I can’t ignore it, partly because I’m an oversensitive weenie (always have been), partly because past experience tells me Rosen’s blog posts are often worth paying attention to, and partly because buried in his tirade was at least one entirely irrefutable criticism. Rosen himself never made it explicit, but a couple of the commenters on his site did. Back to that later.

As for Rosen’s chief complaint, I still think it’s nonsense. He claims that my opening sentence,

Now that Wendy McCaw has driven away most of the editors from the newspaper she owns, the Santa Barbara News-Press, a lot of people in journalism are beginning to question what had become accepted wisdom in the past year or so–that independent, local ownership is the salvation of the ailing newspaper industry.

is "bull." Then he continues: "What conventional wisdom says (maybe) is that local independent ownership is worth a try again, and might work out better than corporate chains have."

Now maybe I am in fact "thick-headed," as Rosen put it after my  initial response to his critique, but I just don’t see a yawning gulf between those two descriptions of the state of affairs. I think Rosen and I would both agree that the return to private ownership has been a dominant meme in newspaper-junkie discussions over the past year or so, definitely ever since the greedy capitalists at Private Capital Management started pushing for the dismemberment of Knight-Ridder. Yeah, I stated it in starker, more sensationalist terms than he did. Or, if you prefer, he stated it in more boring, waffly terms than I did. But "salvation" and "might work out better" are both on the same side of public vs. private coin, and as a one-time newspaper journalist I’m of the opinion that my wording comes much closer to reflecting the at-times-desperate sentiments of my former colleagues than Rosen’s does. "Salvation" does not imply that private ownership is without flaw; it means that people in newspapers hope private ownership will save them from the depredations of Wall Street. Anyone care to claim that isn’t the case?

The next complaint from Rosen was that I didn’t provide any links to back up my statement. That’s true, I didn’t (although there were links elsewhere in my essay). Why not?  Mainly because the discussion among journalists wasn’t what I thought I was writing about. I was just using it to get to an issue that I ponder pretty regularly and that I’m (partially) writing a book about: The intersection between financial markets and corporations. And I wanted to get there quickly. Does that make me lazy? Maybe. I mean, I am lazy. No point in denying that. But the very assortment of links that Rosen used to back up his argument amounted to a textbook example of the limits of linking. Most consisted of people (among them my hero Joe Nocera) saying in nuanced terms that private, local ownership might work out better for newspapers than dominion by Wall Street has. They were pretty much the same things I would have linked to. In one case, Rosen linked to a Washington Post story about the "Push Toward Private Control of Newspapers" and cherry-picked the one "yes, but" paragraph to quote in his post, ignoring other parts of the article that seemed to back up my assertion.

What’s more, no one other than Jay Rosen has taken issue with that opening sentence of mine. My piece was posted on journalism site Romenesko, so lots of real-live newspaper reporters and editors surely read it, yet not one of them e-mailed me to complain about my mischaracterization. Of the commenters to Rosen’s blog (and there are admirably many), several applauded him for taking down a lazy big-media journalist and even more took issue with my assertions about Wall Street’s virtues, but unless I’m missing something, the only comments that directly addressed the question of whether people in newspapers think private ownership is their salvation backed me up.

But enough defensive stuff. My little essay was an assortment of thoughts about public vs. private ownership that had been running through my head for a while, thrown together with some breaking media news from Santa Barbara, and given a bold headline ("Why being publicly held is best"). For someone familar with the public-vs.-private discussion that’s been going on for several years now in corporate circles, all that was probably okay. I even got an e-mail from one such person, NYU accounting professor Baruch Lev, saying he thought the piece was swell. But I made no attempt to introduce that discussion to those unfamiliar with it (that is where I could have used some more links).

So Jay Rosen, who I imagine doesn’t pay many visits to the business school at NYU, read the piece, and must have thought, "They ran this in Fortune magazine?!?" In fact, it didn’t run in the magazine. What’s more, it never would have survived Fortune‘s editing process intact. It was too tentative and rambling for that. I wrote it instead for our website, as one in a series of columns that I’m supposed to deliver weekly (although I haven’t kept to that schedule lately.) When I write these pieces, I tend to think of them as equivalent to blog posts–trial balloons for ideas. I don’t put huge amounts of time into writing them (and I don’t really get paid for them either). But there’s no easy way for readers of the fortune.com and cnnmoney.com websites to tell them apart from magazine articles that took weeks of work.

This is going to change, and within a month or so my online-only pieces will be presented as part of a blog, with readers invited to add comments. That hasn’t happened yet, though, and it’s ridiculous for me to expect them to be treated as mere discussion starters when there’s no opportunity on the site to discuss them. I am in the habit of engaging in lengthy e-mail discussions with readers, and often post reader e-mails on the site. I’ve also been begging our Web people for years to do more to enable reader conversations on the fortune.com site. But there’s no way Rosen or any other first-time reader could know any of that. At least two commenters on Jay’s site remarked on this, and they’re absolutely right.

Blogs are a great platform, possibly the best, for opinion journalism. When I go to Jay’s site, I can read his Q&A about where he’s coming from, peruse his past posts, add comments, and get a sense from others’ comments of the community of readers that frequents the site. That is, I can put his opinions in context–and I can argue with him if even with all that context I still think he’s full of baloney. I can also use the comments section to point readers of his blog to my writings. This is all wonderful stuff.

It doesn’t mean, however, that "the bar has been raised on opinion journalism," as Jay put it. In fact, the bar has been dramatically lowered. In the olden days, I never would have written that essay and gotten it published, and Jay almost certainly wouldn’t have found anyone willing to publish his critique. There’s simply a whole lot more opinion journalism being committed than there was before. Some of it’s great, a lot of it isn’t, and the means by which the good stuff finds its way to readers is vastly more democratic than the old method of letting the op-ed editors of the New York Times and Washington Post decide.

Chris Anderson has a thoughtful discussion of this in the book that every last person in America seems to be reading right now, The Long Tail. Long Tail phenomena, like music on the Internet, or blog posts, "have a wide dynamic range of quality: awful to great," he writes. "By contrast, the average store shelf [or, I would add, the op-ed page of the New York Times] has a relatively narrow dynamic range of quality: mostly average to good." The key to navigating a Long Tail world is finding filters that steer you toward the great stuff and away from the crap.

I’m pretty sure that neither my original essay nor Jay’s critique will end up in the much-linked-to, much-read realm of modern opinion media stardom (at least I sure hope Jay’s doesn’t, although I guess by writing this I’m only drawing more attention to it). But does that mean I shouldn’t have written it? No way! Sure, I’d write it differently now. A more interesting approach might be to do a rundown of what kind of companies are best served by public ownership, and which are better off being privately held–and try to figure out where newspapers fit in that spectrum. Maybe I’ll write that piece soon, after I’m set up as a blogger on fortune.com. That’s what’s so great about the Internets. Page counts aren’t limited. You can address a subject again and again until you get it right. And it’s only when you do get it right (or spectacularly wrong, I guess), that large numbers of readers (or smaller numbers of the right kind of readers) will find their way to your work.

UPDATE: Matt McAlister has had his say on this subject on his "Inside Online Media" blog. (So my strategy of being nice to the chubby 12-year-old little brother of my high school pal Mike McAlister has finally paid off!)

Hold me, public

I recently wrote a fortune.com piece keyed to the Santa Barbara newspaper mess. It was headlined “Why being publicly held is best,” and was mainly a dig at the more or less constant complaints one hears that U.S.-style publicly traded corporations are inevitably short-term-focused, environment-destroying, employee-exploiting beasts. It was certainly not my best work, but because it was at least tangentially about the media, Jim Romenesko linked to it yesterday on his much-read site. And because of that, I got an e-mail today from the people at the NPR show On the Media. Their interview with just-resigned Santa Barbara News-Press editor Jerry Roberts had fallen through, and they were wondering if I’d talk to them. I find radio interviews to be almost always a pleasure (you get to talk for so long, compared with TV), so I said yes, of course.

This leads to a couple of observations. First is that, in this Age of Romenesko, it’s incredibly tempting to write about journalism, because you know that if you do, Romenesko will link to your work and many of your fellow journalists will see it and put you on their radio programs (or offer you jobs or whatever). The other is that, the more and more I thought about it, the less comfortable I was in recommending public ownership for newspaper companies. My fortune.com essay was mainly an attempt to extend the lessons of the News-Press to the business world in general. And I do still believe that Wall Street is pretty good at sensing impending trouble, which is exactly what investors in newspaper companies have been doing lately. But so many of the world’s greatest newspapers are not at the mercy of public markets that there’s got to be something to the idea that insulating them from financial-market pressures can be a good thing.

Anyway, my very muddled observations on the subject will be aired nationwide this weekend. Check here for local listings. (You can also eventually listen at the On the Media site.)

More Hubbard, more video

That’s right, another video of Columbia Business School student Michael O’Rorke impersonating the school’s dean impersonating a pop star! Could life possibly get better?!? This one is a take-off on Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby,” and it’s not nearly as well done as “Every Breath You Take.” But it does feature a cameo by Dean Glenn Hubbard himself at the end.

A reader on the Upper West Side wonders if I shouldn’t be working on my book instead. (I’m taking off the month of May to polish up my manuscript.) She has a point. But posting Glenn Hubbard videos doesn’t take any time. Watching them does.

Daily Show

jonstewartWe went to the taping of the Daily Show tonight (we being Mrs. By Justin Fox and I, together with a pair of leading residents of Montclair, N.J.). It was hard at first to get into the whole loud-cheering state of mind required of a TV show audience. But the other audience members were so entertaining that eventually we couldn’t help but join in.

The big revelation was that Rob Corddry, Jason Jones and the other “senior correspondents” aren’t just standing in front of a green screen when they make their supposed reports from Belarus or Lincoln Center or wherever. They’re standing in front of a green screen 10 feet away from Jon Stewart’s desk. TV is magic, isn’t it?

Glenn Hubbard, video star

This is a Columbia Business School student, playing Columbia Biz Dean Glenn Hubbard as Sting (or is it Sting as Glenn Hubbard?), complaining about Ben Bernanke getting the Fed chairman job (instead of him) to the tune of the Police’s “Every Breath You Take.”

It’s brilliantly done, with some nice Fed jargon slipped in and even some pretty good singing. And it’s one more indication that the new era of user-generated content (or, as I’ve seen one blogger more eloquently if tendentiously put it, “authentic media”) holds untold riches in store. In the past, something like this would have been done at a talent show seen by a couple hundred people. By putting it up on YouTube, the creators have immediate access to a global audience. They posted it last Thursday. As of mid-morning Monday, it had been viewed more than 108,000 times. And I’m betting that on this one the viral contagion is just getting going (I first heard about it this morning). [I had to switch to Google video because the YouTube link stopped working.]

Of course, it’s only a parody. It’s interesting that so much of the “authentic media” being created these days consists of commentary on or parody of the creations of those of us in what I guess has to be called the inauthentic media. But maybe this is just the transitional phase. The popular music industry seems to be starting to come out the other side of the great Internet destroying-and-reinventing machine, and I’m mostly of the impression that the new iTunes/MySpace/podcast infrastructure is a lot better at getting interesting music to people than what went before. It’s just that, not having any clear idea of what the rest of the media is going to look like — and being employed by a big media company — I can’t help but worry about my paycheck.

Keep NPR in the radio, where it belongs

I’ve got a new piece (column? article? screed?) up on CNNMoney.com. It’s the account of a breakfast chat yesterday with former Congressional Budget Office director Douglas Holtz-Eakin, who has this endearing (if politically ill-advised) habit of telling things like he sees them.

The piece/column/article/screed is more or less self-explanatory, so no need to elaborate here. But there’s one thing I feel the need to share that I didn’t get to on CNNMoney. NPR’s Robert Siegel ably moderated the discussion, and I cannot tell you how disconcerting it is to hear this voice that’s been coming to me in disembodied form for a quarter century suddenly emanate from the mouth of an actual human being. It was beautiful to hear—Siegel’s voice is mellifluous, but not in a fake radio way. It exudes trustworthiness. Yet it seemed somehow wrong to be a first-hand witness of its production. I didn’t have nightmares about it or anything. But I will in the future think twice about attending events hosted by NPR personalities.

Ah, to be in B’ham in the early to mid-1990s

YardleySo I’ve been thinking about the Pulitzer Prizes that were awarded Monday. My first thought is that Jim Yardley (pictured at right in front of his suburban Beijing pad; I cropped myself out of the photo) is my hero. He arrived in China just a couple of years ago, in his first foreign posting, in as far as I know his first-ever extended stay overseas. When I was in Beijing last spring I was blown away to see him (and his wife, Theo) already yakking away in Chinese with cab drivers and restaurateurs.

Then came the series of articles that won him (and Joe Kahn, but it’s Jim’s stuff that I remember) the Pulitzer — riveting tales of the utterly screwy workings of the Chinese legal system, reported and written with a vividness that makes somebody who makes a living as a reporter want to bow down and chant, “I am not worthy, I am not worthy.” The things were really good.

But that’s not the main point of this post. The main point is that Jim lived down the street from me in Birmingham, Alabama in the early to mid-1990s, reporting for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. I was working at The Birmingham News. So was Terri Troncale, now the editorial page editor of the New Orleans Times-Picayune. The Times-Picayune was inexplicably not even a finalist for the editorial writing prize (dudes, did you even read the letter to the president?), but Terri was the leader of the posse of T-P journalists who stuck it out in New Orleans in the hours and days after Katrina hit and won the paper a breaking news Pulitzer (as well as the public service award, shared with the Biloxi Sun Herald, whose editor was also in Alabama — Mobile, not Birmingham — in the early to mid-1990s). Finally, there was the News editorial page, where Terri and I once worked, and now edited by our friend Bob Blalock, which was a finalist in editorial writing for its remarkable series disavowing the death penalty.

I’ve long been plagued — like a lot of people, I’m sure — by the sense that I missed out on spending my formative years where really exciting things were happening: Paris in the 1920s, New York in the 1940s and 1950s, San Francisco in the late 1960s (I was actually there, at least in the burbs, but much too young to appreciate it), Prague in the early 1990s. But there I was in the early to mid-1990s breeding ground of this year’s Pulitzer winners, working for perhaps the greatest editorial page editor in the history of editorial page editors, the late Ron Casey, alongside amazing people like Terri and Harold Jackson and Joey Kennedy (Ron, Harold, and Joey won the 1991 editorial writing Pulitzer). Plus I met the girl of my dreams there. I’ve clearly got nothing to complain about.