Jim Barnett’s “The Non-Profit Road”

May 31, 2009

Anyone who shares my fascination with the intersection of philanthropy and journalism will absolutely love The Non-Profit Road,  a blog written by new friend Jim Barnett.   Those of you (and I know who you are–mostly) who are bored to tears by the topic are best not to bother and to continue  simply rolling your eyes–if only electronically– at yours truly. 

(As my wife says, “are you truly capable of turning anything into a metaphor for non-profit journalism?”  Apparently).

Jim brings an interesting combination of experiences to what is obviously a subject he’s passionate about.  And I learn something new every time I check in.

More Insanity in My Home Town

May 31, 2009

WICHITA – George Tiller, the Wichita doctor who became a national lightning rod in the debate over abortion, was shot to death this morning as he walked into church services.

Tiller, 67, was shot just after 10 a.m. at Reformation Lutheran Church at 7601 E. 13th, where he was a member of the congregation. Witnesses and a police source confirmed Tiller was the victim

Docs on the Make in the Valley and The New Yorker

May 30, 2009

Trivia question:  in what market does Medicare spend the most per patient?   Answer:  Miami.  Not surprising;  tough demographics and high cost of pretty much everything (and who can forget the first two seasons of Nip/Tuck?)

Harder question:  what market is #2?  In a nifty piece of reporting, Atul Gawande tells us the “why” behind the surprising answer:  McAllen, TX.  Basically, docs in McAllen are especially “entrepreneurial,” meaning that the average internist has insinuated himself into as many pieces of the health care business system as he can (think owning strip centers where home health agencies are tenants).  Gawande contrasts this model of care with that of the Mayo Clinic which, ever-so-quaintly, puts actual patient needs at the center of its mission.

The answer to trivia question #3 will make you a big hit at any cocktail party where the attendees are health care policy geeks.  What’s the ratio of Medicare spending per person to the average income per person in Mc Allen?  Big finish:

125% .  Average income is 12k; average Medicare expenditure, 15k.  Unbelievable, assuming Gawande is believable.

A must read for people like me who are health care naifs.  The interview is good, too.

Mid-90s Seeds of Newspaper Demise

May 25, 2009

I don’t completely agree with some of the leaps that Robert Niles makes in two recent OJR posts.  But they’re damned thought-provoking.

The first is about how the 1995 court case Stratton Oakmont v. Prodigy chilled newspapers into following their conservative instincts, even thought they were granted a safe harbor by the Communications Decency Act the following year.

The second is an even more jaw dropping assertion that if newspapers had only kept live links to archived stories–and not put them behind paywalls–Google algorithms would ultimately have elevated ‘paper sites to the top of the SEO heap rather than drowning them.

They’re quick reads, and both very worthwhile.

More Morning Mumblings: Unit Economics of Content and Non-Profit Journalism

May 23, 2009

The same technology that is destroying the economics of content—and particularly of news–also brings unprecedented and nearly unlimited possibilities to informing society.  Every day, the gap between what is possible and what is commercially viable grows wider.  Picture two curves forever diverging beyond the horizon. 

As far as I know, this is sui generis.  Think about it:  Moore’s law does not drive the list price of the newest Pentium processor toward zero, nor do advances in solar technology make electricity free.  This unique state of affairs provides  the textbook construct for philanthropy:  non-profit journalism both defends against a threat and capitalizes on an opportunity.   

At the threat end of the spectrum lies the public good argument:  that a la national defense, market mechanisms alone will not produce the minimum threshhold of public interest journalism that society requires.   And the opportunity is that every day, the art of the possible in any given topic area, arcane as it may be (e.g. campaign finance in New Jersey) grows richer.  But as content floods the zone, the potential for monetizing this content becomes yet more remote.  It’s not surprising that when it comes to such information, society as a whole has a “much longer tail” than does any individual.  Welcome, philanthropists.

The root problem faced by newspapers is neither declining circulation nor spiraling ad revenue.  The real bugaboo of the newspaper biz is  unbundling.  Even though the article has always been the fundamental unit of news, the paper—the whole package (or at least the section)—has forever been the fundamental unit of profit.  Papers are profitable because it’s hard to get to the article about the football game without at least tripping over an ad for a new Chrysler.  (Well, a new Toyota).  Now that the article is available outside the package (and 80% of the time, without even being mediated by a home page),  the fundamental unit of profit has become the article.   This must be true, as Google has so decreed it–and before Congress, no less, through the mouth of Marissa Mayer:

Changing the basic unit of content consumption is a challenge, but also an opportunity. Treating the arrticle as the atomic unit of consumption online has several powerful consequences. When producing an article for online news, the publisher must assume that a reader may be viewing this article on its own, independent of the rest of the publication. To make an article effective in a standalone setting requires providing sufficient context for first-time readers, while clearly calling out the latest information for those following a story over time. It also requires a different approach to monetization: each individual article should be self-sustaining.

Thanks, Marissa.  We’ll get back to you on that cold fusion stuff, too. 

Yikes.    What she’s really saying is that the atomic unit of profit–not consumption–is the article.  She’s also saying, correctly I think, that  the same technology which turns articles into just so many lemonade stands makes yet more granular the fundamental unit of news.  In an unbundled world, the basic unit of news  now the topic, or even the fact. 

You get the picture:  as the unit of news chases the unit of profit upstream, monetization becomes ever more impossible.  Only a handful of articles work or will ever work as standalone p&l’s.  But by how many orders of magnitude does that problem expand you’re trying to monetize a topic?  Or a fact?

Again, I say:  welcome, philanthropists.

Oh, For Crying Out Loud

May 22, 2009

In her latest hard to read column, Judith Warner says she has sympathy for Megan McCain, Bristol Palin, and presumably a host of other young women (Elisha Cuthbert?) to whom Warner is obviously superior.

Open plea to the Times editorial folks:  this woman is a bad writer with a tin ear for the popular culture she attempts to bring to bear on political events.  The NYT gets a lot of comments to the effect that the Gray Lady is wasting column inches on Maureen Dowd.   Maybe, sometimes.  But for the love of pete–if you’re going to swing a hatchet, start here.

God, Grant Me This Wish

May 20, 2009

If only all our companies could be competing against the likes of Dean Singleton:

WW: I’m sure one of the phrases you hear on almost an everyday basis when these topics come up, and I’m guessing it’s not one of your favorites, is, “The horse is out of the barn,” when it comes to free content on the web. In your opinion, is it a short-sighted approach to say, well, “We made the wrong decision about this years ago, but now we have to stick with it”?

DS: Let me tell you, having been involved in ranches since I was born: It’s not always easy, but you can chase that horse back in the barn.

For a while, glibness from business leaders is amusing, then it becomes maddening.  And then, sickening.  We’re there.  Ask him if he wants to bet his ranch on this.  He talks about it enough.

This Just In: Next Year’s Miss Universe Pageant To Have No Speaking Parts

May 14, 2009


The day after Carrie Prejean was told she could keep her Miss California crown, Shanna Moakler has resigned, she confirms to Usmagazine.com exclusively.

“Since the press conference yesterday, I had a chance to think about what has taken place, and I feel that at this time it is in my best interest to resign from the Miss California USA organization,” Moakler tells Us.

“I cannot with a clear conscious move forward supporting and promoting the Miss Universe Organization when I no longer believe in it, or the contracts I signed committing myself as a youth,” she continues. “I want to be a role model for young women with high hopes of pageantry, but now feel it more important to be a role model for my children. I am sorry and hope I have not let any young supporters down but wish them the best of luck in fulfilling their dreams.”

Miss California USA pageant director Keith Lewis told Us in a statement: “Shanna has, and will continue to be, a large part of my life. Although I am sad she has come to this decision, I will always respect the convictions that brought her to this place.”

In a followup statement, a Trump spokes-waif talked thusly: 

“With god as a total hetero (e.g. exclusively NOT GAY) ,  this ask I you–and I think it  is really impotent:  who as a youth don’t have high hopes of pagentry–and with a clear conscious?

Well said.  Is Tylenol a sponsor of this year’s event???………..

If Not Geffen, Who; If Not Now, When?

May 14, 2009

My friends who suffer my blather gladly have heard this for about a two years:   some day, someone will buy the New York Times and run it as a 501c3.   And now it looks like it could be sooner than later.  Newsweek reports that media titan David Geffen, having been rebuffed by the Los Angeles Times is the man of the moment.  I have a hard time believing he’s 66, but I digress.  Anyway, from Newsweek:

“David would hope the newspaper makes a profit,” said the confidante. “But he believes that operating without the ultimate responsibility of paying dividends or necessarily having to be profitable is the best way to run an institution like The New York Times.”

Exactly.  No more God/Mammon confusion;  just a recognition that the NYT is a special institution best run in the public interest.  

It cheers me to be believe that such an outcome is possible; my emotions about it being inevitable are more mixed.  Geffen is reputed to be worth $4.5 billion; if the Sulzbergers would listen to their fellow shareholders (the least forgone conclusion in this whole discussion), Geffen could own the paper for closer to 10 than 20 percent of his net worth.   And given that pulling off such a transaction–and then endowing the paper a la the suggestion of David Swensen–would be the categorical media deal of the century, we must assume that somebody will do it.  It’s the ultimate media vanity play, and there are plenty of checkbooks who can pull it off and never miss the dough.   And, done properly, it would be a bold stroke in the public interest.


The Future of Arts Journalism

May 11, 2009

From The Art Newspaper, this long and excellent piece by Andras Szanto on the future of arts journalism.  It covers a lot of ground that will be remedial to newspaper geeks, but brings a fresh eye to the challenges faced by practitioners of serious criticism and reporting.


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