Swensen and Coll on Non-Profit Newspapers

January 29, 2009

The smarties speak!  First, David Swensen, long-time manager of the Yale Endowment, the author of Pioneering Portfolio Management, and a personal hero.  In the NYT:

As newspapers go digital, their business model erodes. A 2008 research report from Sanford C. Bernstein & Company explained, “The notion that the enormous cost of real news-gathering might be supported by the ad load of display advertising down the side of the page, or by the revenue share from having a Google search box in the corner of the page, or even by a 15-second teaser from Geico prior to a news clip, is idiotic on its face.”

Then my friend Steve Coll, former WaPo managing editor and the author of Ghost Wars and The Bin Ladens:

In the foreseeable future, it seems, there will be two kinds of nonprofit newspapers—those which are deliberately so and those which are reluctantly so.

Yes, the dispersal of publishing through digital technology is itself a source of constitutional renewal, and already small digital publishers are proving through their enterprise and investigative reporting that the values underlying the old models will not disappear. Yes, my thinking is admittedly rooted in an aging generation’s experience. Still, there is just no substitute for the professional, civil-service-style, relentless independent thinking, reporting, and observation that developed in big newsrooms between the Second World War and whenever it was that the end began—about 2005 or so. And those qualities arose from the scale of those newsrooms, and the way the quasi-monopoly business model and high-quality family owners shielded them from political or commercial pressure—not perfectly, but largely. Yes, the big papers failed, as in the run-up to the Iraq war, but they succeeded much more often. They practiced a kind of journalism that, on the whole, was better for a democratic constitutional system than any journalism ever practiced before, anywhere. So sayeth me, at any rate.



Looking in the Mirror

January 25, 2009

I have to agree with Frank Rich that it’s time to move on:

We can’t keep blaming 43 for everything, especially now that we don’t have him to kick around anymore. On Tuesday the new president pointedly widened his indictment beyond the sins of his predecessor. He spoke of those at the economic pinnacle who embraced greed and irresponsibility as well as the rest of us who collaborated in our “collective failure to make hard choices.” He branded as sub-American those who “prefer leisure over work or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame.” And he wasn’t just asking Paris Hilton “to set aside childish things.” As Linda Hirshman astutely pointed out on The New Republic’s Web site, even Obama’s opening salutation — “My fellow citizens,” not “fellow Americans” — invoked the civic responsibilities we’ve misplaced en masse.

I also fervently hope that President Obama will continue to remind us all–each and every one of  us–not only of our civic responsibilities going forward, but also our complicity in all that our elected officials have recently screwed up.  I can’t help but think of Bobby Kennedy, who would answer questions of the “whose fault is it?” genre by pointing at the questioner and saying emphatically, “Yours.  and yours, and yours , and yours,” pointing around the crowd. 

I’d join with Peggy Noonan, who so poignantly asks our leaders “not to forget what time it is.”  And at such a time, blame for the past and responsibility for the future have at least this much in common:  there’s plenty of each to go around.


Ten Questions for the Car Czar

January 24, 2009

From the WSJ and via a heads up from my friend Rob Snyder, the most comprehensive piece yet on the complicated truths surrounding an automotive bailout.

Great Writing and Good Heavens!

January 22, 2009

Just an exceptional and exceptionally moving lead graf from Jodi Kantor’s front-page NYT story :

The president’s elderly stepgrandmother brought him an oxtail fly whisk, a mark of power at home in Kenya. Cousins journeyed from the South Carolina town where the first lady’s great-great-grandfather was born into slavery, while the rabbi in the family came from the synagogue where he had been commemorating Martin Luther King’s Birthday. The president and first lady’s siblings were there, too, of course: his Indonesian-American half-sister, who brought her Chinese-Canadian husband, and her brother, a black man with a white wife.

President Obama and a Collective Fiscal Conscience

January 22, 2009

I had little concern that the Wall Street Journal editorial page would go early into the tank for President Obama.  Whether it would lend its voice to loyal opposition of long-term fiscal irresponsibility–or merely to screechy petulance born of recently turned political tables–remained another matter.  Today, Holman Jenkins planted his first post-inaugural editorial flag in a hopefully helpful spot, although he led off rather curiously:

Barack Obama thus far has treated politics as a business of mobilization, not persuasion.  That will now have to change. 

I say “curiously” because I think Jenkins may have it backward.  Not only is it difficult to imagine a movement sufficiently tectonic to produce a victory the size of President Obama’s without an enormously persuasive prime mover.  But also, while the impressive “mobilization” of which Jenkins speaks largely ended on election day, Obama has since moved from 62% to 82% favorability ratings in the polls.  He may have mobilized his way to victory, but he has earned a mandate-sized store of political capital by persuading the public of his competence during the transition. 

Now, it’s back to mobilization for the President—and he should make it snappy if he is to make most effective use of that capital.  Members of Congress know in their heart of hearts the difference between fiscal roads high and low.  On the former, they make difficult choices which do not entirely alleviate the short-term pain of all their constituents.  Of course, Mr. Obama’s own party tends to be less than rock-ribbed in this regard.  But as Jenkins points out: 

And yet, Mr. Obama’s goals are perfectly amenable to a genuinely reforming approach….End the tax preference for employer-provided health care.  Make it up to workers with an income or payroll tax cut.   This one step would move the economy towards consuming health care efficiently and designing insurance policies that actually insure rather than channel the privileged class’s health spending through a tax loophole….Nothing else would do more to improve the country’s fiscal prospects, or do more to lend practicality to Mr. Obama’s goal of universal coverage….

 There’s a lesson here.  Real reform is often deceptively simple, leading naturally to changes in behavior that are more far-reaching than any detailed government prescription could hope to achieve…. 

Mr. Obama has been handed an opportunity.  He will put the welfare state on a path to solvency or he won’t….His stimulus spending plans will blow up in his face unless the bond markets (which will be called upon to finance them) are convinced the dollar will remain sound and the spending under control. 

There’s obviously a lot in there for anyone to mull.  But Jenkins’s point remains both simple and age-old:  the low road of “avoid the pain, damn the consequences” is easy.  The high road is hard, because it requires of a President both the conscience to explain economic tradeoffs honestly to the public, and the leadership to lean on legislators to do what they already know is right.  Obama seems to have made some shrewd choices as his internal fiscal conscience keepers:  Orszag proved his just-the-facts cred at CBO.  Former Hamilton Project Director Furman learned at the feet of Bob Rubin who—despite his recent fall to earth—was the last public servant to act successfully as a President’s fiscal conscience.  Summers has no problem speaking his mind, whether anyone asks or not.  And even if Team Obama completely whiffs on its fiscal choices, Volcker’s status as an eco-tough legend seems secure.

But even with those fellas hanging about, a loyal opposition in the economic policy press is welcome and necessary.  Hopefully, Holman Jenkins will continue to be a leader in fulfilling that role.

So Much for Ds’ Wishful Thinking

January 17, 2009

For Newsweek, Texas Monthly Puba Evan Smith ‘splains why John King’s Magic Map will likely be obsolete before Texas Democrats ever light it up.  As Evan says, “before a state can be in play at the Presidential level, it has to be in play at the state level.”    And, without the Texas Ds’ answer to Mark Warner anywhere in sight, they (we) seem to be short of both candidates and money.  

I’d like to believe that Evan’s “NFW” view of the Democrats’s state-wide chances may be a little extreme, potentially in the case of a Watson/McCaul race for Attorney General.  But NFW is also the view held by Smith’s colleague Paul Burka.  He writes in the upcoming issue of TM that the next Governor of Texas will be determined by the 600,000 or so Rs who typically turn out for the primary, plus–if Sen Hutchison runs–those who are moved to action by sheer drama of a primary which reflects the battle for the soul of the national party.  A D could win a special election for Hutchison’s seat, but it seems more likely that Houston Mayor Bill White and former Comptroller John Sharp remind us the meaning of internecine.  As if  Texas Ds really need such a reminder.

These are both excellent pieces.   Sort of the long and the short versions of the state of Texas politics.

Hearst Continues the Hollowing Out of the Express News

January 17, 2009

Romanesko publishes a memo mandating a 12-month salary freeze, begging for employees to take time off or just leave for a year, and outlining substantial content consolidation and newshole reductions.  Oy.