A Tyrant’s Grief. Ours, Too.

May 1, 2011

So let’s assume that Col. Qaddafi’s mouthpiece has the basic facts right, and NATO airstrikes did indeed kill three of the ruler’s young grandchildren today.  Predictably, the Russians–having abstainted from the vote authorizing the use of force by the coalition–condemned the action as “disproportionate.” 

Military ethics is murky territory, and matters of proportionality seem particularly vexing in this even murkier conflict.  A people rise up against a megalomaniacal tyrant;  the tyrant responds with brutal force; the global community attempts to counter with force of its own–force which has other “proportionality” issues relative to that which has been applied in neighboring uprisings.

But what is most striking to me about all of this is how quickly the humanity gets sucked out of the whole discussion.  Again, taking the reports at face value, three innocent little kids got bombed to death.  They didn’t get to choose their grandfather any more than any of the rest of us did.  It’s heartbreaking.  And there’s nowhere in the “public square” to express that.


Attention Non-Profit Newsies: Alan Mutter Thinks We’re Fantastic!!

March 30, 2010

Alan Mutter is one of the keenest observers of today’s topsy turvy media landscape.  I am therefore pleased that he payed me a compliment on his highly trafficked Newsosaur blog today:

An amazing number of smart and sophisticated people continue to harbor the fantasy that philanthropic contributions can take over funding journalism from the media companies that traditionally have supported the press.

At least I think it was a compliment.  You see, as a co-founder of  The Texas Tribune, I am one of those fantasy-harboring loonies who believes that non-profit journalism is important.  But, now that Alan—who I consider a friend—also considers us smart and sophisticated, I suppose we should all be able to call the whole thing off and get back to our day jobs.

Or not.  Alan gets so many things right that I can’t resist arguing the other side.  I think he is gloriously, deliciously, spectacularly wrong here.   Alan’s logic runs aground on the shoals of three m’s:  math, model, and motive.


Alan asserts that replacing the $4.4 billion spent in American newsrooms will require an $88 billion endowment, which he points out is a gargantuan proportion of the $300 billion or so of annual charitable giving in the U.S.  There are at least three problems with this statement.  The first is that it confuses a balance sheet concept (endowment) with an income statement concept (annual giving).  In the parlance of Econ 101, Alan has confused a stock variable with a flow variable.  Fox news anchors are known to resort to this trick when they want to make our government seem more profligate than it is (no easy task, that).  It’s a little like confusing the federal debt with the deficit.  If you take a big number and multiply it by 20:  shazam!  It’s a bigger number!  An endowment is built up over a number of years, and so comparing it to annual giving is mixing apples and pomegranates.  And besides, none of the non-profits I know is considering raising an endowment any time soon.

That leads to problem number two.  A tiny fraction of non-profits of any type receive meaningful support from an endowment.  And other than foundations, none of them lives entirely on an endowment’s  investment income.  Consider any non-profit in your community:  it likely operates primarily on a combination of earned income and annual giving.  If it’s lucky, it has an operating reserve to shield it from rainy days and enable it to take care of special opportunities.  It it’s really, really lucky, it might receive 10% of its operating budget from the income off its endowment.

Third, none of us sophisticated, non-profit dingleberries is proposing that our efforts will replace commercial news.  We do assert that what I call “Capital J” journalism is in trouble, because it’s not very profitable.  Turns out that it never was.  But now that, as Google’s Marissa Mayer asserts, every article on a paper’s web site needs to be a standalone profit center, the jig is really up, and we’re trying to figure out how to help.

You’ll never confuse what you read on Voice of San Diego or Pro Publica or The Trib with content you can get on TMZ, TV Guide, Epicurious, or ESPN.  We in Fantasy Land are trying instead to help shore up what Alex Jones calls “the iron core” of journalism in his book, Losing the News. Jones’s analysis reveals that this core of serious content constitutes about 15% of newspaper content,  so let’s say it accounts for 15% of newsroom costs, as well.   If we had the unhappy task of replacing all serious newspaper journalism with what non-profit skeptics refer to derisively as “handouts,” we’d be staring at a $660 million annual problem.  No doubt that’s real money, but consider this:  according to Alan’s numbers, it’s about what people give to environmental causes in a year.  In handouts, that is.


But the $660 million number still overstates the size of the issue.  No two non-profit journalism organizations have exactly the same business model, but almost all of us are doing our best to practice what I call “revenue promiscuity.”  At The Tribune, in addition to philanthropic support from wealthy individuals and foundations, we’re also chasing corporate sponsors for our events and for our web site.  We’ll  bring in about 15% of our expenses in subscriptions to Texas Weekly, a newsletter business we own and are working to expand into a string of highly valued niche titles.  Our intermediate-term goal is a $3 million annual budget, split roughly equally between membership, corporate support, and specialty pubs.  We’re a long way from that, but are making progress—and note that we’re not assuming any foundation support at all.

If organizations like ours can find non-handout sources for two thirds of our budget, Alan’s $88 billion problem becomes more like a couple hundred million.  That’s considerably less than ballet companies raise in the U.S. every year.  But the real point is this:  not only will philanthropy alone not save journalism, it can’t likely support even the majority of our modest efforts.  We need to run our businesses like businesses, even if our goal is public service rather than profitability.


Alan closes his post with these valedictory remarks to us fruit loops:

While there is a pressing need to save the press, a major shift in the philanthropic paradigm seems unlikely, especially in an era in which most folks – with the notable exception of a fortunate few – seem to be tightening their belts.

So, let’s stop dreaming about a visit from the Non-Profit News Bunny and get serious about discovering some realistic possibilities.

It’s a common refrain.  I hear it from my friend Jeff Jarvis all the time (I have this mental image of Jeff in the classroom of his “new models for news” course, crying “THINK HARDER, DAMMIT!” to a group of j-school students with their eyes tightly clinched).  But like lots of common refrains, I’m tired of it.  Here’s why.

First of all, it’s not an either/or proposition.  Fantasy Land could easily quadruple in population without meaningfully diluting the talent pool trying to figure out ways to make money in the news business.  And although I admire his since of urgency, I should remind Alan to look at one of his own slides—the one that shows newspapers losing media spend share every single solitary year since 1959. Although the combination of the Great Recession and the digital revolution has caused the line on Alan’s chart to auger in recently, this is not exactly a new problem.

Second, the “think harder, dammit” refrain assumes that market solutions are inherently superior to non-market solutions in every situation, even though the existence of public goods (think clean air, national defense) is discussed in the early going of a  basic economics course.  My mentor in business was fond of saying, “get the big picture right.”  It seems to me that the big picture at hand is that when atoms become bits, content consumers win and content producers get hammered into cost-cutting smithereens.  If some of that content happens to be vital to the functioning of our society, I simply think it’s prudent to look around for other means of funding it.

Finally, Alan’s admonition for all of us wingnuts to get back to work  reflects a view of capitalism which is totally opposite my experience as an investor.  I can say with great confidence that markets are more efficient than not, that there is more than enough investment capital looking for profitable places to go, and that nobody had to yell “think harder” at Larry Page and Sergei Brin.  I can say with even greater confidence that the world is a better place because investment capital tends to flow where it garners the highest risk-adjusted returns.  This just in:  the business of serious journalism news ain’t  in the top 100, probably never was, and certainly won’t be again.   Commercial efforts will persist because they just will.  But expecting investors to continue to fund for-profit, Capital J journalism just ‘cuz:  doesn’t that sound a lot like charity?  And for the love of  Zeus, please don’t talk to me about “patient capital” and “lower return expectations for noble causes.”   It’s all just another form of philanthropy, but with the added confusion about whether service to God or Mammon is the order of any given day.

I’m about two years into my foray into non-profit journalism, and I’m more firm than ever in this conviction:  public media, privately funded, will be a bigger part of the media landscape in ten years than it is today.  This will require the inhabitants of Fantasy Land to do a good deal of consciousness raising in the general public for membership support, and among foundations and major donors to give us the runway we need to establish sustainable business models.

We can use all the help we can get.  Alan, we’ll leave the light on for you.  And let me know if you see that Bunny!

“Noise in Da Hood” in Slate

December 24, 2009

The best piece I’ve seen on the dismal state of hyper-local, via my friend and Community Impact Newspapers honcho John Garrett.  A sample:

Such are the unholy collisions between “local news” and computerized news gathering. The problem for the new localists is that local news doesn’t obviously “scale,” a term of art that folks who put together business plans throw around to refer to businesses that get a lot cheaper to run as they grow. To cover more ground you generally need more bodies, a real buzzkill in a news industry that is desperately trying to stay afloat by doing … well, less with less. So what we see in the local news efforts is something like the creepy apocalypse of a 1950s science fiction story, in which, with the people gone, computers take over the few tasks that remain to be done in the barren landscape, hoping by algorithms to take the bits of local information that are out there and put them together into sites that can be built on the cheap.

Also, my new instant favorite compound adjective:  “sub-trivial.”

So Much for “Web-Native”

December 20, 2009

Well, that didn’t last long.  Destination web sites taking it right in the kisser.  These pictures say several thousand words.

Escalation of Policy, De-Escalation of Rhetoric

December 14, 2009

Whodda thunk that one of President Obama’s great contributions during his first year would be to tamp down the spikes of Presidential rhetoric.  Certainly not I.

Sayeth Hendrick Hertzberg in The New Yorker, about the President’s speech at West Point last week:

His grimly businesslike speech was a gritty, almost masochistic exercise in the taking of responsibility. What he had to say did not please everyone; indeed, it pleased no one. Given the situation bequeathed to him and to the nation, pleasure was not an option. His speech was a sombre appeal to reason, not a rousing call to arms. If his argument was less than fully persuasive, that was in the nature of the choices before him. There is no such thing as an airtight argument for a bad choice—not if the argument is made with a modicum of honesty.

Someone else commented this week that this plank of the Obama Doctrine constitutes something akin to widening of means and the narrowing of ends.  My apologies to the author, but it’s a good thought.


December 4, 2009

Dear Mayor White-

I have observed with real admiration your Senate campaign team’s facility with all things web.  It’s really quite impressive, as is the breadth of your early fundraising numbers.  Particularly, 1980 new contributors in Q3 bespeaks a real breadth of early support.  I commend you.

But now, feedback you didn’t ask for.   It seems like that to have a chance against Gov. Perry, you are going to have to play up the fact that you are serious, competent guy.  But all the faux, email-y, text-y, hype-y suspense around “will he or won’t he” makes you seem less of each.  First it was silly but quaint; now it’s just insulting.  Hopefully such nonsense will all stop tomorrow.  And I’m sorry I didn’t respond to what I assume was your wife’s message encouraging to send a text somewhere so I’d be among the first (and of course, very last) to know.  The thought of paying AT&T the vig on those digits was too just much.

It’s waaaay too early to be overhandled, Mayor.  Plenty of chance for that later.  As Garrison Keillor said about the McCain campaing in 08, we are voters.  Not fruit flies.

Central Texas and the NYT Food Stamp Map

November 30, 2009

The NYT continues to do as much as anyone with data-driven stories.  Today on A1 was a feature about the rise and concomitant de-stigmatization of food stamp usage across the country.   But the interactive map on the NYT web site tells the stories behind the story.

In Texas, the Rio Grande Valley is predictable  tale of woe; Hidalgo County has the largest percentage of food stamp recipients of any county in the U.S. with over 500k residents (29% vs. a national average of 11.5%).

Closer to home, the story is more surprising.  Travis County, which most of us tend to regard as a relatively insulated economic island, didn’t fare so well.  Between 2007 and 2009, food stamp usage went up 50% in Travis, a rate of change that landed it in the 82nd percentile across all counties in the nation (average was 34%).  Adjacent Williamson County–home of Dell–is far worse, still:  up 100%, ranking it 48th out of 3,136 counties nationwide (98th percentile), and the third largest of the bottom 50 counties.

So, poverty-wise:  what’s the matter with Central Texas?  Kudos to the NYT for providing the starting point to investigate the question.