Friday, March 21, 2014

538 problems and a fox ain't one

FiveThirtyEight has relaunched as the first of the New New Media wave, and the Old New Media has reacted with a range of emotions from disappointment, outrage, bemusement and exasperation. Jay Rosen reminds us that 538 is merely a startup, so of course it's going to be crap at first, but it deserves time to react to user feedback and iterate its way out of early missteps.

Like mistermix at Balloon Juice, I tend to think that while the trolly hires are bad and many of the launch articles are worse, Silver deserves a honeymoon period longer than one day. mistermix would be happy with a 538-minus-NYT and a Wonkbook-minus-WaPo in the case of Vox, but I disagree on that point because I think there is the potential there to actually accomplish extraordinary goals.

The now-infamous NYMag interview where Silver lays down the jazz about foxes and hedgehogs sounds to me like any other startup founder who has spent a lot of time inside his own head thinking about how things should be, and is about to find out from his target audience that the world works a lot differently. Battle plans never survive engagement with the enemy, as that old dog Sun Tzu used to say. This is a direct nut punch to the ego, but just about every startup founder goes through this sobering experience (and those who don't are insufferable arseholes!). I toiled through this rite of passage myself, and came out of it the other side as a much better entrepreneur, and a better person.

Data journalism itself is a sound concept at its root, if implemented intelligently. Like sabermetrics which sought to correct inefficiencies in baseball analysis, opinion journalism contains many inefficiencies based on prejudices, deliberate obfuscation and unseen power dynamics which data journalism should seek to counter. The fact checking model was an attempt to counter this, but it has run into an intractable problem that Silver himself is flirting with as well: the problem of being seen to be impartial, but also living within a media industry which is built in part on bullshit. Setting yourself up as the ultimate arbiter of truth means you have to attack the bullshit and reject it within your own organisation, which is a very difficult thing to do psychologically for a small team of people who presumably rub shoulders with those they are scything into. Undermining the basis of someone else's employment by pointing out the lack of clothes on their own private emperor is a lot harder than giving in to the temptation of "both sides do it" equivocation so that you have someone to talk to at parties.

If Silver wants to discover the correct solution to the dilemma of the moral high ground, he need look no further than the next stable over where Bill Simmons and his army of Sports Guys™ ply their trade at Grantland, free of the yoke of outdated striving for lilywhite objectivity. Simmons stands for his rooting interest without pretense of fairmindedness, and his audience knows that and consumes the products of him and his acolytes anyway. Simmons does a fair bit of data journalism himself so one wonders what Silver and Simmons talk about, seeing as Silver seems determined to do the opposite of Simmons.

Silver is a smart guy, he will work it out. Hopefully he has the emotional intelligence to sift out the useful feedback and incorporate it into a new business strategy/worldview which will lead to 538's success under the ESPN umbrella. Talk of foxes and hedgehogs is not helpful, but being a lone wolf is not good either. Embracing change in all aspects, particularly in your own mind, is the key to entrepreneurial nirvana.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Short Kicks: Is everybody happy?

- On one hand, we have the right saying that the market will decide so we don't need anti-discrimination laws to prevent gays having weddings in Arizona from being denied service by cake bakers. On the other hand, we have the market deciding that anti-gay discrimination is bad in Boston as the beer industry sides with its customers in gay bars, yet the right is up in arms in horror at the supposed misuse of market power. Which is it, wingnuts?

- The backlash of snark (snarklash? backsnark?) against the New New Media continues, with Wonkette making fun of's launch video featuring Matt Yglesias in an admittedly terrible Happy Hammond style tartan blazer, Ezra Klein slammed for hiring a self-hating gay columnist clickbaiter, and Balloon Juice fact checking Nate Silver's allegorical use of a fox as FiveThirtyEight's new logo. The unresolved sexual tension is getting rather steamy in the Web media industry in America at the moment, leading up to the launch of these new titles. Pity we don't have anything like that happening in Australia - chatter about the Saturday Paper since its launch seems to have disappeared.

- Stephen Koukoulas is still swinging the cudgel lustily on behalf of his prediction that the economy is going to turn around and rate cuts will happen this year, maybe as early as May, and he's had plenty of material to work with from recent economic data. His prediction is that in 12 months' time, interest rates will be a full point higher and the Aussie dollar back at parity. That set of numbers would have major implications for the Australian economy as our manufacturing base would continue to be hollowed out, which would blow out budget expenditures. Would revenue bounce back, though? Only if Joe Hockey raises taxes, and/or closes loopholes like the Double Dutch/Irish lurk used by Google, Apple and other multinationals. Given that this government's policy is evidently to do absolutely nothing until they get a mandate after the next election, I would advise not holding one's breath.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Madness of King Vlad

Credit must be given to the hard right in Australia for dropping Campbell Newman like a stone (mostly), after it became clear that despite (or because of?) his massive electoral majority he was a megalomaniac enemy of freedom. Hopefully they will do the same for Vladimir Putin, who has revealed himself to be crazier than a cageful of loons (note: the following is not verbatim).
Victor Yanukovich is still the acting president of Ukraine, but he can't talk to Ukraine because Ukraine has no president. Ukraine needs elections, but you can't have elections because there is already a president. And no elections will be valid given that there is terrorism in the streets of Ukraine. And how are you going to let just anyone run for president? What if some nationalist punk just pops out like a jack-in-the-box? An anti-Semite? Look at how peaceful the Crimea is, probably thanks to those guys with guns holding it down. Who are they, by the way? Speaking of instability, did you know that the mayor of Dniepropetrovsk is a thief? He cheated "our oligarch, [Chelsea owner Roman] Abramovich" of millions. Just pocketed them! Yanukovich has no political future, I've told him that. He didn't fulfill his obligations as leader of the country. I've told him that. Mr. Putin, what mistakes did Yanukovich make as president? You know, I can't answer that. Not because I don't know the answer, but because it just wouldn't be right of me to say. Did you know they burned someone alive in Kiev? Just like that? Is that what you call a manifestation of democracy? Mr. Putin, what about the snipers in Kiev who were firing on civilians? Who gave them orders to shoot? Those were provocateurs. Didn't you read the reports? They were open source reports. So I don't know what happened there. It's unclear. But did you see the bullets piercing the shields of the Berkut [special police]. That was obvious. As for who gave the order to shoot, I don't know. Yanukovich didn't give that order. He told me. I only know what Yanukovich told me. And I told him, don't do it. You'll bring chaos to your city. And he did it, and they toppled him. Look at that bacchanalia. The American political technologists they did their work well. And this isn't the first time they've done this in Ukraine, no. Sometimes, I get the feeling that these people...these people in America. They are sitting there, in their laboratory, and doing experiments, like on rats. You're not listening to me. I've already said, that yesterday, I met with three colleagues. Colleagues, you're not listening. It's not that Yanukovich said he's not going to sign the agreement with Europe. What he said was that, based on the content of the agreement, having examined it, he did not like it. We have problems. We have a lot of problems in Russia. But they're not as bad as in Ukraine. The Secretary of State. Well. The Secretary of State is not the ultimate authority, is he?
Putin had become the conservative darling of the moment, partly because he hated homosexuals so openly, and partly because he strode around Russia with his shirt off doing manly things and pretending to be the Baddest Mofo In The World. He was the man with the greatest liberty in the world, the Alpha And Omega Male who old white reactionary dudes could look up to and hope to emulate just a little in their own emasculated lives. Pity, then, that he has been exposed as a paranoid obsessive whose delusions are likely to destroy the Russian economy.

A line can be drawn between Putin's withdrawal from reality and the right's refusal to accept scientific facts in so many fields. Putin has apparently constructed an echo chamber around himself, much like the right do in their media enclaves, with predictably poor results when reality bites. The main difference is that Vlad's got the bombs, two words, nuclear effin weapons okay? Let's hope the Russians love their children too.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Steve Kates whistles, cats go feral

I am not going to make a habit of dissecting RMIT economist Steve Kates' posts at Catallaxy Files here at LD because he doesn't deserve the attention, but occasionally he surprises me by pushing the boundaries of brainlessness beyond what I thought he could get away with. Today's Kates post on the Ukraine situation which leads with the theory that the President of the USA hates America plumbs remarkable depths of idiocy.

It is also a signature example of a Cat OP cat-whistling hard and the strays coming a-gamboling with slobber drooling from their lolling maws. So far in the comments, there have been positive references to:
  • the theory that this is all a ploy to deliver Israel to the PLO, or something;
  • John Titor, the fake time traveller from 2036 whose predictions included the US being in a civil war right now that ends with three billion dead;
  • Aleksandr Dugin, whose theory published at National Review is that Vladimir Putin is the new Hitler complete with a love of mysticism and a belief that Atlantis was not only real but influences world events to this day;
  • Angelo Codevilla, a neo-Machiavellian super hawk who seems to be auditioning to be Kissinger Mk II in a Palin administration;
  • investment advice from troll JC on what commodities to go long on to take advantage of the situation;
  • a drive-by troll calling himself LABCR-TV who runs the line that Obama is actually a puppet of unnamed shadowy rich people;
  • CL saying the stupidest extremist thing he can think of and claiming it is God's honest truth, which he does constantly in every Cat thread.
When even self-labeled imperialist Mk50 is "bemused", things must be getting amazingly dumb. (I dislike the word "derpy", which some would use here - sounds too much like it's making fun of the disabled.)  I like the Cat best when it's getting maudlin and introspective, not this distasteful freak show. DrBeauGan makes me smile at the end of a defeatist rant about how we're all rooned already:
All we have is a bunch of old farts moaning about it.

Fellowship of the Wrong: The Game

The Lawyers Guns & Money blog has been posting a bit the last few days on what they are calling the Fantasy New York Times Columnist game.
So what if we could fire everyone at the Times and start over? Let’s play that game. What would it look like? Who would you keep? I want to establish a vague metric, Value over Replacement Columnist. I’m assuming what one wants in a Times columnist is an original thinker with consistently interesting things to say who also works hard at their job. You want someone people are going to talk about, brands that are interesting and provide added value to the paper. You want high VORC from your columnists.
This is a fun game, one that would be interesting to play in Australia. I would be interested to see Andrew Elder have a lash at this one, for instance. For those not into fantasy sports, VORC is a piss-take on VORP (Value Over Replacement Player), the iconic statistic that defines the relatively new field of sabermetrics that has revolutionised baseball and was popularised in the book/movie Moneyball. Are there any generalist columnists at the Fairfax, News, Text Media, ABC etc who are more valuable to keep than replacing them with other candidates who are more qualified in their chosen fields? I doubt it, especially in the political arena. What is the metric similar to On-Base Percentage, which underpinned Moneyball, that could be dreamed up to measure Aussie columnist output? I bet Andrew would have a field day with this concept.

But seriously, I'm with David Watkins of LGM in questioning the structure of the game in the first place. The problem with all these papers' editorial cadres is that they have this policy of tenure which is completely out of sync with the rest of modern society. It is pretty bloody hard to get struck off the register of Very Serious People who say very serious things in major newspapers, no matter how stupid the things you say get. There is no marking to market, as economists would say, by either the columnists or their bosses. You have to be carted out of the Fellowship of the Wrong in a pine box, effectively - and no, Glenn Milne wasn't pushed out, he left of his own accord. You can expand slightly the roster of VSPs, but the market has spoken on this issue and found the whole idea of op-ed pages in newspapers to be boring and useless, which is part of why newspapers are dying.

Meanwhile in Australia, this game that Erik Loomis and the LGM crew are playing has already been run and "won" by Morrie Schwarz with the launch of the Saturday Paper, as Margaret Simons details in the Guardian.
Only now, he says, with the media business in crisis, does he spy the opportunity. First, many of the best Australian journalists have been made redundant from the mainstream publishers and are eager for work. Second, the decline of the big publishers has, he believes, left a hole in the market for the intelligent, committed reader.
“I have thought long and hard about what a newspaper is actually for, its core purpose” he says. “We will ditch anything extraneous.”
There will be no cats up trees, no minor crime and very little sport in the Saturday Paper. Rather, each week about 30,000 words of serious, polished writing on politics and culture will be printed and delivered to newsagents and the homes of subscribers in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra. 
He has organised a stable of about 20 freelancers – a list heavy with the recently redundant senior Fairfax journalists – to write for him.
The paper is also employing four full-time journalists, including one in Canberra.
I have not read the Saturday Paper nor even held one in my hands, so this is not a review of the finished product. My thoughts do not just lead back to the decision by Schwarz to even contemplate launching a newspaper in the first place: this is understandable, he has the money (made in boring real estate) to burn a la Graeme Wood and wants to feel like a Big Manly Man as is the trend these days. Whatever VORC-like metrics he used to pick his roster - I suspect it was just "who has Fairfax fired in the last 12 months and will work cheap" - it is still just the same old same old from where I'm sitting, in terms of personnel and format. Just as Wood ultimately got sick of the fish John B. Fairfax rejected at The Global Mail, Schwarz's patience will only last as long as (a) his money, and (b) his acceptance of the fact that he is funding the retirement packages of unimaginative employees who don't need it and arguably don't deserve it.

What I have been wondering is what the hell these journalists think they are doing in exchanging one doomed father figure for another. Are none of them the least bit entrepreneurial? Do none of them see the same opportunity that Schwarz sees, and have the contacts to get funding to launch something themselves so that they have power over their own destiny? I will link again now to my article from 2012 beseeching these spurned lizards to emulate Alan Kohler and devour the rotting corpse which used to feed them - a piece which I believed in at the time but is looking more and more Pollyanna-ish as regards the Fairfax journo mindset as time goes on.

As someone said to me on Twitter during the week (can't find the tweet), it probably has something to do with the Chinese wall between advertising and editorial at Fairfax. I can say from watching various of them over the years (and then becoming one) that it takes a particular type of journo to make the transition from lilywhite lizard to capitalism-tainted publisher. You have to have a vision of creating something out of nothing, a vehicle that you are driving to great heights, whereas most journos are happy to sit safely in the passenger seat and enjoy the scenery from inside the brand jalopy. It took a group of business journos in Kohler, Gottliebsen and Bartholomeusz to take the chance in starting Business Spectator and business journo Stephen Mayne to found Crikey, though you could point to Mia Freedman or Eric Beecher as others who didn't require direct exposure to naked capitalism to fuel their ambitions.

This is getting rather long, but please stay with me as I return to the topic of the Schwarz-o-jigger. I suppose my main problem with the Saturday Paper is that it is not disruptive in any way. There is not actually a market opportunity here for this model, much as Schwarz might claim there is. Stripping out everything but the op-ed pages leaves you with opinion, and everyone has got one of those already. If you want to have your own opinion validated, there is an entire Internet for free out there which can do that.

To make money out of publishing opinion or long-form reporting, you have to have multiple revenue streams or engage in the cult of personality. As in the discussion over at LGM about the NYT, part of the appeal of having a relatively small stable of op-ed writers is syndication, an option which is not open to Schwarz. The other interesting (to me) element of that discussion is the statement that the reason the likes of David Brooks, Tom Friedman, Ross Douthat et al keep their jobs despite arguably low quality of output is that they have name recognition and their own demographic. Which name brand journalists are writing for the Saturday Paper? Perhaps more importantly, who actually has a big enough name to make it worth Schwarz's money to poach? I'd reckon you could only talk about Andrew Bolt and perhaps Tim Blair who fit that description, with maybe Laurie Oakes for gravitas. Bolt and Blair are trolls, of course, but that is a valuable role in itself because you need a constant flow of new and returning traffic for a new publishing venture to succeed.

On that note: where, I ask in vain, are the leftwing trollumnists who might actually fit in at a leftist rag and make commercial sense to pay big bucks, or even any bucks at all? A progressive version of Bolt is something this country sorely needs. Leftism in the mass media can be so priggish in these grey-suited times. Less Tony Jones, more Doug Anthony All Stars is what I'm talking about. There is more than enough material for someone like that to work with under an Abbott government. Such a beast would have to have the stomach to actually take on the likes of Bolt and Blair head on, occasionally. This is something that lilywhite journalists in this country are traditionally loath to do, as they don't like being soiled with the grime of close combat. Someone will have to emerge from some online fight club to fight those battles, as they will be dirty.