Friday, November 28, 2008

Words for thought: NYT cuts employment blogger

This recent development in newspaperland is almost too strange to believe: the New York Times' cut its employment blogger. Now, the writer - Marci Alboher - wasn't a full-time employee. Meaning the Times didn't have to pay benefits and all those other items that make full-time employees expensive for public companies. And she's also a blogger, not a print reporter, so her work is helping the NYT expand its reach and attract new readers.

So why did they cut her column? She writes she wasn't given an answer, other than the generic statement about the economic difficulties hitting the paper. But two things to think about: 1) Full-time employees are protected by a union and 2) Print still pays the bills, even if the ad revenue is shrinking.

Still, it boggles the mind.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Christmas spending mania

The New York Times has an article about moms cutting back on designer jeans for themselves so they can buy the latest Christmas toys for their kids:
“I want her to be able to look back,” Ms. Hunt declared, “and say, ‘Even though they were tough times, my mom was still able to give me stuff.’ ”
Stuff? Imagine the tender memories of that little girl, telling her children how she found "stuff" under the tree. So much "stuff" that she can't remember exactly what it was she got that year.

What about fathers? Don't they buy presents too? Are they cutting back? This is what the article says:
In this economy, nearly everyone is forgoing indulgences, and many fathers will no doubt sacrifice this year to put toys under the tree.
Did the reporter actually talk to any fathers? It's not clear. The story does quote two men, however: a retail analyst and the CEO of Toys R Us. Why not pose the question to them? As a reader, I'd like to know if she did ask them about this issue and what they said about their personal spending.

A refreshing contrast from yesterday's NYT, in an obituary for one of the inventors of the Slinky:
Having raised six children largely on her own and also enjoying a gaggle of grandchildren, Mrs. James was adamant about keeping the original Slinky affordable. In 1996, when the price ranged from $1.89 to $2.69, she told The New York Times: “So many children can’t have expensive toys, and I feel a real obligation to them. I’m appalled when I go Christmas shopping and $60 to $80 for a toy is nothing. With 16 grandchildren you can go into the national debt.”

Disclosing conflicts ...

I never really liked the Infinite Mind, in full disclosure. It always seemed to be on NPR when I woke up before the rest of the family and its theme song always gave me the willies. But this story from the New York Times of hidden conflicts and undisclosed loyalties is a cautionary tale worth reading. It also makes one wonder if there are other experts who aren't as trustworthy as their readers and listeners expect.

Here's the host of the show, Dr. Frederick Goodwin, defending his accepting money (more than $1.3 million) from pharmaceutical companies:

He defended the views he expressed in many of his radio programs and said that, because he consulted for so many drugmakers at once, he had no particular bias.

“These companies compete with each other and cancel each other out,” he said.
Ummmm..... You'd hope that someone hosting a show on psychology and the mind would be a teeny bit more analytical about his own motives and biases. But the bottom line is that this: His failure to disclose the payments is an ethical violation that undermines the public's trust in journalism and media.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Gift giving -- pros and cons

Had enough Christmas madness?

The New York Times "Your Money" column writes about a new way of giving holiday gifts: pool your family's money, divide it in half and use one half to buy small presents and give the rest to a charity of choice.

The pros: helping a charity is No. 1, obviously. But then there's the conservation of wrapping paper, of holding back from giving loved ones things they don't need, that feeling of ickiness you get when the credit card bill arrives.

The cons: well, not everyone likes being told how not to spend their money.

In the mail a few weeks ago, we received a brochure from Heifer International. It's a non-profit that asks citizens of wealthy countries to buy a farm animal for citizens of less affluent countries. Nice idea. But the dilemma, as a vegetarian, is whether you're underwriting meat-eating if you buy a goat or a sheep. Or are these animals being used for milk and wool? Hmm. I wonder what Peter Singer would do. Help build a tofurkey factory?

Thursday, November 20, 2008

If the AP is getting smaller ...

According to Editor & Publisher, the Associated Press may end 2009 with 10 percent fewer staff -- through attrition, not job cuts. I suppose it's not surprising that the AP will shrink. If their customers -- the newspapers -- are having a tough time, it'll trickle down to the AP, Reuters, Bloomberg and other newswires.

From the AP spokesman:
"The Associated Press, like virtually every business in the world, is defining strategies for operating in these complex and difficult financial times. All areas and ways of doing business are being reviewed. The AP, which recently instituted a strategic hiring freeze, may need to reduce staff over the next year. If so, it hopes to achieve much of the reduction through attrition."

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Cut top talent, and what do you get?

The New York Times' David Carr writes a wonderful column about the recent trend of newspapers cutting their top (and highest paid) talent to save the money they'd otherwise have to pay their oldest and most experienced writers.

He writes:

Yes, the revenue picture is grim and growing grimmer. The biggest outlay besides putting the printed artifact on the street is salaries. And journalists tend to get a lot more indignant when the sheet cake and goodbye speeches are being served up on behalf of people who have the same job as they have.

But there is a business argument to be made here. Having missed the implications of the Web and allowed both their content and their audience to be scraped away by aggregators and ad networks, newspapers are now working furiously to maintain audience, build new ad models and renovate presentation. But they won’t stay relevant to readers with generic content ginned up by newbies with no background in the communities they serve.
In my local market, the Burlington Free Press let go one of its columnists, Ed Shamy, who wrote funny, sarcastic and always enjoyable columns about life in Vermont. If the paper explained why they picked him to cut, I missed it. But the end result is the newspaper is less interesting to read, has less relevance for local readers, and has lost a strong voice that helped define what it means to live here.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Local health of newspapers

Enough about Burlington's health. How about the health of its daily newspaper, the Burlington Free Press?

Gannett announced more layoffs earlier this month. The paper had already cut six staffers (although not all in the newsroom) in August.

The Burlington Free Press is just one of the many victims of the collapse of the newspaper industry. Yet residents of Burlington should be concerned: it's the only daily paper in the town. If the paper cuts back on its coverage -- and, worst case scenario, even shuts down in a few years as ad dollars continue to dwindle -- it's going to leave this town poorer in many ways.

This came to mind listening to government officials talking about bailing out the auto industry: You will still be able to buy cars from other manufacturers even if the US automakers collapse. But if your town's daily newspaper goes belly up -- well, you can't look to Japan to supply news for your town.

So how about a bail-out for the ailing newspaper industry? It would prop up an industry that employs 54,000 reporters, editors and writers (down from a peak of almost 57,000 in 1990) and pulls in advertising sales of $42 billion a year.

Aside from the economic impact, think of the civic benefit. If newspapers shut down, who will write that investigative piece into a local drug problem, or uncover wrong-doing by a local politician? Well, Burlington is lucky in that it has an excellent weekly newspaper. But in general, competition between newspapers -- for scoops, readers, awards -- leads to better writing and a better served community.

And I'm not the only one thinking along these lines....

Burlington -- Just Wait Till You See Our Cholesterol Levels!

Apparently we live in the healthiest city in the United States.

Two things: 1) It's based on people's self-reported evaluation of their health, with 92 percent of Burlingtonians (is that the right word? Burlingtoniads?) saying they are in good or great health. Self-reported data is notoriously unreliable. And 2) "vegan options are plentiful." Ehhh - not so fast.

As a one-time vegan and full-time vegetarian, I was suprised there weren't more vegan options in Burlington, given the large college population and its leftist leanings. There weren't any vegetarian restaurants in Burlington until September, when the New Ethic restaurant (which I recommend) opened in the Old North End.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

newspaper advertising -- brace for more of the same

Bloomberg News writes up an analyst report forecasting advertising declining until 2010. Not really surprising, but still slightly chilling, is newspaper ads will suffer the greatest decline, falling 16.3 percent this year and 12.5 percent next year.

If these numbers bear out, 2008 and 2009 would mark the worst declines in newspaper ads since 1950, based on spending tracked by the Newspaper Association of America. Previously the worst year for newspapers was 2001 -- remember the Internet bust, anyone? -- when ad spending fell 9 percent.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Complexity and UVM

The View, University of Vermont's online magazine for the campus, features Peter Dodds (also known as my husband) in an article about the math department's complex systems center.

The group is studying complexity in all forms -- social networks, electrical grids and contagion.

Is anyone studying the complexity of the rise and fall of mainstream media and the expansion of the blogisphere? Is there a relationship? How are ideas spreading between the two?

I have to admit that for a while I believed the delicious tidbit that Sarah Palin believed Africa to be a country. Now, turns out, it ain't true, as much as we'd like it to be. What's interesting is how quickly the fake factoid spread from a bogus blog into respected outlets such as MSNBC and the Los Angeles Times.

From the New York Times article:
But most of Eisenstadt’s victims have been bloggers, a reflection of the sloppy speed at which any tidbit, no matter how specious, can bounce around the Internet.
But one issue to ponder, given that this article blames blogging "sloppy speed," is whether the damage was done by the power of thousands of blogs or just a few mainstream media outlets? Or simply by the FF (fake factoid) being spread by word of mouth? Most people probably heard the Africa canard repeated by at least a dozen friends that week.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Bloomberg News in Vanity Fair

Vanity Fair writes about changes afoot at Bloomberg News.

Quote from an unnamed spokesman (which, btw, is totally verboten at Bloomberg) about Bloomberg News versus the other wires:
“We don’t think about Dow Jones or Reuters or the A.P. in anywhere near the same kind of way, or as carrying the same type of magnitude. If I have a choice between giving an interview to Bloomberg or someone else, I never think twice about it.”
My nine years at Bloomberg were an amazing experience -- and even more amazing when I realize that when I joined, the news service was only seven years old. Now:
Bloomberg News’s 2,300-person staff is larger than the combined editorial operations of the Times and The Washington Post, or that included among its 135 bureaus are 30 in the Asia-Pacific region alone.
It's an interesting article (and enjoyable for me, because when I tell people in Vermont I worked for Bloomberg News, I usually get blank stares. AP owns the papers up here, it seems) for the questions about the news industry and Bloomberg's business model.

Check it out.

"I Will; I will, I will, I will!"

It hasn't escaped the Senators from Vermont that this little slice of New England was, well, not to be bragging or anything .. but heck, we were first to be declared for Obama!

Check out this quote from Leahy:
Leahy, asked at the news conference if he would invite Obama to visit Vermont, beamed and exclaimed, “Yes, I will; yes, I will; I will, I will, I will!”
Wow. Just check out the punctuation (love this combo of semicolons and serial commas -- great stuff) and how his enthusiasm jumps off the page.

And from Bernie:
“I was just extremely happy to see that the first state in the country up there on the TV screen for Obama was the state of Vermont,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.
Wait - now what was that Obama said about earmarks? And how about just a little pork - a few slices of bacon, please?

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The call from Prof. Husband: Obama won

My husband, the math professor, has made the call based on his early estimates and projections: Obama has won.

Personally, I'm going to wait before breaking out the champagne.

The vote in Vermont

It's so kind that people care about the voting results in Vermont. But wait -- hey, where's Vermont after the lede in this story? What's all this stuff about Virginia? Okay, I'm reading, reading, reading .. reading .. reading. Geesh, 9th paragraph, and we're finally back to Vermont.

Yes, it's a small state and we're so blue we're purple. But come on! I want some voting color from the MSM about Vermont.

Monday, November 3, 2008

"It's not a time for flaking out ..."

Saw this link on Vermont Daily Briefing of a Vermont musician with a light-hearted voting message. Definitely watch it until it goes all heavy-metal and into lyrics about burritos.

Peter has been telling me to vote early -- well, a little too late for that, given it's a day before the election. I couldn't understand why he was so eager for me to vote early. Was it the novelty of it? The ability to get in your choice before the masses?

Turns out the reason: "You won't have to deal with the crowds at the polling place!" he told me.

Crowds? Honey, this is Vermont. There's never a crowd.