I'm not going to pick sides on the TechCrunch saga that's bouncing around the Internet right now, but I do think it's more important than it appears on the surface. In essence, TechCrunch's founder Mike Arrington wants to run an investment fund that would put money into the companies that his website covers. Prominent journalists like David Carr and Kara Swisher argue that this is an unbelievable conflict of interest. The drama continues, but Arrington is going to run the fund and TechCrunch will continue, probably without him.
Here's what's interesting about this situation to me: the set of solutions to common information problems that we call journalism is coming unglued as different types of publications become possible on the Internet.
The generally accepted sense of journalistic ethics says you shouldn't have financial conflicts of interest and that this is not negotiable at the individual level. Journalism ethics reside in publications and more broadly within the idea of the fourth estate.
But the specific ethical principles of journalism were only true for certain types of publications, largely newspapers and magazines aka the mainstream media (MSM). Now, we've got a whole bunch of new types of publications with readerships rivaling the MSM but that are something different altogether.
Many websites are functioning largely as trade magazines that occasionally commit acts of journalism. TechCrunch, and Mashable to an even greater extent, are more like the new American Thresherman and Farm Power or Stone World or Successful Farming than they are the new New York Times. But it's hard to know when they're acting like the Times and when they are acting like Plumbing and Mechanical Magazine.
Even the news that they break would generally come out via a press release in due time. People care about what they write, and they beat other people to the information, but the scoops are fundamentally benign. (This company got some money, that company has a new app, another may do something that alters the competitive landscape.) Trade magazines have been doing this kind of thing for as long as there have been trade and magazines.
What TechCrunch figured out is that tech industry news could could really work as a mass-market sized play. When millions of freelancers act as one-person companies, business-to-business publications acquire a new, much larger audience. In other words, many, many people consider themselves part of the tech industry. All that user-centered innovation that people like MIT's Eric Von Hipple talk about? This is one sign of it. When people cobble together tech tools to build other tech tools, they need to know about all the new ones in glorious detail.
John Bethune has been watching the trade publication industry for 27 years and now runs B2BMemes.com. He said that it would be very "unusual" for a trade magazine writer to be investing in the companies that they cover. He noted that the American Society of Business Publication Editors states clearly in its code of ethics that such activity are off-limits. "Editors and staffers should not invest in, or hold stock of, any company that they will cover or be likely to cover," the code says.
That's not to say that there are not conflicts for business-to-business publication journalists. They have to deal with ethical issues constantly as advertising sales' teams try to bring in business.
Ethics tends to devolve to the sole journalist more than residing at the publication level, Bethune said. "With the trade press, you've got conflicts built in and the life of the trade journalist is learning to live with those conflicts and do the best that each one can to do as ethical a job as they individually feel they can," Bethune said. "In the trade press more than news journalism, ethics is more of an individual issue than a company issue. "
I talked to a couple of trade magazine editors to see how the Arrington move struck them. Maureen Alley, who edits Residential Design and Build magazine, was the first trade magazine editor I spoke with. Alley felt that there was a pretty clear ethics foul in what Arrington was up to. "The way journalism is now is that you have people who don't know anything about journalism ethics writing journalism-type things," Alley said. "No matter what type of reporting you're doing, you still need those ethics. Michael Arrington obviously doesn't see the value in these ethics."
When I asked Alley if she thought she could start a design and build business while running her company, she said no. "I don't think that could fly," she said. "It's not fair to the other businesses."
John Austen of the UK's Locks and Security Monthly, though, didn't think that there was such a clear ethical line. He thought someone could have one business in an industry while running a publication about that industry, "provid[ed] they keep them separate and don't use the one as a bandwagon to promote the other." Austen himself "ran a publication and also looked after the PR interests for a number of companies in that field."
Austen emphasized that trade magazines can't forget where their money ultimately comes from. "We're always trying to strike a balance between content/reader interest and knowing those [advertisers] that keep us going," Austen said. "We are in the real world."
My point here is that this story has gained incredible traction because it is The New AOL (TM) and TechCrunch versus The New York Times. But this is a forever problem when it comes to information. Bias in journalism has been the default assumption forever. David Carr-style journalism ethics was an important invention developed to fight pervasive bias. It didn't just happen. It partially solved the trustworthiness problem, at least temporarily.
Trade magazines have had to deal with these conflicts for a long time too in very intense ways. When the trade magazine association decides something is out of bounds, it's worth considering how big the change that Arrington wants to make to the journalism ethics toolbox.
TechCrunch's MG Siegler wrote on his personal blog, "The market will decide. All this back-and-forth is meaningless," but that strikes me as precisely incorrect. The market for information is predicated on the trustworthiness of that information. The back-and-forth is what creates the perception of that trust or lack thereof.
The New York Times doesn't operate with its current sense of ethics or purpose solely because they are a company full of great guys, but because they think it's a competitive advantage to be seen as fair and objective and trustworthy. The problem is that operating the way they do is expensive and slow.
TechCrunch's team is proposing that their own version of journalism, in which some pieces of the ethical machine have been tightened up (e.g. more transparency) while others have been loosened (e.g. investing in companies you cover is OK), is just as good as the Times' version. It certainly is cheaper and faster, but it gains those advantages by devolving responsibility to the individual, not the publication. It's every woman for herself. And we know how well that has worked out for the trade publications.
"As the industry has declined over the last 20 years, the pressure from sales to do whatever you can do bring in those advertisements, most of the guidelines have fallen by the wayside," Bethune told me.
Arrington may be able to walk the ethical tightrope, but if he erodes journalism's institutional ethics, he may do a lot more damage than promoting or ignoring a few tech startups would.
Journalists and policy makers can have a hard time describing the economy when "average" departs so markedly from what's normal.
There is an easy story to tell about the Obama Recovery. Devastated by a financial crash, the U.S. launched a historic comeback. The private sector added jobs in 73 consecutive months, the longest stretch ever. Unemployment is lower today than in the month Reagan left office. Real GDP has grown more than 13 percent since its most-recent low in 2009, Obama’s first year in office. That’s more than twice as much growth as in some western European countries, like France. Compared to how countries typically perform after financial crises, the United States has “probably managed this better than any large economy on Earth in modern history,” President Obama toldThe New York Times Magazine.
But there is an opposite story that is attracting widespread support and millions of votes: The recovery is a failure. Donald Trump is an IMAX projection of white working-class grievances, calling America “a third-world country.” Bernie Sanders’s supporters describe a country where poverty and financial insecurity are not bugs but rather features of a rigged economy. The pessimistic style is not niche: Trump and Sanders have amassed a combined 16 million votes.
The Republican front-runner’s repetition of a blatantly ridiculous story about Ted Cruz’s father shows his symbiotic relationship with the press.
Brace yourselves for shock, but Donald Trump said something ridiculous and baseless Tuesday morning. The subject was Rafael Cruz, Cuban-born father of his primary remaining rival, Senator Ted Cruz.
“His father was with Lee Harvey Oswald prior to Oswald's being—you know, shot. I mean, the whole thing is ridiculous,” Trump said during a phone interview with Fox News. “What is this, right prior to his being shot, and nobody even brings it up. I mean, they don't even talk about that. That was reported, and nobody talks about it.”
Let’s clear a few things up: It has been reported, which is why Trump knows about it, but it was reported in the National Enquirer. Also there is no evidence for it; it’s bogus. Yes, the National Enquirer has been right about some things in the past, most notably John Edwards’s affair; no, that does not prove that it is right about this.
The billionaire’s bid for the nomination was opposed by many insiders—but his success reveals the ascendance of other elements of the party coalition.
In The Party Decides, an influential book about how presidential nominees are selected, political scientists John Zaller, Hans Noel, David Karol, and Marty Cohen argue that despite reforms designed to wrest control of the process from insiders at smoke-filled nominating conventions, political parties still exert tremendous influence on who makes it to general elections. They do so partly through “invisible primaries,” the authors posited—think of how the Republican establishment coalesced around George W. Bush in 2000, long before any ballots were cast, presenting him as a fait accompli to voters who’d scarcely started to think about the election; or how insider Democrats elevated Hillary Clinton this election cycle.
The comedian's n-bomb at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner highlights a generational shift in black culture.
Georgia McDowell was born the daughter of farmers and teachers in North Carolina in 1902. She was my great-grandmother, and she taught me to read, despite the dementia that clouded her mind and the dyslexia that interrupted mine. I loved Miss Georgia, though she kept as many hard lines in her home as she had in her classrooms. One of the hardest lines was common to many black households: The word “nigger” and all of its derivatives were strict taboos in person, on television, and on radio from any source, black or otherwise, so long as she lived and breathed. She’d kept the taboo through decades of teaching black students and raising black children. For most of my childhood, the taboo was absolute.
Rampant drug use in Austin, Indiana—coupled with unemployment and poor living conditions—brought on a public-health crisis that some are calling a “syndemic.”
Jessica and Darren McIntosh were too busy to see me when I arrived at their house one Sunday morning. When I returned later, I learned what they’d been busy with: arguing with a family member, also an addict, about a single pill of prescription painkiller she’d lost, and injecting meth to get by in its absence. Jessica, 30, and Darren, 24, were children when they started using drugs. Darren smoked his first joint when he was 12 and quickly moved on to snorting pills. “By the time I was 13, I was a full-blown pill addict, and I have been ever since,” he said. By age 14, he’d quit school. When I asked where his caregivers were when he started using drugs, he laughed. “They’re the ones that was giving them to me,” he alleged. “They’re pill addicts, too.”
When Apple announced in 2013 that its next iPhone would include a fingerprint reader, it touted the feature as a leap forward in security. Many people don’t set up a passcode on their phones, Apple SVP Phil Schiller said at the keynote event where the Touch ID sensor was unveiled, but making security easier and faster might convince more users to protect their phones. (Of course, Apple wasn’t the first to stuff a fingerprint reader into a flagship smartphone, but the iPhone’s Touch ID took the feature mainstream.)
The system itself proved quite secure—scanned fingerprints are stored, encrypted, and processed locally rather than being sent to Apple for verification—but the widespread use of fingerprint data to unlock iPhones worried some experts. One of the biggest questions that hung over the transition was legal rather than technical: How might a fingerprint-secured iPhone be treated in a court of law?
Nearly half of Americans would have trouble finding $400 to pay for an emergency. I’m one of them.
Since 2013,the Federal Reserve Board has conducted a survey to “monitor the financial and economic status of American consumers.” Most of the data in the latest survey, frankly, are less than earth-shattering: 49 percent of part-time workers would prefer to work more hours at their current wage; 29 percent of Americans expect to earn a higher income in the coming year; 43 percent of homeowners who have owned their home for at least a year believe its value has increased. But the answer to one question was astonishing. The Fed asked respondents how they would pay for a $400 emergency. The answer: 47 percent of respondents said that either they would cover the expense by borrowing or selling something, or they would not be able to come up with the $400 at all. Four hundred dollars! Who knew?
For some, abandoning expensive urban centers would be a huge financial relief.
Neal Gabler has been a formative writer for me: His Winchell: Gossip, Power, and the Culture of Celebrity was one of the books that led me to think about leaving scholarship behind and write nonfiction instead, and Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination was the first book I reviewed as a freelance writer. To me, he exemplifies the best mix of intensive archival research and narrative kick.
So reading his recent essay, "The Secret Shame of Middle-Class Americans," was a gut punch: First, I learned about a role model of mine whose talent, in my opinion, should preclude him from financial woes. And, then, I was socked by narcissistic outrage: I, too, struggle with money! I, too, am a failing middle-class American! I, too, am a writer of nonfiction who should be better compensated!
It’s a paradox: Shouldn’t the most accomplished be well equipped to make choices that maximize life satisfaction?
There are three things, once one’s basic needs are satisfied, that academic literature points to as the ingredients for happiness: having meaningful social relationships, being good at whatever it is one spends one’s days doing, and having the freedom to make life decisions independently.
But research into happiness has also yielded something a little less obvious: Being better educated, richer, or more accomplished doesn’t do much to predict whether someone will be happy. In fact, it might mean someone is less likely to be satisfied with life.
That second finding is the puzzle that Raj Raghunathan, a professor of marketing at The University of Texas at Austin’s McCombs School of Business, tries to make sense of in his recent book, If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy?Raghunathan’s writing does fall under the category of self-help (with all of the pep talks and progress worksheets that that entails), but his commitment to scientific research serves as ballast for the genre’s more glib tendencies.