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.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
As the public’s fear and loathing surge, the frontrunner’s durable candidacy has taken a dark turn.
MYRTLE BEACH, South Carolina—All politicians, if they are any good at their craft, know the truth about human nature.
Donald Trump is very good, and he knows it better than most.
Trump stands alone on a long platform, surrounded by a rapturous throng. Below and behind him—sitting on bleachers and standing on the floor—they fill this city’s cavernous, yellow-beige convention center by the thousands. As Trump will shortly point out, there are a lot of other Republican presidential candidates, but none of them get crowds anything like this.
Trump raises an orange-pink hand like a waiter holding a tray. “They are not coming in from Syria,” he says. “We’re sending them back!” The crowd surges, whistles, cheers. “So many bad things are happening—they have sections of Paris where the police are afraid to go,” he continues. “Look at Belgium, the whole place is closed down! We can’t let it happen here, folks.”
Retailers are experimenting with a bold new strategy for the commercial high holiday: boycotting themselves.
It starts with a scene of touch football in the yard. Next, a woman and a girl, cooking together in the kitchen. “Imagine a world,” a soothing voice intones, “where the only thing you have to wrestle for on Thanksgiving is the last piece of pumpkin pie, and the only place we camped out was in front of a fire, and not the parking lot of a store.” And, then, more scenes: a man, cuddling with kids on a couch. An older woman, rolling pie dough on the counter. A fire, crackling in the fireplace. Warmth. Wine. Togetherness. Laughter.
It’s an ad, unsurprisingly, but it’s an ad with a strange objective: to tell you not to buy stuff. Or, at least, to spend a day not buying stuff. “At T.J. Maxx, Marshall’s, and HomeGoods, we’re closed on Thanksgiving,” the spot’s velvet-voiced narrator informs us, “because family time comes first.” And then: more music. More scenes of familiar/familial delights. More laughter. More pie. The whole thing concludes: “Let’s put more value on what really matters. This season, bring back the holidays—with T.J. Maxx, Marshall’s, and HomeGoods.”
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
A yearlong investigation of Greek houses reveals their endemic, lurid, and sometimes tragic problems—and a sophisticated system for shifting the blame.
One warm spring night in 2011, a young man named Travis Hughes stood on the back deck of the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity house at Marshall University, in West Virginia, and was struck by what seemed to him—under the influence of powerful inebriants, not least among them the clear ether of youth itself—to be an excellent idea: he would shove a bottle rocket up his ass and blast it into the sweet night air. And perhaps it was an excellent idea. What was not an excellent idea, however, was to misjudge the relative tightness of a 20-year-old sphincter and the propulsive reliability of a 20-cent bottle rocket. What followed ignition was not the bright report of a successful blastoff, but the muffled thud of fire in the hole.
Why are so many kids with bright prospects killing themselves in Palo Alto?
The air shrieks, and life stops. First, from far away, comes a high whine like angry insects swarming, and then a trampling, like a herd moving through. The kids on their bikes who pass by the Caltrain crossing are eager to get home from school, but they know the drill. Brake. Wait for the train to pass. Five cars, double-decker, tearing past at 50 miles an hour. Too fast to see the faces of the Silicon Valley commuters on board, only a long silver thing with black teeth. A Caltrain coming into a station slows, invites you in. But a Caltrain at a crossing registers more like an ambulance, warning you fiercely out of its way.
The kids wait until the passing train forces a gust you can feel on your skin. The alarms ring and the red lights flash for a few seconds more, just in case. Then the gate lifts up, signaling that it’s safe to cross. All at once life revives: a rush of bikes, skateboards, helmets, backpacks, basketball shorts, boisterous conversation. “Ew, how old is that gum?” “The quiz is next week, dipshit.” On the road, a minivan makes a left a little too fast—nothing ominous, just a mom late for pickup. The air is again still, like it usually is in spring in Palo Alto. A woodpecker does its work nearby. A bee goes in search of jasmine, stinging no one.
An entire industry has been built on the premise that creating gourmet meals at home is simple and effortless. But it isn’t true.
I write about food for a living. Because of this, I spend more time than the average American surrounded by cooking advice and recipes. I’m also a mother, which means more often than not, when I return from work 15 minutes before bedtime, I end up feeding my 1-year-old son squares of peanut-butter toast because there was nothing in the fridge capable of being transformed into a wholesome, homemade toddler meal in a matter of minutes. Every day, when I head to my office after a nourishing breakfast of smashed blueberries or oatmeal I found stuck to the pan, and open a glossy new cookbook, check my RSS feed, or page through a stack of magazines, I’m confronted by an impenetrable wall of unimaginable cooking projects, just sitting there pretending to be totally reasonable meals. Homemade beef barbacoa tacos. Short-rib potpie. “Weekday” French toast. Make-ahead coconut cake. They might as well be skyscraper blueprints, so improbable is the possibility that I will begin making my own nut butters, baking my own sandwich bread, or turning that fall farmer’s market bounty into jars of homemade applesauce.
America loves its freeways. After the 1956 Federal Highway Bill created the pathway for a41,000 mile interstate highway system, states and cities jockeyed for the funding to build ever-more extensive networks of pavement that could carry Americans quickly between cities. Sometimes, they built these highways right in the middle of cities, displacing communities and razing old buildings and homes.
“This was a program which the twenty-first century will almost certainly judge to have had more influence on the shape and development of American cities, the distribution of population within metropolitan areas and across the nation as a whole, the location of industry and various kinds of employment opportunities,”Daniel Moynihan wrote in 1970 about the federal program that built these thousands of miles of highways.
Mary Beard’s sweeping history is a new read of citizenship in the ancient empire.
A british college student named Megan Beech recently published a poetry collection called When I Grow Up I Want to Be Mary Beard. Beech is not alone in her admiration for Beard, who was for a time the only female classics lecturer at Cambridge University and has since become the most prominent representative of a field once associated with dusty male privilege. In 2013, Beard was appointed to the Order of the British Empire for “services to Classical Scholarship.” A prolific authority on Roman culture, she construes those services broadly. Her academic work ranges from studies of Roman religion and Roman victory practices to reflections on Roman laughter, and she has written lively books about Pompeii and the Colosseum. As the erudite docent on a BBC series three years ago titled Meet the Romans, Beard introduced a bigger audience to a bigger Rome: a citizenry far beyond the handful of Latin-speaking men who populated the Senate, served as emperors, or wrote (often dictating to their slaves) the books that we call “Roman literature.” Whatever the context (she also writes a blog, “A Don’s Life,” for the Times Literary Supplement), Beard does precisely what few popularizers dare to try and plenty of dons can’t pull off: She conveys the thrill of puzzling over texts and events that are bound to be ambiguous, and she complicates received wisdom in the process.