Savings Rate...
in Which James Fallows Is a Frog Stepping into Global Warming Water Carrying a Hockey Stick...

The Revolt of the Stenographers...

At the moment, at the top of are four stories:

  • A pretty good story by Mark Mazzetti and David Johnston filling in details in stories reported at lest three years ago by Ron Suskind in his The One Percent Doctrine--and, of course, they do not cite or reference Suskind in any way: Mark Mazzetti and David Johnston: Bush Weighed Using Military in Arrests: "The memorandum — written by the lawyers John C. Yoo and Robert J. Delahunty — was directed to Alberto R. Gonzales, then the White House counsel, who had asked the department about a president’s authority to use the military to combat terrorist activities in the United States. The memorandum was declassified in March. But the White House debate about the Lackawanna group is the first evidence that top American officials, after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, actually considered using the document to justify deploying the military into an American town to make arrests. Most former officials interviewed for this article spoke only on the condition of anonymity because the deliberations about the case involved classified information...": + 1/2

  • Tobin Harshaw well out of his depth on finance: he truly darkeneth counsel without wisdom--it really is too bad that he took Chris Suellentrop's "Opinionator" and trashed it: -1

  • Peter Baker and Helene Cooper adding absolutely nothing to the state of play on Crowley-Gates-Obama: 0

  • Michael Wilson and Solomon Moore "As Officers Face Heated Words, Their Tactics Vary" with a truly self-parodying headline adding nothing to the state of play on Crowley-Gates-Obama: 0

That's minus one-half for four--a batting average of -0.125.

At the moment, at the top of are four stories:

  • Ernesto Londono doing real reporting from the urban battlefield in Iraq: "After the Shooting, Another Showdown: Deadly Clash Underscores Rift Over Interpretation of U.S.-Iraq Deal": "When insurgents attacked an American convoy with AK-47 rounds and a couple of grenades on a dusty highway in a Baghdad suburb this week, U.S. soldiers returned fire, chased the suspects through narrow alleyways and raided houses. When the shooting subsided, another confrontation began. A senior Iraqi army commander who arrived at the scene concluded that the Americans had fired indiscriminately at civilians and ordered his men to take the U.S. soldiers into custody. The U.S. military said the soldiers had acted in self-defense and had sought to avoid civilian casualties; U.S. commanders at the scene persuaded the Iraqis to back down. The incident, apparently the first time a senior Iraqi commander has sought to detain U.S. soldiers, signals a potential escalation of tensions between U.S. and Iraqi forces trying to find a new equilibrium as Iraq assumes more responsibility for its security...": +1

  • Michael Rosenwald: "Digital Nomads Ditch Their Cubicles for Diners and Pool Decks"--a piece that doesn't even try to provide any information at all about how many "digital nomads" working at coffeeshops there are these days or how their lives have really been changed by the coming of wifi and lattes, and so is more an embarrassment than anything else: 0

  • Jason Straziuso and Rahin Faiez doing competent stenography about the war in Afghanistan: "Suicide attackers strike southeastern Afghan city": + 1/2

  • Dan Balz sucking hs thumb and adding absolutely nothing to the state of play: Obama's Ambition: Was His Strategy a Mistake?: 0

That's one and a half for four--a batting average of +0.375

Taking the eight lead stories of the New York Times and the Washington Post together, we have a batting average of +0.125.

Now let's take a look at the most recent stories for the eight top feeds in my RSS reader:

  • Chris Whalen at The Big Picture on financial regulatory reform: "Is the Fed About to Lose On “Systemic Risk” Legislation?": "It is really fascinating to see how much people underestimate the political staying power of technocrats such as FDIC Chairman Sheila Bair and SEC Chairman Mary Schapiro. I get the distinct feeling that some senior members of the media, analysts and the banking community, still don’t see the ladies as serious players. If you bother to look at the Players’ Roster of American politics, it is clear that the ladies are very much in the ascendancy in Washington, both in government and in the lobbyist community. Consider the movement in terms of legislation on regulatory reform. The ebb and flow of the debate is headed very much in the direction of collective, shared authority for determining when a TBTF bank or, more specifically, a non-bank company such as AIG needs restructuring. This goes directly contrary to the Geithner proposal to give this function to the Fed...": +1

  • rdan of Angry Bear sends us to Mark Thoma of Economist's View who tells us to read a 1983 New York Times story about health care reform in Canada: Douglas Martin: "Health Care in Canada: Popular System Now ROcked by Criticism": +1`

  • Steve Benen reports and analyzes Obama's attempt to sell health reform: "Not surprisingly, President Obama devoted his weekly multi-media address to health care reform today -- the sixth address to emphasize reform in the last eight weeks. But what I found noteworthy about today's was the target audience of the pitch. In his five-and-a-half minute message, the president didn't mention the word "uninsured." In fact, the address wasn't geared towards the tens of millions of Americans without coverage at all. Instead, Obama talked almost exclusively about the importance of reform on businesses and employers. In fact, the president referenced the words "small business" 11 times in his message this morning...": +1

  • Jim Henley of Unqualified Offerings advances the ball on Crowley-Gates-Obama: "These statistics cast an interesting light on Brandon del Pozo’s defense of police doctrine... police work is less dangerous than many other possible occupations, and that less than half that danger stems from violent resistance by suspects – the kind of 'loss of control' that defenders of Officer Crowley’s conduct during the Gates arrest point to as a major danger.... What statistics alone can’t untangle is the impact of police praxis on the danger level: is police work relatively safe because police are hardcases about maintaining control, or is it relatively more dangerous because the provoke confrontations. And the ultimate question begged previously is where police safety ought to rank in the hierarchy: is it better that police feel as safe as possible or that citizens be respected...": +1

  • von of Obsidian Wings advances the ball on Crowley-Gates-Obama: "Pithlord makes clear a point that I consider essential, namely 'We all act like dicks sometimes, and I can sort of understand both Gates and Crowley's point-of-view in a subjective sense. I imagine I'd feel pissed off if I was either of them. The difference is Crowley acted illegally and unprofessionally.' (Emphasis mine.) That's a huge difference.  As I've written in comments, I don't know and don't really care if Professor Gates lost his cool and acted like a jerk.  I do know, however, that Gates didn't have a gun and the power to throw Crowley in jail...": +1

  • Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo doesn't advance the ball on Crowley-Gates-Obama: "Henry Louis Gates, Jr. says he'd be happy to have a beer at the White House with Officer Crowley and President Obama...": 0

  • Heebie-Geebie on the social isolation of the mother of the neonate in modern American culture: "Lately I've gotten really into making the bed each morning. It only takes a minute, and the room looks so much tidier. I think this means I've got too much time on my hands, or maybe my brain. At least I'm not fretting about imaginary baby symptoms.... Being around babies too much is a kind of sensory-deprivation zone where you start hallucinating symptoms out of sheer boredom...": +1/2

  • Steven Teles at The Reality Based Community advances the ball on Crowley-Gates-Obama: [T]his little micro-dispute in Cambridge was fundamentally a conflict about "honor." This whole thing would have been a big nothing if either man were willing to swallow his pride. The cop could have defused it by letting Gates call him a racist and have it roll off his back. He couldn't because, I think, he has a self-conception as precisely not a racist cop.... To back down would have been to... be dishonored. Gates couldn't back down and say "yes, officer, whatever you ask, officer" because he believed he was being treated in a way that was inappropriate to his status as a Harvard professor and because he thought he was being hassled because he was black. To back down would have been untrue to his idea of himself.... So they both stood their ground, and the guy with the gun won. And so Gates retaliates in the media, and with the president.... Now the Cambridge cops think that they are being dishonored.... The question is, is there any way for everyone involved here to retain their honor? That is, can they back out of this thing with the way they understand themselves, and that they want others to understand them, intact?.... Today... Obama seems to have realized that taking sides in this zero-sum conflict was not the right move, at least given his office. Which is why this is so refreshing. Whatever his flaws, Obama knows when he messed up and he knows how to find the right way to clean up his mess. Whatever his flaws, I do believe this is a man who has a touch of greatness--not from being flawless, but from being able to recognize his flaws and counteract them...": +1

That is a score of six and a half out of eight--a batting average of 0.8125: I am 6.5 times as likely to be happy that I have spent my time reading one of the top stories in my RSS reader as I am to be happy that I have spent my time reading one of the top stories printed by the New York Times and the Washington Post.

To some degree this is the "Daily Me" phenomenon: my RSS reader is now tuned to bring me things written by people I learn from, while the editors of the Washington Post and the New York Times select stories on the basis of... bizarre and incomprehensible algorithms. To some degree this is because this is because the WP and the NYT are pitched at a level far below the one I want to read at, in part because they think their audience is less clued-in than I am (Peter Baker and Helene Cooper; Dan Balz) and in part because their reporters are out of their depth (i.e., Tobin Harshaw). In part this is because they are unprofessional (i.e., Mark Mazzetti and David Johnston not situating their article in its proper context in the journalistic enterprise begun by The One-Percent Doctrine). To some degree this is because their reporters know nothing about how representative their anecdotes are and so have absolutely nothing interesting to say (Michael Wilson and Solomon Moore; Michael Rosenwald).

And then there are Jason Straziuso and Rahin Faiez performing the very useful service of writing up the briefings in Kabul, and Ernesto Londono putting his life on the line to inform us about what is going on half the world away.

With this as background, let's consider David Simon's proposals for the future of journalism. Here's David Simon with the mike:

Build the Wall : CJR: To all of the bystanders reading this, pardon us. The true audience for this essay narrows necessarily to a pair of notables who have it in their power to save high-end journalism--two newspaper executives who can rescue an imploding industry and thereby achieve an essential civic good... [and] still have a card to play... the only card that ever really mattered. Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and Katharine Weymouth, publishers of The New York Times and The Washington Post, are at the helms of two organizations trying to find some separate peace with the digital revolution.... Yet incredibly, they delay, even though every day of inertia means another two dozen reporters somewhere are shown the door by a newspaper chain, or another foreign bureau closes, or another once-precise and competent newsroom decides it will make do without a trained city editor, an ombudsman, or a fully staffed copy desk.

This then, is for Mr. Sulzberger and Ms. Weymouth: Content matters. And you must find a way, in the brave new world of digitization, to make people pay for that content. If you do this, you still have a product and there is still an industry.... I know that content wants to be free on the Internet.... I know that commentary--the froth and foam of print journalism--sells itself cheaply and well on thousands of blogs.... I know that if one of you should try to go behind the paywall while the other’s content remains free, then, yes, you would be destroyed.... But also apparent is the fact that absent a radical revisiting of the dynamic between newspapering and the Internet, there will be little cohesive, professional, first-generation journalism at the state and local level, as your national newspapers continue to retrench and regional papers are destroyed outright.

You must act. Together. On a specific date in the near future--let’s say September 1 for the sheer immediacy of it--both news organizations must inform readers that their Web sites will be free to subscribers only.... No half-measures, either. No TimesSelect program that charges for a handful of items and offers the rest for free, no limited availability of certain teaser articles, no bartering with aggregators for a few more crumbs of revenue through microbilling.... You must both also individually inform the wire-service consortiums that unless they limit membership to publications, online or off, that provide content only through paid subscriptions, you intend to withdraw immediately from those consortiums... make a voluntary donation--let’s say $10 million--to a newspaper trade group to establish a legal fund to pursue violations of copyright, either by online aggregators or large-scale blogs, much in the way other industries based on intellectual property have fought to preserve their products....

[T]he need to create a new revenue stream from the twenty-first century’s information-delivery model is, belatedly, apparent to many in the industry. But no one can act if the Times and The Post do not; the unique content of even a functional regional newspaper--state and municipal news, local sports and culture--is insufficient to demand that readers pay online. But add to that the national and international coverage from the national papers that would no longer be available on the Internet for free but could be provided through participation in the news services of the Times and The Post and, finally, there is a mix of journalism that justifies a subscription fee. Time is the enemy, however....

[F]or the Times and The Post--entities that are still providing the lion’s share of journalism’s national, international, and cultural relevance--their reach has never been greater. The proof is that while online aggregation and free newspaper Web sites have combined to batter paid print circulation figures, more people are reading the product of America’s newspapers than ever before....

No doubt some mavens of new media who have read this far have spittle in the corners of their mouths at the thought of the dying, tail-dragging dinosaurs of mainstream journalism resurrecting themselves....

[T]he fledgling efforts of new media to replicate the scope, competence, and consistency of a healthy daily paper have so far yielded little in the way of genuine competition. A blog here, a citizen journalist there, a news Web site getting under way in places where the newspaper is diminished--some of it is quite good, but none of it so far begins to achieve consistently what a vibrant newspaper, staffed with competent, paid beat reporters and editors, once offered. New-media entities are not yet able to truly cover—day after day.... Detroit lost to a better, new product; newspapers, to the vague suggestion of one....

[T]hree factors are worth noting--if only because of their relevance to the online subscription model that is clearly required:

  • First, there is the familiar industrial dynamic in which leaders raised in one world are taken aback to find they have underestimated the power of an emerging paradigm. When I left my newsroom in 1995, the Internet was a mere whisper, but even five years later, as its potential was becoming a consideration in every other aspect of American life, those in command of The Baltimore Sun were explaining the value of their free Web site in these terms: this is advertising for the newspaper.... Looking back, it sounds comical....

  • Second, the industry leaders on both the business and editorial sides came of age in an environment in which circulation had long been a loss leader, when newspapers never charged readers what it actually cost to get the product to their doorstep. Advertising, not content, was all. This specific dynamic maximized everyone’s blindness to the real possibilities of a subscription model.... [I]f there is no profit to be had in delivering the paper product to homes at existing rates, then by all means, jack up those rates—raise hard-copy prices and drive as many readers as possible online, where you charge less, but at a distinct profit....

  • Last, and perhaps most disastrous, the rot began at the bottom and it didn’t reach the highest rungs of the profession until far too much damage had been done. As early as the mid-1980s, the civic indifference and contempt of product inherent in chain ownership was apparent in many smaller American markets.... [L]tle was done by the industry to address a dynamic by which men in Los Angeles or Chicago or New York, at the behest of Wall Street, determined what sort of journalism would be practiced in Baltimore, Denver, Hartford, or Dallas. If you happened to labor at a newspaper that was ceding its editorial ambition to the price-per-share, it may have been agony, but if you were at the Times, the Post, The Wall Street Journal, or the Los Angeles Times, you were insulated.... The cancer devouring journalism began somewhere below the knee, and by the time the disease reached the self-satisfied brain of the Washington and New York newsrooms, the prognosis was far worse....

[H]ere are a few possible outcomes, if the Times and The Post go ahead and build that wall.

  • First scenario: The Times and The Post survive, their revenue streams balanced by still-considerable print advertising, the bump in the price of home delivery and newsstand sales, and, finally, a new influx of cheap yet profitable online subscriptions. And reassured that they can risk going behind the paywall without local readers getting free national, international, and cultural reporting from the national papers, and having seen that the paid-content formula can work, most metro dailies will follow suit....

  • Second scenario: In those cities where regional papers collapse, the vacuum creates an opportunity for new, online subscription-based news organizations that cover state and local issues, sports, and finance, generating enough revenue to maintain a slim—but paid—metro desk.... In a metro region the size of Baltimore, where 300,000 once subscribed to a healthy newspaper, imagine an initial market penetration of a tenth of that--30,000 paid subscribers (in a metro region of more than 2.5 million), who are willing to pay $10 per month... for the only product in town that covers local politics, local culture, local sports, and financial news--using paid reporters and paid editors to produce a consistent, professional product. That’s $300,000 a month in revenue, or $3.6 million a year, with zero printing or circulation costs.... At $100,000 a position for editors and reporters, that’s a metro desk of some thirty-five paid souls....

  • Third scenario: Except for one in which professional journalism doesn’t endure in any form, this is the worst of all worlds. The Times and The Post survive because their coverage is unique and essential. But the regional dailies, too eviscerated to offer a credible local product, cannot entice enough online subscriptions to make do. They wither and die....

But all of this is, of course, academic. Because at this moment, Mr. Sulzberger and Ms. Weymouth have yet to turn that last card. Until they find the will and the courage to do so, no scenario other than the slow strangulation of paid, professional journalism applies. Meanwhile, we dare to dream of a viable, online future for American newsrooms.

A few comments:

  • I think Simon has gotten the hierarchy wrong. In terms of willingness-to-pay, mine is, in order: (1) the FT; (2) the Economist; (3) the Contra Costa Times; (4) the WSJ (and double if my online subscription came with the editorial page excluded); (5) the New York Times; (6) the San Francisco Chronicle... (666) the Washington Post.

  • So I don't see the Washington Post surviving in any scenario: what does it have to sell, after all? At the international and national level, there are lots of organizations for whom aggregating up the international and national news makes sense as a loss leader.

  • I do see the Contra Costa Times surviving: at a local scale, the task of aggregating up all of the press releases and police blotters and local gossip blogs is not of sufficient interest for anyone to do it for free, so there is value there.

  • I do see the FT and the WSJ and the Economist and--alas! given its employment of the odious Stuart Taylor, Jr., he who slammed Sonia Sotomayor for being insufficiently grateful to Princeton for its beneficence in admitting her--the National Journal surviving: beat-level knowledge and expertise at that level is valuable.

  • I don't know what is going to happen to the Atlantic and the NYRB and the New Yorker: it could go either way.

  • I don't know what is going to happen to the New York Times: it could go either way.

  • And I think Simon has gotten the situation very wrong: if the WP and the NYT move together on September 1 to cut off access, they die immediately and everyone switches to reading the Manchester Guardian, which flourishes. If the WP and the NYT and the LATimes and the Grauniad and the Times of London and the Telegraph all move together on September 1, they die and the Chicago Tribune flourishes. If the CT also cuts off access--if everyone with a White House correspondent cuts off access--then the White House web page becomes America's daily national newspaper, and that State and Treasury webpages become our daily free international and financial newspapers, respectively--with lots of webloggers peering over their shoulders to try to keep them somewhat honest...