For the Week of July 22, 2002
Not everyone is fading in the heat of this recession. My friend Russell Shaw is doing quite well.
Russell started his career covering music, in the Southeast, during the heyday of Capricorn Records, in the 1970s. After the drugs wore off in that business (and the money ran dry) he drifted into business journalism, which is where I met him in the mid-1980s. Since then he's gone increasingly into tech, and has a host of clients, ranging from newspapers and magazines to Web sites, with some books to give the whole thing bounce.
Russell gave his career a boost earlier this year with what he called his "Shrinking Water Hole Tour." He put his own money into covering a series of events around the country, stopping off along the way to schmooze editors, publishers, and other potential clients. His specialty is pleasing the client, and most seem well-pleased.
I, on the other hand, try to please myself first, my family second, and my clients third. The 1990s boom obscured this "weakness," since my high-quality writing enabled me to get a host of columns on Web sites and in magazines, where I railed against the bubble and predicted bad things. (I was the pet curmudgeon.) But when the bubble burst I was thrown off, and I haven't really latched on since.
A lot of people are asking these days, how did the press miss the "crimes" of the Internet and telecomm multi-billionaires, and the answer's easy. Advertising. Advertising pays most of the business press' bills, and all the technology media's. You don't want to piss-off advertisers by spending your editorial budget on "exposes," especially when you need all hands on deck to fill the pages.
There's another reason, and that's the readers. There's a natural conservative bent to business journalism. You don't want to argue with the audience. The audience and advertising base have a lot in common. The last thing they want to read is "bad" news, either of the "watch out" variety or the "j'accuse" kind. Even the sporting press has a longer leash, since they represent (or claim to represent) fans who alternatively bash both owners and players alike. Thus, those outlets that do have stories exposing business wrong-doing (like "The Wall Street Journal" and "Forbes") are careful to have far-right editorial holes that block the systemic reforms the facts in their news holes argue for.
I learned all about this early in my career, at the Houston Business Journal. I was brought physically into a room where politicians were carving the city into concessions for cable franchises. There was an Hispanic area, a black area, and regional sections for various other power brokers, each backing a different cable outfit. It should have been a huge scandal, and we even printed the map. But the tone of my piece was respectful, praising the deal-makers for getting down to business. Nothing else would have been printed. (Years later, when the paper became feistier my editor apologized and introduced me to his young staff of go-getters as a hero for getting the story. But the fact was, my story, obtained at the heart of the oil boom, wasn't printed.)
Down on the shop floor there are other dynamics at work. If you want to be an editor or an anchor, the best strategy is to keep your head down and do only what you're told. When all initiative has to come from the top, far from the field where the news happens, there won't be a whole lot of it.
The consolidation of the media industry into a few giant conglomerates, the elimination of competition either by merger or bankruptcy, all these things played a role in missing the 90s' corruption. But the basic dynamic - don't rock the boat if you want to get ahead - is the key. Those inclined to rock boats stayed well from headquarters, drowning their frustrations in alcohol, burning out faster than necessary, and (usually) being replaced by good "company men" (or women). It's an old story.
If you want to own the story, like I do, there's not much you can do after you fall off the employment tree. If you just want to work, if you work your butt off seeking work, and if your pride lies solely in pleasing the client, you can do OK. It's a choice all journalists make at some point in their careers, and I'm quite happy with the choice I made.
The key now (for me) is to find a way to a market of paying customers, of individual readers who will see me as a brand. That's the course Evan Schwartz is negotiating, so far successfully. The aim is to get your name above the title.
But these are individual stories - Evan's, Russell's, mine. The creation of new Internet media that can hire good people, and that targets readers (as opposed to advertisers) must be done organically. It starts with attitude, and there are a host of success stories there. What's coming is association. There is a new media being created online, but what it needs most is a financial link between the readers and the material, plus an entrepreneur who can seize those links and spin them into something new.
Build me such a link and I'll be happy to work for you.
SSP (Shameless Self-Promotion)
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I know, I know. You've got to have money to make money. But if you have a user base, you can turn that into the money you need quickly with Rob's latest service, I-Legions . So what are you waiting for?
Takes on the News
Copyright War Escalations From Both Sides
Both sides have escalated in the copyright wars, although only one side's move was properly noticed.
The copyright industries have launched a campaign of intimidation against individual users, looking to haul those with large file collections into court as pirates. The location of large file collections can usually be seen as an IP address in a system like Morpheus, and the plan is to force identification of the owners of these addresses from ISPs, then file civil suits (and press for criminal sanctions) against anyone who goes online with a substantial collection of files in their shared directory.
The escalation that drew the media's attention was Howard Berman's effort to hold industry hackers harmless from the damage they do to others. Berman's name is also on a bill that would limit "fair use" by reducing your ability to make back-up copies, although he claims he's not really for it. (Europeans are already warning that the new laws, and even the effort to sue users over their collections, would violate Europe's privacy statutes.) None of these bills are expected to get anywhere this year, it's important to note and it's likely that Democrats will be organizing the House next year. Berman, however, is a Democrat.
The attention may be on the copyright industries here, but the more important move may have been made by the industry's chief opponents, the programmers of peer-to-peer networks. The "6/4" protocol from Hactivismo, named for the date on which Chinese troops invaded Tienanmien Square in 1989, combines the "open proxy" privacy scheme pioneered by the (late) Safeweb with VPN and peer-to-peer technologies to create untraceable routes for data across the Internet. Industry "hackers" wouldn't even be able to locate peer-to-peer networks using this technology, let alone identify large file collections or individual users.
The industry's fear of 6/4 was best expressed by an IT executive who chose to remain anonymous to Wired. (An interesting choice, don't you think?) Rather than challenging the technology, he challenged the motives of the creators, claiming their allusions to democracy in China were "bullshit" and calling them "anarchists."
Gator Loses a Round
I've had trouble with Gator for some time. It does a good job as an interactive wallet, filling out forms quick as a wink. But it's very intrusive. It's constantly popping-up and telling me to buy stuff. Plus its ads do sometimes cover up others' ads, and its offers do come up sometimes when you're trying to buy a competing product.
Gator lost a round on this point against the same coalition of media properties who knocked out TotalNews. Gator's CEO claimed (rather disingenuously) that the decision threatens AOL's Instant Messenger (and AIM 5.0 does have a lot more advertising on it) but the real target here is size. Gator's a smaller target, therefore is likely not to have as good a set of lawyers, as AOL. Before even thinking of taking aim against AIM, the publishers want a good result against the smaller company.
The publishers' goals are clear. They want absolute control over their content, and its environment, so they're the only people who can possibly make money off it. Anyone else, whether an aggregator, a search engine, or an application, is supposed to keep their hands off. Too bad the Web doesn't work that way.
Parson's Real Target: Steve Case
A week after telling "The New York Times" that there was great dissatisfaction in Virginia AOL-Time Warner confirmed it's looking to replace COO and AOL division head Robert Pittman. But be clear. The real target here isn't Pittman, but Steve Case. Case seems to be comfortably atop the org chart as Chairman. But he recently lost his brother Dan (long the head of Internet investment bankers Hambrecht & Quist) to brain cancer and the New York suits love to strike when their opponent is vulnerable or distracted.
They did it to Ted Turner. They attacked his lieutenants, then eased him aside after buying Turner Broadcasting on the promise he'd succeed Gerald Levin as chairman. (The AOL buy-out was part of that strategy, halving his total stake in the company and, temporarily, doubling his fortune.) My guess is the same thing will happen to Case. Once Pittman's gone, they'll ask how he's feeling, maybe suggesting Turner as a replacement (Ted's due for retirement soon). But the game is the same as always, and the goal is the same as always. It's about political control of a vast bureaucracy and nothing else - certainly not the interests of shareholders - will get in the way of New York's control games.
Clued-in is ChoiceMail although the product needs a new name since choicemail.com is controlled by one of those spam e-zine address collectors.
Clueless is the Bush Administration. I've previously criticized their tech policy, but now the market plummets every time he opens his mouth. Crony capitalism must end, period. And the U.S. markets run on foreign money. We can't go it alone and succeed.
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