Not Going Quietly: Al Jazeera America

Chris Lehmann, of the soon to be shuttered Al Jazeera America Website and news channel, is going out with a bang and calls the brave new world of content marketing as he sees it. And what he sees sure isn’t journalism. Worth reading if this is your gig.


“The polite euphemism for such rampant self-prostitution in our brave new digital media world is “sponsored content” — i.e., writing that’s made to look, feel and read like actual journalism while promoting a paid-for commercial agenda.”

There were border skirmishes between editorial and advertising in the old days (meaning my own and my parents’ generation as newspaper people). But the importance of the division was honored. In part, as Ira Basen points out, to get away from the frankly commercial world of 19th century journalism which was often indistinguishable from political positions and commercial interests. There was a specific meaning and category denoted by the subhead “An Independent Newspaper” that some carried.

Today I suppose there really isn’t an independent newspaper to be found that is not scared for its life, and what constitutes an “independent news” digital property is a hard nut to crack. Lehmann makes a good case that VOX it isn’t, and BuzzFeed never pretended to be. In fact their business genius seems to be premised on the foundation that there is no difference between the data that drives advertising and the data that drives content. Get them both aligned and  voila! you make money.

Journalists are glum about this, but of course it could be that these developments just chase journalism elsewhere, and atomize it (into blogs for instance, serious ones, not mine, I hasten to add). Perhaps that’s not a bad outcome in some ways, but does raise  questions. Investigative journalism can require a costly collective effort–if nothing else technically and it other ways too. Individual bloggers do get some big wins, but expecting a whole generation of Upton Sinclairs to emerge on WordPress is a shaky (but not impossible) proposition.

More intractable is the problem of editing. Newspaper editorial desks made up of reporters and editors imposed a culture of accountability and collaborative effort (possibly combative, but respected). Somebody else always read and edited what a reporter wrote (at good papers, no story got in, however trivial, if it hadn’t been vetted by three pairs of eyes, one of whom was a often socially deficient copy editor with a brain like a computer for AP Style and native distrust of writers’ orthographic waywardness.

This meant content was checked, questions were asked, fairness and newsworthiness debated, not always and not necessarily to the best conclusion, but there was a mechanism. This also built some time and rhythm into the system. There was time to think about what you were doing. Not just a blinking “publish” button, or the fear that Twitter was running away with your story, or live streaming it.

Again, there are modern ways to respond to the change in editing, and effective approaches may well emerge. It all seems pretty tough, though: crowd sourced editing and sourcing, an understanding of what drafts and breaking news look like in this 24/7 digital world all have a pretty messy profile right now, and would be good to remember what of the old system was worth keeping, while acknowledging that there is no money to pay for it in its epic luxury and size any more. I suppose a copy desk for Tweets sounds like a comedy skit, but putting a little more thinking in the process would not be amiss.


The Massachusetts Spy, a colonial paper, pretty bloggy by modern standards

Musical Notes: Rachmaninoff’s ‘Daisies’

Sergei_RachmaninoffMy mid-life of music listening has been enriched by coming back to or meeting for the first time composers I undervalued during my years as a SERIOUS MUSIC PERSON. I guess this re-calibration is natural, if you love Tchaikovsky’s B-flat minor Piano Concerto as a teen, comes a time when you will look back at it as gauche, and then when you’ll back at that backwards glance as silly in turn.

There are some things that there is no going back to. Turandot was my favorite opera as a teenager, and like people who are still listening to Carmina Burana at fifty, I think if I still were a Turandot fancier, it would be hard to refute the conclusion that something had gone wrong with my life in the music department.

One passion that has emerged for me is Rachmaninoff. This will probably seem surprising to many, who know the big tunes and the lush orchestral works: what’s not to love?  I’m a creature of my time, however. For context, Rachmaninoff was not even taught as “20th century music” when I was a music student, although he died in 1943, just 2 years shy of Bartók, the pinnacle of 20th century musical modernism. Rachmaninoff’s tunefulness, a turn towards the broad gesture particularly in the work he wrote in the U.S., did him no favors with the composers and critics looking for a new path. A piano teacher friend of mine dismissed tunes in his Paganini Rhapsody as “schmaltz enlivened by music for the title credits to Bonanza” (Bonanza was a terrible western-themed evening soap opera of my youth.)

There is some truth to the charge–it is pretty corny, but there are responses as well. If the American Rachmaninoff could be a throwback, the Russian one was at least sometimes a modernist, if of gentle mien. Now we (or at least I) can see works like the Third Symphony (given a knock-out performance by the National Symphony Orchestra and their music director designate, Gianandrea Noseda, last fall, as an integrated part of the history of the symphony and a superb one, not a guilty pleasure.

As a taste of this, here is a song by Rachmaninoff, Daisies, both in a piano arrangement, played by the incomparable Emil Gilels

and sung by, Julia Lezhevna, a young Russian soprano with a crystalline voice.

Financial Words: Starting Saving Early

This isn’t my usual thing, but I was helping some co-workers with financial questions today, so I am sharing this on the chance that it would be useful to others. I promise I’ll get back to poetry and music posts soon.

It pays to save regularly and to start doing it as soon as you can. I remember hearing this as a person in my 20’s and sort of half paying attention to it. But what did catch my attention was a chart that somebody showed me to the effect that if you save $100 a month earning compound interest from age 22-32 and then let it sit there for 30 more years doing nothing, you still will have more at age 62 than if you waited 10 years and saved at the same rate for the next 30.

This is because of the time value of money. The principal accumulated during those first 10 years has 30 more years to grow, and if you start late you don’t catch up. Every period of interest you miss reduces your chance for growth.

I poked around to find something like chart I remembered, but didn’t find it so made one by myself in Excel–I’m sure I made some typos, and there are some rough assumptions about compounding intervals, etc.,– but the underlying concept is sound: even a small monthly nut put away regularly for a long time can pay off handsomely. But it can’t wait. Presumably anybody over 30 has figured this out, but if you are under 30 (I probably have 1 reader in that category), this tip’s for you.

Here’s the chart & table.



Savings $100 a month for 40 years at 10% Per Annum Compound Interest
Ages 22-62
Total you invest: $48,000
Total interest: $589,678
At age 62 you’ll have: $637,678

Savings $100 for first 10 years at 10% Per Annum Compound Interest
Savings from age 22-32 only, then principal earns interest for remaining 30 years
Total you invest: $12,000
Total interest: $397,745
At age 62 you’ll have: $409,745

Waiting until you are 32 to start saving your $100 a month, and then doing so for the next 30 years, same 10% compound interest
Total you invest: $36,000
Total interest: $193,932
At age 62 you’ll have: $229,932

The geometric series showing the detail is pretty too, so if you like that kind of thing, go fire up Excel or Mathematica and make it yourself, just after you’ve set up your regular $100/monthly savings.


Musical Festival Staff Turned Aid Workers

Turns out working a big arts festival like Glastonbury gives you a good background for helping refugees.

London’s Independent has the story, and makes the point that given the confusion over the official status of the refugees, and thus a lack in government help, the itinerant arts workers are critical in setting up food and shelter for thousands.

From the story:

The men – three British and one American – are members of an unlikely task force. Part of a growing number of volunteers with extensive experience in staging music and art festivals, they are applying their skills to the plight of the Calais refugees.

“We have a particular way of working which makes us very suitable to this situation,” says Kit Johnson, a 32-year-old traveller originally from Macclesfield. “We might not make it pretty, but we can build things fast and make them safe.”

He has worked at festivals for many years, swiftly making fields around the world hospitable to thousands of people. For Johnson and the others, it was a short step to tackling the difficulties posed by the camp.


“I’ve started taking Thursdays off to work on Glastonbury, which I’m having to do over the phone. It’s difficult. Not to belittle the festival industry at all, but it’s hard to sit there and think about what DJ to book when I know there are thousands of people walking from Syria.”

BTW: Syria to Calais=4000 km.


Big Data Comes to Design


You may not be interested in big data and machine learning, but its interested in you. The latest field that they have gotten their grubby little suckers on is web design. To wit, here’s a blog post from Elegant Themes,  WordPress theme shop, whose excellent theme Divi I like a lot. Data is the #1 item.

7 Tech Trends in 2016 That Web Designers Need to Understand (And Why)

#1  Machine Learning

Companies nowadays must deal with enormous amounts of data on a daily basis (have you heard of ‘Big Data’?), which makes machine learning applications for analyzing this information incredibly attractive and applicable to all fields.

When it comes to design, this information could be used to determine what customers would respond better to. Ad companies have been doing this for a long time and at this point, they probably know us better than we do ourselves, thanks to information collected from all over our web travels. In the near future, though, you and your buddies might be seeing many different designs when accessing the same pages simultaneously, thanks to a team of designers who worked hard to make something unique for all potential ‘targets’.

No doubt there are lots of entrepreneurs working on plug-ins that do  user testing and personalization. If only they can do the writing too…

Commonplace Book: The Indirect Way

Enjoying economist John Kay’s Obliquity: Why Our Goals Are Best Achieved Indirectly, from which comes this tidbit.

obIn business, in politics, and in our personal lives, we do not often solve problems directly. The objectives we manage are multiple, incommensurable and partly incompatible. The consequences of what we do depend on responses, both natural and human, that we cannot predict. The systems we try to manage are too complex for us to fully understand. We never have the information about the problem, or the future we face that we might wish for

Satisfactory responses in these situations are the result of action, but not the execution of design. These outcomes, achieved obliquely, are the result of iteration and adaptation, experiment and discovery. “Reengineering”–“tossing aside all systems and starting over”–is called for only when systems are seriously dysfunctional. And in almost all cases, the best means of reengineering is not “going back to the beginning and inventing a better way of doing work” but trying models that have been successfully tested elsewhere. This is equally true of our personal lives, our corporate organizations and our social and economic structures.

A random walk: as John Kay might say, the best kind.

Data, Data Everywhere…

The news biz how it was…words.

…but any room to think?


Big data has come to the newspaper biz in a big way. London’s Guardian has a data leaderboard in their newsroom with real time metrics for how stories are “performing” but the Financial Times, being the overachievers they are, have a whole integrated data enterprise that is embedded in their news operation.

Digiday has the story. In the excerpt below, the Betts in the quote is Tom Betts, the FT’s chief data officer.

“Tech companies don’t have chief data officers.”
Betts’ appointment also marks the publisher’s evolution to decentralize its analysts. Before last year, engineers and analysts were separate from the rest of the organization. Now, data analysts are embedded in marketing and editorial.

The audience engagement team sits in the newsroom so it can work directly with journalists. It includes data analysts, SEO experts, engagement strategists, social media managers and journalists. Its objectives are to get the FT journalism out to more people and evolve the newsroom with digital readers in mind.

“An analytically mature business is where the vast majority of analysts sit within the other teams,” Betts said. Tech organizations, he added, “don’t have chief data officers.”

The news biz as it is now: numbers.

It goes down so reasonably that you are almost lulled into forgetting to ask what SEO, engagement strategy, social and media actually have to do with journalism. One of these things is not like the other. Still, the FT manages to remain pretty newspapery, certainly compared to many other papers, which seem to be lame print versions of their lame websites.


Now I’m off to check my metrics!

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